Wednesday, July 9, 2014

6 Reasons Why Green Eggs and Ham is the greatest children's book ever written

I have a lot of respect for writers of children's books (except you, Margaret and H.A. Rey). In many ways, I think writing a book for the pre-literate (my daughter) and semi-literate is much harder than writing for an audience of people on your own level. Kids can only grasp so much in the way of nuance, theme, foreshadowing, character arc, conflict, and denouement. That said, it's a fool who underestimates the intelligence of a child, and few children's authors paid children more respect through their writing than Dr. Seuss.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Nobody needs to defend Dr. Seuss. Everybody loves that guy. I've written before about the superior qualities of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And everybody knows and loves the book Green Eggs and Ham. Scholastic named it the seventh best children's book of all time.

But here's my case for why it should actually be #1.

It's the Best Dr. Seuss Book
It's hard to argue that Theodor Geisel should be anywhere but at the top when it comes to the most influential and accomplished children's book writers. He wrote over 60 books and authored 16 of the top 100 best-selling children's books of all time. Before he was an author, he was a political cartoonist. Even with his early stuff, you can look at a drawing of his and identify it as "Suessian." His rhymes are legendary. He was the first children's author to include a character with flatulence. In my opinion, few writers of any genre better integrate morals and politics into otherwise fantastical stories (this is probably because, as Seuss claimed in a 1959 LIFE magazine feature, he never set out to send a message.)

I won't profess to have read all of Seuss' books, but I've read most them, and from every period of his career and every pen name he ever wrote under. Cat in the Hat is obviously memorable for introducing the Seuss mascot, though it leaves a bad Deux ex machina taste in my mouth. To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Hop on Pop, and One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish start straightforwardly enough before degenerating into random craziness. Fox in Socks is easily the most fun to read aloud. Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hears a Who, and The Lorax deal more bluntly with moral, political, and environmental issues.

But in terms of clear and linear storytelling that's both understandable and entertaining for all ages, Green Eggs and Ham is the best book from the best children's writer ever.

The Central Conflict
No, I don't mean the protagonist (who I'll call "Mike") and Sam-I-am. The central conflict underlying GE&H was a bet between Seuss and his publisher. Cat and the Hat (which, along with One Fish Two Fish, might be the only Seuss book more famous today than GE&H) was published three years earlier in 1957, and intentionally contained a vocabulary of basic, key English words. As a follow up, Seuss' publisher Bennett Cerf challenged Theo to write another book containing a fifth as many distinct words. Seuss accepted, and came up with a story using only these:
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you
By the way, did you know Geisel himself never had children and didn't even really like them that much? How on earth could such a person make a good children's writer? Maybe it's because he had no preconceptions about child psychology, and didn't feel the need to pander or talk down to his intended readers. On the flip side, with no kids, he had no built-in focus group turning his ideas to incoherent mush. Do these reasons alone make GE&H, or any other Seuss work, a great children's book? Not necessarily. But, whether you're talking Seuss or Fitzgerald, a good personal backstory is almost always a key ingredient in exceptional storytelling.

The Story
Mike is sitting in his chair, reading the paper, not eating green eggs and ham. Sam-I-am thinks he should be. Mike, due to his apparent pre-existing dislike of Sam-I-am himself or to the disturbingly verdant hue of his wares, refuses to partake. The more he refuses, the more fervently Sam-I-am insists that he try it. At one point, the jaw of Sam-I-am falls very much agape at the mere possibility that Mike might not enjoy the taste of this green breakfast with no greens (" not like green eggs and ham?") before he gets right back to pestering his poor target. Finally, after adventures by foot, car, rail, and boat, culminating in a shipwreck of both the boat and Mike's entire afternoon, Mike relents, only to find... Well, we'll get to that.

The Setting
It takes multiple readings to fully appreciate, but it's great fun to see the progression from Mike sitting in his chair to him storming away on foot to Sam-I-am essentially running him over in a car which then lands on a passenger train which then lands on a steamboat. No, this isn't Clifford the Big Red Dog expeditiously stumbling into traffic jams or structure fires or other situations where his bigness just happens to be an asset rather than an occasion to call the National Guard. In GE&H, there's an organic movement from location to location which only subtly calls attention to itself, even as the implausibility mounts.

Throughout the journey, there's plenty of signature Seuss touches like goats in cars and fox boxes hanging from trees and train tracks propped up on long broomsticks, all of it drawn by a hand which refuses to go a single nanometer in a straight line. Aside from the brilliant simplicity of the premise, the multiple tiers of visual and geographic zaniness which build throughout the book are easily the most Seussian thing about GE&H, and make some other classic Seuss stories like Cat seem quite housebroken in comparison.

The Stories within the Story
It's amazing that such a simple story leaves so many unanswered questions. This intentional vagueness is something that's common in the best movies and books, but rare in children's stories. For example, in Alexander and the Terrible Day, et al, I never really cared what happened the day before or the day after. There are no lingering questions because every relevant aspect of the story is covered explicitly. I guess most authors assume kids can't handle the uncertainty.

But with GE&H, I'm always left wondering: What is the history between Mike and Sam-I-am? Is Mike constantly having strange foods foisted on him? What was it the day before, purple lasagna? Pink chicken and waffles? Is today's huevos verdes con jamón tomorrow's perros caliente azul con Ruffles? Mike's subsequent protestations clearly emanate from a damaged psyche that's travelled down this path of culinary harassment before, and Sam-I-am pounces on his frustration with the vigor of a monkey who just needs to bash the nut on the rock one more time before it finally splits open. Why does he do it? I can't say, but he's definitely come prepared, since he employs a whole herd of animals in his pursuit, including a fox, a mouse, and a goat (not a pig, though, because that would be awkward [/gaffiganvoice]).

Then there's the people on the train, who sit in utter contentment as a full-size automobile crash lands on top of their carriage car. How is it that they're so calm when so much madcap drama is happening above them? Their expressions, and the conductor's, never change, not even when the train plunges off a cliff into the ocean. In fact, the only time they break character is to add that little bit of intrigue during the deciding moment, when Mike spears one of those slippery green eggs and cracks a great big smile:

The "Happy Face"
Goodnight Moon is simultaneously too physically restrictive and too whimsical. As a kid, The Giving Tree was always too stark and sad for me to want to make application of it. With Green Eggs and Ham, though, the take-home is simple: New things are fun! If you stick to the same ol' same ol', you'll probably miss out on something you like.

"Happy Face!" is the Heiress's term for what happens when Mike finally relents and tries the green eggs and ham. Her reaction comes from the story having the exact intended effect upon the exact intended audience, and it warms my belly in a way that's just like eating a satisfying breakfast. Of course, the real challenge is the theme that's central to the whole book: Will reading Green Eggs and Ham help convince the Heiress to try something new when it's put on her plate, even - or especially - if it's a different color or presentation than what she's used to? So far, so good. For breakfast one morning, Mrs. Oldmanshirt got her to try actual green eggs and ham. Since then, the Heiress has mastered potty training and started learning to ride a bike.

But I bought a goat anyway, just in case.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Jonesing at the Movies: Transformers: Age of Extinction

SynopsisAge of Extinction follows the story of a bumbling, not-at-all relatable man-child protagonist who discovers a giant alien robot, brings him home and teams up with other good robots to help thwart evil robots and their plot to take over the world. Sound familiar?
Rating: PG-13 for head-pounding, intelligence-insulting sci-fi action that would bore a five-year-old. Obligatory F-bomb is as pointless and ill-concieved as the rest of the film.
Review: I should have known better than to go see this film, if it can even be called a film at all. Because essentially what we have here with Extinction is a 2 hour 37-minute commercial for every major brand with money left over from their Super Bowl budgets. It's product placement with all the subtlety of a Cadillac Escalade.
Director Michael Bay and Paramount basically said, "forget plot, characters, dialog and that stuff called acting, we're just going to put all $180 million in advertising revenue into special effects and make the story up as we go." I seriously doubt there was ever a written script for the actors to follow; they probably just showed up each day and Bay would come up with something he thought might be funny.
"And you actually thought I know what I'm doing."
"And you actually thought I was qualified to make movies." 

Extinction trades in Shia Labouf for Mark Walberg, but this is by no means an improvement. Honestly, the problem with these movies has never been the acting, since each of the previous films included names like John Turturro, Francis McDormand, Kelsey Grammar, Stanley Tucci, and the voice talents of Leonard Nemoy, John Goodman and Ken Watanabe. However, even these accomplished thespians can't work with the drivel Bay dreams up.
Luckily, no one expected this latest installment in the worst movie franchise since Spy Kids to be any good. Bay has been making bad movies his entire career, but these Transformers movies, inspired as they are by a retro toy line, are especially terrible.
It all started with the first, 2007's Transformers, which let every fan of the toys and TV show down hard when they saw it was nothing more than a childish director's wet dream.
Michael Jackson died the day after 2009's Revenge of the Fallen was released, so we can only assume it was responsible for killing the King of Pop.

2011's Dark of the Moon (noticing a pattern?) is essentially the same as the first two, only Shia Labouf's character ditches Megan Fox for Victoria's Secret model #425, further blowing the mind of every guy who's ever been rejected.
Much like the first three, Extinction has large helpings of eye-rolling macho posturing, racial stereotypes (black people say things like, "oh no you didn't!" and every Chinese person knows martial arts) and overt sexism that treats every female character (orange, thin, hair extensions) like nothing more than another exotic super car. But what do you expect from a "filmmaker" with all the maturity of a 13-year-old boy?
"Nope, this one's too ugly. Bring me that girl that only weighs 74 lbs."
"Nope, this one's ugly. Bring me that hot one."

Ultimately, the success of these films and the fact they continue to be made is not Michael Bay's fault. When a child says something wildly inappropriate and embarrassing in a public place, you don't blame the kid; you blame the grown adults who laugh at such stupidity and even pay to see it.
negative four stars

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why You Should Always Bet on Silver and Black

Back through the mists of time, as though in a dream, I find him. He's sitting in his car outside the Kansas City apartment complex where he lives, head down, a glower marring the lines of his face. Though he has fewer hairs on his face than I do, and more atop his head, the resemblance is like looking in a mirror. Even so, the face I see is not mine. Mine is jubilant. My beloved San Antonio Spurs have finally prevailed. After seven long years, they've won their fifth championship. His Spurs, on the other hand, have just been beaten in the 2008 Western Conference Finals by the hated Lakers, and have failed for the fourth time to defend a championship.

I open the passenger door and step into the vehicle, a tan Maxima with pacman dice on the rearview mirror and a Spurs decal on the trunk lid.

"Do I know you?" He demands. "Get out of my car."

"You don't know me yet," I reply. "But I'm a Spurs fan, too. I'm here to restore your confidence. Right now you feel like your team will never win again, like you're incapable of beating Kobe at full strength, that the journey to the top is too difficult to repeat."

He glares at me, but his silence confirms what I already know from experience.

I put my hand on his arm - it's slenderer than mine, though he has slightly more paunch around his midsection, thanks to late nights of studying and stress eating. "Beating Kobe doesn't matter," I assure him. "The Spurs will win another title when Kobe's old and irrelevant. What's more, when they face his team again in the playoffs, it will be a complete annihilation. A year after that, he'll be out of the playoffs entirely and the Spurs will be champions."

"So you're saying we'll keep alternating titles every year?"

"I didn't say that," I reply. "I'm just imploring you to have confidence."

"We've got to accept that 2007 was probably our last one," he shrugs dejectedly. "The Lakers are getting stronger while we get weaker. Manu got injured again, Tim is slowing down, Tony has peaked. Michael Finley and Robert Horry are mummies. We were reduced to a Brent Barry desperation shot at the buzzer on our own court in game 4. It took Manu playing out of his mind just to win a single game in this series. For crying out loud, it took us seven games to beat the Hornets! I'm telling you, we're finished as champions."

I slap him, hard, across the face. Before he can process the injury, I instruct him to start the car. When he asks, I tell him we're going to someone's house.

Almost instantly, we arrive in front of a cream split-level with black shutters. It's a warm, late spring evening. We park in the driveway and enter the house. The young man stands, mouth agape, as he sees himself sitting at the bottom of the stairs, watching on the television as his Spurs' season slips away yet again, this time with a sweep at the hands of Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.

"This is why you tell me to have confidence?" He shouts at me. "The one team we never lost to sweeps us out of the playoffs?!"

His counterpart looks up from his mourning. "Who are you two?"

"I'm you, from the past" the young man answers harshly. "I don't know who this bearded clown is, but he claims the Spurs will win another championship."

The one sitting on the stairs laughs darkly. "Fat chance! Are you watching this? Nash is beating us with one eye. Goran Dragic, a guy we drafted, is killing us. Pop is out of answers. Our post defense is a one-legged Duncan, Matt Bonner, and 75-year old Antonio McDyess! Manu just shot 2-11 in an elimination game. This run is over. It probably should've been blown up last year, when Manu was out and Drew Gooden was the only thing keeping us from getting swept by Dallas in the first round. Tony is nearly 30 now, and we need to start thinking about trading him while he still has value. Maybe we even need to think about trading Tim."

My hand flies from the crook of my arm and strikes hard him across the face. "Go out to the garage!" I shout. "I'm going to teach you a little faith."

In the garage, we find another young man. Sitting in a black Mazda hatchback with those same pacman dice and a Spurs license plate, head down, fingers sliding through thinning hair, he listens to AM 1200 out of San Antonio as Spurs play-by-play man Bill Schoening describes a last-ditch attempt by the West's number one seed to fight off a horrible collapse against Zach Randolph and the #8 Memphis Grizzlies.

With the 2011 season in its death-throes, I climb into the seat next to the young man. "Who are you?" he sneers bitterly. "And who are those two?"

"They're you from the past," I reply. "And I'm just a Spurs fan like you, here to assure you that Tim Duncan will win another championship."

He slams the steering wheel disgustedly. "Tim is finished. It's all finished. Our core is done, we can't sink any lower than this. First the Lakers in '08, then Dallas in '09, then a sweep - a sweep! - by Phoenix last year. It all came back to haunt us, all the teams we beat in the past, during our championship days. And now this. We have no roster flexibility. We're relying on George Hill and Richard Jefferson and Gary Neal to save our season. We lost six straight in April. It's done. Tim is almost certainly retiring, Manu probably should retire, and I sure don't see any savior on the horizon."

"I do," I reply, calmly examining my fingernails. "A #15 draft pick from San Diego State. He's going to be Finals MVP in a few years."

"We haven't had a draft pick that high since 1997." The young man stares at me in disbelief. Then, with a dawning realization, he says "So that means we'll be in the lottery next year."

"No. Listen, you got the number one seed this year," I remind him. "You were a seven seed last year. Things are looking up, not down."

He glares at me with tear-stained eyes. They'll soon begin moistening the front of his Ginobili jersey. "If only we'd been number seven again his year," he moans. "All that number one seed did was make the loss that much more humiliating!"

"Get used to it," I say.

"Yeah," he says bitterly, as the other two stand outside the car, nodding. "I guess I'll have to."

"I don't mean the losing. I mean being a high seed. Having home-court advantage again. We'll need it in order to clinch the title in San Antonio."

"Are you crazy?" he roars. "We're not going deep in the playoffs again! We probably won't even make the playoffs next year!"

The crack of my hand on his face echoes through the garage. Then, before the young man in the driver's seat can react, we're back in the living room of the house. The scene is different than before. A fourth man sits on the couch, head between his knees. He's watching a Spurs team which had just won 20 straight games get swept out of the 2012 Western Conference Finals by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

"Ohh! So this why you told me to have confidence!" the first young man shouts mockingly.

"And faith!" scolds the second.

"Exactly what good did home-court advantage do us against the Thunder?" adds the third.

The fourth gets up off the couch. Like me, he has facial hair, though only on his chin. His grey Spurs t-shirt has a spot of vomit on the shoulder, a gift from his 9 month old daughter. "What's this all about?" He demands.

"This joker says Duncan and the Spurs are going to win another championship!" Answers the first.

"Is that true?" He turns his swollen red eyes to me. "Will they win another one?"

"Cross my heart," I say with a smile. "Just keep believing."

"No..." he shakes his head. "I can't. This was it. This was their shot, up 2-0 on an inexperienced Thunder team. Don't you understand? They can't keep up with Durant and Westbrook and Harden, let alone LeBron. Maybe Kawhi will become a nice defensive player someday, but he gave up that huge three to Harden. They're outmatched. They won twenty straight and couldn't even get to the Finals!"

"You don't need to win twenty straight to get to the Finals," I say calmly. "But we will win nineteen straight. And our young talent is as good as anyone else's. They just need a couple of years to jell, and the trophy will be ours."

The man grabs me roughly by the shoulders. I can feel the other three closing in around me.

"IT'S DONE!" they all shout at me. "These Spurs are finished! Tim, Manu, and Tony are done! The league, the championship, it all belongs to someone else now! ACCEPT IT!"

I reach out and take each of them roughly by the collar, dragging them toward the door.

"Where are we going?" they all protest.

"To Chicago."

In a room on the third floor of a Hampton Inn, we find another man. He looks almost identical to me. He's on vacation to the Windy City during the NBA Finals, but at this moment, he's sitting on a hotel bed next to his in-laws, with an expression of horror upon his bearded face. 5 minutes and 28 seconds ago, his team was on the verge of winning a championship. Number five had seemed so real that he'd even texted his brother in Texas late in the fourth quarter: "It's happening." But it hadn't happened, it wouldn't happen. The Spurs' last, best chance, had evaporated.

He looks up at the five of us in the room. The family seems not to notice. "Who are you?" he whispers, as though his entire face has gone numb.

"It looks like you were wrong!" Sneers the fourth young man, ignoring the one sitting on the hotel bed. "They didn't win, after all!"

"Your 'savior' couldn't get it done!" Claims the third. "That #15 pick from San Diego State is a rich man's Bruce Bowen. And he has cornrows."

The first and second, the young men, adopt cooler tones. "This was impressive," the first says softly. "We made it back."

"But for what?" Says the second. "We lost again, only this time in the cruelest way imaginable."

I silence them all and look at the man on the bed. "Don't get down," I tell him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "They'll be back here in the Finals, back facing Miami and LeBron. Only, next time, there won't even be a game 6 to lose. They'll destroy the Heat by the largest margin in Finals history."

"And, not only will they win," I continue, turning slowly back towards the others, "they will have avenged each of their past losses."

I look at the first young man, then at the fifth. "You saw them, this year, in 2013, not only defeat the Lakers, but sweep them out of the playoffs."

I look at the second young man. "Before they take down Miami, you'll see them defeat Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks."

To the third: "Before getting to the 2013 Finals, you saw them sweep Memphis in the Conference Finals. Zach Randolph averaged 11 points per game in that series."

And finally, at the fourth, the one with vomit on his Spurs t-shirt: "And they will rout the Thunder, clinching the Conference Finals in Oklahoma City and leaving no doubt as to which team is the Best in the West."

"Can you hear yourself?" The fifth man says quietly from the bed. "Don't you realize what incredible luck it took just to get back to the Finals? The Lakers imploded, Westbrook got injured on a freak play. We had to come from 16 down in the last four minutes against Golden State. Then, just to get to this cursed game 6, Tony had to make an incredible shot in the series opener. Danny Green set a Finals record for three pointers!"

"Who??" say the first three in unison.

"Exactly. It was like seeing a basketball unicorn, and we still came up short. As a Spurs fan, you should know that every championship takes luck, and we won't get that lucky again."

Each of them recoils as my hand flies once again. My voice reverberates against the walls of the hotel.

"You cowards!" I shout. "You've all watched this team since elementary school! You saw David Robinson and Avery Johnson win a championship after years of being called failures and soft! You've watched the Big 3 overcome every obstacle, and you've watched a nobody division III coach who everyone, including you, wanted fired after his first season outlast Stockton and Malone, Kobe and Shaq, Dirk and Nash, Larry Brown's Pistons, D'Antoni's Suns, Kobe and Gasol, and now, even after they've refused to quit, you're all dying to quit on them! Be men, you cowards! BE MEN!!"

I sweep the five of them back to Kansas City, to the same living room where we saw the Thunder dismantle the 2012 Spurs. And then they see me, dancing in front of the television with my daughter on my shoulders, celebrating a fifth Championship, the joy on my face outshone only by those who have waited so long to lay hands once again upon that golden trophy.

I turn to the five, enjoying their looks of shock.

"He doubted, too," I tell them gently, gesturing to the reveler. "When OKC ended the nineteen game winning streak, just like they had the twenty game streak, he doubted. When Dallas took a 2-1 lead in the first round, he doubted. When Serge Ibaka was injured and then returned, and the Spurs dropped two straight games to the Thunder, he doubted. ('It's 2012 all over again!' he said in his heart.) Even when Miami took game 2 after the Spurs' offense faltered, he too faltered in his faith."

"But ultimately, his faith was rewarded," answered the second young man.

"He learned never to doubt," said the third.

"Now we can win a sixth!" exclaims the fourth. "Timmy can tie Jordan!"

The first young man pumps his fist. "Another chance to repeat as Champions!"

"Tim and Manu are still under contract," the fifth nods excitedly. "All we need to do is lock up Patty Mills and Boris Diaw, and we can bring back the whole team! Let's do it! Go Spurs Go!"

My confident expression fades at talk of winning another championship, at going to the Finals for a third straight year. The usual excuses come boiling to the surface. I put out my hands, as if to suppress the excitement. My lips begin to say "Not so fast..."

And then, out of nowhere, I feel a hand strike my face. In a daze, I look around the room for the source of the blow. But I see no one. I'm standing there in my living room, with my daughter on my shoulders, watching my team with their trophy.

And that stinging cheek reminds me, once and for all: Never doubt the San Antonio Spurs.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Grumbling at the Movies: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Given its themes of overcoming prejudice and learning to co-exist, Dean DeBlois' How to Train Your Dragon 2, and its predecessor, should really be called How Your Dragon Trains You. The film opens in the Viking mountain village of Berk, where the town's residents live peacefully with their fully domesticated dragons. Well, when I say peacefully, I mean it in the sense that a circus isn't the same as a battlefield. There's still a raucous atmosphere, and the dragons and their handlers still find a way to get in plenty of mischief. Literal flights of fancy are multitude, most notably the one which finds Berk's heir to the chieftainship, Hiccup, and his mount, Toothless, performing mostly businesslike aerial surveys of what I assume is the North Sea. Upon finding a new spit of land, Hiccup pulls out a map and traces out the contours. Exploration is more than just a hobby to Hiccup, though, and the call to succeed his father Stoick the Vast as leader of Berk has him doubting his true potential. It's in this context that Hiccup and Toothless come across an icy shipwreck, where they discover a scheme by the mysterious Drago to bring all dragons under his control and, using them, conquer all free lands. Or something to that effect. He'll also chance upon a long-lost relative, who will help him solidify his commitment to family and to Berk.

Even for an animated film (back in my day, kids, we called them cartoons), H2TYD2 is frustratingly half-realized. The mythology is wonky, the dialogue indifferent, and the supporting characters are reduced almost to single conduits of thought. Given that Jeffery Katzenberg and DreamWorks Studios insist on differentiating themselves from arch-rival Pixar in part by using and promoting a crush of celebrity voice talent to power even tertiary roles (here, they've got Kate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, and Djimon Huston, among others), it seems kind of a waste to see those characters - I'm thinking in particular of the two lovestruck romantic rivals who star in the movie's most annoying subplot - display all the depth and movement of a blinking LED on a sleeping television set.

Drago is a problem, too. As a dragon hunter and general sleezeball, he's the latest in a long line of one-dimensional DreamWorks antagonists. Like the banker in Despicable Me or the suburbanite HOA president in Over the Hedge, he's spitefully evil because, well, all ambitious dragon hunters are spitefully evil! And because Drago's purpose is only to be dastardly, his comeuppance garners no pathos like Sid Phillips in Toy Story or Syndrome in The Incredibles. Perhaps in a token attempt at depth, the story portrays Drago as something of a dark mirror for Hiccup. Both are missing limbs thanks to dragons, and both have an uncanny knack for communication with them. Luckily, you can easily tell which of them is the bad guy, since one of them has a scar-covered face and dreadlocks, and the other looks like a cross between Luke Wilson and Brent Barry. But Drago is someone who's only physically threatening, and there's never any fear that he's actually the Darth Vader to Hiccup's Luke Skywalker. That's because Hiccup is far too anodyne and incorruptible to even possess a faint spark of inner evil.

Actually, Hiccup and Drago don't really even have a hand to hand encounter that I can recall. Instead, their fight is Jaegar-ed through two monstrosities called "bewilderbeasts" or "Alphas", ice-spewing dragons who somehow have the means to control other dragons through telekinesis. These Alphas, too, aren't rendered with thought to anything other than how to make them as immense as possible. Whereas the other dragons in How To...2 have particular animalistic traits which make them relatable to the average pet owner (some act like birds, others act like dogs), the Alphas move like Godzilla clones but have the dramatic range of a surly Keanu Reeves. In fact, of the dozens of dragons in this movie, only Toothless, who looks and moves like a winged ferret with a scaly cat face, is featured in anything which might be considered a contributing role. As his counterparts amount mostly to fanged taxis or plot devices, he's the only non-human upon which the plot truly turns, and, when it does turn, in the scene where Toothless becomes the center of the film's emotional stakes, the transition, and the gut punch which results, is a bit jarring. 

(Warning: Spoiler coming four sentences ahead!)

Getting back to Drago; what's really troublesome about him and his menagerie is how unnecessary they are. Yes, from a narrative standpoint, there needs to be a conflict. From a kid's standpoint, there needs to be someone for the dragons and the Vikings to beat, and it helps a lot if he wears black and looks ugly. And yes, I know this film, like its predecessor, is based on a book series (isn't everything these days?) But would it have been such a terrible thing for the movie to devote less time to scorching the earth and more time to Hiccup and Stoick, reunited after twenty years with mother/wife, Valka? Her introductory scene - which, granted, only comes about because Hiccup is looking for Drago - is absolutely breathtaking. The subsequent fifteen minutes which follow, during which Toothless and Valka's dragon stir up clouds by beating their wings like Cessna-sized hummingbirds, is the most impressive animated sequence I've ever seen. But once the human trio takes a moment to sit down, and Hiccup assesses the impact of a lifetime of absentee parentage, there's no hint of conflict or even tension. Just smiles and more talk about beating Drago. It doesn't ring true, even from a child's perspective, and so it's disappointing when the audience is supposed to find intrigue the real intrigue in this non-starter of a battle between a twenty year-old kid and an off-the-shelf megalomaniac. Heck, I'd take 90 minutes of nothing but Hiccup steering through the clouds on Toothless over one-liners sneered hollowly from the back of an invincible flying cow fortress.

If I judge it as the movie I saw, rather than the movie I wish it were, I can say How to Train Your Dragon 2 will likely be everything kids expect. To be sure, adults will also be entertained, but if any of you leaves the theater with a vague sense of unfulfillment, just know that I too wish for a world where quality visuals and a fully-realized story can thrive and co-exist. Now that I think of it, maybe it's time for someone to pitch How to Train Your Katzenberg.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Video Link: Star Wars Alphabetically

For further proof the recession is alive and well, may I submit this 43 minute video wherein some enterprising soul took every single spoken word in the Special Edition of A New Hope, alphabetized them, and played them in order. I don't know who made this thing, and it's entirely possible it's the work of a teenager or elderly shut in, but I suspect this is just another nerd whose student loans and responsibility to society are in a perpetual state of forbearance. In other words, somebody has taken the concept of "underemployed" to a whole new level.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ad Me! 5 Advertisements that undermine their message with distracting details

After a year and a half and over 100 posts, it's time for me to finally admit something. The real reason I started this blog is to complain about TV commercials. Okay, so I was doing that before, but now you get to be my audience instead of an increasingly irritated Mrs. Oldmanshirt. Everybody wins! Except you, if you watch these commercials and try to discern any meaningful point. (Links are provided in the text in case the videos don't play.)

What's that? You assume we're starting with a car commercial? Ha, you know me all too well...

AT&T and Toyota - Let's Go to a Crowded Place and Whisper!

I don't know who stole this idea from who, but you'd look smarter stealing the idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I've taken a kid to a phone store and I've taken a kid to a car dealership, and I can tell you: It does not matter whether or not you whisper. Both of those places ARE LOUD!!! Attention parents with charred holes in your pockets: Call up grandma to watch your fickle offspring, or shell out for a babysitter. It will be worth it. These days, the only decision more important than what kind of car you buy is what kind of phone you get, and increasingly the former decision depends a lot on the latter.

The Toyota spot could really be its own post about all the fantastical things people do at fictional car dealerships. These car shoppers do things none who've gone before them have ever accomplished: They make it to the reception desk without being harassed by a salesperson; the receptionist ("Jan") is not only alert and interested in these people, she even sells them on a new Camry, which is the car literally more people by than any other (Seriously, your 5-year old nephew could sell you a Camry); Jan makes her pitch in response to this nice couple casually asking for "Something safe with a smooth ride," like they're shopping at Aaron's for a leather sectional or something. Not shown: Sweating out a 6-hour marathon while a junior college drop-out "checks with his sales manager" when you ask him if there are any cars on the lot which don't smell like formaldehyde or require a degree in electrical engineering to back out of the driveway.

But at least the Toyota commercial can make some tenuous connection to the premise. Toyotas, for all their many, many, many (many) faults, typically are quiet and isolated on the road. When the ad ends with a zoom out from the little man sleeping in the back seat of his folks' newly acquired Camry, it's plausible. With the AT&T ad, the sleeping baby gag not only adds absolutely nothing to the proceedings except for an extra dose of stupid (which, lets face it, AT&T ads don't particularly need), it also confuses the message. The pitch is for a family plan with up to 4 lines. Is the baby going to need 10 gigs of data? Clearly, getting a sitter seems to be a serious problem for these people, so do the parents anticipate leaving the kid at home for hours at a time with nothing but a digital companion and enough broadband to download the collected works of Doctor Who? And when's the last time you heard the phrase "for instance" used to describe something in a television commercial? When you say that, you're assuming your audience is not only awake, but that you have their rapt attention. Truth is, I already made like both of these ankle biters and conked out completely.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Grumbling at the Movies: Godzilla

Normally when a character in film exclaims Oh, my God, it's a throwaway line. Like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, "OMG" is what's said when there isn't anything to say. In Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, the expression comes across in an entirely different way. The three words roll off characters' lips into in an uncomfortably appropriate realm somewhere between pure literalism and straight pun. All the while, we're staring wide eyed along with them. Truly, God has come to Earth and walked amongst us. In His presence, we are all monotheists. He eats uranium for breakfast, and spits it out in the form of halitosis lightning. He cares not for our plans or our dreams. He's been awoken by kids playing on his lawn, and He won't rest until he has each and every one of their heads.

Lining up against His Scalyness are Ishiro Serizawa, a Government-backed scientist played by Ken Watanabe (Inception), Ford Brody, a Navy bomb disposal expert played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Admiral Stenz, the token high-ranking military official played by David Straithairn (The Bourne Ultimatum). There are also a pair of prehistoric, building-sized mantises called MUTO ("Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects") who possess an aircraft carrier's worth of body armor, electromagnetic pulse-emitting flatulence, and a surly disposition to match. While other characters stand dumbstruck or run for their lives, Straithairn takes the challenge personally - at least initially. His Admiral Stenz has all the big boats, and yet, upon seeing the way Godzilla and the MUTOs casually brush aside the best of the U.S. War Machine, his tough guy exterior softens and he starts channeling Roy Scheider in Jaws. "We're gonna need a bigger bomb." Trouble is, throwing a bigger bomb at Godzilla and MUTO amounts to throwing 48 ounces of porterhouse at Charles Barkley.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Heiress Reviews the Fisher Price Power Wheels Lil Sport Jeep Wrangler

(Ed note: For clarity, this review has been paraphrased from its original form.)

In the world of pedal-free kiddie conveyances, there are "Power Wheels" and there are Power Wheels. I'm pretty sure this one is the former. For one thing, the Lil Sport Wrangler, despite carrying the venerable Jeep name on its rectilinear flanks, cannot push itself up a grassy three degree slope in my front yard. It might help if it had four-wheel drive, like all real Jeeps most real Jeeps post-Compass, or even two-wheel drive, or even real tires. Sadly, in addition to being a perpetually filthy shade of white, these ten inch doughnuts (complete with butterfly stickers!) are made from the same injection-molded plastic as everything else on the Lil Sport, save for its tiny electric motor and 6 volt rechargeable battery. While this allows the Wrangler to get better gas mileage than, say, Mommy's Ford Flex, the polymer hooptie's inevitable contribution to a greater Kansas City landfill somewhat mitigates any hoorahs for environmental responsibility.

Sorry, I should be more positive here. After all, the Wrangler provides motive opportunity to those underserved classes heretofore compelled to move themselves by their own chubby legs. Once aboard, there's not much Weebok room in the shallow floorboards, which makes modulating the "gas" pedal a bit arduous (and forced Dad to put in extended driver's ed time.) After this is mastered, power comes on immediately, with peak torque available off the line and all the way to the Wrangler's 2 mile per hour top speed. (A severe case of speedometer error is evidently in play here, since the gauge cluster insists I'm doing 26 mph, even when sitting still.) Now, I could mention that any able-bodied toddler can easily top 2 mph on foot, but where's the romance in such an archaic form of transportation? The Wrangler provides literally several minutes of top-down transit, whether you frequent SoCal, South Beach, or the cul-de-sacs of the Midwest. Speaking of which, the Lil Sport's turning radius rivals that of an actual full-sized Wrangler, despite there being a mere 27 inches between the centers of its ivory deca-dubs. With the short wheelbase, combined with an overall length of 38 inches, the Wrangler does manage to boast aggressive approach and departure angles, both of which are rendered quite irrelevant by an electric motor with barely enough gumption to hop a slope-backed curb. Even then, sometimes Daddy has to push.

He also has to push when the Wrangler runs out of juice, since its driving range makes even the most limited battery-powered automobile look like a Peterbilt. Remind me never to run away from home in this thing; I'd get further by spilling my sippy cup in the driveway, waiting for winter to freeze the runoff, and skating down the street in my fwip-fwops. Back to the handling. Corners aren't so much "negotiated" as they are "avoided altogether." Like an alternating current, the irony flows multiple directions. Technically, the Wrangler has the same drivetrain configuration as a Porsche 911. Then again, with its forward and reverse buttons, it has something in common with an Aston Martin Vanquish, too. Fact is, though, with its single-person accommodations and lack of licensed Disney character images, the Lil Sport Wrangler belies its garage sale provenance in a world where affected, electric Audis and Escalades are available in every Toys 'R Us to any kid with the pipes to beg long and hard enough. As a starter car for someone entering the brave new world of big girl underwear, the Wrangler is adequate; as a harbinger of what I can expect when it comes time for Dad to lay down a real set of keys, it suggests something underpowered and unthreatening may be in my future. I guess it's never too early to start getting Mom on my side.

(Here's the original, unaltered review:)

"It's pink! I made it turn!"