Monday, April 17, 2017

In Ghost Protocol, the gadgets turn into the Mission: Impossible team's worst enemy

I have a theory that the Mission: Impossible movies got better once Tom Cruise stopped being touchy about his short stature and allowed his character to be put in situations that emphasized how short he actually is. (It took this long for Cruise to become slightly less vain, which is so unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Clark Gregg, who has awesomely never given a shit about sharing the screen with Marvel Cinematic Universe actresses who tower over him, whether that actress is Gwyneth Paltrow or Mallory Jansen. On the first day on the S.H.I.E.L.D. set, Gregg, a veteran of so many David Mamet projects, must have said something Mametian like "Fuck these fucking apple boxes you want me to stand on.")

That creative resurgence for the Impossible movie franchise (Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation turned out to be the best Impossible movies since the first one) began right at the start of Ghost Protocol, when Cruise was surrounded by prison thugs who were a foot taller than him, and the creative resurgence continued when Cruise, for the first time ever in the series, sighed and rolled his eyes like a too-old-for-this-shit, Rockford Files-era James Garner while getting knocked on his ass by an even taller enemy agent in Rogue Nation's terrific opera house assassination attempt sequence. That's another thing about the weird late-period resurgence of the Impossible movie franchise (which will come out with a sixth installment next year): the addition of more humor to these movies has resulted in Ethan Hunt becoming a slightly more likable and relatable protagonist, except the humor never feels forced or overly campy.

"Light the Fuse," the opening title theme Michael Giacchino, Ghost Protocol's composer, arranged for the fourth Impossible movie, is a stunning symphonic reinterpretation of Lalo Schifrin's main title theme from the '60s Impossible. The extra spit and polish Giacchino brought to an old (and kind of overplayed) Schifrin tune are why I chose "Light the Fuse" as the very first track for "Incognito I," the first of three mixes of spy movie/TV show score cues I assembled for the AFOS Mixcloud page. The oldest score cue during the three mixes is John Barry's Ipcress File main title theme from 1965, while the newest score cues during the mixes are from the Epix espionage drama Berlin Station and xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Below these three mixes is a repost of my July 30, 2015 discussion of both Giacchino's score from Ghost Protocol and the Ghost Protocol movie itself, a series-revitalizing installment that's on a par with what Fast Five did really late in the game as a creative boost to the Fast and the Furious franchise.

I wasn't alive when the original Mission: Impossible first aired on CBS, and I didn't watch any of the Mission: Impossible reruns until I saw FX's badly butchered versions of them back when the future home of Vic Mackey and SAMCRO started out as a low-rent Nick at Nite, so I don't have an attachment to Jim Phelps like I do to other characters from shows I'm much more fond of, like, say, Yemana from Barney Miller or anybody from the Greendale gang who's not Pierce. When Brian De Palma's 1996 Mission: Impossible reboot picked Jon Voight to take over the Peter Graves role of Phelps, the cool-headed (and rather bland) leader of the Impossible Missions Force and the hero of both the '60s and '80s versions of the show, and the movie reimagined Phelps as a traitor who had his fellow IMF agents killed, I didn't hiss "Blasphemy!" at the screen or angrily storm out of the theater in the middle of the feature presentation like Graves' old Mission: Impossible co-star Greg Morris did when he watched De Palma's movie. I actually dug the shocking plot twist.

Action film reviewer Outlaw Vern perfectly described why the twist remains an intriguing one in his recent reassessment of De Palma's Mission: Impossible. A master of paranoid thrillers who proved to be the perfect filmmaker to revive and re-energize Mission: Impossible for these post-Cold War times, De Palma "doesn't look fawningly at the cloak and dagger Cold War fun of the ['60s] series... Using the original show's hero as the villain is not only a surprising plot twist, it's a statement." Vern added, "Back then spy shit was fun and glamorous, now we're more aware of the messes it causes, and the consequences of training people with deadly skills and then running out of things for them to do. The guy that was the hero back then is now willing to betray everyone because he's not getting paid enough. Times are tough."

While I found the first Mission: Impossible movie that Tom Cruise both starred in and co-produced to be genuinely thrilling and clever--the beauty of that classic Langley break-in sequence is mostly due to its use of silence, which was De Palma's way of critiquing the noisy storytelling of most summer blockbusters--the villainization of Phelps, which actually made Phelps slightly more interesting as a character, wasn't what bugged me about the movie. What bugged me was Cruise's de-emphasis on teamwork in the movie's third act so that his Ethan Hunt character saved the day on his own and everyone else on Hunt's makeshift team was ancillary. The emphasis on a team of specialists from different fields was what made both the '60s and '80s incarnations of Mission: Impossible stand out from other spy shows, besides the enticing concept of what was essentially a one-hour heist movie every week. If you're going to revive Mission: Impossible on the big screen, it ought to be the espionage equivalent of Seven Samurai or Ocean's Eleven like the old show was, or else why call it Mission: Impossible? Without an ensemble, it's nothing more than 007 as a two-hour shampoo commercial--which was basically what John Woo's abysmal Mission: Impossible II was.

Friday, April 7, 2017

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "The Rickshank Rickdemption"

This is the fourth of 12 or 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017. 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. Stream "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," my one-hour mix of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, right now.

If the last few years saw the rise of the surprise album release--the likes of Beyoncé and Drake have rewritten the rules of the music industry by dropping albums right and left without any warning--then Adult Swim is apparently taking a cue from Queen Bey and Drizzy by trying to bring about the rise of the surprise TV show episode premiere. They did it before when, without much fanfare, they debuted on Instagram the complete "Rixty Minutes" episode of Rick and Morty a few days before its broadcast premiere.

This April Fools Day, Adult Swim did it again. Without posting some sort of press release or promotional tweet in advance, Adult Swim's staff pretended to do their annual April Fools prank (three of those past pranks were simply broadcasts of The Room), but they used the appearance of a prank as a Trojan horse to show all of "The Rickshank Rickdemption"--the Rick and Morty third-season premiere in which an incarcerated Rick comes up with a very sci-fi way to both outsmart an alien interrogator (special guest star Nathan Fillion) and escape from intergalactic prison--in a loop for only a few hours on both the network and its site. Well-played, Adult Swim, well-played.

Adult Swim hasn't even set a date yet for the unveiling of the rest of Rick and Morty's new season. So far, they've said the season will resume some time in the summer, so the most impatient of Rick and Morty fans, who have been waiting since October 2015 for new episodes from Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, will just have to shut the fuck up like Jemaine Clement whenever he sings about moonmen and wait a little longer.

The April Fools loop was a nice little surprise stunt, but how does the episode--which I was lucky to stream in its entirety after returning home late from a party, right before Adult Swim deleted it from their site--fare as the return of an eagerly awaited animated show that hasn't been first-run in almost two years? "The Rickshank Rickdemption," which is credited to Rick and Morty staff writer Mike McMahan, is a much more focused and tautly written (as well as much more action-heavy) season premiere than last season's "A Rickle in Time," a season opener that Roiland and Harmon were reportedly unhappy with because, according to the duo in Rolling Stone, "We were so close to something amazing and we never really got there from a structural standpoint," and "It went off the deep end conceptually and got really over-complicated." The third-season premiere is satisfying and funny enough to get me to bring back this blog's "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week" feature after a long hiatus.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

No Soup for us: The disappointment over E! never archiving The Soup for the show's fans

This is the third of 12 or 13 blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017.

The longest I laughed over one of Joel McHale's quips on E!'s now-defunct pop culture clip show The Soup ("a sort of national archives of idiocy" was how TV Insider astutely described the show, a few months before its cancellation in 2015) was the moment when The Soup played a Today Show clip of Richard Simmons--this was way before he went "missing"--being Richard Simmons while sitting on a couch with a miniskirted Lisa Rinna. The former Days of Our Lives star, who looks a lot different from her pre-Botox days in Salem, covered her crotch when Simmons lifted up her legs because she thought the viewers at home were getting a glimpse of her Salem's Lot (actually, the viewers at home couldn't see shit).

Neither the accidental quasi-upskirt clip nor McHale's scripted response to the clip were what made me laugh for two or three minutes. The muttered aside that the Soup host clearly ad-libbed right after his scripted response was what caused my sides to hurt from laughing for two minutes: "Her lips are full of collagen."

The Soup studio audience laughed over the ad-lib for longer than half a minute as well. On a broadcast network, Standards and Practices would lamely bleep out "lips" and ruin McHale's joke, but because this was basic cable, E! let the randy ad-lib go. It was a rare wise decision by a cable channel known for a million dumb programming decisions that were made fun of by McHale and his fellow joke writers on the regular during The Soup's 11-year run.

I wish I could revisit that improvised Soup moment and a bunch of other lines that were ad-libbed by McHale (in addition to wishing I could revisit the memes that originated from The Soup, like Spaghetti Cat and "Stay out of it, Nick Lachey!"), just like how I can easily stream an entire episode of The Daily Show from any point of history during the Dubya Administration or how I can easily stream the classic 2007 Colbert Report interview segment where Jane Fonda took Stephen Colbert by surprise (by sitting on his lap and kissing him to persuade his fake Republican alter ego, also named Stephen Colbert, to remove her name from his "On Notice" board). (Also, a search for almost every discriminatory thing that has come out of Steve King's mouth isn't so difficult, thanks to the Colbert archive.)

Unfortunately, I can't revisit as much Soup content as I'd like to because E!'s online staff never bothered to put up an archive of full Soup episodes like how Comedy Central built exhaustive online archives of full Daily Show episodes and lengthy Colbert Report clips. And that lack of a Soup archive--meanwhile, all 12 interminable seasons of Keeping Up with the Kardashians are up on Hulu--is an even dumber move on E!'s part than building an unwatchable reality show around a tanning salon.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Nobody says "Huh?" like Denzel

This is the second of 12 or 13 blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis from January 2017 until this blog's final post in December 2017.

Once upon a time, I ran an Internet radio station that streamed film and TV score music. I don't really miss running it. The audience for it dwindled over the years, and even though Live365, the Bay Area company that powered the station before the end of the Webcaster Settlement Act led to Live365's demise early last year, is being resuscitated, I don't have any plans to bring back the station.

But I've kept the station alive on Mixcloud, where I've archived a few hours of old station content and posted lots of new one-to-two-hour mixes of music from original scores. The most popular of those mixes has been a mix of Kyle Dixon/Michael Stein score cues from the first season of Netflix's unexpectedly popular Stranger Things. It's called "Where's Barb?"

Late last year, the score albums for the Magnificent Seven remake and the film version of Fences, which both star Denzel Washington, were sent to my inbox, and that made me want to edit together an entire mix of score cues from Denzel movies. Denzel has been one of my favorite actors, ever since he stole the 1989 white savior movie Glory (and won an Oscar for stealing it) in the same way Don Cheadle would later steal Devil in a Blue Dress from Denzel. In Glory, he was basically the Toshiro Mifune character from Seven Samurai: the shit-talking troublemaker and outsider who learns to channel his anger and penchant for self-destruction into a worthy cause and then (SPOILER!) dies a hero.

The late James Horner's score from that 1989 Civil War movie, Terence Blanchard's 1992 Malcolm X score and Hans Zimmer's 1995 Crimson Tide score are a trifecta of Denzel-related instrumental badassery. Put those three scores together in either a mix or an hour of radio programming, and that hour of music is automatically going to sound as rousing and badass as a Denzel speech. Procrastinating on a writing project or that load of laundry? Put on the badass "Fruit of Islam" from Malcolm X's classic hospital march sequence. Immediately after hearing "Fruit of Islam," shit is going to be done. Laundry is going to be washed.

This month is the perfect time to post a mix of score cues from Denzel flicks. Several of Denzel's most highly regarded movies are frequently recommended during Black History Month by the likes of film critics and librarians, and Fences, Denzel's third big-screen directorial effort, is up for a few Oscars this weekend. Viola Davis, who reprised a role she had alongside Denzel in one of the various stage versions of Fences, is the frontrunner for the Best Supporting Actress trophy.

Throughout the Mixcloud mixes, I like to drop audio clips from the movies or TV shows that I've selected for score cue airplay. For this Denzel mix, I could have gone with audio from Denzel speeches as the connective tissue between each Denzel movie score cue, but I decided to go with something even more brash as connective tissue: clips from the very funny Earwolf podcast Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, hosted by stand-ups W. Kamau Bell, the host of the CNN documentary series United Shades of America, and Kevin Avery, a writer for Last Week Tonight.

Bell, Avery and a special guest Denzealot, whether it's another comedian, a black filmmaker or one of Denzel's previous co-stars, dissect the work of their favorite charismatic actor, with lots of humor and occasional jabs at things like Virtuosity (the poorly received 1995 Denzel cyber-thriller that pitted 'Zel against a murderous A.I. played by a pre-L.A. Confidential Russell Crowe) and Denzel's visible discomfort during Much Ado About Nothing's frolicking scenes. Denzel himself is aware of the podcast's existence. But I highly doubt he's ever going to be a guest on this podcast that both celebrates his many triumphs as an actor (as well as a director of both episodic TV and small-scale feature films) and dredges up Virtuosity-esque career missteps, and Denzel's recent Fences press junket comment about not wanting to live in the past confirmed it. The podcast doesn't just live in Denzel's big-screen (and small-screen) past. It raises kids and builds a whole garden of gladioli in his past.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Atlanta season 1's sweetest move was an old 30 Rock move: it never tried to sell Paper Boi as God's gift to the trap scene

This is the first of 12 or 13 blog posts that will be posted on a monthly basis from now until this blog's final post in December 2017.

I was skeptical about Donald Glover's Atlanta when FX first announced in 2014 that it picked up Glover's creation, his first TV series since his departure from Community, the offbeat cult favorite where he continually killed it each week as Troy Barnes, a high-school football star trying (and failing) to suppress his nerdy side (like that time when Troy, in what has to be my favorite acting moment from Glover on Community, was so excited to be in the presence of his childhood hero LeVar Burton that he turned catatonic). A half-hour comedy about a trap rapper and his manager cousin trying to get by in the rap game? Disquieting visions of "Entourage for the Atlanta trap scene" danced in my head when FX first hyped Atlanta. The world doesn't need another half-hour piece of boring lifestyle porn where the lead characters constantly bang anything that breathes in the most opulent of settings and the storyline with the biggest stakes would be "Is Vince Paper Boi doing or not doing the movie A3C?"

Another disquieting vision I had was that Atlanta was going to be a weekly half-hour ad for Glover's musical career as Childish Gambino. Glover is a good example of an actor/rapper whose beats, frequently provided by Community and Creed score composer Ludwig Göransson, are solid, but his bars leave a lot to be desired. I was never a fan of Gambino's corny verses about his Asian fetish.

I caught up on Atlanta season 1 on FX on demand, about a few weeks after the season concluded, during a couple of breaks between chapters for a manuscript I've been working on since August (chapters that I, by the way, ended up having to delete from the manuscript because I found myself thinking, "This material isn't gonna work as a YA novel anymore. A Jim Rockford-type Pinoy should be the audience surrogate, not a precocious Richie Brockelman-type Pinoy," so I got rid of all the teenage characters). Atlanta, which took home the Best Comedy Series and Best Actor in a Comedy trophies at the Golden Globes earlier this month, exceeded my expectations. As a half-hour single-camera comedy about the rap game, thankfully, it's more Taxi than Entourage.

Sure, Atlanta is frequently funny (three words: secret revolving wall), but Glover and his writing staff's brand of humor is tinged with Taxi-style melancholy, particularly about how working-class adult life often feels like you're running in circles. That melancholy reflects Glover's belief, as he once said during a 2016 Television Critics Association press tour panel, that "you watch Master of None and it's a very optimistic look at millennialism, [but] I'm pessimistic about it. I feel like we kind of fucked up."

There's nothing lifestyle-porny about Atlanta. Neither are there any moments of blatant product placement for Awaken, My Love!, the surprise Gambino album Glover dropped one month after the Atlanta season finale, save for a cameo by the Awaken, My Love! cover artwork on a bookshelf in the "Juneteenth" episode. The non-rap Awaken, My Love! is also the first-ever Gambino release I've genuinely liked from start to finish, aside from whatever the fuck Bino was doing with his voice during "California."

The show is an exploration of, as Joshua Rivera put it in GQ, "the stress and pain of being broke," particularly when that broke-ass person is both a creative and a POC, like Earn Marks, Glover's Ivy League dropout character, and, to a lesser extent, his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a.k.a. the trap rapper known as Paper Boi (not to be confused with Paperboy, who recorded the 1992 one-hit wonder "Ditty"), who's more economically stable than Earn, thanks to income from drug dealing, but he's not exactly on the level of Future/Gucci Mane-type wealth yet. "Ballin," singer/songwriter Bibi Bourelly's current ode to finding ways to "treat yo'self" when your savings account is empty, could be an unofficial theme song for the daily hustle of either Earn, who becomes Alfred's manager, or teaching assistant Van (Zazie Beetz), Earn's ex and the mother of his baby daughter (I wouldn't be surprised if Bourelly's extremely relatable song surfaces on Atlanta during its second season, which is currently scheduled to air in 2018, partly due to Glover's upcoming gig as young Lando Calrissian).