Let Us Give Star-Spangled Thanks

Between Donald Trump and Burger King’s black-bunned Whopper, it can be kind of hard to find things to be thankful for on this most American of holidays.


Seriously, what did we do to deserve this? Actually, don’t answer that.

Thankfully, when I find myself in times of trouble, Captain Rogers calls to me, speaking words of wisdom: “I’m with you ‘til the end of the line.”

The trailer for Captain America: Civil War just dropped, and it’s heavy on the gut-punches, both literal and figurative. I knew this movie was going to leave me a blubbering mess from the first scene in the trailer, when Steve finally finds his best friend Bucky—and Bucky remembers him.

Then we see Tony Stark and Steve falling on very different sides of a government mandate to comply with the Superhero Registration Act. We also get a pretty powerful exchange between Cap and Stark/Iron Man:

Sorry, Tony. You know I wouldn’t do this if I had any another choice. But he’s my friend.

So was I.


[Sidebar: This scene would have a lot more umph if Joss Whedon had, y’know, actually built up a friendship between these two instead of just having them exchange barbs and posture at each other over the course of two movies, but I digress]

Captain America is my favorite Marvel superhero (and perhaps my favorite superhero, period) because he represents the best of America. He’s selfless, compassionate, and does the right thing not because it’s easy or politically advantageous, but because it’s the right thing. He stands by the defenseless and stands against purveyors of hate, fear, and greed. I actually think we’d be in less of a mess as a country if more people and politicians asked themselves What would Steve Rogers do? before they made a decision.

So, while Civil War won’t be out until May of next year, we can take heart knowing that, in the Marvel cinematic and comic universe at least, there exists an America where a good-hearted kid from Brooklyn defends the values we should all strive to uphold.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. And God bless (Captain) America.


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Lemme gush for a minute about the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack

I have inordinately strong feelings about The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. It’s the first movie soundtrack I was ever exposed to (the movie came out when I was only a few years old, so I heard the score before I ever saw the movie). It’s also the soundtrack that began my love of and appreciation for movie scores.

It began in late October of 1993, when my dad saw the movie with his sister and brother-in-law when it first hit theaters. He was immediately taken with the film, not only for its arresting visuals and charming story, but also for its dynamic, vibrant score. He sat through the end credits, listening to the reprises of the highly memorable motifs sprinkled throughout the film. He went hunting for a copy of the soundtrack as soon as he left the theater, but found out that it wouldn’t be released for a couple more months. So he asked for it for Christmas, and thus, the beloved cassette tape entered into our lives.


My dad was a stay-at-home dad, and neither of my parents were overly enamored with the idea of daycares. As a result, my brother and I spent a good amount of time in the car, accompanying my dad on whatever errands needed to be done. The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack was on a near-constant loop during our drives, and it wasn’t long before we knew every word of every song. More impressively, I eventually learned every note of every song. Even now, I can anticipate the entrance of every instrument, every key change, every crescendo.

In sixth grade, I joined my middle school’s band (I picked the sax, cool kid that I was). Being in band throughout middle school (and high school as well) helped me appreciate the nuances of my favorite soundtrack even more. I now could proudly confirm that that was an oboe leading that melody, or pick out the bassoon lurking in the background.

And the more I learned about music, the more astounded I became by Elfman’s score. Most other soundtracks I knew and loved were characterized by a single instrument or instrument group (horns, strings, percussion, etc.). This was not the case with TNBC. Listen to this soundtrack, and you’ll hear damn near every instrument shine.

Check out Jack’s Lament. Sweeping strings lead the melody at 1:13. There’s a lovely flute entrance at 1:22, and a jaunty sax solo at 1:41.

Or Dr. Finklestein/In the Forest. I love the fat, plodding bassoon and tuba at 0:28 and the mournful-sounding oboe at 0:48.

And finally, Christmas Eve Montage, my favorite orchestral track. Right out of the gate, it begins with explosive strings. Then it turns to trumpets and French horns at 0:06 and then a harp and an xylophone at 0:39.

It’s a rich, enduring soundtrack that I’ve grown to love more and more as the years go by. It sparked a lifelong love of film scores, and I’m so grateful that it exists. It has and always will hold a special place in my heart.

Happy Halloween, everybody!


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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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