Friday, January 23, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Venture Bros., "All This and Gargantua-2"

I've been working this graveshift and I ain't made shit. I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky.
On most Fridays, 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.

A year and a half after the airing of its fifth-season finale, The Venture Bros. returns to Adult Swim with the one-hour special "All This and Gargantua-2." Just like "What Color Is Your Cleansuit?," the fifth-season premiere, did after a similarly long gap between seasons, the consistently funny one-hour special proves that The Venture Bros. hasn't lost a step despite its long absence.

I didn't become an instant Venture Bros. fan when the show, which Comedy Central turned down (brilliant move, Comedy Central), premiered on Adult Swim in 2004. The show's character designs failed to hook me at first because I was never a Jonny Quest fan and I didn't think a Jonny Quest parody could be sustainable as a TV series. Also, the Warner Bros. Animation superhero spoof Freakazoid! had already come up with the Jonny Quest parody to end all Jonny Quest parodies, a hysterically funny fake '60s cartoon called Toby Danger. I caught up with The Venture Bros. much later, via DVD rentals of the first two seasons from Netflix, and that's when I fell in love with the show.

On DVD, I saw it evolve from a one-joke Jonny Quest parody to both an imaginative pastiche of all the non-Jonny Quest things creators/writers/voice actors Jackson Publick (a.k.a. Chris McCulloch) and Doc Hammer are in love with, from spy fiction to old Marvel Comics titles like Strange Tales or Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and forgotten figures from '80s and '90s music videos (for example, the girl from Republica of "Ready to Go" fame), and an exploration of adult disappointment and failure, built around a fully realized comedic universe of losers and costumed deviants that rivals Springfield from The Simpsons and Melonville from SCTV (so many different shows could be spun off from The Venture Bros., and I wish McCulloch and Hammer would spin the Order of the Triad off into their own show, but I doubt they'd go for it). "All This and Gargantua-2," which centers on the disastrous opening of the titular space casino resort run by Jonas "J.J." Venture Jr. (James Urbaniak), exemplifies how the show has come a long way from its Jonny Quest riffs and humble Flash-animated roots and taken on epic proportions. The top-notch animation work by Titmouse Inc. has a lot to do with the one-hour special's epic sheen. I'm reluctant to revisit on Netflix Instant the 2004 episode "Careers in Science," the first time Dr. Venture (also Urbaniak) and his sons Dean (Mike Sinterniklaas) and Hank (McCulloch) went up into space (the deceased Jonas Venture Sr.'s Gargantua-1 station, to be exact), simply because the primitiveness of how "Careers in Science" looks would be jarring, in comparison to what Titmouse is able to achieve with The Venture Bros. nowadays.

As is the case with many other animated or live-action sitcoms, The Venture Bros. was trying to find its comedic voice when it started, so early episodes like "Careers in Science" don't have the confidence "All This and Gargantua-2" has in spades. "Gargantua-2" is The Venture Bros. firing on all cylinders comedically, whether it's Dr. Venture's gripes about both J.J.--his more confident and successful brother--and the new casino or the ability of the Sovereign, an adversary more menacing than the Monarch (also McCulloch) will ever be, to somehow find time between Guild of Calamitous Intent meetings to watch Totally Spies, which isn't exactly the kind of entertainment you'd think a criminal mastermind would be aware of. I'm also fond of the fact--which somehow goes unnoticed by the continually dissatisfied and unimpressed Dr. Venture--that J.J. blatantly copied much of Star Trek for the look of Gargantua-2. J.J.'s outfit at the casino opening is Kirk's admiral uniform from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Like Shatner, J.J.'s wearing a rug too.

The hair replacement system is the reason why Star Trek: The Motion Picture cost so fucking much in the '70s.
(Photo source: TrekCore)

This logo was also flashed all over screens in Paramount boardrooms after studio execs took a look at Roberto Orci's early script for the Star Trek threequel and didn't know how it could make sense as a movie.

Letterboxing was abolished by the 23rd century.
(Photo source: TrekCore)

It's especially great to hear Stephen Colbert reprise his role--for what Hammer has confirmed will be one last time before Colbert takes over Late Show on CBS--as Professor Impossible/Incorrigible, the Mr. Fantastic-style jerk Colbert voiced in the show's first two seasons. Bill Hader was a decent substitute for Colbert in the role of Richard Impossible, but Colbert, who can play arrogant characters in his sleep, is preferable to Hader in that role.

McCulloch and Hammer refuse to talk down to the audience, which explains why there's no "Previously on..." recap at the start of the special to reorient viewers after the year-and-a-half-long gap. I love the omission of that. McCulloch and Hammer figure that their viewers must have watched the fifth-season finale either dozens of times already or right before "Gargantua-2," so why bother with the previously? The only thing McCulloch and Hammer do to reorient viewers is to repeat a scene from the end of "The Devil's Grip" where the Monarch, Dr. Mrs. the Monarch (Hammer) and Henchman 21 (also Hammer) find a new home after the destruction of their cocoon headquarters.

Some viewers were underwhelmed by "The Devil's Grip" as a season finale and didn't find it dramatic enough for their tastes. But I thought there was plenty that was dramatic about it: the Monarch, Dr. Venture and Dean had moments of "What am I doing with my life?," a recurring question on this show. Even Colonel Gentleman--McCulloch's inspired reimagining of both Sean Connery and his Allan Quatermain character from the mediocre movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a bisexual author with a penchant for scribbling down pre-listicle fluff like "Colonel Gentleman's Hollywood Actresses Who Need a Smack in the Mouth"--had a "What am I doing with my life?" moment in "The Devil's Grip" too. "Gargantua-2" is a cross between the kind of explosive, death-ridden season finale some viewers expected out of "The Devil's Grip" and a comic book annual. I think an annual would be a better way to describe "Gargantua-2." It's an annual where a few character arcs are wrapped up (unlike Molotov Cocktease, who faked her death at the end of the fourth season, it looks like cancer-stricken J.J., General Treister and the Sovereign will stay dead) and the primary setting is destroyed--the Monarch's theatrics and the ineptitude of Dr. Venture's security systems both cause the Venture Compound to be burnt down--in order to make way for the sixth season's New York backdrop, which is tantalizingly introduced at the end of the epilogue at J.J.'s funeral.



As amusing as all the pop-culture references are during "Gargantua-2"--I'd like to know who did uncredited work voicing Roger Moore at the baccarat table--they're, as usual, just the icing on the cake for what really makes The Venture Bros. stand out: the character writing. McCulloch and Hammer are able to take a premise that was sustainable for only 11 minutes on Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and was bound to run out of gas beyond that running time--like "What if Shaggy from Scooby-Doo were the Son of Sam?," which Tick creator and current Gotham writer Ben Edlund actually once imagined during The Venture Bros.' second season--and make it work as a half-hour piece of character-driven comedy or, in the case of "Gargantua-2," longer. This show isn't merely "Spot the Reference" humor a la Friedberg/Seltzer in animated form, and the characters on The Venture Bros. aren't simply joke machines. They talk more like either ordinary people--for a guy who's an extraordinary killing machine, Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton) sounds less like a quippy action hero and more like an ordinary and jaded cubicle jockey--or the self-loathing nerds McCulloch and Hammer clearly are.

I've said before that The Venture Bros. mines much of its humor and dramatic moments from how most nerds really are and the ugliness and emptiness of their behavior--the day Dr. Venture stops being so self-centered is the day this show is over--instead of being another nerd fantasy that glorifies what nerds imagine themselves to be. On The Venture Bros., that kind of fantasy gets taken down and skewered with the same kind of precision Dr. Killinger delivers while stabbing or impaling the lightsaber-wielding Investors--his own brothers--with his umbrella towards the end of "Gargantua-2." If there's any kind of message that could be found on this show, which doesn't care for talking down to its audience or delivering any form of speechifying, it would have to be "Life would be easier if you stopped drowning in your own delusions," an idea Dr. Venture is bound to ignore as he and the rest of Team Venture settle into the Venture Industries New York headquarters J.J. bequeathed to Dr. Venture in his will, during a season that will hopefully be as satisfying as "Gargantua-2" is in its 47 epic minutes.

Why's Adam Driver playing baccarat?

Memorable quotes:
* "Never baccarat. It's a dead giveaway. Nobody but spies play baccarat."

* The Sovereign, attempting to lure Dr. Mrs. and her colleagues into a trap by disguising himself as 21: "The Monarch's waiting, and you guys are acting like Alex, Sam and Clover of Totally Spies!"

He may be dead for now, but the Sovereign has a lot of explaining to do about his tastes in spy shows.

* Professor Impossible, after shape-shifting into a black mechanic: "Say, that doesn't count as blackface, does it?"

* Professor Impossible: "You'd have me back?"
Sally Impossible (Mia Barron): "No, idiot. But I'm not about to let our son lose his father because he joined the LARP society."

* Guild Command Dispatch Agent Watch (McCulloch), referring to the Sovereign, who enjoys shape-shifting into the Thin White Duke: "Where did David Bowie go?"
Dr. Mrs: "He's not David Bowie."
Ward (Hammer), Watch's partner: "Aw great, all my signed albums just became worthless."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I'm also a fan of that Don Cheadle movie Hote Rwanda.

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.

Alexandre Desplat's original score from Wes Anderson's farcical murder mystery The Grand Budapest Hotel is currently up for a Best Original Score Oscar, one of nine mostly technical Oscar nods The Grand Budapest Hotel has received (the most Oscar nominations ever for an Anderson film). Of the five films that are nominated for 2014's Best Original Score, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the only film I've seen, and Desplat's score is the only nominated score I've heard from start to finish, so even though I don't care for the Oscars for certain reasons and have avoided watching the tedious-ass telecast for years, I'd be glad if Desplat wins for that score (he's also nominated for his score to The Imitation Game).

That is a fucking delicious-looking birthday cake.

Desplat's Grand Budapest Hotel score immediately won me over with its jazzy brushed snares during cues like "Mr. Moustafa," "The New Lobby Boy," "Daylight Express to Lutz" and "Canto at Gabelmeister's Peak." The score inventively establishes the milieu of a European country that never existed (the film's primary setting is the fictional country of Zubrowka) by mixing and matching Russian balalaika, Hungarian cimbalom, Alpine horns and various other European elements, just as The Grand Budapest Hotel itself inventively realizes a '30s Europe that never existed (Anderson renamed the Nazis the Zig-Zag party and gave them a different-looking insignia) and is partially inspired by what Jonathan Romney referred to in Film Comment as "a half-imagined, half-remembered Europe created by émigré directors: Wilder, Sternberg, Mamoulian et al" in '30s and '40s Hollywood movies.

Like Kent Jones said in the liner notes for the Criterion Collection's Royal Tenenbaums DVD, the frequently parodied Anderson is a filmmaker you either get or you don't. I get him. I love the Anderson films Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox and had a blast watching The Grand Budapest Hotel in the theater, especially when the film plays around with aspect ratios and uses them to distinguish which of the film's three--or four, if you count the framing device of a girl reading the book The Grand Budapest Hotel in a cemetary--different time periods you're watching. It's Anderson's track record with characters of color in these upper-class white fantasy worlds of his that I don't get. There are occasional characters of color who are fortunately far from problematic, particularly Danny Glover's Henry Sherman, a widowed accountant who becomes Etheline Tenenbaum's fiancé and whose harmonious relationship with his Navy midshipman son hints that he'll be an even better dad to the grown-up Tenenbaum children than Royal ever was. And then there's, well, Royal's obedient (except for one memorably stabby occasion) Indian lackey Pagoda (the late Kumar Pallana, an Anderson staple) and a bunch of interchangeable and one-dimensional Filipino pirates as the villains in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. You can tell how much research Anderson did about the Philippines during the most unintentionally funny part of his Life Aquatic audio commentary. That would be when Anderson mispronounced my parents' secondary dialect of Tagalog so terribly that the word sounded like it refers to a graffiti artist spray-painting a log (the only white person to ever get right the pronunciation of "Tagalog" on screen--it's "tuh-gaw-luhg," not "tag a log"--was Jeffrey Donovan during a Burn Notice episode).

Here we see Cool Runnings getting reenacted by just two guys who aren't exactly Jamaican.
(Photo source: CreativeCOW)

As the first Anderson film where the main character is non-white, The Grand Budapest Hotel fares alright. In the initially servile-looking role of Zero Moustafa, a lobby boy at the titular hotel who helps concierge and wrongly accused murder suspect Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) clear his name, Tony Revolori, a teenage newcomer of Guatemalan descent, imbues the orphaned Zero, the most fully realized character of color in an Anderson film to date, with a quiet dignity that's reminiscent of both Jared Gilman's similarly orphaned Sam from Moonrise Kingdom and Henry Sherman, plus he gets to have a love life. His hotel baker girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) uses her baking skills--which Ronan once admitted were harder to pull off than any of the fight scenes in Hanna--to help Gustave escape from prison in an enjoyable prison break sequence. The one strange thing about Zero, besides the mustache he pencils onto his upper lip each morning, is that he apparently gets whiter as he gets older. His elderly self, who recounts his adventures with Gustave to an unnamed author (Jude Law in the 1968 scenes, Tom Wilkinson in the 1985 scenes), is played by F. Murray Abraham. "Little effort was made to match the two [Zeros], and while Abraham is actually of Syrian/Italian descent, it sort of looks like Zero transforms into a Jewish grandfather by 1965," noted Kailyn Kent in The Hooded Utilitarian.

While Anderson may not be so attentive when it comes to race, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the latest example of how no other filmmaker loves putting characters in uniforms like Anderson does, whether it's Chas Tenenbaum and his sons' Adidas tracksuits, the Khaki Scouts in Moonrise Kingdom or the hotel employees in both The Grand Budapest Hotel (outfitted by Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire costume designer Milena Canonero, whose work landed The Grand Budapest Hotel a costume design Oscar nomination) and The Royal Tenenbaums. Scenes where communities or subcultures pull together in a crisis never quite soar or dazzle like Anderson's do, whether they're moments from Moonrise Kingdom's third act or The Grand Budapest Hotel's rousing Society of Crossed Keys sequence, in which an underground network of concierges from all over the world--three of them are played by three of the stars of Anderson's first two movies--swoops in to help out Gustave. All these exercises in style, visual design and slapstick during The Grand Budapest Hotel would be empty if they weren't surrounded by a modicum of heart and a melancholy longing for both departed friends or loved ones and bygone eras, moments in time that would be lost forever if it weren't for what The Grand Budapest Hotel is ultimately an affecting tribute to, via its bizarre framing-device-within-a-framing-device-within-a-framing-device structure: the power and necessity of storytelling through the ages.

None of Alexandre Desplat's score cues from The Grand Budapest Hotel are currently in rotation on AFOS, but they ought to be.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"The Whitest Block Ever" on AFOS is being renamed "Color Box"

The 2015 Oscar acting categories are so fucking white the nominee who's got the most rhythm is tango enthusiast Robert Duvall.
The annual Oscar luncheon attended by all the acting nominees will be so white this year the menu will experience an 80 percent increase in mayonnaise. (Photo source: YOMYOMF)

The AFOS weekday morning block name "The Whitest Block Ever" is supposed to be a joke. The block is far from the whitest thing ever. It consists of original themes and score cues from films and TV shows directed by Asian American filmmakers and other directors of color. Jokey name aside, the two-hour 10am block is a way to celebrate these directors' efforts to break into and succeed (or in the case of Asian American YouTube content creators like Wong Fu Productions, to persevere on their own) in a largely white--and often discriminatory--industry that sadly doesn't reflect how most of the rest of America is headed towards becoming a more diverse place.

Bear McCreary's "Courthouse Brawl" and "Stop Running" from Human Target are part of the "Whitest Block Ever" playlist because African American director Kevin Hooks directed the Human Target episode that contains those cues, and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme is in there because Debbie Allen directed the Fresh Prince pilot. Black, Latino and Asian directors aren't the only directors who are celebrated in "The Whitest Block Ever." BC Smith and ULALI's "Forgive Our Fathers Suite" from Native American director Chris Eyre's 1998 work Smoke Signals is part of the playlist, so Native American directors are celebrated as well.

Ava DuVernay directs David Oyelowo to not talk so slowly like Martin Luther King did on The Boondocks.
David Oyelowo and his Selma director Ava DuVernay

But when no actors of color were nominated for this year's Oscars--an overly long-winded award show I stopped caring about years ago because of how frustrating its annual snubs are--and it resulted in the 2015 Oscar acting categories literally being the whitest block ever, the name "The Whitest Block Ever" isn't so amusing anymore. In fact, it's become rather depressing. David Oyelowo's quietly powerful performance as Dr. Martin Luther King during his non-oratorial moments in Selma was overlooked by the 94 percent white, 77 percent male Academy, as was director Ava DuVernay's work on that riveting historical drama, which received from the Academy only Best Picture and Best Original Song nominations. Had DuVernay been nominated for Best Director, she would have been the first black female director to be nominated in that category. I like what Selma co-star Wendell Pierce said about moviegoers' frustrations with the snubs: "The people's reaction speaks for itself. To me, it's what the reaction would have been had Marlon Brando not been nominated for Godfather, if Rod Steiger had not been nominated for The Pawnbroker, if De Niro hadn't been nominated for Taxi Driver. That's what you felt this morning when David Oyelowo was not nominated for an Oscar."

Also, the time for a name change for "The Whitest Block Ever" has been long overdue. So because of those two reasons, I'm dumping the "Whitest Block Ever" name and renaming the 10am block. "Color Box" begins life under its new name with a new addition to the playlist. That addition is the song from the film that's the very thing on the minds of those who have trended #OscarsSoWhite, a tune that won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song last Sunday and is now up for an Oscar: "Glory," the anthemic Selma end title theme that ties the activism in Selma and Montgomery together with the activism in Ferguson and reteamed Selma cast member Common with John Legend, his guest vocalist from one of my favorite Common tracks, "They Say."





You can call it what you want to: "Oh, the Selma snubs were because of the negative publicity created by the smear campaign by LBJ's camp about Selma's portrayal of LBJ" or "Oh, it's because Paramount bungled Selma's Oscar campaign and didn't time it so well." But the Selma snubs are simply industry ignorance about anyone who's neither white nor male. The snubs are one of several ways that white Hollywood basically sends a message that writers and directors of color and their stories--especially stories that are told from the points of view of people of color for a change and aren't marred by the presence of a white savior character to misguidedly make the stories more palatable to white audiences--matter little to them.

It's the same kind of industry ignorance that causes a so-called reporter at the Television Critics Association winter press tour to think it's cute when he trolls both Eddie Huang--the celebrity chef whose book about growing up in a Taiwanese family, Fresh Off the Boat, has been adapted into an eagerly anticipated and promising-looking ABC sitcom where he provides voiceovers as the off-screen narrator--and the Fresh Off the Boat cast with the following question: "I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that? Or will it be more Americanized?" I would have loved for Huang--who proved twice last week that he's not one for mincing his words, first in a Vulture tell-all piece about his frustrations with ABC's sitcom version of his own childhood and then again later on in that same TCA panel--to have replied with "That's a stupid fucking question. You love chopsticks, right? How about you go shove one up your ass? You'd love that, right, B?"

Fresh Off the Boat is set in Orlando, so Randall Park was going for the 'Wicked Bitch of the Dirty South' look with his dress socks.

So let's set aside those two depressing headlines from last week for now and look at where the new AFOS block name "Color Box" comes from. I named "Beat Box," the 7am AFOS block, after an Art of Noise track. That's why it's spelled "Beat Box," not "Beatbox." The "Beat Box" name continues an AFOS block name template that began with "Rock Box," a now-defunct AFOS block that consisted of existing songs that were used in movies by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Edgar Wright and shows ranging from The Wire to The Boondocks. "Beat Box" has double meaning: there's the connection to the Art of Noise instrumental and then there's the fact that the block is literally a box of beats on the Live365 Broadcast Scheduler grid. "Color Box," another continuation of the station's "Blablabla Box" name template, also has double meaning: it refers to both the directors of color whose works are being represented from 10am to noon on AFOS and the color boxes in Photoshop and Windows XP, which contain as much diversity as the "Color Box" playlist.

What else is in the future for "Color Box"? I'm adding a musical number from The Book of Life, Mexican animator Jorge R. Gutierrez's recent 3D-animated feature film about Día de los Muertos, to "Color Box" rotation later this month. And if Justin Lin--who's represented on the "Color Box" playlist by Semiautomatic's original music from Better Luck Tomorrow, Brian Tyler's score cues from Finishing the Game, Ludwig Göransson's score cues from the Lin-directed Community episode "Modern Warfare" and a few themes from Fast Five and Furious 6--doesn't end up exiting the 2016 Star Trek threequel that Bad Robot beamed him up to direct after Roberto Orci was kicked out of the captain's chair, maybe some Star Trek score cues will be added to "Color Box" some time in the future. What would be especially cool is having those cues sit beside the Fresh Prince theme, Eric B. & Rakim's Juice theme and Dre and Snoop's Deep Cover theme.

Sure, I love it whenever a person of color like Lin directs Star Trek (before the hiring of Lin, Next Generation regular LeVar Burton and Voyager regular Roxann Dawson both got their starts as TV directors helming episodes of their respective shows). But after the empty-headed Star Trek Into Darkness, a misfire that proved how ill-suited the Bad Robot version of Star Trek is in handling terrorism and war, two subjects Deep Space Nine previously tackled with much more nuance, Star Trek needs to be cerebral again. Bad Robot's own show Fringe, which had its protagonists constantly thinking their way through the sci-fi predicament of the week, was closer to the cerebral and exploratory spirit of the '60s Trek and its spinoff shows than Bad Robot's Trek movies themselves have been. I like Lin as both a director and an Asian American creative mind who's both conscious of and candid about industry racism, but his signature movies have been a high-school gangster melodrama with an action-flick aesthetic (Better Luck Tomorrow, still my favorite movie of his) and four action flicks that were sometimes flavored with gangster-melodrama elements (the Fast and the Furious sequels). The latter isn't exactly the cerebral direction I've been wanting Trek to return to. I'd be more thrilled about Hannibal showrunner and former Voyager writer Bryan Fuller--who always wanted to cast Angela Bassett as a starship captain and Rosario Dawson as her first officer, which I'd watch in a heartbeat--getting the chance to helm a new Trek project for TV, the medium where Trek works best. But we shall see what happens with this Trek threequel. At least Lin--who would be reunited with his Better Luck Tomorrow cast member John Cho--in the director's chair is far better than allowing Orci the crazy 9/11 truther to direct. I'm glad Paramount basically said, "Beam us up, Scotty. There's no intelligent life on Orci's planet."

Friday, January 16, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Black Dynamite, "The Wizard of Watts," and Bob's Burgers, "Speakeasy Rider" (tie)

Black Dynamite vs. the IRS
On most Fridays, 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.

Adult Swim's animated Black Dynamite is at its weakest when it's recycling sight gags from the 2009 film of the same name (which Black Dynamite star Michael Jai White co-wrote), like when the cold open of "The Wizard of Watts," the show's ambitious second-season finale, runs into the ground the film's funny absurdist gag where Dynamite's sexual prowess is so great he's able to give multiple women in the same bed orgasms at the same time. Dynamite may be able to get half the population of '70s L.A.'s hottest honeys off, but it doesn't get the finale off to a good start.

It's a crazy gag I liked so much during the film--because it makes no anatomical sense at all--that I kept hoping the animated version would never rehash it. But it ended up rehashing it, and not just in "The Wizard of Watts," but earlier in the second season as well. That's my biggest problem with the animated Black Dynamite or any other animated small-screen version of a live-action movie: there's no need to remind viewers of all the scenes we loved in the original (hell, it's also a problem with movies that are sequels to classic comedies, which is why I was relieved when White announced that his next movie with Black Dynamite director Scott Sanders will most likely be an unrelated comedy featuring White and his Black Dynamite co-stars as new characters instead of a Black Dynamite sequel). As kids, we enjoyed The Real Ghostbusters not because of the countless times Peter Venkman would get slimed by Slimer just like in the original Ghostbusters, but because of the effective ways The Real Ghostbusters expanded upon the Ghostbusters universe, thanks to the efforts of a pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczynski as the show's story editor, as well as a few genuinely funny jokes that weren't in the 1984 film, like the moment when a demon opened a thick book that listed his least favorite creatures on Earth and he flipped past a page that said "Mimes." Re-establishing the animated show's connections to the original source material is just lazy writing, when time can be better spent coming up with new comedic material, like any moment where Dynamite finds himself literally tangling with the evil '70s kids' show puppet That Frog Kurtis (J.B. Smoove), an enjoyable antagonist who makes a long-overdue reappearance in "The Wizard of Watts" and is a character that the 2009 film would have been incapable of pulling off due to both budgetary and live-action limitations.

Podrick from Game of Thrones wishes he were this well-endowed.

The rehashed multiple-orgasm gag is a glaring misstep (this show is capable of coming up with cleverer ways to depict Dynamite's month of fighting and fucking), while the rest of the hour-long "Wizard of Watts" is the animated Black Dynamite at its best, whether it's demonstrating why White, who's otherwise known as a star of straight-to-DVD action flicks like the beautifully choreographed MMA fight film Blood and Bone, is a pretty skilled comedic actor (he doesn't overplay the humor) or offering a demented comedic spin on not-so-funny subjects like Donald Sterling's racist attitudes and racially motivated police brutality. The finale was written about a year before the nationwide furor over both Ferguson and Eric Garner's death at the hands of the NYPD (showrunner and episode co-writer Carl Jones' attempt to make the episode more up-to-date by dubbing in audio of Honey Bee saying "I can't breathe" during a riot scene screams out "last-minute"). "The Wizard of Watts" has to be one of the few pieces of television that made me laugh at something so wrong: the sight of Rodney King--he's depicted here as an orphan at the Whorephanage and referred to during the episode as "Little Orphan Rodney King"--getting a beatdown from cops. If you're uncomfortable with humor being mined from the sight of children getting beat up, stay away from "The Wizard of Watts." Honey Bee's big musical number in the episode has her slapping around unruly orphans at the Whorephanage with '60s Batman-style onomatopoeia filling the screen.

"The Wizard of Watts" presents what has to be the world's first parody of the '70s Broadway hit The Wiz. (Let's just forget the unsuccessful 1978 movie version with a badly miscast Sidney Lumet and an ill-suited-to-be-director Diana Ross existed. Get it? Because Diana Ross bossed around both Universal and Motown in order to become part of... Okay, you get it.) The episode jokingly refers to its vision of Watts-as-Oz as "the black version of The Wiz" and places Dynamite in the Dorothy role, a leg-humping, foul-mouthed poodle named Broto (rapper/Loiter Squad star/extraneous comma lover Tyler, the Creator) in the Toto role and the Wicked Bitch of the Westside (Tim Blake Nelson), a pig from the LAPD who's literally a pig, in the nemesis role. The musical numbers in "The Wizard of Watts," which are riffs on both The Wiz's show tunes and '70s hits like the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," exemplify why second-season composer Fatin "10" Horton has been a nice addition to the show: he's like a less family-friendly Weird Al, perfect for the animated Black Dynamite's profane--and according to Jones, "socially irresponsible"--brand of humor.

My favorite numbers in this episode are the ones based on "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News"--Dynamite's chicken-and-waffles chef friend Roscoe sings about both the joys of "mixing Fiddle Faddle, chitlins and fondue" and his promise to "never bring you no fucked-up food"--and "Home." Yes, White himself attempts to sing this episode's version of "Home," without the aid of Auto-Tune to make him sound on-key, and it's one of the funniest things this show has ever done. White once explained in the 2009 Black Dynamite DVD's commentary that his performance in the film was intended to parody Jim Brown's stiffness as an actor, like Brown's visible discomfort with trying to look relaxed during a simple romantic scene like going out on a date (it's easy to forget that White was portraying an injured ex-football star portraying a blaxploitation hero, and the stoic demeanor was partly due to his injured neck). On the animated Black Dynamite, White is committed to making Dynamite sound uncomfortable with any other moment where he has to show some vulnerability--is there anything more vulnerable-looking than singing in public?--and that commitment pays off hilariously here when Dynamite has to sing to get back home. This is what I mean when I say White is a skilled comedic actor. He doesn't treat the material like it's comedy. He treats it like it's any other dead-serious action flick he's starred in and lets the comedy come to him, just like how Dynamite lets the women come to him. Part of that is probably due to Jones' additional work as the show's voice director (I bet the direction Jones gave to White for Dynamite's musical number--or maybe White thought of it himself--was "Sing it like how Jim Brown would have sung it," which is perfect). Erykah Badu, who reprises her recurring role as Whorephanage employee Fatback Taffy (named after the Jill Scott jam, perhaps?) in "The Wizard of Watts," once praised Jones as a voice director and said he's an actor's director who "helps us bring the best out of our characters to leave us room to create who they are."

I was initially worried when Black Dynamite switched from Titmouse Inc. to MOI Animation for the animation work this season. But MOI ended up being a great substitute for Titmouse, and the Korean studio's work on "The Wizard of Watts" resulted in a remarkable-looking finale, a swirly, mindfucky '60s psychedelicization of a '70s Broadway musical that's being retold through 2015 eyes. The clips of past Black Dynamite episodes that are shown during Dynamite's climactic musical number lend "The Wizard of Watts" a sense of finality, not just as a last episode of the season (by the way, the episodes about Roots, Bob Marley and Bill Cosby were my favorites from this season) but as a possible last episode of the show as well. A third season for Black Dynamite hasn't been announced by Adult Swim yet, and if this is indeed the last episode of Black Dynamite, "The Wizard of Watts" is a hell of a way to go out. But part of me feels like the show still has more work to do. There are a lot more stories for Black Dynamite to tell and a lot more subjects from the forever-lampoonable '70s to lampoon or humorously tackle--or rather, a historically inaccurate version of the '70s that's as intentionally and amusingly inaccurate as Everybody Hates Chris and The Goldbergs' respective depictions of the '80s, although Jones' decision to give legendary Asian American Soul Train dancer Cheryl Song a fobby accent in the American Bandstand-vs.-Soul Train episode "American Band Standoff" really bugged me (she doesn't have an accent, bruh). I'm surprised that the show hasn't riffed on the 39-year-old Rocky franchise--which, by the way, will pair up Sylvester Stallone with Michael B. Jordan as both Apollo's grandson and Rocky's protégé in a spinoff movie tentatively titled Creed--because Tommy Davidson, who voices Cream Corn, does the best Stallone impression in the game. The way Davidson nails how white actors like Stallone shout when their characters get angry always kills me. I really wish the show found an opportunity for Davidson to trot out that comedic trump card of his.



And as long as police brutality or the microaggressions within something like New York Times TV desk moron Alessandra Stanley's treatment of Shonda Rhimes continue to be problems, we'll always be in need of satirical takes on these problems from unapologetically black shows like Black Dynamite. Towards the end of "The Wizard of Watts," Dynamite, who usually settles things with violence, finally manages to defeat the Wicked Bitch of the Westside--he melts to the ground, of course--after he chooses to handle the Wicked Bitch in a way that's completely different from how he usually handles his adversaries. Dynamite figures out that "the only way to defeat a crooked pig is to catch him on tape." The scene reminded me of "Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant," a great 2011 track about responding to police brutality by Blue Scholars (the duo of Prometheus Brown, one of hip-hop's wittiest Filipino American rappers, and producer Sabzi, who's currently killing it as the producer half of another duo, Made in Heights). "Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant" calls for regular citizens to use cameras as their weapons against racist cops ("Shoot the cops/Shoot the cops/Shoot the cops/Take your cameras out your pocket, people"), and Dynamite kind of does the same thing when he defeats the Wicked Bitch, but he arrives at that decision to use a camera without speechifying about it, which would have been beneath this show. If someone told me 10 years ago that Adult Swim would become a haven for largely experimental, sharply written and sometimes socially conscious comedy from black folks, whether it's a scene like that one between Dynamite and the Wicked Bitch or a show like Black Dynamite, Jones' previous show The Boondocks, Tyler and Odd Future's Loiter Squad, Black Jesus or The Eric Andre Show, I would have said, "Sure, when cops fly."


***

Days of Blunder
"Speakeasy Rider" is a strange case where Bob's Burgers borrows from some of the staff writers' favorite sitcoms but never once feels derivative or tired. It's also a case where the episode title recycles a pun. "Speakeasy Rider" is the second Bob's Burgers episode to play around with the title Easy Rider, after "Ear-sy Rider." Not even that is tired. It's Bob's Burgers. It can get away with it--for now.

The story of siblings becoming Williams sisters-style rivals in the same sport is a familiar one. "Lisa on Ice" is one of my favorite Simpsons episodes because of its outstanding gags about the lunacy of Springfield's citizens, represented in "Lisa on Ice" by their bloodthirsty attitudes about hockey, and its poignant look at the relationship between Bart and Lisa. "Speakeasy Rider," which centers on Tina and Louise's rivalry as go-kart racers (their racing scenes are impressively animated, under the direction of Jennifer Coyle) and was written by Rich Rinaldi, contains a tension-filled dinner table scene between the sisters that's reminiscent of the "I won't have any aggressive condiment passing in this house!" scene in "Lisa on Ice." Even the ending is similar to the outcome of Bart and Lisa's conflict on the hockey rink. And the B-story of Bob and Linda trying to sneak Teddy's surprisingly good home-brewed beer past the tenacious eyes and noses of health inspectors Hugo (Sam Seder) and Ron (Ron Lynch) is essentially one of those old Cheers stories where the bar has to pretend everything's normal while it's operating without a liquor license or the bar has to pretend it's a gay one.

But "Speakeasy Rider" is unmistakably Bob's Burgers all the way, which means it's weird, weird, weird--like when Tina has conversations with her go-kart or when H. Jon Benjamin and Robert Ben Garant ad-lib an awkward picnic moment between Bob and Garant's biker character Critter--as well as warm and affecting in the least expected of places and consistently funny. The day when Bob's Burgers stops being this consistently funny is going to be a sad one, as sad as a burger without buns, unless Loren Bouchard and his crew manage to avoid shark jumping or, to borrow some racing lingo, they end up sandbagging the competition.

Linda gets all her business ideas...

... from '30s movies on TCM.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Whiplash

If you haven't seen it yet, Whiplash is that new Marvel spinoff movie starring Mickey Rourke as his Russian villain character from Iron Man 2. Rourke speaks for only two seconds in the entire movie, just like in Iron Man 2.
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.

One of the most terrifying movie monsters ever is a pale and bald creature that disturbingly resembles a disembodied penis with arms and legs. It possesses superhuman hearing and can discern sounds that are unnoticeable to everyone else's ears. This creature prefers to psychologically destroy its victims or leave them a bloodied mess when it's done with them. It frequently screams and barks, but it's at its most terrifying when it's in quieter modes because you don't know when it's going to attack. Dressed in all black, it goes by the name of Terence Fletcher, and it stalks the music halls and rehearsal rooms of New York, looking for future jazz musicians to bully around in last year's mesmerizing Sundance hit about the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating art, Whiplash.

During director Damien Chazelle's second feature film, J.K. Simmons, who won a Golden Globe this week for his terrific performance as Fletcher and is now a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee, looks like one of H.R. Giger's aliens whenever he shouts. The lighting techniques of Whiplash cinematographer Sharone Meir accentuate the prickly jazz ensemble conductor's blobfish-like, gelatinous skin and the angry Malcolm Tucker veins and lines on his face or head when he grimaces or browbeats his conservatory students into becoming perfect musicians, as if to convey that Fletcher is not of this Earth. This tyrant who snaps at drummers whenever the double-time swing isn't played to his liking has been compared to the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket and the foul-mouthed alpha males in David Mamet plays, but the vibe I get from Fletcher is more like part Giger alien, part Nosferatu, part Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast and part that muscular and effeminate dance instructor douchebag who tried to rape Lucinda Dickey in the first Breakin' movie.

A newly buffed-up and steroids-addicted Paul Shaffer whips the guest drummers into shape for Drum Solo Week on Letterman.

So when Fletcher's latest unfortunate protégé, Andrew Neiman--an aspiring jazz drummer who worships Buddy Rich and is excellently portrayed by Miles Teller as an introverted and self-destructive perfectionist who's more along the lines of Travis Bickle, rather than a Tom Cruise-style maverick that the audience is supposed to root for--finally expresses that he's had enough of Fletcher's abuse, you end up cheering for Fletcher's beating like you did when Don Logan got his ass whupped by Gal, his wife and their housemates in Sexy Beast. That's how abusive Fletcher is in Whiplash. He approaches Don Logan levels of inflicting verbal abuse.

But unlike Don, Fletcher gets back up after his beating like it never happened and continues to find other ways to torment Andrew. In a nicely sneaky move, Chazelle robs the audience of the cathartic comeuppance that Fletcher would receive in a lesser movie. Chazelle is all about flouting expectations. He steers Whiplash away from turning into a crowd-pleaser about an unconventional musician who triumphs over conventionality and adversity and ends up besting his detestable mentor. Chazelle is after something darker and more complex and ambiguous. In Whiplash, Chazelle, who based Andrew's ordeals on his own high school experiences as a drummer who had an abusive mentor, raises questions like "If there's a case, even one isolated case, that brutalizing someone yields great art, does that justify the behavior?" and then leaves them unanswered.

How much of the things Fletcher spouts about jazz, the ways he thinks it should be performed and the story of Charlie Parker's rise to greatness is really bullshit? Is fabricating lies about music a huge part of Fletcher's brand of sadism as well? (Speaking of deception about music, you know that jazz standard Andrew identifies as "Jackie Hill, 1932" to impress his girlfriend Nicole when they hear old jazz during their pizzeria date? If you tried to Google "Jackie Hill 1932" after watching Whiplash, that standard was actually a fake tune created for the scene by Justin Hurwitz, Whiplash's clever and skilled primary composer, whose vibrant Whiplash "Overture" theme, which Hurwitz calls "fast, complicated and dense," is now in rotation on AFOS.) Chazelle also leaves it up to the audience to marinate on Fletcher's opinions on jazz, but in the movie's only misstep, it doesn't let the audience in on what black jazz musicians, particularly Andrew's black bandmates, really think of this self-aggrandizing white bandleader, a guest in their house. I would have loved to have seen a couple of those musicians share a laugh about how Fletcher fails to intimidate them and they don't buy his bullshit, much like how several black artists or writers find Iggy Azalea's music to be bullshit. Simmons hasn't been this intimidating since the first few times he made his mark on screen, as a racist church bomber during a guest shot in the first Law & Order/Homicide: Life on the Street crossover event, a corrupt NYPD sergeant in a New York Undercover episode that aired only a month after his Homicide guest shot and then much more famously, neo-Nazi leader Schillinger on Oz a year after those villainous guest shots. What about his portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies? Wasn't he intimidating there? That's a Disney version of intimidating, pal.

And what would be the Disney version of Whiplash? It would probably end with Fletcher and Andrew reaching some sort of understanding after their falling-out--Fletcher apologizes for being a dick, instead of justifying his dickishness like he does in Chazelle's movie when he lambasts the rest of present-day jazz for becoming subpar--and then they team up to give a perfect big blowout of a jazz concert that all the jazz critics in the audience will be writing and tweeting about. Or it would probably end with Andrew walking away from music forever and deciding that living a normal life is better than turning into another Fletcher because his miserable time at the conservatory made him realize that he doesn't need affirmation from Fletcher and that this asshole of a teacher is an egomaniac who, to borrow the late Sir Peter Ustinov's favorite description of his difficult-to-please Spartacus co-star Charles Laughton, hangs around waiting to be offended. But Chazelle's movie doesn't end either way because it isn't a simplistic bad-teacher story about the student who's right and the teacher who realizes he was wrong. Andrew is just as culpable for his own bloody-fingered suffering and misery as Fletcher is. The only likable thing about Andrew is his taste in heist movies (he's seen going to a repertory theater screening of the classic 1954 French heist flick Rififi).

It's not like Andrew fell off the turnip truck when we first see his introverted and workaholic self, practicing in the conservatory and keeping to himself. The seeds for Andrew's transformation into an unlikable mini-Fletcher are there before he joins Fletcher's band, even in something as minor and innocuous as Andrew's distaste for the weird but inoffensive way his failed author dad Jim (Paul Reiser) likes to scatter Raisinets into his movie theater popcorn at the Rififi screening. Andrew's drive to become the best jazz drummer stems from what appears to be a mostly silent resentment of his dad's preference for walking away from writing and living an ordinary, pressure-free life over becoming the successful author that Andrew thinks he should have become. It also stems from his resentment of Jim's brother (Chris Mulkey) and his sports jock sons, who bully Jim and Andrew about their past and present preferences for artistic pursuits over athletic ones, but in less brutal forms of bullying than Fletcher's (okay, maybe Andrew's verbal smackdown of his cousins at the dinner table after what appears to have been years of quietly putting up with their competitive and outgoing nature is the one other likable thing about Andrew). That drive of Andrew's is so intense he doesn't mind putting up with Fletcher's abuse even when he hates it and he doesn't care who he alienates to become the best. The scene where Andrew breaks up with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he thinks she'd be too much of a distraction from his drumming and he finds her to be too much of an underachiever is so difficult to watch I kept waiting for the camera to turn away like cinematographer Michael Chapman's camera does to accentuate the painfulness of Travis getting dumped on the phone in Taxi Driver. But in another of Chazelle's many ways of making the audience squirm throughout Whiplash, the camera never does.

The camera also emphasizes how stifling and cage-like Fletcher and Andrew's world of both contentious conservatory rehearsals and striving for perfection can be. The competitive atmosphere Fletcher creates to keep the members of his jazz band sharp and focused--none of them ever look happy when they're rehearsing or performing--makes you think of all those behind-the-scenes stories from SNL alums about what they view to be Lorne Michaels' distant father side and why they believe he fostered a competitive atmosphere between SNL cast members.

I'd hate to be the guy who has to clean these pool cues LL Cool J shoved up that naked guy's ass during In Too Deep.

Whiplash also causes you to reflect on how much great art has been created under prickly behavior or cruel and dictatorial conditions, which exemplifies the thought-provoking power of Chazelle's material. The movie makes you ponder whether or not that kind of difficult behavior sours your appreciation for the work that resulted from it, like how the stories of Bill Cosby's off-screen behavior, whether sexual or non-sexual, forever soured Cosby Show fans' enjoyment of the show's reruns, and they're now unable to separate the fictional dad from the accused sexual predator. Carsey-Werner, the TV studio that The Cosby Show helped build into an '80s and '90s Hollywood powerhouse, became known for granting its sitcom stars immense power and creative freedom as their stardom rose, which led to many of them becoming as cruel as they wanted to be on the set (the headlines about the infighting between Cybill Shepherd and the writers on the set of Carsey-Werner's Cybill are better remembered than the show itself). Meanwhile, under slightly less dramatic conditions, Carsey-Werner's hit Cosby Show spinoff A Different World became a funnier, sharper and more accurate show about black college life in its second season, thanks to choreographer and Fame star Debbie Allen, whom Carsey-Werner picked to replace Square Pegs creator Anne Beatts as showrunner. But was the mandatory morning workout that Allen put the Different World cast through, the kind of physical regimen you'd expect dancers like Allen's to experience rather than sitcom actors, really necessary? Over on the hip-hop side, Q-Tip had no problems working with legendary engineer Bob Power, who played a pivotal role in turning the Tribe Called Quest albums The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders into hip-hop masterpieces and received shout-outs from Quest during "8 Million Stories" and "The Chase Pt. II," but in journalist Brian Coleman's Check the Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, the members of Stetsasonic found Power to be too anal for their tastes when they worked together on "Go Stetsa I." Q-Tip's ability to get along with Power was also probably because Q-Tip himself could be prickly too, as Phife Dawg noted about the bumpiest days of his friendship with Q-Tip during Michael Rapaport's Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary about Quest (no wonder Q-Tip didn't care for the film).

But perhaps the most memorable example of great art birthed from the prickliest behavior is director David O. Russell's history of shouting matches with actors, particularly on the sets of Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and the long-delayed and might-not-be-so-great Nailed, which was renamed Accidental Love after Russell left the troubled film. While stars like George Clooney and James Caan are unwilling to work with Russell again after lousy experiences with him, why are the likes of Mark Wahlberg (who starred in Russell's The Fighter, as well as Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees), Christian Bale (The Fighter, American Hustle), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) and Jennifer Lawrence (SLP, AH) far more tolerant of Russell? Is it because they're just like Andrew: they're so ambitious about their art that they don't mind putting up with a tyrannical bully for a few months in order to put out quality work, perhaps because one or two of them are bullies themselves?

Again, if brutalizing someone yields great art, does that justify the behavior?

"Overture" from Whiplash can be heard during "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue" on AFOS.