Wednesday, February 27, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (02/27/2013): Bravest Warriors, Archer, Out There, Do's & Don'ts and Adventure Time

Jay is cosplaying as a Zenith TV set for the 1982 Comic-Con. Because the Comic-Con was really big back then. Okay, not really.
I keep misidentifying Out There as Over There, that Gulf War show that starred Sticky Fingaz from Onyx. What I really need to do before writing is... cram! Duh duh duh, duh duh duh. Let the boys be boys!
Every Wednesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated shows. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

"Ultra Wankershim," the penultimate webisode of Bravest Warriors' first season and one of the series' strangest installments, marks the return of the enigmatic Emotion Lord (series showrunner Breehn Burns), a cross between a Jedi and a Time Lord. This older and nutty incarnation of Warriors leader Chris travels back to his past to witness the Dawning of Wankershim (also voiced by Burns), the moment in Martian history when Wankershim, the holographic elf from the Warriors' Holo-John who has evolved from hologram to actual lifeform, becomes so large and infinite in size that he absorbs all of humanity and the universe into his "Wankerbeing."

The Emotion Lord visits his teenage self to see if he can score him some boner pills.
The Emotion Lord explains to the Warriors that the Dawning also brings about the end of the universe, but he's not allowed to divulge anything else about the future because doing so could damage the space-time continuum, so he can only help the Warriors to figure out how to save the future on their own. Chris becomes curious about his future with Beth, the fellow Warrior he has a crush on, so he gets his older self to teach him the Emotion Lords' power of seeing visions of future events. The few images of the future that Chris is able to briefly glimpse include the emergence of an evil version of Plum (Tara Strong), the alien mermaid chick who threw herself at Chris in "Gas Powered Stick," and Beth making out with a darkened stranger who appears to be Danny, Chris and Beth's fellow Warrior. Chris also inadvertently receives hints about a grim future for Beth when his older self starts to weep while staring at Beth. To keep himself from ruining space-time, the Emotion Lord makes himself vanish and departs with a phrase he's been repeatedly saying during his latest visit: "It's always been Wankershim."

Here we see Richard Nixon debating John F. Kennedy.
"Ultra Wankershim" may sound like a somber installment that's concerned with advancing the show's mythology and is all business, but the episode doesn't forget to be funny and tosses in silly gags like a play on that old time-travelling term "paradox" and a Martian anchorperson (Maria Bamford) who oozes slime from her face when she speaks, a gross and amusing alien version of Albert Brooks' sweating scene in Broadcast News (except this anchor is unruffled while slime oozes out of her). This first season of Bravest Warriors may be a bit short, but the series compensates for the small amount of webisodes by featuring clever writing, as well as animation that exceeds what we usually expect out of a web series and is equal to the animation quality on series creator Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time. Bravest Warriors has seen the future of animation produced exclusively for the Internet, and it's not crude Flash animation with wonky sound quality anymore.



***

I knew at some point in Archer's current fourth season that the show would revisit the titular spy's curiosity about the identity of his dad, whose absence from his son's life was one of many reasons why Archer's such a screwed-up man-child. I just never expected the arc to resurface in "Once Bitten," while Archer's poisoned from a snake bite in the middle of a mission in fictional Turkmenistan and hallucinating sketchy and rudimentary flashbacks to his boyhood, with James Mason's Mr. Jordan character from Heaven Can Wait (special guest star Peter Serafinowicz) as his spirit guide. (In a couple of other Heaven Can Wait shout-outs, Archer is clad in Warren Beatty's football sweats from the film, and he finds himself playing Beatty's sax, which Archer clobbers Buck Henry's officious angel character in the head with. You can tell how young some Archer recappers are by their inability to notice the Heaven Can Wait references.)

'Joe, these are our animated counterparts. I like their spunk.' 'Phrasing, Mr. Jordan.'
Archer's mind reimagines his hazy memories about why he is the way he is as clips from '80s HBO fixtures like Beatty's 1978 hit movie and The Natural instead of reimagining them as something more typical of his obsessions, like The Cannonball Run or Gator (although his fevered dreams are full of gator imagery, which is connected to his fear of gators, but does the imagery also mean some part of him believes Burt Reynolds is his dad?). The material about both Archer's past and the mixed-up movie references in his poison-addled state ("What frickin' movie is this? What's next? Mr. Gower slaps me deaf? C'mon, you're all over the road here!") is easily the most entertaining part of "Once Bitten."

Several critics have found the plotting of "Once Bitten" to be flat and underwhelming (I'm not as underwhelmed by it), but even when the storyline may be sort of underwhelming, the dialogue on Archer is always golden:

* Malory: "Look, I don't want to sound racist, but..." Lana: "But you're gonna power through it."

* Archer to an injured Ray: "Are you shitting me? Bionic legs, and you lifted with your back?"

* Everyone's hatred of Lana, the agency's voice of reason, and her "self-righteous clomping" in "Once Bitten" seems to be building towards either a future office mutiny against Malory led by Lana, who questions Malory's actions in this episode, or the Truckasaurus-handed spy's departure from ISIS (and switch to ODIN?). Insane but sometimes lucid Cheryl/Carol's mini-monologue to Lana about the latter's self-loathing is so terrific (and is responsible for one of many excellently animated expressions from Lana this season) that I've included it word-for-word: "Please, if you really cared, you'd resign, but there's no way you ever will because you're just counting the days until, her face bloated and yellow from liver failure, she calls you to her deathbed and, in a croaky whisper, explains that Mr. Archer is totally incompetent and that you, the long-suffering Lana Kane, are the only one qualified to run ISIS, and you weep shameful tears because you know this terrible place is the only true love you will ever know... What? Oh my God, was I talking?"

Holy shit-snacks, indeed.
* A barely conscious Archer (to Cyril and Ray), while reacting to the arrival of the fur-hatted Turks: "Hey, check it out, Fred and Barney, we're at the Water Buffalo Lodge!"

* Cyril to the Turks, whom he thinks want revenge for the camel he accidentally ran over with Archer's Jeep (in, as usual on this show, extremely gory fashion): "No, I had the right-of-way!"

Friday, February 22, 2013

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 5 of 5)

It's Black History Month, so all this week, I've been reposting every single past AFOS blog post about one of my favorite films, Do the Right Thing, the timeless and still-bracing 1989 Spike Lee Joint. You can hear original score (or original song) selections from Do the Right Thing on AFOS.

(Previously on AFOS: The Blog: Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4. The following is from April 4, 2012.)

Billy, don't forget to bring her a glass of water after the opening credits are over. No, wait, forget that. She doesn't want you to bring her water. Just sympathize with her thirstiness. She's tired of men always wanting to feel aw-nipotent.
(Photo source: The Criterion Contraption)
Laura K. Warrell's 2002 Salon article about Public Enemy's "Fight the Power"--which the group wrote for Do the Right Thing after Spike Lee abandoned his early idea of having Rosie Perez dance to The Capitols' "Cool Jerk" in the opening titles--excellently elucidates the P.E. track's impact on hip-hop, as well as pop music that means something more than the first four things in Elvis Costello's line about how songs are about five subjects ("I'm leaving you. You're leaving me. I want you. You don't want me. I believe in something.").

But Warrell's proclamation that conscious hip-hop is dead was premature. It's still out there. You just have to know where to look:
Like “Do the Right Thing,” the Spike Lee film to which it was tied, the song broke at a crucial period in America’s struggle with race, capturing both the psychological and social conflicts of the time. Unabashedly political, “Fight the Power” was confrontational in the way great rock has always been. It had the kind of irreverence that puts bands on FBI lists. “Fight” demanded action and, as the band’s most accessible hit, acted as the perfect summation of its ideology and sound. Every kid in America, white, black or brown, could connect to the song’s uncompromising cultural critique, its invigoratingly danceable sound and its rallying call.

This is the photo that Smiley the handicapped guy ('M-M-Mookie!') carries around with him in Do the Right Thing. It's to Smiley what the boombox is to Radio Raheem.
And who could blame them? Ultimately, parachute pants and Flock of Seagulls haircuts couldn’t quell the frustrations of the Me Decade. The presidential tag team of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. had dismantled a battery of social programs, squashing urban communities already struggling with poverty, guns and violence. Crack ravaged the inner city. AIDS rocked the nation. Black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, tried to bathe America’s race problem in as bright a spotlight as possible. The artistic community, already defiant in the face of Reagan-era conservatism, became even more provocative. The ’80s gave us Robert Mapplethorpe, the U2 of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Darling Nikki…

From inside the storm, Chuck D comes out swinging, verbally hacking into scraps a roster of American icons: “Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me, you see/ Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain/ Motherfuck him and John Wayne.” Arguably the most fearless lyric in all of popular music, this anti-ode to Elvis and John Wayne is a virtual flag-burning. Who better embodies the American ideal than Duke and the King, bumbling patriots who personified the nation’s illiberal character and defended its order, an order from which blacks had been routinely barred? Chuck D cutting them up so brazenly was like a spiritual emancipation for anyone who felt excluded from American culture. In making a mockery of two of the country’s greatest heroes, P.E. assailed white America’s fairy-tale world and boldly accepted their place at its margins.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 4 of 5)

It's Black History Month, so all this week, I'm reposting every single past AFOS blog post about one of my favorite films, Do the Right Thing, the timeless and still-bracing 1989 Spike Lee Joint. You can hear original score (or original song) selections from Do the Right Thing on AFOS.

(Previously on AFOS: The Blog: Parts 1, 2 and 3. The following is from August 25, 2009.)

Fireside Books' Do the Right Thing cover
After posting a bunch of interesting Batman concept drawings and set photos from the 20-year-old blockbuster's official movie souvenir magazine, I'm doing the same thing with a similar tie-in for summer 1989's other landmark film, Do the Right Thing. But instead of an official movie mag, the Spike Lee Joint spawned a now-out-of-print Fireside/Simon & Schuster companion book that Lee wrote with the assistance of ex-girlfriend Lisa Jones. The director has done several companion books for his films. Each of these books contain behind-the-scenes photos, the film's script and Lee's own production journal (some of the Do the Right Thing journal passages are like tweets with better spelling: "Haven't written in a couple of days. I've been busy trying to save School Daze from being dogged.").

Wynn Thomas' sketch of Do the Right Thing's two most pivotal sets, We Love Radio and Sal's Famous Pizzeria
I've discussed before why Do the Right Thing is one of my favorite films and why writers of color like myself cite it as an influence. One aspect of the film that I don't think gets enough props is the terrific production design by Wynn Thomas, who drew this sketch of the We Love Radio and Sal's Famous Pizzeria set exteriors. Using an old Coney Island pizzeria as the basis for Sal's, the film's crew built it from scratch on an empty Bed-Stuy lot. "The ultimate compliment was when real people would walk off the street and try and buy a slice," said Thomas in an L.A. Times oral history about the movie. Thomas later created nifty-looking sets for Mars Attacks! and brought CONTROL Headquarters into the 21st century for Steve Carell's Get Smart.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (02/20/2013): Archer, Gravity Falls, Bob's Burgers, Robot Chicken and Adventure Time

Archer felt a burning in his loins he had never felt before. Thus, he realized he had been kicked in the butt by love.
After the vacuum cleaner in the "Legs" episode's flashback, Katya is the second machine Archer has banged. That can only mean one thing: watch your back, El Camino.
Every Wednesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated shows. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

One of my favorite recurring bits back when Conan O'Brien hosted NBC's Late Night was "Closed Captioning," where a disgruntled captioner would sneak insults about Conan and Andy ("Audience laughs. Barely.") into the closed captions. The snarking would escalate into threats to derail Conan's show with pranks like the captioner pulling a fire alarm or flashing his junk on-camera to delight his girlfriend, which the captioner would end up doing. The captioner who types up the captions for Archer may not be as disgruntled about his show as the Late Night captioner was during Conan's era, but he makes Archer's captions equally fun to read by slipping in occasional Easter eggs that can be missed when the captions are shut off, like translations of the unsubtitled Japanese lines uttered by creepy Krieger's holographic anime child bride in the solid Valentine's episode "Viscous Coupling."

The captioning also drops a hint that Archer's cyborg ex-fiancée Katya (Ona Grauer), who also resurfaces in "Viscous Coupling," is conning Archer during the description of her reaction to the recording that Archer badly doctored to try to win her back and make it sound like her current beau Barry (Dave Willis) cheated on her aboard the space station ("KATYA: [almost feral sobbing/screaming]"). Other sitcoms use the Hallmark holiday of Valentine's to display their warm and uplifting side (particularly Parks and Rec), but because Archer is a dark spy comedy, its Valentine's episode involves characters like Katya using their sexual relationships with others to get ahead in the spy game--a view of relationships that's far from warm or uplifting.

And because much of Archer's humor thrives on kinky or freaky behavior, the show's idea of a Valentine's episode is gag after gag of ISIS employees indulging in their usual kinks or getting sexually violated while passed out (in "The Wind Cries Mary," Archer learned he was sexually assaulted in his sleep by his best friend Lucas Troy, while here, Pam tranqs Cyril and Ray and makes them do a tentacle porn video). While this would get tiresome in the heavy Truckasaurus hands of the writers of lesser adult sitcoms, "Viscous Coupling" exercises restraint with these gags by leaving most of the twisted sex-related acts of Archer's co-workers to our imaginations, which is funnier than cutaways that graphically show the freaky-deaky. Simple and effective shots of Cyril and Ray waking up naked, intertwined and with tranq darts in their necks while they discover an octopus swimming in the nearby toilet, followed by hilarious and off-screen "Noooooooooo!"'s, are all we need to put two and two together.

While we're quick on the uptake in regards to gags like the aftermath of the off-screen tentacle porn video shoot or the unremarked-upon ligature marks on the neck of erotic asphyxiation addict Cheryl/Carol after her night out with a fireman, Archer isn't as quick on the uptake in regards to Katya, who tricks him into bringing back to Earth her marooned-in-space beau (with the unintentional help of an oblivious Krieger). Barry, in turn, isn't aware that he too has been tricked by Katya so she could attain her ultimate goal: ousting him from his top position as head of the KGB. In addition to being an enjoyable anti-Valentine's episode about the loneliness Archer has wound up experiencing as a result of his self-serving behavior, "Viscous Coupling" nicely sets up both a future Archer-vs.-Barry rematch and a new role for Katya as Malory's KGB counterpart. And if Archer doesn't take better care of his hearing ("Damn you, tinnitus, you're a cruel mistress!"), a future in which all his favorite Burt Reynolds flicks have to be watched with the closed captioning always switched on may await him.

Other memorable quotes:
* Lana: "Your apartment is one level. How do you have a dumbwaiter?" Archer: "It goes sideways."

* Katya: "Yes, my dear Sterling, come for me. Phrezzing, boom."

* Krieger, as Archer tries to lure him with the image of cyborg fights between Ray and Barry to persuade him to keep Barry trapped in space: "Bup bup bup bup bup! Stop. My penis can only get so erect." Hologram bride: "Honntou ne... [Very true...]"

* Archer speaks for many viewers like myself when he discovers that Ray's choice of bathroom reading is tentacle porn: "Seriously, how is that even a genre?"

Archer experiences sympathy wood, which sounds like the name of Natalie Wood's hippie daughter.
(Photo source: Archer Wiki)
* "Sorry, that's, uh, just a sympathy boner."

* Barry: "So tell Archer I'm coming for him--phrasing, boom--and both Barrys out."

* A frustrated Archer to Krieger: "Hey! Thanks, Neil deGrasse Tyson!" Hologram: "Oooooh, deGrasse Tyson-san..."

Maybe Boris' last name is Buttumvitch.
(Photo source: Archer Wiki)
* A Malory-like Katya: "Now who do I have to screw to get a drink around here?" KGB soldier Boris: "Nobody, ma'am. Unless you wunt. And if you do wunt, I ken be buttum. No problem there."

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 3 of 5)

Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris and Frankie Faison as the Statler and Waldorf, and uh, Statler of Do the Right Thing.It's Black History Month, so all this week, I'm reposting every single past AFOS blog post about one of my favorite films, Do the Right Thing, the timeless (except for Radio Raheem's boombox and "Dump Koch") and still-bracing 1989 Spike Lee Joint. You can hear original score (or original song) selections from Do the Right Thing on AFOS.

(Previously on AFOS: The Blog: Parts 1 and 2. The following is from July 1, 2009.)

Do the Right Thing caused quite a stir at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, dividing the audience, the jurors and the guest filmmakers. German filmmaker and Cannes juror Wim Wenders complained that Mookie was not enough of a hero for throwing the trash can in the film's climax. Later on, star/director Spike Lee would say that somewhere in his closet is a baseball bat with Wenders' name on it.

When the film was first released, some critics feared it would incite black moviegoers to riot or start fights in the theaters, while more open-minded critics praised it for its ambiguity. Desson Thomson of the Washington Post called Do the Right Thing radical filmmaking at its best, and Roger Ebert said "it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time... this movie is more open-ended than most. It requires you to decide what you think about it... Do the Right Thing doesn't ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair."

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association was as equally awed by Do the Right Thing, and they awarded the film with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (for Danny Aiello as Sal) and Best Music honors. Meanwhile, the Oscars acted like the film didn't exist, although it was nominated for Aiello's performance and Lee's screenplay. In one of the most memorable moments from the Oscar telecast that year, a nervous and trembling Kim Basinger criticized the Academy for snubbing Do the Right Thing, which she called "the film that might tell the biggest truth of all." Barely anybody applauded, but Lee, who was in the audience, passed on a note of thanks to Basinger after her shout-out.

This week, Do the Right Thing makes its debut on Blu-ray with a few more extras than the already fully loaded 2001 Criterion DVD. This series of partial transcripts of segments from A Fistful of Soundtracks' 1999 episode about one of my favorite films concludes with more comments from S. Craig Watkins, the author of Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement (Beacon Press, 2005), and Mark A. Reid, the editor of Cambridge Film Handbooks' volume on Do the Right Thing (Cambridge University Press, 1997), whom I interviewed separately for the show.

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Jimmy J. Aquino: Let's talk about Spike Lee's portrayals of the white characters in Do the Right Thing. What fascinates you about these characterizations?

S. Craig Watkins: What's really interesting about Spike's representation of whiteness is a number of things. I think that was the first of his feature films that actually involved white characters. Prior to that, most of his movies had been all-black casts, all-black-themed types of movies. So one of the questions that was actually posed to him as Do the Right Thing was being released was "Spike, how was it trying to direct white actors? How was it trying to write characters who are white?" The presumption for having that question was that a black filmmaker really had little of any knowledge or familiarity with whiteness, so therefore, he or she would have difficulty imagining, creating and directing white characters. Obviously, there's some sort of racial implications embedded in that in terms of... It's okay, I guess... White filmmakers are never asked, "Well, how is it creating or directing a black character?" So the question then is "Why is it that black filmmakers should have difficulty?," particularly given the sort of savvy ways in which blacks see, experience and understand whiteness in our society today anyway.

The annoying government agent from Transformers hates both robots and black people.
The other interesting thing about Spike Lee and his representation of whiteness and the white characters in the movie is that Sal is by far the most fully developed character in that movie, in terms of being a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. We see multiple sides of whiteness, multiple kinds of conflicting values around race, class, community, pride and ethnicity that are articulated via Sal's character. In that sense, it really showed how Spike on occasion is able to create very interesting, very nuanced types of characters.

The other thing too that I thought was very important about his portrayal of whites in that movie is I think it would have been very easy for Spike Lee and later African American filmmakers to play on what we might call counterracial stereotypes of whites, and that is depicting whites as the villains, in very one-dimensional, flat ways. I think what he was able to do in Do the Right Thing is to show and suggest that there are multiple ways in which whiteness gets expressed. There are multiple racial attitudes that white Americans develop. So in that sense, the way in which each of the white characters in the movie--and I'm talking specifically about Sal the father and his two sons--they all in some ways represented very different kinds of white racial sensibilities, white racial experiences and white relationships to blacks and blackness.

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Reid explains why Lee's perspective gave Do the Right Thing an edge over other films about race relations.

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JJA: How does Do the Right Thing succeed in its portrayal of racial animosity and racism, whereas other films about racism have failed?

Mark A. Reid: Like what other films would you say have failed?

JJA: Not so much as failed, but more problematic. For instance, films that portray tumultuous episodes in African American or African history, but it's really the story about the white friend of the black leader.

MAR: Oh, those types of films. I see. I think it's very important that a black directed the film. I'm not saying that any film directed by a black is going to be successful about portraying racism, but I think it's very important that Spike Lee's an African American. I think it's important also, to add on to that, that he's an African American that is aware of racism. In his film, the active characters are not just white people. It's very important to have a large swipe of different types of blacks that are involved, as opposed to one unique black and maybe two or three whites. I think that's what Spike Lee films do. They activate those blacks who are involved...

When you think of... Who Killed Vincent Chin? I don't think a white person could have made that film. I know somebody's going to call me an essentialist. I think at that point in time, when that film was made, I think it was very important that an Asian person made the film--and an Asian person who's talented, just like Spike Lee. Although he has a lot of flaws, he's a very talented filmmaker, and his language is well-versed in black culture.

'Aiiight, Radio Raheem, I feel ya, man. Now can you take it easy on my hand? I need it for delivering this pizza.'
I think it comes down to that--who the director and the writers are, when you work in a collective where you have mixed people, and you listen to all their different cultural stories and languages, to create a film... Because when Spike Lee made that film, his Italian American stars wrote a lot of what they'd say, and if they didn't believe in what they were doing, they'd say, "You know, we should do it this way." Spike Lee was a strong enough director to accept that. I think that's very important. Although I think he had a problem dealing with that in Jungle Fever, when Annabella Sciorra... I think he was unable to accept her reading of that relationship. But I think he's a director that's able to work with actors and be led by them sometimes.

JJA: Mark Reid, thank you.

MAR: Oh, you're welcome very much, and I enjoyed this. I learned something.

JJA: What did you learn?

MAR: That I didn't know that much about Spike Lee's films. [A woman in Reid's office can be heard laughing in the background.]

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 2 of 5)

It's Black History Month, so all this week, I'm reposting every single past AFOS blog post about one of my favorite films, Do the Right Thing, the timeless (except for Radio Raheem's boombox and "Dump Koch") and still-bracing 1989 Spike Lee Joint. You can hear original score (or original song) selections from Do the Right Thing on AFOS.

(Previously on AFOS: The Blog: Part 1. The following is from July 1, 2009.)

Duel of the tapes
"I've been listening to 'Cool Jerk' by the Capitols. It's a real classic, fast and upbeat, and it brings to mind summer in the city. This may be the song for the opening credits sequence. I see Rosie Perez dancing to 'Cool Jerk' all over Brooklyn at the first heat of dawn. Rosie doing the Cool Jerk on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the promenade, and on various rooftops."

--Spike Lee, the May 17, 1988 entry in his production journal, Do the Right Thing (Fireside Books, 1989)

Do the Right Thing wouldn't have been the same without Public Enemy's rousing and confrontational original song, "Fight the Power." I can't imagine the film opening with Lee's earlier choice of "Cool Jerk." The series of excerpts from my 1999 A Fistful of Soundtracks interviews with African American Do the Right Thing experts continues with a discussion with S. Craig Watkins, a UT Austin professor of sociology, African American studies and radio-television-film, about one of the film's most powerful and effective elements, its soundtrack.

The Do the Right Thing soundtrack consisted of original songs by artists ranging from P.E. to Take 6 and a Copland-esque original jazz score composed by Lee's father Bill and performed by the Natural Spiritual Orchestra, which you can hear selections from on the Fistful of Soundtracks channel. For the film, Bill Lee assembled a septet that included saxman Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who later became Lee's regular composer), as well as a 48-piece string section.

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'This goes out to all the baby mamas, including the white ones. Much love, Amy Po-Po.'
Jimmy J. Aquino: Although Do the Right Thing was a pivotal moment in black cinema, the mainstream films directed by African Americans in the next couple of years were from the gangsta genre instead of being influenced by the Spike Lee Joints, which were more cerebral. Why was that so?

S. Craig Watkins: Much of black cinema, I would argue, tends to be influenced by what's happening in black popular music. In Do the Right Thing, you see Spike using a number of different kinds of black musical genres, styles and traditions. The one song that really, really drives the movie and I think is the most remembered is the song "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy, which is playing into this kind of hyper-racialized neo-black nationalist politics that were taking place during that time, and so he features that and uses that as the energy that drives his movie. But as that's happening, at the same time, we see in 1988/1989/1990 a new trend taking place within the field of black American popular music, more specifically rap music, in terms of the emergence of gangsta rap, and what we see eventually in the film industry, again tapping into that same energy, tapping into that same vibe, tapping into what gangsta rap was saying, doing and how it was resonating with consumers. So we see the movies also turning more and more in that direction...

JJA: Is there anything else that you find intriguing about Spike Lee's use of music in Do the Right Thing?

SCW: Yeah, one of the things I like to say in terms of giving Spike Lee some props regarding his movies is that he's always understood that black musical styles and traditions have a long history, a long legacy and are very diverse. Compare, for example, soundtracks that were typically associated with a lot of popular action ghetto-themed movies throughout the 1990s. Most of these soundtracks are most exclusively gangsta rap music, hardcore, harder-edged kind of music, which in some ways, don't necessary illuminate the complex and rich history of black music.

On the other hand, soundtracks that Spike Lee generally compiled for his movies--and Do the Right Thing is a perfect example--you've got your traditional R&B songs on there, a reggae-style joint on there, you have the rap music by Public Enemy, you have the black female rhythm and blues tradition... He did a jazz score for the movie and subsequently released a jazz score CD. So my main point is that Do the Right Thing, that soundtrack, as well as a number of his other films--particularly School Daze comes to mind--he draws from a broad cross-section of black musical traditions, tapping into an understanding, just how complex, diverse and dynamic black American music has been.


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Not all the films we love are perfect. The Cambridge Film Handbooks volume on Do the Right Thing that UF Gainesville English professor Mark A. Reid edited is a compilation of essays that both praise and critique Lee's controversial film. The book also reprints film critics' reviews of Do the Right Thing from the summer of 1989. During A Fistful of Soundtracks' 1999 episode about Do the Right Thing, I wanted to hear from Reid what he thought were the film's merits and if there was anything that was missing from Lee's depiction of 1989 Bed-Stuy.

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JJA: In the film's portrayal of Bed-Stuy and the interracial tensions... is there anything in this portrayal of racial politics that it overlooks?

Mark A. Reid: Well, one would have to know the Bedford-Stuyvesant area pretty well to be able to say that it overlooks it, but I think it gives an ample picture of the different types of African Americans that live there. You have the West Indians and the different types, and you have the African Americans. You have the fact that there are Korean shopkeepers. Perhaps when Spike was younger, they weren't Korean. They were probably either Jewish or maybe Arab. The fact that there's gentrification going on in Bed-Stuy. But gentrification isn't always white yuppie. It's also buppies. We can see that in Jungle Fever, when in fact, the people who live in that area--and I think it's Harlem--the people that gentrified that area, and they're all upwardly mobile African American couples. You do have the hanger-on who's probably been there a long time... and you have different types of reactions by this Italian American family. I think that's interesting.

'1989, the number, another summer...'
You don't get much of an art community around there, and I think there is a black art community that developed because they couldn't afford to live in Manhattan. You don't get the fact that there's drugs, and everybody has criticized him for that. I think if he introduced that, he'd have to develop it, and it would probably overtake the story he's trying to tell...

Do the Right Thing, although it's interesting and everything, I still think it's a very thin film. I think it's an important film because politically, how it was used when it came out and what is criticized in the film, not only Koch, but the brutality that some law officers--although that, I think, was an accident--they abuse their power. It does talk about the tension that was mounting, that would later erupt, and not only in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but in Los Angeles, the trial of Rodney King. It's like a marker. It sees certain things that are happening in the urban situation between blacks and other ethnics. Because ultimately, it did happen between the Korean businesspersons in Los Angeles.

JJA: And also, years before in New York, there were conflicts between the Korean shopkeepers and the blacks.

MAR: Right. But the thing is that what would have been interesting is that also--which is I guess it's hard to do in most films since you have a singular narrative that dominates a film--is that it's very important to understand who those Koreans are and their culture, and that's what we don't get. If Koreans come from a culture where you don't touch people when you're handing back the money or other things, and other people who aren't Korean read it differently, then there's a miscommunication, and it's on both parts, the Koreans and whoever the other community is, be it African American or Mexican American or whatever. It would be interesting to have a film that dealt with that and dealt with what Do the Right Thing did.

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Watkins explains why even some black viewers thought Do the Right Thing fell short.

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SCW: I would argue that the problem with Do the Right Thing in retrospect is that it also illuminated some of the limitations with the kind of racial politics, the racial ideology, that the movie both played on and used as a driving and narrative force. Some thought that it was a bit overdone, in terms of the black racial politics. Some thought that the black racial politics were articulated in ways that weren't either nuanced or very sophisticated, in terms of the kinds of characters who were the leading proponents of a prism of the black progressive agenda. Here, I'm talking about, for example, the character of Buggin' Out, who many argue--and I think accurately so--was basically more of a caricature than a character per se.

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I asked Reid about some black viewers' gripes with Giancarlo Esposito's Buggin' Out character.

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Mookie and respected black scholar Buggin' Out
JJA: There's this interesting criticism about Buggin' Out, that Spike Lee's portrayal of Buggin' Out is a mockery of black political activism.

MAR: It's a mockery in a sense that what Buggin' Out wants to do is boycott Sal's, as opposed to... In the history of African Americans, we boycott, and we also choose another alternative to Sal at the same time. What Buggin' Out wants to do is change pictures, which really doesn't mean that much. It's superficial.

JJA: It's about image.

MAR: Right. Why wouldn't he say, "Hire more people from the community"? Why wouldn't he help support somebody else who wants to build a small restaurant and teach them--an internship? That's what a boycott could do. A boycott to change photographs on a wall? "You put up Muhammad Ali and you put up a basketball player"? So what? That's decoration.

But even within the film, the characters didn't take Buggin' Out that seriously. Spike Lee using those characters and taking that not so seriously means that they're waiting for a more serious type of political activism than what Buggin' Out offers them. So I wouldn't look at it totally as a critique of black activism. I'd look at it as a critique of a certain type of black activism, which might, in fact, be a critique of Al Sharpton. That hasn't ever been discussed, but you could see that at that point in time. I don't know what "Tawana Told the Truth" means. Are we supposed to take it seriously or is it like a critique of the Tawana Brawley thing? That's the problem too... But the thing is that do we want a conclusive "Yes, this is what it's about"? Or do we want to be forced to think about these issues? I think that maybe that's what Spike Lee is doing.

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Watkins offers his take on the film's open-endedness.

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JJA: Another intriguing aspect about Do the Right Thing is the narrative techniques. What's unconventional about these narrative techniques?

SCW: What Spike does in Do the Right Thing in some ways is indicative of the way he approached film early on in his career--adopting and incorporating very stylized, very non-conventional kinds of cinematic techniques into his own narratives. One of the problems that a lot of people had with Do the Right Thing is that the narrative structure was very unconventional, both in terms of the way the story evolves, but perhaps more importantly, in terms of the way in which the story is concluded. That is how he goes about trying to engage in narrative closure, when in fact, he engages in a more open-ended kind of narrative structure.

Later, Domino's moved into Bed-Stuy after the end of Sal's, and the neighborhood pizza was never the same again.We as filmgoers are so accustomed to movies where there's a definitive beginning, definitive middle and decisive end. I think that Do the Right Thing threw a lot of people off and was perhaps part of what made it a sensational movie in 1989--sensational in the sense that perhaps more so than any other movie during that year, it attracted considerable media attention. It attracted considerable attention within the academic community. There was a very interesting and profound buzz about the movie, and I think part of that was because the movie ended on a series of question marks as opposed to definitive conclusions and definitive statements. It left people wondering, "What was the right thing?" Was Mookie right or justified when he threw the trash can through Sal's pizzeria window and then started the incident that ensued from that point on? What are the right racial politics and black political ideology? Is it Malcolm's version or is it Martin Luther King Jr.'s version? What are the best and most effective ways for blacks to deal with perceived racial injustices and real racial injustices?


So because the movie ended in that way, I think it caught a lot of people off guard and left a lot of people pondering a lot of different questions, which I actually liked because what it does is, unlike most films, which pretend that the kinds of issues, conflicts and crises that it might address during the middle of the film, instead of pretending that those conflicts, tensions and crises can be easily resolved through some heroic individual or some heroic stance, what Do the Right Thing suggests is that many of society's deepest and most profound social problems are in some ways almost unfortunately... very difficult, and you can't come up with a very tidy ending to address these issues. This is something that we need to leave open-ended. This is a debate that we need to have, an ongoing conversation. I think the movie, in terms of a narrative sense, provoked that kind of discourse, provoked that kind of conversation. When I was in graduate school at the time, I could remember a number of different panels and a number of different forums. Even one of the local theaters in the city where I was in school in Michigan actually screened the movie and then had a post-film discussion.

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To be continued. In Part 3 of this series of excerpts from archived interviews about Do the Right Thing, Watkins praises the film's nuanced characters.

Monday, February 18, 2013

AFOS Blog Rewind: Do the Right Thing (Part 1 of 5)

It's Black History Month, so all this week, I'm reposting every single past AFOS blog post about one of my favorite films (and one of my reasons for wanting to get into showbiz), Do the Right Thing, the timeless (except for Radio Raheem's boombox and "Dump Koch") and still-bracing 1989 Spike Lee Joint. You can hear original score (or original song) selections from Do the Right Thing on AFOS.

(The following is from July 1, 2009.)

Radio Raheem entertains Mookie with his two-minute recap of The Night of the Hunter.
When I first saw Do the Right Thing in high school--this was a couple of years after the film debuted on VHS--I was more of a fan of Public Enemy than Spike Lee, whose films were too artsy for this kid who was more into Tim Burton's Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. P.E.'s "Fight the Power" theme from Do the Right Thing and their earlier track, the Yo! MTV Raps staple "Night of the Living Baseheads," got me hooked on hip-hop and made me interested in seeing the much-hyped movie that introduced "Fight the Power."

Lee's film floored me. I had never seen anything like it before. The open-ended and complex screenplay about Bed-Stuy racial tensions introduced me to a more cerebral and mature kind of cinema, where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, and like life, not everything has a tidy ending. Do the Right Thing helped improve my tastes in film. It was my gateway to Lee's other films, then to GoodFellas and Martin Scorsese's other films, and then to Chan Is Missing, Dog Day Afternoon and so on. Movies didn't have to dazzle me with just explosions and tits anymore. I learned to become dazzled by adult ideas and themes and--in the cases of Do the Right Thing and GoodFellas, another great late '80s/early '90s New York movie that was also robbed at the Oscars--brilliant dialogue and astonishing editing.

I first saw Do the Right Thing at a time when I became aware of the racism around me and embraced hip-hop because in their lyrics, rappers were anti-establishment, and they spoke to me about topics I was dealing with at the time--and in some ways, still do. As a teen of color, I identified with the anger and frustrations Lee's younger black characters--and P.E.--expressed in Do the Right Thing. I dug how Lee helped change African American cinema (as well as indie cinema) and empowered black viewers and would-be filmmakers with his bold, angry, funny and complex cinematic statement, and it made me want to someday create something for my community that would be equally bold, angry, funny and complex.

Because this week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of a film that influenced me (June 30, 1989), I thought it would be the perfect time to transcribe excerpts from a couple of Do the Right Thing-related phoners I recorded for a 1999 A Fistful of Soundtracks episode about the classic Spike Lee Joint. The Do the Right Thing ep was part of a series of 1999 AFOS eps called "I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1989."

Two decades after Do the Right Thing's release, even members of the film's cast and crew still can't decide on how they feel about Mookie throwing the trash can. The countless questions that the film raises have fascinated African American Do the Right Thing experts S. Craig Watkins, the author of Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1998), and Mark A. Reid, the editor of Cambridge Film Handbooks' volume on Do the Right Thing (Cambridge University Press, 1997), whom I interviewed separately in 1999 for the show.

Almost all the pre-2000 broadcasts of AFOS were pre-recorded on audiocassette, and I don't have the equipment to transfer audiotape content to computer--the audio quality would suck anyway--so I'd rather just post text of the interviews below.

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S. Craig Watkins: I think the movie struck a chord with a lot of young African Americans in particular, in terms of the way in which it played into the kind of neo-black nationalist politics that were being articulated in a variety of different ways across the African American community, particularly by young African Americans who were rediscovering leaders like Malcolm X, Black Panthers and even to some degree, a more militant version of Martin Luther King Jr. So I think this film tapped into the racial discord that was going on during that time... So in that sense, it represented the degree to which black filmmakers, black artists, were able to successfully tap into a lot of those mood shifts and social and political sensibilities that were taking place within the African American community.

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'Wake up! Up you wake! Up you wake!'
In a separate interview with Mark A. Reid, the UF Gainesville English and film professor discussed some of the events in New York that shaped the film.

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Jimmy J. Aquino: One interesting comment that you made in your book about Do the Right Thing was his ties to his family. He uses his family a lot in his movies. [Spike's father Bill composed Do the Right Thing's original score, and Spike and his sister Joie played siblings Mookie and Jade in Do the Right Thing. At one point in the film, a disgusted Mookie thinks his pizzeria boss Sal (Danny Aiello) is putting the moves on Jade. When Mookie tries to warn Jade, she laughs off her brother's suspicions.]

Mark A. Reid: In fact, sometimes, it's interesting to see how it's played out in Do the Right Thing, where he's trying to protect her, even though she seems like she's much more mature than him. He's trying to protect her against Sal and his Italian sausage. Anyway, uh...

What's interesting also is how he used the Fruit of Islam, how this film can also be taken as a critique of New York City politics. Some people even have argued that the film also helped to bring New York's first African American mayor...

JJA: For those listeners who aren't really aware of New York City political history, can you explain the resentment towards Ed Koch? [In Do the Right Thing, "Dump Koch" graffiti can be seen on a wall, and Sonny, Steve Park's Korean shopkeeper character, expresses his dislike of the then-mayor during the film's famous racial slur montage.]


MAR: Well, one thing is that Ed Koch divided the city--ethnic and racial lines. One thing you have to think about when you think about New York City is it's made up of boroughs, and Manhattan is not the only borough. There's other boroughs that are largely dominated by certain ethnic groups, and sometimes, those ethnic groups are in competition for space and jobs. With Ed Koch, although it was a city that... wasn't in bankruptcy, it was in bankruptcy when you think about the type of racial and ethnic conflict. It led to a lot of deaths during Ed Koch's administration. So I think that that's one of the things that brought together a group of people from different ethnic and racial communities to dump Koch. It was written on the wall.

Another thing about Koch is that he's the type of... Giuliani, right now, is mayor, but after this beating of the Haitian guy by the police officers and the murder of this African, Giuliani at least met with the Haitian and African community to discuss matters, whereas Koch would not do that. He's very flippant after these things happened...

With Giuliani, I think he's at least trying to alleviate that, although I don't think he's going to be successful with that because of the fact that these police officers seem like they're overdoing... He's not critical of the police force...

That's Miguel Sandoval from Repo Man and Medium as one of the NYPD patrolmen. The fact that not all the adversarial cops in Bed-Stuy were white was another nice touch in Do the Right Thing.
I recently did visit New York, and it's much a cleaner place, but it seems that the cleanliness... and the lack of much theft and everything, it's taken its toll on how the police deals with the people who pay their wages, the citizens.

This is why perhaps Do the Right Thing is necessary because it's still important when you think of the politics of New York right now. You see how the police are acting, and you see this scene where the police, in fact, accidentally murder this guy, suffocate him. It's interesting because you always will have in New York City struggles between ethnic groups. That's shown there. And it's beautiful in a sense because you also see ethnic groups that can work out their problems.

In Do the Right Thing--it's kind of humorous--the portrayal of the Korean shopkeeper, who's very interesting because he's able to talk to Radio Raheem on the same level, cursing and everything. It's interesting in the sense that he doesn't back down. It's interesting that Radio Raheem gives him a wink, saying "Yes, you're one of us," whoever "one of us" means to Radio Raheem.


It's also interesting, the relationships between the African Americans and the Puerto Ricans... They battle it out with music as opposed to using physical force. The only physical force that's played out is Sal and the police officers, and it's kind of interesting because the people who are considered of color don't do that. It's through language or music.

There's one instance of Savage...

JJA: John Savage's yuppie character...

MAR: ... who is gentrifying the neighborhood... It's kind of interesting because he is part of that neighborhood too. He's not a threatening figure even though he dirties...

JJA: ... Buggin' Out's Air Jordans.


MAR: He's not a person of color, but he's not a threatening figure. And if you think about the people who are threatening figures, they're the ones who pick up the bat or use physical force. They're authority figures...

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To be continued. In Part 2 of this series of excerpts from archived A Fistful of Soundtracks interviews about Do the Right Thing, S. Craig Watkins discusses the film's incredible original music.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (02/13/2013): Bravest Warriors, Archer, Bob's Burgers, Robot Chicken and American Dad

Bob and the kids decide to spend the day pranking rival burger restaurants by pretending to be health inspectors or poisoning the peanuts at Five Guys.
"If business wasn't so awful lately, I'd take us to the plastic surgeon and get ourselves chins."
Every Wednesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated shows. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

I loved Cheryl/Carol's blink-and-you'll-miss-hearing-it Blade Runner reference on Archer a couple of weeks ago, and now, another animated series references the 1982 cyberpunk classic in equally amusing ways. "Cereal Master," the latest webisode of Bravest Warriors, the Pendleton Ward-created sci-fi comedy series on Frederator Studios' Cartoon Hangover YouTube channel, spoofs the film's "A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies!" blimp ad.

I can already think of something that can fix Mars' overpopulation problem: soylent green, yo.

Also, the webisode takes place mostly at a gorgeously lit Martian cereal bar, which webisode writer/director Breehn Burns based on the noodle bar where Edward James Olmos memorably told Harrison Ford, "Lófaszt, nehogy már. Te vagy a Blade... Blade Runner." (Basically, he said, "Bullshit, Deckard. Now here's where I awkwardly insert the film's title into our conversation. You're the Blade... Blade Runner.")


Whatever happened to cereal bars anyway? I thought they were going to be the next big thing. In whatever century Bravest Warriors takes place in, cereal bars are found in more than just college cafeterias, animation studio cafeterias, fancy New York hotels or markets like Fresno and are apparently as commonplace as sushi bars. At the cereal bar in "Cereal Master," customers get to enjoy cereals from all over the universe, like a rare bowl of "Moon-Frosted Double Dolphin Smacks," which Bravest Warriors leader Chris (Alex Walsh) wants to surprise Beth (Liliana Mumy), the fellow Warrior he's been smitten with since childhood, with on the 10th "Jinx-iversary" of the first time Beth beat Chris at a game of Jinx. According to the Martian rules of Jinx, Chris isn't allowed to speak until he gets Beth whatever she wants, and 10 years ago, that something was a bowl of those Smacks. I take it that Beth's favorite cereal is the Fruit Brute of Bravest Warriors' future.

Chris requests to the Cereal Master (Maria Bamford) that she slip into his order some "seahorse dreams," an ingredient that the alien chef says she doesn't include in Smacks anymore and is literally a cloud full of G-rated sex dreams a male seahorse is having while asleep in a bottle (the seahorse is pining for a girl seahorse who, in his fantasies, can't get enough of his "brood pouch," much like how Chris pines for Beth). The Cereal Master is, of course, like the Soup Nazi and the Tony Shalhoub chef character from Big Night before her, a tortured artist. But instead of taking umbrage at Chris' insistence that Beth's cereal should come with seahorse dreams like how the Soup Nazi or the Shalhoub character would react if a customer tried to interfere with their culinary work of art, the Cereal Master weeps and assumes that her cooking has become substandard.

I wonder if the bar's menu includes the Travis Bickle Special: pieces of bread in a bowl of peach schnapps.
While the Cereal Master is looking away and too busy crying over her daddy issues, Chris, without completely realizing it, uses telekinesis to fine-tune his order. It's one of the powers he'll someday hone when he becomes a Jedi-like being known as an Emotion Lord, a callback to earlier webisodes where the Warriors were visited by Chris' future Emotion Lord self, who's voiced by Burns. (Why haven't those encounters between the two Chrises caused paradoxes like in the last Bravest Warriors episode, which was all about the danger of paradoxes? Are the Emotion Lords such powerful time-travelling beings that they're immune to the destructive effects of paradoxes?) Chris telekinetically opens the chef's bottle of seahorse dreams (which is perched on her shelf even though she doesn't use it anymore) and gets the bottle to pour its contents into Beth's cereal. The Cereal Master notices what Chris did and freaks out, and a chase through different Quantum Doorgate portals (haphazardly activated by an asleep Wallow) ensues.

If you think the 11-minute length of each Adventure Time short isn't enough time to be spent in a fully realized universe like the Land of Ooo, then the five minutes that Bravest Warriors has chosen for its webisode length can be frustrating. Due to those five minutes, this show rushes through its stories even more so than Adventure Time sometimes does, and in "Cereal Master," the solution Chris comes up with to pacify the chef is glossed over so quickly I immediately forgot how he got her to stop chasing him and I had to rewatch the chase the next day to jog my memory.

Walruses aren't usually lit this lovingly.
Despite the show's pacing issues, the Bravest Warriors universe looks to be as interesting and rich as Adventure Time's, and I'm eager to see more material about the Warriors' connections to the Emotion Lords. Elderly Chris' mentorship of his teen self reminds me of the Crewman Daniels nonsense from Enterprise, except it doesn't cause me to change the channel. On the comedic side, Bravest Warriors has fun with running gags like the uglification of Beth, which "Cereal Master" revisits with a goofy variation on the joke from "Gas Powered Stick" that Chris loves her no matter how janky she may look. This time, the show briefly imagines Beth as a walrus. Sometimes, a bowl of Moon-Frosted Double Dolphin Smacks with seahorse dreams is worth going through hell for just to put a smile on the puffy face of your walrus.



***

This is like every road movie you've ever seen, except Midnight Run and The In-Laws didn't sic cross-dressing redneck truckers on their heroes.
"Midnight Ron" may not be the cleverest Archer installment, and the show's terrific ensemble of ISIS characters outside of Archer and Malory may have a lot less screen time in this story, but the episode proves that the hiring of Ron Leibman as Archer's car dealership magnate stepdad is as great a casting move as last season's hiring of Burt Reynolds, Archer's favorite movie star, as himself. The veteran character actor (and husband of Archer regular Jessica Walter) excels at playing live wires, whether they're ornery and excitable like the D.A. in Night Falls on Manhattan or laid-back and a little less spry like Ron Cadillac, née Ron Kazinsky ("C'mon, run like you're younger!," barks Archer to Ron during a chase scene).

Archer and Ron are forced to rely on each other to fend off both gangsters and cross-dressing redneck truckers and find their way back from Montreal to Manhattan. During the course of their road movie-style hijinks, Ron unveils his backstory to Archer, and of course, he turns out to have been mob-connected. But instead of a reference to The Hot Rock like I had hoped, "Midnight Ron" does a brief riff on Once Upon a Time in America, which Leibman didn't star in, though it's nice to see that particular Sergio Leone movie get referenced instead of the same two Leone movies that always get referenced (Leone wasn't just Eastwood westerns, y'all).

I hope that Mac comes with some floppies of Microzine from Scholastic because Microzine fucking rocked.
"Midnight Ron" also highlights something I love about Archer: the incongruity of referencing Master P (or The Human Centipede) in a universe where the ISIS employees rock mid-'60s hairdos, mid-'80s Mac XLs are their office computers and the Cold War still rages on. (Archer creator Adam Reed once described the show's universe as "sort of intentionally ill-defined.") I get a kick out of every time Archer brings up the No Limit rapper/entrepreneur in this episode because he's such an unlikely artist for a '60s Bond-style spy to be aware of (like when Ron finds out from Archer that Malory thinks he's a boring husband, and Archer says, "Well, not after you tell her you stole a Sherman tank, Master P"). Secret agents may not be Beatles fans, but they love them some N'awlins rap.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Piénsalo dos veces

Donald Byrd (1932-2013)
Donald Byrd
The death of legendary hard bop trumpeter and composer Donald Byrd last Monday has got me revisiting some of my favorite Byrd tunes, which either have been sampled by hip-hop artists or were collabos with the late Guru as part of the rapper's Jazzmatazz series. Heads like myself are more familiar with Byrd's jazz-funk/Mizell Brothers/Blackbyrds period than his hard bop period because the former was what beatmakers often loved to shape their tunes from. According to the liner notes of Blue Note's '90s Blue Break Beats series (a bunch of compilations that are a great introduction to the sounds of Byrd and other jazz legends), "The Byrd man is the most sampled of all Blue Note artists."

Producer J-Swift memorably sampled Byrd's 1967 track "Beale Street" in the Pharcyde's "Oh Shit," which kicks off one of my all-time favorite hip-hop albums from start to finish, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, an enjoyable (and self-deprecating, which was rare in hip-hop back then) masterwork that celebrated the 20th anniversary of its release late last year. But the Byrd track I'm fondest of is the gorgeous tune "Think Twice." The 1974 recording was all over early '90s R&B radio--thanks to Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and Main Source--and was frequently covered by the likes of the late J Dilla (whose birthday happened to be celebrated on Twitter when news of Byrd's death spread) and the Norwegian downtempo group Ralph Myerz and the Jack Herren Band. Myerz's badass 2003 cover memorably turns up during the scene where Chris Marquette and a pre-Little Miss Sunshine Paul Dano pretend to be porn directors at a Vegas porn convention in Elisha Cuthbert's The Girl Next Door.

And now, the various permutations of "Think Twice."

"Piénsalo Dos Veces" tracklist
1. Donald Byrd, "Think Twice"
2. Ralph Myerz and the Jack Herren Band, "Think Twice"
3. A Tribe Called Quest, "Footprints"
4. Main Source, "Looking at the Front Door"
5. Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, "Let the Beat Hit 'Em"
6. DJ Jazzy Jeff featuring J-Live, "Practice"
7. J Dilla featuring Dwele, "Think Twice"
8. Erykah Badu, "Think Twice"
9. DJ Cam Quartet, "Think Twice"
10. Gilles Peterson's Havana Cultura Band, "Think Twice"


BONUS TRACK: Byrd composed only one film score, for the 1975 basketball flick Cornbread, Earl and Me, the film debut of a One Life to Live child actor named "Laurence Fishburne III," who, in his Billy Batson-colored football jersey, looks nothing at all like Morpheus (or Cowboy Curtis). Some of the Blackbyrds' instrumentals from Cornbread have turned up on Spotify. The best of these is "At the Carnival."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (02/06/2013): Archer, Green Lantern, Young Justice, Robot Chicken and Adventure Time

A deleted Cameron scene from House.
Best Super Bowl beer ad ever.
Every Wednesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I dine on five of the week's most noteworthy animated shows. The episodes are reviewed in the order of when they first aired.

The first minute of "Legs" is a thing of comedic-editing beauty and an atypical way for Archer to kick off a cold open. It centers not on Archer or a bunch of the major players in the same room but on secondary character Ray and his frustrating morning routine ever since Archer's crash-landing of the escape craft at the end of last season left the gay agent paralyzed (for real this time, after he pretended to be paralyzed for much of the third season).

With Ray Gillette as its star, John Woo's next two-gunned action flick will somehow be less gay than The Killer.
The sight of Ray struggling with his medical bills and the difficulties that come with being actually paralyzed--like having to relieve himself in a plastic bag--is slightly reminiscent of a much more somber montage during Ed (the Tom Cavanagh lawyer show, not the Matt LeBlanc baseball monkey shitpile), in which handicapped cast member Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, whose character on Ed was wheelchair-bound Eli, wordlessly demonstrated how much longer it takes for a disabled person to get out of bed and change clothes. But because this isn't Ed, where the characters were far less irritable, cynical and TV-MA-mouthed, Ray is grumbling aloud to himself while getting ready for work and cursing Archer, "the other shitbag in my life." Ray is like the long-suffering Frank Grimes to Archer's oblivious Homer Simpson, and this episode's subtlest and cruelest joke (but not as cruel as the countless ways Meg's been humiliated on Family Guy) is that even in an episode where Ray gets to drive much of the story's events, he ends up sidelined for most of it, due to undergoing surgery to receive robotic legs from Krieger.

Despite being a bottle episode, "Legs" is a shining moment for the show's editors. Besides that cold open about Ray's crappy morning, they also demonstrate their editing skills through that "cutting away from one conversation to another so that it sounds like the character in the next scene is replying from faraway" device Archer deploys, but rarely to the extent that the show does in this episode. (The funniest of these gags cuts away from Cyril asking Lana if Terminator cyborgs are asexual to Krieger in mid-conversation with Pam while operating on Ray: "Not when I'm done with him.") It's fitting that "Legs" makes use of this choppy comedic device so often because Ray is being rebuilt in a similar (and much gorier) way.

Both Archers are functional alcoholics, a species that's starting to become as endangered as compact discs, 20-song albums, pay phones and post offices.
Word of Ray's surgery causes Archer's fear of robots to resurface, which distracts him from heading to Rome with Lana and Cyril for an ISIS mission. Convinced that the robot apocalypse is near, Archer defies uptight ISIS armory supervisor Rodney and collects an array of weapons from the armory. He tries to thwart the surgical operation by himself, while Krieger races against time to finish Ray's new legs before Archer can burst in and ruin Ray's legs again.

Archer is that rare spy show where the hero occasionally becomes the villain, not because of mind control or brainwashing by some adversary but because he's simply an immature prick. When Archer fires a rocket launcher inside the armory and becomes a danger to the office building, Lana takes up the task of stopping Archer and gets to outwit him while he crawls through ducts like a typical, post-Die Hard '90s action hero. She has a repairman overheat the building's furnace, which causes Archer to doze off. Lana vs. Archer is always an amusing rivalry, whether she's verbally sparring with him in other episodes or pitted against him strategically like in "Legs" (most of her verbal sparring here is with Cyril rather than Archer). But both Archer and Lana wind up looking stupid at the end of "Legs" because Archer is also that rare spy show where the female spy who's supposedly more competent than the lead character sometimes screws up when she gets her chance to step up. Two days after she stops Archer from wreaking further havoc in the building, Lana realizes she forgot to turn off the furnace and let him out of the ducts.

Overheated furnace/ginormous heating bill screw-up aside, Lana and Krieger have helped Ray to receive something the ill-fated Frank Grimes never got: a happy ending. Ray regains the use of his legs--that is until the next time Archer causes him to end up paralyzed again. Because this is Archer, chaos reigns. On this show, happy endings don't last like chaos does--and are not as entertaining.

Stray observations:
* Ray: "I piss and shit in a plastic bag!" Krieger: "Me too!"

Cheryl is apparently the pink slime from Ghostbusters II. Anger excites her.
* According to Cheryl/Carol's dialogue with Archer about cyborgs, the show takes place in a universe where the Voight-Kampff machine from Blade Runner is now apparently a household item (extra points to Archer for not having Cheryl/Carol awkwardly point out it's from Blade Runner for the folks in the audience who never saw the film). The Voight-Kampff test ought to be used on reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian to confirm that they're all really machines because when most of these attention whore-bots cry on-camera, they don't look like normal people crying--they look like Cameron the Terminator when she creepily imitated human grief during Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

* Someone finally came up with the brilliant idea of giving Krieger and the equally crazy Pam a bunch of scenes together. Krieger's form of crazy is rarely in sync with Pam's form of crazy, except for when Pam, the world's worst nurse, asks Krieger if she was supposed to scrub up before surgery. His answer is "Eh, I didn't."