Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Matthew Libatique has been killing it as a cinematographer, and his work is worth spotlighting during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month as it winds down

This is the first movie award show I've ever been to that's held inside a tent. You know you've arrived when your suit costs more than this tent.
Matthew Libatique accepts his trophy for Best Cinematography for Black Swan at the 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Matthew Libatique is another Asian American craftsman in the film industry whose body of work is always worth celebrating, whether during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month or any other month of the year. The Pinoy cinematographer shot most of Darren Aronofsky's films, including Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream. Yep, all those memorable close-ups of dilated pupils in Requiem were Libatique's handiwork.

Libatique bounces back and forth between indies and the mainstream. He lensed one of my favorite caper flicks, 2006's Inside Man, which is also one of the best joints by Libatique's filmmaking idol Spike Lee, and he shaped the vibrant look of the first two Iron Man movies. In 2010, when Jon Favreau decided not to return as director for Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, who directed Robert Downey Jr. in the wonderful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, later ended up with the job), someone in the comments section of The Playlist wrote, "I say they give [the director's chair] to the DP, Matt Libatique."

This post almost didn't happen because of Blogger's stupid new restrictions on image size. Apparently on Blogger, you can no longer upload and post images in as large a size as you want, which ruins the point of posts like this one about Libatique's work, where I wanted to convey the boldness of his visuals through hi-def images. You can't convey that when you're confined to posting images that are merely the size of a USPS stamp.

So instead of following these inane restrictions, I'm working around them, and I found a better way to convey the awesomeness of his visuals: by simply posting the most interesting-looking footage of Libatique's work.

Libatique to American Cinematographer on the distinctive look he gave to Inside Man's interrogation scenes, which he photographed with Kodak Ektachrome 100D 5285 reversal film that was cross-processed and put through a bleach bypass: "Using a bleach bypass neutralizes the color temperature and creates more contrast than simply cross-processing. Basically, it unifies all the color. Spike wanted a look that would jump out and tell you you're somewhere else."

From American Cinematographer's 2006 article about Libatique's cinematography for Inside Man: "For example, when hostages are released, and at other moments of high tension in the film, Libatique encouraged [A-camera/Steadicam operator Stephen] Consentino to use progressively shorter shutter angles. 'You normally shoot with a 180-degree shutter, but we were going down to 90, 45 and even 22.5 degrees on the action scenes,' says the operator. The technique creates 'this feeling of frenetic action because it eliminates any motion blur that is normally in the shot. It gives you a very anxious feeling while you're watching the movie.'"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (05/29/2012): Green Lantern, Young Justice, Transformers Prime, Adventure Time and Regular Show

'Eat your heart out, Lassie, you non-stretchable bitch!'
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I review five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone and are on kids' networks that make you look like a child molester if you watch them for too long. Even though I'm older than the target audience for these shows, I watch a few of them because of my fondness for the past works of these shows' writers and animators (for instance, Ultimate Spider-Man is co-produced by Paul Dini, who wrote several of my favorite Batman: The Animated Series episodes, and Motorcity is made by writers and animators from the late '90s MTV cartoon Downtown and Megas XLR ).

Topless Robot recently posted a very funny one-hour-and-20-minute table read of the first Star Wars film's screenplay by cartoon voice actors at Seattle's Emerald City Comicon from a couple of months ago. Several of the actors at this read have worked on one or two of the shows I'm covering for "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner." Jess Harnell, the voice actor/musician at the read who looks like Rob Zombie, is the voice of Texas the reckless mechanic on Motorcity, while Futurama's John DiMaggio has voiced Thor's hammer forger Eitri on The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and is currently roaming the Land of Ooo as Jake the shape-shifting yellow dog on Adventure Time. Tara Strong can be heard on Young Justice, Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Ultimate Spider-Man (she's voicing Mary Jane). She's also reprising both her B:TAS role as Batgirl and her Teen Titans role as Raven in the "DC Nation Superhero Shorts" that air between Green Lantern and Young Justice.

Here we see Tara Strong performing as Richard Nixon as Princess Leia.
Because these performers are cartoon voice actors, this read is no straightforward performance of the Star Wars script. Except for former B:TAS star Kevin Conroy, whose baritone is recruited for only narrative and non-comedic purposes, the voiceover artists shift back and forth between their most signature characters (I'm not familiar with several of these characters--I actually had to Google "Twilight Sparkle") or celebrity impressions.

Yeah, this read is basically an hour and 20 minutes of that old '80s stand-up trope "If Jack Nicholson were a flight attendant, it would go something like this," but it's much funnier because the voice actors frequently go off-script, and some of them pull dead-on impressions out of their asses that I never knew they were capable of. I didn't know Strong does the best Rosie Perez impression ever. DiMaggio's Tracy Morgan gives Jay Mohr's Tracy Morgan a run for its money. I wish the Emerald City Comicon moderator had DiMaggio do his funniest celebrity impression, blue-eyed soul artist Michael McDonald, which he busted out while sitting in the audience at Bar Lubitsch during the "McDonalds" episode of Greg Proops' Smartest Man in the World podcast (it led to DiMaggio and Proops hilariously doing dueling McDonalds).

Here are my favorite moments during the read:

34:45 to 39:31: Harnell doing double duty as Drawn Together's Captain Hero as Luke and Albert Brooks as Marlin from Finding Nemo as R2D2, Maurice LaMarche as Dudley Moore as Arthur as C3PO and DiMaggio as Tracy Morgan as Obi-Wan.

40:24 to 44:57: Harnell as Cartman as Obi-Wan, Billy West as the Professor from Futurama as Luke, DiMaggio as Obi-Wan's lightsaber and Strong as Rosie Perez as Princess Leia (42:44 to 43:29).

52:53 to 54:00: West as Porky Pig as Obi-Wan and DiMaggio as Bender as a Stormtrooper during Obi-Wan's Jedi mind-trick scene.

55:58 to 56:42: DiMaggio as Paul Lynde as Doctor Death (the alien in the cantina who says to Luke, "He doesn't like you") and Harnell as Rodney Dangerfield as Luke.

59:54 to 1:02:00: West as Tony Soprano as Greedo, Strong as My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's Twilight Sparkle as Han--I love her expressions while Twilight Sparkle Han is unfazed by Tony Sogreedo's foul-mouthed threats--and DiMaggio as Paulie Walnuts during the Han/Greedo scene.

1:15:44 to 1:20:05: LaMarche as William Shatner as Luke, Rob Paulsen as Christopher Walken as Han, DiMaggio as Tracy Morgan as Obi-Wan and Harnell as Chewbacca during the "That's no moon, that's a space station!" scene.

For a table read that features quite a few characters of color, it's very lacking in actual actors of color. I would have loved this read even more if DiMaggio and West's Futurama co-star Phil LaMarr or one of animation's other busiest black voice actors--for example, Kevin Michael Richardson or Cree Summer--had been involved. It's also missing a certain legendary voice actor who got his big break from the first Star Wars. Where's Conroy's old B:TAS co-star Mark Hamill? I'm sure the former Luke Skywalker would have wanted to voice a character who's not Luke, and I'm sure it would have rocked the house.


Speaking of intergalactic warfare, "Homecoming," the Green Lantern: The Animated Series season finale, packs an hour's worth of it into a mere 20-something minutes. Red Lantern leader Atrocitus has been slaughtering Green Lantern Corps members throughout the season and is now summoning battleships to Guardian space--all in retaliation for earlier attacks by the Guardians' malfunctioned Manhunter robot army on his sector of space, which the Guardians labeled the Forgotten Zone to help bury a shameful early part of Guardian history before they founded the Green Lantern Corps. Hacked into by Atrocitus' technical genius accomplice Drusa (Juliet Landau) and forced to carry out Atrocitus' commands, Aya navigates her hijacked Interceptor ship to the Guardians' homeworld of Oa and sheds a tear while tricking Green Lantern Corps protocol officer Salaak (Tom Kenny) and the Guardians to their doom (the AI is developing emotions!).

'Alright, honey, I'll get you a falafel--if we could find a falafel food truck in this busy fucking town.'
Armed with a power ring that's fully recharged by the power battery he was lucky to take along with him before Atrocitus stole the Interceptor from him and Hal, Kilowog is fighting the fleet of battleships from the Forgotten Zone all by himself at the Maelstrom asteroid belt that Atrocitus blew apart with planet-killing Liberator bombs to bring the Red Armada into Guardian space. Meanwhile, in the middle of all this, Hal is back on Earth, enjoying a romantic lunch with his aircraft company exec girlfriend Carol Ferris (Jennifer Hale) at an outdoor bistro on a strangely underpopulated Coast City street--and with no memory of his duty as a Green Lantern and the events that led him back to Coast City.

I admire the work of Bruce Timm, but what is it with Timm projects and their occasional scenes on city streets with no people? The deserted street reminds me of the nighttime New York fight scene in Timm and Lauren Montgomery's 2009 Wonder Woman animated feature. The most unbelievable thing about that Wonder Woman scene? The city that never sleeps was empty while Diana Prince and her adversary Deimos were fighting each other.

You know what this scene in New York is missing? A homeless guy pissing on the sidewalk behind Wonder Woman.
You know right away that this is a fantasy movie because New York is devoid of people at this time of night. (Photo source: Lauren Montgomery)
The mystery surrounding Hal's sudden reunion with Carol briefly revisits Hal's conflict between his life with Carol and his duty as a space cop, a theme in both the series' "Beware My Power" premiere episode and "...In Love and War," the episode that introduced the Star Sapphire Corps. That mystery is the niftiest part of "Homecoming," but it's also way too rushed. It would have been more effective in an hour-long (or two-part) format.

The lack of people in Coast City (other than a moving car or two in the background) isn't because Hal is unconscious and trapped in some Matrix-like simulation of his hometown by an alien enemy, which is what I originally thought. It turns out that Hal and Razer asked the Star Sapphires to use their powers of teleportation to send the power battery-less Hal back to Earth so that he can get access to his battery and fully recharge his power ring for Atrocitus' attack on Oa. The Star Sapphires warned Hal that travel through their portal can result in side effects, so Hal is afflicted with amnesia after teleporting from the Star Sapphires' homeworld of Zamaron to Earth. With Carol's help, Hal regains his memory and powers and flies back to Oa just in time to save the Guardians from Atrocitus, as well as propose reparations to the Red Lanterns for the genocide that was committed on the planets of the Forgotten Zone by the malfunctioned creations of the now-remorseful Guardians.

Kilowog's dual cannons are the perfect weapon against all those New York bedbugs and cockroaches.
Speaking of exquisite timing, new Blue Lantern Saint Walker and Mogo, the Green Lantern Corps member who's an actual planet, arrive in time to aid Kilowog in fending off the Red Armada. Though Saint Walker's last-minute emergence isn't much of a surprise, it's still exhilarating, thanks in part to the majestic score music of series composer Frederik Wiedmann. The epic showdown that ensues between the trio and the armada is a stunning achievement in small-screen CG animation. Between this battle and the equally gargantuan wildfire explosion that tore apart Davos Seaworth's ship on Game of Thrones the following day, Saturday and Sunday made for one really dull Memorial Day Weekend of TV-watching.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

James Wong Howe was one of Hollywood's greatest Asian American craftsmen, so because it's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, peep Howe's handiwork below

J.J. Hunsecker rules Manhattan LIKE A MUTHAFUCKIN' BOSS!
Sweet Smell of Success (Photo source: DVD Beaver)

The Elmer Bernstein-scored Sweet Smell of Success is one of my favorite older movies because it's cynical, hard-bitten, pre-curse-words-allowed-in-movies Hollywood screenwriting at its best. Its cinematographer was James Wong Howe.

Sweet Smell of Success minus great writing = the TV series Smash
Sweet Smell of Success (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
J.J. Hunsecker's way too creepily obsessed with his sister. He and Tony Montana and Angelina Jolie's brother should get together and form some sort of creepy club.
Sweet Smell of Success (Photo source: DVD Beaver)

Howe's sterling work in black and white also graced the first Thin Man installment and Hud, two films that I first saw on TCM and are always worth revisiting on that channel, partly because of Howe's cinematography.

Myrna Loy, the original Mrs. Hart to Hart before there was a Mr. and Mrs. Hart to Hart
The Thin Man (Photo source:
'Operator, can you tell me why these motion pictures contain 'Thin Man' in the title even though they have nothing to do with the thin man from the first movie?'
The Thin Man (Photo source:
Is that a PBR in your hand, Hud? Don't try to be a fucking hipster.
Hud (Photo source: This Distracted Globe)
Hud and The Hustler were reasons why when Paul Newman made Harper, Lew Archer's last name was changed to Harper so that the movie would be another Newman box-office hit with an H-word for a title. I wonder why they didn't change Slap Shot's title to Hockey Fuck or something.
Hud (Photo source: This Distracted Globe)

In 2004, I wrote and recorded three Asian Pacific American Heritage Month interstitials for the Fistful of Soundtracks channel. One interstitial centered on Howe. The other two were about Margaret Cho and Homicide: Life on the Street writer James Yoshimura. Below is the entire three-minute interstitial I did on Howe. The last time I heard my Howe segment was about eight years ago. I forgot that I worked Method Man's "Bring the Pain" into the segment. Nice choice for a bed, 2004 me.

Take it away, partial transcript of 2004 me:

"Howe was one of the first cinematographers who perfected deep focus photography, in which both the foreground and the distant background are clearly seen. Another Howe innovation was the way he shot the boxing sequences in Body and Soul. A boxer himself when he was a teenager, Howe grabbed a pair of roller skates, climbed into the ring with the actors and filmed the action with a handheld camera. Though only five-foot-two, Howe was a badass. He was described by those who knew him as a tough perfectionist and a taskmaster. He was openly hostile to film crews. He was particularly hostile towards racists and had to deal with them on and off the sets. In an L.A. Times article, Howe's Caucasian widow recalled an incident at a restaurant in which a bigot tried to humiliate Howe and his wife by shoving them off their seats. Howe got the best of the bully using his high school boxing skills… Howe died in 1976, leaving behind a body of work that influenced cinematographers everywhere. Howe was a man who worked hard with his lights and camera to capture beauty, even if it was in a town that exhibited the ugliest behavior towards him and his people."

A roller skating jam named 'James Wong Howe'
Come on, everybody, wear your roller skates today. (Photo source: Film Monitor)
Goddamn, back in the '30s, they even dressed up when they worked behind the camera, which is awesome. It's as if James Wong Howe is saying to future cinematographers, 'Fuck you, you 21st-century cinematographers who'll be going to work in T-shirts, cargo shorts and flip-flops. I'm makin' this look good.'
James Wong Howe prepares to film The Thin Man on the 1934 movie's set. (Photo source: Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (05/22/2012): Green Lantern, Young Justice, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers and Motorcity

Not since Grimlock have I seen someone who's so in love with referring to himself in the third person.
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I review five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone and are aired on kids' networks where I have to sit through many of the most obnoxious commercials known to man because my DVR remote control is broken and will never be fixed. I think some of those kids' TV commercials have been used to extract information from Gitmo inmates.

I recently saw someone compare the sleek and nicely lit CG visuals on Bruce Timm's Green Lantern: The Animated Series to The Incredibles, so since then, I've thought, "Hal does look a little Mr. Incredible-ish when he runs," which isn't a bad thing. If you're going to crib a thing or two from an animated feature film, crib from one of the best. And like Brad Bird's movie, GL:TAS isn't afraid to make its main character lose badly once in a while.

In "Invasion," the last GL:TAS episode before the season finale, Hal (Josh Keaton), Kilowog (Kevin Michael Richardson), Razer (Jason Spisak) and Aya (Grey DeLisle), the Interceptor's AI, attempt to complete their mission to destroy the ancient Lighthouse, an automated space station that allows ships to travel through the asteroid belt separating the Forgotten Zone from the sector of space where Oa, the homeworld of the Guardians, the Green Lantern Corps' superiors, is located. If evil Red Lantern leader Atrocitus (Jonathan Adams) gets his hands on the Lighthouse before the Green Lanterns do, he'll use the station to teleport more of his Red Lantern fleet from the Forgotten Zone into Oan space to attack the Guardians.

Hal realizes parallel-parking a spaceship is as tedious as parallel-parking a regular car.
Meanwhile, "Invasion" catches up with Saint Walker (Phil Morris, a.k.a. Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld), an idealistic hermit on the sentient planet Mogo (also Richardson) whom viewers first met in GL:TAS' "Lost Planet" episode when he declined the green power ring that Mogo accepted to become the only Green Lantern Corps member that's an actual planet. Before "Lost Planet," the Red Lanterns destroyed Walker's homeworld, and Walker found refuge on Mogo. "Invasion" gets very Ten Commandments-ish as Walker, who's turned to Mogo as if he were God and asked him for help in figuring out his destiny during the Red Lantern invasion, scales a mountain that Mogo repeatedly tells him to climb to get his answer.

After a few complications, the Interceptor crew succeeds in destroying the Lighthouse, but their triumph becomes a short-lived one when Hal, Kilowog and Razer board Atrocitus' suddenly immobile ship to arrest him and his cohorts, and the trio walks into a trap. The Red Lanterns have evacuated their ship and rigged it to self-destruct with the Green Lanterns inside. Atrocitus seizes the Interceptor, has Aya reprogrammed to do his bidding and tears open a wormhole in space that's big enough to allow more of his forces to pass through to invade Oa.

Razer, who gets the episode's best line earlier when he uses one of those fake curse words so many of these sci-fi shows are fond of ("I hate to be the glurg in the punch bowl, but it seems we weren't the only ones to make it through"), uses his red power ring to shield Hal, Kilowog and himself from the blast. Hal is up glurg's creek without a paddle and in a rare moment, is unsure what his next move should be. He doesn't know that hope lies elsewhere on a mountaintop on Mogo, where a blue lantern materializes in front of Walker and presents the alien with a blue power ring.

Who would win in a battle? Mogo, Unicron or equally planet-sized Mario Batali?
"Invasion" is fun if you like seeing the heroes experience one setback after another but is otherwise kind of dull, mostly due to the scenes between Walker and Mogo, which feel like they're straight out of a Christian sci-fi flick. However, that willingness to make the Green Lanterns sometimes fail at the end of an episode illuminates a major difference between this current era of DC Animation and the godawful limited-animation days of Superfriends, when the heroes triumphed over evil every single time, which is fine for kids and the conservative audience that makes all those interchangeable CBS procedurals such ratings hits and is afraid of change, but it's yawnsville for those of us viewers who prefer a tad more variety in the storytelling.


In spite of how much DC Animation productions have raised the bar for kids' animation, these shows are still kind of skittish in the way they handle some of their edgier storylines. Several weeks ago--or rather, late last season--the TV-PG-rated Young Justice did what was basically a drug addiction arc when Superboy got addicted to "shields," steroid-like patches that suppress his human DNA and amplify his Kryptonian powers and were supplied to him by one of his two daddies, Lex Luthor. So when the recently rebranded Young Justice: Invasion does another addiction storyline with the mental and physical decline of the clone known as Red Arrow (Crispin Freeman), whose comics counterpart was once addicted to smack, and the storyline contains all the elements of an addiction arc, from the intervention staged by the Roy Harper clone's friends to his unkempt and emaciated state (or rather, what passes for emaciated in the non-Timm DC Animated Universe), why does the show chicken out and explain that his decline isn't due to heroin addiction and is merely exhaustion from his intense search for the original Roy?

And then when it's later revealed in this week's Greg Weisman-scripted "Salvage" episode that Roy and Cheshire (Kelly Hu), the assassin sister of Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin), became a couple during the five-year interim between seasons and Cheshire had Roy's baby, why does the show chicken out again and sneak in the rather unconvincing detail that Roy and Cheshire were married before she got pregnant? Are Cartoon Network censors really that uptight about characters on their shows having kids out of wedlock?

Artemis uses food to seduce Wally. I didn't know Artemis is a chubby chaser who likes to fatten up her fuckbuddies.
These censors also have terrible eyesight because a couple of minutes before the revelation about Roy and Cheshire, "Salvage" shows the retired Artemis--who's still dating another fellow retired superhero, Wally "Kid Flash" West (Jason Spisak)--prancing around in just a Stanford University T-shirt, which hints that Artemis banged Wally before he went off to Roy's intervention. I like seeing how amazed and shocked some Young Justice viewers are about the sight of pantsless and post-coital Artemis on a Saturday morning cartoon. This actually isn't the first time a DC Animation project has featured a scene with pantsless female characters to hint that they just got laid.

'Lesbians! Lesbians!'--Sherman Klump's brother
Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn--sans clown makeup and pants--in Batman: The Animated Series' classic "Harley and Ivy" episode (Photo source: World's Finest Online)
That's why Christian Bale's Batman sounds so pissed off all the time. His animated counterpart got laid, while he hasn't.
Post-coital Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
I love DC Animation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (05/15/2012): Tron: Uprising, Young Justice, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers and Motorcity

Jazz hands!
Each Tuesday in "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner," I review five of the week's most noteworthy animated cable shows that are found outside my Adult Swim comfort zone.

The series launch of Tron: Uprising, the animated prequel to Tron: Legacy, doesn't take place at the show's permanent home of Disney XD until June 7. But in a move similar to what Fox did with New Girl last fall, what Showtime did with House of Lies last Christmas and what NBC did with Smash earlier this year to increase the buzz for their respective shows, the channel unveiled all 31 minutes of "Beck's Beginning," Tron: Uprising's first episode, on YouTube over the weekend (for American viewers only), a few days before the episode's May 18 premiere on The Disney Channel and May 21 premiere on Disney XD.

The Beck of the premiere episode title is a teen "program" (Elijah Wood) who makes his living as a garage mechanic in Argon City, which is part of the computer world known as The Grid, the creation of software engineer Kevin Flynn, the Jeff Bridges character from the two Tron films. Flynn created a digital clone of himself named Clu (Fred Tatasciore, subbing for Bridges, who doubled as the evil clone via not-very-convincing CGI trickery in Tron: Legacy) to look after The Grid in his absence, but Clu went all Hosni Mubarak, imprisoned Flynn inside The Grid and has now ordered his forces to occupy Argon City.

When Beck's best friend is killed, or as the franchise's vernacular prefers to call it, "derezzed," by a guard who works for Clu's henchman General Tesler (Lance Henriksen), Beck seeks revenge. With the help of a Daft Punk helmet and a "re-coding tool" from the garage that he uses to change the appearance of his attire, Beck assumes the persona of the legendary warrior program Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), who, like Flynn, has been deposed by Clu. Tortured by the dictator and presumed dead, Tron takes notice of his impersonator's bravery and fighting skills and decides to secretly mentor Beck.

I don't really care for the Tron franchise or the undernourished screenwriting that was on display in both Tron films, but I did enjoy Tron: Legacy's dope Daft Punk score, the film's immersive visuals (especially when they're glimpsed in IMAX 3D, which is why I saw the film twice in that format) and Olivia Wilde's performance as Jules Verne-loving warrior woman Quorra ("Do you know Jules Verne? What's he like?"), so I've been curious about how Tron will turn out on the small screen each week. Will the show look as epic as Tron: Legacy did, even on a much tinier screen? Will the writing--shepherded by Tron: Legacy co-writers and Once Upon a Time creators Edward Kitsis and Adam "I Ain't Ad-Rock and by the Way, He's Horovitz, While I'm" Horowitz--be as undernourished as it was in Tron: Legacy?

Despite being in 2D, Tron: Uprising still looks incredible. The rainy nighttime metropolises and sleek glowstick aesthetic of Tron: Legacy are maintained here (and though none of Daft Punk's themes are repurposed here, composer Joseph Trapanese, who arranged and orchestrated the French duo's score over the course of two years, channels their sound with satisfying results). The highlight of "Beck's Beginning" is a gorgeously animated battle between Beck and one of Tesler's guards atop a speeding monorail. I wonder who the fight choreography consultant is for this show because the fighting moves in "Beck's Beginning" outstrip the choreography in Tron: Legacy and are reminiscent of Spike Spiegel's martial arts scenes on Cowboy Bebop. However, I'm not as enamored with the character design by Robert Valley. Why does Beck look like Matt LeBlanc? I keep expecting him to greet Tesler's second-in-command Paige (Emmanuelle Chriqui)--the show's most interesting character so far--with "How you doin'?"

This Beck isn't a musically talented but weird-ass Scientologist.
As for the writing on Tron: Uprising, many critics found the Tron: Legacy screenplay to be too colorless (I could see their gripes, although I thought the occasional flashes of humor, like Quorra's awkwardness around humans, Bridges' Big Lebowski-esque portrayal of an older Flynn and Michael Sheen basically playing Alan Cumming, actually helped to enliven the 2010 film), but Kitsis and Horowitz's exposition-heavy premiere episode is more colorless and humorless than Tron: Legacy. Unlike any of the Burners from Motorcity, Disney XD's other futuristic animated series with a young gearhead as the hero, Beck has zero personality. Sure, Beck is a computerized being, but so was Sheen's nightclub owner character, whose lively, scenery-chewing presence is sorely missed here. Hopefully, Tron will smuggle to Beck a personality disc in an upcoming episode.

(Because Tron: Uprising's online debut is a big deal and "Flight Club," the latest Green Lantern: The Animated Series episode, is a lighthearted trifle compared to Young Justice: Invasion's momentous newest episode and the other equally momentous superhero cartoon installments this week, I put the Tron: Uprising premiere in Green Lantern's spot in this week's column.)


Wow, that was quick. The very plot-heavy and action-packed "Alienated," the latest Young Justice: Invasion installment, immediately clears up the mystery of what Superman (Nolan North), Batman (Bruce Greenwood), Wonder Woman (Maggie Q), Martian Manhunter (Kevin Michael Richardson), Green Lantern Corps patrolman John Stewart (also Richardson) and the dialogue-less Hawkwoman were up to during the 16 missing hours when they were brainwashed by Vandal Savage (Miguel Ferrer). Neither hookers nor blow were involved. Under Vandal Savage's control, the six Justice Leaguers attacked the citizens of the planet Rimbor, and their actions--which neither of them have any memory of--made Earth a target for the Kroloteans, who landed on Earth before the events of the season premiere and have been impersonating Earth's politicians and scientists while preparing for their all-out assault on the planet.

And in a reveal that's shocking to this viewer whose last DC reading experience was an All-Star Superman TPB a few years ago but isn't as shocking to DC fans who are experts on who's-related-to-who in the DC universe, Kaldur'ahm (Khary Payton), the Atlantean formerly known as Aqualad, is now working for his terrorist father Black Manta (also Payton), the nemesis of Kaldur'ahm's former mentor Aquaman (Phil LaMarr, a.k.a. Green Lantern from Justice League Unlimited!). I thought it's because Kaldur'ahm is furious that Cartoon Network won't bring back Toonami, but the reason for his Theon Greyjoy-style turn towards villainy is far more dramatic.

Black Manta does his best impression of the brother in the Public Enemy logo.
During the five-year interim between Young Justice's first and second seasons, Kaldur'ahm learned of his parentage, while Tula (Cree Summer), Aqualad's love, joined Young Justice, took up the alias Aquagirl and died during a mission. Kaldur'ahm blamed the team for Aquagirl's death and was pissed at Aquaman for hiding the details of his parentage and then quit and switched sides. Some Young Justice fans believe that Kaldur'ahm's working undercover to bust his own dad. I hope not. Kaldur'ahm's genuine conversion to villainy would be a more interesting arc to me than Kaldur'ahm being in opposition to his supervillain father the whole time a la Runaways.

It turns out that the Kroloteans aren't the major players of this season's title event when Black Manta plants a bomb on the Krolotean base to get them out of the way, so that his allies from The Light, the consortium of supervillains that fought the Young Justice crew and their mentors last season, can step in and take over Earth with the help of a figure whom the Kroloteans referred to in their language as "The Competitor." Superman attempts to warn the Kroloteans about the bomb and offers to rescue them, but they prove how much of a dipshit alien race they are by firing their weapons at Supes in response. He's unable to save any of them from the bomb.

Meanwhile, Superboy (also North) continues to be unsettled by his ex-girlfriend Miss Martian (Danica McKellar) and her increasing reliance on telepathically torturing the team's enemies. Oh yeah, and the Justice League's popularity with the public is waning, thanks to anti-Justice League propaganda spouted by cable news loudmouth G. Gordon Godfrey (Tim Curry, the original voice of The Joker on Batman: The Animated Series before the producers opted for Mark Hamill). Will the six accused Justice Leaguers' departure from Earth to clear their names on Rimbor put them back in everyone's good graces again?

A busy Young Justice episode like "Alienated" is exciting to watch but a bitch to recap. I wish I could break down the episode's events in just less than 10 words a la the wonderfully terse recap of Superman's origin on the very first page of All-Star Superman ("Aqualad's a traitor. Nighty night, Krolotean dipshits!").

'Captain's log: supplemental. I just realized that mullet of mine in the '90s was such a goddamn mistake.'
Young Justice is largely more somber than previous animated DC shows, but luckily, this action-packed episode found time to insert a great quip or two (Wonder Woman to Wonder Girl, who's in such awe of her mentor's heroics: "A little less fangirl, a little more Wonder Girl."). (By the way, Wonder Girl is voiced by a much-less-sullen-than-usual Mae Whitman from Parenthood and Andre Braugher's Thief.) I don't know if "Maneuver Seven," a Fastball Special-style fighting move in which Nightwing (Jesse McCartney) hurls Batgirl (Alyson Stoner) at their adversaries and she kicks all of them in the face before landing on her feet, is a regular thing in the more recent Batman comics, but that moment in "Alienated" is especially badass. With this episode, Young Justice just Maneuver Sevened almost all my doubts about this series being a worthy successor to Justice League Unlimited.

Friday, May 11, 2012

5-Piece Cartoon Dinner (05/11/2012): Green Lantern, Young Justice, Ultimate Spider-Man, The Avengers and Motorcity

In the future, both lady bangs and dude bangs are in.
Over at my Tumblr, I said, "Though AFOS is a film and TV score music station, score music is not the only subject I post about on Tumblr and Blogger." If AFOS: The Tumblr or AFOS: The Blog were strictly about score music, I'd die of boredom, so beginning this week, I'm adding another non-score music-related subject to the many non-score music-related subjects I post about on Blogger.

For years, we've been living in a golden age of scripted TV that shows no signs of stopping despite the infuriating popularity of the Keeping Up with the Armenian NBA Hand-Me-Downs (a Joel McHale Soup joke, not mine) and Jersey Snores of the world. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Community and Parks and Recreation are some current examples of this golden age.

We've also been experiencing a golden age of animation on cable. During high school, I loved the cinematic Batman: The Animated Series and The Simpsons. I always wanted to write for either of those shows. Quality-wise, they were such a huge step up from the wack cartoons of the '80s that frequently insulted viewers' intelligence and were nothing more than 30-minute excuses to hawk some toys. I'm a bit envious of pre-teen and teen viewers these days because their cartoons contain even better animation than B:TAS and the classic-era Simpsons did (the dizzying and mind-blowing action sequences on Disney XD's Motorcity make the beautifully animated Batman-vs.-Man-Bat airborne confrontation in B:TAS' first episode look like "Steamboat Willie"). These younger viewers have so many well-written animated shows to choose from (on cable, that is, instead of on the broadcast networks, which abandoned the kind of younger-skewing programming that's become the lifeblood of niche-y channels like Cartoon Network and the gazillion Nicks), compared to the paltry amount of three or four I watched regularly in the '90s.

Lately, I've been DVRing standout animated cable shows like Young Justice and Motorcity, and I've put season 2 of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes on the DirecTV DVR equivalent of a Season Pass (DirecTV calls it the "Record Series" button) because the kids' networks that air these shows schedule them in bizarre time slots I have a hard time either remembering or waking up early for (maybe Earth's Mightiest Heroes would receive better ratings if viewers could actually find it). Today, I'm reviewing the five non-Adult Swim animated shows I've been regularly DVRing and catching--Green Lantern: The Animated Series, Young Justice: Invasion, Ultimate Spider-Man, Earth's Mightiest Heroes and the new Monday night show Motorcity--for a column called "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner." I hope to make this column about non-Adult Swim animation on cable a weekly thing on Tuesdays instead of Fridays--this trial and possibly inaugural edition today is an exception--but writing these things takes so goddamn long for me to do.

Ever since MCA's passing, I've been bumping so many Beastie Boys tracks, so I wanted to name a new blog feature after an obscure Beasties track. Hence "5-Piece Cartoon Dinner."


Disney XD and the half of Cartoon Network that has nothing to do with Adult Swim are channels my Mad Men/Justified/Louie-watching self usually avoids like the plague, so if it weren't for the Village Voice newspapers' Topless Robot blog or The A.V. Club, I wouldn't have been aware of Cartoon Network's "DC Nation" hour on Saturday mornings and its rival during an even more ungodly Sunday morning time slot, Disney XD's 76-minute "Marvel Universe" block. I caught the hour-long Green Lantern: The Animated Series sneak preview (which, fortunately, was much less of a slog than the live-action Green Lantern movie) last year on Cartoon Network but had totally forgotten that new GL:TAS episodes were dropping during the newly launched "DC Nation," so I didn't start tuning into GL:TAS until three or four weeks into the new season.

Though I'm not really a fan of the Green Lantern Corps space cop characters, I like how they're basically Jedi knights with personality. The live-action Star Wars prequels would have been much less lethargic had they featured as one of its heroes an acerbic character like the grumpy Green Lantern known as Kilowog, the dem-dese-dose alien cop who's wonderfully voiced on GL:TAS by not-so-dem-dese-dose black actor Kevin Michael Richardson (a.k.a. Martin Luther King from The Boondocks' classic "Return of the King" episode).

GL:TAS sells the "Jedi knights with personality" vibe more effectively than the much-maligned live-action version, which contained too little of Kilowog. Moviegoers who were so burned by the live-action Green Lantern that they gave up on anything else with the Green Lantern name on it should try out either Green Lantern: First Flight, a 2009 DC Animated Universe made-for-video feature that cleverly reimagined lead hero Hal Jordan's origin story as a Training Day-style space copera (and even snagged Law & Order: SVU's Chris Meloni for the role of Hal), or this energetic new CG series, which has partners Hal (Josh Keaton) and Kilowog investigating the deaths of their comrades and patrolling the stars on the Interceptor, an experimental ship that Hal and Kilowog stole and is maintained by Aya (Grey DeLisle), a resourceful female AI with powers like Hal and Kilowog's.

Hal, Aya and Kilowog investigate why The Greatest American Hero totally ripped off Hal's costume.
So the series, which is DC Animation's first completely CG show, is basically Green Lantern-as-a-starship-show-with-a-ragtag-crew-of-bickering-leads a la Farscape, Firefly, Andromeda, Galactica and I'm probably forgetting one more. Though recent episodes have felt like retreads of old Star Trek episodes like "The Devil in the Dark" and the animated "Lorelei Signal," I'm glad GL:TAS is more of a space-faring sci-fi show than a superhero piece, which was what the formulaic and way-too-Earthbound Ryan Reynolds movie was. B:TAS and Justice League Unlimited veteran Bruce Timm's character designs for the show are beautifully rendered in CG. Animation, whether it's CG or cel, is a more suitable medium for these characters and their cartoony-looking powers than live-action, which was where Green Lantern looked really flat and unconvincing (Charlie Jane Anders said it best over on io9: "Reynolds' disembodied face spends large chunks of Green Lantern floating around in an ocean of computer-animated cheese... Hal's costume is CG along with the backgrounds, so his head just floats there in the middle of a CG world."). Because animation isn't as constrained a medium as live-action, the action sequences on GL:TAS, particularly the airborne battles in last week's episode "Regime Change," are much more dynamic and epic than the ones in the Reynolds movie.

As a lead, Keaton's Hal isn't as difficult to empathize with as Reynolds' tepidly written version of Hal was, but if GL:TAS characters were cops from the original Law & Order, Kilowog would be Max Greevey and Hal would be boring-ass Rey Curtis. Aya has much less emotions than Hal but is a more interesting character. Luckily, the show has surrounded Hal with prickly characters to offset his frequent blandness, like Kilowog and Razer (Jason Spisak), a prisoner in Hal and Kilowog's custody who wants to atone for his past actions as an evil Red Lantern but hasn't completely rid himself of his dark side.

And then Razer wondered to himself if making love to a toaster will leave burns around his bathing suit area.
The show also seems to be hinting at romantic tension between Razer and the emotionless Aya, who patterned her permanent appearance after Razer's murdered wife while scanning his records. Unless they're part of Mad Men, nothing makes my eyes glaze over more than romance storylines, and the android who longs to be human has been done to death, but the Interceptor computer's interaction with Razer, which seems to be combining those two types of storylines and is reminiscent of Idris/the TARDIS' affection for The Doctor in Neil Gaiman's Doctor Who episode "The Doctor's Wife," might actually be an intriguing development in the coming weeks. A ship falling for one of its passengers? That's the kind of storyline William Shatner, who memorably eyefucked the Enterprise from a travel pod window for 78 minutes in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, must have always wanted to act out.


In another example of how bizarrely scheduled these animated cable shows are (so where's that fifth Venture Bros. season, Astrobase Go! and Adult Swim?), Cartoon Network's Young Justice, the other half-hour show in the "DC Nation" block, began its second season only one week after concluding its first.

And in an astonishing and I'm-still-not-quite-sure-if-it-was-necessary WTF moment for an animated show that's mainly for teens, the newly renamed Young Justice: Invasion jumped ahead five years into the future. The teens of Young Justice are now investigating a potential alien invasion that may have ties to the mystery of what six Justice League members who were brainwashed by supervillain Vandal Savage (Miguel Ferrer) were doing for 16 unaccounted hours at the end of the first season (Alex, I'm gonna go with "What is an evening of hookers and blow?"). Artemis (Stephanie Lemelin), who's basically Katniss with a raunchy sense of humor (separated from her bow and quiver by a team of villains in one episode, she memorably cracked, "Ugh, I feel naked. And not in a fun way."), and two other Young Justice members, Aqualad (Khary Payton) and Kid Flash (Jason Spisak), quit the team for reasons that have yet to be explained and were replaced by other heroes, like an unknown lady named Batgirl (Alyson Stoner).

Also, Rocket (Kittie), who joined Young Justice very late in the first season and is best remembered in print for being the first superheroine to experience a teen pregnancy in the late Dwayne McDuffie's Milestone comic Icon, graduated to the League. Robin (Jesse McCartney) is now Nightwing, and Tim Drake (Cameron Bowen) has assumed Robin's mantle and still-brightly-colored-for-no-reason-other-than-to-wind-up-with-bullets-in-the-ass crimefighting suit. Emo Superboy (Nolan North) and Miss Martian (Danica McKellar) are no longer a couple, and the latter (isn't her name a little like calling some Asian female member of Young Justice "Miss Asian"?) is now sporting a post-breakup haircut and Lagoon Boy (Yuri Lowenthal) on her arm. And the animation is still outstanding for a weekly TV series--this is the best a DC Animated Universe project has ever looked on-screen, outside of the DCAU feature films--and showrunner Greg Weisman, whom DC Animation wisely snapped up for this show after he lost The Spectacular Spider-Man to what appears to have been production company politics, is still killing it, though some of his creative decisions so far this season don't quite make sense, like that time jump a la Galactica and One Tree Hill.

Superboy must be the only superhero who gets his fashion ideas from the late Steve Jobs.
Hopefully, this time jump has a purpose other than being an excuse to add more characters to an already hefty cast. That's a beef I have with most superhero works, whether it's The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes or the execrable live-action mess Heroes: this need to enlarge an overstuffed cast and, especially in the case of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, fill the show with fan service, which backfires when it takes away screen time from the regular characters we care more about. Once in a while, it's dope to see an obscure Marvel fan favorite appear on-screen for the first time ever (many of these lesser-known characters, like Rocket Raccoon, are ones I've never heard of before, while hardcore Marvel fans are apparently crazy about them), but does this have to happen in every episode of Earth's Mightiest Heroes now?

Justice League Unlimited expanded the scope and cast of Justice League and was loaded with cameos by obscure DC characters, but it never lost its focus on the seven original heroes we grew to like as a team in the first two seasons. As long as Young Justice: Invasion doesn't veer off into "Hiro in ancient Japan"-style tangents--last week's "Earthlings," which introduced to the DCAU the DC scientist hero named Adam Strange (Michael Trucco), who's basically John Carter with clothes and none of the stench of box-office failure, was almost an aimless tangent--this show could be another Justice League Unlimited instead of another Heroes.


Ultimate Spider-Man places Marvel's most popular character in a Young Justice-like premise in which the web-slinger (Drake Bell, who starred in Superhero Movie as a hero who was a Spidey parody) and other superpowered teens--Spidey-hating Nova (Logan Miller), token female White Tiger (Caitlyn Taylor Love), a de-aged Luke Cage (Ogie Banks) and an equally de-aged and annoyingly mandal-ed Danny Rand (Greg Cipes), a.k.a. Iron Fist--are given a Sky High-style education from S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Chi McBride) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) on how to become better heroes. Out of all of Spidey's animated incarnations so far (from Ralph Bakshi's psychedelic Spidey to the solid and much-missed Spectacular Spider-Man), Ultimate boasts the most high-quality animation. The fluid and agile movements of this new animated Spidey and his superpowered cohorts are a huge leap forward from the cookie-cutter animation and constantly recycled footage of Bakshi's '60s Spidey and the jerky early '80s animation of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

''Cause I'm the type of spidah that's built to last/Fuck with me/I put my web in your ass...' I know, that's 'Gangsta Gangsta,' not 'Fuck the Police,' but who gives a cluck?
Ultimate also boasts the most impressive guiding force script-wise, Emmy-winner Paul Dini, and it has the former B:TAS writer and the Ben 10 creative team known as Man of Action adapting (pretty loosely) Brian Michael Bendis' esteemed Ultimate Spider-Man comic, the linchpin of Marvel's Ultimate imprint. (Here's a quick breakdown of the Ultimate line: Ultimate comics are set in a continuity that's separate from the extremely convoluted and confusing one where flagship titles like The Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men take place. The alternate Peter Parker in this Ultimate universe boasted a few differences from Original Flavor Peter. Before Bendis killed off alt-Peter and pissed off right-wing racist nutjobs by replacing him with half-African American, half-Latino Miles Morales, a long-overdue non-white Spidey and actually Marvel's second non-white Spidey after the Spider-Man 2099 comic's half-Latino Miguel O'Hara, alt-Peter was still a teen and worked as the Daily Bugle's webmaster instead of as a Bugle photographer.)

Dini isn't the only B:TAS alum who's involved with Ultimate. His colleague from that influential show, animator Eric Radomski, is a co-executive producer on Ultimate. One of B:TAS' best visual touches was the expressiveness that Radomski and Bruce Timm brought to the eye portion of Batman's mask, and that same expressiveness has been added to this new animated Spidey's eyes. I wouldn't be surprised if that was a Radomski touch.

Slept-On in Seattle: Sunday Night Sound Session focuses on the most underrated or least hackneyed hip-hop and soul tracks

They should call this show I Can't Believe It's a Clear Channel Show.

Sunday Night Sound Session--a Seattle terrestrial radio show I just discovered via Seattle's own Prometheus Brown after he linked to his SNSS guest appearance with another Pinoy rapper, the L.A.-based Bambu, who formed with Prometheus the new duo The Bar--is currently restoring my faith in hip-hop and making me realize that maybe two percent of terrestrial radio ain't so bad. I recently said, "[The] proclamation that conscious hip-hop is dead was premature. It's still out there. You just have to know where to look." Declared by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2010 as "The best radio show you've never heard," despite airing on "a corporate behemoth with a playlist as deep as a puddle" (the Clear Channel-owned Seattle hip-hop/R&B station KUBE 93), hosts DJ Hyphen and J. Moore's program, which turns seven years old this month, is one such spot that's giving exposure to conscious hip-hop.

One particular conscious hip-hop track during SNSS that got my attention was Reef the Lost Cauze's "The Prey (For Trayvon Martin & My Son)," a powerful Menace II Society-sampling track in which the unsigned Philly rapper wonders about what he has to tell his one and a half-year-old son as he raises him in a society still marred by racial violence ("People are gonna hate your skin and try to ruin you/And now I gotta tell him that they just might shoot at you").

I'm sure I'm not the only one who first heard J. Moore's name during Sunday Night Sound Session and thought, 'What's that guy from Jerry Maguire and Action doing co-hosting an underground hip-hop radio show?'
Sunday Night Sound Session co-hosts DJ Hyphen (left) and J. Moore (right)

SNSS also bumps alt-R&B (the Pharrell Williams-produced "Live Your Life" by up-and-coming Malaysian singer Yuna is a recent SNSS playlist favorite, as well as a new favorite of mine, thanks to SNSS) and the best in mainstream hip-hop. But as the Seattle P-I notes, "You won't hear the latest from 50 Cent here; instead Hyphen and Moore focus on artists that generally aren't part of the everyday KUBE lineup." They're also not afraid to say a less-than-favorable thing or two about a mainstream track that's a bit commercial-sounding for their tastes or point out a hook or a producer's touch from a "Throwback of the Week" (a chune from the '90s or early '00s) that hasn't quite aged well.

I've been catching up to SNSS via archived episodes on Hyphen's The Audacity of Dope site. The show's so tight I don't even mind the Clear Channel-mandated audio dropouts to censor profanity or clunky-sounding radio edits of singles a la "This town like a great big chicken jus' waiting to get plucked."

'Hm, gotta go stop a street fight somewhere,' muses Ryan Gosling.

UPDATE: I almost forgot that Hyphen once concluded an SNSS episode with French electro-house musician Kavinsky's excellent 2010 track "Nightcall" because the song grabbed his attention during the opening credits of Drive. Hyphen amusingly introed "Nightcall" with, "Turn it up. Ride out to this. Don't re-enact the movie Drive though." The appearance of the Drive opening title theme and Hyphen's Drive joke are a couple more reasons to love SNSS.