Thursday, November 29, 2012

AFOS converts to stereo this Saturday, December 1--if there are no technical difficulties

I don't know why this guy's been staring at his portable air conditioner for 10 minutes. Yo, mister, it's not a TV!
After 10 years of AFOS being in mono (22050 Hz, 32 kbps, "Good audio quality for talk radio. Not great for music," according to Live365, which powers AFOS), I'm upgrading AFOS to stereo (22050 Hz, 56 kbps, "Audio quality is the illest," according to me). Since October 1, I've been going through the AFOS music library and re-converting five or 10 "AFOS Prime" playlist tracks per day, this time into stereo mp3s instead of saving them down as mono mp3s like I used to do for 10 straight years.

The conversion to stereo was originally going to take place on January 1, but because I now have enough mp3s that won't result in too much repetition, I'm moving the upgrade up to Saturday. That means I have to temporarily shut down the station tomorrow to upload all those redone files to the station locker. Hopefully, there won't be any technical snafus in the next two days because I don't have the patience for that shit right now.

The slightly bigger file sizes will result in less music in the locker, but far superior sound quality. In other words, AFOS won't sound like an AM station anymore. I streamed content in mono only because mono file sizes are smaller, and that allowed me to stream a lot more music (according to Live365, four times more music than I'll be capable of streaming in stereo, to be exact).

I was playing back the new stereo mp3 I just made out of "Malcolm and Martin" from the Do the Right Thing score album, and the difference is huge. I like being able to hear Terence Blanchard's trumpet during "Malcolm and Martin" with the same clarity and resonance it has on the album.


The downsized amount of music in the locker also means huge schedule changes. The "AFOS Prime" block will remain on the schedule, but the other blocks--"Beat Box," "Rock Box," "Rome, Italian Style," "Chai Noon," "New Cue Revue" and "Soda and Pie"--will not be back. However, some tracks from the "Chai Noon" playlist will be transferred to "AFOS Prime," and I might bring back "Beat Box" and "Rock Box" to the schedule at some point next year as I gradually rebuild those two playlists. I took another look at the revamped "AFOS Prime" playlist, and it turns out I do have enough not-so-John-Williams-y tracks to rebuild "Beat Box," so "Beat Box" is back on the schedule with a new time slot: Mondays through Fridays at 7-9am.

Frankly, I always hated mono, from the way it makes music sound so tinny to its very name. Audio formats shouldn't have the same exact names as diseases you get from kissing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (11/28/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Dan Vs., Adventure Time and Regular Show

'Splat.'--A dead squirrel's body, two minutes after realizing he can't fly.
Marc Maron chewed on orange-flavored Nicorette acorns for a few weeks in preparation for his role as a squirrel. (Photo source: Adventure Time Wiki)
Every Wednesday 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.

In the solid conclusion of Dragons: Riders of Berk's espionage-filled "Heather Report" two-parter, Outcast spy Heather's motive for working for the evil Vikings turns out not to be because she's evil too, but because the Outcasts have held her parents prisoner and forced her to do their bidding in order to free them. Like Hiccup, Outcasts leader Alvin believes the dragon way is the way of the future, but he wants to use the dragons for selfish, WMD-minded purposes, which is much different from Hiccup's view of cooperating with the dragons to help improve Viking society and make Viking life easier. Alvin failed to capture Hiccup in "Alvin and the Outcasts," so he's moved on to trying to steal Hiccup's Book of Dragons to figure out how to control the dragons he's held captive on Outcast Island, and he sent Heather to Berk to snatch the book for him.

Heather admits to Astrid, who was jealous of the attention Heather received from Hiccup and the others before they found out she's been spying on them for the Outcasts, that she lied about being attacked by pirates in order to save her parents. To retrieve the book, Astrid volunteers to go off on her own to Outcast Island--disguised in dyed-black hair as Heather--and is surprised to find out over there that Heather isn't lying about Alvin holding her parents prisoner.

Look, it's Faux-Heather, or--if this show were more like Fringe--Feather.
(Photo source: Berk's Grapevine)
"Heather Report, Part II" features some great intentionally-bad voice acting by America Ferrera when Astrid first fools the Outcasts into thinking she's Heather, despite having a completely different eye color and sounding nothing like her. When she's posing as Heather, Astrid sounds more like the mocking and inaccurate imitation of Heather as a high-pitched and vapid seductress that she did in front of her dragon Stormfly in part 1. Astrid is a great warrior but a crappy impressionist.

Is it me or does Heather appear to be lesbian? I doubt Dragons: Riders of Berk will go there like Ugly Betty, Ferrera's LGBT-friendly old show, used to do, but I got an inkling that Heather plays for the other team--and I don't mean the Outcasts--after Astrid rescues her parents and recovers the book. When Heather says goodbye to the gang, she hugs Astrid but doesn't hug Hiccup, and when a still-smitten Snotlout whispers "Write me" to Heather as she sails off, she amusingly shuts Snotlout down with a Pussy Galore-style "I'm immune to your charms, James" headshake.

Snotlout's longing look at Heather at the end isn't the only longing glance during this episode at a female character while she sails away. In a nicely directed moment early on in "Heather Report, Part II," Hiccup stops himself from saying "I love you" to Astrid on Berk's beach when she heads off on her dangerous mission. It's the first time we've seen Hiccup view Astrid as more than a friend since his vision of her walking seductively in slo-mo with an explosion behind her at the start of How to Train Your Dragon. I've said before that both that movie and Dragons are about the challenges of limited communication, whether it's between humans and non-verbal dragons or teens and their inflexible parents. Now we can add to those challenges Hiccup's shyness about expressing his feelings for the girl he loves.

***

I was pleased with "A Necessary Bond," the conclusion of Star Wars: The Clone Wars' four-part Jedi younglings arc with special guest star David Tennant as a lightsaber-building droid named Huyang--up until when the Battle Droids showed up and started speaking in those grating Eddie Deezen-ish voices of theirs. Then I remembered why I was underwhelmed by the overtly kid-friendly Phantom Menace and why I've stayed away from The Clone Wars, which, like Genndy Tartakovsky's surprisingly good earlier spinoff of the same name, takes place between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The Battle Droids and their "Roger, roger" catchphrase rank right below Jar Jar, the Asian-accented villains and child actor Jake Lloyd's inability to act as lowlights of The Phantom Menace. Those Deezen-ish droids are emblematic of how flat and not-so-menacing all the villains in The Phantom Menace were.

Fortunately, General Grievous (Matthew Wood, who also voices all the Battle Droids) is the main baddie in the younglings arc instead of the Battle Droids. His conquest of duplicitous intergalactic pirate Hondo Ohnaka (Jim Cummings) and his crew forces Hondo to team up with Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) and her younger charges, whose lightsaber crystals Hondo's crew attempted to steal in "A Test of Strength." During "A Necessary Bond," the spider-like armor design of this asthmatic proto-Darth Vader (who made his first appearance in the franchise during Tartakovsky's Clone Wars), the Jedi knights' difficulties with stopping him and his Predator-like trait of collecting the knights' lightsabers as trophies are all reminders of how much of an improvement Grievous was over the Battle Droids as a prequel adversary. When Grievous wiped the floor with all those Jedi during his genuinely riveting introduction in Tartakovsky's Clone Wars, you got the sense that George Lucas realized how insipid the Battle Droids were and how boring Darth Maul was, so he came up with a threat who was more intimidating than either of them.

'Need a lozenge, General? Well I've got something better than that. My foot. Up your ass.'
(Photo source: Toonzone)
Yet Grievous doesn't hold a candle to Vader in the first two Star Wars films or Star Trek's Khan Noonien Singh, whose voice and charismatic personality Cummings channels in his portrayal of Hondo. Though I enjoyed a few elements of this "Young Jedi" arc (Wookiee youngling Gungi, whose growls are amusingly left unsubtitled like Chewbacca's, is an especially intriguing addition to the cast, and the Tenth Doctor does a nice job subbing for Anthony Daniels' C3P0 as a foil to R2D2), I'm still not ready to make The Clone Wars a regular viewing thing. The lack of personality in Grievous and the other prequel characters--except for Huyang, Gungi, Hondo and Ahsoka, who were all created for this show and are as close as the prequel projects have gotten to coming up with new characters on a par with the way more entertaining likes of Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando and yes, even whiny Luke--continues to draw me away.

***

Stalk like an Egyptian
"I remember pitching the cartoon version to [writing partner] Dan [Mandel], saying something like 'If it's a cartoon, we can do 'Dan vs. the Mailman' one week, and 'Dan vs. the Lost City of Atlantis' the next,'" said Dan Vs. co-creator Chris Pearson in a Toonzone Q&A. Mandel and Pearson's Hub cartoon (which was originally conceived by Mandel as a live-action sitcom where the ability to create worlds like Atlantis would have been held back by budget restrictions and the limits of live-action) has gone on to do exactly that at the start of its third and current season. The show pitted the title misanthrope against something very relatable last week (anger management classes) and then pitted him against something much more fantastical and I Dream of Jeannie-ish this week (an undead, 4,000-year-old Egyptian king who wanders off from a local museum exhibit).

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (11/21/2012): Dragons: Riders of Berk, Kaijudo, Dan Vs., Adventure Time and Regular Show

Nice to see that San Francisco ban on public nudity paying off.
The theme of this episode is "five things I wouldn't expect to see under someone's skirt."
Every Wednesday 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.

On Dragons: Riders of Berk, Snotlout (Zach Pearlman), the overly confident alpha male of the group, and his dragon Hookfang stumble upon a pretty girl (Mae Whitman) who's lying in a shipwreck on Berk's beach and looks like Meg from Disney's Hercules. The girl, who's named Heather, claims to have been attacked by pirates who killed her parents and laid siege to her island.

'I brand all my bitches with this.'
All the guys, including Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), are immediately smitten with Heather, and they each try to impress her, in ways that range from Hiccup's bashful approach of "You can stay at me and my dad the chief's house!" to straight-up spitting game. In the funniest moment in "Heather Report, Part 1," Snotlout tries to show off Hookfang to Heather and orders Hookfang to "get your butt over here!," but the dragon flies away, which proves that either Snotlout is a terrible dragon trainer or Hookfang simply doesn't like Snotlout. Animals that don't listen to trainers always makes for great comedy--or captivating YouTube videos.

Astrid (America Ferrera) is the only teen who isn't drinking the Heather Kool-Aid because she sees Heather sneaking around near her house at night and catches her leafing through the Book of Dragons, plus the girl is suspiciously always asking everyone in the group about their dragon training techniques. Her suspicions about Heather are confirmed when she sees her conferring at night with the Outcasts, the enemies of the island who had previously attempted to invade it in "Alvin and the Outcasts." The gang realizes Astrid has been right about Heather when this girl who's been spying on them for the Outcasts steals both Astrid's dragon Stormfly and the Book of Dragons.

After failing to capture Hiccup so that he could gain control of the gang's dragons, Outcasts leader Alvin (Mark Hamill) wants to capture the next best thing: the book. Alvin, a character who wasn't in How to Train Your Dragon, is always a welcome presence on Dragons: Riders of Berk because his presence means both impressively staged and animated Outcasts-vs.-dragons battles and Hamill doing what he does best: absolute villainy.

***

C3P0's looked a lot different since he's had that sex change.
(Photo source: Kaijudo Wiki)
Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters takes on cyber-bullying--an especially timely issue after all the details of Paula Broadwell's threatening e-mails to Jill Kelley--when the Light Civilization sends Princess Sasha (Kari Wahlgren) to study human behavior, and she experiences the worst of it while disguised as a human girl at the middle school attended by her new human friends Ray, Allie and the smitten-with-Sasha Gabe. A simple misunderstanding about the human invention of toilets, which is reminiscent of what Chiana went through when she first discovered a toilet while on Earth on Farscape, gets caught on several students' camera phones and immediately goes viral.

In a shout-out to a movie none of Kaijudo's kid viewers are likely to have ever seen, the original Carrie, Sasha finally loses her patience with humanity at a school dance when the viral video of her mistaking a "throne" for an actual throne is shown in the auditorium as a prank, and she attacks the attendees, but it's a TV-Y7-rated rampage on the decorations in the auditorium. No one gets hurt, of course, because you can't electrocute and incinerate a crowd full of people on a TV-Y7-rated cartoon like you could in Carrie.

The episode's other shout-out to a movie that kid viewers have no knowledge of and are most likely not allowed by their parents to watch is the title itself: "The Unbareable Being of Lightness," a play on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I'm looking forward to seeing My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic become the next Hasbro Studios cartoon to reference steamy and hot-as-hell Lena Olin movies (maybe Romeo Is Bleeding?).

"The Unbareable Being" script's attempt to tackle cyber-bullying can be clunky at times--is it really necessary for Gabe to explain cyber-bullying to the tech-savvy audience?--but luckily, the episode doesn't try to find solutions to this problem through lame speechifying. All that Kaijudo can do is throw up its hands in befuddlement and say cyber-bullying is here, it sucks and there's nothing we can do about it, which is the same reaction most of us adults have to this bizarre form of bullying that's permeated everything from the Star Wars Kid phenomenon to the Asian-bashing UCLA skank's video and now Petraeusgate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (11/14/2012): Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The Avengers, Kung Fu Panda, Adventure Time and Regular Show

Only Hulk could get away with wearing biker shorts to a fight.
With that hairdo, Falcon looks like he's about to sing backup on "If I Ever Fall in Love" with Shai. (Photo source: Marvel Animation Age)
Every Wednesday 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.

These days, I'm more of a Doctor Who fan than a Star Wars fan. That's mainly because unlike Star Wars, Doctor Who took a huge leap in quality--ever since Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies revived the long-absent show in 2005. Instead of mistakenly thinking that visual effects and spectacle are the only elements that deserved an upgrade, Davies and his fellow writers, including his eventual replacement Steven Moffat, also worked on upgrading the writing and acting on Doctor Who. They added a new layer to The Doctor's character (in the form of the PTSD and survivor's guilt that Christopher Eccleston's Doctor suffered from due to the off-screen "Time War"), they frequently delved into why The Doctor is the way that he is and they made The Doctor's new companions fully realized characters instead of one-dimensional sounding boards for him like in most of the show's pre-Ace years (some hardcore fans might disagree and have dismissed most of the new female companions as lazily written Mary Sues, especially Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, who was in love with The Doctor and was clearly a stand-in for the openly gay Davies, even more so than omnisexual Captain Jack).

I've avoided watching Cartoon Network's CG-animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars because it focuses on the characters from the dreadful prequel trilogy--those three movies are among the greatest examples of when a style-over-substance approach goes wrong--and it's not supervised by animator Genndy Tartakovsky, whose cel-animated, nearly dialogue-less 2003 Clone Wars prequel to Revenge of the Sith was more satisfying than any of the three live-action prequels (why Lucasfilm didn't ask Tartakovsky back for another round of Clone Wars continues to boggle the mind). But when Peter Mayhew reprised his role as Chewbacca in the 2011 episode "Wookiee Hunt," I finally tuned in, out of love for the first two Star Wars flicks.

I ended up enjoying "Wookiee Hunt," not just because of Chewie's presence, which briefly helped turn The Clone Wars into the Star Wars I grew up with and remember fondly, but because the Clone Wars character Chewie interacted with, plucky Jedi trainee Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), had a spark to her that was missing from the boring characters in the live-action prequels. Still, "Wookiee Hunt" wasn't enough to make me a regular viewer of The Clone Wars, which is spearheaded by supervising director Dave Filoni instead of Tartakovsky. I continued to be uninterested in the show until Lucasfilm announced that former Doctor Who star David Tennant was the guest star in this week's "Test of Strength" episode, which pits Ahsoka and a pack of Jedi younglings (the most badass of the youngling group?: the Wookiee kid) against Hondo Ohnaka (a Ricardo Montalban-inspired Jim Cummings), a space pirate who attempts to steal the younglings' lightsaber crystals.

Ahsoka is a John Woo fan, judging from the two-weaponed approach.
(Photo source: Wookieepedia)
What a casting coup, right? Some Doctor Who fans feel that Tennant is wasted in his role as Professor Huyang, a wise old droid who designs lightsabers for the Jedi (Tennant signed up for a three-episode arc, by the way, so yay, more Tennant), because the synth effects the show uses to transform Tennant into a droid obscure Tennant's voice too much. But I've had no problem recognizing Tennant's voice. I even had flashbacks to his days as The Doctor when Huyang instructed the younglings with "Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow"-esque technobabble like "You have inverted the emitter matrix, which will cause the power grid to backfire."

I'm still not sure yet if "A Test of Strength" and the two episodes that are left in this four-episode youngling arc will totally convert me to Filoni's Clone Wars (which is now in its fifth season and like M*A*S*H, it will end up lasting way longer than the three-year war it's been depicting, if recent speculation that the Disney/Lucasfilm deal will call for Lucasfilm to produce future Clone Wars episodes for Disney XD ends up becoming true). But because charismatic Ahsoka is the focus of this arc instead of stuffy young Obi-Wan Kenobi or Ahsoka's not-yet-corrupt master Blandakin Skywalker, I'm interested in how Ahsoka will pull herself out of her current predicament, in which she's captured by Hondo, whose plans for Ahsoka and her body are perhaps not-so-TV-PG-friendly. And if the action sequences continue to be as nifty and engaging as the engine momentum trick Ahsoka comes up with in "A Test of Strength" to eject the pirates from her ship Ellen Ripley-style, perhaps the reports from lapsed Star Wars fans that the franchise has been dead since Tartakovsky's Clone Wars have been greatly exaggerated.

'Droidel, droidel, droidel, I made you out of bling...'

***

After 52 episodes, the cartoon that began when "there came a day unlike any other" calls it a day. In "Avengers Assemble!" (also the title of Marvel Animation's next show featuring the Avengers team), The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes ends its two-season run by pitting the team--as well as the rest of the New York superhero community--against one of Marvel's most giant-sized adversaries, the planet-eating alien god Galactus, a threat Captain America was first warned about earlier this season in "Prisoner of War," an episode that was a series highlight. "Prisoner of War" was also a better-executed summation of the series' mission statement (disparate personalities who should have no business being in the same room together are forced to unite against threats bigger than themselves) than "Avengers Assemble!"

However, I like what "Avengers Assemble!" writer and series story editor Christopher Yost does here with Iron Man at the start of "Avengers Assemble!," and it's remarkable that Yost is able to insert a moment or two of character depth with Tony, considering how little time Yost has in this action-packed series finale. The Avengers leader has been feeling worn-out from the onslaught of recent villains and has lately been worried about how history will remember him and the rest of the team after they're gone (when one of those recent foes is a master of mind control who turned you into a fascist who used your inventions against the world, of course you'd start to undergo an existential crisis). Then Tony gets an answer to his question of "How will we be remembered?" in the form of heralds who represent a mute alien stranger named Galactus. They arrive to stir up lots of calamitous shit on Earth so that their ginormous master will be able to devour our planet like a barbecued rib.

Nobody seems to be feelin' Hulk's choice of Bon Iver as the plane ride music.
(Photo source: Marvel Animation Age)
While "Avengers Assemble!" plays to the series' two biggest strengths (efficient storytelling, which Yost often excels at, and action sequences that are even more epic than the ones in Joss Whedon's live-action version) and treats us to several strikingly animated mini-battles between smaller three-person teams of heroes and Galactus' heralds, I'm not so enamored with the way the episode rushes through the Galactus crisis. "Avengers Assemble!" is a victim of Marvel Animation's mistake of tinkering with Earth's Mightiest Heroes' preference for longer storylines and forcing the show to do more standalone episodes.

The choice of Galactus as the adversary is a great one for the series finale, but one can't help feeling throughout "Avengers Assemble!" that more could have been done with Galactus. "This isn't some supervillain or would-be conqueror. This is different. This is a force of nature," observes Mr. Fantastic (Dee Bradley Baker), and Galactus' calamitous assault on Earth would have been better suited for a two-or-three-part story instead of a standalone. The sense of danger is diminished when you try to cram the war against Galactus into a 22-minute finale. Justice League Unlimited, DC Animation's Earth's Mightiest Heroes counterpart, had a more satisfying series finale, simply because storylines like its series-ending Darkseid arc were allowed to take their time and breathe on that show (also, JLU's characters were a lot wittier, which is surprising because Marvel is often better at witticisms than DC).

Friday, November 9, 2012

7 Days 'Til 007: "Skyfall"

The name's McQueen. Steve McQueen.
Each weekday since November 1, I've posted a few grafs about an exemplary vocal theme or instrumental piece from the official 007 movies to count down to today's release of Skyfall in America. The series of posts concludes today with the newest 007 opening title theme, Adele's "Skyfall."

Alright, so it's not the greatest Bond theme, but it's the latest. It's also a solid addition to the Bond music catalog and a good Adele song outside the context of Bond ("Skyfall" has already been covered on YouTube by singers like Willow Smith, who doesn't whip her hair back and forth in her version, but she does a decent job covering it).

Sure, as Julian Sancton wrote in a fascinating Movieline piece where he dissected the Adele theme musicologically and pointed out how it upholds John Barry's classic sound, "Skyfall" isn't as hummable as "Rolling in the Deep." But it's classic Bond music, from the first Barry-style horn blast to Adele's last phrasing of the song title, which echoes what Tina Turner did at the conclusion of "GoldenEye" and what Tom Jones did at the conclusion of "Thunderball." Except Adele didn't pass out like Jones did in the recording booth after hitting a final note that's Tom Jones-ese for "Hand over the panties, honey, because no other bloke can hit a note as high as this."

I'm looking forward to Adele's pregnancy-themed sequel to 'Skyfall,' 'Waterbroke.'
Sancton's analysis of "Skyfall" is so good I want to plagiarize it. This post should just be nothing but excerpts from his essay. The best part is his swipe at Sheena Easton and Bill Conti's "For Your Eyes Only," a tune I don't hate (who can resist a hot Scottish chick singing a Bond song and singing it well?), although it lacks the swagger of "Diamonds Are Forever" and "A View to a Kill" and the brash lyrics that make The Spy Who Loved Me's "Nobody Does It Better" an enjoyable ballad. Sancton compares the Easton ballad to an '80s sitcom theme song, which is funny because its lyrics were written by Michael Leeson, the co-creator of The Cosby Show, I Married Dora and The Bill Engvall Show.

"Imagine it playing over Three's Company-style opening credits, with scenes of Bond walking into MI6's office and throwing his hat onto the coat rack while Ms. Moneypenny rolls her eyes and smiles," wrote Sancton.

But in "Skyfall," which Adele wrote with her regular producer Paul Epworth after they got to read the film's script, we're far from the world of Jack, Chrissy and Mr. Furley. The lyrics are apocalyptic ("Let the sky fall/When it crumbles") and the tone is suitably moody (but not slash-your-wrists moody) because the song accompanies a grim opening where, according to an early TotalFilm review, "James is shot... plunging from the roof of a moving train into Daniel Kleinman-designed titles filled with skulls, tombstones and other totems of death."

I haven't seen Skyfall yet, but I'm dying to, and that's partly because of the Adele song, which the singer recorded with a 77-piece orchestra at London's Abbey Road Studios ("When we recorded the strings, it was one of the proudest moments of my life," said Adele in a press release). We know a new Bond song is good when it whets our appetite for the new Bond film like "Skyfall" did. One of the ways that Epworth whetted our appetite was when he dove into Bond's musical arsenal and pulled out a crucial element that Madonna's much-maligned "Die Another Day" completely ignored.

"Peppered throughout the song are echoes of the original instrumental theme John Barry wrote for Dr. No, including the unmistakable four-note riff here played by the electric guitar 1 minute 50 seconds in," wrote Sancton.

Yep, Bond is back.


Previously:
002. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" by John Barry (1969)
003. "A View to a Kill" by Duran Duran (1985)
004. "Diamonds Are Forever" by Shirley Bassey (1971)
005. "Surrender" from Tomorrow Never Dies by k.d. lang (1997)
006. "Capsule in Space" from You Only Live Twice by John Barry (1967)
007. "007" from From Russia with Love by John Barry (1963)

Good thing Daniel Craig isn't wearing a fedora in his gunbarrel because these days, fedora = mega-douchey.
(Photo source: Wikipedia)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

7 Days 'Til 007: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

The opening titles of On Her Majesty's Secret Service should sue the pants off the opening titles of Cinemax's Hunted because it totally copped the hourglass motif.
A spectacular week that saw huge victories for the first African American president, several female Democratic Senate candidates (including the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate and a Missouri Senate candidate who actually understands female anatomy) and the movements to legalize weed and same-sex marriage concludes with something equally eagerly awaited, this time from the world of entertainment. It's the arrival of the well-received new 007 film Skyfall, which drops in the States tomorrow. This is the penultimate post in a seven-part series about standout vocal themes or instrumental pieces from the official 007 films.

It's hard to listen to John Barry's rousing instrumental opening title theme from On Her Majesty's Secret Service without going up to a mirror and pretending to aim a gun while kneeling, just like OHMSS star George Lazenby did in the film's gunbarrel sequence (the only Bond who kneeled in his gunbarrel). It's also hard to add lyrics to it that don't suck ass.

Try making up your own lyrics to the OHMSS main title theme sometime. Of course you're going to include the movie's cumbersome title in your made-up lyrics, but it won't sound right, even when you prolong the "Maj" in "Majesty's" to get the title to match Barry's nine-note brass melody. Just give up like Barry and his songwriter most likely did.

The theme was originally supposed to contain lyrics, but I guess Barry and the songwriter couldn't come up with anything that worked or would have been up to par with the chart hit Barry and his crew made out of "Goldfinger" and the solid Bond songs they crafted with "Thunderball" and "You Only Live Twice." So OHMSS became the first Bond movie since From Russia with Love to kick off with an instrumental during the opening titles (it remains the only post-From Russia with Love installment to do so). I like how the film opens that way. It adds to the whole "this isn't a typical Bond film" vibe of OHMSS, the last Bond film that treated the audience like grown-ups (until the series went back to basics in For Your Eyes Only after years of cartoonishness and juvenile antics).

The switch from Sean Connery to Lazenby must have inspired Barry to change up the Bond sound and use synths for the first time in the series. "That [synthy sound] and the single-mindedness of Barry's instrumental main title makes it one of the most revered of all the 007 scores among Bond aficionados," wrote Jeff Bond (no relation) in the liner notes for the 2002 expanded reissue of the OHMSS score.

Sixteen years after OHMSS, Barry made an interesting musical choice when he resurrected the OHMSS main title theme's synth riffs in his View to a Kill score, perhaps as both a shout-out to the OHMSS ski chase sequences that featured his main title theme (A View to a Kill was the first Bond film with a skiing sequence that Barry scored since OHMSS) and a nod to the 1985 film's Silicon Valley-related plot. The OHMSS and View to a Kill scores are two of my favorite scores in the series, and that's mostly due to the presence of this excellent OHMSS theme, the tune that can't be lyricized, no matter how hard you try.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (11/07/2012): Transformers Prime, Tron: Uprising, Motorcity, Kaijudo and The Avengers

A shitty day for high-quality TV animation ended as an awesome one for the political landscape.
Farewell, the one-season wonder that is Motorcity! Screw you, Disney XD! (Photo source: Guts-N-Effort)
Every Wednesday 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.

Transformers Prime concludes its second season with a tense cliffhanger that raises the stakes and shakes up the show's premise of aliens getting comfy with their new home on Earth because now, thanks to an attack by Megatron's floating fortress, there's no longer a base for Team Prime to call home. At the end of "Darkest Hour," the Autobots and their young human cohorts are forced to split up to avoid getting captured by the Decepticons and are now on the run, which hints that season 3 will be more like The Hub's other '80s toy-based Hasbro Studios action cartoon, the now-defunct G.I. Joe: Renegades, which turned the Joes into A-Team-style fugitives.

A farewell to arm
The on-the-run arc looks like it'll be more engaging than the relic-hunting arc, which I found to be sometimes tedious. One thing this series is good at is conveying how dangerous it is for the kids to be involved in an intergalactic war, and the much-needed change in setting will hopefully emphasize that.

"What will [the kids] do? How will they cope? They can’t go back to school or have any semblance of a normal life; the Cons know who they are and where they live," wrote a Transformers Prime recapper on Toonzone. "Jack can’t even see his mother. Their entire world crumbled in one fell swoop and I doubt they can pick up the pieces so easily."

Optimus Prime appears to be dead after failing to escape the attack on the Autobot base. But there's no way this series is going to keep him dead permanently. His name is in the series title. Unless they replace Optimus with a new and younger Prime, they're going to have to change the series title to Transformers: Exodus or something equally portentous.

***

We know things won't end well for Tron on Tron: Uprising when this prequel show will reach its final episode because Tron: Legacy revealed that Clu (Fred Tatasciore) captured Tron and had him "repurposed" (his new evil identity after the brainwashing was Rinzler). In part 2 of "Scars," we get to see what repurposing looks like when the show flashes back to the first time Clu's forces captured Tron and threatened to repurpose him. But instead of erasing Tron's identity and memories because he finds the repurposing procedure to be "crude," Clu's henchman Dyson (John Glover) disfigured Tron's purdy face with a saw-like device (as payback for half of his own face getting sliced off by an unknown attacker's identity disc during an ISO riot that Tron was assigned to handle) and sent him away on a Recognizer ship to be executed.

Dyson contemplates an evil breakfast, followed by a few evil rounds of evil neon golf at the evil neon golf course.
Dyson doesn't know that Tron's life was saved by Cyrus (Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad), a guard on the Recognizer who secretly opposed Clu's regime and helped Tron to escape, so that's why Dyson and most of the programs in The Grid think Tron is dead. Cyrus' words of encouragement to Tron--he told him, "We can't let your revolution end before it has a chance to start, bitch!"--sound exactly like what Beck says to Tron to stop him from derezzing Dyson, and Beck's warning to Tron that killing Dyson will taint what he set out to accomplish causes Tron to change his mind and spare Dyson's life.

The flashback that introduces Cyrus lends credence to a theory I have about Beck. For a while, I thought he's actually a program created by either Kevin Flynn (Tatasciore) or Tron to take Tron's place in the revolution against Clu someday, just like how Justice League Unlimited's Amanda Waller had Bruce Wayne's DNA implanted into the father of Batman Beyond hero Terry McGinnis to ensure that Terry would grow up to succeed Bruce as Batman.

Cyrus' physical appearance closely resembles Beck's, and so does his voice, which is similar to Elijah Wood's (at first, I wasn't able to identify the actor who voiced Cyrus--for a while, I thought he was Adrian Pasdar, not Paul--because Disney XD does a wonderful job of squishing the credits so that you can't read them). Also, Cyrus' name is an extremely nerdy reference to the Cyrus-Beck line clipping algorithm. I now think Beck is a repurposed version of Cyrus. At some point in the time period between the year that "Scars" flashed back to and the first Tron: Uprising episode, someone must have used the repurposing tech to erase Cyrus' identity and memories and replace them with a different identity as the younger mechanic program Beck, perhaps to keep Cyrus safe and plant the seed for the revolution to re-emerge when the time is right. I know that's a batshit crazy theory, but the Tron franchise has come up with equally ridiculous ideas before, like the whole Rinzler/Tron thing that came out of nowhere in Tron: Legacy.

Like the humans outside The Grid, Tron looks like shit when he gets up out of bed in the morning.
Like I said last week, "Scars" is reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series' "Robin's Reckoning" two-parter. The differences in opinion between Beck and Tron about killing Dyson are exactly like the temporary discord between Batman and Robin over gangster Tony Zucco. Another resemblance to "Robin's Reckoning" is the fact that part 1 of "Scars" is a stronger half than part 2, just like what happened with "Robin's Reckoning," which was still a standout B:TAS story even though it sort of fell flat in part 2. Of course Tron would never derez Dyson--this is a Disney XD show, so the hero will never be allowed to do something so extreme--but I wanted Tron to remain off his rocker for a little while longer. Maybe it's because I've lately been watching a shitload of TNT's nonstop marathons of The Mentalist, where the revenge-driven title character gets to be crazy--all the time.

***

The trailer house that puts together AMC's "next week on Mad Men" promos came up with a brilliant strategy for its promo editors: if you're going to cull dialogue from next week's episode, pick out only the least interesting lines or edit those lines down so much--like down to just three or four words (and if it's just Don in the clip, even less than that)--that they make very little sense out of context. These cryptic, mostly announcer-less and unrevealing Mad Men promos have been known to annoy many viewers who are dying to know what will happen next week, but it's not surprising that they're so cryptic and so devoid of spoilers. Famously guarded and secretive Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner wouldn't want it any other way.

I wish more cable channel promo departments followed the AMC Mad Men promo model because otherwise, you wind up with mishaps like Disney XD carelessly spoiling the ending of Motorcity's "Like Father, Like Daughter" episode in its promos. It didn't ruin the enjoyment of the episode, but it took a lot of the surprise out of the ending.

The Burners are stunned to see for the first time a 'Deluxitram,' which sounds more like a diet pill than a mode of transportation.
The high-octane action sequences are what first drew me to Motorcity (before I found out that the show involved writers and animators from the Cartoon Network cult favorite Megas XLR, and then that's when I really became invested in the show). Like I said last week while discussing Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters' Locomotivator scenes, I'm a sucker for set pieces that involve speeding trains, and "Like Father, Like Daughter" contains a couple of enjoyable bits of caper action as the Burners attempt to steal a trove of vintage cars from a floating KaneCo freight train that the corporation refers to as a "Deluxitram."

Abraham Kane has been destroying cars as a way to deprive the people of both Detroit Deluxe and the underground Motorcity of their freedom, so to foil Kane's upcoming car-burning ceremony, the Burners formulate a plan to take as many cars as possible from KaneCo storage and give them back to the people, an idea Julie came up with. "They can't fight [Kane], they can't run from his bots, all because they don't have cars," says Julie to Mike.

The team's heist gets disrupted by Kane's new employee Red (Eric Ladin, a.k.a. Betty's brother William on Mad Men), a masked assassin who's returned for a rematch with Mike after first tussling with him in "Vendetta." But for the first time in the show's run, I was less interested in the action-y stuff in the A-story and more interested in the non-action-y material in the B-story, which has Julie spending a day with her dad Kane. It sounds like a dull B-story (or is this the A-story and not the B-story?), but Titmouse comes up with ways to keep us engaged in what could have been really talky and lifeless scenes, like the gorgeous Blade Runner Tyrell pyramid-style lighting during a scene inside a high-rise Detroit Deluxe restaurant.

7 Days 'Til 007: "A View to a Kill"

Hey, why is one of Jan Wahl's big-ass hats floating above the Golden Gate?
Each weekday until November 9, enjoy a post about a standout vocal theme or instrumental piece from the official Bond movies.

Duran Duran reportedly landed the gig of recording the View to a Kill theme song because of an encounter between then-Bond movie producer Albert Broccoli and Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, a fan of the Bond movies. He ran into Broccoli at a party and bluntly asked him, "When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?"

John Taylor is awesome.

Taylor's dissatisfaction with what I assume was Rita Coolidge's tepid and yacht-rock-y Octopussy theme "All Time High" resulted in my favorite vocal Bond theme and the only Bond theme that became a #1 Billboard Hot 100 hit in America. Chris Cornell and David Arnold's "You Know My Name" from Casino Royale is badass and adrenaline-pumping but not exactly sexy. Duran Duran and John Barry's "A View to a Kill" is badass, adrenaline-pumping and sexy as hell.

You see, kids, there were these things called LP singles...
Taylor's pulsating bass work during "A View to a Kill" is reminiscent of the bass riffs throughout Barry's scores for On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever. If it seemed like Barry was sleepwalking through the Coolidge recording of "All Time High," he was reinvigorated by the collabo with Duran Duran, and that's evident during their song and throughout the View to a Kill score, which incorporates the song quite beautifully. Producer Mark Ronson, who almost recorded the Quantum of Solace theme with the late Amy Winehouse but had to let the project go because of Winehouse's drug problems at the time, gets a kick out of the score's use of the Duran Duran song as well.

"My favourite of [Barry's] film scores? I'd say View to a Kill--but not Duran Duran's version," wrote Ronson in NME. "I mean the original orchestral arrangement, which is just the most gorgeous thing."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

7 Days 'Til 007: "Diamonds Are Forever"

Hey, it's Don Feld. I love his show about nothing, with the yadda-yadda-yadda and the 'No soup for you!'
Each weekday until November 9, enjoy a post about a standout vocal theme or instrumental piece from the official Bond movies.

I like Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" as much as the next feller, but I was always more fond of "Diamonds Are Forever," the other great original song Bassey belted out for the 007 series (and a tune that re-emerged in the public eye in 2005 when Kanye West sampled it in "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," his track about conflict diamonds). My attachment to Bassey's "Diamonds Are Forever" is due to the 1971 movie of the same name having been one of the first 007 movies I ever watched, back when ABC and HBO were the only places on the dial where viewers could find them (I remember so fondly the ABC intros to 007 movies that were read by the network's longtime announcer Ernie Anderson, a.k.a. Paul Thomas Anderson's dad, and it's both dope to be able to revisit those ABC intros on YouTube and kind of cringe-inducing because they show how horrible and faded the Bond movie prints looked on network TV about a couple of decades before those flicks were remastered for DVD and Blu-ray).

In fact, I was introduced to Diamonds Are Forever eight years before seeing Goldfinger. Seven-year-old me thought Diamonds was okay, but it was no Spy Who Loved Me. Today, [AGE REDACTED]-old me doesn't care for Diamonds because the series' nosedive from witty and subdued spy movie humor ("Red wine with fish. That should have told me something") to hacky comic relief characters and slipshod slapstick straight out of the Herbie the Love Bug sequels began not with the Roger Moore era, but with this final Sean Connery installment (hey everybody, it's Crispin Glover's dad and jazz bassist Putter Smith--don't quit your day job, Putter!--both Jar Jar-ing it up as a pair of gay lovers/henchmen who must have been one of the reasons why GLAAD was formed!).

However, like the lamest of Moore's films, Diamonds is elevated by the music of John Barry. Diamonds is a shitty Bond film with a terrific Barry score that begins to amaze right when Bassey's theme tune opens with keyboard notes that literally glisten like bling. The '70s rhythm section should have badly dated the song, but instead, as superproducer Mark Ronson wrote for NME at the time of Barry's death, the rhythm section in "Diamonds" and much of Barry's work is "mean stuff. It's not pretty or sanitised. It sounds tough. That's why his work has been sampled so much by hip-hop artists." Like the best funk tracks, the rhythm section in "Diamonds" has aged nicely and given the theme much of its seductive power, with the help of Bassey's vocals.

Shirley Badassey
No wonder new Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe played Bassey's renditions of "Diamonds" and "Goldfinger" in her trailer to get into character during the filming of Skyfall. "I always felt connected with the music on Bond movies," said Marlohe to an interviewer from WENN.com. "I used a lot of music too, like Shirley Bassey, who, for me, is the ultimate Bond girl. She has such a huge presence and powerful voice, so sexy and beautiful so I listened to her a lot on the set."

Filled with randy lyrics by songwriter Don Black ("Touch it, stroke it and undress it"), this song is sex on a stick, which was why Bond series co-producer Harry Saltzman hated it, and Barry responded to Saltzman with a kindly "What the fuck do you know about songwriting?"

Monday, November 5, 2012

7 Days 'Til 007: "Surrender"

Not to be confused with 'Surrender' by Cheap Trick.
Each weekday until November 9, enjoy a post about a standout vocal theme or instrumental piece from the official Bond movies.

Originally written for the Tomorrow Never Dies opening titles and filled with references to the film's Rupert Murdoch-inspired plot about media empire mindfuckery (but replaced in the opening titles with Sheryl Crow's not-as-great "Tomorrow Never Dies," which doesn't acknowledge the film's plot at all, so what's the point of having it in the opening titles?), "Surrender" is David Arnold's finest moment as a 007 film composer and perhaps k.d. lang's finest moment as a singer.

Tomorrow Never Dies' closing credits theme remains the best Bond song since Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill" (Arnold co-composed it with singer David McAlmont, who performed a solid cover of "Diamonds Are Forever" for Arnold's Shaken and Stirred, an album of Bond song covers that landed Arnold the gig as Tomorrow Never Dies composer). "Surrender" has everything that lesser '80s and '90s Bond opening title themes like "All Time High" lack, particularly playfulness (songwriter Don Black wrote it from the point of view of Jonathan Pryce's villain character Carver, who threatens Bond with lyrics like "The news is that I am in control") and an appreciation for the film series' musical past, the biggest thing that was missing from Madonna's much-maligned "Die Another Day."

I wouldn't consider the Madonna track an epic fail, but it wasn't the best choice for the 2002 film's clever, Daniel Kleinman-designed opening titles because it doesn't tie into the film it was written for and the series as a whole as effectively as "Surrender" does. "Die Another Day" would have been better suited for some other action franchise that's not 007. By the way, I hate it when Bond nerds bash "Die Another Day" producer Mirwais, who composed the awesome "Disco Science," and call him a hack (just like how fans of Richard Donner's 1978 Superman movie lamely hurl the words "incompetent" and "hack" at Richard Lester, who was a bad choice to direct the Superman sequels because of his contempt for the source material, but outside of Superman, Lester's a way more interesting filmmaker than Donner, simply because of A Hard Day's Night, The Knack... And How to Get It and Juggernaut).

During "Surrender," lang channeled Shirley Bassey but brought her own stamp to the vocals. She deserves to sing another Bond theme. Hell, let lang sing two more like the Broccolis did with Bassey.

Friday, November 2, 2012

7 Days 'Til 007: "Capsule in Space"

'I'm just a mean gray mother in outer space and I'm mad!'
Each weekday until November 9, enjoy a post about a standout vocal theme or instrumental piece from the official Bond movies.

"Capsule in Space" introduces the best thing to come out of the mediocre You Only Live Twice other than Mie Hama in a white Ursula Andress-style bikini: "Space March," John Barry's majestic and entrancing motif for the film's spacecraft sequences.

I had no idea Mie Hama was a bus conductor before she became a Bond Girl. Here she is in her bus conductor uniform.
Barry wrote "Capsule in Space" for the pre-title "spacecraft eater" sequence, which Pauline Kael found to be a more effective and intense moment about the dangers of space than any of the astronaut sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that bored Kael. But unlike Douglas Trumbull's terrific effects work in 2001, the effects in that You Only Live Twice space sequence haven't aged well. As the writer of the "My Year of Bonds" recap series said about You Only Live Twice's pre-title space sequence, "the whole sequence looks about as terrible as you might expect. Did it look better at the time? Probably. Do I care? Not really. Oh, and a supposed American says, 'Hello, Hoo-ston?' Come on, guys. Try a little harder."

But Barry's music for the sequence is far from terrible. Nothing says "Hoo-ston, we have a problem" like the brass getting all super-intense at the end of "Capsule in Space."



On Monday: A Bond song written from the point of view of one of Bond's most insidious villains. Which villain? If you guessed chlamydia, close, but no cigar.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

7 Days 'Til 007: "007"

Bond just realizes the hairpiece glue he's been using is actually Preparation H that Q replaced the glue with as a revenge prank after all those years of Bond not returning his gadgets.
You know his name. You know his steez. Now get to know his jams. It's time to kick off a countdown to the American release of Skyfall, the latest official Bond installment (it's also a movie that had some trouble getting off the ground, which led to Stephen Colbert posting the following funny tweet: "The latest Bond movie has been put on hold for financial troubles. If only they had a shoe that turned into $30 million"). Each weekday until November 9, enjoy a post about a standout vocal theme or instrumental piece from the official Bond movies.

I love how John Barry's secondary theme for the Bond character--not the theme by Monty Norman that producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hired Barry to tweak and arrange, and what a disaster that tune turned out to be--opens with seven drum beats as a nod to Bond's double-oh section number and then repeats those notes until the end. "007" first appeared in From Russia with Love (it accompanied the gypsy camp gunfight sequence and Bond's theft of the Lektor device) and was featured in four other Bond movies (thanks for the scene details, Wikipedia and 007 wikis!).

Thunderball: "007" accompanied the parade chase scene and the sluggish-as-hell underwater battle between buttloads of agents (on the film's expanded soundtrack album, the underwater mayhem cue is part of Track 17, and you can hear Track 17 during "AFOS Prime" on A Fistful of Soundtracks).
You Only Live Twice: The theme turned up when Bond piloted the mini-copter known as "Little Nellie."
Diamonds Are Forever: Check out the theme when the Sean Connery-era Bond takes on Blofeld one last time on an oil rig off the coast of Baja California.
Moonraker: After an eight-year absence, "007" resurfaced during the Amazon river chase. The theme was never again used in the series.

Not even David Arnold, a huge fan of Barry's music, re-used "007" in his Barry-influenced scores for the later Bond installments. Instead, he opted for Barry's "James Bond Is Back" fanfare from the From Russia with Love main titles and of course, "The James Bond Theme." Ryan Britt of Tor.com wonders why "007," one of his favorite tunes in the series, hasn't been used since Moonraker. He says, "It’s more heroic than 'The James Bond Theme,' and when it’s used in subsequent [post-From Russia with Love] movies, I get chills."

"007" is '60s action scoring at its classiest. The composition suggests what North by Northwest--a major influence on From Russia with Love--would have sounded like if Barry scored that film and brought his jazzy flair to the chase scenes.