Friday, September 4, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "The Ricks Must Be Crazy"

Rick is about to get a few Colbert Bumps on his head.
Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

"The Ricks Must Be Crazy" feels like somebody on the Rick and Morty writing staff had a chip on his shoulder about Tron: Legacy, especially the ways it handled its premise of Jeff Bridges creating an entire universe full of sentient life inside a computer, and he didn't care for what he felt was a simplistic screenplay. Tron: Legacy is a good example of both the story serving the visuals rather than vice versa--however, director Joseph Kosinski's style-over-substance approach still couldn't stop me from watching Tron: Legacy in IMAX 3D twice because, holy fuck, that movie looks mesmerizing in IMAX 3D--and those visuals being made to look so sumptuous that they're able to distract the audience from thinking too long about the story's plot holes or unexplained details. Some of the questions that arose from those unexplained details included "How's it possible for Jeff Bridges and his family to enjoy a meal of lechon if fresh meat is impossible to bring into the Grid?" and "Was there a Filipino chef in Jeff Bridges' family whom we never knew about?"

A lot of why "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" is a highlight of Rick and Morty's second season is due to how much fun Justin Roiland, Dan Harmon and credited episode writer Dan Guterman are clearly having over imagining if Jeff Bridges could leave and re-enter the Grid freely instead of being imprisoned there by his evil doppleganger/digital avatar Clu and what would happen if Jeff Bridges craved power as much as Clu does and he turned out to be an even bigger dick than the marginally flawed, almost Fred MacMurray-like Zen inventor dad we saw in Tron: Legacy. "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" reveals that Rick has created an entire infinite universe inside the battery in his space car, and its inhabitants' only purpose in life is to power Rick's car battery. "That's slavery!," counters an appalled Morty when Rick introduces him to what he calls the microverse.

Instead of the more simplistic scenario of a completely evil duplicate of the universe's creator betraying that creator by enacting ethnic cleansing and plotting to rule the world outside the universe's barriers, one of the microverse's inhabitants, a Frank Grimes-ish scientist named Zeep Xanflorp (special guest star Stephen Colbert, whose Colbert Report writing staff happened to include Guterman), refuses to fall for Rick's white savior act like everyone outside the scientific community in the microverse. Zeep is on to some of Rick's deceptions. Those deceptions range from Rick disguising himself as an antennaed alien savior whenever he visits the microverse to Rick telling the microverse's inhabitants that the middle finger is a peaceful greeting.

Zeep plans to oust Rick from the microverse and free the microverse from servitude, but Zeep's no saint either: he has secretly created his own infinite miniverse in a box to provide the energy for his microverse and make obsolete the technology Rick brought to Zeep's microverse, and he's exploiting the people in that miniverse just like Rick is doing to the people in the microverse. In fact, one of the leading scientists in the miniverse, Kyle (special guest star Nathan Fielder from Comedy Central's Nathan for You), has also secretly built his own teenyverse in a box and...

Whether it's Zeep--or the space car security system Rick programmed to keep Summer safe within the space car when she's not allowed to accompany her grandpa and her brother at a certain point during the trio's night out for ice cream and a PG-13 movie on an alternate Earth--Rick's creations all inherited their creator's dickish and easily bored personality. When Summer expresses her objections to the talking space car (Kari Wahlgren) about the bloodshed and cruelty the space car is willing to resort to in order to protect Summer, the space car responds to her with "My function is to keep Summer safe, not keep Summer being, like, totally stoked about, like, the general vibe and stuff. That's you. That's how you talk." They really are their creator's children.

Tron: Legacy and a much more detestable animal than Tron--all those self-aggrandizing movie star vanity projects in which white stars imagine themselves as saviors of less civilized classrooms or neighborhoods or nations or microverses--aren't the only things that appear to be mocked by "The Ricks Must Be Crazy." The episode also appears to be making fun of the benevolent façade the Silicon Valley tech world likes to put on to distract people from how it reinforces the same old evils and inequities of other industries or business communities like Wall Street (like Tajai from Souls of Mischief once said, "Eventually #Hipsters bathe, shave and become the 'out' republicans [sic] they are"). Doesn't that kind of "we're here to help make your world a better place" façade just remind you a bit of those aliens from the Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man"? "Gooble boxes," the term the microverse inhabitants adopt for the technology they are unknowingly using to keep themselves subjugated, is clearly the writers' reference to a certain much-criticized corporation with benevolent-looking branding that happens to own the platform that makes this blog post possible. Whattup, Google/NSA.

A certain segment of the TV critic community is understandably tired of narratives about middle-aged or old white anti-heroes. But when a Rick and Morty episode like "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" mines so much darkly comedic gold out of the behavior of Rick and his creations (behavior that Morty and Summer find to be appalling and sociopathic, but Rick's pragmatic way of handling things ends up being the most sane way to respond to a much more insane multiverse) and is visually and narratively inventive (and also perfectly casts a former Comedy Central prankster and a current Comedy Central prankster as pranksters on an epic scale), I say, "Bring on the anti-hero narrative again." Shit, Rick may not even be totally white--his last name is Sanchez and he's probably a white-looking half-Latino like Louis C.K.

It's a relief to see Rick and Morty reverting back to exploring moral quandaries like it has done in such episodes as "Mortynight Run," especially after the previous week's slight misfire, "Get Schwifty," which felt more like a South Park episode than a Rick and Morty episode. It was as if Trey Parker and Matt Stone guest-wrote Rick and Morty and were in the mood to insert another round of their usual barbs about either non-Lorde pop music (although the "Get Schwifty" original songs performed by Roiland and series composer Ryan Elder are amusing, "Love Power" from The Producers-ish spoofs of lyrics from either twerking anthems or EDM) or reality TV. Humor about reality TV stars like Ice-T--a favorite celebrity impression of Harmon's during Harmontown--isn't really Rick and Morty's strong suit. Also, Rick is a less interesting character when he has to play the Doctor and save Earth from disaster (in this case, the trigger-happy judges of an intergalactic reality TV pop music songwriting contest) instead of being the cause of mayhem.

It's hard not to dislike a piece of TV that takes a bit of that mayhem and uses it to briefly riff on Turbo Teen, a short-lived '80s Saturday morning cartoon about a teen who transforms into a Pontiac Trans Am whenever he perspires or eats a spicy burrito. "The Ricks Must Be Crazy" also reveals that Rick implanted Morty with a subdermal chip that can trigger dormant nanobots in Morty's bloodstream to restructure his anatomy and turn him into a getaway car during emergency situations. The nanobots fail to get going--until the show's funniest post-credits tag ever, nicely presented without any dialogue. I wish I could say Turbo Teen was really a joke Robert Smigel and J.J. Sedelmaier came up with, but nope, it's what passed for Saturday car chase action fare when I was a kid. You take one look at Brett Matthews' knuckles morphing into tires, and you're like, "Wow, the things Ruby-Spears employees used to come up with after doing trail-of-tears-length lines of coke."

Other memorable quotes:
* Rick: "I guided your entire civilization! Your people have a holiday named Ricksgiving! They teach kids about me in school!"
Zeep: "I dropped out of school. It's not a place for smart people."
Morty: "Ohhhhhhh snap!"

* Rick: "Would it be possible for us to get some kind of tour of your miniverse from the inside?"
Zeep: "This isn't a fucking chocolate factory. I don't have time!"

* Zeep: "That's what you used my universe for?! To run your car?!"
Rick: "Yeah, but don't flatter yourself! There's always AAA, you fucking cocksucker!"

* Zeep: "I crafted the guy that created the planet you're standing on!"
Rick: "Yeah, and I made the stars that became the carbon in your mother's ovaries!"

* Morty: "This is Ku'ala, the spirit tree! For generations, it has guided the... [Takes Rick aside.] You have to get us the fuck outta here! These people are backward savages! They eat every third baby because they think it makes fruit grow bigger! Everyone's gross and they all smell like piss all the time! I-I-I miss my family! I miss my laptop! I masturbate [sic] into an extra curvy piece of driftwood the other day!"

* Rick: "Don't blame my ship!"
Summer: "It melted a child! It killed itself!"
Rick: "My ship doesn't do anything unless it's told to do something! I don't even wanna hear it, Summer... Your boobs are all hanging about, and you ruined ice cream with your boobs out!"

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Too bad Hanna-Barbera doesn't exist anymore because I'd like to see them totally fuck up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and turn it into a kids' cartoon called Gripe Ape.
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.

The most astounding thing about director Rupert Wyatt's 2011 surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second and better-received of two different attempts by 20th Century Fox to relaunch its Planet of the Apes franchise from the '60s and '70s, isn't the motion-capture technology the film deployed to bring to life superintelligent simians. It's the film's ability to somehow take otherwise charismatic actors like Brian Cox, Deadbeat star Tyler Labine and David Oyelowo and make them the most boring fucks on Earth.

For instance, the future Martin Luther King plays a villainous businessman here--before seeing Selma, I almost forgot Oyelowo previously appeared in this loose remake of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes--but he makes way more of an impression as a villain on the animated Star Wars Rebels, even without ever showing his actual face. As the superintelligent chimpanzee Caesar, Andy Serkis, with the help of Weta Digital's motion-capture tech, is the real star of these modern-day Apes movies. After the remarkable and expressive mo-cap acting of Serkis, Karin Konoval, a.k.a. Mrs. Peacock from the ultra-disturbing X-Files episode "Home," and, in 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Toby Kebbell, there's no way in that place Charlton Heston damned them all to that these Apes movies are going back to burying the actors under rubber John Chambers ape masks.

This is also how former 20th Century Fox studio exec Tom Rothman titles his family photo albums.
I appreciate how both Rise and Dawn are Caesar's story rather than the story of either his human father, Bay Area pharmaceutical scientist Will Rodman (James Franco)--whose search for a cure for Alzheimer's inadvertently triggers the events that will lead to the dominance of apes over humans--or one of Will's relatives. It's preferable over the way the Autobots are relegated to guest stars in their own live-action Transformers movies. But these modern-day Apes prequels, especially Rise, could really use a human ally character with the personality of either Heston's cantankerous Colonel Taylor from the first two Apes installments or Ricardo Montalban's Armando, Caesar's foster dad from the third and fourth Apes installments (as Will's dad, who's suffering from Alzheimer's, John Lithgow gives the best non-simian performance in Rise).

Franco is in visibly bored, "grrrr, where's my paycheck so that I can get some new leather paddles for my next art installation?" mode here. I wish Caesar's favorite parent were played by either Jeff Goldblum, who would have imbued some personality into Will and would have been able to bring a bit more life to Will's compassion for Caesar (but Will's dad would have had to have been played by someone older than Lithgow), or better yet, an actress like Jessica Chastain, because these modern-day Apes movies are too much of a sausage fest (Freida Pinto and, in Dawn, Keri Russell are little more than background extras).

That's one other thing that's missing from Rise and Dawn: a charismatic female presence like Kim Hunter's when she played Dr. Zira, the banana-hating chimp who becomes an ally of Taylor's, in the first three Apes movies. It's too bad Konoval's kindly circus orangutan Maurice, a simian character I like even more than Caesar, isn't female.

Maurice, who was named after 1968 Apes star Maurice Evans, is a huge part of why Rise is at its best when it moves away from Will and concentrates on the beginnings of Caesar's ape revolt. The dialogue for the scenes between Caesar and his simian followers is delivered in subtitled sign language, and the large amount of subtitled ASL in Rise is something you'd never expect to see in a summer blockbuster. Rise's comfort with silence and minimized dialogue during the ape sanctuary scenes and its confidence in maintaining that silence both make the digitized little girl's voice that translates Amy the gorilla's ASL in 1995's Congo sound all the more stupid.

All the spoken dialogue in the ape sanctuary scenes comes from the apes' mostly sadistic jailers, with the cruelest of them being Dodge Landon, played by Harry Potter villain Tom Felton in a not-very-convincing American accent. I really wish it were William Zabka from the original Karate Kid playing Dodge instead of Felton. It's such a Zabka part. Who wouldn't want to see a 20-something Zabka get smacked around by an angry gorilla?

'Caesar want naked bicyclists to leave city immediately! Caesar no care for human schlongs and derrieres!'

Felton has to deliver the cheesiest line in Rise and the prequel's most blatant callback to the first and best Apes movie: Heston's classic "Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" line. It's interesting how the worst line in the movie--a line we really didn't need to hear again because it's all too reminiscent of Tim Burton's misguided 2001 Apes remake--is followed by the movie's most powerful line, a moment that was foreshadowed by Roddy McDowall's Cornelius in the first Apes prequel, 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes: Caesar saying his first word, "No!"

Caesar's first word is the moment when Rise changes from a sci-fi prequel that's initially as pointless as The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones to the kind of riveting and worthwhile Apes movie we've always wanted to see but couldn't because of early-'70s 20th Century Fox's shoestring budgets and because of how limited creature FX technology was before the geniuses at Weta Digital got their stinkin' paws on it. I dig the city of San Francisco, but Serkis, Konoval and the other mo-cap performers are so skilled at turning Caesar and his lieutenants into sympathetic figures that I ended up rooting for their characters to wreak havoc on San Francisco. Now if only the movie would show Caesar and his army kicking each and every neighborhood gentrifier out of town.

None of Patrick Doyle's score cues from Rise of the Planet of the Apes are currently in rotation on AFOS, but "Golden Gate Bridge" ought to be.

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Vixen, "Episode 1"

I don't know why the CW went with CW Seed for the name of its online offshoot. If you're going to name yourself after a Roots track, CW Dynamite would be better.
Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

At only five minutes per weekly episode, the six-part CW Seed miniseries Vixen, an animated reintroduction of a black DC Comics heroine who previously appeared in animated, Gina Torres-voiced form on Bruce Timm's beloved Justice League Unlimited, is hilariously short. I expected Chris Rock to channel his old SNL character Nat X and joke about how a black superhero can only get a five-minute webtoon because the Man won't give her a two-hour movie. So I was surprised to discover that Rock has been raving about Vixen.

In a summer that's consisted of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man on the big screen (we'll just forget the whole Fantastic Four fiasco, and, oh, by the way, the only Fantastic Four that matters is these guys), that's huge praise for a superhero webtoon. So is Vixen--which takes place in the Arrow/The Flash/Legends of Tomorrow shared universe and will feature the voices of Arrow stars Stephen Amell and Emily Bett Rickards and Flash stars Grant Gustin and Carlos Valdes in upcoming episodes--as terrific as Rock implies? Animation-wise: yes. Storytelling-wise: it's too early--and too short--to tell. So far, I'm not in love with the presence of the ubiquitous in medias res device--an old storytelling favorite of the Arrow writers, who also scripted Vixen--and the clunky-sounding exposition during a diner conversation between aspiring Detroit fashion designer Mari McCabe (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who's about to discover that a family heirloom she's been wearing can grant her the power to mimic the abilities of animals, and her white foster dad Chuck (Neil Flynn, a.k.a. the dad on The Middle) in this first episode.

My least favorite aspect of Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti's now-defunct DC Animation show Young Justice comes back to haunt this new DC Animation project. Early on in one episode of Young Justice, Miss Martian was seen explaining to a skeptical and typically monosyllabic Superboy why she used her shape-shifting powers to disguise themselves as her uncle J'onn J'onnz and Superman at a press conference that just took place, more for the sake of bringing the audience up to speed than for her ex-boyfriend's sake. "Conner, you know we have to maintain the illusion that Superman, Manhunter and the other Leaguers who went into space are still on Earth. We can't let our enemies know how short-handed the Justice League is right now," she said to Superboy, who, in addition to being miserable about his life as a teenage clone of both Superman and Lex Luthor, has to go to work each day with a pro-torture ex-girlfriend who's fond of speaking in IMDb plot summary-ese.

Arrow veterans Wendy Mericle, Keto Shimizu and Brian Ford Sullivan (all paired up with Lauren Certo, who co-wrote another Arrow-related webseries, the live-action Blood Rush) are a little more skilled at handling exposition than Weisman and Vietti because of the experience they've had writing dialogue for a live-action prime-time show that can't really get away with that type of Saturday morning cartoon exposition too often. So Vixen is slightly more cognizant than Young Justice about how people who know each other well actually talk to each other and is a little less ridiculous and awkward about the exposition--we learn Mari is looking for her birth parents, the difficulties of finding the fashion design job she wants have left her with an understandable temper and she's closer to Patty, an absent and most likely ailing member of Mari's foster family who's presumably Chuck's wife (and will be voiced by Kari Wuhrer), than she is to Chuck--but much of it is still unnatural-sounding expository dialogue. The opening action sequence is much closer to what I want out of an animated sister show to Arrow, The Flash and the forthcoming Legends of Tomorrow, and that would be nicely staged action that's full of visuals an animated show can pull off with more panache than a live-action one, with minimal dialogue during the action. But that rooftop sequence in which Mari outwits the Arrow (Amell) and outraces the Flash (Gustin)--only to accidentally slip and fall--actually goes one better by containing no dialogue at all. It's a wise stylistic choice by both the Arrow writers and miniseries director James Tucker, who previously directed the 2013 DC Animation movie Superman Unbound and showran Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the surprisingly good DC Animation show that proved a light-hearted take on modern-day Batman doesn't have to suck like a Joel Schumacher Batman movie.

The effective animation for Mari's escape from Oliver Queen and Barry Allen, a sequence in which miniseries co-composer Blake Neely gets to restate his main themes from Arrow and The Flash, is mainly what earns the Vixen premiere episode the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week title. But there are a couple of extra touches that elevate Vixen and will make it worth following on CW Seed in the next few weeks.

The show's dialogue recording team is clearly made up of fans of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was distinctive for having its vocal cast record their dialogue outside the recording booth and outdoors in order to make their stop-motion-animated movie sound naturalistic. I'm not sure if the Vixen sound team actually did venture outside the booth to record Mari's reverby scene in jail, her diner scene with Chuck and an upcoming S.T.A.R. Labs scene between Barry and Valdes' lab tech character Cisco that was included in the series premiere trailer, but the Fantastic Mr. Fox approach to getting Mari and the other characters to sound like they're actually in reverby and chilly rooms gives this DC Animation project an interestingly grounded feel and makes it a seamless part of the live-action Arrow/Flashverse.

Oh yeah, and there's the simple fact that Mari is the first female superpowered hero of color in the Arrow/Flashverse (Katana, a heroic swordswoman played on Arrow last season by Rila Fukushima, doesn't have any powers). The character is an appealing middle ground between the fantasy-based heroism of the supers on The Flash and the more flawed (and non-superpowered) heroism of the street-level crimefighters on Arrow (the time frame of the miniseries begins with Mari in jail for self-defense, and the episode implies that the man she attacked was such a disgusting perv that she didn't deserve to be put behind bars).

I'm curious to see how Echikunwoke--whom I remember from her eye-candy roles on The 4400 and House of Lies and is an ideal choice to play Mari if she becomes a live-action character--will tackle both voice acting, especially in a setting that's way more family-friendly than House of Lies (but still salty in the dialogue department, in a CW kind of way, of course), and a heroic character who, like Static from DC's Milestone imprint, clearly means a lot to African American DC readers. So far, the premiere episode has shown that Echikunwoke is a great screamer. I never read the Justice League Detroit comics. I don't think Vixen screams like Mel from Doctor Who in those comics.

Much better-looking than Manimal.

Looking forward to seeing her fight Kelly Hu with the venomous spurs of a platypus.

I'm also curious to see how Vixen will handle what's essentially a story about a black adoptee raised by white parents (she appears to be embarrassed about it)--and in search of both her heritage and her purpose in life--that happens to be dressed up in superhero genre garb. Will it handle that kind of story with the same kind of aplomb Penny Dreadful has demonstrated as a story about identity that's dressed up as a Gothic horror drama? Or will it drop the ball like 2011's Green Lantern, which Arrow creators and Vixen co-executive producers Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti both co-wrote, and turn into another unimaginative--and emotionally flat--daddy issues-driven origin story?

Chris Rock's praise of this webtoon's premiere episode, as well as Flash cast member Candice Patton's similar endorsement of it--even though she's not in Vixen and she didn't get to reprise her role as Iris West--and black viewers' interest in it on Twitter, all remind me of when I was involved in the creation of a similar female superhero of color for an indie graphic novel about Asian American superheroes. I noticed a glint of excitement in the eyes of both male and female Asian American readers who were fans of that novel back in 2009. It was a glint that said, "I've been hungry for this my whole life."

I'm unable to glimpse that same glint on people from Black Twitter for obvious reasons, but judging from Vixen viewers' #DatTotem hashtag and enthusiastic tweets from the likes of BlackGirlNerds and the hosts of The Fan Bros Show, that glint is definitely there in their writing. Everyone's getting tired of superhero movies starring white guys named Chris. There needs to be more Chrisiquas and Cristinas up in this piece.

Times are changing, and the increasingly inclusive Arrow/Flashverse appears to be responding to the frustrations younger viewers have expressed about the presence of underrepresented groups on the screen, but it's responding in mostly sensible--and now with the arrival of Vixen, fascinating--ways. For instance, on The Flash, the police captain isn't an old, pasty Irish guy like it always used to be on cop shows and superhero shows before the '90s (neither is the captain some African American authority figure with no inner life). He's a younger and openly gay Indian Canadian guy. And now the Arrow/Flashverse is boldly placing a black woman at the center of the action instead of behind the action like spymaster Amanda Waller or on the sidelines like Iris. The five-minute webtoon format may make Vixen seem like a small step towards progress, but this step's a big one.

In addition to catching an arrow, she'll also be catching a fade.
Oliver Queen, you have failed this action sequence.
Mari does her best impression of Straight Outta Compton crushing Fantastic Four at the box office.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

This can't be Phife.

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.

I grew up listening repeatedly to A Tribe Called Quest's first three albums on cassette: 1990's playful People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1991's more introspective but somehow even more enjoyable The Low End Theory and 1993's celebratory and communal Midnight Marauders, a rare threequel that actually doesn't suck. So while some ATCQ heads might find the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first (and so far, only) directorial effort from actor/filmmaker/copy shop employee Michael Rapaport, to be repetitive because "it was all stuff that any Tribe fan either already knew or could pick up from a thousand different bio's on the internet," I marveled at a lot of the footage Rapaport, a Tribe fan himself, was able to gather about the origins of three of my favorite hip-hop albums, as well as the origins of the Native Tongues collective, which consisted of Tribe and several other acts who appeared on classic Tribe joints like "Award Tour" and "Oh My God."

"We don't have to do 'Fuck tha Police.' There's a time and a place for 'Fuck tha Police.' And a group for that. We don't have to do 'Fight the Power.' There's a time and a place and a group for that. We're allowed to be different," says former Native Tongues member Monie Love about the much more whimsical but no less meaningful sounds of Native Tongues artists during the documentary. Besides Tribe and Monie, the revered collective also included the remarkably still-together De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, the Jungle Brothers and Leaders of the New School, whose member Busta Rhymes had a breakout moment that took place not on an LONS track but as a guest MC on Tribe's "Scenario," a classic posse cut Rapaport wasn't able to include in his documentary due to clearance issues. Since "Scenario," Busta has gone on to have an unusual (and tabloid-riddled) solo career, whether he's reuniting with former Tribe frontman/beatmaker Q-Tip on the 2013 track "Thank You" or rapping in the form of either Prince Akeem or liquid metal. The last time we saw Busta, his eyes haven't been looking so good. They've been starting to get rather googly lately.

Viewers who don't know what it's like to go crate digging in a record store might not care for the footage Rapaport and cinematographer Robert Benavides lovingly shot of Q-Tip and former Tribe DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad browsing for potential beats like kids getting lost in a candy store, but as someone who did an awful lot of crate digging as a college radio DJ, that portion of The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest resonates with me. There's an equally lovely moment where Questlove--whose choice of the letter Q for his moniker was his way of shouting out ATCQ--equates Phife Dawg's "Yo!" at the start of his classic opening verse in "Buggin' Out" with N.W.A. bursting through the Martin Luther King "I have a dream" sign at the start of the "Express Yourself" video.

Despite these great touches, Tip famously distanced himself from the final product after he watched it (he would later backpedal on his negative opinion of the film). He launched a war of words with Rapaport and told him, "All you gotta do is stay white and be privileged" (both Tip and Ali's gripes with the documentary led to Tip calling for other rappers and beatmakers to "tell your own stories" and take more control of images of themselves, which is precisely what Tip and Ali have been doing: about a year before Friday director F. Gary Gray's hugely popular N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton took the summer by storm, Tip announced his plans to co-produce with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill a similar TV project about Native Tongues, while Ali launched with music journalist Frannie Kelley the NPR hip-hop musician interview show Microphone Check). But no such anger is evident in Tip's gregarious conversations with the largely off-screen Rapaport about the early days of Tribe, like when Tip recalls how he came across the drum sample for "Can I Kick It?" or when he and Ali visit their old Manhattan high school Murry Bergtraum and Tip demonstrates how effective a classroom desk can be as a percussion instrument.

As for myself when I was in high school, I was such an ATCQ head that when I took drama class and each student was assigned to recite a song or poem without any beats and as if it were a stage monologue, I chose "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" as my piece of spoken word to perform. So I particularly love the moment in The Travels of ATCQ when Tip does his best Redd Foxx--also peep Tip's dead-on impression of batshit crazy KRS-One--and reveals that the inspiration for "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," which was made into an above-average music video filmed in guerrilla mode and on location in Las Vegas by future "What They Do" video mastermind Charles Stone III, came from Fred Sanford, a reference I stupidly never noticed until Tip pointed it out. "Son, you gonna sit down and watch a late-night movie with me," says Tip-as-Sanford while discussing the birth of "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo." "It's a good one: Godzilla Ate El Segundo."

Besides verses about wallet misplacement, the Tribe sound and steez were also all about empowerment, black unity, the love of making music as an art form (and subtweeting pop-rappers when they have no artistic integrity or are terrible at making music--or if they're MC Hammer, not even bothering to subtweet them) and perhaps the most relatable subject if you're not black but still a person of color: the love of music as a way to lift yourself out of whatever doldrums you're stuck with as a person of color. I cringe at some of the high-falutin' and vague adjectives either music critics or reviewers of the Rapaport documentary have used to distinguish the Tribe sound from the more popular gangsta rap Straight Outta Compton has brought back into the limelight this summer. The sound of the Queens trio (originally a quartet, before third MC Jarobi White, whom Tip describes in the film as the "spirit" of ATCQ, stepped away from the recording side of things to pursue a culinary career) is always "bohemian." What the fuck does that mean? Or it's always "positive."

Far less vague words like "unique" or "entrancing" would make more sense as descriptions of the Tribe sound. Here are four even better words: "gets your head nodding." That's precisely what Tip and Ali's low-end beats, combined with Phife's witty wordplay and his chemistry on the mic with Tip, did to your head, especially during The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. It made it constantly nod, out of both delight over the sonic beauty of the beats perfected by Tip, Ali and engineer Bob Power (or the musicality of Tip and Phife's voices) and approval over Phife's one-liners, and man, "Electric Relaxation" is full of gems from Phife, like "Not to come across as a thug or a hood/But hon, you got the goods like Madelyne Woods" or the simultaneously boastful and self-deprecating "Let me hit it from the back, girl, I won't catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman's Furniture."

The first 60 minutes of Rapaport's documentary beautifully get that point across about the group's ability to get your head nodding. Like Questlove says about Tip and Phife's rhymes during the film, "Tip is very smooth. Phife is very hype. The yin and yang of those two, that to me was the perfect marriage."

And like so many marriages, Tip and Phife's had its rough patches. At exactly the one-hour mark, the documentary switches gears and details the sad dissolution of the group, which began to take place during the recording of 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life and is given amusingly horror-like dissonant score cues by Madlib, who, with some assists from Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark, composed the documentary's original score and proves he has a future in scoring horror movies. The film's last half-hour turns into every single melodramatic VH1 Behind the Music documentary you've seen about a dissolving rock band. When Rapaport hastily speeds through the Beats, Rhymes and Life album and the fifth and final Tribe album, 1998's The Love Movement, as if he's going to get Beats, Rhymes and Life/The Love Movement cooties and as if those albums are the Lil Wayne's Rebirth of Native Tongues hip-hop--which they're actually not--you're thinking to yourself, "Yo, Behind the Music announcer who always says, 'And then it all came crashing down,' get your ass out here!"

Tribe's breakup is more complicated than how Rapaport portrays it. Sure, the group's demise was due to the rift between childhood friends Tip and Phife, who's even more of a reluctant star than the reluctant star Tip is portrayed as in both the Rapaport film and Benji B's 2014 BBC Radio 1 production The Story of Q-Tip, a documentary you'll actually prefer over the Rapaport film if the craft of beatmaking is more compelling to you than melodramatic, reality TV-style infighting. The self-described "funky diabetic"--who shunned rapping after briefly pursuing a solo career (a career the documentary oddly neglects to mention) and became a basketball scout--grew tired of Tip's perfectionist ways, what he felt was Tip's insensitive, bullying gym coach-like attitude towards his struggles with diabetes and inexplicable decisions by Tip like the much-maligned prominence of Tip's cousin, then-newcomer Consequence, as a guest MC on the 1996 album (even Consequence himself admits in a deleted scene that being thrust into the spotlight on a Tribe album by Tip like that was baffling to him too). But the circumstances that led to the breakup are actually more than just "lifelong friends who got on each other's nerves." In 1998, Phife grumbled to The Source about the business side of the rap game and said, "As time went on, [the business side] started to slap me in my face. But as far as record labels, or whoever, they're not gonna do us right."

There's a whole thread about the now-defunct Jive Records, Tribe's label, also playing a role in the dissolution that Rapaport's film gives only a cursory mention to and just plain ignores the rest of the time. That's perhaps because Rapaport was trying to appease Sony, Jive's parent company, so that he could get permission to include the De La Soul/ATCQ/Native Tongues posse cut "Buddy," which Sony partially owns and which he almost couldn't get clearance for. There's a more interesting story to be told about the record industry screwing over hip-hop acts, like how both the greed of plaintiffs and lawyers and an elephant in the room called anti-rap racism has caused the art of sampling--something Tip continues to excel at, like during his Black Ivory-sampling 2008 joint "Gettin' Up"--to lose the prominence it once had in hip-hop (no wonder so many hip-hop acts jump ship to indie labels or start self-releasing their work). But The Travels of ATCQ, which has a commercial TV-friendly 100-minute running time and could use a few more minutes of examples of Tip's frequently quoted "Industry rule number 4080/Record company people are shady" line from "Check the Rhime," oddly doesn't seize the opportunity to be the first mainstream hip-hop documentary to elaborate on that story.

One of the best scenes in Beats, Rhymes and Life is Lakers fan Phife explaining why he often wears a Lakers jersey in Knicks-worshiping New York and doesn't give a shit. Phife may be short, but he's got massive balls.
From left to right: former Tribe Called Quest members Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Jarobi.

The "J Dilla caused Tribe to jump the shark when his musical idol Tip recruited him as a co-producer" opinion that some ATCQ heads have about the Beats, Rhymes and Life album and The Love Movement is equally bananas. The late Dilla isn't to blame for the last two albums not measuring up to the other three. Actually, thanks to the addition of the about-to-be-legendary Detroit producer--fresh off producing several of the best tracks on The Pharcyde's last great album, 1995's Labcabincalifornia--to Tip and Ali's partnership, the production work by the trio that came to be known as the Ummah fortunately didn't turn into a rehash of the boom bap of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. So there are quite a few cuts on the Ummah-era albums (like "Get a Hold") that stand out due to Dilla and were ahead of their time (the beloved beatmaker's role in helping evolve Tribe's sound was omitted from the film because Rapaport said he felt Dilla deserved a separate documentary of his own, but he could have at least kept the segment about everyone's admiration of Dilla, which appears in the Sony Pictures Blu-ray's extended scenes section). The now-veteran musicians' unhappiness with both Jive (the label pissed off Tribe so much the group didn't go back to record one more contractually obligated album for them) and each other was what actually soured the last two albums.

Jive alienated so many artists during its existence, like when they wouldn't allow Big Boi to release guest features his former OutKast partner Andre 3000 recorded for Big's 2010 solo album Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Industry rule number 4080" was Tip's way of biting the hand that fed them as early as The Low End Theory. So whenever Rapaport's interviewees bring up their frustrations with Jive and its then-CEO Barry Weiss, whom Rapaport also interviews, I wish the documentary--which, interestingly, was lucky to snag Tribe manager Chris Lighty, whose discussion of his unintentional role in the demise of Native Tongues shouldn't have been deleted from the film, and Beastie Boys member MCA as interviewees before they died about a year after the film's release--would be a little more journalistic and delve into those frustrations with Jive instead of burying the lede. That's what keeps Rapaport's otherwise satisfying film from reaching the upper echelon of hip-hop documentaries like 1983's Style Wars and even the completely light-hearted Michel Gondry film Dave Chappelle's Block Party. De La Soul member Posdnuos, another interviewee during Rapaport's film, once said he thought an earlier cut of the documentary he got to see was better than the final cut because it "had a little more spice in it." His comments make me curious about material that didn't survive the final cut and didn't even get included in the deleted scenes, perhaps due to either pressure from evil record industry bastards or pressure from Tribe.

Rapaport's film also doesn't bother to take the time to clarify one of the most frequently misheard lyrics of all time, a lyric even I continued to mishear for years: the semi-audible hook during "Electric Relaxation." Is it "Relax yourself, girl, preset plan"? Or is it "Relax yourself, girl, peace out, Premier"? The hook is actually "Relax yourself, girl, please settle down." You had one job, The Travels of ATCQ.

So why can't Tip and Phife just relax themselves and please settle down and record another album together? While, as Rapaport once noted about audience reactions after the documentary screenings, "people have walked away saying, 'I wish they could get along and make more music,'" I'm satisfied with the five Tribe albums we have, plus all those Tip/Busta collabos that I like to pretend are Tribe tracks with Busta as the new Phife. Recording another album that will measure up to those first three isn't easy. Just look at the mixed reviews Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement received. By 1996, Tip and an increasingly disillusioned Phife were no longer the same artists they were when they burst onto the scene with tunes like "Bonita Applebum"--or in the case of Phife, "Buggin' Out." They can never get back to that happy-go-lucky sound. Why try to go back? Right now, Tip is happy with both his solo career and not having to deal with intrusive and impatient types like the suits from Jive while his perfectionist self gets to spend as much time as he wants fine-tuning every nook and cranny of a project like The Renaissance or The Last Zulu; Phife is happy with his life away from the music industry.

Art isn't easy. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and Tip would be finished with The Last Zulu by now.

Friday, August 21, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "Total Rickall"

Luckily, Hulk doesn't fall 20 feet to the theater floor during this musical.
Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

Has Rick and Morty tackled the Rashomon episode yet? I know Rick and Morty has done a bottle episode ("Rixty Minutes"), and this week's Rick and Morty episode, "Total Rickall," is a crazy hybrid of a bottle episode and that Community fan favorite of a clip show parody where none of the clips are actual clips. But even though the Rashomon episode has been done to death on TV, I would like to see Rick and Morty add its own offbeat sci-fi spin to it (but differently from how Star Trek: The Next Generation's "A Matter of Perspective" and the X-Files episodes "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" and "Bad Blood" previously tackled the Rashomon ep) and do a lot with it visually like "Total Rickall" does when it morphs from being a hybrid of a bottle episode and an anti-clip show and takes the shape of a John Carpenter's The Thing-style paranoid thriller where everyone's driven crazy by being unable to tell apart the real from the fake.

In "Total Rickall," alien parasites invade the Smiths' house, pretend to be relatives or family friends and telepathically implant into the Smiths' brains fake memories of wacky adventures with them, hence a bunch of flashbacks to adventures that never actually happened, like that time the family and Cousin Nicky from Brooklyn wound up on board a Nazi sub. I like how the shape-shifting parasites' objective isn't outlined by the parasites in some typical Star Trek alien leader speech. They aren't out to assimilate humanity like the Thing or the Borg (neither do they admit to being lonely and wanting companionship); they're simply on Earth to drive the humans insane (so that they lose control of the planet), and their first step is to infest the Smiths' house and multiply like ants at a picnic--or Tribbles on a starship. And that's where the episode's visual merits come in: thanks to animation, "Total Rickall" is able to take the bottle episode and do things with it a live-action show like Community would have needed extra FX money for or would have been unable to accomplish. The house becomes so overcrowded with parasites disguised as nonexistent characters that Rick pauses to address whatever parallel reality he (correctly) assumes is watching his life as if it's a TV show--a.k.a. breaking the fourth wall--and notes the coolness of standing in the middle of a shot that looks like a Where's Waldo? page.

"Total Rickall" is tons of fun, especially when the parasites, after Rick doesn't fall for their Uncle Steve/Cousin Nicky phase, experiment with a wacky ABC TGIF sitcom character phase and assume the forms of a Mr. Belvedere clone named Mr. Beauregard and a Herman Munster-style Frankenstein Frankenstein's monster (Kevin Michael Richardson). Then when Rick won't fall for the deceptions implanted by Phase 2 of the parasites, the forms the parasites take become even more absurd and desperate. They range from Reverse Giraffe (sixth-season Community star Keith David) to Hamurai (Richardson), a samurai whose armor is covered in ham (if only we all could be a fly on the wall in the writers' room on the day when credited "Total Rickall" writer Mike McMahan and the rest of the writing staff rattled off the names of fake buddies who would pop up in the Smiths' house).

The solution to defeating the parasites comes not from Rick but from Morty, when he notices all the fake memories implanted by the parasites are pleasant memories instead of the always painful and unpleasant memories the Smiths have experienced as a family. The real memories include Summer catching Morty masturbating in the kitchen at night (why the kitchen?: the excuse Morty gave for jerking off in the kitchen was that he was thinking about one of Summer's friends, but was it actually because he was masturbating to the lady on the Land O'Lakes box?); Jerry being too scared to protect Beth from a homeless guy who's trying to assault her (it's reminiscent of Jeff leaving his wife Hayley alone with a mugger who's sticking them up on American Dad); and perhaps the most fucked-up memory of them all, a drunk Beth accidentally hitting Summer in the eye with a wine bottle. Morty's pivotal role in getting rid of the parasites is a good example of how Rick and Morty has range in its writing and nicely avoids making only one character the same voice of reason every week by alternating between Summer as the voice of reason one week, Rick as that (stammery) voice the next week and Morty after that.

When the other family members follow Morty's example and no longer become gullible to the parasites' illusions, it's as if McMahan, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are commenting on TV from the past: old sitcoms from the '80s and '90s (and in Summer's case, the cartoons she grew up on) may be nice to revisit once in a while, but to live in that world for real--and forever--is its own form of hell (this is why Republicans are so insufferable: they want to keep America similarly frozen in the sanitized, colorless and all-white Father Knows Best/Ozzie and Harriet vision of America in the '50s and '60s). The parasites have basically transformed themselves into old sitcom characters in their attempt to subjugate the Smiths, and the family discovers the way to fight the parasites is to accept their less-than-ideal reality--it's the same kind of road to acceptance the equally miserable characters on Community had to undertake as they learned to make the best of a shitty place like Greendale--and then use that reality to block the illusions. "Total Rickall" is like a battle--for the soul of modern-day TV--between the bland kind of TV that's epitomized by Nick at Nite or Antenna TV reruns (as well as a few present-day multi-cam sitcoms that could easily fit in with the programming on those channels) and the much less idealized TV that Harmon and now Roiland have become known for, and the latter wins.

Structurally, "Total Rickall" is my favorite Rick and Morty episode of the season so far because although Rick and Morty is one of the most inventive and subversive sitcoms around, it can also be blandly conventional in one or two respects, like whenever it deploys the A-story/B-story structure that's prevalent on other sitcoms or half-hour animated shows, and "Total Rickall" actually breaks away from that structure. I've been starting to get tired of Rick and Morty being off on their own adventure while Beth and Jerry have an unrelated subplot of their own (or Rick dealing with Summer while Jerry and Morty are busy with their own shit). Even "Rixty Minutes" wasn't immune from this divide when it separated Rick and Morty from the drama between Beth, Jerry and Summer for most of the story. Involving Beth and Jerry in the same plot with Rick, Morty and Summer is a welcome change of pace.

Speaking of "Rixty Minutes," I prefer "Total Rickall" as a bottle episode over "Rixty Minutes" because the Smiths are doing things that are much more visually busy than sitting around watching TV. Plus it's got a crazy twist, and it's a more surprising twist than Beth and Jerry reconciling after discovering their parallel counterparts would find their way back to each other: the little family friend known as Mr. Poopybutthole--whom the episode tricks us into thinking is a parasite by adding him to the Rick and Morty opening titles a la a pre-Empire-co-creating Danny Strong as dorky Jonathan getting tacked on to the alternate-universe Buffy opening titles at the start of "Superstar"--is actually not a parasite. He's just an off-screen family friend we've never seen before, and when a paranoid Beth shoots Mr. Poopybutthole and is shocked to discover he's bleeding instead of reverting back to a parasite, it's a funny "milquetoast character we didn't expect to get badly wounded" moment that's up there with Forrest MacNeil getting shot by a stranger he tried to goad into a bare-knuckle brawl a few weeks ago on Review and Chad's dad getting stabbed by Charlie Murphy on The Mad Real World.

Beth's shaky grab for the nearest wine bottle she can find--a terrifically animated moment of stress--right after she shoots Mr. Poopybutthole and the incident where she drunkenly gave Summer a black eye both reintroduce Beth's alcoholism, which was hinted at in "Rixty Minutes" and a few other episodes last season. Her alcoholism could potentially be more of a problem than her dad's alcoholism because she's a horse surgeon. What if her impaired judgment during surgery causes a mistake that injures a horse, it throws the rider off the saddle due to the pain it's experiencing and the rider winds up crippled like Christopher Reeve? Or what if some other mistakes due to Beth's impaired judgment lead to malpractice suits that cost Beth her job?

Because Jerry has been unemployed since before the start of the first season, Beth and Summer have been the sole providers for the Smiths. I don't know if Roiland and Harmon would have enough time on the show to turn Beth's alcoholism into a major storyline later this season or next season, but I would be interested in seeing how two unemployed parents would affect the rest of the family, in addition to all the interdimensional mayhem Rick has brought into their lives. Whatever way this drinking problem storyline goes, at least Beth, the Smith family member with the least screen time, is getting some more scenes--and a little more to do than just argue with Jerry. Plus it would allow Sarah Chalke to demonstrate more of her ability to burp on cue. That skill is why Roiland and Harmon hired her in the first place. Or is that a fake memory as well?

Tonz o' gunz, broh. Just like that Gang Starr joint, broh.

Memorable quotes:
* "Get off the high road, Summer! We all got pinkeye because you won't stop texting on the toilet."

* "All I have are pictures of me and my friends from school. [Awkward silence from everyone else.] What? What teenage girl has pictures of her family? It's not like we're Mormon or dying."

* "Shut up, Hamurai! Shut up, Amish Cyborg! What is this? '90s Conan?"