Friday, March 27, 2015

Timothy Reckart's inventive "Head Over Heels" may be the first film with a featurette about film scoring that's longer than the film itself

This house is crazier than the Jamiroquai house, where everybody walks around like they're on a treadmill.
It's been such a long time since I've written enthusiastically about a short film that I've forgotten how my own blog style guide's policy goes for when I have to type out titles of short films. So I've had to go back to older material from my blog and verify that policy. It turns out that I'm supposed to bookend titles of short films with quotation marks instead of italicizing them, just like with titles of short stories or TV series episodes.

Stop-motion animator Timothy Reckart's 2012 short Head Ov... "Head Over Heels," which Reckart just recently made available to watch in its entirety online for free, is so good I kind of wish it won the Best Animated Short Oscar in 2013 instead of Disney's "Paperman." (In 2013, "Head Over Heels" and "Paperman" also happened to be up against the Simpsons theatrical short "The Longest Daycare," which I love for both its jab at Ayn Rand and the adversary "Longest Daycare" writers James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, David Mirkin, Michael Price and Joel H. Cohen chose to pit Maggie against.) Like "Head Over Heels," "Paperman" is a clever short about a man struggling to communicate his feelings to a woman he adores. But "Head Over Heels" is about adult problems--like how do you salvage a long-term relationship that has lost its spark, and how do you do that when so many obstacles to communication are in the way?--and that makes it the more intriguing of the two Oscar-nominated 2012 romantic shorts.

The Annie Awards ceremony is my favorite award show named after an orphan who was born without eyeballs.
Timothy Reckart, accepting his Annie Award for "Head Over Heels" (Photo source: Animation Magazine)

An Annie Award winner for Best Student Project (it was made at the National Film and Television School in the U.K.), Reckart's 10-minute film is both a dialogue-less and surprisingly affecting comedy about a strained marriage and a nifty sci-fi short story set in a bizarre and unexplained reality where the laws of physics are different from our world's laws of physics. So because of the reality the short takes place in, the biggest obstacle to communication between middle-aged Walter and his ex-ballet dancer wife Madge isn't the increasingly common problem of smartphone addiction. Instead, it's gravity.

Walter and Madge live in a floating house where Walter's ceiling is Madge's floor and her ceiling is his floor. We don't know what exactly caused their marriage to become strained or why they no longer share the same gravity. All we do know is that it's entertaining to watch them go about their day as if everything's normal in their topsy-turvy world.


Meanwhile, in our topsy-turvy world where special features, which, for a long time, have been the best part of a DVD or Blu-ray, are unfortunately becoming an endangered species because younger viewers prefer to stream movies instead of watching bonus-filled physical copies of them, Reckart's strategy of getting viewers to watch his short online is noteworthy. It's not just because of his wish to keep special features alive by treating viewers to a bunch of fascinating little extras about the making of "Head Over Heels" ("On the one hand, the death of DVD is great, because the physical production of DVDs has been a barrier to entry for short filmmakers like me. On the other hand, what happened to special features?," says Reckart). It's also because one of those bonuses is an audio-only featurette about film scoring--and it's almost three times longer than "Head Over Heels" itself, like how the documentary about the making of Superman Returns is much longer than Superman Returns itself (and a slightly more enjoyable film too, simply because of the moment when Kevin Spacey cracks up the film's crew with his Brando impression while audio of Brando as Jor-El is being played aloud on the set).



Any featurette about the film scoring process is worthwhile to me because I put strictly film and TV score music into rotation on my radio station, and I'm always interested in hearing about how that kind of music gets made. Film and TV scoring is a process not a lot of people understand or are aware of, even after the release of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, whose main character was a struggling (and way-too-frequently-naked) TV composer, so the audience saw a few scenes of him at work. Featurettes like the scoring discussion Reckart recorded with Jered Sorkin, his short's composer, are invaluable because they get those outsiders to understand the process.

I had only five questions for Reckart--whose prior stop-motion shorts include 2009's "Token Hunchback," a mockumentary about a Hollywood actor born with a hunchback--when I interviewed him over e-mail. That's because in the extras or in other interviews, he goes into so much detail about the animation process and the music that he basically answers all the other questions I had about the making of "Head Over Heels."

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The World's End

I wish I could snap a photo of this World's End movie ticket lying on an actual pub counter covered with coasters, water marks left by drinking glasses and boozehound vomit, but the pic wouldn't turn out well under such dim lighting--and boozehound vomit.
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

British director Edgar Wright is at the peak of his comedic filmmaking powers in 2013's The World's End, the third and final film in the Cornetto trilogy he co-wrote with Simon Pegg, the star of Wright's groundbreaking sitcom Spaced. Each film in the trilogy is a standalone piece--none of them take place in the same universe--but they all have a bunch of things in common: a Cornetto ice cream treat (a favorite hangover cure of Wright's) always makes a cameo appearance, hence the trilogy's unofficial name Cornetto; Wright reuses several actors; Pegg and his old Spaced co-star Nick Frost always play a pair of friends who are grappling with either the fear of losing their identity or being forced to let go of their adolescence; a fence jump always goes awry; and a seemingly tired genre gets revitalized in the inventive hands of Pegg and Wright each time.

The first Cornetto film, 2004's Shaun of the Dead, expanded upon Pegg and Wright's obsession with George Romero flicks from an early Spaced episode, and the result--a Romero flick with bumbling, hungover Crouch End blokes as the heroes--is still my favorite zombie movie ever. The second Cornetto film, 2007's Hot Fuzz, took Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer cop flicks from America and amusingly tried to wedge the much more mundane reality of British policing into the body of one of those over-the-top cop flicks. Frequently described as "Lethal Weapon in Somerset," Hot Fuzz is not like any other action genre spoof. It's full of humor about fascism, conformity (a theme that resurfaces in The World's End), British genteelness and Grand Guignol violence that's often smarter than the average hacky "hey, let's just reference this recent movie and that recent movie and then call it a day" Friedberg/Seltzer spoof film. Hot Fuzz's genuine affection for American action flicks also elevates Wright's film above action genre spoofs that harbor contempt for the films they're parodying, much like how Shaun's affection for Romero flicks was key to making that film so appealing.

Rosamund Pike looks like she's cosplaying as the Fourth Doctor in this fight scene. Too bad Brad Allan didn't get her to use that scarf as a weapon. That would have been bomb.

The World's End is more ambitious than the other two Cornetto films and juggles several ideas at once: it's a school reunion comedy about the dangers of nostalgia (set not at an actual class reunion but at a pub crawl Gary King, Pegg's immature alcoholic character, failed to finish as a teen and wants to finally finish with his estranged, now-teetotal friends), an addiction drama, an alien invasion flick and a critique of gentrification, or as Paddy Considine's character calls it, "Starbucking." In lesser hands, this all could have turned into a hot mess--an unwieldy, overly busy third movie that, like so many other third movies in a series, strains to juggle all the ideas running through Pegg and Wright's heads--but like the other two Cornetto films, The World's End is so tightly constructed by Pegg and Wright that the disparate components mesh beautifully and the seams never show.

When the comedic sci-fi action gives way for a scene straight out of an addiction drama, the dramatic scene doesn't feel out of place. Speaking of which, The World's End and Flight would make for a great double bill about alcoholics in denial. But why do the on-the-nose existing songs--particularly Saint Etienne's "Join Our Club" and The Doors' "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)" in one great marriage of song and scene, due to the actors walking in step and drinking in time to the Doors tune as it was being blasted on the set--work so well for The World's End, while the on-the-nose existing songs don't work as well for Flight? That's because with the exception of the Soup Dragons' overplayed and annoying cover of the Rolling Stones' "I'm Free" and Primal Scream's '90s advertising staple "Loaded," neither of Wright and music supervisor Nick Angel's selections, which are mostly from the late '80s/early '90s era of Britrock, are tunes I've heard a million times before in movies or on TV, like Flight's overplayed choices of "Gimme Shelter" and "Sympathy for the Devil."







The original score by Gravity composer Steven Price is equally effective. My favorite moments of Price's score, which can be heard during the AFOS weekend block "Hall H" and "AFOS Prime," are textural rather than tuneful. They all involve cell phone interference sound FX, which represents the Network, the extraterrestrial collective of gentrifiers behind the gradual robot invasion of the friends' former hometown of Newton Haven, as well as all the technological advances on Earth from the early '90s to 2013 (that means Steve Jobs was a robot, which explains all those black-turtleneck-and-mom-jeans ensembles), and those advances are a huge part of the Network's strategy of seducing the smartphone zombies of the human population into getting rid of their humanity and becoming robots, or "blanks." The interference audio first appears in Price's score when Gary accidentally decapitates the teenage blank in the restroom. Never has cell phone interference sounded so menacing. After Black Mirror and the Network scenes in The World's End, the British are proving to be the craftiest satirists when it comes to material about how smartphone or tablet addiction is causing society to become even more soulless than it was before.

The result of Pegg and Wright's skills with meshing disparate components--and making inspired use of little things like mobile interference audio--is the most entertaining and clever critique of gentrification ever made. It's also the only gentrification satire to involve rousing and dazzlingly staged fight scenes where humans decapitate with their bare hands their blank adversaries and pulverize them with whatever weapon they can find, whether it's a pair of pub stools or the blanks' own torn-off limbs (the terrific World's End fight choreography was done by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Kingsman: The Secret Service stunt coordinator Brad Allan, a.k.a. the short white guy Jackie Chan fought during Gorgeous).

The film is so packed with detail that you pick up something new in each viewing. For instance, while watching The World's End for the fourth time in preparation for today's edition of Throwback Thursday, I switched on Pegg and Wright's Blu-ray audio commentary and learned that the film's school disco sequence--in which the Network attempts to lure Gary and his friends into becoming blanks by bringing back a trio of hot girls they liked who were known collectively as "the Marmalade Sandwich" and have eerily not aged a day--is based on an actual clubbing phenomenon. I didn't even know this was a thing in England--women get paid to dance in schoolgirl uniforms, which Pegg and Wright both find to be rather creepy as a male fantasy--and after listening to the commentrak, I received a crash course in school discos from a 2002 Guardian article about the then-new "formula of uniforms, booze and tacky tunes."

The Kylie Minogue song that's featured during this scene is one of the few World's End songs that's not on Spotify. Millions of gay Spotify users are side-eyeing Spotify right now.
The grand entrance of "the Marmalade Sandwich" in The World's End

The scene where Nick Frost sticks his hand in Sophie Evans' stomach to pull out his wedding ring is like the weirdest 'He went to Jared' ad ever.
Sophie Evans (Marmalade Sandwich girl Becky Salt), out of uniform (Photo source: Wales Online)

In The World's End, Wright didn't just revitalize the old sci-fi trope of your friends and neighbors getting replaced by creepy duplicates by brilliantly linking it to the horrors of gentrification. He also revitalized the midlife crisis comedy, taking it back from the Wild Hogses and Old Dogses of the world. A pre-Gone Girl Rosamund Pike does wonders with what little screen time she has--she was pregnant during filming--in the role of Sam, the lone female in Gary's circle of friends (both Pike's delivery of "What happened to you?" to Pegg in the bathroom and her comedic gasp after first seeing Pegg decapitate a female blank are sublime bits of acting), while Pegg and Frost, who switched the roles they had in Shaun and Fuzz so that Frost played the more responsible half of the duo this time, show remarkable range when their characters' respective midlife crises take a turn for the dramatic. Speaking of midlife crisis movies, why do so many SNL alums, whether it's Billy Crystal or Adam Sandler, star in the same old goddamn movie about a middle-aged guy who has to learn to be a better dad? It's why my favorite Billy Crystal movie remains the not-so-maudlin Running Scared, and it's also partly why Anchorman 2, with its "Ron needs to be a better dad" subplot, isn't as consistently funny as its predecessor.

Looking back lately on the artistic triumphs that resulted from Wright revitalizing weather-beaten genres for his Cornetto projects has made Wright's decision to walk away from the movie version of Ant-Man all the more heartbreaking (he had enough of getting into creative disagreements with Marvel Studios). Think of what Wright could have accomplished in revitalizing the superhero movie, a genre that's lately been showing signs of repetition, whether it's pointless and clumsy world-building or tiresome destruction porn. (Speaking of which, I love the shade Pegg once threw at the ways Man of Steel handled its destruction porn: "At the end, they're all at the Daily Planet office just going, 'Hey! Let's go see the Dodgers!' Isn't everyone dead? Isn't New York flat? What do you mean, go see the Dodgers?!" Pegg's involvement in the writing of the next Star Trek movie makes me more hopeful about the Trek movie franchise's return to quality after the mistakes that were made during Star Trek Into Darkness, and one of those mistakes was the same type of destruction porn Pegg was critiquing.) I wouldn't be surprised if Wright, who's kept mum about his tumultuous working experiences with Marvel, quit Ant-Man because what its studio execs wanted to do with his vision for the movie was too reminiscent of the Starbucking he so astutely skewered--or rather, decapitated--in The World's End, a rare third film that doesn't suck.

And they'll snap off... the head. Go Voltron!

Friday, March 20, 2015

John Carpenter's Lost Themes makes anything sound exciting, whether it's paint drying or a plot summary of an unfinished horror short story of mine

This is John Carpenter in New York in either 1980 or 1981, wisely staying away from filming within the craziness that was early '80s Times Square, or as Desus Nice calls Times Square, 'Herpes with more electronic billboards.'
John Carpenter, shooting exterior footage for Escape from New York

The most significant and impressive piece of work John Carpenter has made in the last 15 years is neither a feature film nor a TV-movie. It's John Carpenter's Lost Themes, a new collection of original Carpenter instrumentals that, in the Albertus font-loving filmmaker/composer's own words, are "meant to score the movies in your head." The Sacred Bones Records album is Carpenter's entry into the imaginary soundtracks genre, where the likes of Black Dynamite composer Adrian Younge (2000's Venice Dawn) and the duo of Danger Mouse and Magic City composer Daniele Luppi (2011's Rome) have created score cues or theme tunes for movies that don't exist.

Lost Themes tracks like "Vortex" and "Abyss" resemble outtakes from Carpenter's scores to the 1988 cult favorite They Live and the mad-underrated In the Mouth of Madness, and except for the really cheesy Big Trouble in Little China end title theme sung by Carpenter himself, that Carpenter synth sound Lost Themes reacquaints us with has aged remarkably well. It's aged so well that Carpenter's pulsating and frequently sampled 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 main title theme--which Carpenter has said was influenced by Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and is in rotation during both the AFOS morning block "Beat Box" and "AFOS Prime"--sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, while the likes of Steven Price, frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator David Holmes and It Follows composer Rich Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace, dig the Carpenter sound so much that they borrow from Carpenter in their respective film scores.

John Carpenter and Kurt Russell can't come to a consensus over who should take over the role of Snake Plissken. That's because remaking Escape from New York is a dumb fucking idea.

I'd add some of the Lost Themes instrumentals to AFOS rotation, but the station format focuses only on score music written for movies and TV shows that aren't imaginary, and I don't have enough station hard drive space to launch a new imaginary soundtrack music block just to stream Lost Themes selections. For about a year, the station schedule included "Rome, Italian Style," an imaginary soundtrack music block I named after one of my favorite SCTV sketches (and a rare SCTV sketch that's not marred by an annoying laugh track). Younge's Venice Dawn tracks and Luppi's Rome tracks were part of the "Rome, Italian Style" playlist, and if the block still existed, those tracks would have shared space with the Lost Themes pieces. The Carpenter sound, which is basically '70s and '80s Italian film music, would have been a nice fit with the '60s Italian film vibe of the Venice Dawn and Rome tracks.

Junta Juleil's Culture Shock and Consequence of Sound both have gotten creative and used the Lost Themes instrumentals to fancast fictional Carpenter movies featuring those tracks. For example, in their movie idea built out of the Lost Themes track "Purgatory," Consequence of Sound imagined a 1988 murder mystery starring Kevin Dillon, Ernie Hudson and Daryl Hannah in her At Play in the Fields of the Lord skinny-dipping scene heyday, while "Purgatory" got Junta Juleil author Sean Gill to envision a completely implausible but much more enticing movie: a Big Trouble in Little China mini-reunion between Dennis Dun and Kurt Russell, who reprises his non-Carpenter role as Captain Ron.

Lo Pan's signature weapon is his Lee Press-On Nails.

I'd indulge in some Lost Themes-inspired fancasting too, but I don't want to bite Junta Juleil and Consequence of Sound's style, so I'm going to do a completely different approach to playing around with Lost Themes and demonstrating how Carpenter's new instrumentals can make anything sound exciting and atmospheric. I'm going to unearth a plot synopsis I wrote three years ago for a never-finished horror short story and spice it up--or rather, Carpenter it up--with Lost Themes selections.

"The Pet" was my attempt to create a new Filipino monster that would have joined the creepy likes of the aswang and the manananggal. The story would have mixed Filipino monster folklore with one of the most unsettling horror tropes, eye trauma. Here's a good example of how unsettling that trope can be: I was so bothered by a Lasik operation-gone-wrong episode of the short-lived early '00s supernatural show The Others (no relation to the Nicole Kidman haunted house flick of the same name) that I've refused to undergo Lasik surgery to improve my eyesight. At the time I was trying to write "The Pet" as a submission to a Filipino YA horror anthology (it was called HORROR, with the title in all caps, as if it were a book by Meek Mill), I thought, "Eye trauma is terrifying, so how do I work that into the creation of a new monster?"

The result was a story where I only got as far as completing four pages. I ended up missing the anthology submission deadline because I was never satisfied with both the dialogue I wrote and the legal hurdles the story's characters would have overcome in order to acquire the titular creature. Also, I think "The Pet" would be better off as either an episode of a horror comedy anthology show or a short film rather than as a short story in print. I always imagined it as a Joe Dante suburban comedy/thriller with a John Carpenter score--and a Filipino American backdrop.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Thor: The Dark World

You gotta love how Kat Dennings still mangles the name of Thor's hammer so that it sounds like the name of some French movie star.
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

I've heard of sequels that underwent budget cuts and ended up costing significantly less than the smash-hit first installment, but what Marvel Studios did to Thor: The Dark World, the 2013 follow-up to director Kenneth Branagh's 2011 smash Thor, was ridiculous. Take a look at how those budget cuts affected costume designer Alexandra Byrne's grandiose and stylish Asgardian costume designs from the first Thor.

As far as Marvel Studios character recastings go, this was no 'Terrence Howard getting replaced by Don Cheadle' upgrade.

The new, much cheaper Thor in Thor: The Dark World apparently favors ironic trucker hats now--yo, trucker hats are so 16 years ago, player--and has ditched the armor and red cape for oil-stained tank tops that were unearthed from Sly Stallone's 1987 Over the Top laundry pile. And what happened to Chris Hemsworth? I didn't know he was Edward Norton-ing everyone on the set of the first Thor and being such a diva. And we all know what Kevin Feige does to anyone who's a diva. It's called "Recasting time!"

Thor: The Dark World is so cheap it makes Roger Corman's shelved Fantastic Four movie look like Interstellar. They didn't even bother to maintain Thor's Aussie accent from the first movie! How pathet... Huh? That's not Thor: The Dark World?

Woops, wrong Thor.

In actuality, frequent Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World, which was co-written by Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes story editor and MVP Christopher Yost, had a slightly bigger budget than its predecessor and is a good example of a superhero movie sequel that improves upon the first installment in a few ways. The action sequences are more inventively staged; the score by Brian Tyler, a last-minute replacement for composer Carter Burwell, who departed The Dark World over creative disagreements, is more powerful and tuneful than even regular Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle's score from the first Thor; and the humor, the best part of Hemsworth's scenes on Earth with Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård during the first film, is snappier, thanks to some last-minute, uncredited punch-ups by Avengers director (and veteran script doctor) Joss Whedon. The Dark World's superiority isn't because Branagh's Thor was such a dud. In fact, Thor was far from it. The film was a solid Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster, and its appeal was due to both the film being an intriguing hybrid of a Branagh Shakespeare epic and a fish-out-of water action flick rather than a standard superhero movie and the effective way the film handled Thor's redemption arc from egotistical god to selfless hero.

My primary beef with the first Thor was that it didn't give Rene Russo, one of the best things about director Barry Sonnenfeld's outstanding film version of Get Shorty, much to do in the role of Frigga, Thor and Loki's mother, her first role after a long absence from the screen (many of her scenes as Frigga got cut). In The Dark World, Russo's screen time is about the same as her minimal screen time in the first film. But The Dark World makes better use of her screen time, creates a stronger sense of her personality as the queen of Asgard and gives her a dramatic mother/son scene with Tom Hiddleston's Loki in a prison cell that maintains some of the first film's Shakespearean overtones and must have given Branagh some Shakespearean fits over choosing to step away from directing the sequel to work instead on Jack Ryan: Shadow Dancer or whatever the hell it's called.

Loki kept using his shape-shifting magic to get rid of the orange jumpsuit they required him to wear in prison.

The Dark World is the third Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to involve Thor's conflict with his power-hungry adopted brother, and the Thor/Loki material takes several interesting turns in this installment, especially when Thor is forced to turn to the incarcerated God of Mischief for help in taking down an evil Dark Elf named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). The shifty Loki has become one of the MCU's most compelling characters, thanks to Hiddleston's charisma and the various MCU screenwriters' sheer delight in writing material for Hiddleston. MCU blockbusters often suffer from dull villains--Guardians of the Galaxy is the most recent example of this--but in The Dark World, Loki is an antagonist done right: he's a lively mixture of humor, pathos and chess-like thinking and is so engaging as both a character and a thorn in the side for Thor and his pals (including Portman's Jane Foster, whose first encounter with Loki has her punching him in the face for the mayhem he caused in New York in The Avengers) that Malekith, The Dark World's real villain, pales in comparison as an antagonist.

The God of Thunder's temporary alliance with Loki leads to the main reason why I like The Dark World slightly more than the first Thor: the film's midsection, in which Thor defies the orders of his frequently irrational father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in order to bring Malekith to justice, turns into a heist movie, a genre I love 10 times more than the superhero movie. The sequence where Heimdall (Idris Elba), Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander, whom I wish Marvel Studios would add as a regular to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if her John Doe-ish pilot for NBC doesn't get picked up, due to the dynamic Sif brings to S.H.I.E.L.D. whenever she's around) and Warriors Three members Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Fandral (Zachary Levi) assist Thor in breaking Loki out of prison is reminiscent of the rousing sequence that helped elevate Star Trek III: The Search for Spock from a rather cheap-looking directorial debut for the late Leonard Nimoy to a great (and long-overdue) ensemble piece: the theft of the Enterprise. However, it's a shame that The Dark World sidelines Tadanobu Asano's Hogun, the third Warriors Three member, after the battle scene in Hogun's homeworld of Vanaheim (was Asano too busy to do the sequel?). The film doesn't involve him on this nifty, heist flick-ish mission where all the other warrior sidekicks from the first Thor receive an extra moment to shine, depriving one of the Thor movie franchise's few characters of color of substantial screen time.

Here we see Lady Sif taking on her worst enemy: the Friend Zone.

So instead of Russo getting shafted, this time it's Asano's turn. His only other appearance in The Dark World briefly takes place during another bit of business that edges The Dark World above the first Thor: the visually clever climax where, due to the laws of physics going screwy in London, the fight between Thor and Malekith shifts back and forth between different realms, and Thor's sentient hammer Mjolnir (which Dennings' comic relief character Darcy continues to mispronounce as "Mew-Mew," a funny callback to Darcy's same line from the first film) has to zip through outer space to find Thor. The climax is a welcome departure from the standard--and often boring--MCU climax of giant ships crashing into buildings.

The screwy-laws-of-physics storyline is something you'd expect to see in a Superman/S.T.A.R. Labs story rather than a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy MCU blockbuster. Speaking of which, I'm neither a Superman comics fan nor a Thor comics fan, but I've found the Thor movies to be more satisfying as superhero movies that feature a red-caped alien hero than any of the Superman movies, including even the best of them, 1978's plot hole-heavy Superman (by the way, it's always been called just Superman, not Superman: The Movie, just like how the second X-Men movie's actual title has always been simply X2, not the insipid-sounding, in-advertising-only X2: X-Men United). Richard Donner's 1978 blockbuster isn't aging well, despite Christopher Reeve's enjoyable interpretation of the character, John Williams' classic score and the entertaining, Howard Hawks-ish Daily Planet office scenes.

The redemption arc Thor experiences in the Branagh film, the fascinating dickishness of Odin in both Thor films and Loki's quasi-redemption arc in The Dark World all shed light on, respectively, the inherent dullness of the Superman character, the similar dullness of Jor-El and Jonathan Kent as father figure characters (a hero's father is more interesting when he doesn't know best) and the lousy writing surrounding all the non-Zod villains in the Superman movies. That's why the best on-screen interpretation of Superman is not the Reeve version but Bruce Timm's version from both Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited. Timm and his fellow writers found several ways to work around the dullness of Superman, and those ways included emphasizing Clark Kent's hard-boiled reporter side, allowing Tim Daly to tap into his comedic side for the dual role of Bizarro and Superman and surrounding Supes with adversaries who are genuinely menacing and formidable (you'd never see Lex Luthor plotting some lame real estate scheme on Superman: TAS) instead of dumb wastes of space like Otis from the first two Superman flicks.

This also relates to a great point raised by Elton Wong of the blog Nerdy Views. In the blog post "Thor: The Dark World is What Man of Steel Should Have Been," he says, "Thor 2 has this wonderful balance never spending too much time in darkness, while Man of Steel wallows in it," and refers to a credo by none other than a certain uncredited Dark World co-writer: "Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke." The result of the efforts of Whedon and his fellow writers is a better Superman movie than any of the actual Superman movies themselves.

Thor wonders why the London Underground smells worse than the Asgardian Dungeons.

None of the score cues from Thor: The Dark World by Brian Tyler, whose terrific Marvel Studios logo fanfare made its debut at the start of The Dark World, were in rotation on AFOS before I rewatched The Dark World in preparation for today's edition of Throwback Thursday, but I enjoyed Tyler's score so much the second time around that I'm adding the film's primary theme to both "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H."


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Throwback Thursday: What We Do in the Shadows

Vampires Suck has the same 85-minute running time as What We Do in the Shadows, but unlike What We Do in the Shadows, the jokes during Vampires Suck are probably so hacky that Vampires Suck feels like it's 85 hours long.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. This week, I pulled out the ticket that said "Man of Steel." But I don't want to write about that goddamn movie, so instead, I'm going to sing the praises of a low-budget movie I saw last week in the theater. In America, it has probably grossed only less than a tenth of what Man of Steel grossed at the box office, but it's 10 times more entertaining than Man of Steel.

One of my favorite SNL sketches that Yahoo's "complete SNL archive" currently doesn't carry is a 1989 Dracula sketch written by Jack Handey and James Downey, who told interviewer Mike Sacks in his 2014 book Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers that a few other SNL writers disliked his sketch when they first heard about its premise because they thought it sounded hacky: "What if Dracula were AIDS-aware?" The sketch, which featured James Woods as an inquisitive Dracula who asks his potential victims about their medical histories (one of whom was played by the late, great Jan Hooks), turned out to be funny anyway, and it's a shame that Yahoo doesn't have it. If you do fondly remember that James Woods Dracula sketch, then you're bound to get a kick out of the similar "old-world vampire who's had to adapt to the modern world" humor of co-stars/co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's clever 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.

At only 86 minutes, What We Do in the Shadows doesn't wear out its welcome. It ends before it can exhaust any of its gags about vampire housemates who are hardly as suave as the stars of True Blood and bicker over household chores or fashion choices, fussy werewolves, chatty and verbose zombies and a modern-day Renfield who's more like a personal assistant than a spider-eating mental patient. If Christopher Guest or the geniuses at Aardman Animations ever wanted to make a mockumentary where all the main characters are famous movie monsters, the result would probably resemble What We Do in the Shadows.

Wow, the production budget for this 258th season of MTV's The Real World is considerably lower than in previous seasons.

The film, which takes place mostly in an apartment in Wellington, New Zealand that's shared by a group of vampire friends, could have been a one-joke mockumentary. But thanks to the rich screenplay and capable direction by Clement, the bespectacled half of Flight of the Conchords, and Waititi, a fellow New Zealand comedian who directed Clement in the 2007 film Eagle vs. Shark and a few Flight of the Conchords episodes, What We Do in the Shadows is packed with so many effective jokes that it's difficult to catch them all in a single viewing, which makes it a film worth watching again and again.

It's also got a tender side underneath the comedic gore--you're as insane as Renfield if you're expecting What We Do in the Shadows to be a bloodless affair--and the gags about vampire genre clichés. Much of that tender side involves Waititi's character Viago, a 379-year-old aristocrat who traveled to New Zealand in a coffin to marry his girlfriend, but thanks to a coffin postage error, he wound up lost at sea and she married someone else instead. Viago's pining for his lost love is handled beautifully: it's sad, but it's also tinged with some raunchy humor (I've seen tons of TV shows and movies where people fuck each other in coffins, but I've never seen a moment where someone masturbates from inside a coffin, until What We Do in the Shadows came along), which keeps that side of the movie from turning unbearably sappy.

The nicely drawn characters created by Clement and Waititi are a plus, but what's even more enjoyable about What We Do in the Shadows is how its vampire universe is more enticing than most vampire universes from other genre works because it's so amusingly mundane and lived-in. I love the offbeat rules and customs Clement and Waititi came up with for their vampire world, like the bloodsuckers' inability to eat French fries or the little bit of business where they have to draw on notepads to each other how they look in outfits they're trying out because they can't see themselves in mirrors. By emphasizing the mundane, whether it's in those little details or the humorous neuroses of either Viago, his housemates or their werewolf rivals (whose leader is played by Clement's old Conchords co-star Rhys Darby), What We Do in the Shadows takes back the vampire genre from the detestable and banal Twilight and makes vampires relatable--and human--again.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fresh is the word: Checking in on Fresh Off the Boat

Here we see a young Eddie Huang wondering why Margaret Cho's new sitcom is so fucking wack.
I was all set to dislike ABC's Fresh Off the Boat before its premiere. It wasn't because it was going to take celebrity chef Eddie Huang's candid and raunchy memoirs about his hip-hop-soundtracked childhood in Orlando in the '90s (which I've read only one or two excerpts of) and water down that book for network TV, which was what Huang, the show's off-screen narrator, said he was initially frustrated about while he consulted on the writing and filming of the Lynn Shelton-directed Fresh Off the Boat pilot (I wish Huang did a little more research about ABC sitcoms before he signed up to do business with ABC: someone should have reminded him it's the home of The Middle and The Goldbergs, not Louie and You're the Worst). I was all set to dislike the show for a different reason: it was going to be another goddamn story about second-generation Asian Americans dealing with identity issues, assimilation and generational differences with their elders.

As someone who's watched a shit-ton of Asian American indie movies, that kind of story was, for a long while, the only kind of Asian American indie flick that was getting made, whether it was Red Doors or American Chai. We're so underrepresented or poorly depicted in everything else in pop culture, and this shit is the best we can do on our own? It was becoming as much of a tired formula as Katherine Heigl rom-coms or "Die Hard on a boat!"--or "Die Hard in an office building!" The earnest indie drama about Asian American assimilation became so grating and hackneyed that graphic novelist Adrian Tomine spent the first five pages of Shortcomings hilariously tearing it apart.

"Why does everything have to be some big 'statement' about race? Don't any of these people just want to make a movie that's good?," grumbles Shortcomings' main character, Berkeley movie theater manager Ben Tanaka, after sitting through yet another Asian American drama about generational conflict.

My beef with the assimilation story has been more like "Can we get something else other than the assimilation story, like a story outside the family? Maybe a movie or show about an Asian American guy handling the many absurdities of the dating scene on his own? We do have lives outside the family, you know." That's why Emily Kapnek's Selfie was such a breath of fresh air--it was mostly about the love life and workplace dilemmas of John Cho's modern-day Henry Higgins, a pharmaceutical marketing whiz who gives rebranding advice to the show's social media-obsessed Eliza Doolittle counterpart, Karen Gillan's Eliza Dooley, and not once did the show insert Henry's parents into the narrative--and that's why its cancellation still stings. So after ABC deleted Selfie, I thought, "Alright, so the show I've longed to see on network TV for over a decade didn't last. I don't like the fact that you're yet another assimilation story, Fresh Off the Boat, but you better be damn well as funny as Selfie was."

Fortunately, Fresh Off the Boat is genuinely funny as it glimpses at the complexities of identity, and its slightly skewed take on the coming-of-age sitcom is what sets it apart from the overly earnest assimilation stories Ben Tanaka and I don't care for. That's mostly due to the guiding hand of showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, the veteran American Dad writer whose signature creation is Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. Khan's sharply written mismatched-roommates comedy revealed James Van Der Beek to be a skilled comedic actor and featured the great unsung pairing of Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker, who were often so hilariously expressive without dialogue that I could easily picture Ritter and Walker as silent movie comediennes, and I even wished for Khan to do an entire Don't Trust the B---- episode as a silent movie.

All I wanted from Fresh Off the Boat was for the show to retain the weirdness Khan brought to Don't Trust the B----, and it's been doing that frequently. Part of the effectiveness of the surreal gags about the hellishness of the back of the school bus Eddie (Hudson Yang) and his friends ride while pretending to be comatose in "Showdown at the Golden Saddle" is due to the episode never showing what goes on in the back of the bus, as if it's too unpleasant to show on network TV. A classmate character's obsession with an NES game based on the 1980 movie 9 to 5 is a dead-on riff on how NES games would be spun off from the strangest licensed properties, whether it was Home Alone or Wayne's World. And there's a great little scene in "Persistent Romeo" where Evan (Ian Chen), Eddie's youngest brother, screams like a little girl for what feels like two hours after he loses to Grandma Huang (Lucille Soong) during poker. I don't know if it's a reference to this '90s moment, but that would be wonderful if it were. Something about male characters screaming like little girls while their expressions remain absolutely blank always kills me (it must have killed a Fresh Off the Boat crew member too because he can be heard audibly chuckling on the set off-screen while Evan screams).

It helps that Fresh Off the Boat takes some of its stylistic cues not from All-American Girl, the last network sitcom to center on an Asian American family (not counting the TBS show Sullivan & Son), but from the often enjoyable '80s period piece Everybody Hates Chris, which itself took stylistic cues from Everybody Hates Chris co-producer Howard Gewirtz's Oliver Beene, a 2003 Fox sitcom that took place in the early '60s. I remember watching All-American Girl in the '90s and being underwhelmed by it like so many other Asian American viewers, mostly because its version of Margaret Cho--whom Huang actually turned to for advice while initially struggling with the changes that were being made to the depiction of his own life as an 11-year-old--wasn't the Margaret Cho I was familiar with from her raunchy stand-up act. The dominant creative voice on All-American Girl actually belonged not to her, but to a veteran of the lily-white Empty Nest, a huge sign that Cho's show was doomed.

Eddie Huang's mom discovered mom jeans way before Tina Fey did.

Fortunately, Fresh Off the Boat doesn't have a guy from Empty Nest in charge. Instead, it's the comedic mastermind behind Don't Trust the B----, surrounded by other writers of color like How I Met Your Mother veteran Kourtney Kang and stand-up comic Ali Wong. There wasn't a single authentic bone in All-American Girl's mad-homogenized and heavily micromanaged body, whereas Fresh Off the Boat captures many aspects of Asian American families quite well (like the Huangs' couch being covered in plastic or the Huang parents' "success perm," which isn't just a Chinese thing--it's kind of a Filipino thing as well) and gets a lot of the '90s right, whether it's the music Eddie prefers or the mom jeans look rocked by his cantankerous, Caddyshack-loving mother Jessica. Can we talk about Constance Wu for an hour? She's doing wonders with her role, turning it into something more nuanced than the Tiger Mom caricature that could have emerged in much lesser comedic hands.

Wu is actually much younger than her character, like how Nick Offerman, in real life, is much younger than his Parks and Rec alter ego Ron Swanson, but Ron is such a unique comedic creation that you can't picture anyone else but Offerman playing him had the casting gone differently (except maybe Sam Elliott, who wound up guest-starring as Ron's counterpart in Eagleton), and only Offerman could bring him to life so effectively. I feel the same way about Jessica Huang now. Despite her youth, Wu just brings a certain bearing and dimension--not to mention a certain kind of comic timing--to Jessica that I don't think any other actor could pull off.

ABC was going to retitle this show as Far East Orlando.
Far East Orlando? What the fuck? I don't think Danny Brown would have had such an easy time coming up with bars that would rhyme with 'Orlando.'

Another hero of the show--and this person isn't getting as much praise from the press as Wu--is whoever has been music-supervising Fresh Off the Boat. Securing pricey hip-hop classics by the likes of Ol' Dirty Bastard and Snoop Dogg--it's thrilling to hear on a network sitcom all these tracks I grew up with just like Eddie--was probably no easy feat. The show's '90s hip-hop soundtrack is anchored by an original theme song by Danny Brown, whom Huang himself recruited to record the theme, probably just for the thrill of saying that he slipped Danny Brown, who often makes 2 Live Crew look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, into an ABC family sitcom. The brief tune introduces Danny Brown to a new audience and will hopefully get those viewers to become enthralled by the Detroit rapper's storytelling skills in tracks like "Grown Up" and "25 Bucks."

But perhaps my favorite musical moment on the show so far takes place in "Showdown at the Golden Saddle," when Eddie's crush on his neighbor and babysitter Nicole (Luna Blaise, who looks like a teenage Krysten Ritter) is soundtracked by the DeBarge-sampling remix of the Notorious B.I.G./Faith Evans/Mary J. Blige tune "One More Chance." As with all the other existing songs on Fresh Off the Boat, you don't hear "One More Chance" on network TV every day. That "One More Chance" remix is like "I've Got You Under My Skin" to a certain generation. It's that smooth of a song. I could easily imagine Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle ordering bottle service at the Snakehole Lounge to the sounds of "One More Chance" at one time or another. The airing of "Showdown at the Golden Saddle" last week was a stroke of beautiful timing too: yesterday was the date of Biggie's death.



If the show hadn't been able to nab almost all those hip-hop chestnuts that have appeared so far, Fresh Off the Boat would still soar anyway. The writing is frequently sharp (in her piece "Fresh Off the Boat uses black culture to talk more candidly about Asian culture," critic Danielle Henderson put the show's unique Asian American perspective best when she said, "I can't help but feel like Fresh Off the Boat is going to help another generation of kids feel like they're a little less alone"), and the cast, with Wu and Randall Park (as Eddie's dad Louis, whose Orlando steakhouse business is actually a Filipino fried chicken joint in Glendale) as the standouts, is an enticing collection of comedy nerd favorites (Park, Paul Scheer) and always-welcome serial guest stars (Ray Wise, C.S. Lee buried under a success perm wig). For a show that's another goddamn story about second-generation Asian Americans dealing with identity issues, assimilation and generational beefs, Fresh Off the Boat is far from stale.

I wouldn't be surprised if that wig perched on top of the head of Masuka from Dexter in that episode came from a T.J. Hooker toupee clearance sale.
If the show cut to a poster of the Menendez brother with a perm, I'd be really worried about Louis.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. 10:50am didn't contain as much ass-whuppings as I expected.
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

The 2010 coming-of-age flick Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an interesting anomaly in the work of Edgar Wright, the great British director behind the innovative sitcom Spaced and the irreverent Cornetto trilogy with Spaced stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End). It's his only adaptation of someone else's creation so far, it doesn't take place in England, neither Pegg nor Frost are in the cast and it was his first studio movie, so that meant he had to deal with the often absurd American test screening process.

I recently listened to Wright discuss gauging audience reactions in his Blu-ray audio commentary for Scott Pilgrim's deleted scenes, which include the film's original ending before it was reshot (should Scott have ended up with Knives Chau or Ramona Flowers?: I think the film should have ended either with Scott being single or Scott, Knives and Ramona becoming a threesome because a fight like the ones they had versus Gideon Graves is bound to make everyone horny). Something during that commentary didn't sit right with me. A brilliant and unique comedic filmmaker like Wright should not have to make decisions based on test screenings, even though he has said he considers it "a good thing to do because you see where the laughs are and where you can change things by half a second to get a bigger laugh."

Aside from comments from test screening audience members to DreamWorks Animation that Hiccup should be left disabled at the end of the first How to Train Your Dragon movie, have those test screenings ever been really useful? If Martin Scorsese tried to win back the 40 GoodFellas test screening audience members who walked out after the movie's first 10 minutes, GoodFellas wouldn't have been the GoodFellas we know and love. Unless I'm mistaken, neither of Wright's Cornetto flicks were tweaked due to test screening reactions (in fact, when Hot Fuzz did go through the test screening process in America, Wright defied a suggestion to change Hot Fuzz's title). I hear those movies turned out okay.



While Wright has said he's proud of Scott Pilgrim's final cut, that first experience of trying to please studio execs during the making of that movie had to have colored his heartbreaking decision to quit directing his longtime pet project, this summer's adaptation of Marvel's Ant-Man, where Wright was replaced by Bring It On director Peyton Reed. While squabbling with Marvel Studios execs over the direction of Ant-Man, I'm sure Wright was thinking, "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?"

It's remarkable that a movie as inventive as Scott Pilgrim survived such a maddening process where the comments from test audiences and studio execs often win out over what the filmmakers want--and did so with all its inventiveness intact. Scott Pilgrim is such a perfect marriage of source material and filmmaker. Bryan Lee O'Malley's original Scott Pilgrim graphic novels feel like a Toronto indie rock scene version of Spaced. Scott and his roommate Wallace are basically Tim and Mike, except Wallace isn't obsessed with joining the military and is aware he's gay. While Spaced imagines that time when you're trying to navigate yourself both professionally and romantically through your 20s as silly fan film-ish versions of either Star Wars, Hong Kong gun fu, a George Romero flick or The A-Team, Scott Pilgrim cleverly envisions relationship drama as both Kung Fu Hustle and an 8-bit Nintendo game. Wright's film really gets video games like the 8-bit ones I grew up playing. (Speaking of 8-bit, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich's original score for the film, which can be heard during both "Hall H" on AFOS and "AFOS Prime," effectively combines 8-bit with orchestra, especially during the "Boss Battle" cue for the climactic moment when Gideon is handed his ass, and it goes completely 8-bit at times, like during that amusing cover of Jerry Goldsmith's Universal logo music at the start of the movie or the source cue Dan the Automator created for Scott and Knives' Ninja Ninja Revolution video game.) Along with Run Lola Run, The Raid: Redemption, Edge of Tomorrow and maybe Dredd, Scott Pilgrim is one of the best video game-style movies not based on an actual game.


Wright's understanding of another kind of visual language, that of comic books like O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim novels--and his ability to figure out which parts of that visual language work on screen and which ones don't--fortunately turn the Scott Pilgrim film into the opposite of Ang Lee's lead-footed overstuffing of 2003's Hulk with screen panels and visible page breaks, or as Stop Smiling magazine's Justin Stewart described the screen panels and page breaks in my favorite takedown of Lee's Hulk, "the cinematic equivalent of Karl Rove dancing." Also, thanks to action filmmaking skills he previously demonstrated in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and even a few Spaced episodes, Wright makes convincing fight scene combatants out of the least likely actors you'd ever imagine to be in a fight scene, whether it's Michael Cera as Scott, Mae Whitman as Roxy Richter or Jason Schwartzman as Gideon the girlfriend-beating music producer douche (Wright went on to do the same with Nick Frost during his fight scenes in The World's End, transforming him into the most agile rotund action star who's not Sammo Hung).

As believable as Cera is in his fight scenes, he's overshadowed in his own movie (it was supposed to turn the gawky and conservatively dressed teen from Arrested Development and Superbad into a bigger movie star, but nobody outside of Scott Pilgrim novel fans flocked to the movie in the summer of 2010) by funny turns by Ellen Wong as Knives, Kieran Culkin as Wallace and Brandon Routh as dim-witted vegan bassist Todd Ingram, one of the Evil Exes who used to date Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and are now challenging Scott to a duel. Scott Pilgrim proves that Routh, who brooded through all of his passable impression of Christopher Reeve in Superman Returns, is at his best as a light comedic actor, which is why I'm glad Arrow's current season is having him tap into those comedic gifts again as the Atom (it's refreshing to see a revenge-minded superhero--Ray Palmer's in the game to avenge his wife's murder--who's not brooding all the time).

Bass! How low can they go?

So which one's Ecks and which one's Sever?





As Knives, the clingy, too-young-for-Scott schoolgirl who doesn't take being dumped by Scott very well, Wong is a real find, and she deserves to go on to bigger and better things (since Scott Pilgrim, she's been a cast member on both the Canadian-made 2011 Afghanistan medical drama Combat Hospital and The Carrie Diaries). Part of me wishes the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels and movie version were mainly about Knives instead of Scott. It's interesting to read Asian moviegoers' varied reactions to Wong's performance as Knives five years after the movie's release. They were as divided about the Knives character as black moviegoers were divided about Denzel Washington's heel turn in Flight in 2012.

Writers from YOMYOMF would say things like "Ellen Wong alone was worth watching the film. She was freakin' ADORABLE. Dolls should be made of her," and Asian American Scott Pilgrim fans dug Knives so much that they've cosplayed as her. Meanwhile, a discontinued Asian Canadian collective of bloggers that called itself "the invazn" felt that "It's kind of sad to see Asian women be the 'exotic in-between' girlfriends who aren't even real girlfriends, but pure ego boosters for the main character's lack of masculinity" (someone should have told them O'Malley himself is half-Asian and not some white graphic novelist writing from the outside about people of color he's never interacted with), although the blog's reviewer enjoyed seeing Knives take charge towards the end of the movie and battle both Ramona and Gideon.



"I was just super-proud that I had created a plum role for someone like Ellen Wong, who otherwise may never have been in a major movie, just by being born Asian and Canadian," wrote O'Malley in a fascinating 2013 Tumblr post. He admitted in that post that the cast of mostly white characters and a few Asian characters in the original novels reflected an unenlightened attitude towards race he had for the first 20 years of his life, and he ended up being appalled by how white the movie looked. His willingness to admit those things must have taken as much guts as it does for Scott to admit to his exes Knives and Kim Pine (Alison Pill), the snarky and sullen drummer in Scott's band Sex Bob-omb (notice how all the drummers in the movie are female), that he shouldn't have been so careless about how he treated them when he dated them. Scott Pilgrim gets some flack for being an overly noisy and hyperactive movie that doesn't take enough time to breathe and be more naturalistic, but that scene where Kim briefly sets aside her snarky and sullen demeanor and wordlessly accepts Scott's apology is one of several human touches in the movie that make Scott Pilgrim more human than the average video game-inspired movie. It's also an example of how great an actor Pill is (watch her also command the screen in a much more broadly played way during her one scene as a fascist schoolteacher in Snowpiercer).

Scott Pilgrim does so many things well as a video game movie, a comic book adaptation and a coming-of-age farce that it's easy to forget what it also accomplishes as a movie about small-time rock bands. I knew Scott Pilgrim would be a solid battle-of-the-bands movie right when it had characters attempting to talk to each other inside a club, and they couldn't hear each other, a typical aspect of modern-day nightlife Hollywood rarely gets right. The running joke of the unenthusiastic MC who's as excited about introducing musical acts as Robert De Niro is about sitting through a press junket is another funny, straight-out-of-real-life touch during the movie's band scenes, as is the way that Beck, who wrote and recorded Sex Bob-omb's material, purposely downgraded the quality of his own sound to capture what a not-so-great band in the Toronto indie scene would sound like. Scott and his bandmates view the glitzy Clash at Demonhead--led by Scott's hot ex-girlfriend Envy Adams (Brie Larson)--to be evil corporate sellouts, but the ironic truth is Envy and her band don't sound as mediocre as Sex Bob-omb do, as we discover during "Black Sheep," sung quite nicely by Larson very briefly in the film (while it's sung on the Scott Pilgrim ABKCO song album by Metric frontwoman Emily Haines, whose Toronto-based band provided material for The Clash at Demonhead and whose fashions O'Malley used as the basis for Envy's in the novels). I wish the regular release of the ABKCO song album included the Larson version of "Black Sheep" as a bonus track, but fortunately, it can be heard in its entirety as a Blu-ray extra or right below.



You also have to be in lesbians with a movie that riffs on Goldsmith's Universal logo music not once but twice. While rewatching Scott Pilgrim in preparation for today's edition of Throwback Thursday, I completely forgot about Chris Evans cracking his neck to the pounding drums of the Universal logo music and laughed my ass off. What other movie has done a sight gag like that? It's also a moment where you're so relieved that those meddling kids from the test screening audiences who have attempted to ruin so many perfectly decent movies didn't get to intervene.

Selections from the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World score can be heard during the AFOS blocks "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H."

Monday, March 2, 2015

He was more than just Spock

Here's a lame joke: What did the gay guy from Are You Being Served say in a deep voice to the J.J. Abrams production? He said, 'Lens flare.'
The late, great Leonard Nimoy, who once wrote a book called I Am Not Spock and a follow-up called I Am Spock, should have written a third autobiography called I Am More Than Just Spock. To me, a fan of Star Trek ever since watching the Nimoy-directed Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when it first warped into theaters, as well as someone who often enjoyed seeing most of the original cast members in roles outside of Star Trek, Nimoy was more than just Spock. He was also Dr. William Bell, the king of Atlantis, the host of the creepy In Search Of (gah, that synthy and cheesy theme music still gives me the heebie jeebies!) and the director of likable but often disposable comedies like Three Men and a Baby and Holy Matrimony, which was hardly the success that Three Man and a Baby was but is noteworthy for featuring a funny performance by a young, pre-3rd Rock Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an Amish kid who's forced to marry trashy, True Romance-era Patricia Arquette.

But of course, Nimoy's work as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, the show's breakout character, featured a lot of his most sublime moments as an actor. Perhaps the biggest challenge in playing Spock--other than the makeup that was applied to the ears to make them pointy--was conveying empathy and inner conflict (and even some dry wit) in the role of an alien who was raised in a culture that suppresses its emotions, and Nimoy was more than up to the task. His work was one of several key dramatic elements of the original Star Trek that distinguished it from the mostly hackneyed and two-dimensional space operas that critics from Variety and TV Guide stupidly lumped it in with when it first aired in the '60s. Thanks mostly to Nimoy, Spock's experiences as an outsider and a misfit resonated with Star Trek fans, and they continue to do so with new generations of fans, whether they're mixed-race viewers or children of immigrants who relate to Spock being caught between two different cultures.

Spock's new shuttlecraft is totally gangster.

Nimoy's character was so badass on the '60s show that I dressed up as Spock on Halloween later on in that year when I first saw Star Trek IV. Just like how young Chris Rock's mom Rochelle sewed together her son's Prince costume in a classic '80s Halloween episode of Everybody Hates Chris, my mom, who was taught how to sew by her father, the town tailor back in the Philippines, sewed together my Spock costume. She based my uniform on both a 1974 Mego action figure of Dr. McCoy that my older brother used to play with (he didn't have a Spock action figure, but fortunately, Bones and Spock wore the same uniform color on the '60s show, so that made it easier to recreate the uniform) and Starfleet uniform blueprints I showed to her from the pages of either the 1987 Star Trek tie-in book Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise or some other Star Trek book (I can't remember which book it was). I still have the photos of myself as a kid cosplaying as Spock, complete with pointy ears and Vulcan eyebrows, but I'm not in the mood to post any of them right now. In fact, I don't think I'll ever be in the mood to post any of them right now. Aw, rats.

Ever since Nimoy's death last week, the remembrances of his work on Star Trek, his directorial efforts and his kind and generous personality off-screen have been pouring in (and hello once again, dumbass journalists who are asleep at the wheel and annoyingly and erroneously refer to Nimoy's alter ego in obits--or headlines that were quickly corrected but carry evidence of that error within the URL--as "Dr. Spock," as in the famous baby doctor). Without succumbing to the unchallenging listicle format I now despise and even vowed to abstain from when 2015 began, I'd like to direct the one or two readers who actually read this blog to a few non-Trek Nimoy performances that they may not be familiar with and are, as Spock would say, "fascinating."

Mission: Impossible--Folk Protocol
Nimoy and another Mission: Impossible regular, Lesley Ann Warren, in the M:I episode "Flip Side"

Netflix streaming, which carries every episode of the '60s Trek, also carries every episode of the original Mission: Impossible, where Nimoy starred as Paris, a magician and master of disguise, for two seasons. Although I'm a fan of Lalo Schifrin's "Kate Thomas" cue from the Nimoy-era Mission: Impossible episode "Takeover," which is part of the playlist for the AFOS espionage genre music block "AFOS Incognito," I've never seen any of Nimoy's Mission: Impossible episodes (I also haven't watched the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another Nimoy project that's streamable on Netflix), so I can't recommend those episodes.

Double O Section author Tanner, whose espionage genre news blog I've used as a resource while assembling the "AFOS Incognito" playlist and determining which movies and TV shows do or don't count as espionage genre material, spoke highly of Nimoy's run on Mission: Impossible. "Nimoy also introduced a twinge of humor to what had always been a very serious spy show. Paris was quick with a quip, and Nimoy always had a twinkle in his eye," wrote Tanner.



Mission: Impossible was also made during the era when spy movies and shows would frequently put white actors in inane-looking disguises--or even actual roles--as people of color. So, of course, at one point in Mission: Impossible's run, Nimoy had to pretend to be Asian and slip into offensive taped-eyelid makeup for a Japanese disguise that makes Sean Connery's Japanese disguise in You Only Live Twice look like quality makeup work. That's definitely one hour of TV that can be skipped on Netflix (James Shigeta, why?!), but if you're in the mood to laugh at Nimoy's Japanese disguise as much as you did hearing him mangle "Proud Mary," enjoy.

Okay, so not everything Nimoy touched turned to gold. But Nimoy's 1973 TV-movie The Alpha Caper is worth tracking down. I don't know if Cloo still airs it, but that channel is where I first caught The Alpha Caper and fell in love with it. I wish Universal would release it as an MOD title like they did with another enjoyable caper movie I rented from San Francisco's awesome Lost Weekend Video and just saw for the first time, the original 1966 version of Gambit. An unsold pilot for an anthology show that was intended to focus on a different crime each week, The Alpha Caper is the taut and lighthearted story of a parole officer (Henry Fonda) who loses the job he loves and then gets even with the system that forced him into early retirement by orchestrating a gold bullion robbery with the help of his parolees.

Oooh, Tenafly, you're gonna make your fortune by and by.
(Photo source: TrekkerScrapbook)

The Alpha Caper is really Fonda's show all the way, and Nimoy has kind of a nothing role as one of the parolees, an electronics genius (Larry Hagman also appears as a parolee), but Fonda is so endearing as the reluctant retiree, who's been so badly screwed over by his former boss, that you root for his character to succeed, plus it's got Nimoy in irritable and testy criminal mode, a treat for anyone interested in seeing Nimoy play a bit of a bad boy. It's Tom Joad, Spock and J.R. Ewing teaming up for what's basically an extended episode of Nimoy's Mission: Impossible, but told from the criminals' point of view and with Six Million Dollar Man production values (in fact, much of the crew that made The Alpha Caper, including Nimoy's future Star Trek movie sequel colleague, producer Harve Bennett, went on to produce The Six Million Dollar Man). The entire 75-minute movie is on YouTube, but I doubt it will be up there for long.

Much easier to find online are Nimoy's roles in Disney's animated 2001 sci-fi flick Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Fringe, which are both currently streamable on Netflix. Yes, Nimoy, who was ideal for animation voice work because of his sonorous voice, was involved with the Transformers franchise twice, first as the voice of the evil Galvatron in 1986's The Transformers: The Movie and then again as the voice of the traitorous Autobot warrior Sentinel Prime in Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I prefer Atlantis over those two movies (and unlike much of the music in either of those Transformers movies, the music in Atlantis doesn't make me think about sticking my head in the oven; speaking of which, James Newton Howard's excellent Atlantis score cues "The Submarine" and "Atlantis" can be heard during "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" on AFOS).


Featuring production designs by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Atlantis was supposed to be the Disney cel animation division's breakthrough into the action genre, an attempt to show critics and audiences that Disney can diversify its output and make an engaging animated film without show tunes, for moviegoers like me who hate almost all show tunes. The attempt actually worked. The problem with Atlantis--and this is the same problem that the similarly older-skewing Disney/Titmouse animated series Motorcity later experienced--was that Disney had no clue how to market the movie, even though Atlantis merch was all over the place in the summer of 2001, so Atlantis never found its audience.

It's a shame because Atlantis is an entertaining homage to Jules Verne-based movies like Disney's own 1954 live-action adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It contains perhaps my favorite cast in a cel-animated Disney movie: Michael J. Fox, James Garner, John Mahoney, Phil Morris, Don Novello, A Different World alum Cree Summer--a skilled voice actor from animated TV who frequently gets passed over by these animated movies for bigger female stars but fortunately wasn't passed over by Atlantis--as Fox's love interest and, of course, Nimoy, whose gravitas was perfect for the role of the Summer character's blind and guilt-stricken father, Kashekim Nedakh, the king of Atlantis.

Voice work isn't as easy as Chris Rock makes it out to be. You can't act with your body. You have to act with only your voice, or if you do have to act with your body to get to a certain voice, you have to decide for yourself how you want to position yourself in the booth: does your character put his or her hands on his or her hips when he or she talks or does he or she fold his or her arms the whole time? Just like he did with his minimalist acting work as Spock, Nimoy effectively conveyed all of the king's lifelong guilt using just the one tool all actors can depend on during recording sessions for animated projects: his voice, which, in the case of his Atlantis character, was quavering and frail-sounding. In one other interesting connection to Star Trek besides the presence of Nimoy, Summer and Nimoy spoke in subtitled Atlantean dialogue created by Marc Okrand, the same linguist who came up with the Klingon dialect for the '80s Star Trek movies.

Keep your eyes closed! It's Bill Shatner without his rug on!

I feel like another underappreciated Nimoy project, Fringe, doesn't get enough praise as a post-X-Files sci-fi procedural--it's one of the better post-X-Files procedurals, and that's partly due to the episodes where Nimoy guest-starred as William Bell, the best friend of John Noble's breakout character Walter Bishop, as well as the reclusive and corrupt founder of the shadowy corporation Massive Dynamic. Bell was a role Nimoy enjoyed playing so much that he reprised it a couple more times on Fringe even after he announced his retirement from acting. While once discussing why he was drawn to embodying Bell's villainous side when the scientist brought mayhem to the show's two universes, Nimoy said, "I could play aspects of a character that I haven't played in a long time."

During its run on Fox, Fringe had far less viewers than Lost, which, like Fringe, was produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot company, but I think it will hold up better in reruns than Lost. Narratively, it's less of a hot mess than whatever Lost ended up turning into in its final season. I wish Nimoy concluded his long career with Fringe instead of the misfire that was Star Trek Into Darkness, where his final appearance as Spock amounted to nothing more than Vulcan Wikipedia. Fringe was closer to the cerebral and exploratory spirit of the '60s Star Trek than Star Trek Into Darkness ever was, and you can see why on Netflix, where every episode of Fringe is available to stream. So yes, Nimoy was more than just Spock, and it's great how so many examples of his range as a performer can be currently viewed online. Like Dr. McCoy said when he spoke of Nimoy's most famous alter ego at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he's really not dead, as long as we re-stream him.