Friday, October 24, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Black Dynamite, "Roots: The White Album or The Blacker the Community, the Deeper the Roots! Or Those Cotton Pickin' Crackers"

Black Dynamite vs. the IRS
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

Black Dynamite is, along with MacGruber and David Wain's recent rom-com spoof They Came Together, one of the few genuinely funny spoof movies of the last five years (this current period was preceded by what The Dissolve has referred to as "the sad decline of the cinematic spoof," a genre that's been partly ruined by "the debased, reference-dependent school of comedy practiced by [Jason] Friedberg and [Aaron] Seltzer"). After I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, I thought it would be impossible for someone else to craft another blaxploitation spoof as hilarious as Keenen Ivory Wayans' Sucka--and Louis C.K. and Jonathan Kesselman came close with Pootie Tang and The Hebrew Hammer, respectively--but director Scott Sanders managed to surpass Sucka, by going in a completely different direction from Wayans.

A clever "Michael Jai White and the other actors are portraying amateur '70s actors portraying pimps, black radicals and thugs" gimmick distinguished Black Dynamite from Sucka ("We tried to make sort of a meta movie. It wasn't like Michael Jai White was playing Black Dynamite. Michael Jai White was playing Ferrante Jones playing Black Dynamite," said Sanders). Also, Sanders directed White to be completely straight-faced a la Leslie Nielsen on Police Squad instead of having him be a broadly played, Inspector Clouseau-esque buffoon like Nielsen in Police Squad's much more conventional Naked Gun spinoff movies or the dorky soldier Wayans portrayed in Sucka (Sanders and White, who co-wrote the film with Byron Minns, a.k.a. Bullhorn, clearly prefer Police Squad over The Naked Gun). The juxtaposition of a serious and stone-faced action hero with absurd goings-on like visible boom mikes, inconsistent accents and continually flubbed line readings ("Sarcastically, I'm in charge")--a juxtaposition that was an unintentional fixture of the low-budget blaxploitation flicks Sanders spoofed--made for a weird and often funny film. White-as-Jones-as-Dynamite expressed only two emotions, rage and inexpressive calm ("What about the smile?" "I am smiling."), and the one time we did see him laugh was when he killed a bad guy after lifting him and his car off the road with a giant magnet attached to his helicopter and then dropping him off a cliff.

On the animated version of Black Dynamite, which returned to Adult Swim last Saturday after two years of no new episodes, showrunner and voice director Carl Jones makes Dynamite even more of an unsmiling and surly character, which causes White's earnest delivery of silly lines like "I used to be a children" or his reason for not observing Black History Month in the season premiere ("Black Dynamite ain't celebrating his blackness on any month that the white man tells him to, so for all of February, I refuse to acknowledge one damn great thing my people have done") to be especially amusing. But other than White, Minns, Kym Whitley, Tommy Davidson, Cedric Yarbrough and Arsenio Hall returning from the 2009 film's cast and the use of Sir Charles Hughes' 1975 tune "Your Kiss Sho-Nuf Dy-No-Mite," the film's end title theme, as a musical sting, the Adult Swim show actually has little in common with the film, which is a good thing. Too many animated shows based on live-action movies have been pointless and ineffective retreads of the original source material (the smartly written J. Michael Straczynski era of The Real Ghostbusters is a rare exception).

Jones made the right choice in not rehashing the film's "Michael Jai White was playing Ferrante Jones playing Black Dynamite" shtick. That kind of shtick would have been difficult to pull off, both comedically on a weekly basis and in animated form; it would have lost its novelty quickly. Also, the show is well-animated as opposed to intentionally done on the cheap like its live-action counterpart. The second season's impressive new opening title sequence, directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi of Kill la Kill fame, is the best example of the Adult Swim Black Dynamite's high production values. When I first heard that Sanders' film was going to be turned into an animated series, I was expecting the animated version to closely resemble the cookie-cutter Hanna-Barbera and Filmation cartoons that dominated Saturday mornings during the decade when Black Dynamite takes place. Instead, Black Dynamite character designer LeSean Thomas and his design team interestingly based their show's look on animator Takeshi Koike's big-budget 2009 feature film Redline (South Korea's MOI Animation studio, which did excellent work on Young Justice, is handling Black Dynamite's Redline-esque visuals this season). I'd rather see more Adult Swim animated shows try to work harder and look as lavish as The Boondocks and The Venture Bros.--which is what Black Dynamite is doing--than have to sit through another show that lazily regurgitates the cheap look of Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

The animated Black Dynamite expands upon one of the major gags in the original Black Dynamite's third act--President Nixon is the villain behind everything--and creates an alternate history where Dynamite and his crew encounter a bloated Elvis Presley who works for Nixon's DEA, a young Michael Jackson who turns out to be an alien, a completely insane Richard Pryor (in the show's funniest episode to date) and now both Rev. Al Sharpton (special guest star Godfrey) and "pedophile-looking motherfucker" Woody Allen (Jonathan Kite) in "Roots: The White Album." Jones, who worked on The Boondocks back when Sharpton lashed out against that show because he was offended by its depiction of Martin Luther King, clearly relishes establishing Black Dynamite's young version of Sharpton as a spotlight-seeking buffoon during "Roots: The White Album": the reverend's appetite for publicity is as voracious as his appetite for the chicken titties at Roscoe's, and at one point, Sharpton is overheard mentioning that he doesn't want to be late for his appointment to a Brazilian scrotum wax. The episode is purposely designed to rile up Sharpton--early on, his fictionalized self is seen unveiling a giant statue that depicts Dr. King with his pants down, doo-dooing for peace, justice and equality on a "white cheeks only" toilet--but I doubt Sharpton is even aware of the animated Black Dynamite's existence. It's been six days since the season premiere's airing, and the rev hasn't raised a single stink about Black Dynamite.

They also filled their bellies with chicken titties and fiddle faddle while watching 12 Years a Slave.
"Roots: The White Album" may not have exactly succeeded in generating the same type of publicity and outrage that erupted from Sharpton over The Boondocks eight years ago, but it does succeed in generating a few laughs, whether they involve cultural appropriation or African American viewers' reactions to the Roots miniseries when it first aired on ABC in 1977. "Wait a minute, black people were slaves? I thought we were from Cleveland!," says Dynamite's pimp friend Cream Corn while watching the miniseries' Kunta Kinte whipping scene at Roscoe's. The episode's concept of the ABC slavery drama being the catalyst for Sharpton and the black population of L.A. capturing and enslaving all the white people in the city is brilliant, as is the episode's reenactment of the Kunta whipping scene, the funniest bit of Roots-related humor since the Roots blooper reel sketch on Chappelle's Show.

The season premiere contains more social commentary than previous episodes, but it delivers it in the show's typically profane and irreverent fashion: after Dynamite karate-kicks the Dr. King statue off the toilet to stop black folks and their former white slaves from killing each other, he says to the black half of the crowd, "Look at yourselves, black community. If Dr. King was here to see this, he would shit a brick," which is followed by a small chunk of marble falling from the downed Dr. King statue's buttocks. Yeah, the humor of the animated Black Dynamite isn't quite as subtle as the humor of the original film, but in a time of cultural appropriation at its worst and the racial divide in Ferguson, we need a few more laughs--whether satirical or toilet-related--from sharp satirists of color like the Black Dynamite writing staff, and the return of this less subtle Black Dynamite is better than no Black Dynamite at all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Grimm's recent glimpse into Sgt. Wu's Filipino heritage is a big deal, especially during both Filipino Heritage Month and Halloween

I don't drink coffee anymore, so what the fuck is Pumpkin Spice? Wasn't she the one who replaced Ginger Spice when she left the group?
(Photo source: Prometheus Brown)

There's a great line early on in last weekend's Black Dynamite season premiere, where the titular '70s kung fu fighter tells his sidekicks he refuses to join them in observing the first official Black History Month ever because he "ain't celebrating his blackness on any month that the white man tells him to." Black Dynamite has a point there about history months for people of color.

Yakoo is also the home of new episodes of Community, starting in January!Even though it's cool to have a Filipino American Heritage Month, it's also kind of silly in concept because I don't celebrate my Filipino heritage only in October--I celebrate it on the regular. I wish I could be like Black Dynamite and tell the white man that he'll never be the boss of me or my heritage. But Yakoo chose to place Filipino Heritage Month on the same month as Halloween, which is actually kind of badass. On second thought, sorry, Black Dynamite. When the haoles give us October, I can't get mad at that.

Every Halloween, or as I like to call it these days, Racists' Coming Out Day--or as Hari Kondabolu calls it, "Racist Christmas"--AFOS celebrates the holiday with "Buckets of Score," a six-hour block of original score cues from horror flicks, thrillers and supernatural procedurals, starting at 5pm Pacific. "Buckets of Score" will include highlights of Six Feet Under composer Richard Marvin's score music from the first two seasons of the Portland-based supernatural procedural Grimm, which will continue to keep Portland weird with the arrival of its fourth season this Friday on NBC.

I went from mildly liking Grimm, a show where the cast members' behind-the-scenes tweets are sometimes as entertaining as the show itself, to straight-up loving it, ever since the March airing of "Mommy Dearest." That's the episode from last season where Sgt. Wu--a reliable source of Detective Munch-style gallows humor and a colleague of the show's titular hunter of monstrous menaces, Portland cop Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli)--was revealed to be Pinoy, just like the actor who portrays him, Reggie Lee (I had no idea Lee was Filipino until the press coverage for "Mommy Dearest" because the surname Lee doesn't exactly scream out Filipino).

This is the same face he made when he heard what Britney Spears sounds like without Auto-Tune.

Grimm's third season is the first season where I started to watch Grimm regularly on Hulu, after a lady at an after-party for v3con in L.A. recommended to me that I check out more of Grimm. I only caught a few Grimm episodes before season 3: the pilot; an episode featuring serial guest star Jaime Ray Newman as the Blutbad (a.k.a. wolf-y) ex-girlfriend of Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), Nick's Blutbad guide into the complicated and multifaceted world of Wesen (pronounced "veh-sen") creatures; and the arc that introduced Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Nick's elusive and badass mom Kelly, who's a Grimm just like Nick. In most of those episodes, Sgt. Wu would show up with a quip or two about some violent crime in Portland--which he's unaware is Wesen-related--and prove to be the most likable cop character on Grimm. But Wu never had a backstory, until "Mommy Dearest," that is (Wu, who was named after Grace Wu, the head of casting at NBC, never even had a first name before the episode, which revealed it to be Drew, so that means he's Drew Wu--I take it the Grimm writers are fans of Sheng Wang).

Now this backstory for Wu is where "Mommy Dearest" takes on significance, especially during Filipino Heritage Month: as a piece of hour-long American TV that's full of Filipino American characters, it's non-stereotypical and, as someone who wishes Filipinos were better represented on American network TV and were given roles other than mail-order brides or some other subservient horseshit, I view the episode as quite a well-written breakthrough for a Filipino American regular on a TV show. Wu's backstory cleverly involves a certain part of Filipino culture that makes the synergy between Filipino Heritage Month and Halloween especially terrific: monster folklore.

I bet the shitty Upworthy headline for this would be 'You Won't Believe What These Foodies Enjoy As Theater Snacks.'

When Wu was a boy, his grandma used to tell him stories about the aswang (pronounced "ass-wong"), a monster from the Philippines with a name that sounds like an Asian American male porn star but is known for an appetite that's not sexy at all: it likes to snack on the unborn babies of pregnant women. As I've said before, Wu is the only regular character on the show who's unaware that Wesen like Aswangs are real, and when his ex-girlfriend Dana (Tess Paras)--who's now married to another friend of his (Alain Uy) and is expecting a baby--is attacked at night by a creature who sounds an awful lot like an Aswang, the assault ignites Wu's suspicions that this childhood monster with the appetite of Fat Bastard from Austin Powers and the tongue of Miley Cyrus is more than just a myth.

"Mommy Dearest" episode writer Brenna Kouf, the daughter of Grimm co-creator Jim Kouf, was assigned to work a Filipino monster into an arc that would sow the seeds for Wu's discovery of Nick's secret life as a Grimm at the end of the third season, and she turned to Lee for Filipino monster myths. He suggested to her and the Grimm writing staff four monsters: the kapre, a tree demon that's fond of punking humans; the duwende, a gnome that's also a prankster; the tikbalang, a shape-shifting horse creature; and the aswang, the most lurid of the four and, of course, the monster the writing staff ultimately went with. Grimm is rarely a disturbing supernatural show--compared to something like The Walking Dead, it's actually one of the least graphic horror shows currently on the air--but when that Aswang tries to go to town on Dana's fetus in the cold open of "Mommy Dearest," man, that has to rank as one of Grimm's most disturbing monster attacks.

'Aw shit, I've just run out of minutes,' groaned the Aswang.

Grimm's aswang episode isn't just great as made-for-TV horror--it's also unexpectedly educational. What's made me enthusiastic about "Mommy Dearest," other than the juicy dramatic material for Lee and his character, is that it introduces Filipino monster folklore to American viewers, as well as Filipino American viewers who are unaware of their own culture's monster myths. In fact, I myself was never exposed to Filipino monster stories until I started reading about them on blogs like my friend Grace-Sonia Melanio's (my parents aren't exactly fans of the horror genre--and I'm not much of a fan of the genre either--so they never tried to give me nightmares with stories about tree demons or foodies with a thing for artisanal amniotic fluid).

Cleanup on Aisle 666.
Think of that Filipino American kid somewhere who didn't know about Filipino monsters until he or she watched "Mommy Dearest." Thanks to Grimm, that kid gets to learn about his or her culture's rich folklore--and then will probably need therapy later. But that kid is at least learning something about his or her culture. It's interesting that "Mommy Dearest"--which is worth checking out during both Filipino Heritage Month and Halloween season (Grimm isn't streamable on Netflix, but the third-season Blu-rays are available to rent there)--has aired during a year when the broadcast networks have made significant strides in fixing their previously lousy track record with diversity (please be dope, Fresh Off the Boat), and even though it's just a Pinoy battling a Filipino monster, it's progress, man.

Selections from Grimm's first-and-second-season score album will be featured during "Buckets of Score" at 5pm Pacific on October 31 on AFOS.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: South Park, "Handicar," and American Dad, "Blonde Ambition" (tie)

You gotta love how each Handicar ride comes with 'Fancy Madeleines.'
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

This week's best first-run animated series episodes are both cases where the climactic sequence is stronger than the actual episode itself. While I like how Trey Parker and Matt Stone intertwine the ride-sharing wars (handicapped kid Timmy launches a ride-sharing startup with wheelchairs as the transportation, in order to raise money for the disabled kids' summer camp from "Crippled Summer") with both Elon Musk's unveiling of the Tesla D and Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn's bizarre, frequently parodied Lincoln ads starring Matthew McConaughey, "Handicar" is a step down from last week's solid South Park episode.

The newest Handicar driver explains why time is a flat circle.
"The Cissy" has become a viral sensation due to both positive feedback from transgender viewers and supporters of their community regarding the sharply written way it handled "transginger" issues and a certain catchy pop song that's performed by the show's version of Lorde, who's been revealed to be Randy Marsh disguised as a teenage girl musician from New Zealand ("I am Lorde/Ya ya ya"). "Handicar" is no "Cissy," and you have to sit through a lot of repetitive comedic misunderstandings between Nathan--the evil kid with Down syndrome who's always seen plotting to ruin the lives of either Timmy or Jimmy, the aspiring stand-up with cerebral palsy--and his incompetent lackey Mimsy in order to get to a brilliant sequence that stages the Silicon Valley rivalry between online ride-sharing companies as the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races.

Nathan and Mimsy are South Park's throwback to '40s and '50s pairings of mismatched Warner Bros. cartoon villains like Rocky and Mugsy (who make a cameo appearance on a poster in Nathan's bedroom), the castaways in "Wackiki Wabbit" and Spike and Chester. While Nathan and Mimsy work better in smaller doses, it's fitting that the duo shows up in an episode that, thanks to South Park's fast turnaround, also manages to work in the September 27 demise of Saturday morning animated TV on the broadcast networks. When Randy and the parents of his son Stan's friends rejoice over the return of Wacky Races--in which the likes of Timmy, Nathan and Mimsy, Lyft, Tesla, Zipcar and McConaughey compete against Dastardly and Muttley and a Penelope Pitstop-ized and farty-due-to-her-Canuckness Neve Campbell to resolve the ride-sharing wars once and for all--the sight of the adults racing to the supermarket for cereal and then gathering around the TV in their pajamas and with cereal bowls in hand clearly reflects Parker and Stone's affection for Saturday morning cartoons.

Little-known fact: right after Neve Campbell filmed her nude masturbating shower scene for When Will I Be Loved, James Toback's crew members raced to the bathroom set and proceeded to spray her massive queefs away with Glade.
While I outgrew Saturday morning cartoons ages ago--the last first-run animated kids' show made for broadcast TV that I watched on the regular was The New Batman/Superman Adventures--a part of me is sad that Saturday morning cartoon lineups no longer exist on broadcast TV, and so are Parker and Stone. Their adoration of that extinct breed of Saturday morning programming shines through in every detail of the terrific Wacky Races sequence.

The animators nailed every bit of Hanna-Barbera limited animation that the studio recycled on Wacky Races and countless other '60s and '70s TV cartoons I caught as a kid in the '80s. I laughed out loud when the screen suddenly got covered in those ubiquitous Hanna-Barbera clouds of gray dirt. But the funniest joke in "Handicar" has nothing to do with either cookie-cutter '60s and '70s TV animation or the decline of the taxi industry in the wake of Uber and Lyft. It's a jab at the decline of CNN as a serious news org: an announcer is overheard saying that complete Wacky Races coverage will air on CNN.


Roger's disguise here is as Paul Shaffer circa 1982.
"Blonde Ambition," the first episode of American Dad's exclusive run on its new home network TBS, premiered on TBS' YouTube channel about a week before its cable premiere on October 20 and was made streamable on the YouTube channel for only 48 hours, and while it's lovely to hear profanity go unbleeped on the new, cable-only American Dad (broadcast standards on TBS are looser than Fox's), "Blonde Ambition" is an unremarkable--but not terrible--season premiere. Other than the unbleeped profanity, not much about American Dad has changed since it jumped ship from Fox to TBS.

It's basically the same show it was on Fox: Stan Smith, a competent CIA agent, remains clueless about almost anything that has nothing to do with CIA work or killing people, and when Stan's not trying to teach his dorky teen son Steve how to be manlier, he--or any of the rest of his family, like his not-as-dim wife Francine or their oldest child Hayley--is still getting into mischief with Roger, the show's breakout character and a Paul Lynde-voiced alien con artist who runs a neighborhood bar out of the Smiths' attic. Roger's like a crazy--and sociopathic--uncle or aunt who happens to be from another planet.

American Dad also remains a more satisfying and watchable Seth MacFarlane animated show than Family Guy (although MacFarlane has no involvement in American Dad's writing and his contribution to the show is mainly just voice work as both Stan and Roger). Comedically, American Dad is a tighter ship--it doesn't pause for any of those annoying and pointless cutaway gags that were such a memorable object of ridicule in South Park's "Cartoon Wars" two-parter about Family Guy's inexplicable popularity--and both the espionage side of Stan's job and Roger's scheming and grifting give American Dad an unusual sense of purpose and make it a more plot-driven show than Family Guy (in other words, there's no time for the random five-minute chicken fights that Family Guy is famous for).

Also, while Family Guy plays to the lowest common denominator (i.e., a shitload of hacky race jokes and the poorly received rape joke during Bart and Stewie's phone pranks on Moe in "The Simpsons Guy"), American Dad has been a little more experimental in its humor. For instance, it once took a story about Stan's daddy issues and presented it as a serious stage play in the style of August: Osage County, so that meant the Smiths' living room and basement were sets on a stage, off-screen audience members could be heard coughing or gasping like during any other typical play you see in a theater and semi-regular cast member Patrick Stewart appeared as himself in live-action wraparound hosting segments to class up the joint (but a twisted version of the classy and polite Stewart we know and love--just like Avery Bullock, Stewart's perverted CIA boss character on the show--presided over the evening and barely concealed his boredom with the one-episode experiment).

The apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes actually rejected this helmet as battle gear because the shit made it too heavy to swing from vine to vine.
None of American Dad's episodes during its final season on Fox have equaled the hilarity and weirdness of 2009's post-apocalyptic "Rapture's Delight," my favorite American Dad episode (although any episode where Scott Grimes, who voices Steve, gets to show off his unexpectedly top-notch R&B singing skills has come close), and it's unlikely that any of the TBS episodes will equal "Rapture's Delight" either (many American Dad fans attribute the slight dip in quality to the departure of longtime co-showrunner Mike Barker last season). But what "Blonde Ambition" has going for it, aside from eye candy in the form of a blond and club miniskirt-clad Hayley, are some observant jabs at celebrity environmentalists (Ike Barinholtz from The Mindy Project and The Awesomes provides the voice of DJ Iron Monkey, a hypocritical EDM artist/philanthropist who wears an oversized, Deadmau5-style helmet shaped like a cartoon monkey's head); an amusing dance-off between Francine and Hayley to distract a bouncer (Cedric Yarbrough); and silly nods to the invisible stage prop gimmick from Our Town (another bunch of weird stage play references from American Dad) during Stan and Steve's action-packed but mostly drab subplot about Stan's obsession with buying a dream house he mistakenly thinks is empty. Hayley's ploy to dye her hair blond in order to attract more male philanthropists to help her fund her environmental causes was more enjoyable when Just Shoot Me tried the same thing with Maya and a blond wig for one episode, but hey, at least we got out of it a nicely animated dance sequence from the temporarily blond Hayley and a Hayley-ified Francine at the end. Fran service!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Very long wait" is the "I want to see other people" of being a Netflix DVD rental customer

Time to cue that classic tune called 'Bang Bang (Netflix Shot Me Down).'
Netflix envelope doodle by Tim Hodge (Photo source: Doodle Flix)

I've been an on-and-off-and-on-again customer of Netflix ever since it was just a small Los Gatos company on the verge of becoming a household name (here's how old the very first DVD I rented from them was: Netflix's transformation into both a producer of prestige TV for the Internet and a formidable HBO rival--which has now caused HBO to strike back with its own standalone streaming service--was 13 years away). One thing has never changed in my time as a Netflix customer, and it's still my least favorite thing about using its DVD/Blu-ray rental service: the amount of titles on your rental queue that slip into "Very long wait" status. "Very long wait" are words you always dread encountering, like "I want to see other people" or "Thanks for coming to our booth but we're not hiring."

The Man Who Would Be King, an older film on my queue that I've never seen and have wanted to see for a while, is always in the "Very long wait" category, as are a lot of other older films on my queue that I've never seen and aren't currently available on Netflix Instant, like the '70s made-for-TV western spoof Evil Roy Slade and the 2004 Johnnie To flick Throwdown. "The 'very long wait' movies are either pre-1985 American or foreign titles, the films @Netflix barely curates on streaming," noted film writer Matt Patches on Twitter.

Being told to wait for these older films is ridiculous, and I'm not alone in my frustration with "Very long wait." A piece last month criticized Netflix at length for appearing to neglect its DVD/Blu-ray service (I wouldn't be surprised if Netflix phases it out within the next five years) and being unreliable as a carrier of older titles, which frequently slip into "Very long wait" or become listed as unavailable for rent. In my case, I was especially sad to see The Man with Two Brains become unavailable on my queue. It's like Netflix is conspiring to prevent me from watching either movies with titles that start with The Man... or Step Brothers in its most proper form; it cropped the ultra-widescreen aspect ratio of Step Brothers when I saw it on Netflix Instant back in 2009, and now the Step Brothers Blu-ray--which contains a musical audio commentary scored by Step Brothers composer Jon Brion, an extra I've always wanted to listen to--is under "Very long wait."

The writer of the KQED piece was particularly sore about being unable to rent from Netflix Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song as research for a film essay and having to play detective to track down a copy of the Melvin Van Peebles joint (he ended up getting a copy at a local public library). A post compiled similar complaints from Netflix customers about being forced to wait for films that, in the age of the mom-and-pop video store before Netflix helped kill it off, were far easier to access than they are today as titles in Netflix's DVD/Blu-ray library.

'If Harrison Ford's earring was a movie, it'd be Grudge Match.'--Jenny Johnson
A screen grab of a piece of my own Netflix queue

One complainer who was quoted in the Consumerist post has found a clever way to trick Netflix into shipping him a "Very long wait" title. The same thing happened to me recently when I was trying to rent Bong Joon-ho films as research for a piece I wrote about Snowpiercer, and a delay in a Netflix distribution center's access to Memories of Murder resulted in me receiving both Bong's later film Mother, which was the second title at the top of my queue, and Memories of Murder in my mailbox at the same time, a nice break from the one-disc-at-a-time shipping plan I currently subscribe to.

"I place the 'very long wait' DVDs are [sic] at top, the 'short wait' items below that, and then all available items," wrote the shrewd Consumerist reader. "Netflix will often apologize for the delay and send a second disc from the available list to assuage what they assume is my broken heart."

There you go. That's your most effective option for triumphing over "Very long wait," aside from going to the public library to find an older film Netflix is keeping away from you--or if you're a San Franciscan, going to one of the city's few surviving video stores. Or maybe just break into a Netflix employee's house and steal one of his DVDs. They don't care about DVDs anymore anyway.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song may be hard to find, but its Van Peebles/Earth, Wind & Fire soundtrack isn't. "Sweetback's Theme" by EWF isn't currently in rotation on AFOS, but it ought to be.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Penny Dreadful season 1, whose score cues can now be heard on AFOS, makes Universal's plan to Avengers-ize its classic monsters seem plenty dreadful

Dorian Gray looks like Chris Gaines if he had less shitty tastes in music.
Universal's recently announced strategy to launch a Marvel Cinematic Universe-style reboot of its classic monster movie franchises--with the new Dracula Untold as the first blockbuster in the studio's potential monster movie universe--seems pointless, especially when you look back on the sophisticated and mostly inventive approach Skyfall screenwriter John Logan took to intertwining the paths of famous literary horror characters during the first season of his Showtime supernatural drama Penny Dreadful. There's no way Universal's proposed mad monster party will compare to what Logan, directors like The Orphanage's J.A. Bayona and an exemplary, nearly all-British cast (with Timothy Dalton, Harry Treadaway and in smaller comic-relief parts, Simon Russell Beale and Alun Armstrong, as acting standouts from the British side) accomplished on cable, in eight episodes that were all written by Logan and are all making their debut on Blu-ray tomorrow.

Penny Dreadful, which Showtime has renewed for a second season, revolves around Victorian London psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), her estranged father figure (and perhaps biological father), African explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton), and the ragtag, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-esque team they form to track down Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn), Sir Malcolm's missing daughter and a familiar figure from the various permutations of Dracula. Joining Vanessa and Sir Malcolm on their dangerous quest are introverted forensic specialist Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Treadaway) and American expatriate and gunfighter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). Each of the principals--except for Sir Malcolm's laconic valet and bodyguard Sembene (Danny Sapani), whose claim that "I have no story" better receive some sort of payoff next season or I'll be one frustrated viewer of color--is wrestling with demons, both figurative and literal.

Traumatized by his mother's death when he was a boy, Dr. Frankenstein has figured out how to resurrect the dead, but the price he has to pay for playing God is living in constant fear from the vengeful creature he created and rejected (Rory Kinnear, whose take on the Frankenstein creature is closer to the Mary Shelley novel's original conception of him as articulate than Boris Karloff's version of the creature as a childlike giant of few words). Ethan is hiding from both his powerful and unseen father (ooh, ooh, is Powers Boothe or Sam Elliott not busy?), who's sent Pinkerton detectives on his trail, and a mysterious dark side he's trying to suppress. Sir Malcolm is plagued by guilt over his past misdeeds as an explorer, a husband and a parent and feels responsible for the terrible fates of his two grown-up children. Finally, there's Vanessa, whose psychic abilities are both a gift and a curse. They're a symptom of satanic possession, which is responsible for many of the show's most crazy and GIF-worthy visuals, whether it's swarms of spiders crawling out from under Vanessa's tarot cards or a naked Eva Green doing her best impression of the graveyard ghost sex scene from MacGruber.

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The show interestingly shapes Vanessa's ordeals with possession as both a metaphor for the struggles of living with mental illness and an addiction narrative. Remove all the supernatural moments from "Possession," the standout episode where Satan's hold over Vanessa is at its worst (Green gives a tour de force performance) and her exhausted colleagues take turns watching over her, and it could easily be a non-horror drama episode about family members or work friends struggling to help a junkie relative or friend through withdrawal. But there's little of the heavy-handedness that marred Buffy's "Willow gets strung out on magic" storyline. Logan complicates the wicked stew of Vanessa's ordeals with both moral ambiguity and the possibility that a normal existence is more repressive to Vanessa than the pain she endures while possessed ("It's such a repressed time, the Victorian times. And so she's very hungry for life," said Green about her character). "Possession" and an even better earlier episode, the Bayona-directed "Séance," best exemplify why Penny Dreadful's first season is so compelling despite occasional storytelling missteps (I wish there was a better way for Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray to be integrated into the first season's central mystery, other than "obligatory cable drama character who bangs everybody"): the first season is a story about, as series composer Abel Korzeniowski puts it, "identity, trying to find oneself in the world," intriguingly dressed up as a Gothic horror drama.

Korzeniowski plays a huge role in making Penny Dreadful's Gothic setting such an attractive place to be--the show's Game of Thrones-caliber production values would have made the Hammer horror studio, a huge influence on the show, gangrene green with envy. The effectiveness and richness of the Polish composer's string-heavy score cues are why several of those cues are now in rotation on "AFOS Prime" on AFOS and will be added to "Buckets of Score," the AFOS horror/thriller score block that takes place only on Halloween night. Korzeniowski's main title theme, "Demimonde," is reminiscent of the Gothic sweep of Danny Elfman's score from the 1999 Sleepy Hollow. "Street. Horse. Smell. Candle.," another Penny Dreadful score cue that's in rotation on "AFOS Prime," is integral to why a sequence where Dr. Frankenstein introduces his creature Proteus (Alex Price) to the sights and sounds of a busy London street is oddly affecting: Korzeniowski effectively relied on simple piano chords to compare Proteus' rediscovery of objects and animals from his previous life as a whaler to the experience of a child's reactions of wonder from first encountering objects and animals from words he's just learned.

Good thing Dorian Gray doesn't collect creepy-ass Margaret Keane paintings.

Another element that makes Penny Dreadful's first season worth marathoning on Blu-ray is its literary references. Vanessa's first few scenes with Ethan in the Bayona-directed first episode are, like so many other supernatural dramas on TV, loaded with cinematic references, particularly to Strangers on a Train from Hitchcock, one of Bayona's favorite filmmakers, and to one of Green's greatest acting moments before her standout work on Penny Dreadful, her train scene with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (between her, Dalton, Kinnear and Helen McCrory, who had a bit part in Skyfall, as Madame Kali, this show is a post-Roger Moore 007 movie fan's casting dream). But then the show interestingly takes more of a turn for literary references rather than cinematic ones. You won't find another new show this year where the characters are so frequently seen reading books and are so fond of discussing literature or quoting poetry, in much the same way that the characters in the Scream movies frequently talked about slasher flicks or the Sopranos characters were so worshipful of mob movies. Instead of coming off as distracting and pretentious, the literary references are deployed by Logan to capture how books and even penny-dreadful fiction were as dominant a media in the Victorian era as TV or the Internet is today, whether it's Vanessa and Shakespeare aficionado Dr. Frankenstein bonding over Wordsworth or the Frankenstein creature's Bard-inspired name of Caliban and his fondness for John Milton's Paradise Lost, which is a direct lift from Shelley's novel.

The literacy of the Penny Dreadful characters sheds light on my biggest complaint about the J.J. Abrams/Roberto Orci Star Trek movies: nobody reads like they used to on Star Trek anymore. They can't even make time for the "Famous Jewish Sports Legends" leaflet from Airplane! In Star Trek's previous incarnations, characters used to often demonstrate their literacy by either quoting both fictional authors (the mutated helmsman's dialogue about wooing women with poetry in the 1965 "Where No Man Has Gone Before" pilot) and real ones (Dickens and Melville in Star Trek II, Shakespeare and J.M. Barrie in Star Trek VI and, of course, the Bard again on The Next Generation) or becoming actual authors themselves (Jake Sisko on Deep Space Nine). Pre-2009 Star Trek's depiction of centuries-old literature surviving and enduring despite the transition from print to PADD tablets used to make me feel hopeful for the future. Apparently the changes in the timeline that were triggered by Nero's attack on the Kelvin wiped out Kirk and the other characters' book smarts as well. The elimination of the characters' literary sides from Star Trek makes the possession of Vanessa look pleasant.

And then Madame Kali recited the ancient incantation of 'Put all your hands where my eyes can see/Straight buckwildin' in the place to be.'

Speaking of curses, if Penny Dreadful manages to break the curse of Showtime originals that collapse creatively after the first couple of seasons and is able to continue its hot streak past its enjoyable first season, the show could send Universal fumbling for the Tom Stoppards and Scott Franks of the world to punch up its monster movie reboot screenplays and "Penny Dreadful them up" or better yet, make Universal reconsider its bound-to-underwhelm shared universe plan and pay closer attention to why failed modern-day monster movie franchise starters like I, Frankenstein and Universal's own Van Helsing were unable to captivate audiences and critics. In this era of Hollywood tiresomely trying to Avengers-ize tentpole franchises that don't exactly deserve to be Avengers-ized, what can stop the determined heart and resolved will of Universal? Maybe a little show from Showtime can.

Selections from Penny Dreadful's first-season score album can currently be heard during "AFOS Prime" on AFOS and will be featured during "Buckets of Score" at 5pm Pacific on October 31.