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Monday, January 28, 2008

That 90's Show


January 28, 2008

For a show that always pisses the Internet off, last night's The Simpsons really pissed the Internet off. The episode, titled "That 90's Show", showed that Homer and Marge were single and living together in the 1990's. 

The episode opens with Lisa performing complex mathematical equations to determine that if Bart is 10 years old and it's 2008, Homer must have gotten Marge pregnant some time around 1997. We learn that Homer paid for Marge to go to college, that she left him for one of her professors, and that Homer was so despondent he invented grunge music and became a self-destructive addict hooked on Sweet Lady I. (Insulin, not heroin. He became diabetic after drinking too many mocha lattes in the 90's.) The Internet is pissed off that the series has retconned (such a dirty word, and not even a real one like 'cromulent') Homer and Marge's history so that they "couldn't" have met during high school in 1974 as was previously established in season two (in 1991 if anyone's counting.)

First, when will some people finally understand that The Simpsons does not subscribe to and cannot be defined by any type of traditional continuity. To demand it of them is foolish and only leads to bitterness and anger. While The Simpsons sometimes maintains a continuity (Maud Flanders died and is still dead, Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel dated for years and broke up), the series is not serialized in that what happened in the past is inviolate. (Dr. Marvin Monroe was dead for several years and suddenly reappeared a while back. "I was very sick," he said. And we move along.)

No matter what, Bart will always be 10 years old. Time passes in the real world - 18 years and counting - but things have to remain the same in Springfield. And yet they have to reflect our times as well, good or bad.

Any Simpsons writer will tell you the series exists in a "flexible reality." Meaning: whatever they want to do to tell a joke is what they'll do. It's not supposed to all hold together in a tidy bow like a traditional television series. It's not designed to. The series' ability to do whatever they want, which they basically invented in its modern form on television so others could follow suit, has always been their strongest trait creatively.

The hard and fast rule for The Simpsons is this: All that matters to them is the joke they're telling, even when the very next joke immediately contradicts it. And they do that on purpose because you cannot maintain the show's status quo while lasting as long as they have and continue to.

How many times have they looked outside of the Simpsons' kitchen window and seen something other than their backyard, for example? How many times have Bart and Lisa gone on summer vacation and returned to Springfield Elementary in the fall right back to Mrs. Krabappel's 4th grade class and Miss Hoover's second grade class? I can't believe people still get up in arms over stuff like that or episodes like "That 90's Show." They're just telling jokes.

The show did not retcon anything in the sense that the previous flashbacks never happened. Homer and Marge did go to high school in the 1970's. All the old flashback episodes hold. (So do all the episodes set in the future, which also contradict each other.) Now they're saying Homer and Marge were single in the 90's. Well, if you do the math, that Bart must always be 10 is the unchangable rule, then it makes sense they were.

Does it contradict what came before? Yes. It's supposed to. To quote Carl in a previous episode: "It's best not to think about it." It's not worth getting bent out of shape over. Reality is whatever they say it is. Does the 90's episode make sense? NO. And the writers don't care because there's no point in making it make sense. All they were really doing was goofing on the 1990's.

If you didn't think the episode was funny, that's cool. I love grunge music, Nirvana, the 90's, and I thought there was some hilarious stuff:

Homer, Lenny, Carl, and Officer Lou as a Color Me Badd-like R&B group. Lenny's hair and facial hair were awesome.

Kirk Van Houten downloading a picture that will take six hours (as long as no one picks up the phone.)

Kurt Loder "reporting from the 90's."

Weird Al's parody of Homer's parody of Nirvana's "Rape Me."

Homer: "He who is tired of Weird Al is tired of life."

Bart's line after the commercial break: "Why did you stop talking for two and a half minutes?"

The image of grunged-out Homer with the syringe in his arm might have been the darkest thing the show has ever done. There was no reason to believe it wasn't heroin until Marge said it was insulin. I was kind of jarred by it, but I cite precedence from Homer's line in the golden years episode when Homer was in the B-Sharps: "The fame was like a drug. But what was even more like a drug were the drugs."

Now, I didn't love the episode. I liked a lot of the jokes and things like Homer's parody of Bush's "Glycerine" worked for me, but the whole thing overall wasn't one of their best outings. Like many episodes of recent years, the timing was off and a lot of the non-90's specific jokes, especially involving Marge's sleazeball professor, fell flat. But I laughed enough. In the end, laughter is what I want from The Simpsons. And I got it. I don't worry about the rest.

Finally, I would kill for a Sadgasm shirt. If The Simpsons aired on NBC, it would have been available on this morning.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Justice League: The New Frontier (***)


Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier graphic novel is a dynamic reinterpretation of the dawn of the Silver Age of the DC Universe. I'm much more of a DC nut than a Marvel zombie. I'm fluent in both universes but I've always liked the DCU more. Names like Adam Strange, King Farady, Sarge Steel, Rick Flagg, and the Challengers of the Unknown are old hat to me. The 1950's setting of "The New Frontier" was vividly realized and I liked Cooke's take on Superman, Batman, J'onn J'onzz, Wonder Woman, Flash, and especially Hal Jordan. It's fitting Hal Jordan is the central character in the book as he's DC's greatest space age hero, Green Lantern. It's a really good story.

I watched Justice League: The New Frontier this morning. It's pretty good too. It's kind of like an abbreviated greatest hits of the book, but that's to be expected in a 90 minute adaptation. A lot of the story depth, details of the period, and inner workings of the major characters was lost, but that's also to be expected, especially in Bruce Timm's style of animation. The animation is very much pages of the comic brought to life.

Certain key events lose their oomph in the cartoon because they occur to minor characters who are in fact major characters in the book (Flagg and Faraday, and the cartoon never quite explains who this Ace Morgan palling around with Hal Jordan is). The Losers turn out to only be referenced in a quick frame and The Challengers of the Unknown, DC's predecessors to the Fantastic Four, are missing entirely. With some characters missing, it makes for a somewhat sparsely attended final battle scene against the Centre at the end. However, the cartoon does deepen the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane, adding a scene not in the book and shifting a key moment from Wonder Woman in the book to Lois. Overall, I wouldn't recommend watching it before reading the book.

The voice work seems to be a little better than the usual voice work in DC cartoons. Kevin Conroy's Batman aside, I always disliked the monotonous, almost sleepy voice over acting in modern DC cartoons. The New Frontier, being a 1950s period piece, filtered most of the voice work to have that helium-sounding, fast style of speaking that was prominent in the mid-20th century. Most of the voice acting is low key, but Lucy Lawless is so obvious as Wonder Woman it's a little distracting. You always know you're hearing Lucy Lawless. The most fun voice is David Boreanaz as Hal Jordan. They also filtered his voice to be higher pitched 50's style, but there are plenty of moments he speaks more slowly and you can hear Angel's grumpy, growly voice.

Justice League: The New Frontier is a very well done animated movie and a good companion to the comic book, but I'd have to say Darwyn Cooke's "DC: The New Frontier" is the better experience overall.

Friday, January 25, 2008

U2 3D: The IMAX Experience (***)


Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World

U2 3D was shot at 7 different concerts, primarily in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during the band's "Vertigo" tour. If you love U2, everything about them that fans the unforgettable fires of that love is live and in living color in stunning 3D. If you hate U2, the very same. Bono's over the top theatrics that thrill as many millions as they irritate, The Edge's impeccable guitar work, Adam Clayton's often-unheralded (thankfully not here) genius on the bass, and Larry Mullen, Jr.'s solemn, flawless drumwork are on full display.

The 3D concert offers jawdropping sights that indeed immerse the viewer with perspectives not even being the arena live can match: Thousands upon thousands of emotional Argentinean fans hopping up and down to the chords of "Where The Streets Have No Name". A digital Bono superposed next to The Edge on stage. Bono melodramatically hugging a virtual image of his father. Homages to Zoo TV's visual propaganda during "The Fly." The blackened stadium lit up by countless 3D lights in the crowd (not just cellphone LED lights but flames from lighters. Old school! I guess smoking hasn't been banned in outdoor soccer arenas in Argentina). Musically, visually, it's a fantastic show. The only thing standing in the way of total U2-phoria are U2 themselves.

As a U2 diehard going to see them in concert, there is a disparity between my agenda and the band's agenda. I just want to hear the hits; hear the band play all the songs I love live. U2 wants that for us as well, and they'll give us hits, along with several heaping spoonfuls of their political beliefs. This was never more apparent than in their most recent "Vertigo" tour, and it's even more prevalent in U2 3D. The middle part of the show is preachier than a Catholic priest at a gay marriage. At less than 90 minutes (a good hour less than the full concert), half of U2 3D consists of a block of songs with overt political messages. "Love And Peace Or Else," "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", "Bullet The Blue Sky" and "Miss Sarajevo" feature Bono wearing a headband adorned with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian symbols that form the world "coexist". Bono pantomimes as a blindfolded prisoner of war about to be executed. The UN Declaration of Human rights is read. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream is declared as not just an American Dream but a global dream.

There is certainly nothing negative about U2's political beliefs. They are a globe-spanning band originating from Ireland, a country rife with civil conflicts and terrorism, which they've witnessed in their lifetimes. They've been to nearly every nation on Earth and seen the effects of the atrocities committed in places like Bosnia, Africa, and Afghanistan firsthand. They believe their music can help bridge the gaps between people's misunderstandings. Their pleas for disarmament, ends to slavery, suffrage, war, and the expansion of human rights to all people across the globe are admirable. 

But in U2 3D on the IMAX it's all literally in your face. It's a bit much. (Especially when Bono kisses Adam Clayton on the lips. What was that about? And why no smooches for Larry Mullen?) By the time U2 drops the politics, plays "Where Where Streets Have No Name" and just starts rocking again, it's such a relief to get away from the posturing and preaching.

While the film does succeed in immersing the viewer in the live concert experience, the other great drawback of U2 3D is that you can never shake the reality that you are still not really there. You are in fact sitting in a seat in a dark theatre wearing goofy glasses. The audience in the theatre was in a perpetual state of confusion as to how to react. The urge to stand up, to sing along, cheer, be part of the concert is in direct conflict with proper movie theatre behavior of sitting, being quiet, and not disturbing the people around you. It has the effect of a fantastic party you can't really be a part of, watching it from outside through a window while Bono periodically presses his face up against the glass.

My excitement at seeing U2 in concert is always met with a small amount of disappointment. No matter how long the concert, no matter how many hits they play, there are always going to be a few personal favorites left out. U2's catalog of songs is so massive that no setlist can fully encompass the superfan's wish list of what they'd like to hear the band play live for them.

The setlist for U2 3D is actually a pretty good one all things considered: "Vertigo", "Beautiful Day," "New Year's Day", "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own", "Love and Peace Or Else", "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", "Bullet the Blue Sky", "Miss Sarajevo", "Pride (In The Name of Love)", "Where The Streets Have No Name", "One", "The Fly", "With Or Without You", "Yahweh" (over the closing credits)

It's a sturdy mix of newer songs from "How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" with some of their enduring classics (denying the live audience "With Or Without You", "Pride (In The Name of Love)", "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", or "Where The Streets Have No Name" may likely cause a riot.) Still, there can never be enough old stuff for U2 fans. We may never hear the band play "The Unforgettable Fire", "Running to Stand Still", or one my very, very favorites, "A Sort of Homecoming" live at one of their shows again. At the last U2 show I went to at TD Banknorth Garden, I can't even begin to describe the euphoria that erupted within the crowd when the band surprised us by playing "40". Anything from their earliest albums "Boy", "October," "War," and "The Unforgettable Fire" are the songs the live crowd salivates for.

In the end, it was touching to see Bono physically spent, his voice quivering to make the final notes of "With Or Without You", letting the audience do most of the work (which they gladly do). The smiles on the faces of the band as they waved their goodbyes were genuine, the appreciation and love from the fans (and the ones wearing the goofy glasses not really there) reciprocated. When it's all said and done, U2 3D truly, vividly displays all of the band's dimensions and shows them in their finest light.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield (***)



I'm not sure what the bigger conceit is in Cloverfield: The indestructible handheld DV camera that never runs out of tape/battery power or the fact that we're told in the opening titles that the footage we're about to see was recovered by the military in the part of Manhattan "formerly known as Central Park." We're meant to buy that the movie we're seeing is the complete, untouched video footage of the recovered camera but I don't buy it. Seems to me that after finding the camera, some editor in the Army cut the footage and was really, really concerned with Rob and Beth's lovelife, all the way down to the final bookend shot spliced in of the two doomed lovers having "a great day" in Coney Island. I'll bet after seeing that footage, there wasn't a dry eye amongst the generals watching Cloverfield at the Pentagon.

Despite these conceits, or maybe because of them, Cloverfield turns out to be a very entertaining "ordinary man on the street POV" of a giant monster attacking New York City. It's a novel approach that works well because of the realistic performances of the cast, with the filmmakers utilizing well-timed, smart, careful reveals of the monster(s). They (and by they, I mean "whoever in the military cut the footage together") did an effective job drawing the audience in to the story of Rob receiving a going away party from his friends, which is interrupted by the inconceivable. (Rob's going away to a great new job in Japan, which movie-historically has had more giant monster attacks than anywhere but strangely doesn't here.) 

The relationships between Rob, Beth, his siblings, his best friend/ersatz camera man, and the random girl they barely know who get caught up in the disaster were compelling enough to get us invested in their lives. We see the strings being pulled clearly as Rob and friends defy all logic to rescue Beth from her midtown apartment, right in the middle of Giant Monster Central, but the cast is honest and good, the conceit works, and we buy it. It's also a good thing Rob doesn't know anyone who's unattractive because it sure would have been a drag watching ugly people try to survive repeated clashes with monsters.

I had no trouble buying any of the big ideas, like a giant creature destroying half of New York or Rob's need to save his girl or his friends deciding to come along or even Hud filming the entire experience. As someone who's been finagled into his share of filming stuff, I liked the arc of Hud not wanting the job of recording testimonials turning into his need to keep recording, as seeing all that tragedy through the lens of a DV camera somehow allowed him to divorce himself from the reality and cope with what was happening better. I also liked that that desire to keep recording ended up being Hud's undoing when he learned the monster wasn't ready for his close up.

Some of the details were strangely off though: Rob makes a big deal of looting an electronics store to find a replacement battery for his cell phone, yet the two girls with him made no effort to loot a store to find shoes they can walk/run with after they'd committed to making their way to midtown to save Beth. When the foursome are attacked by the smaller monsters in the subway tunnels and seal themselves off in a room, Rob finds a pipe or metal rod to force open a vending machine, yet he doesn't think to bring it with him as a weapon when they venture back out. When they encounter the military in a department store on East 59th Street, Rob won't shut up about how they need to save Beth; meanwhile their friend Marlene who's with them has been bitten by a monster, is clearly bleeding and dying, but they never think to mention it until she cries red tears and starts painting the walls with her blood. But the single most ridiculous thing Cloverfield did was dispose of Mike Vogel 20 minutes into the movie. What the hell was that?!

Here's how the ending of Cloverfield should have played out: In Central Park, Hud points the camera upward and gives us a clear shot of the monster. Then from behind the monster leaps Mike Vogel, with blade in hand Beowulf-style, come to slay the monster. Vogel grapples the monster's neck, drives his blade into its skin, then its eyes, the monster roars a death knell, and falls. Vogel then hands the Hud's camera back to him, locks eyes with his brother Rob, gives him a heroic nod, and runs off. The last shot is of Mike Vogel, blade in his teeth, heading off to singlehandedly kill the remaining monsters all around the city. I think we can all agree that's the ending they should have gone with.