Tuesday, August 28, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (08/28/2012): Transformers Prime, Gravity Falls, Kaijudo, Adventure Time and Regular Show

'We must break you.'
I'm looking forward to seeing Gravity Falls' other Time Paradox Avoidance Enforcement Squadron agents, Clean, Jaude, Dan and Vamme.
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

After a couple of months of repeats, The Hub's Transformers Prime resumes its second season with "Hurt," an episode that's largely downbeat, aside from a silly reference to David Bowie's "TVC 15" that will sail over the kid viewers' heads and a comedic feud between the Insecticons and Knock Out (Daran Norris), a vain Decepticon reminiscent of Kevin Spacey's celebrity cop character in L.A. Confidential. In "Hurt," the Autobots and their human sidekicks keep vigil over the gruff Autobot soldier Bulkhead when he winds up comatose after the events of "Toxicity."

Bulkhead's two best friends, human tomboy Miko (Tania Gunadi) and wartime comrade Wheeljack (James Horan), aren't exactly fond of authority, and they defy the team's orders to stay put and not take revenge on Hardshell (David Kaye), the Insecticon who shot Bulkhead in the back while he transported back to the Autobot base. The shooting worsened an already-injured Bulkhead's condition after he was poisoned by the "Tox-En" inside the Iacon relic he was attempting to retrieve.

Miko and Wheeljack spy on some skinny-dipping teens who fuck each other in a lake and then get chopped into pieces by a masked killer.
"Hurt" proves how a bit sophisticated this show's writing is in comparison to the writing on other Transformers incarnations. In the last few episodes, we've seen the show play around with time in a manner reminiscent of the Bad Robot projects that Transformers Prime co-executive producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman cut their teeth on. And now, we see once again--after the very first episode killed off the Dwayne Johnson-voiced Cliffjumper (who's actually reappearing in next week's episode)--that when Transformers Prime leaves an Autobot badly injured, he doesn't bounce back '80s G.I. Joe-style at the end of the story as if nothing happened. Transformers Prime really puts its protagonists through the wringer.

There's one great visual touch in the middle of "Hurt" where the camera follows Miko around a cavern as the tiny human runs for cover and nearly gets squashed by both Wheeljack and Hardshell as the giant warriors beat the crap out of each other. The sequence captures well both the thrills of a first-person shooter and the danger the reckless Miko has put herself into, and yet, it somehow manages to avoid becoming visually incoherent and confusing like Michael Bay's live-action Transformers movies, where you can hardly tell if you're looking at a close-up of a Transformer's elbow or--gaaah!--testicle.

***

A cartoon with even more sophisticated writing than Transformers Prime is Gravity Falls, which, in its latest episode "The Time Traveler's Pig," references in its title a popular novel that only the adult viewers are sure to be familiar with (The Time Traveler's Wife). In "The Time Traveler's Pig," Dipper once again takes advantage of a futuristic device to try to get Wendy to like him as more than just a friend. This time, it's a time machine in the form of a tape measure that, with the help of Mystery Shack employee Soos, he steals from a goggles-wearing figure we've briefly seen before in earlier episodes, Blendin Blandin (Justin Roiland, a.k.a. the Earl of Lemongrab from Adventure Time), a time traveler from the year 207̃012 (pronounced "20-snyevendy-12," and yes, that is indeed a tilde above the 7).

Dipper uses the tape measure to alter history so that the carnival game he plays to impress Wendy doesn't end with a baseball giving her a black eye, which causes her to wind up in the arms of douchey, skinny-jeaned Robbie. The kid's Groundhog Day-style attempts to change the game's outcome amusingly lead to one disastrous result after another (at one point, a bunch of baseballs land on Wendy's face). But when a particularly successful attempt to keep Wendy away from Robbie interferes with his twin sister Mabel's day of fun with Waddles, the carnival pig she won (the same pig Mabel cuddles with in the show's opening titles each week), so that Mabel's rival Pacifica ends up winning Waddles instead, Dipper must choose between what his heart wants and what Mabel's heart wants.

Like Bruce Jenner's face on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Waddles the pig's expression never changes during the episode.
(Photo source: Gravity Falls Wiki)
I love the attention to detail in each different era the tape measure whisks Dipper and Mabel off to as they try to find their way back home to the present. My favorite "Time Traveler's Pig" sight gag is the little bandage on the face of a frontierswoman's baby when the twins are sent back to the Oregon Trail. Speaking of tough-ass babies, the twins' brief visit to a post-apocalyptic future introduces the Time Baby, the "enormous, evil, time-devouring baby from another dimension" that was mentioned in the text of a top-secret government document Dipper skimmed through in "Irrational Treasure." The Time Baby attacks future Oregon with laser rays from his eyes and reappears in the end credits, where he orders Blandin to travel to the past to fix the time anomalies caused by Dipper and Mabel, hence Blandin's cameos in the first few episodes (by the way, this week's end-credits cryptogram--"mlg s.t. dvooh zkkilevw"--is "Not H.G. Wells approved").

The inspired time travel humor and the clever connections to past episodes aren't the only remarkable elements of "The Time Traveler's Pig." The conflict over Blandin's time machine that episode writers Aury Wallington and Alex Hirsch bring into Dipper and Mabel's friendship--these two siblings who always look out for each other have never been seen fighting with each other until now--adds some dimension and heart to the timey-wimey hijinks. One thing Gravity Falls pulls off well in addition to absurdist humor is its melancholy side, and there are a couple of passage-of-time montages in "The Time Traveler's Pig"--one of them takes place while Dipper is heartbroken over Wendy agreeing to go out with Robbie--that are as beautifully drawn and animated as the Koyannisqatsi-esque fast-motion images in the opening titles. Gravity Falls just can't stop continuing to be impressive each week.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Paramount: 100 years of crazy juice

'Coming from Paramount': Not to be confused with 'Coming on Perry Mount!,' something that was uttered by a porn star during a film shoot with porn actor Perry Mount.
Paramount is a studio full of huge missteps like Richard Gere dancing around in a diaper and the stupidly whitewashed live-action adaptation of its sister company Nickelodeon's animated Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise. It's also a studio that's responsible for many of my favorite movies (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1999's Election).

All year long, Paramount has been celebrating its 100th anniversary. Because the Saturday after next is the date when one of Paramount's most popular properties, Star Trek, made its debut on NBC (46 years ago, to be exact), I'm posting a 100th anniversary playlist consisting of original themes from my favorite Paramount movies and shows (Star Trek: First Contact, Taxi) and original themes I like that come from Paramount movies I've never seen (Fear Is the Key, Three Tough Guys) or Paramount movies I don't care for (the late Tony Scott's Top Gun).

Instead of a mountain surrounded by stars, the production company logo in porn star Perry Mount's movies is a tit surrounded by leather studs.
I'm glad that Spotify carries Paramount Pictures' 90th Anniversary Memorable Scores, an impressive 2002 Sony Classical comp, even though it contains cues from Forrest Gump and Titanic, two other Paramount smash hits I don't care for. However, I'm a little bummed that Spotify doesn't carry the songs from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut or the scores from Face/Off, Election, Zodiac, Vertigo, Psycho, the original Italian Job, Once Upon a Time in the West, Star Trek II and the first J.J. Abrams Trek movie. Spotify carries re-recordings of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo and Psycho pieces, The Italian Job's "Getta Bloomin' Move On," Ennio Morricone's Once Upon a Time in the West themes, James Horner's Trek II cues, Michael Giacchino's Trek cues, Dave Grusin's Three Days of the Condor theme and Neal Hefti's enjoyably loungy theme from the Odd Couple movie and TV series, but I'm not using them. I hate most film and TV score re-recordings.

Almost all these score re-recordings on Spotify are tinnily performed on cheap synthesizers, they come from labels I've never heard of and they suck gigantic J.J. Abrams red balls. That's why there are no re-recordings on this three-hour "Paramount: 100 Years of Crazy Juice" playlist, even though Billy May's cover of the Odd Couple theme isn't bad because it's, well, Billy May.

'dmachado' is clearly a masochist.
The playlist goes in chronological order from 1958 to the present day, but it kicks off with a '90s piece: one of my all-time favorite joints, Eric B. and Rakim's "Juice (Know the Ledge)" from Paramount's 1992 Tupac Shakur movie Juice, the first directorial effort from former Spike Lee cinematographer and frequent episodic cable TV director Ernest Dickerson. Juice's Hank Shocklee-produced soundtrack is a terrific snapshot of hip-hop and R&B in the early '90s (when Shocklee and his Bomb Squad were in their prime as beatmakers) and has aged remarkably well. The film itself isn't quite a masterpiece. It would probably be a more intriguing film if I watched it again, but in black-and-white instead of color, a trick I learned from rapper Prometheus Brown.

"I gave Juice the homemade noir treatment and discovered a whole nother film underneath the film's already muted colors. Stripped down to monochrome, New York becomes Gotham. Tupac's dark portrayal of Bishop is intensified," wrote Geo back when he used to write at length about movies on his blog (I wish Prometheus hadn't abandoned film criticism because we need more film critics of color, but between his touring schedule and balancing two bands at the same time, it's understandable).

"The DJ battle scenes in the club no longer look like a 90s MTV dance show but more like a classic rap video," continued Prometheus in his Juice post. "Omar Epps's scratching, however, remains artificial. Can't desaturate that."


Most minimalist movie posters suck gigantic, stylized-in-the-manner-of-Saul-Bass donkey balls, but this minimalist poster's fantastic.
Complete tracklist after the jump...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (08/21/2012): Scooby-Doo!, Gravity Falls, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers and Adventure Time

This new version of Voltron sucks.
Looks like Roger Clemens is totally ready for the minors. (Photo source: Haunted Realm)
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

After burning off in a three-week period the first 15 episodes of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated's second and most likely final season, Cartoon Network has put Warner Bros. Animation's surprisingly clever update of Scooby back on hiatus again. But at least the half-season ended with three of the show's strongest episodes to date.

What this episode was missing was Dr. Zin saying to Blue Falcon, 'Yippee-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon.'
"Wrath of the Krampus" breaks from the formula of "masked menace terrorizes Crystal Cove/gang tries to trap culprit/gang unmasks culprit." "Heart of Evil" is a fan-servicey (for older viewers who grew up on Hanna-Barbera shows, that is) but enjoyable crossover that unites three different Hanna-Barbera properties: the Scooby franchise, the adults from Jonny Quest and the bionic dog Dynomutt (Frank Welker), whose partner Blue Falcon now speaks in a silly Christian Bale-style rasp supplied by Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes voice actor Troy Baker. Finally, "Theater of Doom," was, unless I'm mistaken, co-written by the same Joe Flaherty who killed it on SCTV in the '70s and '80s and served as ornery dad to frequent Mystery Incorporated guest star Linda Cardellini on Freaks and Geeks.

"Theater of Doom," a.k.a. Chapter 41 (with 11 more chapters to go, starting on God-knows-when on Cartoon Network), mocks bad community theater with the same flair SCTV displayed in its parodies of bad TV and B-movies, so I wouldn't be surprised if that really was Count Floyd who worked on the script with Paul Rugg, the writer/voice actor from Animaniacs and Freakazoid. The half-season finale checks in on Vincent Van Ghoul (Maurice LaMarche), the washed-up horror movie star character originally voiced by Vincent Price on Hanna-Barbera's 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, and ominously predicts that "the dog dies" and will be corrupted Gollum-style by the Planispheric Disk before dying. But which dog? Scooby or his non-verbal girlfriend Nova?

The best of these three episodes has to be "Wrath of the Krampus" because of its delightful major twist: the meddling kids are the culprit for once. A series of monster attacks on Crystal Cove's rowdiest preteens is revealed at the end of "Wrath of the Krampus" to be a ruse orchestrated by Fred and his friends to distract Professor Pericles and his fellow conspirators Mr. E and the Sternums from getting their hands on the Planispheric Disk.

Other than his expertise in setting traps, Fred isn't terribly bright. That's the other trait besides the knack for traps that Fred inherited from his equally dim birth parents Brad and Judy (a.k.a. the Sternums), so I initially couldn't buy that Fred could be capable of being several steps ahead of the four conspirators in "Wrath of the Krampus." Then I remembered the show is set in a heightened reality where dogs can talk and are saved from death by bionic implants, criminals are able to fly because of rocket packs and ancient artifacts cause animals to turn evil, so the gang's ability to outsmart Pericles' team with the help of basically everyone in Crystal Cove makes perfect sense within the Doo-niverse.

***

Atop a speeding train, President Trembley passionately defends the right of every citizen to be pantsless atop a speeding train because you can totally feel the swift breeze tickling your testicles.
In "Irrational Treasure," Gravity Falls finally delves into a part of its mythology I've been looking forward to: the history of the strange title town where Dipper and Mabel have been forced by their parents to spend their summer vacation. Looking for a way to take mean girl Pacifica Northwest down a peg after she insults Mabel's tastes for quirky sweaters and nacho earrings and hurts her feelings during the town's Pioneer Day festivities, Dipper and Mabel find their ammo when they uncover evidence that Pacifica's great-great-grandfather Nathaniel Northwest, the supposed Gravity Falls founder, was a fraud. In doing so, the Pines twins stumble onto a government conspiracy revolving around the actual town founder, Quentin Trembley (series creator Alex Hirsch), whose achievements were erased from history because of his disastrous term as the eighth-and-a-half President of the United States.

"Irrational Treasure" writers Hirsch and Tim McKeon go crazy with their alternate history of America, which provides hilarious explanations for Abraham Lincoln's top hat (it concealed a giant head that was shaped like a hand), Mount Rushmore (it's in the Easter egg below) and the replacement of Trembley with William Henry Harrison. In the top-secret government film watched by Dipper and Mabel, the Chris Parnell-voiced narrator tells of an out-of-it leader whose nutso behavior--reminiscent of Parnell's Dr. Spaceman character and his non sequiturs on 30 Rock--earned him the moniker of "America's Silliest President" ("He waged war on pancakes, appointed six babies to the Supreme Court and issued the De-pants-ipation Proclamation").

So that means all those slaves Thomas Jefferson boinked were actually frolicing with a pair of little kids? What the what?
The gags about silly presidential behavior and old town laws that allow citizens to marry woodpeckers dovetail nicely with a story about Mabel learning that it's okay to be herself and that weirdness has its advantages. Without her weirdness, Mabel wouldn't have uncovered all the evidence that she and Dipper would use to discredit the Northwests. And without all those absurdist gags and hidden messages (speaking of which, this week's cryptogram--"v. kofiryfh givnyovb"--is "E. Pluribus Trembley") or the entertaining way the show deploys those gags to explore the challenges of growing up as a misfit, Gravity Falls would just be a standard Disney Channel show, as forgettable as the '90s "TGIF"-style live-action sitcoms all over the channel's lineup.

***

Damage Control, a construction firm that specializes in fixing the property damage caused by battles between superheroes and supervillains, was Marvel's clever response to the question "How do the regular joes in New York City deal with the aftermath of those battles?" Comics critic David Brothers once noted that Damage Control and its solo miniseries of the same name grounded the Marvel Universe in the real world and re-emphasized the role of the common man in a universe full of gods and superhumans. "Damage Control was a fun twist and a gentle reminder of just how interesting and off-kilter Marvel Comics could get away with being," wrote Brothers.

The firm was one of the most memorable creations of the late comics and animation scriptwriter Dwayne McDuffie, who receives a nice tribute and dedication from his former Ben 10 colleagues, the Man of Action collective, in the collective's otherwise drab Ultimate Spider-Man episode "Damage," which has Spidey and his S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates going undercover as Damage Control workers to apprehend the Wrecking Crew, a team of demolition-themed baddies. Man of Action and "Damage" co-writer Scott Mosier's version of Damage Control reimagines account executive character John Porter as the firm's founder and CEO, renames him "Mac" in honor of McDuffie and gives him McDuffie's face (and as a shout-out to McDuffie's Static Shock animated series, former Static Shock cast member Kevin Michael Richardson voices Mac).

'The reason I got into comics was so I could hit Wolverine in the face with a pie.'--Dwayne McDuffie
Mac Porter, the head of the Damage Control team on Ultimate Spider-Man, was modeled after Dwayne McDuffie (1962-2011), who created the team for Marvel in the late '80s.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Oh my God, that's the funky shit!": Five hours of badass sample flips

NCIS meets N.W.A.
David McCallum and Dre, brought together through the magic of both Photoshop and a Wacom pen tablet
Dr. Dre is reportedly executive-producing a scripted TV series for FX about the connections between L.A. organized crime and the music industry. My reaction to that bit of news is "So when's Detox coming out?"

While we wait for an album that's never going to drop, I want to revisit one of Dre's greatest sample flips, off his last official album, 1999's 2001. "The Next Episode" kicks off "Kids Come Running for the Rich Taste of Samples," a five-hour playlist of my favorite sample flips. I've juxtaposed dozens of bangers with the tunes they sampled. So "The Next Episode" is followed by the piece it sampled, "The Edge," a cinematic-sounding 1966 David Axelrod instrumental performed by David McCallum, back when he was both Illya Kuryakin and a Capitol recording artist on the side (instead of trying to become a pop singer like Crockett or Tubbs, instrumental pop was McCallum's bag).

Henry Mancini's encounter with the Wu-Tang Clan would have been a helluva lot less awkward than the time Hank Kingsley tried to bond with them on The Larry Sanders Show.
Likewise with Ghostface and Henry Mancini
In some cases, I've grouped a frequently sampled work with two or three of its "descendants." I've also taken a Frankenstein's monster of a track like Redman's "Tonight's Da Night" and juxtaposed it with the tunes it was formed from (in "Tonight's Da Night"'s case, Isaac Hayes' "A Few More Kisses to Go" and the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long").

I always enjoy playing Spot the Sample, a game that's become much easier now thanks to a site like WhoSampled or ego trip's "Sample Flips" series of interviews where beatmakers talk at length about their favorite moments of sample wizardry by other beatsmiths. A whole section of this playlist is devoted to the work of the late J Dilla, whose way with hooks (for instance, I was never aware that he chopped up Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" on Common's "Dooinit" until Questlove pointed it out recently on Hot 97) has been frequently spoken of with awe by the interviewees during the ego trip series.

Several of the sample sources on this playlist are movie themes (the Curtis Mayfield-produced themes from Let's Do It Again and Claudine) or re-recordings of movie themes (John Dankworth's cover of his own Modesty Blaise theme). DOOM's use of a lesser-known Henry Mancini piece (the Thief Who Came to Dinner theme) for a Ghostface Killah joint he produced was a particularly inspired choice and is, of course, part of the playlist.

If FX greenlights Dre's project, will it tank like John Ridley's UPN show Platinum, the last attempt to make a serialized drama set in the rap world (not counting The L.A. Complex)? Fake hip-hop has rarely sounded convincing on these crime shows. The Law & Order franchise does an especially terrible job coming up with fake rap or rock acts whenever an episode involves the music industry. Law & Order writers' ideas of what's popular in music are always hilariously seven or eight years behind present-day sounds, like in Criminal Intent's 2007 "Flipped" episode with Fab 5 Freddy as murdered rapper Fulla T or "Discord," the Briscoe/Logan-era mothership episode that guest-starred Fringe's Sebastian Roché as a rapey hair band idol known as C Square, whose late '80s-ish, Warrant-style sound would have barely sold any CDs in the era of grunge, which was when "Discord" first aired. The involvement of Dre on one of these shows (even if it's just as an EP and not as a showrunner) could change all that.

Take it away, Dre.

Complete tracklist after the jump...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (08/14/2012): Scooby-Doo!, Dragons: Riders of Berk, Gravity Falls, Adventure Time and Randy Cunningham

This new Petticoat Junction reboot looks dead sexy.
Mrs. Bjorkland and her bjorkable daughters
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

I know using a phrase like "It's The Wire of lawyer shows" or "It's The Wire of space operas" to describe a serialized show's novelistic narrative structure has become a bit of a cliché lately. But Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated supervising producer Tony Cervone's recent tweet in which he asserts that his show "has always been a 52-chapter long story" and nothing more has made such a phrase unavoidable when describing why Mystery Incorporated is such a standout cartoon.

As much as I like Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, I'd rather see another season of Terriers.
Cervone's tweet also confirms why there's no clamor from the show's staffers for another season of Mystery Incorporated. And I'm okay with the fact that after Chapter 52, this exceptional, Wire-esque-in-structure-if-not-in-scope incarnation of Scooby is dead and buried. I'd rather have Mystery Incorporated stick to its planned end date than wear out its welcome and turn into a shell of its former self a few years later (that is if it'll ever reach its final few episodes because after this week's batch of episodes, Cartoon Network is--*sigh*--putting the show on hiatus again).

The Subaru of dogs So what's happened in the last few episodes of the second season of Scooby-Doo! Burnoff Theater? Daphne is apparently a chocoholic. Hot Dog Water resurfaced as a perp--and Velma let her get away with it, as her feelings for Marcy were again carefully hidden by the show's producers. Sheriff Bronson Stone (Patrick Warburton) and Mayor Janet Nettles (Kate Higgins) are now an item. The show channeled a cartoon that's frequently parodied Scooby, The Venture Bros., and revealed that Fred's trap-building parents are the Doo-niverse's equivalent of Hart to Hart (I love how their butler sounds exactly like Lionel Stander). Rough winter weather forced the team to spend the night at a secluded mansion and experience freaky hallucinations (one of them causes Daphne to make out with Shaggy, which shocks the hell out of both Fred and Scooby) during one of the show's most eerie episodes so far, a Shining homage/parody.

It turns out that the Professor Pericles-era Mystery Incorporated team wasn't the first team of mystery-solvers that consisted of four teen sleuths and an animal mascot. There were other precursors to Scooby and his friends, starting with Burlington's Benevolent Lodge of Mystery in the 1880s. Remorseful Mystery Incorporated alum Cassidy Williams sacrificed her life while taking a stand in the sea against her former teammate Pericles. But we never saw her body after the explosion, and in live-action episodic TV, we know what that means.

His last name's Meanskrieg. Way to be subtle, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg
And finally, the series continues to sneak in amusing Easter eggs that are worth freeze-framing and perusing. From the "Gathering Gloom" episode, here's the complete text that was written on the rejected work permit that Velma read about Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg, the perp voiced by Chris Hardwick:

Previous job experiences
Scaring small children, being mean to the elderly, shaving kittens and painting them blue, building sewage treatment plants so they back up when used, driving busloads of innocent civilians into the middle of nowhere and then leaving them there, poking holes in the bottoms of all candies in a box to see what they are and then putting them back in the same box, wearing other people's socks and then putting them back in their drawers with extra foot stink on them.

References from old country
It is hereby stated that several individuals have come forward detailing that Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg is the meanest individual to ever walk the face of the earth. Too numerous to list here. The many complaints against his character have been added to this Work Permit application as an addendum. To summarize, Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg is one very mean and evil individual. One person testified that flowers wilt when he gets too close to them. The sky has been seen darkening as he approaches and it is said that his breath is most foul. The breath itself is due to the fact that Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg has never brushed his teeth since the day he was born. Several other references report that the applicant in question curdled milk by looking at it and made a cow climb a tree from sheer meanness.

Disposition of Applicant
Mean as an angry snake that has been hit by several rocks.

Appearance of Applicant
Mean and unpleasant. He has an aura of pure evil about him.

Overall Assessment of Applicant
It is hereby determined that Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg be denied this Work Permit on the grounds that he is too evil to properly perform any useful service in any possible position in the workforce. His sheer evil personality and dark disposition would only spread discontent and unhappiness to all his co-workers. This office hereby denies Count Evallo Von Meanskrieg. He is evil.

***

Based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell, the 2010 boy-and-his-pet tale How to Train Your Dragon is my favorite DreamWorks Animation film because of both the startling lack of lazy pop-culture reference humor that has made other DreamWorks Animation films instantly dated (the humor was more character-based in this film) and the chances it took with its storytelling. They included the initially controversial decision to end How to Train Your Dragon with its teenage hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) left disabled from battle (in a rare instance of test screenings actually being useful for a change, parents at the screenings requested that the film's producers leave the ending unchanged) and the clever way the film developed Hiccup's growing friendship with Toothless the dragon without any dialogue.

I'm so glad directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who previously made Disney's above-average Lilo & Stitch, chose not to have the catlike Toothless speak at all. If DeBlois and Sanders weren't involved, I'm sure Toothless would have been voiced by Tracy Morgan or ugh, Carlos Mencia, and How to Train Your Dragon would have ended up being just another disposable and routine DreamWorks Animation film.

The choices DeBlois and Sanders made in departing from the DreamWorks Animation formula paid off immensely and have led to an in-the-works sequel and Dragons: Riders of Berk, a promising-looking Cartoon Network series that will bridge the two films and expand upon the Dragons universe, as well as explore the Viking villagers' difficult adjustment to co-existing with their new dragon allies. Last week, the channel sneak-previewed "How to Start a Dragon Academy" and "Viking for Hire," the first two episodes of Dragons, back-to-back, about a month before the series' official premiere on September 4.

Most of the voice actors from the 2010 film have returned for Dragons ("Jay didn't want anyone else to voice [his] character," said DreamWorks Animation exec Peter Gal at a Comic-Con panel for the series). Only Gerard Butler, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill and Craig Ferguson are absent for obvious reasons and have been replaced respectively by Nolan North, Julie Marcus, Zack Pearlman and Chris Edgerly, who does a passable CraigyFerg impression (it's passable enough that during "Viking for Hire," I keep expecting Edgerly's Gobber to say, "It's a great day for America Berk, everybody!"). Fortunately, the series has maintained the first film's sumptuous look, which was partly due to regular Coen Brothers collaborator (and now, Skyfall cinematographer) Roger Deakins, who served as the film's visual consultant, and its stunning dragon flight scenes, the result of the animators actually having done extensive research on aircraft physics and imbuing the dragons with aircraft-like movements.

'It's called Playboy, Toothless. This is the articles part of Playboy, which isn't the reason why you buy it...'
If there's one beef I've had with Dragons so far, it's that it's talkier than the film version. Baruchel's voiceover narration as Hiccup feels lengthier here, although his expository voiceovers turn up only during the opening and closing moments like in the film. Now that Dragons has gotten all the re-establishing of the island setting of Berk out of the way, here's hoping the series finds ways to recapture the mostly dialogue-less visual poetry that made the film such a unique beast in the DreamWorks canon.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The amount of Olympic movies--and Olympic movie scores--is as small as my desire to watch tape-delayed Olympic events

I always thought the first-season Starfleet uniforms on Star Trek: The Next Generation made the Enterprise crew look like either Olympic bobsledders or figure skaters.
Cool Runnings
"I have to begin by noting this is a fairly small genre," warned Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan on NPR before he discussed with a colleague their favorite movies about the Olympics last week, as American viewers reached the tail end of their first week of mostly tape-delayed (bleh!) Olympic fever. Conan wondered why there aren't so many Olympic movies. You would think with their cinematic scale and dramatic stories of struggle and uplift that the Olympics would be as frequent a subject in film as baseball, but that hasn't been the case.

"One reason may have to do with the international aspect of the Olympics and the fact that sometimes we think of sports movies as coming to a climax of the big game, with the good guys versus the bad guys. But with this whole Olympic ideal of a world community of sport, there are theoretically no bad guys in the Olympics," theorized Talk of the Nation film commentator Murray Horwitz, who also mentioned the International Olympic Committee's tight leash on the Olympic brand as another possible reason for the small amount of Olympic movies.

Tokyo was the site for the Summer Olympics in 1964, B.S. (Before Steroids).
Tokyo Olympiad (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
It's also a genre that hasn't yielded a film I could consider a masterpiece. (I've never seen the Toshiro Mayuzumi-scored Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa's 1965 documentary about the 1964 games, One Day in September, the 1999 doc about the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and Munich, Steven Spielberg's take on the 1972 tragedy, but I'm aware those three films are highly respected.) I haven't seen Chariots of Fire since the '80s, but I remember being kind of bored by the film, so its trouncing of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the 1981 Best Picture Oscar race has always been absurd to me.

The NPR guys are fans of Miracle and Cool Runnings, which both happen to be Disney movies. Miracle is a good but not great sports movie, bolstered by Kurt Russell's compelling performance as 1980 U.S. Hockey Team coach Herb Brooks. As for Cool Runnings, the late John Candy killed it in a change-of-pace dramatic turn, and if you're not moved by the Jamaican bobsledders' emergence from their accident in the film's climax, you're a goddamn robot (report back to your leader Mitt Romney for instructions on how to better relate to the carbon units because he's such an expert).

But Cool Runnings diverges so much from what actually happened to the Jamaican team (for instance, Candy's disgraced coach character never existed), and the fish-out-of-water shtick that was written for Cosby and Where I Live star Doug E. Doug borders on Stepin Fetchit-y. Doug was so good in his breakout role as the wanna-be militant in Hangin' with the Homeboys. I always wanted to see the cameras follow his Homeboys character to a theater where Cool Runnings was playing just so I could see his reaction to that Rasta who's so damn scared all the time like a butler in some '30s movie.

"They've pulled down the Berlin Wall. The Palestinians and the Israelis are talking peace. But they're still making comedies like Cool Runnings, in which cartoonish natives scratch their heads and try to make sense of the white world," complained then-Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson in 1993.

What about the music in these Olympic movies? Do their original scores make you scratch your head like a Disneyfied Rasta? Or like Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor's threepeat or Gabby Douglas and her coach Liang Chow's success story or the standing ovation Saudi runner Sarah Attar received while making history despite finishing last, do they make your spirit soar?

Because there aren't a lot of Olympic movies, the "Feeling Very Olympic Today" playlist I assembled from the highlights of those movies' original scores isn't a lengthy one. That's why I padded the playlist with John Williams' Olympic compositions. The playlist kicks off with Vangelis' overplayed but rousing Chariots of Fire main title theme, which Rowan Atkinson amusingly poked fun at during his appearance as Mr. Bean in the London opening ceremonies. Hans Zimmer's Cool Runnings score and the catchy "Jamaican Bobsledding Chant"--penned by Yul Brenner himself, Malik Yoba--aren't on Spotify, so Cool Runnings is represented by the cover of Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" that Jimmy Cliff recorded for the movie.

Slap Shot, Shaolin Soccer, the original Longest Yard, the original Bad News Bears, Diggstown, Breaking Away and White Men Can't Jump are my favorite sports movies. It's too bad the Olympic movie genre hasn't given us a movie as subversive or clever as those works.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (08/07/2012): Scooby-Doo!, Ben 10: Omniverse, Ultimate Spider-Man, Adventure Time and Regular Show

'Baby want hot-ass Daphne to poop into baby's mouth!'
Like that old homosexual millionaire in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he wants Daphne to powder him up and spank him.
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

Scooby-Doo mysteries aren't all that difficult to figure out, so I correctly guessed that Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated villain Crybaby Clown (Mark Hamill, as demented-sounding as always) was really movie star Baylor Hotner (Matt Lanter), who disguised himself in Norbit-style prosthetics as research for a role he coveted. But these mysteries usually aren't ambitiously serialized or stretched out for a few episodes, which sets Mystery Incorporated apart from previous incarnations of Scooby.

A 21-year-old David Boreanaz is pissed off over the Philadelphia Flyers losing another game.
What also sets the show apart from past incarnations are the moody small-town setting (Crystal Cove instead of the more benign Coolsville); a grown-up sense of humor (instead of The Three Stooges or The Harlem Globetrotters as guest stars, Mystery Incorporated opts for the likes of Lewis Black as a secretly villainous ex-detective and Harlan Ellison as himself); and the fact that it takes its protagonists seriously for once, even though they carry on lengthy conversations with talking dogs and parrots as if they're regular people.

As Chris Sims notes at ComicsAlliance, Mystery Incorporated has taken a previously bland character like Fred--who's still voiced by Frank Welker--and used his blandness to reimagine him as an unexpectedly tragic figure (but not so tragic that he has an addiction to smack or picks up hitchhikers in the Mystery Machine and takes them to motels to torture them in order to feel alive).

"Fred is given a love of traps that comes off as about as one-note as Shaggy being hungry all the time. It's built for gags, giving him a funny obsession that [sic] so that he can be cheerily oblivious to Daphne's professions of love," writes Sims. "But as the show goes on, and it's revealed piece by piece that Fred's father has told him that his mother abandoned their family, his obsession with keeping things from getting away from him takes on a whole new light. It shifts from something that's pure comedy to a joke with an undercurrent of genuine sadness that grows ever larger as the truth about his life starts to come out."

Sheriff Stone is so inept he makes Prez from The Wire look like Commissioner Gordon.
All these novel (for a Scooby show) touches could be why Cartoon Network has been burning off most of Mystery Incorporated's second season without much fanfare each weekday afternoon since last week. Often when Cartoon Network execs wind up with an interesting and ambitious show with a cult following like Mystery Incorporated (a blogger over at Wired considers it "the true inheritor of the Buffy crown") or Genndy Tartakovsky's Sym-Bionic Titan, they really don't know what to do with it. The bizarre treatment of Mystery Incorporated as an afterthought is either because they have no clue how to market it or because they were probably soured by contract disputes with the show's producers, which delayed the second season. I'm not an industry insider, so I don't really know why Mystery Incorporated lapsed into Burnoff Theater.

Do they both take their glasses off when they make out? Without her glasses, Velma would mistake Marcy's elbows for breasts.
Hot Dog Water and Velma
But what I do know is that the first seven episodes of the new season have been as satisfying as the episodes from the first season's back half, which I first caught between seasons. So much has happened in one week. Mystery Incorporated temporarily replaced Daphne with Marcy "Hot Dog Water" Fleach (Linda Cardellini, reunited with her live-action Scooby co-star Matthew Lillard), a former rival of Velma's who's clearly attracted to Velma (now is that why Cartoon Network, which lost its shit over Adventure Time's implication that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline were briefly more than friends, sidelined Mystery Incorporated?). Daphne learned of Baylor's scheme as Crybaby Clown and dumped him. She rejoined Mystery Incorporated, which resulted in the ousting of Hot Dog Water, who pretended to be upset by the ouster and actually anticipated it so that she could use it as ammo to plot against the team with the backing of Black's Mr. E character. I wouldn't be surprised if Hot Dog Water's plot is a continuation of Mr. E's attempt to block the team from collecting every piece of the Planispheric Disk, the key to finding Crystal Cove's hidden conquistador treasure.

Also, Fred is getting to know his long-lost birth parents, "trap-making mystery solvers" Brad Chiles (Tim Matheson) and Judy Reeves (Tia Carrere), whose names are straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and whose non-verbal female puppy Nova is Scooby's first non-food-related object of affection. Brad and Judy are also former Mystery Incorporated members like Mr. E and local DJ Cassidy Williams (Vivica A. Fox). The fact that the couple is secretly in cahoots with Mr. E and the evil parrot Professor Pericles (Udo Kier), Scooby's predecessor as the team mascot--and their lack of remorse for sketchy past activities Cassidy still feels guilty about having been complicit in--are both bound to crush Fred's morale and leave him in a worse state than he was at the end of last season.

This rising conspiracy against the teens illuminates what Sims notes is a major theme of this show: "Adults are either outright liars or complicit in some kind of deception." And when these adults aren't just the costumed perps who are unmasked and busted by the team at the end of every episode and are figures whom Fred and his friends have placed their trust in--like Mr. E, Cassidy and now, Fred's real parents--it brings some genuine drama to the franchise's premise of teens who defy their fears to find the truth.

It's a cynical view of the world that Mystery Incorporated is amazingly unafraid to embrace, but to keep the show from being a total downer, the writers offset the ominousness of the rising conspiracy with humorous standalone storylines like a hilarious spoof of Andy Warhol--here, he's called Randy Warsaw (Billy West)--and his history as a control freak. In the funniest second-season episode so far, "Art of Darkness!," a perp with a grudge against Warsaw seizes control of his metal sculptures and uses them to attack and engulf models and singers Warsaw has molded into art-scene superstars, so Warsaw ends up replacing his missing emo art-rock star Eeko (Grey DeLisle) with Scooby. Warsaw sticks an Edgar Winter wig on the Great Dane and renames him Freako.

"That voice," purrs Warsaw when he first hears Scooby speak. "It's anti-art. Anti-music. It's--it's anti-words."

The sight of Scooby singing a droning, Velvet Underground & Nico-style tune is one of many reasons why--rut-roh--I'll miss Mystery Incorporated when Cartoon Network inevitably cancels it after this season is over.

The only thing wrong with this picture is that Chick-fil-A would never hire Shaggy because he's always high on the marijuana and his relationship with his male dog looks suspicious.
(Photo source: David Willis)

***

Cartoon Network's Ben 10 superhero franchise for preteen viewers isn't my cup of tea, but I wanted to catch the first part of "The More Things Change," Ben 10: Omniverse's two-part series premiere (the conclusion will air together with part 1 when the series officially premieres on September 22), because it's one of the last things credited to the late Dwayne McDuffie, whom I got to briefly meet a couple of years before his death. McDuffie, a Ben 10 veteran whose '90s Milestone comics I enjoyed as a teen, received a "story by" credit with his wife and writing partner Charlotte Fullerton for "The More Things Change."

I'm not familiar with the Ben 10 cartoons. My only exposure to the franchise has been the last half-hour of Ben 10: Alien Swarm, one of Cartoon Network's live-action Ben 10 TV-movies. Alien Swarm featured Barry Corbin in a terrible hairpiece as Ben Tennyson's grandfather Max, a retired member of the intergalactic peacekeeping force known as the Plumbers (fortunately, this group of Plumbers isn't afflliated with a right-wing dickweed who calls himself Joe). On Omniverse, Grandpa Max (Paul Eiding) has summoned a young alien Plumber named Rook Blanko (Bumper Robinson) to help out his grandson (Yuri Lowenthal), who's been bragging about not needing a partner to help him fight alien threats ever since his previous Plumber sidekicks, cousin Gwen (Ashley Johnson) and her boyfriend Kevin Levin (Greg Cipes), left for college.

Of course, Ben won't admit it, but he needs all the help he can get because even though he's become a capable hero like his grandpa due to the Omnitrix, the gadget on his wrist that allows him to temporarily assume the forms of powerful alien warriors, he doesn't have much control over the device. It doesn't give Ben the ability to choose which alien he wants to be, so he has to constantly improvise with whatever form the Omnitrix converts him into. It's like having Clive Anderson on your wrist, except instead of him telling you to act out a visit to the dry cleaner as a cowboy who speaks in questions only, he's turned you into a shape-shifting alien with a body made out of Lego blocks, and he doesn't speak and proceed to badger you with insults about your silly American ways or your short stature.