Thursday, November 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday Throwback: Fight Club

The 'B' is for 'Bitch Tits.'
The AFOS blog's year-long Throwback Thursday series concludes its run on December 10. Today's edition of TBT is a repost of a TBT piece from April 9. It's perfect for the day before the day when consumerism whips its dick out and unloads on every single crazed shopper's face.

Cell phones have ruined movies forever. They've made it more difficult for screenwriters to come up with suspenseful situations. You couldn't write either Rear Window or North by Northwest today because every moment of suspense would become impossible for the nitpickers in the audience to take seriously due to "Hmm, you know he or she could use his or her smartphone to save his or her own ass in this situation." The constant advances in cell phone technology have even affected movies that have aged pretty well--when they don't involve phone scenes, that is. The appearance of any kind of phone in a largely timeless movie that's not a present-day cell phone immediately makes that otherwise timeless movie dated.

Thanks to the cutting-edge work of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and director David Fincher, whose visuals have always been cutting-edge and distinctive (whether in Fincher-directed music videos like Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun" video or more recent Fincher films like the Cronenweth-lensed Gone Girl), the 1999 anti-consumerism cult favorite Fight Club looks like it could have been filmed yesterday, and it stands the test of time--for several minutes. But then Edward Norton is seen standing in a pay phone booth to dial up his new soap salesman friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and Fight Club instantly becomes dated.

I had not watched Fight Club in 16 years, before rewatching it as prep for today's edition of Throwback Thursday. In addition to containing the only film score by the Dust Brothers of Paul's Boutique fame (who really ought to compose more scores, due to their outstanding work on the 1999 film, which can be heard during either "AFOS Prime" or the first 33 seconds of the trailer below), Fight Club remains my favorite Fincher film. It's still my favorite even when the appearance of a pay phone wrecks the timelessness and anonymity both Fincher and the various adapters of Chuck Palahniuk's thought-to-have-been-unfilmable 1996 novel of the same name, including credited screenwriter Jim Uhls and uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker from Seven, tried to aim for in their portrayal of modern-day malaise (the city Fight Club takes place in is unspecified, despite the frequent use of L.A. locations, as is the name of Norton's narrator character, although the shooting script referred to him as Jack--we'll call him Jack from this point on).

Much of the appeal of Fight Club stems from the fact that we've all experienced Jack's feelings of malaise (he's nameless for a reason: so that male audience members can name the narrator after themselves). Okay, so you may not be a privileged white male yuppie like Jack, but you can definitely relate to his dissatisfaction with his job as an auto recall specialist and the feeling of emptiness that triggers his insomnia and has him doing anything to feel alive, whether it's going through an IKEA shopping phase, faking diseases and crashing support group meetings with his frenemy Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) or forming with Tyler an underground fight club to blow off steam, for men only (no Marlas allowed).

A good example of the film's ability to connect with viewers long after it tanked at the box office (Palahniuk's material isn't unfilmable--it's unmarketable, as 20th Century Fox realized while inanely trying to sell Fight Club as a TBS Movie for Guys Who Like Movies back in 1999) was when former editor Jim Emerson interestingly called Fight Club one of the most accurate depictions of clinical depression ever made and praised how it captures the way that depression is all-consuming. "It helped shake me out of the grips of a depression that was sucking me down at the time," wrote Emerson.

Funny how the most dated thing in this shot is not Brad Pitt's Soul Train outfit. Instead, it's that fucking pay phone.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)

(Spoiler time. Weirdos who have never seen Fight Club can leave now.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

If the end of Jessica Jones has created an empty #Showhole, Gianna Jun's 2012 heist flick The Thieves might briefly pull you out of it

I love the heist genre so much that whenever I encounter a serious article about racial inequality, I like to always take that article and envision it in my head as a crowd-pleasing heist flick where mistreated characters get revenge on the ones who mistreated or subjugated them by stealing their enemies' shit. For instance, that happened while I read "Not All Nerds," Christopher T. Fan's terrific 2014 New Inquiry critique of the ways Silicon Valley handles its diversity problems.

A heist flick where a crew of Asian American men and women sticks it to the racist and corrupt Silicon Valley tech world they used to work for has been playing in my head for a long time. It started out as a story idea I called Robbery in Progress (it included Quincy Jones and the Don Elliott Voices' "Money Runner," the primary theme from the 1971 heist flick $ [Dollars], as a song I wanted to feature--"Money Runner" is, by the way, now playing on AFOS--and it would have revolved around a much smaller, much younger crew of three inexperienced Asian American thieves getting even with the racist small town they live in and receiving robbery lessons from a criminal who's the cousin of one of the three teens). If such a heist flick ever gets made, and maybe by someone else, I hope it turns out to be as satisfying as something like Set It Off or 2012's even better The Thieves.

In South Korea, Assassination director Choi Dong-hoon's heist flick, about a crew of Korean thieves and a crew of Chinese thieves that unite to steal a diamond at a Macao casino, is currently the fifth highest-grossing Korean film of all time, sitting right below Bong Joon-ho's The Host. But over here, the solidly made 2012 blockbuster is a bit under the radar and well worth discovering on Amazon Video or via Netflix's DVD rental service.

Critics frequently compare The Thieves to Ocean's Eleven because of the starpower of the multilingual film's Korean and Chinese actors and the casino setting, but the casino and a healthy dose of humor are all they have in common. Unlike both the 1960 and 2001 Oceans, the thieves are constantly double-crossing each other, which makes The Thieves more like a glamorous and comedic Friends of Eddie Coyle, plus it's no sausage fest.

A lot more women are involved in the heists, and, as reviewer Seto Kit Yan noted in 2012, "they are not there as mere distractions or love interests." Without giving too much of The Thieves away, most of the film's juiciest material, both story-wise and performance-wise, involves the female characters, including Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo), a safecracker who's just been released from prison, which makes The Thieves a perfect chaser after marathoning the entire run of Jessica Jones, Marvel and Netflix's similarly female-character-heavy but much more dark (and wonderfully subversive) neo-noir drama.

You'll enter The Thieves being familiar with only one or two of the huge, Furious 6-size ensemble (in my case, the only stars I recognized were Simon Yam as the Chinese team leader and Angelica Lee, the star of the original version of The Eye, as Pepsee's safecracking counterpart on the Chinese team), and then you'll come away wanting to see more of the work of many of the film's other stars, particularly Gianna Jun, who's a comedic standout as Yenicall, a beautiful and snarky cat burglar. Yenicall is basically two different Leverage teammates, Parker the pickpocket/acrobat and Sophie the grifter, in the same body. Even though some of the ensemble gets killed off, a Thieves sequel is inevitable, and I'd like to see the surviving thieves mix it up with criminals and cops from a much different corner of Asia: are the likes of Deepika Padukone and Hrithik Roshan available?

Yenicall from The Thieves, illustrated by Rizky Nugraha

Friday, November 20, 2015

A new doc careens down the twisted path of Steve McQueen's gritty, Michel Legrand-scored Le Mans, an auto racing film that's like no other

With Le Mans, Steve McQueen, an auto racing enthusiast, set out to make as authentic an auto racing film as possible. The result, which was credited to a director from network TV, frequent '60s Mission: Impossible episode director Lee H. Katzin, was an unconventional, existentialist and documentary-style sports flick that baffled film critics in 1971--they wanted way more melodrama than the scant amount the film preferred to give them--and was ahead of its time. The story of an introverted man who doesn't know how to do anything else, except drive fast, was essentially a Michael Mann movie long before such a thing existed. And what are most Mann movies about? Introverted men who don't know how to do anything else, except break into vaults or track down criminals.

Le Mans isn't the best auto racing film ever made--that spot belongs to the offbeat Talladega Nights ("I like to think of Jesus as a figure skater who wears like a white outfit and he does interpretive ice dances of my life's journey"). But as an auto racing film, Le Mans is more powerful and rewatchable than either the soapy and overstuffed Grand Prix--if John Frankenheimer pared that film down to just the excellently shot racing sequences, it would have been an action masterpiece--or Quentin Tarantino's favorite racing film, the similarly soapy Days of Thunder, Don Simpson's 107-minute love letter to his own coke-fueled self. The power and rewatchability of Le Mans are mostly because of what Le Mans doesn't show and what it doesn't have the characters say.

McQueen looks like an astronaut checking out the planet Poonanny. Shout to the late Warren Thomas for the 'planet Poonanny' term.

The subplot about Michael Delaney, McQueen's racer character, and his tentative friendship with the widow (Elga Andersen) of a racing rival who died during one of Delaney's racing accidents barely qualifies as a love story, but the minimal dialogue between McQueen and Andersen and the details their scenes leave out (did Delaney and the widow sleep together in his trailer?) automatically cause their subplot to be far more intriguing as off-the-race-track material than any of the off-the-track Grand Prix scenes that don't feature a hot Françoise Hardy or an equally hot Jessica Walter. I love how all the exposition in Le Mans is delivered by a barely audible PA announcer and the film--several decades before the invention of the closed captioning option on Blu-rays and DVDs would have made it easier--deliberately makes the audience work hard to understand what the announcer's saying.

I don't even like auto racing, yet Le Mans somehow comes up with many effective ways to make me give a shit about it, whether it's keeping the dialogue to a minimum, staging the racing sequences so that they're not the "disorienting, incoherent blur of mindless action" Nathan Rabin complained about in his Dissolve reassessment of Days of Thunder or capturing remarkable footage of either the actual 24-hour Le Mans race or the onlookers that would be impossible to capture today, perhaps for insurance reasons or simply because it's not 1970. It's hard to dislike a sports flick that comes up with a shot of a spectator like my favorite shot: a young lady is too passed out from drinking to bother to pay attention to Delaney's pit crew springing into action and assisting Delaney out of his Porsche at the end of his latest shift behind the wheel.

She did the same thing while trying to sit through the movie Pan at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Behind the scenes, Le Mans was such a difficult film to make: it started filming without a script; the enigmatic McQueen was at his worst behavior and was at odds with everyone from studio execs to Le Mans' original director, John Sturges, who directed McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape; McQueen and his then-wife were cheating on each other; and a stunt driver had to have his leg amputated after an actual car crash on the set. The Le Mans shoot's endless troubles have been the subject of both a 1999 book (Michael Keyser's A French Kiss with Death) and now a documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which hit select theaters last Friday.

The Daily Beast calls directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna's new McQueen doc "a warts-and-all portrait of a man at an unstable time in his life" and is appreciative of how the doc "doesn't look away from the people who were hurt by McQueen's actions." But the Beast isn't as enamored with the doc's overexplanatory nature, in comparison to Le Mans' not-so-explanatory nature ("We don't need to hear someone tell us that McQueen cared about where the camera was, or what shots he was going to be in, because to look at scenes from Le Mans is to immediately understand the artist's curiosity to capture action in images").

The best thing to come out of Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans has taken place outside the movie. That would be the bonus tracks on the Varèse Sarabande release of Jim Copperthwaite's ultra-solemn score to Clarke and McKenna's doc. The bonuses are highlights from Michel Legrand's occasionally treacly but otherwise vibrant and effective jazz score to Le Mans.

In 2007, Legrand's Le Mans score--it's basically Legrand in froufrou Thomas Crown Affair mode--was reissued with additional tracks by Universal France, but Varèse's treatment of the Le Mans cues isn't too shabby either. Fortunately, in this incarnation, the Le Mans cues are without the Le Mans race track sound FX that were edited into the music on the 1971 Columbia Records LP release of the Le Mans soundtrack (and then were mostly omitted by Universal France, to the delight of film score music fans who don't like hearing sound clips from movies during those movies' score albums).

"The Race, Final Laps" was cut out of the 1971 film, but it's the best and most energetic of the cues Legrand wrote for Le Mans and Varèse added to the Man & Le Mans album, and it's currently in rotation on "AFOS Prime." It best captures Delaney's intense drive to get his team to the top, even when he himself isn't in first place, as well as the very subject of The Man & Le Mans: McQueen's ambition and desperation to make Le Mans the way he wanted, even at the cost of several friendships, a marriage, a guy's leg and perhaps his own sanity.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Source Code (with guest blogger Hardeep Aujla)

If Source Code wasn't sufficient enough as an unofficial movie version of Quantum Leap starring Jake Gyllenhaal, go watch Gyllenhaal sing 'And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going' in drag. Just pretend that SNL sketch is one of those various Quantum Leap episodes where Sam leaps into a woman and has to sing in front of people in order to leap again.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I saved, and then I discuss the movie on the stub. This time I've gotten Hardeep Aujla, an album reviewer for a U.K.-based hip-hop blog I've contributed pieces to, Word Is Bond, to come back after his guest TBT post about The Cabin in the Woods and discuss the movie on the stub I drew. Spoilers ahead. The AFOS blog's year-long TBT series concludes on December 10.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Netflix's Master of None is revolutionary, and not just because it's the first half-hour comedy filmed in pimptastic 2.35:1 (ask your film nerd friend)

The 80-year-old tribute from The Hunger Games's crooning game is on fleek.

The following contains spoilers for the final two episodes of Master of None.

Asian American men have been so badly stereotyped and emasculated by Hollywood (peep the Long Duk Dong catchphrase montage from "Good Morning Orlando," last week's Fresh Off the Boat episode, for a refresher course) that several Asian American male indie filmmakers have worked to counteract those stereotypes by casting either themselves or much more polished Asian actors as romantic leads, one of many kinds of roles Asian American men only rarely get to play outside the indie world. But to be honest, even though it's nice to see these directors defying stereotypes, too many of these indie flicks--or more commonly these days, YouTube shows--have turned out to be underwhelming or banal in execution. (A rare example of an indie flick with an Asian American guy as a romantic lead that isn't so underwhelming as a movie is 2011's struggling musician comedy Surrogate Valentine, and although it was directed by a white guy, Dave Boyle, it's thoroughly suffused with the creative voice of Surrogate Valentine star and co-writer Goh Nakamura.)

It's not surprising that the similarly conscious-about-race Aziz Ansari and his fellow Parks and Recreation colleague, writer Alan Yang, the creators of Netflix's remarkable new half-hour comedy Master of None, chose to open their show's very first episode with the ultimate in "Hey, I have sex too! I ain't no emasculated dork like how Hollywood likes to portray me!" moments during stories told from Asian American males' perspectives. Master of None's first glimpse of TV commercial actor Dev Shah, Ansari's alter ego, is Dev in the middle of banging Rachel (former SNL featured player Noël Wells), the record label publicist who will become Dev's permanent love interest later on in the season. The opening scene is the first of many figurative middle fingers Ansari and Yang, whose counterpart on the show is Kelvin Yu's Brian, satisfyingly deliver throughout the show to racist power players from Hollywood who either contribute to marginalizing Asian Americans, whether they're Indian or, in the case of Yang and Yu, Taiwanese, or continue to be in doubt about giving them screen roles like "one of the jobs Bradley Cooper's characters do in movies," as Dev says at one point.

But because Ansari isn't such a vain comedy star--you can tell how much vanity a male comedy star has by how often he gets the staff writers to write shirtless bedroom scenes for him, like the bizarre amount of shirtless bedroom scenes that were written for the late Richard Jeni during his short-lived '90s sitcom Platypus Man--Ansari amusingly cuts short his own first-ever on-screen moment of athletic, TV-MA-rated (but without any nudity) lovemaking. He has his own character's condom suddenly break.

The broken condom scare leads to both frantic Googling of fun facts about pre-ejaculate and an emergency Uber ride for both Dev and Rachel to the nearest pharmacy for a Plan B pill and--because Dev is as passionate a foodie/drinkie as Ansari--an irresistible bottle of Martinelli's apple juice. The mishap perfectly kicks off a series of anxieties Dev experiences about children (he doesn't completely hate them, but like Ansari, he doesn't plan on having any), marriage (again, like with Ansari, the idea of it intimidates Dev), texting etiquette (another subject Ansari has been preoccupied with in his stand-up act), accepting certain acting roles that would pay well but could also cause him to be labeled an "Uncle Taj" and various other life choices.

Master of None--which gets its title from a 2006 Beach House song about a person who hops from fuckbuddy to fuckbuddy but winds up being lonely (the tune is featured at the end of the third episode, "Hot Ticket")--is Ansari's first big endeavor into auteurist TV (he also directed two of the 10 episodes that Netflix dropped all at once last Friday). The show interestingly structures itself as a series of mini-movies--hence the "Master of None Presents" logo during the main titles of each episode--and breaks away from both the joke machine rhythms of network TV ("Alan and I didn't want the show to be so cut-y. Sometimes I'd watch Parks and it's so fast-paced," said Ansari to the A.V. Club) and the studio set-bound nature of many network sitcoms like Parks.

Instead, it embraces the commercial-free pacing of Netflix and favors long single takes during street conversations or hallway exchanges like Dev's amusing exchange with his friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim) about the frustration of being unable to tell if Eminem's 8 Mile theme "Lose Yourself" is being rapped from the point of view of Em or his 8 Mile alter ego B-Rabbit ("[Linklater] has been a huge influence on me, and he has been for a few years," said Ansari in that same A.V. Club interview, while discussing his love for the long takes during Linklater's Before trilogy). The show also favors location shooting in New York (and, for one episode, Nashville) and, in what has to be a first for a half-hour comedy, cinematography shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. That's the same aspect ratio all the Star Wars movies and Bond flicks (except Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) are filmed in.

Master of None cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard makes beautiful use of the ultra-widescreen frame. At first, the Scope aspect ratio seems like a bizarre choice for a half-hour comedy. But when Schwartzbard continually composes shots as clever and playful as the one where Brian and his laconic immigrant dad Peter (Clem Cheung) finally bond while reading The Economist, but due to Peter's Ron Swanson-like discomfort with expressing any kind of emotion, they're sitting far apart and at the edges of the frame rather than shoulder to shoulder (or when Schwartzbard sometimes composes shots that are just plain gorgeous), the aspect ratio suits the show.

Throwback Thursday Throwback: Short Term 12

Short Term 12 star Brie Larson was a frontrunner for Emilia Clarke's role of Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genisys. The way that movie spells 'genesis' is so fuckyng insypyd.
Today's edition of Throwback Thursday is a repost of a TBT piece from April 2, 2015.

There was only one word that kept surfacing in the mental notes I took in my head as I was watching Short Term 12 for the third time, in preparation for today's edition of Throwback Thursday, and that word was "economical." Asian American indie filmmaker Destin Cretton's second feature film, the story of a group foster home counselor (Brie Larson) and her determination to save her facility's newest resident (Justified's Kaitlyn Dever) from the same kind of child abuse she herself used to be subjected to, is a triumph of economical storytelling, a film that prefers to show rather than tell, while many other films with similar subject matter opt to smother the audience with dollops of on-the-nose exposition, speechifying and worst of all, mawkishness.

'SXSW has a lot of companies that specialize in pens, T-shirts and beer cozies.'--Hari Kondabolu
Destin Cretton (center), the Short Term 12 cast and the film's SXSW Grand Jury Award

Neither of those three things show up to ruin Short Term 12, which Cretton based on his own 2009 short film of the same name. The only major exposition the audience receives at the start of the film is the terse instructions Larson's character Grace gives to Nate (Rami Malek), the facility's newest staffer, about how to handle the at-risk kids they're assigned to look after ("Remember, you are not their parent, you are not their therapist; you are here to create a safe environment, and that's it"). None of the backstories of the film's four main characters--Grace, her good-humored co-worker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Dever's character Jayden and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a resident with both musical and ichthyological aspirations who's turning 18, so his new age requires him to move out of the short-term home, but he's deeply troubled about having to leave--are unveiled in clumsily written infodumps or pointless flashbacks. They're unveiled gradually, piece by piece, and at believable moments. For example, when Marcus refuses to celebrate his 18th birthday with a party or cake and simply requests to have his head shaven, the film withholds for a while from the audience Marcus' reason for his request. When the film finally makes clear--after the haircut--why Marcus wanted it, it's an unexpected and quietly devastating moment.

Nobody in the film says "My dad's been hitting me" or "I was raised by the system" when they first appear on screen. It just wouldn't ring true. Grace, Jayden and Marcus are survivors of abuse who have difficulties with communication and trusting anyone, so Jayden and Marcus prefer to express the pain they're experiencing through the art they create. In Marcus' case, his art takes the form of a mesmerizing freestyle Cretton shot in one long uninterrupted take.

Marcus' freestyle scene is a good example of the effectiveness of Short Term 12's digital cinematography.

Short Term 12 was shot with Red cameras.

Winter's Bone was also shot with Red cameras.

I like any digital camera that's named after a Bruce Willis action flick.

The believable and stripped-down dialogue is a great example of the verisimilitude Cretton aimed for in Short Term 12 (Cretton himself once worked at a similar facility for at-risk youth, and his experience with social work is evident in moments like Grace's thorough inspection of the kids' rooms for drugs and the scene where Mason and Nate have to carefully restrain Jayden when she has a meltdown in her room). This is the kind of off-kilter film where a character like Mason introduces himself not in a monologue about how his foster family saved him from the streets--that monologue is saved for later, for the most fitting occasion--but in a monologue to Nate about a comedically disastrous workday: the day he shit his pants in front of a kid who tried to run away from both him and Short Term 12, to be exact. It's a brilliant way to establish Mason's compassion and doggedness--a doggedness that surfaces later when he has to deal with Grace's sudden reticence about both being pregnant with his child and accepting his marriage proposal--without lapsing into the standard bad-movie-writing method (ridiculed most memorably by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) of having Mason declare that "I'm compassionate and dogged."

Grace is equally compassionate and dogged in both her attempts to help the introverted Jayden, who's too scared to report her father's abuse, and her interactions with another similarly introverted charge of hers, Sammy (Alex Calloway), who frequently makes escape attempts that are foiled by Grace, Mason and another counselor, Jessica (a pre-Brooklyn Nine-Nine Stephanie Beatriz, who bizarrely looks and sounds 10 years younger than how she normally looks in her leathery, Emma Peel/Catwoman-esque cop outfits on Nine-Nine). But because Grace didn't grow up with the type of loving and nurturing parents Mason was lucky to have and she still bears emotional and self-inflicted scars from the years of physical and sexual abuse she suffered, social work is more of a challenge for her emotionally and mentally than it is for Mason. Margaret Cho recently said in an interview that the late Robin Williams, one of the kindest comedians she knew in the business, "knew how to give but he had a problem receiving." That perfectly describes Grace.

Kaitlyn Dever also played the kid Raylan has to rescue from Mags Bennett on Justified. I'm two seasons behind on Justified. I wonder if Jeremy Davies is still being outacted by his own hairdo on the show.

Jayden's ordeals outside the facility--combined with Grace's fear that the system will fail Jayden, as well as the distressing news that Grace's abusive father is about to be released from prison--reawaken inner demons Grace has fought so hard to suppress. They cause Grace to have doubts about her future with Mason and to shut her fiancé out of the pain she's experiencing and he so desperately wants to help her overcome. Much of the beauty of Larson's excellent performance as Grace is due to her ability to physically express Grace's private worries that she might someday pass on the cycle of abuse to her and Mason's child--without ever verbalizing those worries.

The film's implication that artistic expression has saved and will continue to save these troubled kids' lives--including Grace's--is never spelled out in dialogue either. It's nicely conveyed in only visual terms. Speaking of which, as someone who'd always get huge pencil stains on the sides of the hands while doodling or sketching with pencils, I love how Cretton and cinematographer Brett Pawlak let the audience see the pencil stains on the sides of Grace and Mason's hands while they're relaxing at home by sketching portraits of each other.

I know I've sworn off writing listicles because I now hate them so much, but up next is a list of people Mason's pencil sketch of Grace bears more of a resemblance to instead of closely resembling Brie Larson.

1. Demetri Martin

2. Neil Young

3. Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Larson's performance is another one of those performances that make you say, "Why, Academy? Why the hell did you sleep on this performance?" The SXSW audience was far more attuned to Short Term 12's stripped-down wondrousness. They awarded Short Term 12 with Audience and Grand Jury prizes in 2013. This gritty but life-affirming film makes me eager to see what else Larson, Dever and Stanfield have up their sleeves acting-wise, as well as any of Cretton's future film work. It's hard to dislike any film where a character names his pet fish after a certain legendary Queensbridge rapper who happens to have a way with telling a story, just like Short Term 12 itself.

Spoiler alert: Nas suffers a terrible fate at the facility. In other words, Short Term 12 let Nas down.

None of Joel P West's minimalist score cues from Short Term 12--which, to borrow the words of animator Timothy Reckart regarding Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas score, don't dictate the emotions of the film and instead suggest the depth of those emotions--are currently in rotation on AFOS, but they ought to be.

Friday, November 6, 2015

AFOS Blog Rewind: "What's your favorite score?" is not a question I like to be asked

Today's post totally repurposes shit from August 26, 2014, except for one sentence, which is in bold.

I've been asked twice or thrice "What's your favorite score?" My answer to that will always be "55-10, Niners over Broncos."

I don't have one favorite score. I have lots of favorite scores, but there are too many out there to name. I've listened to thousands of them since my college radio programming days. It's impossible to pick one that's the best. It's like asking a parent who his or her favorite kid is.

Plus my answer to that "favorite score" question would change every other minute. One minute, it would be "Out of Sight by David Holmes," and then the next minute, it would be "An Oversimplification of Her Beauty by Flying Lotus." Then that would change to "the frequently rapped-along-to Samurai Champloo by the late, great Nujabes, Fat Jon, Force of Nature and Tsutchie." And so on.

The same thing applies to "favorite hip-hop album." It'll ping-pong back and forth between "De La Soul Is Dead," "good kid, m.A.A.d. city," "Barkada" and "whatever I bumped in its entirety last week."

But one thing I do know is that Drive composer Cliff Martinez's anachronistic score music to Cinemax's 1900s medical drama The Knick is a sublime piece of work. I've added Knick season 2 score selections to "AFOS Prime" rotation on AFOS, in addition to the season 1 score selections that are still in rotation. Martinez's Knick episode scores are the automatic winner of "best score to a TV show I'll never watch because I hate watching extremely graphic medical procedures."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Throwback Thursday Throwback: Top Five

Top Five should be rated S for splooge stains I never want to see again.

Today's edition of Throwback Thursday is a repost of a TBT piece from January 29, 2015.

One thing that's stuck with me since reading an interview Chris Rock did years ago where he discussed how he perfected his sharply written and delivered material in the classic 1996 HBO comedy special Bring the Pain--material that revitalized his stand-up career and consists of several of his most frequently quoted routines about race and black celebrity scandals--was when he said he mentally trained like a boxer for Bring the Pain. This winter's Top Five, the third film Rock directed, wrote and starred in, also feels like the result of someone who ran seven miles from home to the boxing gym and back and punched heavy bags for eight hours a day, in order to come up with the artistic achievement he's made here.

But it's not a perfect film. It's full of things some segments of the audience are either irritated or offended by, and for me, a person who dabbled in journalism for a few years, that thing was a certain New York Times-related plot twist, while if you're gay and tired of seeing gays getting mocked or shamed in movies for their sexual preferences, that thing would be a certain tampon/hot sauce sight gag involving a certain closeted antagonist portrayed by Workaholics star Anders Holm. Despite those flaws, Top Five signals a promising new direction for Rock as both a filmmaker and a leading man. As Kelefa Sanneh noted in his New Yorker profile of the Top Five star/director, Rock has tended to be inert--particularly as a leading man--during his previous attempts at a star vehicle, "as if, in the effort to shed his characteristic comic fervor, he has accidentally shed too much" (one of those star vehicles was 2001's Heaven Can Wait remake Down to Earth, where a pre-Harold & Kumar John Cho's bit part as a puffy-shirted singer who kills it on stage at the Apollo is the most memorable and funny thing about the movie).

That past inertness as a lead never shows up in Top Five. It's as if Rock paid attention to the mixed reactions to his two previous directorial efforts--the pre-Obama black president comedy Head of State, which only sprang to life when Rock either shared the screen with the late Bernie Mac or simply conceded it to him, and the uneven I Think I Love My Wife, his remake of Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon--and he decided to go all in, go for broke or however you want to describe it using "go." Sanneh's piece mentions that Top Five producer Scott Rudin prodded Rock to recapture the rebellious spirit of his earlier stand-up routines and asked the 49-year-old comic to come up with "the 49-year-old version of dropping the mike." In this most personal of his three directorial efforts, a story of a comedian experiencing a midlife career crisis, Rock drops the mike by doubling down on the humor, the raunch (hint: the tampon/hot sauce gag, as well as a hotel room flashback), the depth and the insight on being both a comedian in a high-pressure showbiz environment and a black celebrity. It's the kind of insight that's been only previously seen whenever Rock does interviews or his stand-up act, but never before within his own films, except for a quietly dramatic scene in Head of State where Rock's presidential candidate character tells Dylan Baker if he quits running for president, "there won't be another black candidate for 50 years."

Chris Rock takes up Christopher Walken's comedic advice that 'Bear suits are funny. [Long pause] And bears as well.'

Top Five is a film about both the art of comedy and being a black celebrity that's like no other. Rock, a Woody Allen fan, has to be the only black director who worships and emulates Allen (during the I Think I Love My Wife audio commentary, Rock said, "I will hire anybody that has worked with Woody Allen," which was why he got Annie Hall editor Wendy Greene Bricmont to cut I Think I Love My Wife). He's cited Allen as an influence on Top Five's tone and pacing (hmm, I wonder where Rock got the last name of his Top Five character Andre Allen from). Top Five also carries echoes of Louie, the hit show from Louis C.K., a close friend of Rock's who declined an offer to do a cameo in Top Five, as well as both Funny People, Judd Apatow's half-great 2009 midlife crisis film about a cancer-stricken stand-up/movie star portrayed by Adam Sandler, a close friend of Rock's who cameos in Top Five, and Comedian, director Christian Charles' jazzy 2002 documentary about the stand-up comeback efforts of Jerry Seinfeld, another close friend of Rock's who cameos in Top Five. Where Top Five differs from Louie, Allen's work and the Seinfeld documentary is its point of view--life for a well-off (but privately unhappy) black comedian is significantly different from that of a privileged white New Yorker--and where the Rock film differs from Funny People is that it's a tighter, snappier and more focused film about a discontented comedian: the story ends right when it's supposed to end, not 45 minutes afterward.

Like Sandler's character in Funny People, Rock's alter ego Andre, a recovering alcoholic, has become a prisoner of his own success. He's feeling hamstrung by a series of popular buddy cop comedies where he has to climb into a bear suit and play a talking bear named Hammy, and his attempt to be taken seriously as an actor, a vanity project about the Haitian slave revolution entitled Uprize! (goofily spelled with a Z instead of an S), is tanking big-time. Adding to his career woes is an impending marriage to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a Bravo reality TV star he feels indebted to marry for reasons that would benefit both of them, even though he doesn't love her.

Rosario Dawson's prank of putting hot sauce in her ex-boyfriend's ass is also how Jack Bauer would torture people if he were a black guy.

To promote the poorly received Uprize!, Andre reluctantly agrees to be the subject of a celebrity profile by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). He dislikes journalists as much as he dislikes Hammy--he's currently fuming over a scathing review one of them gave to Uprize!--so their interviewing sessions are initially fraught with tension. Chelsea herself was once a fan of Andre's comedy from his stand-up days (Andre is an example of what Rock said to Fresh Air host Terry Gross is the strangest thing about performers he admires like Steve Martin and Michael Keaton: they were great stand-ups who abandoned stand-up), and she thinks Andre's lost his edge as a comedian. Interacting with the opinionated and whip-smart Chelsea awakens Andre out of his complacency and temporarily pulls him out of his misery. But right when Top Five looks like it's about to veer into tiresome "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" territory, the film fleshes out Dawson's initially MPDG-ish character and reveals some layers to her: like Andre, Chelsea's an equally complicated alcoholic hiding some skeletons in her closet.

Without giving too much away, one of these skeletons is the Times-related twist, the least convincing moment in Top Five. As much as I hate several of the writers from the Times these days, that paper would never, in real life, assign the kinds of tasks the film's fictionalized version of the Times assigns to Chelsea--maybe an alt-weekly would, but definitely not the Gray Lady. But then again, the universe where Top Five takes place has transformed a bear who's an action hero into a box-office sensation, which must mean that in Andre and Hammy's universe, Howard the Duck was the biggest box-office hit of 1986. So if I'm able to accept Hammy's popularity even though it's kind of ridiculous (Hammy appears to be based on the popularity of Rock's zebra character from the CG-animated Madagascar movies, which have made way more dough than any of his live-action movies), then I guess I can accept this alternate version of the Times.

Speaking of alternate versions of things, Andre could be interpreted as an alcoholic version of Rock who's much more image-conscious than the real-life Rock, as well as far less enlightened: when he asks Chelsea if a past Asian boyfriend of hers was a karate Asian or a nerdy Asian, that's like a non-black person asking "Was he black as in basketball-dunking black or purse-snatching black?" But Andre is also drawn from the tabloid headline-making likes of Katt Williams, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan (who appears in the film in a small role that was filmed before his car accident and received applause at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival screening of Top Five, from Morgan fans who have longed to see the former 30 Rock star on screen again after severe injuries from the accident have kept him away from the spotlight), so Rock's character isn't merely Rock with a drinking problem. The public meltdown Andre experiences inside a liquor store especially brings to mind Williams' meltdowns.

Except for Cedric the Entertainer, these all could be people from the 'old and rhythmless white people dancing to Nelly' scene in Head of State.

Rock followed the adage "Write what you know." His eye-opening glimpses during Top Five into the world of stand-up (a world he knows so well that the Apollo scenes during Down to Earth were far more interesting and alive than the Heaven Can Wait rom-com stuff) and his thought-provoking observations on how that world can be a toxic one for the likes of Williams, Lawrence and Morgan--or, hell, any performer with an addictive personality and an inability to say no to anything, whether it's booze or talking-bear movies--are partly why Top Five is a keeper. A flashback to Andre's past with a parasitic Houston club promoter (Cedric the Entertainer) who plied Andre with everything he could dream of--until a wild night of group sex where Andre was sidelined to being an appalled spectator made him regret those perks--is a hilarious comedic-nightmare centerpiece of Top Five, amusingly soundtracked by Freddie Jackson's 1985 quiet-storm hit "You Are My Lady" ("Not knowing the value of comedy, I would have went with the most nastiest song ever, something like Jodeci's 'Freek'N You.' But [Rock] taught me the value of the irony, of the sweetness," said Top Five co-composer Questlove about Rock's choice of Freddie Jackson to Times interviewer Jon Caramanica).

Top Five's not-as-nightmarish other centerpiece is a sequence where Andre brings Chelsea along with him on a visit to his relatives and childhood friends in the projects. The film pauses to listen in on Andre and his relatives and friends--whom he hasn't lost touch with despite his success and are portrayed by Morgan, Sherri Shepherd, Hassan "Wee Bey" Johnson and current SNL cast members Michael Che, Jay Pharoah and Leslie Jones, a.k.a. one of Paul Feig's new Ghostbusters--riffing in a cramped apartment on lists of their five favorite rappers (the same kind of listmaking that cements the bond between Andre and Chelsea, hence the title Top Five) and what-if scenarios like 2Pac's career trajectory if he hadn't died. Their spontaneous-sounding exchanges are so funny I could watch them riff for two hours. A similar moment of loose riffing--where I feel like I'm watching a real-life conversation unfold instead of a movie conversation--takes place at a strip club where the aforementioned Sandler and Seinfeld make their cameos as themselves and are joined by an unexpected Whoopi Goldberg in giving advice to Andre.

This is the funniest Seinfeld--who once attempted to launch a movie career with the animated DreamWorks vehicle Bee Movie, didn't seem to care for continuing on with that movie career and immediately went back to stand-up--has ever been on the big screen. Top Five also contains the funniest role Cedric's had since Barbershop (his character appears to be a composite of real-life lowlife promoters either Rock himself or his road comic friends encountered on the road), and the film has Rock getting some career-best dramatic work out of both Dawson, a fully realized love interest despite the implausibility of Chelsea's tasks at the Times, and Union as the ambitious reality TV celebrity. A few feminists have criticized Top Five for being misogynist, but Head of State is the Rock film that's more deserving of their ire. Union's dramatic scene where her character Erica realizes the emptiness of her stardom ("I don't have a talent") shows how Rock has matured a bit in terms of writing female characters. The one-dimensional shrew/antagonist Rock had Robin Givens portray in Head of State was never imbued with the kind of depth Erica is imbued with in Union's best scene. This generosity in Rock's work as a director is also why Top Five is a keeper. The generosity was hinted at in the way he let Mac steal scenes in Head of State, and it's demonstrated in the ways he let Union, Dawson, Cedric, Seinfeld, Jones and even "comedian's comedian" Brian Regan, in a bit part as a fussy Sirius XM promo director, and J.B. Smoove, in a mostly low-key, Don Rickles in Casino-esque role as Andre's bodyguard and childhood friend, all run away with standout moments.

I'm probably the millionth person to praise the performances in Top Five. Now I'll be the first to praise the music choices. In addition to recruiting Questlove to score Top Five, Rock got talented Community and Fruitvale Station composer Ludwig Göransson--whose production work on Childish Gambino tracks is actually more enjoyable than Gambino's own lyrics--to take part in the score and perform faithful covers of classic breakbeats, like a cover of the instrumental version of Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" for Andre and Chelsea's "top five comedians" scene on the subway, a clever way to work around Top Five's low budget and keep music clearance costs down.

For the music supervision, Rock turned to both regular Wes Anderson collaborator Randall Poster and George Drakoulias, the record producer and Def Jam talent scout the Beastie Boys name-checked in "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" ("Went from the station to Orange Julius/I bought a hot dog from who?: George Drakoulias"). Under their supervision, Top Five wound up with the aforementioned use of "You Are My Lady" to amusingly enhance the craziness of the Houston hotel sex scene (you'll never be able to hear that '80s slow jam again without thinking of Top Five), as well as the fitting choice of Jay Z and Kanye West's "Niggas in Paris" for the film's first few minutes.

The Watch the Throne joint is kind of an overplayed anthem. But it's perfect for Top Five because of both how often Jay Z is mentioned in the characters' discussions of hip-hop artists they admire and the film's story of Andre's issues with his own fame, which--thanks to his experiences with Chelsea--lead to him realizing he wants to go back to making art that would best reflect his creative voice, something he's lost due to choosing to do mindless and hacky talking-animal movies and ill-advised Oscar-bait biopics. "Niggas in Paris" is partially about Kanye's enjoyment of Paris as a refuge where his artistic ambitions, particularly his fashion-related ones, are taken seriously and allowed room to grow, and it references the city's past as a similar refuge for African American expatriates. Andre's Paris has yet to be discovered when the story kicks off with "Niggas in Paris"--and there are major bumps along the way in getting there--but Andre ultimately finds Paris in the end, in the form of the same small club where Louis C.K. finds refuge from the joylessness of daily life in many episodes of Louie and where Rock, in real life, tests out future comedic material: the legendary Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. The verbal boxer that is Rock affectionately referred to the Cellar as his gym during the New Yorker's interview with him. Hopefully, the training and sparring in that gym will lead to another uproarious and insightful accomplishment from Rock like Top Five.