‘BoJack Horseman’: Netflix original comedy reining in the fun

bojack-horseman

He looks like a horse, but acts more like an ass (who can also be a pig and a snake). He’s BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), the surprisingly sympathetic star of the Netflix original adult cartoon about a wash-up ’90s sitcom actor.

BoJack’s claim-to-fame was as the parental figure of “Horsin’ Around,” a ’90s family sitcom about an anthropomorphic young stallion who adopts three adorable human orphans. The show’s about “good likable people who love each other, where, no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s going to turn out OK,” BoJack drunkenly tells Charlie Rose in a TV interview.

In contrast, “BoJack Horseman’s” the antithesis of the traditional family sitcom. His life since the show’s cancellation takes place in his bachelor pad in his secluded Los Angeles mansion (you can see the Hollywood sign from his window). His three kids are replaced with Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), his lazy freeloading roommate; and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), his cheerful frenemy who starred in a spin-off sitcom with a similar premise.

While being a celebrity certainly has its own benefits, we don’t know if everything’s going to turn out OK at the end of these 30-minute episodes. His “Horsin’ Around” co-star Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) just checked into rehab. The show’s creator, Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci), is dying of cancer. And when first we meet BoJack, he’s no longer a stud.

BoJack’s approaching 40 and suffering through an existential crisis. This means watching reruns of himself on TV, getting drunk on his couch, sleeping with his agent/on-again-off-again girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), eating a lot of carbs and trying to write a tell-all memoir to make people like him again.

“This book is my one shot in preserving my legacy,” says BoJack. “I’m a joke and if this book isn’t good, I’m going to be a joke forever. Everyone thinks I’m just this washed up hack, but actually… Oh God, what if they’re right?”

Banking on a success, Penguin (comedian Patton Oswalt) helps BoJack enlist successful ghostwriter Diane Nyugen (Allison Brie) to follow him around for the next 9 episodes. Like Diane, we’re there to witness BoJack steal muffins from a Navy SEAL (who’s literally a seal) on leave from Afghanistan; and we watch BoJack sabotage Todd’s attempts at a rock opera.

Sure, the hay’s a little stale. Like “30 Rock,” “BoJack Horseman” pokes fun at the industry. The Golden Globes are a “totally necessary awards show.” And character designer Cody Walzel creates anthropomorphic caricatures of Hollywood counterparts. Director Quentin Tarantino is a tarantula; Cameron Crow, known for his rock movies (“Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire”), is a raven who looks like a crow.

While “BoJack Horseman” is witty at times, the animated show spends a lot of time beating a dead horse. There’s some pretty bleak conclusions.

BoJack Horseman Meme“The universe is a cruel uncaring void,” Mr. Peanutbutter tells his girlfriend, Diane. “The key to being happy isn’t the search for meaning. It’s just to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.”

While binge-watching distractions like “BoJack Horseman” won’t ultimately make you happy, writer and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s writing achieves what BoJack wants from story: to connect with people.

And as Netflix renews the show for a second season, it looks like it did.

“BoJack Horseman” was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. 

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Lessons from ‘The Wind Rises,’ Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus

“This is my last design,” Count Gianni Caproni tells Jiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises.” “An artist is only creative for 10 years,” Caproni says.

Unlike his animated counterpart, Miyazaki shared his creativity with the world for 50 years.

For almost half a century, the great Japanese animation artist created beautiful dreams, enchanting us with hand-drawn animation of talking animals, witches and wizards, soot sprites, spirits, little people and heroic princesses.

“The Wind Rises,” Miyazaki’s latest and last animated film before retiring, differs from his fantastical canon, but it’s a beautiful, reflective work of art.

The work’s title comes from a line of Paul Valéry‘s poem, “Le cimetière marin.” “The wind is rising. We must try to live,” it translates.

The 126-minute film is a biopic combining the lives of short story writer Tatso Hori and Japanese plane engineer, Jiro Horikoshi. Horikoski’s known for creating the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the plane responsible for bombing Pearl Harbor.

Miyazaki’s Jiro (Jason Gordon-Levitt) is a dreamer. And like many men before him, he dreams of flying.

Translating American aviation magazines in his spare time, Jiro dreams up conversations with Caproni (Stanley Tucci), the Italian plane manufacturer.

“Airplanes are beautiful dreams,” Caproni tells him. “Engineers turn dreams into reality.”

Which is why Jiro designs fighter planes for Japan. Because even if wings brought man too close to the sun, it was brilliant while it lasted.

“Airplanes are beautiful cursed dreams,” warns Caproni.

If anything, Jiro’s curse is loving planes too much.

While “The Wind Rises” sparked controversy due to the film’s subject matter, the animation is beautiful and dreamlike. Triple-Decker passenger planes rise like helium balloons. Fluffy white clouds slowly inch across the screen.

“A flying door,” someone says. “You don’t see that everyday.”

But Miyazaki’s dreamlike picture is also poisoned by nightmares of nature, poverty and war.

The 1923 great Kanto earthquake rips apart Japanese cities; fire rumbles like an angry demon, swallowing every house in his wake. Although this cacophony’s voiced by human actors, the fire doesn’t talk like “Howl’s Moving Castle’s” friendly fire demon, Calcifer. Nor are his grumbles as benign as the fluffy forest spirit Totoro of “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Jiro sees death. Children starving on street corners. Pilots falling out planes he built. Bubbling bombs and missiles.

“Poor Jiro, stuck in his happy dreams,” says his best friend, Honjo (John Krasinski).

It’s a wonder he could sleep at night.

But Jiro’s no Hitler, even if he built the plane. Miyazaki paints a beautiful portrait of a good Samaritan trapped in his circumstances.

“What a nice guy,” a minor character would repeat after Jiro helps them out.

It’s like Miyazaki’s trying to rehabilitate the man for the deed. Planes — like pictures and propaganda — can be used for both good and evil. If animating pictures doesn’t make Miyazaki a villain, then the builder of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero wasn’t evil either.

After all, we all do what we have to do to live.

“The Wind Rises” was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It was nominated for best animation in the 2014 Academy Awards.

Food for thought: commercializing ‘The Hunger Games’

I saw the 74th Hunger Games tributes on victory tour more than a year and a half ago.

The context: I was one of the 400 Capitol fans camped outside Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre, awaiting tickets into the black carpet event and premiere screening of gamemaker Gary Ross’ much-anticipated “Hunger Games.”

This was my view of “The Hunger Games” black carpet premiere on March 12, 2012. Photos taken by Qina Liu.

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Like the people watching the 74th annual hunger games — a gladiator-style/survivor tournament where two dozen children fight to the death — on television in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novels, I was incredibly moved by 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from district 12, a poor mining town near the outskirts of Panem.

But most of all, I appreciated Collins’ critique of reality and how that played out with the release of each movie.

For those not familiar with the trilogy, “The Hunger Games” echoes the lessons of George Orwell and “ad man” Edward Bernays. Like history has shown us again and again, the wealthy elite few control the uneducated masses. Whereas Orwell (and Machiavelli) showed us how this was done through fear, Bernays showed us how it’s possible to “engineer consent” through love and want. (i.e. The star-crossed lover storyline between district 12 tributes Katniss and Peeta is the sugar that makes Collins’ didactic messages easier to swallow.)

The tragic televised deaths of children serve as a fearful reminder of the government’s control. But they’re also a distraction from society’s problems: the games serve as entertainment, the tributes as celebrities.

“Your job is to be a distraction,” someone tells Katniss Everdeen, the bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine of the franchise, in the second movie.

And you can’t escape “The Hunger Games” universe or its commercialization.

Every TV network and late night talk show host covering “The Hunger Games” premiere had their own Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) or Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — decked out in designer outfits, echoing Effie’s favorite motto (“Let the games be ever in your favor”) or Caesar’s conversational interview style.

“Team Peeta or Team Gale?” said every reporter, asking which of Katniss’ lovers the fans adored more.

Meanwhile, People Magazine runs glossy pictures and stories of each tribute (and the actor playing him or her). Hot Topic hangs displays of Hunger Game T-shirts and posters; Covergirl has a new Hunger Games-inspired makeup line.

Perhaps most telling is a scene in Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (released in theaters Nov. 22).

Panem President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is sitting with his granddaughter, who has her hair pulled back into a Katniss-style braid (much like most of the female audience members watching the movie premiere in theaters).

“When did you start wearing it like that?” Snow asks.

“Everyone wears it like that, Grandpa,” she answers.

This emulation isn’t necessarily bad. After all, imagine where the world would be if there were more reluctant revolutionary heroes like Katniss Everdeen.

But “The Hunger Games” are a distraction from some of the world’s bigger problems. Whereas almost one in four people in the U.S. didn’t have enough money to buy food, the first book-turned-movie opened with a record-breaking $155 million in U.S. box offices; the second film, “Catching Fire,” made $161 million during opening weekend, promising to be one of the highest grossing films this November.

And how much food can you buy for $161 million?

That’s 273.7 million pounds of bananas, 25.76 million pounds of coffee, 37.03 million Big Macs, 225.4 million pounds of rice, 249.55 million pounds of potatoes, 48.3 million pounds of ground beef, 1.0948 billion eggs or 128.8 million cans of beers in the U.S..

Think of that the next time you see a Mockingjay pin.

‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ falls short

Those hoping director Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” would bring a fresh spin to the age-old fairy tale will be thoroughly disappointed. The film rehashes the same, familiar feudalism tropes that have existed since the Middle Ages.

Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a peasant farm-boy who has grown up with legends of giants and beanstalks, is at the town’s theater when he rescues the Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) from intimidating men. Though Jack is willing to accept this one-off encounter with the princess, he finds her on his doorstep at his farm while she is escaping from her impending marriage. Roderick (Stanley Tucci), her intended fiancé, is a greedy man who plots for world domination by releasing the giants onto mankind. When magic beans sprout into a giant beanstalk, taking the princess to the giants’ land, the king (Ian McShane) sends his guard Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and his best men up the beanstalk to rescue the princess. Naturally, Jack volunteers to go along with the chivalrous Elmont to rescue the damsel in distress.

It’s not hard to guess what happens from here. After all, all fairy tales end with their happily ever after, and screenplay writers Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney stick close to that idea, making the film quite bland. Though Lemke is also accredited on the writing team for “Shrek Forever After,” Fiona, the ogre princess, has more sass than Princess Isabelle ever did. “A princess is such a useless thing,” Isabelle even says at one point between her capture by giants and her rescue.

The script is predictable, fantastical and fundamentally flawed. The plot progresses at such breakneck speed that the actions seem as implausible as the condensed, three-day relationship between William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” If Jack is Romeo, Isabelle is Juliet. But rather than compare thee to the moon, Jack takes on a hoard of colossal CGI giants. For a farm-boy who’s afraid of heights, Jack gets over his fear and climbs that beanstalk awfully fast.

Hoult, known as the playboy Tony in the first two seasons of the British television show “Skins,” and McGregor, known for his award-winning performances in “Trainspotting” and “Moulin Rouge!,” are capable of giving more well-rounded performances, but the script holds them to these two-dimensional knight-in-shining-armor roles. The noble heroes lack development beyond their roles as good guys.

Lemke, McQuarrie and Studney’s script does provide context, which the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” lacked. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is about more than a thief who steals golden eggs. However, their retelling of this fractured fairy tale is not as memorable as the giants’ refrain: fe fi fo fum, a proper synonym for the film’s mediocrity.

‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ was written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney and directed by Bryan Singer. To view this post in The Ithacan, click here.