Yakmala: North

This is an appropriate image, though not for the reasons the filmmakers think.

That critics have any power whatsoever is a myth we’ve all agreed upon. Yet, very occasionally, a review will become far more notorious than the movie that spawned it. None have accomplished this feat harder than Roger Ebert, normally a sweet avuncular presence devoted to championing culture both high and low, when he utterly savaged Rob Reiner’s family comedy North. “I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie,” he wrote. If anything, he was being generous.

Tagline: A family comedy that appeals to the child in everyone.

More Accurate Tagline: A family comedy that makes you wonder why you have a family at all.

Guilty Party: The obvious target would be screenwriter Alan Zweibel, who also wrote the novel on which it’s based. Holy shit, there’s a novel? Had this been an Afterschool Special, I might have less of a problem with it. Anyway, I’m blaming Rob Reiner. We know the man can make movies. He made This Is Spinal Tap. He made When Harry Met Sally… He made fucking The Princess Bride. So he, in theory, knows better. Look, I’m not saying abduction is ever the right thing to do, but I was praying for Vizzini to show up and kidnap North about five minutes into this thing.

Synopsis: Whimsy is not my thing. Usually because it feels like it’s covered with flop sweat and trying to entice me into a windowless van to see baby rabbits. I don’t want to end up in a bunker for fifteen years. I am not strong as hell. So when North opens with the tinkling of whimsy in its score, promising me a decade and a half in the dark, my consciousness rebels.

What every Wes Anderson movie looks like to me.

It doesn’t help that it instantly introduces us to one of the most unlikeable heroes in film history. North (Elijah Wood) is the perfect child on paper: a snotty little asshole who pulls perfect grades while being a star athlete. He lives in a palatial suburban home with two harried parents (Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus). What’s this little prick’s problem? He’s not appreciated enough. That’s it.

So he heads over to the mall, where he has a conversation with Bruce Willis in a bunny costume (yes, seriously), who then talks North into declaring free agency from his parents. A judge (Alan Arkin) allows this (although mostly because the parents have fallen into comas), giving North from the Fourth of July to Labor Day to test the waters. If he’s not in the arms of his new parents by noon on Labor Day, he gets sent to an orphanage. I know it’s not in the movie, but I was hoping it would be like the jail in Sleepers. Seriously, North. Fuck you.

That’s when the movie decides it’s time to get racist.

Not quite that racist

Sure, we start out with a relatively harmless caricature of Texas that might be funny to newborns or someone who recently suffered head trauma and is trying to learn to speak again. Then we get wildly offensive with a creepy look at Hawaii, Abe Vigoda and Kathy Bates (who should fucking know better) in redface for “Eskimos,” a quick Amish sight gag, Imperial China where North is the Emperor, and an African village that would have to improve significantly to qualify merely as horrifyingly racist. At most of these, he runs into some form of Bruce Willis, who smirks his way through a scene and looks like he just wants to get back to the hotel bar for some Seagram’s Wine Cooler. He eventually ends up with the perfect family: white and suburban (with John Ritter, Faith Ford, and a larval Scarlett Johansson in her first screen appearance). North can’t stay here, so he has to go home.

Meanwhile, back home the kids have taken North’s emancipation as an excuse to be dicks to their parents. Led by the insufferably precocious Winchell and assisted by simpering toady Jon Lovitz (Jon Lovitz), this movement isn’t going to let North come home so easily. So they launch an assassination plot. You know, for kids.

While North dodges a hitman who looks like he’s on break from an episode of The Sopranos, his parents come out of the coma. Eventually, they’re about to have their tearful reunion right at the buzzer, when the hitman gets the drop on them. There’s a gunshot… and North wakes up.

Yep. It was all a dream. In other words, the laziest, most trite dodge in the history of writing. The movie can’t even be troubled to think of a new way to tell you to fuck yourself, so it uses the oldest one of all. North goes home, finds his parents were worried about him, and he’s happy again.

Life-Changing Subtext: Foreign cultures are weird and stupid, so it’s best to stick with white people.

Defining Quote: North’s Father: “I saw some blood in my stool this morning.” After his movie, me too, pal.

Standout Performance: Alan Arkin as Judge Buckle. He’s like the ghost of funny Alan Arkin, but you sort of have to grasp at straws with this one.

What’s Wrong: The dream thing is a convenient dodge. Hey, the movie’s not racist, it’s taking place in the mind of a little boy. He doesn’t know any better! Right, okay… let’s analyze.

At the very least, North is shockingly narcissistic. We’re talking Buffalo Bill territory, so if poor little ScarJo ends up as a dress in his basement, I won’t be shocked. The first reel of the movie is all about how amazing North is, and how his decision instantly becomes front page news and touches off a cultural movement.

Does he warrant any of this? Really? Considering that the kid still thinks Imperial China is a thing, and that he would instantly be crowned Emperor, says his grasp of geopolitics might a little shaky. Kind of makes you wonder about how good the school is. He’s also convinced that at least Zaire is entirely jungle villages with topless women and Tarzan sounds. So all this racism we’re sweeping under the rug? It’s all North. He thinks he’s incredible, and he’s just a couple years away from being a moderator on Stormfront.

Flash of Competence: The production design isn’t bad.

Best Scenes: In any movie like this, you don’t want to lean to hard on the “everybody’s a pedophile” jokes. But seriously… everybody is a pedophile. Don’t blame me, it’s this goddamn movie.

Okay, so in the beginning when his parents are loudly complaining at the dinner table and ignoring North, he has a heart attack. Although, he never goes to the hospital, so he might have been faking it for attention. Wouldn’t put it past this horrible little gremlin. What’s his dad’s response? “Loosen his pants!” Where does his dad think the heart is located anyway?

Then, off in Hawaii, the governor’s plan is to start a tourist campaign that shows an octopus pulling North’s pants down. North instantly begins screeching about his “crack.” That’s the precise word he uses, and he uses it a lot. So he thinks that the one thing that’s keeping people from going to Hawaii is that they haven’t seen his bare ass. Dennis Reynolds could get ego lessons from this kid.

Then Bruce Willis in his various guises is being inappropriate, first waving around a carrot, then telling smutty jokes, then straight up saying that in Miami, “your balls stick to your leg like krazy glue.”

Transcendent Moment: The first moment you realize that you’re not just watching a bad movie, you’re watching an epically terrible misfire, an asylum taken by the lunatics and then burned down, is the musical number. Yeah, there’s a musical number, and to the movie’s credit, if you hire Reba McEntire and don’t have her sing, you’re not getting your money’s worth. It’s not the song that’s the problem. It’s the one moment, the lyric that promises North a bride, and there she is. Ten years old, giving him flirty eyes and doing the splits. The goddamn splits.

Only JCVD is allowed sexy splits.

North has no idea what it is. Is it a black comedy about the false innocence of children? A broad, racist throwback to an earlier age of Hollywood? A family movie with dirty jokes for the grownups? A comedy that just isn’t any fun? Oh, it’s all of these things and none, and now I return to the oblivion it sent me.

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An Axe to Grind: Episode 3

Justin and Erik take on Lifetime’s “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” in a weekly podcast about murder, bloodspray and costume porn. Week three sees two (or three?) kills of the week for the price of one. Lizzie’s backstory appears to be written by Nick Cave and Skipjack sleazes his way into Erik’s and Justin’s hearts. The show takes a side trip into Peaky Blinders and we ship Cole Hauser/Mrs. InnKeeper hard.

But the OTP is Emma Borden and TallCop.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

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New Satellite Show Episode 24: A Restaurant Within a Restaurant

The Satellite Show celebrates its second year of podcasting with recollections of the 80s, televangelists and siscon. Wait, really? We’re talking about siscon? Elsha and Dave make their show debuts as we also acknowledge a Star Wars movie is coming and Elsha explains her excitement about it. Dante and Erik argue over the merits of Barbara Gordon and Justin loses his mind during a screening of that infamous Sizzler promo tape. This month’s Yakmala film is the one that started it all: Gymkata. Host: Erik. Panel of Experts: Dawn, Clint, Justin, Dante, Dave, Elsha.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

Also: Support Clint and Dawn’s Kickstarter! They’re working to publish a trade paperback collection of their webcomic, Zombie Ranch, so open your hearts and open your wallets and give. Click this link for more information!

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Watch This: The Americans

Buy this. Now.

We live in an era of great television. The idea that TV is better than movies isn’t even a bold statement anymore; it’s just a fact usually greeted with a halfhearted shrug and a “Whaddya gonna do?” The funniest part, to me, is that due to the tyranny of the PG-13 rating, even what was thought to be the exclusive purview of movies — blood and nudity — is now more often seen on the small screen. The essential problem is well known: in an era of great television, good television can fall through the cracks. But what if this happens to great TV? What if this happens to a show with the potential to crack the all time list?

That’s what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about the FX show The Americans, which is already the greatest spy show ever made and is flirting with pantheon levels here. While I’m not ready to put it there yet, mostly because it’s not over, I would stack these first three seasons against the first three seasons of any other show. Ever. Yes, even The Wire.

So what is this show that has me so tied up in knots that I’m comparing it to the consensus best show of all time? It’s the height of the Cold War in the early 1980s, when the USA and USSR were a couple inches from armageddon and fashions weren’t in much better shape. While most shows would be about the heroic American agents fighting to prevent the end of the world, The Americans inverts the premise. The heroes are the Russian spies in deep cover as average Americans, doing the sorts of morally gray acts that we demand of our clandestine agents, but without the comforting sheen of “doing it for the right side.”

And that’s the first part of the genius of the show. The Cold War, which we are used to seeing from the side of the USA, we are now seeing from the Russian view. While both political parties in the modern day are intent on canonizing St. Reagan, it’s easy to forget he was an utter disaster as a president, and for our enemies, he was viewed — with some justification — as a dangerous madman. He wasn’t the only one. It was a Russian submarine officer who chose not to escalate the Cuban Missile Crisis to a nuclear exchange, and it was a Russian missile commander who chose not launch in 1983 when everyone — and his own instruments — told him to. While I’m not so naive as to call the Soviets “the good guys,” they don’t deserve the brand of villain simply because they lost.

This is Stanislav Petrov. He is the reason that you, personally, are alive today. Maybe give him a thank you.

That’s the second point. Our heroes, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) — and we still don’t know their full Russian names three seasons in — are fighting for the losing side. Unless this is an insane alternate history, they will lose. They have no idea, and in fact believe they are doing all they can to support what they feel are the good guys. The show first explores the way the US was on the wrong side of history as Reagan was a huge supporter of South Africa’s apartheid government, then the ways in which the US is repeating the mistakes of the USSR with the war in Afghanistan. Again, it’s a mistake to think of either side as “good” or “evil,” but it provides both context for the struggle and convenient morality points. “Of course we’re right,” Elizabeth might say, “we’re fighting the right wing apartheid state.” She chooses to ignore that this is only the case because the US chose the other side.

The pitch of this show could have been trite. Had it just been one Russian agent, a man, with an American wife and kids who have no idea what he’s up to, it would be like the spate of anti-hero shows out there: The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, and so forth and so on. These shows are great, but the male anti-hero family man is getting a little stale. Instead, The Americans casts a couple — Elizabeth with as much if not more agency than Phillip — and places them in the role of anti-villains. They are not characters doing the right things for the wrong reasons, but the exact opposite. When they do something horrible, they both have moments of understated grief, trying to understand that while what they did was wrong, they will save many more lives in the future.

This led to an incredible moment in a recent episode, when Elizabeth calmly forced a woman to kill herself to conceal their break-in of a factory. The two had a companionable conversation, and as the old woman drifted away, Elizabeth was fighting back tears. She promised the woman that she would not hurt her son, and when all the artifice was stripped away, Elizabeth had to accept her victim’s judgment. It was a quiet, beautiful, haunting scene that was more affecting than the deaths of long term characters. We’d known this old woman for maybe twenty minutes, but the quiet dignity of her performance, the coiled grief of Keri Russell’s, and the magnificent writing, elevated her into a ghost Elizabeth will carry with her the rest of her days.

The weak link in any show like this is inevitably the children, but The Americans has learned from the lessons of other examples. The elder child, Paige, has been searching for who she is (partly because she subconsciously knows her parents haven’t been honest about who they are), and the writers bravely pulled the trigger on the revelation that’s been stewing from the first episode. We’re not waiting around for Walter, Jr. to look up from breakfast long enough to discover his father is Satan. We get to see Paige fight through that. Even the thankless role of Second Child has been better than in any other series. Though their younger son Henry is often shunted to the background, here the show acknowledges this, and lets that be a function of his parents leaving him in the background as well. He’s unmoored, and unlike Paige, who searches for a larger group to belong to, Henry has not even that much direction.

With all of this roiling around, it would be easy to forget the spycraft. The Americans features easily the best ever seen on television, combining clunky ‘80s tech, an array of bizarre wigs, honeypots both sexy and extremely not, and emotional stakes usually absent in ice cold spy fiction. While Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage was a creation of their masters in the KGB, they spent the first season falling in love, and now their extramarital trysts, necessary to ensnare assets, have an element of tragedy to them. Every betrayal, even though there have been too many to count, still hurts a little. The tiny confessions between them now have barbs.

The Americans is the best show on TV right now, without qualification. It manages to walk the line between prestige programming and pulpy fun. Why should we sacrifice sexy thrills for very serious points? Well, thanks to The Americans, we don’t have to.

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An Axe To Grind: Episode 2

Justin and Erik take on Lifetime’s new “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” in a weekly podcast about murder, bloodspray and costume porn. Week two ponders what it will take for Emma Borden to crack, whether or not Lizzie buried a dead baby and what Mike Ehrmantraut was doing in 1892 New England. We keep track of the kills and nickname most of the characters. Oh, also, where’s Michael Wincott?

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

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Go Fund Zombie Ranch

I scheduled a week off this week, but I wanted to remind anyone out there who already hasn’t to help panelists Clint & Dawn Wolf get a trade collection of their webcomic Zombie Ranch funded over at Kickstarter. Here are details:

Zombie Ranch is quite rad and highly recommended. So fund often and early. You’ll be glad you did.

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I Miss Your Scent, Part II

Sometimes TV shows end. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. But on even some of the worst shows, the ones you wished the network had taken out to the Pine Barrens and put a bullet in, will have characters you just can’t let go. The ones that really resonated, and felt like they could have a life beyond the show that gave them birth. In my second entry into this series, I’m going to take some characters from cancelled or soon-to-be-cancelled shows and put them on a current TV show, to give them that richly deserved second life.

Tig and Venus to Bates Motel
While the final season of Sons of Anarchy was a flabby slog, it did manage to end on a high note. For awhile, there wasn’t much to do but root for SAMCRO’s odd couple: perpetually horny psychopath Tig Traeger and his transgendered prostitute love interest Venus Van Dam. While the pairing could have been played for broad comedy, instead the notoriously pulpy biker show went with a subtler approach (the only time it ever did), portraying the two as strange lost sous trying to make this crazy thing called love work. They’d fit right in with the noirish oddballs on Bates Motel, and Venus would be a great call-forward and inspiration to Norman’s own gender confusion.

They’re in love!

Tim Guterson to Banshee
If Justified had one major flaw through its run, it’s in the sorely underutilized Tim Guterson. A laconically sarcastic sniper, he hinted at hidden depths with his love of YA fantasy about Native American princesses and his penchant for openly flirting with tough guys. He would fit right at home with the badasses over on the best action show ever, Banshee. If there’s one person who could match wits with Job, and perhaps even romance everyone’s favorite hacker, it’s Tim.

“Turns out that Native American princess was a Littlestone.”

Sam Axe to Arrow
Burn Notice has evolved into one of my comfort shows. If I want to put something on and not concentrate too much, I go for my favorite Miami spy’s Robin Hood adventures. Sam was the early breakout character, mostly due to being played by national treasure and noted chin Bruce Campbell. His brand of easy-going but cool heroism and his legitimate badassery (people forget to their peril that Sam was a Navy SEAL), would make him a good fit over in Star(ling) City. He might have to wear a coat, though.

“You know vigilantes… buncha bitchy little girls.”

Joan Harris to The Americans
Christina Hendricks is awesome. This really isn’t a controversial statement. I’m not just talking about her appearance, but yes, she is ridiculously beautiful and the reincarnation of some beauty goddess from the ‘60s. Mad Men is wrapping up in the ‘70s, but who’s to say Joan couldn’t find work at, say, the CIA? She could have secrets that the KGB is desperate to romance out of her, and she has a steely determination that hints it might not be quite so easy. Put her on The Americans, maybe the best spy show ever, and watch her fit right in. Plus, Christina Hendricks in amazing New Wave fashions.

You’re welcome.

Parker to Orange is the New Black
Not all of these are really built to last. Parker, the thief on the extremely fun caper show Leverage, would last maybe a day or two in prison. Not that she’d get shanked — Parker would be the one doing the shanking — but that the idea that anything could hold her near supernatural abilities in check is patently ridiculous. Still, it would be fun to watch her socially stunted super-criminal interact with the rest of the gangs on America’s favorite prison show. Actress Beth Reisgraf is legitimately funny, and getting a chance to show that off would be welcome. She breezes into the prison, then just vanishes one day and everyone wonders if that weird elf lady was real or not.

“Maybe I should be on Arrow…”

Eric and Pam to Supernatural
True Blood was never a good show. Sorry if I burst any bubbles there. It was, on many occasions, a fun show. As it marched joylessly through several unwatchable seasons, the amount of characters that were worth spending time with dwindled to two: Eric and Pam. (And Jessica, but my motives there are not pure.) Even in the dreadful final season, which, if not for Dexter, would stand as the worst final season of all time, Eric and Pam were still reliably entertaining. They need a showcase for the two of them and the Winchester brothers need some villains who are not demons, not angels, and who can put up a good fight and deliver a good one liner. One possible downside: the homoeroticism between Alexander Skarsgard and Jensen Ackles might explode the internet.

I kind of already miss them.

Walter Bishop to Orphan Black
I’m late to the party with this one, but in my viewing of Fringe, I have predictably fallen for lovable mad scientist and gourmand Walter Bishop. What the man needs is another scientific conspiracy to suddenly recall that he’s up to his eyeballs in, and that’s over on the wonderful Orphan Black. No one with any sense can hear that and not instantly want to see every incarnation of Tatiana Maslany try to make sense of Walter as he rambles, makes saltwater taffy, and solves mysteries.

“Can’t tell if serious… or from alternate dimension.”

Dexter Morgan to Hannibal
No one wants more Dexter Morgan, except maybe Showtime, because they are ruled by the devil. Still, Dexter living through his show was one of the great crimes of narratives. Hannibal Lecter hunts serial killers too, but he eats him. How great would it be to see Dexter on Hannibal’s table?

Surprise, lumberfuckers.

It won’t happen. But it’s nice to think about, right? Especially that last one.

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