John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew

“The truth, my honey, is a tart that does not bear scrutiny.”

There are many Johns in the Coen brothers’ weird thriller Barton Fink (Turturro, Goodman, Polito), but the chameleonic Mahoney, playing a tragic caricature of William Faulkner, always stood out to me. An ostensible gentleman with a pleasing Southern accent, Mayhew is a lot like the movie’s protagonist: a celebrated writer who’s sold himself to Hollywood, he’s a bit haughty, a bit selfish, and completely incapable of listening. He’s also a raging drunk and a woman-beater, a man we’d easily hate if he didn’t seem so sad, so lost, and so lonely.

You know what? Maybe I should just stop here. As much as I love Mayhew’s character, there’s little I can say about him that could provide any unseen insights. I think you’d do better to read this little celebration of Mahoney’s great work, and assume that its views mirror my own.

George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer

“Can’t always wear a condom, right?”

Here’s a certainty for you: George Clooney, once known as the mom’s-fantasy pediatrician on the TV series ER, will instead be remembered — unquestionably, unarguably, and immovably — as an idiot.

Thank the Coens for this, as they sought Clooney out to play no fewer than four total dopes: Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Miles Massey in Intolerable Cruelty, Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!, and Harry Pfarrer, my favorite of the four, in Burn After Reading.

Like the other idiots on his Coen resume, Pfarrer is genial, persuasive, and very concerned with his personal appearance. Unlike them, he’s obsessed with floors, philandering, and food allergies. When he’s not drawing ladies into his bed while his wife is out of town, he’s boasting about his work as a bodyguard, or constructing sex devices in his basement.

There’s no way to put a nice face on it; the man is simply weird. He might be a perfect example of a sociopath coasting by on charm and good looks.

Now, is that the sort of man who should be trusted with a big gun? Ask Brad Pitt, who also stars in this movie. As you might expect, this is no Ocean’s Eleven: the single exchange between the two men is wordless and brief. It always yanks a gasp from its audience, though, and Harry’s subsequent breakdown is both confusing and hilarious. Clooney may not be too proud of these roles (he famously proclaimed upon finishing this movie that “I’ve played my last idiot!”), but I think he should be grateful for them. Any good-lookin’ Joe can make a drama or romance; it takes a real actor to do funny. Good on ya, George, we love you and your idiocy.

Jon Polito as Creighton Tolliver

“Oh, those fiery Mediterraneans!”

Most won’t agree with me, but I consider The Man Who Wasn’t There to be one of the Coens’ best films. Most say that it’s dry, it’s boring, it’s slow, and it’s soooo long, but what I say is, “Look at all the fast-talking kooks in this movie!”

Yeah, yeah, I know, Billy Bob Thornton is given a pitiful role in a sad story, but there is so much Coen-esque nonsense around him that I can’t knock the whole movie for it. Just look at Creighton Tolliver, a loquacious entrepreneur on the ground floor of the dry-cleaning game. Cheerful, charming, and ferociously friendly, Tolliver just wants to find an investor for his latest scheme and make a little dough.

Well, maybe he wants more than that, considering the uncomfortable pass he makes at Thornton’s character. Hey, we all have our appetites.

Polito gives a lesson in precision acting in this movie. He changes expressions from frame to frame like a cartoon character. He grins, he cheers, he pouts…he becomes the fulcrum of the entire plot, simply by appearing at the worst times possible. Nowhere will you find a less assuming figure for such things as both Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2.

Now sadly passed, Polito was a tremendous part of the Coen actors’ stable, from the days of Miller’s Crossing, which I didn’t really care for. Most remember him as Da Fino, the P.I. who sucked at tailing in The Big Lebowski, but I’ll always think of him as Tolliver, the dry-cleaning pansy. Bless you, Polito. I hope you’re up there, soaking the angels’ gowns in perchloroethylene right now.

Hooked on the Brothers

I was chatting about movies with a friend the other day, when I caught myself saying that “The Coen brothers are the finest filmmakers of our time.” I hadn’t considered my words before I used them; they just spilled out. It was weird to hear myself express something so strong without really thinking about it. I now accept that I was being completely honest. Joel and Ethan Coen have created, will hopefully continue to create, the greatest movies my generation will ever see in their first run.

Of course, superhero movies like Deadpool have all but assured us that far superior films like Hail, Caesar! will never receive the attention — or ticket sales — that they deserve. As a result, most major studios have blackballed the brothers with the dreaded red stamp of “unbankable.”

There is hope, however. Last year, the Coens took advantage of Netflix’s facility to bring us The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a wondrous western which went up for some Oscars. After years of being battered with relentless Avengers spectacle, I was refreshed to dive into that inimitable blend of humor and horror that the Coens have mixed so well over the years. God, I missed them.

Amazingly, the Coens not only direct great movies, they write them. From mere dust, they craft a gallery of memorable faces and voices. Then they gather up the world’s hugest movie stars, force them into roles that make them unrecognizable, and then get them to dance in magical, spotlight-sharing ensembles. It’s really quite miraculous.

Over the next few days, I want to share my favorite characters from the post-Fargo Coen library. I won’t be including characters from adaptations, such as True Grit or No Country For Old Men, since they aren’t characters that the Coens actually created. So, let’s start with a character from the movie that was so unduly neglected thanks to shitty superhero nonsense: Hail, Caesar!

Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz

“HOBIE DOYLE CANNOT ACT.”

The struggles of the legendary Eddie Mannix as he juggles the problems of Capitol Pictures are studded with many terrific actors, but none of them is of this caliber. For God’s sake, it’s Amon Göth in a Coen brothers film!

Here, Voldemort puts his nose back on to play a temperamental director, who is cursed with a miscast cowpoke as his newest dramatic lead. Fiennes only gets two scenes in the movie, but they’re both gold. We see him glide from cautious, star-stroking gentleness, to restrained frustration, to full-on artist’s fury, and it’s a joy. He gets one of the film’s best bits of wordplay, and he winds up key to the movie’s biggest mystery: a homosexual scandal involving George Clooney’s and Channing Tatum’s characters. Now how many movies can you say that about?

Thanos/Cable might be the center of Hail, Caesar!, and he does an admirable job, but the cold eyes of this former Nazi will always glow out of the crowd for me. God bless the Coens for bringing him into their stable. I hope they’ll work together again.

Tits and Erudition

Man, movies and TV take themselves way too seriously these days. I can’t pinpoint the timing of it, but someone pulled a switch, and turned the Idiot Box into the Auteur’s Monolith. The programming is as stupid as it’s ever been, but none of it really knows how stupid it is anymore. Think about it. The Living Dead is now The Walking Dead. Most X-treme Elimination Challenge is now American Ninja Warrior. The movie Westworld is now the series Westworld. Producers are now “show-runners.” Aquaman is now…ugh…Aquaman.

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Grr.

So it’s good that we have people like Joe Bob Briggs to bring us back to reality. To remind us that television’s purpose is to patronize, pacify, and pander to us, but so long as we remain aware of it, it’s really not so badrksven.jpg.

Briggs is the latest and greatest of the classic horror hosts, a family that began with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira (though Joe Bob has some contention about that). A comic essayist featured in newspapers and magazines, Briggs was so funny that he was eventually given a series on TMC called Drive-In Theater.

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What’s interesting is that, while most horror hosts came off as cheerful psychopaths, Joe Bob was a down-home country boy who shared bemused reactions and obscure trivia with a Roy Rogers-like folksiness. He had flair and pizzazz, but he was also dry and cynical, like a carnival barker who knows that you know he’s running a scam.

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Audiences loved him, and he kept the Drive-In going for nearly ten years before TMC decided to can him. The official story was that the channel was changing formats, but I suspect that its owners just wanted to be taken seriously as presenters of fine cinema. An intellectual in cowboy boots, showcasing cheap-o blood orgies just wasn’t in their interests anymore.

It was far from the end for Joe Bob, however. Four months after his firing, the wily Texan found a new home. The cable channel TNT needed a new host for its Friday-night horror-fest Monstervision, and Joe Bob fit the bill perfectly. He turned the show into a casual, Talk Soup-like hang-out, complete with trademark bits. He joked with his crew, who were often heard laughing, and did poorly-acted, silly skits with his guests. Such guests included stars from the very films he was showing, or else experts who provided commentary on the realism of those films. One night, he got both Rhonda Shear of Up All Night fame, and Joe Flaherty as SCTV’s Count Floyd, to hang out and ad lib with him.

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He also featured viewer mail, which was usually brought in by a sexy babe in hot pants, fresh from America’s finest correctional facilities. Joe Bob was well aware of his awful time slot, and he reveled in the fact that his prime demographic was, in fact, prisoners. He encouraged his “captive audience” to send in their prison cafeteria menus, and even provided facts about the jails that they hailed from.

His most famous bit, however, was the “Drive-In Totals,” a list of every cheap trick the upcoming film had loaded in its chambers. The list always began with a body and breast count, and always included some kind of “Fu” — a play on the Kung variety — based on the themes of the movie’s action sequences. My favorites include Senior Citizen Fu, Curling Iron Fu, and Intestine Fu. All told, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs was campy fun, but it felt real, like Joe Bob and friends were there on the trail with us, sharing life’s downtime and poking at its absurdity.

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Then, in another effort at “format changing,” TNT cancelled him. As the channel inched away from its initial trove of Turner films, in order to schedule newer, big-budget Hollywood films, it seemed that seriousness would once again topple silliness. In 2000, Joe Bob was fired, and MonsterVision continued without a host for a few miserable months, before fizzling into oblivion.

Seventeen years passed, and horror languished into grim, predictable fare like feardotcom, Don’t Breathe, and The Conjuring 2. But now, in another miraculous 90s resurrection, Joe Bob is back, and he’s bringing the good horror with him. True to his word, Mr. Briggs has refused to let the drive-in die.

The Last Drive-In is a mini-series on the horror streaming service Shudder. Amazingly, it’s the same damn thing as before: full-length, old-school horror films interspersed with trivia and commentary, complete with Drive-In Totals and mail calls. The movies are mostly bad (The Prowler, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), or extremely niche (Legend of Boggy Creek, Daughters of Darkness), but there are some classics sprinkled in there (Hellraiser, Sleepaway Camp). God bless ’em, though: they’re all shamelessly exploitative, and that’s all that matters. We don’t come to the Drive-In to see deep, critical darlings (though there are still some fascinating ideas in these movies), we’re here to laugh at some cheeseball stinkers, and the myriad methods they employ to disgust, frighten, and appall.

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The Last Drive-In originally aired as a 24-hour live-streamed marathon, but it’s now available for subscribers to watch in separate episodes. It’s not expensive to sign up: just five bucks a month. It’s totally worth it, and you get a lot of other horror series too!

Joe Bob is, expectedly, a little fat and creaky now, but his style and good humor are unchanged. In fact, now that he has no censors to worry about, I daresay he’s livelier and funnier than ever. The old man lets the “fucks” fly, and shoots straight about the touchiest of topics. From smartphone addiction to L.A. subways to transgender rights, nothing is safe from Joe Bob. He’s as sharp and fun to watch now as he was in the 90s, and it’s a little sad when the party finally ends.

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There were some troubles with the initial stream, of course. Anyone who remembers the disastrous debuts of Diablo III, healthcare.gov, and Amazon’s Prime Day won’t be surprised to learn that The Last Drive-In suffered from lengthy server outages as a result of overwhelming demand. Most folks who tried to sit in on the marathon simply couldn’t. That’s okay, though, because despite Joe Bob’s insistence that this was his final bow, Shudder quickly recognized his value to their service, and renewed him for another go-round. Let’s hope they’ll be prepared this time. We need more stuff like this.

I’ve already given my reasons for why we need more stuff like this, but I can’t compete with the man himself. Before The Last Drive-In was recorded, Joe Bob wrote a brilliant essay explaining his success, and it tops anything I could ever put out on the subject. Daniel says, check it out.

Now, there’s something else I wanted to mention.

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The whole reason I’m even talking about Shudder is that I found an interesting tidbit of news recently. Turns out that master monster-maker Greg Nicotero, whose work can be seen in Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead, and The Walking Dead, is working to revive the classic horror film Creepshow. He’s building it as a series that will appear on none other than Shudder, hopefully in 2019. He’s quoted as saying that he wants to recover the stylish, comic-book feel of the first movie in honor of the great George Romero. Here’s hoping he pulls it off; the horror whores are watching!

Oh, and Mr. Nicotero, in case you somehow come across this goofy little blog post, I beg that you retain John Harrison for the show’s musical score. If that’s not possible, I recommend the great Franz Falckenhaus, (a.k.a. Legowelt), who specializes in lo-fi, scary synth. The music of Creepshow is critical to its effect; don’t fuck it up!

Top Non-Cartoons: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Sometimes I think that people wish that they lived in a cartoon. Why else would this movie exist?

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a book by infamous self-insert fan-fiction writer/suicide victim Hunter S. Thompson. In it, two dangerously irresponsible people use a journalistic assignment in Vegas as an excuse for a mad bender. Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego), and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo get tanked on beer, barbs, and ether, and then forgo their assignment completely so they can terrorize the gamblers, policemen, and casino slaves they encounter. The two men are remorseless addicts and compulsive liars, and their adventures are mostly irrational and aimless. They trash hotel rooms and skip out on bills. They frighten hitchhikers and move on girls of many ages. Sprinkled amongst the roguery are poetic eulogies for the 1960s counter-culture. I think the purpose of these is to add some thematic weight to the work, but the whole thing remains a racing, meandering mess. I guess it’s fascinating in a James Joyce-ian kind of way, though I’m not much of a Joyce fan. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t live in the book’s time. I don’t know. What did grab me about it, though, were its contrasts in ugliness: the reader must decide whether the heroes’ debauchery is really any worse than sanctioned sociopathy.

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Terry G. was here

Anyway, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the film, is the Terry Gilliam interpretation of the work, and while it remains an exercise in discomfort, its presentation is so comical that it often plays like some twisted Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s hard to know what to make of it, but the more I watch it, the more I like it.

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Depp as Duke

The casting is brilliant. Johnny Depp plays Raoul Duke with the inebriated sashay he later used for his Jack Sparrow character. He wiggles and wobbles and won’t hold still, and his lines are a stew of unintelligible mumbles. The whole act must look ridiculous to those who haven’t seen or heard the person that Depp’s imitating. Hunter S. Thompson was indeed a hyper man who couldn’t stop talking, gesturing, or thinking, and Depp spent weeks alongside him in order to assume and develop his mannerisms. It’s an excellent impression, but the Duke we see in the film isn’t Thompson in totality. The real Thompson was mischievous, crude, and unpredictable, but Depp is too charismatic to allow these qualities to define him. Whether he means to or not, the actor brings innocence and optimism to every role he takes, from Gilbert Grape to Sweeney Todd, so even Duke, one of the least pleasant characters he’s ever played, oozes sympathy and charm.

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Del Toro as Gonzo

Benicio Del Toro, on the other hand, is not so charming. There’s nothing optimistic or innocent about Dr. Gonzo, a paranoid, fast-tempered menace who tromps about like a massive bull, and then slithers out of sight when he’s most needed. Gonzo has even less control over himself than Duke does, and it’s apparent that he’s far too in touch with his death drive to feel safe around. Gonzo is the Daffy Duck to Duke’s Bugs Bunny: he is an unreliable backstabber, and yet Duke feels some responsibility for him. Duke often has to trick and manipulate Gonzo to keep him out of trouble, since it’s clear that force won’t work on a gun-flashing acid freak.

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The Mint 400

How these two nut-balls attained any level of professional success is a mystery to me, but Duke has been entrusted with the coverage of some dusty, off-road bike race called the Mint 400. Whom he’s writing for is never revealed, but the job itself is a cul-de-sac: a sequence of no consequence meant only to add to the movie’s mural of blazing, manic visuals.

I truly believe that Gilliam was less interested in conveying Thompson’s story — if there is one — than in portraying the outrageous sensory experiences it describes. Much of the movie’s imagery is derived from the book’s grotesque ink drawings, which are rendered in stark, splattery glory by Ralph Steadman. I think Gilliam fell in love with these drawings, and aimed to recreate them as best he could.

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In his DVD commentary, Gilliam said that he wanted a feeling of unease to hang over the movie, so the audience can never quite feel comfortable. His crew colored every scene in garish, mismatched colors, and his camera seems forever trapped on a tilt-a-whirl. Things rarely slow down in this film, and those few moments when Duke and Gonzo slump into their hotel beds provide only fleeting respite. Every inch of this film is chaos, chaos. Rushing chaos, swinging chaos, reeling chaos, screaming chaos, violent chaos. It wiggles and sways like one who obeys every whim of one’s nerves, and the feeling becomes addictive. It makes me wonder: what’s the point of restraint in society? What’s the point of restraining oneself? What’s the point of restraining anything?

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To make a mess of things

Of course, the movie also provides some good arguments in favor of restraint. After seeing this movie, I know that certainly won’t go on a drug binge anytime soon. Sucking down tremendous amounts of acid, coke, and ether might sound like a party (to somebody), but Duke and Gonzo don’t seem to be enjoying themselves at all. In fact, they seem quite frightened and miserable much of the time. Gilliam claims that he’s never actually used any psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs, but he also says that his drug friends concede that he pretty much nailed the experience here.

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And featuring

Duke and Gonzo somehow avoid any serious consequences for their behavior, but Duke, for one, is unsettled at the depths he sinks to. This makes me wonder: why do people do this? Why do they leap into altered states with such abandon? How is it that reasonably intelligent adults, with jobs and paychecks, choose to approach such powerful experiences with zero respect for them?

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And this makes me wonder about altered states in general: do they even have a meaning, or are they just not-so-cheap thrills? Are they little more than quick trips to our own private Disneylands? Opportunities to roll over and succumb while the world turns to a melting cartoon? Why would we take such opportunities? Are we so desperate for distraction that we’ll hurl ourselves into the whirling flush of the mental toilet for nothing but a memory-killing, vomit-inducing kick?

I don’t know the answers. All I do know is that I smoked Salvia a few times, and it took me someplace strange, but it sure as hell didn’t teach me anything.

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Fear and Loathing was despised at its Cannes premiere, and despised again by critics. I agree that it can be hard to take. There’s fun to be had on this trip, but it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no clear antagonist, nothing is at stake, and its heroes can be real dick-bags. Still, it makes me wonder, and about no superficial things. Any movie that makes me wonder so much can’t be all bad. I’m not smart or proud enough to purport that I grasp the movie’s meaning, especially since Thompson himself only enjoyed it with half his heart. I do admire it, though. I admire its cynicism, its fearlessness, its coloration, and its relentless, exaggerated motion.

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MANY

I could see an animated version of this film being directed by Ralph Bakshi. The man knows his mature cartoons, and I can see the teeny veins of Heavy Metal pulsing beneath the skin here. Of course, a cartoon would not be nearly as shocking or bewildering as Gilliam’s creation, which works mostly because of its effective disfigurement of real figures.

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Top Non-Cartoons: Innerspace

This may be a bit on-the-nose, what with Innerspace being a Joe Dante film, starring Martin Short, and featuring a cameo by Chuck Jones. Still, I think it deserves recognition as a Non-Cartoon, if only because we just don’t see a lot of movies that are this damn crazy anymore, and certainly not done this well.

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Innerspace came out in 1987, right around the time I was heavy into game-books like Choose Your Own Adventure. I had recently picked up Explorer Destination: Brain at my school’s Book Fair and read it to tatters. I think I learned more about human biology from that silly little book than I did from any science class.

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Anyway, so jazzed was I about adventures in human anatomy that Innerspace grabbed me from its first trailer. It had informed me of the basic plot: a miniaturized pilot (Dennis Quaid) gets injected into the body of an everyman (Short), who seeks the aid of the pilot’s girlfriend (Meg Ryan) to get him out. It sounds like a decent sci-fi setup, even if it’s one that’s been done before. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that when you go into a Joe Dante picture, you never get quite what you expect.

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The film has all the elements of a sci-fi thriller, but they’re all bent into weird angles. Short’s everyman, Jack, is a neurotic mess who has nightmares about grumpy ladies attacking him at his cashier job. Quaid’s heroic pilot, Tuck, is a cocky drunk who smacks himself for a quick psych. When Tuck’s miniaturization experiment is raided by thieves, the lead scientist, Ozzy, escapes by zipping down a highway on a ten-speed. He tries to vanish into the crowd at a mall, but one of the bad guys shoots him with a gun hidden in his prosthetic hand. Ozzy saves Tuck by injecting him into Short’s ass-cheek, and then proceeds to bleed out while surrounded by performers wearing animal costumes.

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As you can see, this movie’s on the edge of Goofytown, and it doesn’t stop at the outskirts. Tuck eventually makes contact with Jack in a series of hilarious and awkward scenes that leave Jack wondering if he’s been possessed. Jack meets Ryan’s character, Lydia, who’s not only Tuck’s girlfriend, but an investigative reporter looking into the aforementioned tech thieves, and promptly falls in love with her. The two work together to trap a fence called The Cowboy (Robert Picardo), an Eastern European who’s about as far from a real cowboy as anyone can be. All the while, Jack has to avoid telling Lydia the truth about Tuck, simply because Tuck’s embarrassed about being so tiny.

Things just keep building like this, taking turn after kooky turn, until Tuck is dueling a cyborg over an ocean of bubbling stomach acid, while Jack and Lydia fly down busy roads in an out-of-control car, battling arms dealers who are the size of children.

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Don’t ask me how it all works. I’m just not that smart. I’m sure the amazing special effects help. The visuals from inside Jack’s body are quite impressive, even by today’s standards. Tuck starts his journey in Jack’s buttocks (the fat cells are really just balloons), and using the bloodstream like a highway, he visits some very real-looking eyes, inner ears, lungs, and heart valves. Using slow motion and clever sound effects, Dante makes the human body into a majestic and scary place.

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More important than the visuals, though, are the performances. Martin Short finds real  sympathy as Jack, even when he goes full screwball. Short can be grating in other films, but I think he’s palatable here because his overacting seems appropriate for the extreme situations he’s put in. He’s also grounded by Tuck, a charming rogue who’s been forced into near-powerlessness. Quaid spends most of the movie scrunched in a blinky, buttony computer console, yet he manages to project great energy. The two actors share nearly no screen time, but they somehow play off each other, with powerful and funny results. Innerspace pulls off many great feats, but making us care about its leads, in the midst of its insane plot, is by far its greatest one.

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There are so many crazy little details and characters that make Innerspace memorable that it’d do no good to try and list them all. The movie is a mural of silliness, painted corner-to-corner with colorful characters and wacky moments. A lot of it is corny, but a lot of it is inspired, and there’s an innocence to its tone and aesthetic that’s missing from comedies today. The more I watch it, the more I lament that we may never see a movie quite like it again.

If Innerspace were to be animated, it’d have to be done by Madhouse, the Japanese studio that brought us the glorious Stink Bomb. That cartoon was another tale of science gone wrong, and it also featured a bit of a dope at its center, so the parallels are there. While I doubt that even their greatest wizards could channel Dante’s sly directing style, I’m sure they could add a voltage to the film that would turn it into something special.

It’d sure be tough to replace that face-changing scene, though. I think animating that part would only make it look worse!

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