Five for Five: Brian’s Picks

To celebrate our fifth birthday, each Earn This contributor is selecting his five favorite things from the past five years. Here are Brian’s picks.

5. “Thneedville” – The Lorax soundtrack, John Powell (2012)

God I love this song.

I’ve mentioned previously how fiendishly difficult it is to produce a good, feature-length adaptation of a Dr. Seuss work. For one, live-action actors and sets cannot hope to match the surreal whimsy of Seuss’ illustrations, and the abysmal results of the first two efforts have convinced the Seuss estate that studios should probably stop trying. Subsequent animated efforts have been more successful at capturing that distinctly “Seussian” aesthetic and tone, and 2012’s The Lorax just might be the best adaptation of a Seuss book since the good doctor’s death.

If you happen to be a rabid Dr. Seuss fan, reading that last clause may have you calling for my execution. I’ve seen plenty of backlash against this film from Seuss “purists.” However, other than some questionable advertising (Using one of literature’s most iconic ecological spokescreatures to hawk an SUV? Seriously?), I have to say I agree with most of the filmmakers’ creative choices. Much of the difficulty in adapting a Seuss story to the big screen results from having to add in extraneous material (Seuss’ “books” are really closer to short stories) in order to pad a 90 minute run-time. I can see the logic and the merit behind even the scriptwriters’ most derided “inventions,” such as giving antagonist “the Once-ler” a human face and tacking on a frame story (to be fair, the book itself does contain at least a hint of frame narrative bookending the Once-ler’s tale).

While I would love to launch into a sprawling defense of the film as a whole, I’m afraid it will have to wait for a future post, as we’ve got a lot more ground to cover and I’m fairly sure I’ve already exceeded my fellow writers’ typical “5 for 5” blurb wordcount. So let’s instead look at just the opening scene, as the citizens of Thneedville greet the morning, eager to begin another day in their “perfect” community.

The song effortlessly blends jubilation and menace. Though the environmentalist angle is readily apparent (when has ecological media ever been subtle?), I can’t help but dig the cheeky way in which it’s conveyed. Characters extol the virtues of their society while simultaneously expressing their disinclination “to know where the smog and trash and chemicals go.” They note with amusement how taking a dip in the water causes them to glow, and a deliveryman sniffs a dollar as the protagonist’s mother sniffs a fresh shipment of air (packaged bottled-water-style, a la Spaceballs).

But the genius of “Thneedville” extends beyond the lyrics and visuals. The song is a musical powerhouse, and the arrangement perfectly serves its purpose: The frequent, near-yodel pitch wavering channels Seuss’ trademark wackiness, while the pounding bass suggests more sinister implications behind the Thneedvillians’ revelry.

Regardless of these implications, I would happily dwell in a dystopian society if it meant I could start each day with a mass song-and-dance rendition of this infectious number.

redhot4. The rise of Fireball – Sazerac distillieries (2011-present)

“In 2011, Fireball accounted for a mere $1.9 million in sales in the U.S. Last year [2013], sales leapt to $61 million, passing Jameson Irish whiskey and Patrón tequila and becoming one of the top ten most popular liquors. Based on current trends, it is in a position to overtake Jägermeister in popularity.”

In my “Ten Things Brian Likes” post on hot cinnamon-flavored items, I told the story of how I first encountered Fireball on January 19th, 2011, the day before I turned 21. Before that day, I had never heard of Fireball. But the prospect of something hot-cinnamon flavored which also happened to be alcoholic (and ever-so-slightly “manlier” than, say, Goldschlager) intrigued me. Perhaps it’s purely a delusion of grandeur, but I suspect I may have been a sort of “patient zero” for the Fireball pandemic. I started bringing a bottle to parties, and its popularity quickly spread. By the end of my senior year in spring 2012, I had to do my shopping in the middle of the week if I hoped to find any Fireball.

In subsequent years, Fireball has continued to spread, to the point that it is now infiltrating popular culture. In country singer Chase Rice’s “Ready, Set, Roll,” he describes his beloved thus:

“Baby you rock, hit the spot, like a Fireball shot.”

And when I was doing research to prepare my friend’s wedding ceremony last month (I served as officiant), the first video example I found had the couple performing the Scottish “quaich” tradition of sharing a drink from a ceremonial cup. And what was in that cup?

You guessed it.

What I’m basically saying is, if you had any doubts about this selection being a “pop culture thing” inasmuch as something which has permeated our national conscious, it totally fits. And besides, Colton already picked a beer company. If you still contest it, my next pick was going to be Toy Story 3, and Dan already covered that.

A final word: It’s possible I was merely one of several “early adopters” who helped popularize Fireball beginning in 2011. If such a thing were possible, I’d really like to see a “family tree” of sorts, comparing the number of people I’ve introduced, either directly or indirectly, to Fireball, and those I’ve introduced to Troll 2.

3. The Lego Movie – Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (2014)

Even more than The Lorax, this one deserves a post of its own. I think my friend Ben best summed up the experience of being an adult watching this film. He did so in a way which is difficult to fairly recreate in text, but it went something like this:

Self-loathing tone: “I’m about to watch The Lego Movie.”

Tone of surprise and dawning triumph: “I just watched The Lego Movie.”

In spite of its simplistic title, The Lego Movie demonstrates thoughtful craftsmanship in its every facet. Lord & Miller (the same team behind 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the recent 21 Jump Street films) packed the movie with top-notch comedy, aided and abetted by an all-star cast. Particular favorites are Always Sunny‘s Charlie Day as a first-generation minifig obsessed with spaceships, and Liam Neeson as “Good Cop/Bad Cop,” a Two-Face-style villain with split personalities. Sitcom stars Allison Brie (Community), Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman (Parks & Rec) voice prominent roles, as do Will Ferrell and Morgan Freeman. There are plenty of cameos, too: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill appear as Superman and Green Lantern, in a semi-reprisal of their bickering relationship from 21 Jump Street. Shaquille O’Neal even delivers a particularly showstopping one-liner.

Beyond simply being funny, this movie is beautiful, easily among the most visually striking films of the year. The animators challenged themselves to create a world made entirely of Lego components, and followed through with aplomb. Though computer-animated, the movie emulates the look of stop-motion “Brickfilms.” I recently shelled out $40 for the 3-D Blu-Ray (the most I ever intend to pay for a movie), and sure enough, any frame of the film you pause at looks indistinguishable from a very detailed, real-life Lego display. And the filmmakers didn’t pull any punches to make their job easier. The characters encounter a wide variety of environments and biomes, traveling over the course of the adventure from a vast metropolis to a western town, a chaotic realm devoid of rules, and even beneath the ocean (the rolling waves look especially cool and “stop-motion-y.” Throughout, the animators obey their self-imposed rule: Everything you see – the spray of a shower, the swell of the sea, smoke plumes, fire blasts – are all composed of Lego bricks

The Lego Movie holds the rare distinction of being both funny and pretty. But what struck me most about the film was the fact that its moral is surprisingly timely and nuanced, particularly for a “children’s” film. The story opens with Emmet, an intensely average Lego everyman, carrying out his daily routine. And “routine” is the key word: Emmet and his fellow city-dwellers live their lives according to “The Instructions,” blindly following the various edicts handed down by their totalitarian ruler, President Business (Will Ferrell). As in The Lorax, the brainwashed citizens begin each day with a soulless yet emphatic song declaring that “Everything is Awesome” (though it’s got nothing on “Thneedville”). Emmet describes himself as “never having ideas,” and it seems early on that the film’s “lesson” will be the standard, very American notion that defying authority is good. Soon thereafter, however, Emmet and the ragtag group of rebels into which he’s inadvertently stumbled travel to Cloud Cuckoo-land, a themeless, “free build” area. In the brilliant clip included above, Allison Brie as Princess Uni-Kitty explains the key features (and inherent contradictions) of Cloud Cuckoo-land. It’s rare to find a film critical of both tyranny and anarchy. An overabundance of rules and, moreover, an unthinking populace, are bad, but a complete lack of order and logic are just as dangerous.  Add to this the film’s parting thought – we may not be “special,” but only through believing in the possibility we might be can we ever accomplish great things – and you’ve got an abnormally poignant and pensive film with something to say to viewers of all ages.

 Just for reference, if I were to revise my 100 Film Favorites list, The Lego Movie would probably rank somewhere around #21.

Oh! I also wanted to mention how hard I laughed when the 80s-era spaceman rejoices that President Business’ broadcasting office is still using technology from his decade. It seemed like a very “niche” joke targeted at people who have worked at TV stations, and I appreciated it.



2. Weird Al hits #1 – Mandatory Fun (2014)

“I’ve been doing the same thing for 30 years and all of a sudden I’m having the best week of my life.”

If and when I decide to finally contribute to EarnThis’ fine collection of music retrospectives, I will doubtlessly begin with a post on Weird Al. Yankovic’s Running With Scissors was the first CD I ever bought, and, as I’m sure you’re sick of hearing, his sole starring vehicle UHF is my favorite movie of all time.

I must admit that Yankovic’s last few albums haven’t resonated with me quite as much as his earlier work. “New Al” seems more cynical and less wacky than his food-obsessed 80s counterpart. But musicians and comedians are free to mature and change with time, and indeed probably should. Regardless of my feelings about any one song, I have tremendous respect for Yankovic’s endurance in the industry. His long career (his first album was released way back in 1983) has outlasted those of many of the artists he’s parodied. More than his humorous lyrics, I’m consistently impressed by Weird Al’s versatile musicianship. In addition to parodying songs, Al imitates other performers’ musical styles, something which requires considerable talent. As one detractor I talked to said, “Putting funny words to a tune is easy.” But recreating the stage personae of everyone from Bob Dylan to the B-52s is not. Al has performed reggae, rap, ska, folk, and – let’s not forget – polka. This is a dude with some serious musical chops…he just happens to use them for silliness.

So when I heard that Yankovic’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, had climbed to #1 on the Billboard sales chart, buoyed by a successful string of viral music videos released the same week as the album, I had to do something to mark the occasion. Over and above being the first #1 album for Yankovic (who’s now also one of only a handful of artists to chart a Top 40 hit in four separate decades), Mandatory Fun is the first comedy album to top the charts in over half a century: The last to achieve this feat was Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut in 1963 (the one with “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, Here I am at Camp Granada“).

1. Breaking Bad – Vince Gilligan & AMC (2008-2013)

Breaking Bad premiered on my 18th birthday, January 20th, 2008. I know that puts it at least partially beyond our date range, but even if we only consider the last 4 seasons (or 5, depending on how you count), the series still sits comfortably as my #1 pick for the past half-decade’s best media “thing.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the “best show ever” (or even my favorite)…but it’s pretty damn close. Whenever I finally get my “Small-Screen 66” series of TV reviews back up and running, expect Breaking Bad to receive a place of honor.

Keeping that in mind, I’ll try not to exhaust you with overlong summary or analysis here. Suffice it to say that the rise and fall of milquetoast chemistry teacher Walter White and his meth empire is a saga for the ages.

But more than deep, layered characterizations (something other “best shows ever” such as The Wire do better than “BrBa“), I think what made this show so successful it that it’s essentially a soap opera for dudes, complete with over-the-top characters, gripping and action-packed plots, and cliffhanger endings which fueled countless Netflix binges.

That said, the series does have a lot going for it artistically. Breathtaking cinematography abounds. I don’t think a single episode goes by without some vast, sweeping Extreme Long shot of the Albuquerque desert. We get some innovative camera angles, too: a trademark of the series is the numerous “point-of-view” shots from objects which wouldn’t normally have points of view. A Roomba scuttles across a floor; a shovel digs a hole; we see up through the floor as Walt and his partner, young stoner Jesse Pinkman, awkwardly sop up the remains of a liquefied corpse, their first attempt at disposing of an inadvertent victim.

The music is equally excellent. The series soundtrack, which covered some nine hours in the comprehensive YouTube video which it seems has been taken down, incorporates styles from gangster rap to western ballads, and, as in The X-Files, on which series creator Vince Gilligan previously worked, tracks often correspond (either aptly or ironically) with the action onscreen. For instance, Clyde McPhatter’s “You’re Movin’ Me” plays as Walt drags the body of his (frustratingly alive) victim back to his car. The captive escapes and dashes off, but slams into a tree just as the song reaches the lyric, “Baby, you knock me out.”

These cheeky music moments are just one example of the show’s rampant dark humor. Breaking Bad can accurately be classified under many labels: Crime Drama. Western. But comedy is a vital component of the series, and it’s no mistake that several prominent cast members have backgrounds in standup. Bryan Cranston as Walt, though admittedly much more grim than in his zany role as Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, still gets ample opportunity to use his physicality to comic effect.

Thrills. Laughs. Spellbinding visuals and compelling, quirky audio. All of these Breaking Bad has in spades. And I haven’t even touched on some of the most memorable characters, including crotchety old hitman Mike and slippery defense attorney Saul Goodman, soon to star in his own spinoff. All in good time…I have to save something for the “Small Screen 66” post.
Five for Five

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

One thought on “Five for Five: Brian’s Picks

  1. Glad to see The Lego Movie on there. How to Train Your Dragon is my favorite animated film in the past 5 years (Up was released prior to August 22nd, 2009), but The Lego Movie is my second favorite.

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