Monday, March 2, 2015

He was more than just Spock

Here's a lame joke: What did the gay guy from Are You Being Served say in a deep voice to the J.J. Abrams production? He said, 'Lens flare.'
The late, great Leonard Nimoy, who once wrote a book called I Am Not Spock and a follow-up called I Am Spock, should have written a third autobiography called I Am More Than Just Spock. To me, a fan of Star Trek ever since watching the Nimoy-directed Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when it first warped into theaters, as well as someone who often enjoyed seeing most of the original cast members in roles outside of Star Trek, Nimoy was more than just Spock. He was also Dr. William Bell, the king of Atlantis, the host of the creepy In Search Of (gah, that synthy and cheesy theme music still gives me the heebie jeebies!) and the director of likable but often disposable comedies like Three Men and a Baby and Holy Matrimony, which was hardly the success that Three Man and a Baby was but is noteworthy for featuring a funny performance by a young, pre-3rd Rock Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an Amish kid who's forced to marry trashy, True Romance-era Patricia Arquette.

But of course, Nimoy's work as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, the show's breakout character, featured a lot of his most sublime moments as an actor. Perhaps the biggest challenge in playing Spock--other than the makeup that was applied to the ears to make them pointy--was conveying empathy and inner conflict (and even some dry wit) in the role of an alien who was raised in a culture that suppresses its emotions, and Nimoy was more than up to the task. His work was one of several key dramatic elements of the original Star Trek that distinguished it from the mostly hackneyed and two-dimensional space operas that critics from Variety and TV Guide stupidly lumped it in with when it first aired in the '60s. Thanks mostly to Nimoy, Spock's experiences as an outsider and a misfit resonated with Star Trek fans, and they continue to do so with new generations of fans, whether they're mixed-race viewers or children of immigrants who relate to Spock being caught between two different cultures.

Spock's new shuttlecraft is totally gangster.

Nimoy's character was so badass on the '60s show that I dressed up as Spock on Halloween later on in that year when I first saw Star Trek IV. Just like how young Chris Rock's mom Rochelle sewed together her son's Prince costume in a classic '80s Halloween episode of Everybody Hates Chris, my mom, who was taught how to sew by her father, the town tailor back in the Philippines, sewed together my Spock costume. She based my uniform on both a 1974 Mego action figure of Dr. McCoy that my older brother used to play with (he didn't have a Spock action figure, but fortunately, Bones and Spock wore the same uniform color on the '60s show, so that made it easier to recreate the uniform) and Starfleet uniform blueprints I showed to her from the pages of either the 1987 Star Trek tie-in book Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise or some other Star Trek book (I can't remember which book it was). I still have the photos of myself as a kid cosplaying as Spock, complete with pointy ears and Vulcan eyebrows, but I'm not in the mood to post any of them right now. In fact, I don't think I'll ever be in the mood to post any of them right now. Aw, rats.

Ever since Nimoy's death last week, the remembrances of his work on Star Trek, his directorial efforts and his kind and generous personality off-screen have been pouring in (and hello once again, dumbass journalists who are asleep at the wheel and annoyingly and erroneously refer to Nimoy's alter ego in obits--or headlines that were quickly corrected but carry evidence of that error within the URL--as "Dr. Spock," as in the famous baby doctor). Without succumbing to the unchallenging listicle format I now despise and even vowed to abstain from when 2015 began, I'd like to direct the one or two readers who actually read this blog to a few non-Trek Nimoy performances that they may not be familiar with and are, as Spock would say, "fascinating."

Mission: Impossible--Folk Protocol
Nimoy and another Mission: Impossible regular, Lesley Ann Warren, in the M:I episode "Flip Side"

Netflix streaming, which carries every episode of the '60s Trek, also carries every episode of the original Mission: Impossible, where Nimoy starred as Paris, a magician and master of disguise, for two seasons. Although I'm a fan of Lalo Schifrin's "Kate Thomas" cue from the Nimoy-era Mission: Impossible episode "Takeover," which is part of the playlist for the AFOS espionage genre music block "AFOS Incognito," I've never seen any of Nimoy's Mission: Impossible episodes (I also haven't watched the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another Nimoy project that's streamable on Netflix), so I can't recommend those episodes.

Double O Section author Tanner, whose espionage genre news blog I've used as a resource while assembling the "AFOS Incognito" playlist and determining which movies and TV shows do or don't count as espionage genre material, spoke highly of Nimoy's run on Mission: Impossible. "Nimoy also introduced a twinge of humor to what had always been a very serious spy show. Paris was quick with a quip, and Nimoy always had a twinkle in his eye," wrote Tanner.

Mission: Impossible was also made during the era when spy movies and shows would frequently put white actors in inane-looking disguises--or even actual roles--as people of color. So, of course, at one point in Mission: Impossible's run, Nimoy had to pretend to be Asian and slip into offensive taped-eyelid makeup for a Japanese disguise that makes Sean Connery's Japanese disguise in You Only Live Twice look like quality makeup work. That's definitely one hour of TV that can be skipped on Netflix (James Shigeta, why?!), but if you're in the mood to laugh at Nimoy's Japanese disguise as much as you did hearing him mangle "Proud Mary," enjoy.

Okay, so not everything Nimoy touched turned to gold. But Nimoy's 1973 TV-movie The Alpha Caper is worth tracking down. I don't know if Cloo still airs it, but that channel is where I first caught The Alpha Caper and fell in love with it. I wish Universal would release it as an MOD title like they did with another enjoyable caper movie I rented from San Francisco's awesome Lost Weekend Video and just saw for the first time, the original 1966 version of Gambit. An unsold pilot for an anthology show that was intended to focus on a different crime each week, The Alpha Caper is the taut and lighthearted story of a parole officer (Henry Fonda) who loses the job he loves and then gets even with the system that forced him into early retirement by orchestrating a gold bullion robbery with the help of his parolees.

Oooh, Tenafly, you're gonna make your fortune by and by.
(Photo source: TrekkerScrapbook)

The Alpha Caper is really Fonda's show all the way, and Nimoy has kind of a nothing role as one of the parolees, an electronics genius (Larry Hagman also appears as a parolee), but Fonda is so endearing as the reluctant retiree, who's been so badly screwed over by his former boss, that you root for his character to succeed, plus it's got Nimoy in irritable and testy criminal mode, a treat for anyone interested in seeing Nimoy play a bit of a bad boy. It's Tom Joad, Spock and J.R. Ewing teaming up for what's basically an extended episode of Nimoy's Mission: Impossible, but told from the criminals' point of view and with Six Million Dollar Man production values (in fact, much of the crew that made The Alpha Caper, including Nimoy's future Star Trek movie sequel colleague, producer Harve Bennett, went on to produce The Six Million Dollar Man). The entire 75-minute movie is on YouTube, but I doubt it will be up there for long.

Much easier to find online are Nimoy's roles in Disney's animated 2001 sci-fi flick Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Fringe, which are both currently streamable on Netflix. Yes, Nimoy, who was ideal for animation voice work because of his sonorous voice, was involved with the Transformers franchise twice, first as the voice of the evil Galvatron in 1986's The Transformers: The Movie and then again as the voice of the traitorous Autobot warrior Sentinel Prime in Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I prefer Atlantis over those two movies (and unlike much of the music in either of those Transformers movies, the music in Atlantis doesn't make me think about sticking my head in the oven; speaking of which, James Newton Howard's excellent Atlantis score cues "The Submarine" and "Atlantis" can be heard during "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" on AFOS).

Featuring production designs by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Atlantis was supposed to be the Disney cel animation division's breakthrough into the action genre, an attempt to show critics and audiences that Disney can diversify its output and make an engaging animated film without show tunes, for moviegoers like me who hate almost all show tunes. The attempt actually worked. The problem with Atlantis--and this is the same problem that the similarly older-skewing Disney/Titmouse animated series Motorcity later experienced--was that Disney had no clue how to market the movie, even though Atlantis merch was all over the place in the summer of 2001, so Atlantis never found its audience.

It's a shame because Atlantis is an entertaining homage to Jules Verne-based movies like Disney's own 1954 live-action adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It contains perhaps my favorite cast in a cel-animated Disney movie: Michael J. Fox, James Garner, John Mahoney, Phil Morris, Don Novello, A Different World alum Cree Summer--a skilled voice actor from animated TV who frequently gets passed over by these animated movies for bigger female stars but fortunately wasn't passed over by Atlantis--as Fox's love interest and, of course, Nimoy, whose gravitas was perfect for the role of the Summer character's blind and guilt-stricken father, Kashekim Nedakh, the king of Atlantis.

Voice work isn't as easy as Chris Rock makes it out to be. You can't act with your body. You have to act with only your voice, or if you do have to act with your body to get to a certain voice, you have to decide for yourself how you want to position yourself in the booth: does your character put his or her hands on his or her hips when he or she talks or does he or she fold his or her arms the whole time? Just like he did with his minimalist acting work as Spock, Nimoy effectively conveyed all of the king's lifelong guilt using just the one tool all actors can depend on during recording sessions for animated projects: his voice, which, in the case of his Atlantis character, was quavering and frail-sounding. In one other interesting connection to Star Trek besides the presence of Nimoy, Summer and Nimoy spoke in subtitled Atlantean dialogue created by Marc Okrand, the same linguist who came up with the Klingon dialect for the '80s Star Trek movies.

Keep your eyes closed! It's Bill Shatner without his rug on!

I feel like another underappreciated Nimoy project, Fringe, doesn't get enough praise as a post-X-Files sci-fi procedural--it's one of the better post-X-Files procedurals, and that's partly due to the episodes where Nimoy guest-starred as William Bell, the best friend of John Noble's breakout character Walter Bishop, as well as the reclusive and corrupt founder of the shadowy corporation Massive Dynamic. Bell was a role Nimoy enjoyed playing so much that he reprised it a couple more times on Fringe even after he announced his retirement from acting. While once discussing why he was drawn to embodying Bell's villainous side when the scientist brought mayhem to the show's two universes, Nimoy said, "I could play aspects of a character that I haven't played in a long time."

During its run on Fox, Fringe had far less viewers than Lost, which, like Fringe, was produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot company, but I think it will hold up better in reruns than Lost. Narratively, it's less of a hot mess than whatever Lost ended up turning into in its final season. I wish Nimoy concluded his long career with Fringe instead of the misfire that was Star Trek Into Darkness, where his final appearance as Spock amounted to nothing more than Vulcan Wikipedia. Fringe was closer to the cerebral and exploratory spirit of the '60s Star Trek than Star Trek Into Darkness ever was, and you can see why on Netflix, where every episode of Fringe is available to stream. So yes, Nimoy was more than just Spock, and it's great how so many examples of his range as a performer can be currently viewed online. Like Dr. McCoy said when he spoke of Nimoy's most famous alter ego at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he's really not dead, as long as we re-stream him.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Flight

A good movie theater prank would be to sucker moviegoers into paying to see Nadine Velazquez's boobs and then revealing that the feature presentation is actually not Flight but Flight of the Navigator. Oh, the looks on dudes' faces when they realize they have to re-experience the most annoying '80s catchphrase-loving alien robot who's not a Transformer.
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

Robert Zemeckis' Flight, the story of an airline pilot whose heroism in the cockpit is called into question after investigators discover he was intoxicated, is a rare example of the mismarketing of a film actually paying off. Paramount sold Flight primarily as a "prestige" disaster flick, even though Flight's riveting plane crash sequence lasts only eight minutes in the movie's first half-hour. How the hell do you sell the rest of the movie, a dark addiction drama about both Denzel Washington and Kelly Reilly's struggles to get clean? You just simply don't.

The Flight soundtrack is so fucking on-the-nose I wouldn't be surprised if 'Upside Down' by Diana Ross was an early choice as a source cue for the plane crash sequence.

Nobody really enjoys addiction dramas. The only people who enjoy them are the actors who make them and get their kicks--and occasionally, an impressive paycheck--from going Method to portray junkies or alcoholics. Addiction dramas are often such a repetitive slog, due to the addict characters' repetitive habits and relapses, while the ones that are less tedious or simply better-crafted aren't really made for repeat viewing. I admire the filmmaking on display in Requiem for a Dream, but the film's third act was so harrowing and nightmarish I'm not itching to watch it again.

Leaving out Flight's addiction footage and only hinting at it in the legal drama clips was as risky a marketing move for Paramount as emphasizing the addiction angle would have been: what if the most hardcore Denzel stans--particularly black moviegoers with conservative tastes in film (read: Tyler Perry movies) who love it when Denzel plays either a positive role model or an action hero, which, by the way, are the kinds of roles where I tend to find Denzel to be at his least compelling as an actor--come to Flight to see their hero valiantly pilot an endangered plane as advertised, but they wind up being turned off by seeing him portray such a flawed and often unsympathetic boozer for the rest of the film? And then what if they leave the theater feeling had, took, hoodwinked and bamboozled, and as a result, the word-of-mouth for Flight turns sour? Yet Paramount's odd strategy somehow worked because all of Denzel's dramatic material after the badass plane crash sequence turned out to be equally captivating anyway--his subtle, gutsy and convincing performance as alcoholic airline pilot Whip Whitaker is far more worthy of a Best Actor Oscar trophy than his Oscar-winning turn as the Antoine Fuqua equivalent of a two-dimensional '60s comic book villain in Training Day--and Flight ended up becoming a critical and financial success in 2012.

After a string of often creepy-looking motion-capture fantasy movies that divided both critics and moviegoers, Flight marked the welcome return of the craftsman behind Used Cars, Back to the Future and Cast Away to grown-up filmmaking (yes, he made the Best Picture Oscar winner Forrest Gump, but the sappy and underwhelming Gump is hardly grown-up filmmaking). I haven't watched Used Cars, Zemeckis' only R-rated film until he made Flight, but I'm aware that the 1980 cult favorite is Zemeckis at his most biting and raunchy, raunchier than what the animators attempted to get away with during much of the material involving either Jessica Rabbit, Baby Herman or Betty Boop in Zemeckis' 1988 classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This mischievous side of Zemeckis from Used Cars and Roger Rabbit resurfaces in the unlikeliest of movies: Flight.

Part of what makes Flight better than the average addiction drama is the levity Zemeckis sneaks into this mostly somber piece of Denzel Oscar-bait, whether it's in the comic relief scenes where John Goodman temporarily steals the show as Harling Mays, Whip's oddly maternal drug dealer, or the opening hotel room scene where former My Name Is Earl viewers got to finally see Nadine Velazquez in all her full-frontal glory. The opening scene, which establishes Whip's alcoholism and coke habit, as well as the similar substance abuse problems of Velazquez's flight attendant character Katerina, is almost comedic in how it upends moviegoers' expectations about a typical introduction of a Denzel character and basically says, "Whip's not exactly the noble character Denzel frequently plays" (although he's played tormented alcoholics before, like in Courage Under Fire). It's even got Whip making a Bond-style pun while staring at Katerina's naked ass:

Or the dawn of crack.

Zemeckis even sneaks in a pair of in-jokes about one of Denzel's most frequent collaborators and a past Denzel movie. I'm going to invert the following screen shot like Whip does with his plane.

This house is so old there has to be Beta tapes lying around the crib too.
Oh, Lord Jesus, we're inverted!
Peep the stack of VHS tapes in the Whitaker family's old countryside house. One of the tapes is a copy of Top Gun, which was made by Tony Scott, who directed Denzel in Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, the Taking of Pelham One Two Three remake and Unstoppable. I wouldn't be surprised if that was both Zemeckis and Denzel's way of paying tribute to Scott, even before the Crimson Tide director committed suicide while Flight was in post-production. Another video in that stack is a copy of Denzel's 1987 Steve Biko movie Cry Freedom. That means that Flight takes place in a bizarre reality where Denzel is a movie star and an alcoholic pilot who looks a lot like Denzel becomes a media darling for unconventionally and skillfully piloting a malfunctioning plane to safety, but nobody ever comes up to Whip and says, "Hey, has anybody ever told you you've got the marquee good looks of Denzel? Here's my number at CAA. Let's do lunch some time."

Hmm, I wonder why Virtuosity isn't in that stack of videos. Anyway, another element that elevates Flight above the standard addiction drama is the movie's engaging and non-didactic legal drama side, particularly in the scenes between Denzel and Don Cheadle as Whip's efficient--and quietly frustrated, especially over Whip's behavior--lawyer, which are at times as electric as the scenes between Denzel and Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress. In Flight, Denzel and Cheadle reverse their Devil in a Blue Dress roles as, respectively, the straight arrow and the troublemaker who has to be kept in line by the former. Flight is as close to the Denzel-as-Easy/Cheadle-as-Mouse reunion movie we'll sadly never get to see due to Devil in a Blue Dress' box-office failure during the weekend of the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995.

Equalizer IV will have Denzel beating the shit out of bad guys with his cane and a bottlecap from one of his many bottles of pills.
Yo, old countryside house, you sure could use an upgrade from whatever the fuck they call Home Depot in The Equalizer.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Parks and Recreation (2009-2015)

Speaking of which, why would anybody resist chicken and waffles? Because, again, people are idiots.

The last remaining show on NBC that was from the great underwatched Thursday night sitcom lineup that lasted on that network from 2009 to 2013 (the other shows on that lineup: The Office, 30 Rock and, of course, Community, now a Yahoo Screen show), Parks and Recreation takes a bittersweet bow tonight. It's a bow made even more bittersweet by the death of Harris Wittels, one of Parks and Rec's key writers, a week before the airing of the series finale. He was one of many staffers who appeared on the show as examples of the countless crazies who make up Pawnee, Indiana, the show's setting: in Wittels' case, he played Harris the frequently stoned animal control employee. Some feminists hated Wittels for outspoken things he said about free speech that they found to be offensive, while both men and women in the comedy community--particularly anyone from the Parks and Rec fam--adored him and his joke writing, whether on Twitter (a great example of a Wittels tweet: "I don't know if there's a god or not, but I will say this: Cap'n Crunch Oops All Berries is bomb as fuck") or for Parks and Rec.

A special tribute to Wittels from his Parks and Rec colleagues has been tacked on to tonight's hour-long Parks and Rec series finale. The skewed sensibility of writers like Wittels, Megan Amram, Alan Yang, Aisha Muharrar, Joe Mande, Chelsea Peretti and, of course, Parks and Rec co-creator/showrunner Michael Schur helped make Schur's show about small-town government stand out as a small-town comedy. There are small-town comedies like The Andy Griffith Show that older generations of TV viewers tend to love for their likability and warmth, and then there are small-town comedies like the later seasons of Newhart and Parks and Rec--well, actually seasons 2 to 7 of Parks and Rec, to be exact--that are on another level of humor and aren't just merely likable and warm. Post-season 2 Newhart and Parks and Rec are also crazy as fuck. And underneath Parks and Rec's warmth lurks an often biting view of politics outside the world of Pawnee, reflected in its portrayal of the crazy politics within Pawnee.

I always liked how Parks and Rec is basically The West Wing for comedy nerds whose political ideologies echo The West Wing's but who have grown sort of jaded about politics since that older show's demise and have found several of The West Wing's frequently parodied speeches to be too hokey and Hollywood-slick to take seriously anymore (West Wing alum Rob Lowe was even part of the Parks and Rec cast for most of its run, and when Bradley Whitford showed up as a Parks and Rec guest star, that was another enjoyable little collision between the West Wing and Parks and Rec casts). Parks and Rec's idealism was tinged with a satirist's sharp-eyed view of the absurdities of things like government infighting, corporate doublespeak (like whenever Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope had to deal with the local candy manufacturer Sweetums) and this season, Silicon Valley office culture. Speaking of which, both the presence of the fictional Bay Area startup Gryzzl in Pawnee and a three-year time jump--which should have sunk the show but didn't--have resulted in an extremely enjoyable final season full of futuristic sight gags and pause button-worthy Easter eggs, an additional treat on top of Poehler finally getting her longtime wish for Bill Murray to play Pawnee's long-unseen mayor, all the show's longtime threads getting paid off with well-earned emotional moments (Donna tricks everyone into finally calling Jerry by his original name: Garry!) and all the hilarious side characters, from Jean-Ralphio to those accountant dudes who are always seen fangirling over the presence of their former colleague Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), taking a final bow. My favorite pause button-worthy season 7 Easter egg would have to be this, an exhibit at the William Henry Harrison Museum that displays all the cool things about the alternate reality where President Harrison didn't die 30 days into his presidency:

But does Idris Elba get to take over as James Bond in this reality? That's the shit I want to know.

These other season 7 Easter eggs were pretty funny too:

And by viral, they mean that the sight of rhythmless white people attempting to dance made you want to fucking throw up.

If some fool brings his transparent Gryzzl tablet with him to a movie theater and keeps turning it on in the middle of the feature presentation, does that mean I get to beat the shit out of him with my transparent Gryzzl tablet that can transform into a baseball bat?

I'd love to see what the Old Glory Robot Insurance TV ads were like when Robotgate went down.

From the guys who brought you the riveting legal disclaimer for Happy Fun Ball comes...
(Photo source: Warming Glow)

By the way, why have I left out season 1 of Parks and Rec? Like so many other sitcoms, the show hadn't quite found its voice yet in that abbreviated first season. Parks and Rec's second season led to one of the greatest course corrections of any sitcom since the transformation of The Odd Couple from a strangely airless retread of the 1968 Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon movie version in the single-camera format to a livelier, funnier and sharper buddy comedy energized by its switch to the multi-cam format. That course correction mostly had to do with tweaking the heroine at the heart of Parks and Rec, Leslie, via the writers' wise move of changing her from a drab Michael Scott clone to a hyper-competent Tracy Flick type, but without a class-conscious chip on her shoulder and with a ton of friends who will take a bullet for her, whether it's that "beautiful tropical fish" Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), Ben, Leslie's soulmate and now husband, or breakfast food-loving libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), Leslie's mentor (and occasional adversary, ideology-wise). Rewriting Leslie into the straight-woman figure we know and love today shouldn't have worked, but it totally did. And that--along with the fully realized, Springfield-esque universe that surrounds Leslie--is why we have six great seasons of Parks and Rec (although some will argue that seasons 5 and 6 were when the show stumbled creatively a bit), all coming to an end tonight.

I bet DJ Roomba leads the robot revolt that takes down the humans of Pawnee in 2023.

Bruce Willis did the whole superheroes and supervillains in hoodies thing long before Arrow and The Flash started trying to make it hot.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fuck the #WhiteOscars: A mash-up of Jill St. John's 1966 Oscar striptease and AlunaGeorge is far more satisfying in its two little minutes than the Oscars will ever be

And now it's time to play Doug Benson's Build a Band: AlunaGeorgeMichaelMcDonaldFagen.

Somebody who goes by "LOSANGELENA" has combined two of my favorite things: the atrocious, unintentionally funny and long-out-of-print 1966 showbiz melodrama The Oscar and the British R&B duo AlunaGeorge's 2014 joint "Supernatural." Actually, The Oscar isn't exactly one of my favorite things. I wouldn't say I like The Oscar. What I do like is chuckling over almost every inept element of this Harlan Ellison-scripted, MST3K-worthy movie, from Stephen Boyd's overacting and his weird Hayden Christensen-esque voice (while he shrilly plays the part of Frankie Fane, an ambitious Hollywood asshole who ends up becoming an Oscar contender) to the equally shrill Tony Bennett's visible nervousness in his first acting role.

It's no wonder that the singer of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and "Rags to Riches" never acted again, aside from his cameos during The Simpsons, Muppets Most Wanted and Alec Baldwin's endlessly quotable "Tony Bennett Show" sketch on SNL. The only stars in The Oscar who give what could be considered non-cringeworthy and not-so-clichéd performances are a non-comedic Milton Berle as an oddly principled talent agent and an equally non-comedic Jack Soo as an Asian houseboy who--and this is kind of remarkable because this is a movie from the not-exactly-racially-enlightened '60s--doesn't have an accent. It's funny how the two stand-up comics in the Oscar cast--two guys who weren't known for possessing dramatic chops when they were alive--give the least cringeworthy and most naturalistic performances in the whole movie.

Cool. It's a magazine named after one of the ghosts from Pac-Man.
(Photo source: Catfan's Feline Fatale Follies)

The best way to approach this kind of soapy "I don't give a shit who I bang or who I ruin to climb my way to the top" material is to do it as a comedy. That's why I love Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which is so razor-sharp in its humor that it's made it difficult to take any musician biopic seriously anymore. Walk Hard takes musician biopic clichés like any scene where a white musician as a kid appropriates black musicians' sounds, basically says to the audience, "Hasn't this always looked ridiculous and stupid to you?," and then proceeds to make those clichés look even more ridiculous and stupid.

Instead, The Oscar plays it completely dead serious when it should be, oh, I don't know, more like Soapdish or the forgotten WB single-camera sitcom Grosse Pointe, which was basically Soapdish for the 90210/Dawson's Creek crowd--or better yet, more like John Waters. In fact, in an alternate universe far more entertaining than our own, The Oscar was probably directed by John Waters instead of being under the hacky, mid-'60s network TV-ish direction of D.O.A. co-writer Russell Rouse, with Divine in the role of a feminized Frankie Fane. And then in another alternate universe even more entertaining than that one, The Oscar was directed by Russ Meyer. Either of those guys would have transformed The Oscar into a comedic masterpiece.

This 1966 atrocity--which would have swept the Razzies had the Razzies existed in the '60s--is not on DVD. The only place where viewers can catch The Oscar is TCM, which shows a terrible-looking print. That's where I saw The Oscar and realized that as a dramatic actor, Tony Bennett is a decent watercolor painter. The movie features a striptease by future Bond girl Jill St. John that I assume was racy for its pre-Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?/Blow-Up time, and that's the scene from The Oscar that "LOSANGELENA" perfectly mashed up with singer Aluna Francis and producer George Reid's pulsating "Supernatural," along with footage from some late '60s Italian sexploitation flick I'm not familiar with.

I get more enjoyment out of the mash-up of The Oscar and AlunaGeorge than I ever would out of the tedious Oscar telecast--which I haven't watched in eons--and its annual array of frustrating snubs and overall out-of-touchness. Instead of dozing off during the 20,528th Chuck Workman montage of the night or fuming over "Selma is a well-crafted movie, but there’s no art to it" (I'd like to know what drugs that Academy member was on) and the absences of Selma star David Oyelowo and his director Ava DuVernay in the Oscar categories (plus the absences of a few other actors of color who delivered exceptional performances that went unrecognized), I'll be spending time with The Walking Dead, where an Asian American guy gets to be a hero who gets the girl for a change and actors of color like Steven Yeun and Danai Gurira receive far juicier material than the hackneyed kind the Academy would rather pay attention to when one or two actors of color actually do enter their often fucked-up radar.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Hanna

I like any movie where the title sounds like it came from the filmmakers drunkenly listening to 'The Name Game' one night. 'Hanna, Hanna, bo-banna, banana-fanna-fo-fanna.'
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

Cate Blanchett is a terrific actress--I've enjoyed much of the Australian star's screen work ever since Elizabeth, the story of Fred Sanford's dead wife--but her attempt at a Southern accent in the 2011 teen assassin thriller Hanna is horrendous. British or Australian actors who mangle American accents have been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. The onslaught of these actors starring as American icons (Martin Luther King) or superheroes (the current Superman is a Brit, and so were the last cinematic Batman and the last pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe-era Spider-Man) is kind of worrisome because most of them really cannot do an American accent. The sight of many American roles in film and TV getting outsourced to white actors from other countries particularly bugs me because there are tons of Asian American or African American actors who are far better qualified at sounding American than those British or Aussie performers, and they're not getting those parts.

There's always one single word during a British or Aussie actor's performance as an American character that trips them up or brings their whole façade crashing down. Most often, that word is "anything." They tend to pronounce it as "en-nuh-thin"--Scottish star Karen Gillan's otherwise flawless American accent would slip during Selfie whenever she said "ennathin'"--instead of the American way: "en-nee-thing." During John Boyega's performance as a falsely accused American drone pilot on last summer's 24: Live Another Day, that word was "missile." Boyega pronounced it the U.K. way: "mis-eyel," as in making it rhyme with "aisle." The believability of Aussie actor Guy Pearce's performance as an ambitious '50s LAPD detective in L.A. Confidential was ruined at the very end of the film by Pearce's pronunciation of "Angeles" as "an-juh-lees"--a non-American way of saying it--instead of "an-juh-lehs." In Hanna, the word that trips up Blanchett is the movie's goddamn title! Her evil, 1998 Gillian Anderson-haired CIA agent character refers to the titular heroine she's chasing as "Hahn-uh." Yeah, that's not exactly the Southern way to pronounce it.

Cate, Cate, bo-bate, banana-fana-fo-fate, fee-fi-mo-mate: Cate!

It's not like Blanchett can't do a Southern accent at all. She actually mastered it once before as a Georgia fortune teller with genuine psychic powers in the 2000 Sam Raimi thriller The Gift (dig the musicality Blanchett brings to the line where her psychic character, who's being threatened by a customer's scummy redneck husband, explains to her son why she's grabbed a baseball bat: "Don't worry, honey, I'm just working on my swing"). Blanchett shouldn't really be blamed for an accent that's so all over the map Google Maps would throw up its hands in frustration and mutter, "I fucking give up. You're on your own." The blame should fall on the dialect coach Hanna director Joe Wright hired for Blanchett. It's clearly not the same dialect coach who helped Blanchett speak during the filming of The Gift. The Hanna dialect coach should be kidnapped, locked in that punishment cabin from the summer camp in Addams Family Values and forced to watch Hillbilly Handfishin' on a loop. (And then the casting director who told Wright that it would be a good idea to hire the whitest actress to star as Tiger Lily in this summer's Pan should be dropped off in an Indian reservation and forced to live there without money and a smartphone for a month.)

Did they really need to make Agent Marissa Wiegler an American, along with all the other CIA agents in Hanna who are unconvincingly portrayed by British actors? It's not like everyone in that agency's personnel is American. There are foreigners who work there. Take, for example, the funniest CIA agent of them all: Avery Bullock, the deranged agency boss Patrick Stewart voices on American Dad. He's a Brit. I would have rather had seen Wright and screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr shoehorn into Hanna some little backstory that Wiegler isn't American--like how Schwarzenegger flicks used to always squeeze in some dialogue about the hero's Austrian roots to explain what an American supercop is doing walking around with a thick Austrian accent--instead of the unintentionally funny attempt to pass Wiegler off as a Southerner. And that's not the only over-the-top and theatrical-sounding accent in Hanna. In fact, everyone in the film--who's not a member of the family of ordinary British tourists Hanna befriends while she's on the lam, that is--has a bizarre accent. There's the campy fake German accent Tom Hollander uses while he steals parts of the film as Wiegler's sadistic German associate Isaacs. But that accent somehow works. Meanwhile, Blanchett's campy fake Southern accent does not.

Her lousy accent fails to bring down a solid first action movie from a director who was previously known for period costume dramas like Atonement and Anna Karenina, just like how Wiegler fails to bring down this tough little German girl she wants to eliminate. Hanna is Saoirse Ronan's movie all the way, a remarkable coming-out party for the Atonement star's action side. Since Hanna, Ronan's starred in another art-house teen assassin flick, Violet & Daisy, and the Stephenie Meyer YA sci-fi adaptation The Host. Like in The Host, Ronan did all her own stunts as Hanna. She received martial arts training from legendary Bruce Lee protégé Dan Inosanto, and her verisimilitude as an action heroine--not once can you detect shitty CGI that pastes Ronan's eyebrowless face over some 42-year-old double's body--lends the film a certain edge and raggedy energy, whether she's leaping over shipping containers in an epic chase scene or simply snapping the pretty neck of Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery, who briefly appears as one of Hanna's first human kills.

'Container Park,' the title of the Chemical Brothers score cue for the shipping container chase, always sounds like something where Jeff Goldblum and Sir Richard Attenborough get chased around while they chew all kinds of scenery.

It's not just a strong physical performance. It's a really good dramatic one too. Ronan skillfully balances Hanna's fierce killing machine side with her vulnerable, innocent and curious child side. Wright frequently said he envisioned Hanna as a modern-day Grimm fairy tale--this one has an espionage backdrop and a dental hygiene-obsessed CIA scumbag as the evil witch--but I always interpreted Hanna as less of a fairy tale and more like an alien-on-Earth story a la The Iron Giant. Just replace the sentient robot soldier who discovers the wonders of Earth and decides that he doesn't want to be a gun with a home-schooled, feral and genetically engineered German teen who gets a taste of the world outside her wilderness classroom and realizes she wants no part of the kind of life her ex-CIA associate dad (Eric Bana, also working with a campy German accent) trained her for.

And how about that futuristic original score by the Chemical Brothers? It's like a fifth character in the movie, but it's definitely my favorite character, even more so than Hanna herself. The Hanna score, which can be heard during both "AFOS Prime" and the new AFOS espionage score music block "AFOS Incognito," is a remarkable aural achievement from a duo that never scored a film before. The tongue-in-cheek and creepy melody they wrote for Isaacs to whistle repeatedly--it's known on the score album as "The Devil Is in the Details"--is an all-time great villain theme.

Here we see Jim Norton confronting a heckler.

Part of why the Chemical Brothers' propulsive score will stand the test of time is because the Chemical Brothers were simply allowed to be the Chemical Brothers, and they didn't acquiesce to the ubiquitous Inception foghorn from old Love Boat episodes--which was popular then and is still all over action film score music--or any other Hans Zimmer-esque flourish like the ones that are evidence of John Powell's roots as a member of Zimmer's Media Ventures collective during Powell's scores for the Bourne movies. Sure, the equally beloved Daft Punk/Joseph Trapanese score from 2010's Tron: Legacy contains some "BRAHM!," but it works for that video game-inspired gladiator movie. It wouldn't have worked for either Hanna or what the Chemical Brothers were aiming for, and that was to sound as alien as Hanna herself. "BRAHM!" would have stuck out like a really bad Southern accent.