Monday, July 27, 2015

Shows I Miss (Already): Key & Peele

Here's a missed opportunity: Peele playing Donald Sterling, and doing so in another one of those awesome stringy-haired wigs the show's brilliant makeup team would create for both Key and Peele.

Since 2009, the AFOS blog's "Shows I Miss" series has looked back at highly entertaining TV shows that were gone too soon and were too clever to last on commercial TV, from 2003's Keen Eddie to last year's Selfie. Comedy Central's hilarious Key & Peele is the first "Shows I Miss" entry in which the show closed up shop not because of the network but because the stars (who, in Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele's case, also doubled as the lead writers) wanted to move on: over the weekend, Key confirmed that the show's current season, which wrapped up filming last November, is also its last in an exclusive interview with The Wrap, and Peele did the same thing on Twitter.

It's not surprising that Key and Peele are eager to move on and concentrate on film projects like Keanu, which will star the duo and will be directed by Peter Atencio (the same director who brought so much cinematic flair to Key & Peele's sketches in the first four seasons and helped change the perception that sketch comedy should be cheap-looking and visually uninteresting). Last year, Peele told L.A. Weekly, "If our show is to have any kind of legacy, it should be that it didn't go on too long."

Last Friday's series finale announcement is the biggest thing that separates Key & Peele from the sketch comedy show it's often (and sometimes rather unfairly) compared to, the groundbreaking, no-holds-barred Chappelle's Show. Unlike Dave Chappelle, whose "I'm going out for a pack of cigarettes"-style departure from his own hit show was one of the most bizarre exits from a TV show ever, Key and Peele get to end their hit show on their own terms.

If you don't remember the whole controversy over the demise of Chappelle's Show, Chappelle became so upset over seeing white fans of the show laugh at his sketches for the wrong reasons that he didn't come back to finish work on what became known as "the lost episodes." I have a theory for Chappelle's meltdown and subsequent escape from Comedy Central to South Africa: they were actually a cover for himself to go off the grid and do secret agent work nobody--not even his former writing partner Neal Brennan or his family in Ohio--knows about. Chappelle's a secret agent when he's not doing stand-up, which explains why he now has the physique of a black Daniel Craig.

Chappelle's Show became unwatchable without Chappelle's approval on the final cut (one of the lost episodes was a non-comedic, town hall meeting-style--and rather pointless--episode about whether or not Chappelle's opinion that the "Stereotype Pixies" sketch, which triggered his exit, was reinforcing racial stereotypes was right: re-fucking-ally?). Meanwhile, Key & Peele's final season is, fortunately, far from an abomination like that aborted third season of Chappelle's Show was. Some Key & Peele fans might not agree--particularly those who miss the segments where Key and Peele would interact with a studio audience and have also grown tired of the antics of some of the show's few recurring characters, like Peele's Meegan, the petulant millennial afflicted with both vocal fry and lousy movie theater behavior--but Key & Peele is still one of the most consistently funny sketch comedy shows on the air. Last week's ChildFund International commercial parody with Peele as a social worker loosely based on the bearded ChildFund guy, asking viewers to donate fake beards to Third World kids, and the latest Meegan and Andre sketch (is it me or did Peele model Meegan's voice after Mindy Kaling, the current boss of Key and Peele's old MADtv pal Ike Barinholtz?) were both absolute riots.

To the viewers who say they miss Key & Peele's studio audience segments, you do know those segments were sort of a compromise between the show's crew and Comedy Central, right? A behind-the-scenes battle that not many of those Key & Peele viewers seem to be aware of is the battle over the inclusion of studio audience laughter in every sketch: the network insisted on a laugh track, while Key, Peele and Atencio didn't want laughter. In 2013, Atencio discussed on Tumblr his past disagreements with the network over the laughter and said, "Our feeling was that because the sketches had a filmic quality to them, the laughter was distracting, and in a way cheapened the effort we had put into making the sketches work as individual short films." He added, "A lot of our sketches rely on setting up a believable world in often very serious genres and then subverting them, and so having that laughter cut in during an action movie or sci-fi style opening was like pouring ice-water on the viewer."

Key, Peele and Atencio had to continually persuade the network that a laugh track would get in the way of, as Atencio pointed out, "the dialogue, music, and sound-effects, all of which play a role in the comedy in most of our scenes." They ultimately won the battle and came up with a way to include audience laughter without having it intrude on the sketches: laughter would be present only during Key and Peele's hosting segments in front of a live studio audience. But the show actually got even better when it completely did away with the studio audience segments and replaced them with True Detective-style fake road trip scenes between Key and Peele as themselves (ad-libbing to each other just like in the studio audience segments), and it became clear that what Key, Peele and Atencio really wanted to do with the show this whole time was to channel the laugh track-less vibe of sketch comedy movies like Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and the John Landis flicks Kentucky Fried Movie and Amazon Women on the Moon.

To me, Key, Peele and Atencio's preference for the absence of often annoying audience laughter is as great a legacy as the show's smartly written satire about racially motivated police harassment of black men and other racial issues (like the "Negrotown" musical number, which bashes everything from racist bankers to cultural appropriation) or the unique--and unapologetically nerdy--comedic voice of two biracial comedians. Key & Peele's experiment of abolishing laugh tracks from filmed sketch comedy has caused other Comedy Central sketch shows like Kroll Show and Inside Amy Schumer to follow suit, which is a thing of beauty. I hate laugh tracks. Why do I need to be told when to laugh? They never made sense when Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma were getting chased around by ghosts to the sound of canned laughter, and they never made sense now.

Another one of Key & Peele's charms was that it wasn't trying to be Chappelle's Show (speaking of which, here's why some of us former Chappelle's Show viewers are still a little frustrated with Chappelle's abrupt exit: his departure was responsible for the increased presence of the unfunny and racist Mind of Mencia on Comedy Central's schedule, as well as the network's annoying attempts to market the neo-conservative Mind as the next Chappelle's Show). I like the film writing of Kartina Richardson, but her complaints during Key & Peele's first season that Key and Peele are "black folk who want to move past race" and that the show's writing is tepid in comparison to Chappelle's no-holds-barred material and it "makes fun of blacks in a way white liberals will allow themselves to enjoy, under the guise of 'talking about race'" were really weird complaints, especially when race is frequently on the minds of both Peele, who's been working on a script for a horror flick he wants to make about "the fears of being a black man today," and Key (Richardson's negative review of Key & Peele is over at Salon, but I don't want to link to Salon because that site is as slow and laggy as Wendell trudging through a brony convention). In those earlier seasons, Key & Peele was interesting precisely because it wasn't another Chappelle's Show: the obsessions of Key, Peele and Atencio ("Labyrinth. That's my world. NeverEnding Story. Willow," said Peele to White Teeth author Zadie Smith in the New Yorker) are mostly different from those of Chappelle and Neal Brennan's. But Key & Peele eventually did dive into the kind of edgier material about race that Richardson felt the show lacked--like "Negrotown" and the Trayvon Martin-related sketch that opened "Les Mis," the show's third-season premiere--and it ended up excelling at that kind of material.

There is one area where Key & Peele definitely surpassed Chappelle's Show (besides the five seasons Key & Peele will now have amassed), and that would be the fact that it got a few non-black comedians of color some extra screen time on largely vanilla Comedy Central. For instance, Filipino American improv comic Eugene Cordero appeared a few times on Key & Peele, which is better than Chappelle's Show's weird casting of either extremely wooden Asian non-actors or what I assume to be relatives of Chappelle's Asian wife as Asian characters and SNL's continuing practice of casting white actors as Asians. You bet your ass it's offensive and lame whenever the white comedians on SNL play Asians, even without yellowface or brownface makeup. Occasionally, Key has played South Asian characters on the show--like that Indian pediatrician in the unsettling "Make-a-Wish" Halloween sketch with Lauren Lapkus--even though he's neither South nor Asian, but he's actually convincing and non-offensive as an Indian guy (perhaps the reason why Key doesn't sound like Hari Kondabolu's priceless description of Apu as "a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father" is due to help from his wife, a dialect coach).

Key & Peele did a few other things better than SNL, like any of Key & Peele's sketches about Barack Obama, which wouldn't have existed had Lorne Michaels chosen Peele to bring his impression of the President to SNL (Peele once said, "I had some good friends over there, and a great meeting with Lorne and they asked me to do it, but I couldn't go for contractual reasons. I was on MADtv... It was a whole fiasco. It was such a shame, SNL is one of my favorite shows of all time"). The sketches with Peele as Obama and Key as his "anger translator" Luther may be viral sensations, but my favorite Key & Peele Obama sketch is "Obama: The College Years," mainly because of the way it makes fun of terrible, subtle-as-an-anvil dialogue in historical dramas like that cheesy line Joely Richardson had to say in The Patriot (Mel Gibson: "May I sit with you?" Richardson: "It's a free country. Or at least it will be").

The little visual touches Atencio came up with for the degraded early '80s videotape look of the fake footage of young Obama are a good example of Atencio's visual flair. That flair and Peele's nerdy love of horror movies were integral to another highlight of Key & Peele's run: the show's ability to pull off horror genre parody sketches that were genuinely unnerving in addition to being funny. The aforementioned "Make-a-Wish" sketch is especially unnerving. It features a creepy performance by Peele as an evil kid whose dying wishes are more elaborate than "I wish I could be Batman." Peele seems to be particularly obsessed with Thomas Harris adaptations like Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs and the Hannibal TV show, which explains why the Harris Cannibalistic Universe inspired not one but two sketches: "Hall of Mirrors," featuring Peele as a serial killer who's got Francis Dolarhyde's cleft lip, Ted Levine's voice and Joe Isuzu's inability to lie effectively, and "Sex Detective," which has Peele playing a brooding, Will Graham-like criminal profiler in a dead-on spoof of the masturbatory overtones of loner detectives like the occasionally Graham-like Fox Mulder, whose love of beating the meat was hinted at on The X-Files (extra points for the casting of former Criminal Minds star Paget Brewster as another detective).

"Sex Detective" is so dead-on that it's forever ruined the HCU for me. Thanks to "Sex Detective," Hannibal's pilot episode remains the only Hannibal episode I've watched because I know I won't be able to watch the rest of Hannibal without thinking of Peele's MacGruber-ish moans from "Sex Detective" and chuckling. That's how terrific a Key & Peele genre spoof like "Sex Detective" is: it has the power to ruin whole genres, just like how Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was so brutal in skewering musician biopic clichés that it caused me to be unable to take any musician biopic seriously anymore.

This is basically Jordan Peele as Hugh Dancy as a constipated male fashion model.

The intensity of Key & Peele's horror sketches, whether that sketch is "Make-a-Wish," the explanation for Steve Urkel's dominance on Family Matters or either of the Thomas Harris spoofs, sheds light on one last standout thing about Key & Peele: the two stars are excellent actors in addition to being great comedic minds (Zadie Smith points out that "If the depth Key brings to comic moments is unexpected, the bigger surprise is that he's doing comedy at all: he intended to be a classical actor"). So many of last week's negative reviews about the Adam Sandler blockbuster Pixels have noted that Sandler sleepwalks through the movie. In other words, the energy level Sandler once had in his earliest comedic vehicles--and in more challenging and risky movies like Punch-Drunk Love, in which Sandler movie fan Paul Thomas Anderson got a career-best performance out of Sandler--is completely gone. On Key & Peele, neither Key nor Peele could ever be guilty of such a thing. They acted their asses off in every sketch, and that sort of commitment to whatever material comes their way is something studio comedy filmmaking could really use right now. Comedy Central's latest loss is now studio comedy filmmaking's gain.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday: They Came Together

Not since Adrien Brody and Gael Garcia Bernal's Gillette ad has a Gillette ad made me stop and say, 'Whoa, didn't expect to see this person peddling razors.'
Usually on Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm going to focus today's TBT piece on a Paul Rudd/David Wain movie I actually didn't see in the theater. I'm focusing on this particular Rudd/Wain movie because of both the release of Rudd's Marvel Studios blockbuster Ant-Man and the July 31 Netflix debut of all eight episodes of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, in which Wain uses his prequel project to poke fun at the ridiculousness of other prequels by getting Rudd and all the other Wet Hot stars to reprise their roles from the 2001 cult favorite, even though they're now 20 years too old to be playing younger versions of themselves. This 2014 Rudd/Wain movie's so hilarious that whenever I recall in my mind a scene or two from it, I can't help but laugh.

As a film and TV director, David Wain is best known for Wet Hot American Summer, the 2008 box-office hit Role Models, the webseries Wainy Days and several episodes of Rob Corddry's Childrens Hospital (the absence of an apostrophe between the N and S is intentional, by the way, because the Corddry show's titular hospital was founded by a weirdo named Arthur Childrens). But I think the quintessential Wain film--even more so than either of those works--is one that the State sketch comedy troupe alum and Stella member directed way before Wet Hot: the 1997 short film "Finishing the Novel," starring Wain and Amanda Peet. The three-minute short (think of all the plodding SNL sketches that could have been improved if they had been whittled down to just three minutes!) isn't just one of my favorite shorts of all time. It's also the kind of short I wish I had the ingenuity to come up with every few weeks instead of every few years.

In "Finishing the Novel," Wain (who can currently be seen as Riki Lindhome's very gay husband on Comedy Central's Another Period) plays the world's most inept romance novelist, prone to repeating the same mistake over the course of three years and perhaps forever. The short is basically three minutes of well-off and photogenic but really dumb New Yorkers doing the most nonsensical and surreal things over and over (the weird childlike voice Wain directed Peet, who plays his wife, to speak in also has a lot to do with the short's charms), and it's the same type of absurdist humor that permeates Wain's New York rom-com parody They Came Together and turns it into one of the funniest and cleverest spoof movies of the last few years, along with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Black Dynamite and MacGruber ("Finishing the Novel" is also key to understanding the strange vibe of They Came Together and the much stranger vibe of both Wet Hot and Wain's 2007 sketch comedy/anthology movie hybrid The Ten).

What separates the makers of They Came Together, Walk Hard, Black Dynamite and MacGruber from the Jason Friedbergs and Aaron Seltzers and Scary Movies of the world is that even when they're taking the piss out of the hoariest Hollywood clichés, they bring to it both a genuine love for whatever genre they're spoofing--Wain and his They Came Together writing partner Michael Showalter have frequently said they're fans of rom-coms despite how brutally they make fun of them--and a sense of style. Those are two things that can't be said about the Friedberg/Seltzer factory and the Scary/Superhero/Date/Epic/Disaster/Haunted Movie template, the epitome of heartless, cynical, lazily written and indifferently produced comedy filmmaking. There's no genuine love for the genres they spoof; it's just a shapeless and pointless jumble of unfunny and already dated references to shit that has very little to do with whatever recent box-office hit they're re-creating, like the Stomp the Yard references and Paula Abdul impressions (Nicole Parker, why?!) during the 300 spoof Meet the Spartans.

Neither is there any panache or style to these ugly-looking Scary/Superhero/Date/Epic/Disaster/Haunted movies that must have cost five cents to shoot, whereas They Came Together, Walk Hard and MacGruber--and over on the small-screen side, any Key & Peele genre parody sketch like the "Sex Detective" parody of Hannibal and other similar criminal profiler shows--are all exquisitely photographed in spite of being saddled with equally low budgets. They Came Together, Walk Hard, MacGruber and Key & Peele are attempting to be visually indistinguishable from the big-budget, handsomely shot dreck they're spoofing. Tom Houghton, They Came Together's cinematographer, looks like he actually gives a fuck. The montage of Paul Rudd's Joel and Amy Poehler's Molly frolicking all over the streets and parks of Brooklyn--which hilariously transforms into a fake DVD featurette about Norah Jones recording the montage music--is so handsomely lit and genuinely pleasant to look at (just like the work of Orange Is the New Black cinematographer Yaron Orbach during the "Gretchen Mol bangs Jesus Christ" segment of The Ten) that it causes sight gags like Joel and Molly's obliviousness to a dead body in a park to pay off more effectively than if they were shot with the customary cruddiness the Friedberg/Seltzer factory brings to its product.

When Esquire staff writer Matt Patches gave Friedberg and Seltzer a chance to defend their much-maligned approach to the spoof movie in a Grantland profile of their partnership as "Hollywood's purveyors of not giving a shit," Patches wrote that "The men are only moderately concerned about shelf life; Meet the Spartans contains multiple references to shaved-head, mental-breakdown-era Britney Spears." And there you have the fundamental difference between the writing in Friedberg/Seltzer spoof movies and the writing in Wain spoof movies. Wain's more absurdist movies aren't concerned with playing "Spot the Timely Reference" with the audience, and they're as far away as possible from the laziness of "Say, if we just toss in this scene of a celebrity impersonator dressed up as a currently-in-the-headlines pop star, the test screening audience will automatically eat it up."

Like Wet Hot (which Wain actually doesn't consider to be a spoof movie, even when it parodied '80s training montages and did it brilliantly, a year before South Park did the same thing during "Asspen") and many of the Wain-directed Childrens Hospital episodes before it, They Came Together isn't too specific about the movies or shows it's parodying. Sure, Joel and Molly's mismatched business exec/small business owner romance echoes the plot of You've Got Mail, but it's more of a hodgepodge of all the clichés of every single oil-and-water coupling in a modern rom-com. The film's more concerned with mocking unnoticeable-to-a-casual-moviegoer things like badly done ADR ("Basketball, basketball, basketball...") and that old press junket line "New York is like another character" (which I'm sometimes guilty of saying too) or those clichéd moments we're familiar with from rom-coms but have difficulty remembering word-for-word (or where exactly we saw those moments) because all those rom-coms are so damn interchangeable.

Marvel fans' minds will be blown by the acrobatic sex scene between Ant-Man and Maria Hill.

One of those clichés is the way almost every heart-to-heart conversation between the lead character and a wise family member in rom-coms ends with that lead running off and then pivoting back to earnestly say thanks to the wacky sibling or grandma (the amusingly prolonged "thanks"-off between Rudd and Max Greenfield, who plays Joel's ne'er-do-well younger brother, at the end of one particular heart-to-heart conversation is classic Wain absurdism). Wain's approach to the spoof movie is, as a result, timeless and more likely to hold up to repeat viewings than bald Britney sight gags. Why do you think Wet Hot is more beloved now than when it quietly tanked at the box office back in 2001? Wet Hot's cult popularity and lasting appeal are partly due to both Wain's timeless approach and his preference for absurdist gags over "Hmm, which box-office hits and showbiz headlines from last month can we shoehorn into our next movie?"

In fact, They Came Together's two funniest moments have nothing to do with rom-coms and have everything to do with Wain and Showalter just being their usual absurdist selves and entertainingly playing around with language, whether it's to make fun of how bizarre many phone conversations sound in real life when the person on the other end of the line isn't audible or to make fun of how clunky and silly a lot of overly expositional dialogue sounds in any kind of movie, rom-com or non-rom-com. The scene that made me laugh the loudest again during the second time I watched They Came Together was not its most talked-about scene, the bar scene that's like an updated version of the old "Pete and Repeat went to the store" joke, but the brief gag where Joel's assistant (Noureen DeWulf from the 2007 sports movie spoof The Comebacks) shares on the phone saucy and intimate bedroom details with what we assume to be her BFF and instead it turns out to be her dad. I also love how Molly's sister and housemate (Childrens Hospital regular Zandy Hartig, Wain's wife) feels the need to explain to Molly who Molly's ex-husband (an uncharacteristically goofy Michael Shannon) is even though she lives under the same roof with Molly.

Is it me or is it really weird that Molly's love interest is Ant-Man, while her exes are General Zod and Bruce Wayne's murdered dad?

Some of these gags, particularly the intentionally clunky-sounding lines of exposition, are pretty subtle and can be easy to miss in an initial viewing because of how dead-on they are about by-the-numbers Hollywood dialogue, just like how when I first saw Black Dynamite, I didn't notice how one of the actors was making fun of flubbed line readings--a staple of '70s blaxploitation flicks that were so amateurishly made that nobody would notice those flubs and fix them in post--by saying aloud the stage directions along with his dialogue ("Sarcastically, I'm in charge"). Speaking of not noticing jokes, test screening audiences were confused by They Came Together. They didn't understand it was a rom-com spoof, so Wain and Showalter tacked on as a framing device a bunch of additional scenes with Joel and Molly recalling how they met while out on a double date with a younger couple (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), in order to remind audiences that they're watching a spoof. In an insightful They Came Together panel discussion moderated by Jeff Goldsmith for his filmmaking podcast The Q&A, Showalter defended the last-minute addition of the framing device and said, "We want people to get the joke. We don't want people to see this and feel alienated by it, which is what happened with Wet Hot. We didn't want people to hate that movie. We like that some people love it, but I personally don't like the fact that a lot of people hate it. I want everyone to get it."

During that same panel discussion, Showalter mentions that he and Wain considered opting for a "Lost Ending of It's a Wonderful Life"-style concept of "This Rudd and Poehler movie was too good to be released and we found it" as the framing device, which I think would have worked better as a framing device than Hader constantly interjecting commentary about the ridiculousness of the rom-com tropes that brought Joel and Molly together. I'm of two minds about the double date scenes. The need to explain that everything's a joke causes They Came Together to pale slightly to Wet Hot as a Wain movie, but at the same time, without the double date scenes, we wouldn't have gotten Hader's funny delivery of "You can have the pussy, just save me the hole" and this split-second, freeze-frame-worthy sight gag of Rudd pretending to drink wine before the camera cuts away:

He looks like he's making one of those faces Chevy Chase used to make behind Jane Curtin's back during Weekend Update.

Can we talk for a second about how much Rudd and Poehler elevate They Came Together? I don't care for the rom-com genre, but Rudd and Poehler's comedic skills and their ability to play things completely straight even during the most nonsensical moments are a huge part of why They Came Together is one of the few rom-coms I'll admit to liking. The two stars are, just like everyone else in the film's cast (hell, that goes for everyone else in the casts of Wain's other films as well), enjoyably game for anything, like Rudd's unapologetically tasteless moment with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire's Lynn Cohen as Joel's bubby, which has to tie with his mirror scene in Wanderlust as his craziest moment in a Wain movie. I originally thought the scene where Joel gets turned on by his bubby after she gives him love advice--and she then hops into his arms--was intended to be a riff on a really sappy and mediocre rom-com I watched on an airplane in 1992, I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore, an indie that paired up Jason Alexander (as a Jewish mama's boy who wants to lose weight) with Nia Peeples (as a really hot Italian American musician who, like all of Alexander's love interests on Seinfeld, is way out of the schlub's league). I later found out the scene is actually a riff on Crossing Delancey, forever ruining Crossing Delancey for fans of that 1988 rom-com by adding incest.

They Came Together can currently be streamed on Netflix, but the downside of They Came Together as a streaming title is that viewers are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy what has to be one of my favorite DVD/Blu-ray extras, a video recording of Rudd, Poehler and some of their future They Came Together co-stars participating in a 2012 SF Sketchfest live-read of an early draft of the They Came Together script, which Wain originally intended to make for Universal as his follow-up to Wet Hot (when They Came Together fell apart at Universal, Wain, Showalter and Michael Ian Black concentrated on bringing to life the underappreciated Stella TV show). The video and audio quality for that 103-minute extra on the They Came Together Blu-ray is subpar, but the live-read is worthwhile for both glimpsing the differences (and similarities) between the early draft and the final result and checking out the actors' reactions to the script as they're reading it for the first time.

They stuck Christopher Meloni way in the back because he really did shit his pants during the table read. He's so Method.
The participants of the star-studded table read of the They Came Together script at the 2012 SF Sketchfest. Back row, from left to right: Phil LaMarr, Michael Showalter, Erinn Hayes, Michael Ian Black, Christopher Meloni, Paul Rudd, David Wain, Ken Marino and Beth Dover. Front row, from left to right: Marguerite Moreau, Zandy Hartig, Rachael Harris, Joe Lo Truglio and Amy Poehler.

You get to see Wain's Wanderlust writing partner Ken Marino--who steals, no pun intended, They Came Together's basketball court scene with just his repetitive delivery of "Swish!" and is also Wain, Showalter and Black's old castmate from The State--shaking his head in silent disbelief over the weirdness of the script. You also find out which lines from the script cause Rudd to laugh so hard he winds up in tears during the live-read. One of those lines is "Oh God, Bubby, I wanna fuck you so bad."

This is why I like Rudd. He now goes down in history as the first Marvel Cinematic Universe star to have ever said, "Oh God, Bubby, I wanna fuck you so bad."

None of the original songs from They Came Together are currently in rotation on AFOS, but Craig Wedren and Pink Ape's catchy "Say You Love Me" ought to be. Wedren, a childhood friend of Wain's who has scored so many of Wain's projects, including "Finishing the Novel" and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, talks about how simpatico his musical and comedic instincts are with Wain's while plugging the score he wrote with Matt Novack for They Came Together in a lengthy but clickworthy interview.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Dissolve has sadly but elegantly irised out (so you win again, terribly written pop-culture news sites that are full of typos and annoying listicles)

The Google image search for 'iris out' hilariously turns up nothing but pics of Iris from The Flash.
Back in May, posted a well-made animated short adapted from an anti-PG-13 essay published by the Pitchfork Media-owned film review site The Dissolve, and I wrote, "I'd like to see [ animator Mack] Williams do more animated tie-ins with The Dissolve. The site's discussions of Midnight Run with Adam Scott and Running Scared with Paul Scheer are crying out for the animated treatment, as is Noel Murray's essay 'Why great comics don't always make great movies.'" Sadly, there won't be any more animated team-ups because during a three-week break I took from posting AFOS blog material (but I wasn't able to take a complete break from writing that material), The Dissolve closed up shop after two years of publication, simply because the economics haven't been kind to The Dissolve.

Although The Dissolve's reviews of new releases were well-written, they weren't the reason why The Dissolve was my favorite destination for discussions of film--other than The Onion Film Standard with Peter K. Rosenthal, of course. In an age when click-bait--particularly superhero movie costume news updates and listicles that are so lazily written and mindless they've caused me to stop writing listicles for good--has dominated film writing and made it less appealing to me, the content that made The Dissolve special and unique was all the articles that clearly weren't generating as many hits as the kind of empty and forgettable click-bait The Dissolve stubbornly refused to succumb to publishing in order to stay alive. I'm talking lengthy but never-boring and never-pretentious articles like the essays about the challenges of adapting graphic novels for the screen or the fascinating changes in recent film score music and the "Movie of the Week" roundtable discussions of older films like Repo Man and John Carpenter's Snake Plissken flicks and more recent cult favorites like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and MacGruber, discussions that often made you look at an old film in a new light. The reassessments of Spike Lee's work as a music video director or the reassessments of the filmographies of directors like Frank Tashlin and Ernst Lubitsch were also among the things former Dissolve staffer Scott Tobias and his colleagues "knew few people would read" when Tobias and Keith Phipps discussed the demise of their site, but The Dissolve was admirable for not caring that only a few film geeks would read those pieces.

The Dissolve's articles were often as impeccably edited as the movies the Dissolve writers adored and celebrated in their "Movie of the Week" discussions. Typos or misspellings were such a rarity over at The Dissolve. The only typos I spotted were in articles by--ooh, big surprise--Nathan Rabin, who, as an easily bored and barely awake TV recapper for the Onion-owned A.V. Club, once memorably wrote that Jack Donaghy "sneaks pills into Tracey's [sic] jelly beans and transforms him from a space case to an Adderal [sic] achiever" when Jack was so clearly not drugging Tracy Jordan, so Rabin would repeatedly get mocked for his pills mistake in the A.V. Club's comments section. Ooh, look, here's another one of those Rabin typos now.

Somebody put pills in Nathan Rabin's jelly beans when he wrote that opening sentence.

Typos aside, Rabin's pop-culture writing is actually often worth reading. Like so many of the other former Dissolve writers, Rabin (who perhaps saw the writing on the wall and actually left The Dissolve a couple of months before the site's demise) came from the A.V. Club, which championed and fostered the same kind of smartly written and witty pop-culture writing that was found on The Dissolve and continues to do so, although the A.V. Club, along with Indiewire and Uproxx, has lately become much less of a favorite destination for me because of how often its gazillion ads (fuck you, Flowplayer) cause my browser to freeze up. Meanwhile, The Dissolve refused to clutter its articles with ads, which I assume is what also brought about the end of The Dissolve. But it's better that The Dissolve went out fighting with the integrity in its writing intact instead of dying out as yet another slow and laggy site full of articles that are either littered with or disrupted by ads that slow down my browser and can't be turned off.

If you write or blog about film or pop culture, you might get asked by someone the following: "The Internet's as overwhelming as Comic-Con. There are too many sites to choose from when I want to read stuff on the Internet. How can I tell apart the sites that are worth visiting from the sites that aren't worth visiting?" It's simple. Any publication that frequently makes typos like the following isn't worth the time of day.

Neither is any publication that posts "20 Things You Didn't Know About the Catering for Ant-Man."

Remarkably, The Dissolve was neither of those things, although it did publish a listicle, but only occasionally, like when it discussed "The 50 most daring film roles for women since Ripley" or was presumably ordered by Pitchfork to assemble "The movies' 50 greatest pop music moments." Listicles aren't the only form of digital publishing that bores me. Blog posts that are simply hastily written regurgitations of press releases bore me as well. Sure, The Dissolve had a news section that consisted of hastily written regurgitations of press releases too, but otherwise, 90 percent of its content was the thoughtful and lengthy pieces about movies like Heat, a movie I was obsessed with in college, or Midnight Run, a movie I'm still obsessed with and was a favorite subject of the Dissolve writers because of its countless highlights, like Danny Elfman's "Try to Believe" theme, and because, as Noel Murray said, "This is a movie about adults, made for adults."

When I recently watched McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the first time ever (I checked it out from the San Francisco Public Library, a great alternative for whenever Netflix's DVD rental service comes up short), the first place I clicked to after watching the Robert Altman western was The Dissolve because the site had once picked McCabe as a "Movie of the Week." I wanted to read what the Dissolve staff had to say at length about Altman's offbeat western about the struggles of independent businesses against Big Business, struggles that were similar to The Dissolve's own financial struggles. Not even the late Altman's McCabe audio commentary was satisfactory enough for me. The "Movie of the Week" section is the thing I'll miss the most about The Dissolve. I'm worried that Pitchfork Media will someday remove all these Dissolve articles from the Web because there are so many other older movies I haven't seen yet and were given the "Movie of the Week" treatment by The Dissolve, and I still want to read what its writers had to say about those movies.

I will admit that one of my recent blog posts was written in the style of a Dissolve piece. That post was "The Game of Thrones 'Hardhome' massacre and Mad Max prove that near-silence is golden, so why hasn't anyone stepped up to make the first great modern-day silent action movie?" It's a depressing, "Hardhome"-ish time for film writing: The Dissolve has been shut down, and nobody can make a living from film writing like the late Roger Ebert used to be able to do because the tech world is run by corrupt assholes who don't pay their writers. At the risk of sounding like William Fichtner's "Criminals in this town used to believe in things" line from The Dark Knight, when I was a stringer for a major newspaper in the '90s, I wasn't paid a lot for the movie reviews I wrote, but at least I was actually paid back then. Listicle click-bait like "The 5 Best-Looking Buttcracks in Minions" may have won this round, but let's continue fighting against that type of writing. Let's keep The Dissolve--and what it stood for--alive in our approaches to writing about film or pop culture. It will make the sting of its demise less painful. We can do better than listicles about yellow buttcracks.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why I now refuse to see another movie in a theater (until that much-delayed Alamo Drafthouse finally opens in San Francisco, that is)

Alamo Drafthouse. Tossing out assholes who deserve to be fucking tossed out of movie theaters since 1997.
Spy wasn't just the last entry in the AFOS blog's ongoing and year-long Throwback Thursday series before I took a three-week-long break from blogging for most of July. The Paul Feig flick is also the final movie I'll be watching inside a theater. I'm disappointed that I'll have to wait to see Ant-Man, Trainwreck, Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation, Spectre, Ryan Coogler's Creed and possibly The Force Awakens until they hit Blu-ray. After being subjected to yet another theater audience member switching on his or her glowing smartphone screen light in the theater--this happened in the middle of a screening of Spy--I've simply had it. I said to myself, "That's it. I'm not watching another movie in a theater until Alamo Drafthouse actually opens that San Francisco Drafthouse theater they've been talking about opening since the Bush (Sr.) Administration."

It's not like I'm an absolute fascist about it. Unlike that psycho in Florida who shot and killed someone in a theater for texting during a bunch of movie trailers, I'm not distracted by moviegoers who check their texts during the trailers. They're commercials. I don't care. Neither am I distracted by those who use their phones as flashlights to help them see their way out while the closing credits are rolling and I'm waiting for some lame and pointless post-credits scene to arrive.

But when some moron in one of the front rows (and I can see them from afar because ever since college, I always sit in the farthest back row, due to my hatred of having my seat get kicked from behind me by strangers when I was younger) is flicking on his or her phone light during the feature presentation, in the middle of an action sequence, that's when I really get distracted and angry. I never want to be that guy who either tells people to turn off their phones or shushes a noisy talker, which is why I've never done either of those things. But I've always felt like doing so. Rude people in theaters can't be reasoned with, so why bother?

I also never want to be that guy who complains to the theater staff to get them to reprimand some unruly moron, simply because multiplex employees don't do shit. But when that smartphone zombie in one of the front rows flicked on his screen in the middle of one of Melissa McCarthy's Spy action sequences, that was the last straw for me. My tolerance for this nonsense has ended. He switched it on only once during Spy, which actually isn't as awful as the imbecile who brought his tablet to Kingsman: The Secret Service and kept switching it on during the feature presentation (that tablet zombie at the Kingsman screening is reason number 4,081 for why I despise the Silicon Valley tech world, a world I regret having worked for during the '00s). But despite the Spy screening being less aggravating than the Kingsman screening, my tolerance for smartphone or tablet zombies inside theaters is kaput. Why the fuck does this always happen during spy movies?

I'll say it and I'll say it again: movie theaters don't need timid or indifferent ushers to handle texters. That squeaky-voiced teen from The Simpsons wouldn't have the ability or the guts to handle them anyway. Movie theaters need bouncers, and not just a regular bouncer: a Samoan bouncer. Samoan bouncers rule.

The Palace: Photographed in Single-Panelvision 70, Chapter 2 by Jimmy J. Aquino

I'm not as violent as a bouncer. But smartphone zombies who check their texts in the movie theater (so that fucking phone light emerges out of nowhere and distracts everyone who's paying attention to the movie) drive me so bonkers--much more so than even people who talk out loud in the theater--that I wish Alamo Drafthouse, the theater chain that has broken the mold and won praise for actually doing something about texters and kicking them out of its theaters, would go the extra mile and not just kick them out. I would like Drafthouse to also take them to a back room and show them the respect and kindness they deserve. Here's an example of that kindness.

It's simple etiquette, man. I know there are moviegoers of color out there who, unlike this moviegoer of color, think it's okay to switch their goddamn flashlight on in the middle of the feature presentation. To them, I would like to say the following: don't you fucking frame this as "Man, enforcing etiquette like that is #peak" (as in Caucasity, for people who don't speak Desus Nice-ese). No, it's not.

I like making fun of moments of Caucasity as much as the next brown man, but someone telling you to shut off your phone in the theater isn't white privilege exerting itself. It's not white man etiquette. It's human etiquette.

You're not just rudely distracting everyone who paid to watch a movie, whether the movie is good or Michael Bay; they didn't pay to watch you play with your phone. You're also making everything about yourself and diverting everyone's attentions in the theater to you, attention whore. Now that--the petulant "I have the right to keep my phone on whenever I want to!" defense--is acting exactly like the privileged white morons you so despise.

One of those privileged white morons is Madonna. You want to behave just like Madonna? I'm glad to see Lin-Manuel Miranda setting an example for how to handle lousy phone etiquette by banning Madonna from attending his Broadway musical Hamilton after she texted during one of Hamilton's Off-Broadway performances. "That bitch was on her phone. You couldn't miss it from the stage. It was a black void of the audience in front of us and her face there perfectly lit by the light of her iPhone through three-quarters of the show," grumbled Jonathan Groff, Miranda's Hamilton co-star. I'm even more glad to see Patti LuPone verbally and physically getting tough on these tech addicts who come to Broadway performances and show no respect for the actors. LuPone once paused in the middle of one of her Gypsy musical numbers to chew out an audience member who was snapping photos. Then a couple of weeks ago, she stepped out of character again during a performance of Shows for Days to confiscate a phone from a texter who's another one of what LuPone perfectly describes as "self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones."

Now if only those indifferent movie theater owners whom Matt Zoller Seitz complains about in his frequent tweets about lousy theater behavior would be as tough on morons in their theaters as LuPone has been on morons in hers. I like the writing of Anil Dash, but his idiotic defense of texting in theaters is both a lowlight of his writing and reason number 4,082 for why I hate the tech world. I'll always admire Seitz for his impassioned response to Dash's piece.

After I threw in the towel after seeing Spy and said, "I give up dealing with this shit," I happened to stumble into a comment about lousy theater behavior that was written a long time ago by one of my AFOS radio station listeners, graphic artist and Drafthouse theater fan Vincent Bernard, over in the comments section of the Drafthouse-owned Birth.Movies.Death., back when it was known as Badass Digest. Vincent's opinion is exactly the same as mine. He said, "When I want to watch a movie, I want to watch a movie. I don't give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks or feels about it. I'm trying to immerse myself in art, not sing Kumbaya around a campfire. I treat film the way I treat all serious art. I certainly don't want to read great literature or view great paintings surrounded by ill-mannered buffoons, so why should film be any different?"

That's precisely how I feel about moviegoing: it gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in visual art, and you should be able to do that without any distractions or interruptions. I'll still enjoy the ability to be free from any distractions and immerse myself in a movie, which is what the Drafthouse folks--and now over on the stage acting side of showbiz, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Patti "The Cut-Wife" LuPone--are fighting so hard to preserve. I just won't be doing so in a theater anymore, until the day Drafthouse finally opens its Mission District theater. If you can't even manage to immerse yourself for two hours, you have no business being inside a theater. Just leave and take your shitty little screen with you. I hope a car hits you on your way out because you were too stupid to look where you're going, and I hope that car was driven by someone who wasn't paying attention to the wheel because that person was too busy texting.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Spy (2015)

A much easier movie title to place on a marquee than The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love
Every Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm intentionally pulling out the ticket that says "Spy," due to the Melissa McCarthy comedy's box-office success and the excitement over the beginning of the filming of McCarthy's Ghostbusters reboot. This will be the final post here on the AFOS blog before I take a two-or-three-week-long break from the blog in July. The blog--and that goes for the blog's year-long TBT series as well--will resume with new posts in the middle of July.

The least creative thing about writer/director Paul Feig's enjoyably foul-mouthed action comedy Spy is its title. Spy is also the title of a fairly recent Britcom about an MI5 agent and his 10-and-a-half-year-old son. The Feig movie's original title was Susan Cooper. By the end of the movie, Melissa McCarthy and Feig have created such a distinctive and likable new heroine--and managed to give her a satisfying dramatic arc in addition to her comedic antics--that you won't forget the name Susan Cooper, and her name deserves to be part of the branding of the super-spy franchise that will likely arise from Spy, much like how Austin Powers' name is part of the title of every movie of his and Jason Bourne's name is in the title of every Bourne movie, including ones he doesn't even bother to appear in.

But then again, Feig's the kind of director who seems to prefer movie titles that don't take up too much space on a marquee. I Am David, Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters are all titles that are easy work for marquee changers, especially ones who'd get an anxiety attack after finding out they have to put the letters up for Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.

Birth.Movies.Death., the new name of Badass Digest, makes me think of some Godfathers song for some reason.
Mondo poster illustrated by The Dude Designs (Photo source: Birth.Movies.Death.)

So had Sky 1 not come out with a show called Spy, I'd be more enamored with the movie's title because it nicely conveys in just three letters that Susan was born to be one. But because Spy is a comedy, the transition from mission control support to CIA field agent for Susan, who's a winning mix of Midwestern politeness and the fearlessness of McCarthy's Boston cop character Shannon Mullins from The Heat, isn't exactly a smooth one. That transition is initially loaded with the usual slapstick McCarthy frequently excels at, as well as the honest and comically appalled reactions many Feig characters have to any kind of mayhem (think the bridesmaids' varied reactions to food poisoning in Bridesmaids or Sandra Bullock amusingly panicking over a knife shoved into her thigh and wanting so badly to break her vow to never curse in The Heat). Spy arose out of Feig's wish to make a spy movie like one of his favorite movies, the 2006 version of Casino Royale, but because these are Feig characters, not Bond movie characters who respond to everything in the most badass and suave (as well as PG-13-friendly and extremely--and implausibly--sanitized) ways, they puke from the sight of accidentally impaling someone they've killed or launch into a barrage of F-bombs when they don't get their way.

But once McCarthy's Bridesmaids co-star Rose Byrne enters the picture and Susan becomes more confident about her field work and is able to infiltrate the Byrne character's enemy organization, thanks to a very particular set of skills (like intuition) that Susan's overconfident colleague/work rival Rick Ford (Jason Statham) is too bullheaded and inept to possess, Spy takes an interesting turn as a spy comedy. It becomes a comedy about an underestimated spy who's good at her job instead of incompetent (Get Smart) or competent but immature (Archer), which also makes it an intriguing companion piece to the Marvel Studios show Agent Carter, another story of a frequently underestimated female spy. But where's the conflict when the central character's a competent spy? Isn't that a comedy killer? When McCarthy has such great--and often improvised--dialogue and trades insults with the consistently funny likes of a perfectly cast (and perfectly big-haired) Byrne as a villainous arms dealer and Statham in what has to be the funniest and greatest role of his career as the hilariously useless Ford, nobody has to worry about the disappearance of humor.