My Spy Kids Marathon, Continued

Spy Kids 3(D): What If Willy Wonka Designed Video Games?
Okay, this is where things start to get a little… well… silly, let’s say. I’m… I’m just going to list some things that happen.

  • Carmen’s trapped in a video game so Juni has to team up with the nerdiest nerds ever to nerd in order to save her
Seriously, lookit these nerds.

Seriously, lookit these nerds.

  • Sly Stallone designed the video game and is trying to trap kids in it but is also trapped in the video game but is also schizophrenic and somehow not evil in the end
  • President George Clooney does his best Sly Stallone impression (it’s not bad at all)
  • Elijah Wood appears, only to die instantly
  • Ricardo Montalbán (henceforth “Grandpa Khan”) gets a virtual robot suit and chases butterflies on the Moon

This flick mostly exists to showcase a parade of obnoxious “3D” effects (Max and I tried to make a drinking game out of every in-your-face moment, but we quickly recognized this to be a poor life choice). However, all the weird, inexplicable plot points and random virtual obstacles are ultimately worth it for the inordinately satisfying showdown at the end of the movie.

Here’s the setup: Some robots start attacking the city and the Spy Kids™ decide they need some extra firepower to take ’em down. Enter… Mr. and Mrs. Antonio Banderas! Alan Cumming and his sidekick, Tony Shaloub! Steve Buscemi riding a flying pig! Cheech Marin! The Giggle siblings! Uncle Machete! Bill Paxton! Literally everybody shows up to kick some ass. And it may have been the delirium of sitting through approximately four-and-a-half hours of technicolor madness, but Max and I cheered aloud when these familiar faces showed up again. It felt like Rodriguez rewarding us for sticking with the franchise as long as we did (though that may have been a desperate leap of logic on our part).

If the last few minutes of #3 is Robert Rodriguez graciously shaking our hands for joining him for a fun evening, #4 is Rodriguez bludgeoning us with a tire iron for overstaying our welcome at his dinner party.

Spy Kids 4: What If We Made A Huge Mistake In Watching These?
spy kids 4
Coming off the hype of the showdown at the end of 3, Max and I braced ourselves for some disappointment. And man, this last film sure did not disappoint in the disappointment department.

There were virtually none of the characters we’d grown to (kind of) care about- just a couple of bratty kids and their talking robot dog (voiced by an astonishingly unfunny Ricky Gervais). Joel McHale plays the kids’ dad and, to his credit, he acts his heart out for this role. But his dad-ly earnestness cannot save this collection of poop and fart jokes Rodriguez tries to pass off as a movie.

Oh yeah- and it turns out the bad guy (surprise, surprise) ISN’T a bad guy at all and is just trying to manipulate time to see his dad again (I think). And we get another weirdly deep moment with our villain, Jeremy Piven (a la Steve Buscemi in Spy Kids 2):”Time is the enemy of youth,” he intones. “I’m getting mine back.” Okay, dude.

Spy Kids 4D: All the Time in the World ultimately lives up to its name, in that it seems to last for the duration of eternity.


Takeaways from this crazy-ass franchise:

  • Robert Rodriguez is actually really creative. Barring the outright badness of #4, I think most of my exhaustion after finishing the series could be likened to listening to a hyperactive 10-year-old tell a story for about 5 hours. After that much wild, zany inventiveness, I need a reality break.
  • Since Max and I both hail from Texas, we got a kick out of spying (haha) familiar filming locations throughout the series (Austin, Arlington, San Antonio). It’s always fun to say you’ve been to a place that’s shown up on a multiplex screen.
  • Maybe this is me reading too much into the series, but I spied (okay, I’ll stop) a couple of significant instances where Rodriguez works characters with disabilities into his plots. And the cool thing is that these moments are actually executed pretty skillfully. Grandpa Khan is reluctant to leave the virtual world where he can run and jump because he doesn’t want his grandson to think him any less a hero when he’s wheelchair-bound. The little brother in the last film is hard of hearing and wears hearing aids, but he’s no less capable than his older sister, who has no such disability herself. Good for you, Rodriguez.

And there you have it. I’m glad to have been your cinematic sherpa on a journey you had no intention of embarking upon yourself. I’ll keep you posted on any other ridiculous ventures I decide to tackle.



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I Watched All Four Spy Kids Movies in a Single Sitting So You Don’t Have To

Spy_kidsYou, gentle reader, may be asking yourself “Why?” And rightly so. The short answer is “Because.” The long answer goes something like this:

The idea to embark on this madcap venture was not mine, but my friend Max’s. One night at 4 a.m., he asked himself, “Just how good is the Spy Kids franchise?” He seemed to recall it being Very Good, but wanted to confirm this. That’s were I came in. With very little preamble from Herr Maxwell, I received the following gif via text:

Obviously, I couldn’t say no to that. A few days later, we convened at his place, armed ourselves with cold bottles of Shiner, and set out to conquer this franchise in a single go  while trying not to dwell on the fact that the Rotten Tomatoes scores for these films steadily decline with each installment.


Spy Kids: What If Pee-Wee Herman Was Evil?
Right out of the gate, we could see that this movie actually has a lot going for it. Antonio Banderas is in most of it and exudes illegal levels of charm. Alan Cumming plays the villain Floop with foppish glee and hosts an evil version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with his sidekick, Tony Shalhoub. Danny Trejo makes his first appearance as Machete, a role that would come to define his career.

Antonio, rockin’ the ugly sweater and specs.

[Sidebar/confession time. This first film is the only one I’d seen before this marathon, and, when I saw it in theaters at the tender age of ten, it scared the bejesus out of me. I remember being horrified to discover that the strange creatures that populate Floop’s TV show were actually captured spies, twisted into gibbering monstrosities and forced to perform for the entertainment of the kids watching the show at home. While this concept is no less disturbing to me now, I was able to get through it all just fine upon realizing that Alan Cumming is about as threatening as a bowl of low-fat yogurt.]


Alright, Mirror Universe Pee-Wee, we get it. You’re bad. You can stop posing.

The Cortez family (consisting of kids Carmen and Juni and Mr. and Mrs. Antonio Banderas) ultimately save the mutated spies and face down an army of robot kids with the help of Uncle Machete. And Floop turns out to be a good guy because his heart wasn’t really in the whole forceful mutation thing. Who knew.

Spy Kids 2: What If Steve Buscemi Was God?
So this movie opens with Bill Paxton dressed as a cowboy hanging out at Six Flags. If there is a reason for this, I don’t remember it. Max and I were too busy shouting “IS THAT BILL PAXTON? WHY IS HE A COWBOY? WHY IS HE AT SIX FLAGS?”

He looks just as confused as I feel.

He looks just as confused as I feel.

This movie isn’t as good as the first one because it has less Antonio, but we do get Ricardo Montalbán as the wheelchair-bound father-in-law, so there’s that. The kids go to an island for some secret mission or something and run into reclusive scientist Steve Buscemi. Science Steve invented a bunch of tiny animals to put in a tiny zoo (okay) but then decided he wanted them bigger so he made a growth potion that got a little crazy and now his island is overrun with giant beasties. Honestly, this entire movie is worth watching for this scene alone, when Steve pontificates about religion as Carmen and Juni look on in uncomfortable silence.


Seriously, nothing can top that weirdly existential moment. There’s also a Jason and the Argonauts-style skeleton fight and a couple of rival spy kids notable for their bratty behavior and their incredible names (Gertie and Gary Giggles).

Paucity of Antonio aside, this movie is okay. So far, Max and I are doing alright.


To be continued in my next post… (Spoilers: the movies get much, much worse.)



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So I got to see Neil Gaiman.

Late Sunday afternoon, fellow writer and excellent good friend Steven Thorn called me up and asked me one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked:

“Hey, do you wanna go see Neil Gaiman tomorrow? I’ve got an extra ticket.”

Because Steven is the type of person who inspires the best in people, I fought to keep expletives out of my affirmative reply (and miraculously succeeded).


The ticket to the night’s event.

Monday arrived with its usual haste and brought a steady, day-long drizzle. A gray afternoon shifted to a gray evening and soon, we found ourselves scarfing down McDonald’s burgers and barreling down a rainy highway to a university I didn’t know existed before this day (University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, bless you for making admission to this event free of charge). The venue was small (intimate was the adjective I offered), but we didn’t mind, as every seat would give us a good view of The Author.

When @neilhimself took the stage, we applauded (part of my applause was for myself, as I correctly guessed that he’d be wearing all black). He kicked off the evening with a few thoughts on writing, with the aim of de-mythologizing the writing process. Writer’s block, he asserted, is a convenient thing writers use to shift their ability to solve their own problems elsewhere. “Gardeners don’t get gardener’s block,” he pointed out.

He then read a few of his short stories—wonderful tales of frustrated genies and igloos made of books. This night helped me remember that there’s something special about hearing an author read his or her own work aloud (the accent was certainly a plus as well).

Then, he graciously turned to the stack of questions that had been collected from the audience before he’d begun his talk. The one that elicited the best advice of the night was something along the lines of “What pitfalls/missteps have you experienced in your career that aspiring writers ought to avoid?” He responded with a story about a book he wrote on commission at the age of 23. The book wasn’t about anything he was particularly interested in, but the pay was good, so he wrote it anyway. When it got published, it was a success, and a good amount of royalties was coming his way. But then, the publishing abruptly company folded, leaving him with nothing at all.

His advice (paraphrased): “Don’t write for the money, because the money isn’t always guaranteed. Write something interesting and important to you. Then, even if you don’t get the money, you still have the interesting thing.”

Well said, sir. And thanks for a wonderful Monday evening.



  • Someone asked Neil what his favorite color is, and he responded with “probably green.”
  • Mr. Gaiman does delightful impersonations of Steven Moffat and Terry Pratchett.
  • “Writing is a craft that consists of sitting down, staring at a typewriter, a blank screen, a piece of paper, and looking grumpy.”
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Whiplash: Raw, powerful, thought-provoking

I got into my car after an afternoon showing of Whiplash and looked down at my hands. During the movie’s runtime, I had bitten down a few of my fingernails. My right thumb was bleeding. I also realized that my hands were trembling a little. I took a deep, shuddering breath and laughed at myself. I felt like I was having a band nerd’s equivalent of a Vietnam flashback. Maybe Whiplash ought to come with a trigger warning for former band students.

The film follows the progress of Andrew (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old drummer starting his first semester at one of the finest music schools in the country. He squeaks into the top band and comes under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), whose teaching philosophy can be boiled down to this line: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’”

As a member of the top band, Andrew experiences firsthand the kind of abuse and pressure his fellow musicians endure in order to please their acerbic director. Fletcher throws chairs, curses out his students, and drives them to play until blood and sweat coats their instruments. Andrew pushes himself and pushes himself, filling every moment of his spare time with more practice. Eventually, he reaches a breaking point and must decide whether or not to follow the path Fletcher has laid out for him.

The movie’s emotion is incredibly vivid and captivating. What made it all the more enthralling for me was that I was seeing very familiar situations up on the big screen. Whiplash is brimming with little moments that I’m sure many band members have experienced themselves. I remember the anxiety that gripped me when the director would go down the line, player by player, to find out who was out of tune. I remember the frustration when the director brought rehearsal to a halt because a group of players was having difficulties with a particular passage. I remember the resentment I felt for those players as the director profusely apologized for wasting the rest of the band’s time. I remember fighting back tears of humiliation after being individually called out in front of my peers. Whiplash pushes these situations beyond what most students actually experience, but the visceral emotion in these scenes is true to life.

Whipash’s director Damien Chazelle has said that a band director he had at Harvard inspired Fletcher’s character. This explains Fletcher’s depth and the veracity of the complex relationship between band students and their instructor. The director subjects his students to grueling hours of practice but leads them to achieve incredible musical feats. The students at times fear and resent the source of their misery, but at the same time, they are driven to prove themselves to the director and eagerly seek out his praise. Fletcher is verbally and even physically abusive to his students but he also gets results—his band is among the best in the nation. Therein lies the question that the film raises: how far is too far? Do the ends justify the means? Are tortuous struggles simply the price we must pay to achieve true greatness?

On top of all that emotional and philosophical complexity, Whiplash is an extremely well-made movie. It’s shot to maximize the impact of the music—perfectly timed pans and cuts underscore the tension behind every musical entrance. And the performances are flawless. Teller carries the film’s passion with every drumbeat and Simmons embodies a fascinating character that, in less capable hands, would come off as an irredeemable monster.

It may be hard to believe that a character-driven flick about a studio band keeps audience members on the edge of their seats, but go see Whiplash and you’ll understand.


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Spooky Stories: Two Sentences, One Minute

Happy Halloween, everybody!

In the spirit of the holiday, I wanted to share some spooky stories— more specifically, a collection of two-sentence scary stories compiled from reddit. As a writer, I’m fascinated by what these stories are able to evoke in a mere two sentences. They set up a scene or scenario and inspire chills and, in some cases, genuine fright.

The most unsettling of these mini-stories was picked up by a film director named Ignacio F. Rodo. Rodo adapted it into a minute-long film and submitted it to Filminute, an international festival that challenges directors to make—you guessed it—minute-long films. This film of Rodo’s ended up winning the 2014 jury award for best minute-long film. It’s called “Tuck Me In,” and while it probably won’t scar you for life or anything, it’s, as the AV Club put it, “unnerving as all hell.”

Sweet dreams, friends!



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Second-Hand Horror: Memories of The Twilight Zone

It’s that time of year again. The one time of year I willingly seek out things that creep me out. I’ve always been kind of a wimp when it comes to scary movies, so I actually haven’t seen a ton of ‘em. I feel like I’ve seen a good handful of them, though.

When I was a kid, my dad would tell me stories—most of them weren’t original stories, but rather, re-tellings of well-known sci-fi, fantasy, and horror short stories, books, and movies. He’d paint pictures of Middle Earth like he’d been there himself, or re-live an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Ray Bradbury Theater with stunning clarity. And between his animated accounts and my vivid imagination, I got what felt like first-hand experience with fantasy and horror through these secondhand stories.

One of these stories still sticks with me to this day. It’s an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” For those unfamiliar with this episode, it concerns the passenger of an airplane (played by William Shatner in the 1963 version and John Lithgow in the 1983 version) who looks out the window and sees a creature on the wing. He repeatedly tries to alert others to its presence, but it always seems to vanish before anyone else can spot it.

Creepiness ensues.

Creepiness ensues.

The two versions play out slightly differently, but the version my dad would relay to me was the one from 1983. My dad would imitate Lithgow’s wild eyes, his panicked gasping, and finally, the grinning leer that the creature gives Lithgow before it flees, twisting away on the wind.

I’ve never actually seen the episode (until today; I decided it was time), but the image that I conjured in my head years ago was powerful enough that, to this day, I dislike sitting on the wing seat of a plane. And the funny thing is, while I fly pretty infrequently, it seems that more often than not, I’m seated right by the wing. And in the window seat, no less.

Check out the two versions below. And stay tuned for another Halloween post tomorrow!


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Word Power

So I attended an open mic for the first time in a long time. I’d forgotten how invigorating it is to be surrounded by folks who share a passion for words. A lot of awesome, important things were said tonight. The topics ranged far and wide, from silly to serious, from football to Ferguson. Just being in the presence of such raw feeling… it’s impossible to not feel alive and electrified.

The open mic started with what we call the Five Word Challenge. The host solicits five random words from the audience, and then we’re given fifteen-ish minutes to come up with a piece that incorporates those five words. The winner is determined by the very scientific Applause-O-Meter, and the recipient of the most applause wins an on-the-house drink from the coffee house that generously hosts the event (shout out to Second Wind Coffee House) and the knowledge that they won poetry forever.

Tonight, the words were as follows: veneer, celestial, cheesecake, wallaby, and moon bounce (never mind that that last one is two words). At past open mics, I’ve ground my brain-cogs over each word in turn, focusing on the words in the order they were spoken aloud.

Tonight, though, I decided to free-associate, and, miraculously, actually came up with something coherent. Here it is:

Too often, I have to remind myself
That I am a celestial being
Composed of light and stardust
That everything in the universe and me
Is me
All the same stuff

If you peel back the thin veneer
Of social anxieties and cheap makeup
You’ll find a person unperturbed by
The thought of her changing form

Her mind and body that will be
Sanded down by time
Her mind slowing from wallaby hops
To slow beetle crawls
Her edges softening
And sharpening again

I remind myself the thing about the stars again
And my moon bounce belly quivers
Because my guts
Are star guts
So, in the grand scheme of it all
In this vast, unfolding universe
What’s one more slice of cheesecake?

I ended up winning this here Five Word Challenge and got myself my favorite drink at Second Wind. The hot version is called a Dante’s Inferno (it has seven ingredients, one of which is cayenne pepper), but it was a warm night, so I got it chilled and blended (a Hell Frozen Over).


The victory drink.

Also, at every open mic, we have a featured poet recite some of their material. Tonight, the guest of honor was Candace Liger, whom I can only describe as a badass. She opened with the disclaimer that she isn’t much for love poems, and then proceeded to deliver one of the most heartfelt, luscious, moving love poems I’ve heard. She then moved to a rousing number about Ferguson and closed with a tearful piece about her father, who instilled in her a love of poetry.

After it was done, I hugged her and told her I wished I could spit words like she could. I’m comfortable with crafting sentences and presenting them to a reader I can’t see, but when I step behind a mic, my voice wavers and my hands visibly shake. She shook her head and said that years ago, she opened her cabinet and drank the last expired cans of Give-A-Fuck she found there and that’s how she got to where she is today.

Words to live by.


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