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Paul Feig's Other Space

by Jav Rivera

One of the main reasons this site exists is to showcase art that most people have never seen/heard. And in doing so, we hope that others will find something wonderful that may have never been discovered otherwise. Every once in a while I'll get asked how I find these hidden treasures. The truth is that there are a variety of ways. Sometimes it's a friend's recommendation. Sometimes it's by accident. And sometimes it's completely intentional.

"Other Space" was mostly intentional. I've been a fan of Paul Feig ever since I watched "Freaks and Geeks" way back when. Although Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) got most of the credit for the show, it was Feig who originally created it, and his fingerprints are definitely what make the series work. Being a huge "Freaks and Geeks" fan, I tried to keep tabs on what Feig was working on. His more famous film projects include Ghostbusters (2016), Spy (2015), The Heat (2013), and Bridesmaids (2011).

L-R: Trace Beaulieu, Joel Hodgson, Milana Vayntrub, Eugene Cordero, Paul Feig, Karan Soni, Bess Rous, Neil Casey, and Conor Leslie
Feig has also directed episodes of popular television series such as "The Office," "Arrested Development," "Nurse Jackie," "Parks and Recreation," "Weeds," and "30 Rock," some of which he also worked on as executive producer. But for some reason, "Other Space" came in under the radar. Perhaps it's because of the whole Yahoo Screen debacle (more on that later), but this show deserves some recognition. And like most of Feig's projects, it's not just because of his involvement; his casting is (once again) spot-on.

"Past the moon. Past Mars. Let us sail to the stars!"

Released in April 2015, "Other Space" is set in...well...space, in the year 2105. But due to an encounter with a strange portal, the crew is transported to another universe -- or to an Other Space. It's been described as "The Office" in space, or even "The Office" meets "Lost in Space." It's also been compared to the much-loved British series "Red Dwarf."

The crew, within the UMP Cruiser, is a mixed bag of nuts. And though some of their characteristics can be traced back to stereotypical sci-fi shows, the cast of "Other Space" bring their own charm and talent. I honestly couldn't picture anyone else except these actors as their characters, especially given how easy these actors made it to love these oddballs.

L-R: Gypsy, Crow, Joel, and Tom Servo
And I'm elated that they're mostly unknown actors. I've written about the lack of attention to lesser-known actors before, specifically in my article about the series "Detectorists," and "Other Space" is another prime example of untapped talent finally being explored. In fact, the most famous of the bunch are Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu, both of whom achieved fame for their series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (MST3K). And even that isn't all that famous outside of the cult fans (myself included). I'll even admit that my original reason for wanting to watch "Other Space" was because of Hodgson and Beaulieu. When I discovered Feig's involvement I thought, "Yup. This has a lot of potential to be great comedy."

Hodgson, who created "MST3K," and Beaulieu, who voiced (as well as worked as puppeteer for) the character of Crow T. Robot, bring some comedy weight to the show. Both are in perfect form as their characters Zalian (played by Hodgson) the crew's engineer, and A.R.T. (played by Beaulieu), Zalian's robotic sidekick. What's surprising is that it's hard to tell if the rest of the cast is keeping up with Hodgson and Beaulieu or if it's the other way around. And we probably can thank Allison Jones for that.

Jones has become the go-to casting director for some of the best comedic projects, including "Family Ties," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Freaks and Geeks," "Parks and Recreation," and "Curb Your Enthusiam." Some of her film credits include SuperBad, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Scott Pilgrim vs. the WorldStep Brothers, and many, many more. To date, Jones has nearly 100 credits to her name, many of which have incredibly strong ensembles. Having worked with Feig on many of his previous projects, it comes to no surprise that the cast of "Other Space" is as tight as they can get. As I mentioned before, I can't picture anyone else in these characters' shoes. Jones was particularly important because Feig is known for creating shows that are character-based, and I'd say that most of "Other Space's" success as a series is because of this. The cast includes:
  • Trace Beaulieu as A.R.T. 
  • Neil Casey as Kent
  • Eugene Cordero as Michael
  • Joel Hodgson as Zalian 
  • Conor Leslie as Natasha
  • Bess Rous as Karen Lipinski
  • Karan Soni as Captain Stewart Lipinski 
  • Milana Vayntrub as Tina

If their names don't look familiar, their faces might. All of these young actors have been working for years, bringing their talent to TV and film in mostly smaller roles. But this will hopefully change in the near future because they each have unique comedic skills that more shows and movies could (and should) all be taking advantage of.

The Captain (played by Karan Soni), for example, might look familiar if you've seen Ryan Reynold's 2016 Deadpool film. Soni played the cab driver named Dopinder. I was so happy to see Soni in the film because, by that point, I had already seen him in "Other Space." All his scenes in Deadpool got some of the biggest laughs and I'm sure director Tim Miller and actor Reynolds were well aware. I wouldn't be surprised if Dopinder's character had been expanded for the film just because of Soni. On a side note, there's a rumor that Dopinder will be brought back for the Deadpool sequel, and the fans couldn't be happier. But Soni isn't the only one.

Milana Vayntrub in an AT&T commercial
Tina (played by Milana Vayntrub) might look familiar too. She's Lily, the really cute and friendly AT&T girl. Despite having over 40 projects under her belt (some of which I've seen), I've never noticed Vayntrub. And it's probably because she wasn't given anything with as much meat as she deserves. Now that I've seen her true talent being utilized on "Other Space" I'm a fan, and I'm looking forward to seeing her in future performances.

Eugene Cordero as Michael
Eugene Cordero (who plays Michael) has appeared in over 75 projects since 1999, including "Arrested Development," "House of Lies," "Parks and Recreation," and "The Good Place." Most of these parts are extremely small, which is probably why you can't quite remember if you've seen him or not. But of the entire "Other Space" cast, I'd keep a closer eye on Cordero because one day someone's going to realize his talent and make him huge. It's good to see that "Other Space" has created a bigger role for him. And though there's a running joke in the series that his character Michael is terribly forgettable, Cordero still makes him endearing. Whether Michael is getting yelled at or if he suddenly turns vengeful, Cordero transforms into whatever personality he needs at the moment -- often times flipping back and forth between them within seconds.

The character Kent (played straight-faced by Neil Casey) comes across as a combination of Spock and Data (both, of course, from the Star Trek universe). Kent shares the emotionless of a Vulcan and the intelligence of an android. Casey's take, however, plays with inappropriateness. He displays a lack of sensitivity by providing valid yet ill-timed information. Throughout the season Kent transforms into a (slightly) more human version but Casey doesn't lose all of his character's awkwardness. One of my favorite Kent moments involves him waking up and regurgitating a mucus-like substance. I won't say more because it's more of a visual and sound-based gag, but it was completely unexpected, especially since his character is typically the most composed of the crew.

Of course I can't leave out Conor Leslie and Bess Rous, who play Natasha and Karen Lipinski, respectively. Natasha is the ship's computer, but don't let the good looks fool you. She's just as out of place as the rest of the crew. There's an interesting development with her and another character throughout the season, but it's more than that. Her attempts to interact with each of the crew members are usually awkward, and, of course, fun to watch.

Karen, the crew's first officer, just happens to be the captain's older sister. As it turns out, UMP put her there simply because they're all terrified of her. That should tell you a lot about Karen. Every sci-fi crew has to have one of those strict, by-the-book characters. But Rous takes that stereotype into new territory. Instead of playing Karen as the average "B" word, Rous plays her more of an insecure and jealous sibling. Fortunately, the writers do a great job avoiding stereotypical sitcom storylines and characters. There is eventually a moment in each of the episodes when you can tell that the writers are just having fun or playing around with sci-fi standards and clichés.

Captain Lipinski wearing UMP-issued pajamas
Staff writer Shelby Fero leads the series' writing crew of Matteo Borghese, Owen Ellickson, Ben Smith, Rob Turbovsky, Jacob Young, and of course Paul Feig, who wrote the pilot. It's tough to find a favorite episode but I'd have to go with the sixth entry, entitled "Trouble's Brewing." The scenes with Tina and Michael are so full of comedy gold that I didn't want it to end. It's once again proof that the writers on the show wanted to create something unique by playing off of stereotypes. They may use old sitcom tricks as a platform, but where they jump to is something no one can predict.

So with this writing crew, this cast, and a creator like Feig, why aren't more people aware of "Other Space?" I think the biggest reason is due to the fact that Yahoo's streaming app (Yahoo Screen) didn't take off. Unfortunately, by the time "Other Space" was released, Yahoo Screen was already dying. Not long after its release, the app was removed from the digital world, and all of Yahoo's shows were then "archived" on their site somewhere (note: At the bottom of this article, I provided a link to "Other Space" in Yahoo's archival location). What's worse is that it leaves Feig's labor of love in the vast vacuum of space. Now that Yahoo won't be creating original content, "Other Space" needs a new home.

My gut reaction is to hate Yahoo, which isn't hard since their email service continually gets worse. But interviews with Feig have me second-guessing. Apparently Yahoo gave Feig all the creative space he needed while producing the show. Furthermore, Yahoo went above and beyond when the production went over budget (due to the special effects). I still don't like Yahoo Mail but I've got to give it up for Yahoo's support for Feig and the show.

UMP Crusier
Feig is currently looking for someone to broadcast the show, as well as continue the series. Fortunately for Feig, the entire cast is eager to get back out into space. Feig has been proactively interviewing around cyberspace to explain his dilemma. The biggest struggle has been a lack of viewers. Those of us who couldn't wait for the show's release back in 2015 became instant fans. Upon hearing the news that he wants to get a season 2 made, fans around the world are starting to spread the word. Heck, I even bypassed a different article for this month (about Chris Isaak) just to help Feig get the word out sooner! The show needs a bigger audience and the best way to do that is to share this show with your friends and family. That's what I'm trying to do -- just like other recent articles and interviews about "Other Space" are doing. And you can help too!

If you like the show, use your social networking abilities. Make sure to use #ShareOtherSpace to get others on board. You may want to include Paul Feig's Twitter handle (@paulfeig) to let him know we're out there. Another way to help is to get onto Rotten Tomatoes (link below) and add a rating and maybe even a review.

There's no doubt that "Other Space" deserves more attention. When I re-watched the series to help write this article, it became clear to me that I didn't just like it back in 2015, I adored it! It's a shame that two years have gone by since it was released, and not many people in my social circle have even heard of it. But the show is wonderful, and it's even better the second time around. I know that I'll be watching it again. And again. And again.

For more information, visit their IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt4561950

To watch the entire first season for free, visit: www.yahoo.com/tv/tagged/other-space. Most Smart TVs also have a Yahoo app which can play the series.

Don't forget to help the show's rating on Rotten Tomatoes by adding your rating here: www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/other_space/s01

TRIVIA: "Other Space" was originally created by Paul Feig around 2005 for NBC. This was one of Feig's only older ideas that he felt the need to bring back from the dead. Feig also insisted on having all 8 episodes released at the same time to take advantage of the binging trend.


The Unparalleled Lori Petty

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Has there ever been a time that you thought about a TV star, singer, or actor who you haven’t seen much of recently and thought,”I wonder what she/he has been up to?” I’d heard the hype about the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," so I decided to give it a try, and quickly found myself binge-watching it on a regular basis. During season two, a new character--but a familiar face--appeared, and I was excited to see that it was Lori Petty, who I’d adored from her acting in movies in the ‘90s. The roles that I remember her from most were the crime/action/surfer flick Point Break, the baseball comedy/drama A League of Their Own, the Pauly Shore comedy In the Army Now, and the film adaptation of the comic Tank Girl. Seeing Petty back onscreen was so much fun; like an unexpected visit from an old friend who you've been thinking about, but haven't seen in ages.

Lori Petty as Kit Keller in A League of Their Own
In all fairness, Petty didn’t exactly fade into the ether after the ‘90s; she was in quite a few TV series from then until now, including "Superman," "Star Trek: Voyager," "NYPD Blue," and "House," as well as several movie roles. Unfortunately, many of these were off of my radar, so I just nostalgically thought of her former roles and hoped that she’d be back around.

As I mentioned before, I'd seen her in some roles during the '90s, but it was the 1995 film Tank Girl, based on the comic book series created by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, that made me really fall in love with Petty’s acting. Checking out the comics is something I've always planned to do, but sadly, haven't gotten to yet, so I can’t speak to how faithful to them the movie was. But, I adored the frenetic energy Petty brought to the character of Tank Girl. The storyline is set in a somewhat futuristic, drought-affected Australia, with Tank Girl, her sidekick, Jet Girl (played by Naomi Watts), and hybrid soldiers called The Rippers fighting against an oppressive mega-corporation called Water & Power. Petty’s portrayal of Tank Girl is wild, crazy, and unapologetic--exactly how I imagine a person in Tank Girl’s situation would be. As a very young woman back then, I admired Tank Girl and Jet Girl’s “take no s***” approach, how they refused to be taken advantage of, and how they fought for what was fair and right. Add to that the outrageous costumes, the set designs, and a soundtrack that featured music by quite a few of the decade's well-knowns (including Bjork, Bush, Veruca Salt, L7, Hole, and Ice-T, who had a part in the film), and the entire movie was a non-stop romp of fun. Though it didn’t have a lot of financial success when it came out, it has a cult following to this day.

 Lori Petty as Lolly Whitehill in "Orange is the New Black"
But back to the excitement I felt when I saw Petty onscreen as Lolly in "Orange is the New Black": after seeing her handle both serious and comedic roles so well in the past, I was eager to watch her shine as she played this character too, and I wasn’t disappointed. Lolly is an inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary, where most of the show is set, and was also an inmate at a facility in Chicago. Though I don’t remember the show specifically stating what Lolly’s diagnosis is, it’s clear that she deals with mental illness. She believes that government agencies are doing surveillance on her, and shares conspiracy theories with anyone who will listen (and even those who won't sometimes). I don’t want to provide spoilers, but there are some poignant flashback scenes where the compassionate side of Lolly is on full display, as she cares for people in her neighborhood, especially those who are disadvantaged. Petty adds depth and layers to what could easily become a very cliche, stereotypical character. There are moments of humor, but it’s also tempered by the way Petty shows Lolly as a complex person struggling with mental illness who deals with loneliness and feeling isolated. Petty does this so well that, watching the show, there were times that I got emotional during particular scenes involving Lolly. The compassion I couldn't help but feel for her got me so caught up in the moment that it was easy to set aside that it was just Petty acting out a character.

Not only as Lolly, but in all the roles she’s played, Petty has a wonderful physicality and timing to her acting. In a close-up shot, viewers don’t even need to see the rest of her body to pick up what’s being conveyed; her eyes and facial expressions can say it all, and then some. Even then, don’t discount the scenes where the whole person is in view; with gestures, the way she walks or runs, etc., Petty adds personality to her characters that rounds them out into so much more than just two-dimensional.

I’ve seen that Petty has said she feels that the character of Lolly will be back for a new season(s) of "Orange is the New Black", and IMDb lists her in upcoming roles in the films Fear, Love, and Agoraphobia, a story about a female Marine and an agoraphobic man, and Dead Awake, a horror/thriller movie that’s in post-production. I'll definitely be on the lookout for new projects from her now, and can't wait to see what else she might be working on.

I wasn't able to find an official website for Lori Petty, but you can follow her on Twitter at @LoriPetty.

So, your turn, readers: What entertainers have you had that "I wonder whatever happened to them?" feeling about? We'd love to hear from you in the comments.


No Country For Old Men

by Dave Gourdoux

No Country For Old Men is a 2007 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It was adapted by the Coen brothers from a highly regarded novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. I haven't read the book yet (it's high on my list), so I can't speak to how faithful to the novel the film is or isn't, but I can tell you what high regard I hold it in: I think it's the best movie the brothers have made so far (even better than Fargo and The Big Lebowski) and if I had to pick the best film of the 21st century so far, it'd be a toss-up between No Country For Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (also released in 2007).

What's so great about it? Well, to start with, there's the amazing cast. The setting, southwest Texas in 1980, is dramatic and beautifully filmed. The writing and the direction are top notch, and the suspense is intense and unrelenting. The three main characters all have depth and are all memorable. Add to that an enigmatic ending that many found anti-climactic (and which I loved) and you've got a recipe for a pretty tasty movie.

The three main characters are:

Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), a Vietnam veteran who is out hunting antelope when he witnesses a drug deal gone bad. Things get very interesting very quickly.
Anton Chirugh (Javier Bardem in an Academy Award winning performance) is perhaps the most purely evil character in movie history. Enough said for now.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is an aging law enforcement officer about to retire who thought he'd seen it all.

All three actors are outstanding. For Jones, it's a role he's mastered and played plenty of times before, although here he adds a sense of sadness that is palpable and powerful.

Bardem's performance is incredible, already legendary. He looks, speaks and behaves like nothing we've ever seen before, and he's always one step ahead of everyone else.

While Bardem's Chirugh is the character everyone talks about, that everyone remembers, it's Brolin's performance that's the glue that holds the movie together. He's persistent, resourceful, and way over-matched, but he keeps on as long as he can. He's heroic and naive and stubborn and greedy and smart and stupid, often all at the same time.

The fourth major character would be the harsh landscape that serves as the setting. The scrub brush prairies and deserts are as harsh and brutal as the other characters, but they are also filled with an existential beauty. Just like the snow-covered terrain that was such an important part of Fargo, the Coens demonstrate an affinity for emptiness, for expansive horizons and big skies.

No Country For Old Men is one of the most atmospheric and suspenseful movies ever made. Like most Coen brothers films, there's a lot going on, and it all works, even that enigmatic ending. Above all, the Coen brothers are great storytellers.

Now about that ending ... (spoiler alert!)

If you haven't seen the film yet, you might want to stop here.  If you have, and you've wondered what's up with the ending, and what was it all about, well, let me take a whack at it.

In order to discuss the ending, we have to try and make sense of what we've seen so far. What does it all mean? The Coen brothers give us plenty of clues:

Clue number one: The title.

Understanding why a film is named what it is is always a good starting point. In this case, I think it gives us everything we need to know to appreciate the ending and understand what the entire film is about.

The title is taken from the opening line to a poem by William Butler Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium."

                           This is no country for old men. The young
                           in one another's arms, birds in the tree ...

The poem is about how as one ages, one needs to reject the physical and sensual world and accept entry into the spiritual, the eternal worlds. Remember this, because it explains everything, especially the ending.

Clue number two: The three main characters are only seen one at a time.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), Anton Chirugh (Javier Bardem), and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) are never seen in the same frame, never share the screen. It's not just that all three of them are never in the same frame; no combination of any two of the three are ever together. The closest is near the end, when Bell enters the Hotel Room crime scene, and Chirugh is on the other side of the door. The open door obscures Chirugh, so even when they are in the same room, only one is visible.

Why is this important? I think it's the Coens telling us that the three characters share common attributes and that they are metaphorically the same, all three being parts of a larger whole. They can't share the same space because when you see one, you see all three.

Clue number three: Rules.

Gene Jones as "Gas Station Proprietor"
Both Chirugh and Sheriff Bell are bound by and remain faithful to their own set of rules. We see this repeatedly with Chirugh and the coin toss with the store keeper, and later, the bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson). Chirugh is bound by the results of the coin toss--he doesn't kill the storekeeper when he guesses correctly, and he does kill Wells when he guesses incorrectly. He says, more than once, "If the rule you follow brought you to this, of what use was the rule?" Useful or not, Chirugh is bound by rules, and therefore lacks free will.

Sheriff Bell also obeys rules--not just the laws he is sworn to uphold, but also the mythic western code of the landscape, of cowboys, of simpler times. He believes in traditional values, and in a scene near the end of the film, while visiting with his Uncle Ellis, a retired sheriff, he blames the madness he's witnessed on the erosion of these values. Ellis points out that the region has always been violent, pointing to a brutal murder in 1909 as evidence.

The rules both men are forced to follow reveal a lack of free will, and they also speak to the randomness of fate. In Chirugh's case, his victims' fates come down to the results of a coin toss. In Bell's case, many of the rules he follows are really only values, and have no inherent strength of their own. At the end of the film, he seems depressed, as if he'd answered the question Chirugh posed to his victims: If the rule you follow brought you to this, of what use was the rule? The rules the Sheriff followed brought him to Chirugh, who is a nightmare for him.

Llewelyn Moss is the only one of the three that doesn't follow any rules. He snubs the rule of law that Sheriff Bell embraces, and he also defies Chirugh. He has free will, but he still ends up dead. His wife, when confronted by Chirugh and his coin toss, refuses to participate, opting to die rather than sacrifice her own free will.

So what do we make of these rules? I think it illustrates that the sheriff and Chirugh both lack free will, but in the end are still alive while the Mosses are not.

After Chirugh kills the Mosses, he is struck by a car that blows a red light and nearly kills him. This might be seen as an act of karma, as punishment for killing the free, but Chirugh proves again to be too strong and ends up walking away from the accident. His belief in the rules he follows, twisted as they may be, is so strong as to make him into a Superman (Nietzsche?), indestructible and immune to random fate.

Clue number four: The hunter becomes the hunted.

Josh Brolin as "Llewelyn"
The movie begins with Moss hunting prong-horned antelope and, after witnessing a drug deal gone bad, he quickly becomes the hunted. Chirugh hunts Moss and is hunted by Bell. Bell is hunted by an invisible force: time. About to retire, he is hunted and haunted by the events unfolding before him. These shared experiences are further linking of the three and evidence of them being parts of a disparate whole.

Clue number five: Two scenes that illustrate the bond shared by Chirugh and Sheriff Bell.

Javier Bardem as "Chirugh"
The first of these occurs in Moss's trailer, when Bell, hot on the trail of Chirugh, arrives just minutes after Chirugh left. There's a glass of milk on the table that Chirugh left behind and it's still cold. Bell drinks from it, thus reinforcing my three are really one theory in that all drank from the same milk (Mother's milk? Hmm...). Bell sits on the couch in exactly the same spot Chirugh sat, and sees his own reflection in the television, just as Chirugh saw his. This illustrates that Chirugh and the Sheriff are different aspects of the same being.

The second scene is in the hotel crime scene, when Bell enters, unaware that Chirugh is behind the door. There is a shot of the two men's shadows that seem to overlay each other as the door opens until the two shadows become one.

Clue number six:  The sheriff's dream.

Tommy Lee Jones as "Sheriff Ed Tom Bell"
The movie ends with Bell, now retired, sitting at breakfast with his wife, telling her about a dream he'd had. In the dream, he and his dead father were riding on horseback in cold darkness, and his father went ahead to light a fire in the darkness, where he'd wait for the sheriff. The film ends here, fulfilling Yeats' vision that the aged need to accept entry into the non-physical, spiritual world of eternity. Bell is completing an entry that began just before Moss's murder.

Clue number seven:  Moss's murder isn't shown.

With the entire movie seemingly building up to a final Chirugh and Moss conflict, instead we are shown only the aftermath of Moss's murder. This is because of the rules the filmmakers imposed upon themselves (not to show any two of the characters in the same frame), and because the final act, which begins at this point, is about the entry into the spiritual world and the abandoning of the physical world of death and violence. In the scope of this, the murder of Moss and his wife isn't important; it's part of a world that is being left behind.

So what does this all add up to? I'm not sure. There is no denying the inherent nihilism in the randomness and brutality of the unrepentant violence in the film, despite the presence of rules or the existence or non-existence of free will. The sheriff's dream, about being reunited with his father in another world, would seem to suggest a paradise, except that his father will need to start a fire so he can see in the cold darkness. This doesn't sound like the brightly lit paradise that heaven is normally depicted as (although being reunited with his father in the landscape he loves might seem like paradise to Bell).

The idea of the three main characters being a part of one makes me think of the three elemental attributes associated with human beings: body, spirit and soul. If this was what they represented, then Chirugh would have to be body, because he dwells only in Yeats' physical world; Moss would be spirit, for he has elements of both of the other two yet he is the first to pass--the body and the soul will both outlast the spirit. Finally, Bell is the soul, as he has gained admission into the eternal world, leaving the spirit-less and soul-less body alone to perpetuate its evil in the physical world, in the region that is no country for old men.

So--that's my interpretation. I'd love to hear your comments, what parts you agree or disagree with.
I love films that make me think, and I know I'll still be thinking about No Country For Old Men for a long time, and that I'll collect even more clues the next time I see it.


Black Jesus

by Jav Rivera

I've always been a fan of things that weren't afraid to be funny, no matter who they might offend. And it's not because they're trying to offend that makes it funny for me. It's more because of the fact that the artist tackles something that in truth is funny, but just happens to be a bit taboo.

With that said, "Black Jesus" may or may not be for you, though I do urge you to look past its cover, because what's beneath has a lot of heart.

"Slink" Johnson as "Black Jesus"
Created by Aaron McGruder and Mike Clattenburg, the show is a perfect combination of the animated series "The Boondocks" and the Canadian cult series "Trailer Park Boys." And it just so happens that both McGruder and Clattenburg were the creators of those shows, respectively. "Black Jesus" shows us the life of an African-American Jesus living in Compton, CA trying to spread the good word while getting high and drinking a 40. And yet, oddly enough, "Black Jesus" feels relevant for current television. With other shows and movies promoting drug use, alcohol, and violence it makes sense that we see religion being represented in modern times.

The titular role is played by the incredibly cast Gerald "Slink" Johnson. Johnson brings a joyous spirit to his character, much like what you'd expect a Savior to have. His castmates bring a perfect balance of reality to over-the-top scenarios. Black Jesus' main crew are full believers while antagonists Vic (Charlie Murphy) and Lloyd (John Witherspoon) question his identity. In fact, Vic, who does believe in God, is a downright vicious non-believer of Johnson's character. He takes offense that Black Jesus is the real Lord Savior. Lloyd, on the other hand, flip-flops between believing or not, depending on if he gets what he prays for.

Lloyd (John Witherspoon) and Vic (Charlie Murphy)
If you're familiar with the great John Witherspoon, you won't be disappointed. He brings his comedy genius to every scene. There's something about how he delivers his lines that make any sentence sound funny. And it's nice to see that Charlie Murphy has finally graduated from his work on "Chappelle's Show". It made me sad to see Murphy get mostly bit parts knowing that he was a skillful comedic actor. On "Black Jesus" he's given the chance to shine.

Most of the gang, L-R: Boonie (Corey Holcomb), Black Jesus, Trayvon (Andrew Bachelor),
Maggie (Kali Hawk), and Fish (Andra Fuller)
But it's not just the bad guys; the good guys bring the funny too. Besides Johnson's outstanding portrayal of a modern day Jesus, his co-stars add a nice range of characters. For me, Boonie (Corey Holcomb) and his mom Ms. Tudi (Angela Elayne Gibbs) have the best chemistry. She cuts him down at every given moment, and he takes the beatings like a slow-witted child. And though the rest of the crew make the show more rounded, it's scenes with Boonie and Ms. Tudi (whether they're together or separated) that have the show's best laughs.

[warning: explicit language]

The only other character that might be able to compete with Gibbs' chemistry with Holcomb is Boonie's ex-wife Shalinka (played by Dominique Witten). Witten who's already a talented stand up comedian, dumbs it down for her character. She only appears once in a great while but she's always well worth the wait. And in season two, the underrated Keith David appears as Reverend Otis. It's always nice to see David appear in films and television, but when he's given a meaty role like he has in "Black Jesus," you wonder why more people don't give him the credit he deserves.

Every episode furthers the overall story arc per season, but the individual episodes have their own mini stories. I often felt like I was watching a McGruder version of "Trailer Park Boys," though the show never feels like it's a ripoff of the Canadian series. If anything, "Black Jesus" is honoring Clattenburg's incredible creation. And even though its "Trailer Park Boys" similarities is probably one of the show's best features, "Black Jesus" has enough originality to have other redeeming features. As I said, there actually is a lot of heart to the show despite its crude humor. Black Jesus really is trying to spread the good word to the modern world; he just happens to enjoy smoking a bud or two while he does it.

Just because a show like "Black Jesus" isn't politically correct doesn't mean it's all-out blasphemy. McGruder and Clattenburg have done a good job of showing just enough innocence and love through the lives of a group of sinners. Indeed, there are a lot of good lessons to be learned if you can look past the vulgarity.

For more information, visit their IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3589872

TRIVIA: Some of the cast members previously worked with Aaron McGruder on his animated series, "The Boondocks," including John Witherspoon, who was the voice of "Granddad."


Bart Simpson Sells His Soul

by Jav Rivera

Many, many, many years ago (in 1995), The Simpsons aired one of their best episodes, entitled "Bart Sells His Soul." It was during their seventh season (they're currently on their 28th season!), and it has easily become one of the more classic episodes to fans and critics.

For me, personally, it made a huge difference in more than one way. First of all, it was one of the first episodes that changed my view of the show from being a fun animated series to more of a work of art. I thought to myself, "If I ever direct a feature film, I would use this episode as my guide." But this also made me think, way back when, that The Simpsons should have a college course based on its themes and art. (More on that later.)

Bart, Milhouse, and Bart's Soul
The episode starts with Bart handing out hymns to the church-goers as they enter Sunday mass. As it turns out, the hymn is actually a rock song by the band Iron Butterfly. Because of this prank, Bart gets in trouble from the priest. During a discussion with his best friend Milhouse, Bart argues that there's no such thing as a soul, and just to prove his point, he eventually sells his soul to Milhouse.

It was written by Greg Daniels, who's famous for also writing and producing King of the Hill, Parks and Recreation, and the US version of The Office. Daniels wrote several more episodes of The Simpsons, many of which are now referred to as classic.

[On a side note, I was surprised one year to find myself sitting behind Greg Daniels during the Austin Film Festival. At first I didn't know it was him, because as the announcer was introducing Daniels (who was scheduled to talk), I could hear him talking to his parents. The conversation was very ordinary and he even sounded a bit neurotic. When he stood up and headed to the front, my eyes widened because that conversation made me think differently of him. I suddenly saw him as an everyday man who just happened to have extraordinary writing skills.]

As the episode plays out, Bart finds himself in several predicaments that make him believe something is amiss. He runs into motion-controlled sliding doors that don't open for him, he can't produce condensation on a window, he can't even laugh at his father's tragic, yet hilarious, accidents.

Lisa attempts to make Bart laugh at Homer's accident.
The Simpsons have been in my life ever since The Tracey Ullman Show premiered these boundary-pushing characters in 1987, and I've been a huge fan ever since. I've collected DVDs, toys, artwork, books, T-shirts, etc. My oldest nephew (born in 1991) doesn't know a world without The Simpsons. As they continue to make more and more episodes, it seems the only way the show will end is when the voice actors either retire or pass away.

The show has impacted my life in many ways, and going back to those older episodes now, it's become more obvious to me why. They were dismissed by a huge population as a silly cartoon. Others called the show too controversial. Fans knew what the show really was: groundbreaking.

I remember being on a train reading one of their first books (The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family) and an older man in his 30s or 40s scoffed at me. I looked up and asked him, "What?" He told me that it was ironic that someone was reading a book about The Simpsons. In other words, he was telling me that the show was not deserving of literature. (In a way, he was also insulting my intelligence). I replied, "Actually, the show is really well-written and isn't just a cartoon." He shrugged me off. (I admit I had the urge to punch him in the face.)

Fortunately, time has been extremely good to the series and its reputation is no longer that of a dumb show. Even though the show first focused on Bart and his rambunctious behavior, the writers quickly began to explore the other characters and themes. Even though "Bart Sells His Soul" was released in the seventh season, you can find heart-warming episodes as early as the first season.  

Milhouse gets rowed by his two souls.
One of my favorite scenes in "Bart Sells His Soul" is when Bart has a dream. All his classmates are on a beach with a castle-like structure (which looks an awful like the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz) way off on a distant island. The children are all playing with their souls, and at one point they hop onto row boats towards the castle. Milhouse, with two souls (his and Bart's) rides carefree while the two souls row. Bart, left alone, rows in a circle.

There are so many philosophical and cultural references throughout the episode, especially during this dream sequence. There's the idea of the Emerald City being some kind of spiritual destiny, or perhaps a place for heavenly existence. There's the idea of rowing yourself through the long ocean of life. In a scene when Bart is praying, he says, "Are you there, God? It's me, Bart Simpson," which is a reference to the Judy Blume book Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. At one point Lisa references poet Pablo Neruda. There's so much in this episode, it's as if the team couldn't hold back because of the quality of the episode's story.

Bart runs into a sliding door.
A few months ago I was asked if I would be interested in teaching an honors course of my own creation. The course had to include a subject that a student would normally take (mathematics, literature, history, etc.). It was suggested to me by my boss that I teach something relating to The Simpsons since I was such a huge fan. It took all of 24 hours for me to get the idea of teaching a course that focused on The Simpsons and everyday issues. Later, the course description became more about the show and philosophy. I pitched the idea to the head of the honors program and it appears the course will be offered in the fall of 2017.

Although this is the first time that this university will offer a course like this, I'm not the first to have this idea. In fact, many universities have been teaching something relating to The Simpsons for many years. I was always jealous of those students because I would have loved to take a course like this. My point being that the series has not only gained respect over the decades, it has become a cultural staple.

If you never watch another episode, at the very least you should watch "Bart Sells His Soul". To list the best of the series would be impossible, but this is easily one of my top favorite episodes. You can bet that it'll be shown in my course next fall.

For more information about "Bart Sells His Soul" visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0763025

TRIVIA: Writer Greg Daniels was inspired by an experience in his youth when he tricked a bully into selling his soul to him.