Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The casting of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac boosts Star Wars: Episode VII from "Why is this being made?" to "Shit done got interesting"

More flare than a waiter from Office Space
(Photo source: Tor)
"I'm not going to play Luke again. He's over. He had a beginning, a middle and an end," said Mark Hamill to me in a phone interview we recorded on a late Sunday night in 1998 for a Batman: The Animated Series-related episode of the terrestrial radio incarnation of A Fistful of Soundtracks.

Flash forward to 2014. Disney has finally confirmed--after about a year of "Lucasfilm's been talking to us"-type comments to the press from the original Star Wars trilogy stars--that Hamill will reunite with Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C3P0) and Kenny Baker (R2D2) for J.J. Abrams' tentatively titled Star Wars: Episode VII.

So much for "I'm not going to play Luke again."

Wow, this new two-color Instagram filter sucks.
A Star Wars: Episode VII cast read-through at Pinewood Studios
I'm what you call a lapsed Star Wars fan. I love the first two Star Wars films. That's about it. I don't care for the rest of the franchise, although Genndy Tartakovsky's cel-animated Clone Wars shorts from the early 2000s were pretty solid and way more satisfying than George Lucas' dreadful and woodenly executed prequel trilogy (as is Matthew Haley and David Walker's fake Blackstar Warrior trailer, which I still wish would be made into an actual movie). So when Hamill, Ford and Fisher started giving hints to the press about reprising their roles in Episode VII, I was both glad for their return and skeptical about it because the last time Ford reunited with a former co-star for a Lucasfilm project, it resulted in another post-1989 Lucasfilm sequel I'd like to have Lacuna'd from my memory: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

One of the reasons why Crystal Pepsi was underwhelming was because Crystal Gravy was badly in need of a rewrite from Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (Kasdan, who, along with Ford, wanted Han Solo to be killed off in that threequel but were both overruled, isn't to blame for the problems of that film). Abrams' recruitment of Kasdan for the Episode VII screenplay was the first good sign about Episode VII. (However, I'm still concerned about Abrams as a director: are we getting the Abrams who directed both the still-excellent Lost pilot and the first and best Chris Pine Star Trek film--and also got a great villainous performance out of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III--or the Abrams who directed the mediocre, Khan-whitewashing Star Trek Into Darkness?)

An equally promising sign of things to come is this week's confirmed casting of John Boyega, the British star of one of my favorite sci-fi flicks of the last 10 years, Attack the Block, and Oscar Isaac, who was terrific as a dickish '60s folk singer in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, as two of the new Star Wars leads. (With Isaac's Llewyn co-star Adam Driver on board in a villain role, it'll be especially fun to see Isaac go from crashing on Driver's couch to firing ion cannons at him. And with Max von Sydow playing what I assume to be Driver's Sith master too? Sweet.)

I've noticed that Boyega, who received accolades at Sundance this year for his performance as a South Central L.A. ex-con in Imperial Dreams (a film that, by the way, was scored by the talented Flying Lotus, who ought to be scoring more films), is first billed in the non-alphabetical cast list in Disney's Episode VII casting announcement. Is this a hint that this trilogy under Abrams' direction will be the first Star Wars trilogy with a person of color as the lead? As someone who wants to see more diversity in, well, everything, I sincerely hope so. As early as Attack the Block, Boyega proved that he's capable of the gravitas that's required to spearhead a sci-fi/fantasy franchise like Star Wars.

John Boyega prepares to go all Ghost Dog on an alien dog.
John Boyega in Attack the Block
"Moses' trajectory from irresponsible thug to adult who decides to own up to his mistakes... is believable and compelling, thanks to Boyega," I wrote back in 2011, when I first saw Attack the Block. "He has a couple of intriguing little moments where the badass and authoritative gang leader façade disappears, and with some great acting by Boyega with just his eyes, we see a scared kid who's in over his head and whom the film later reveals--in one of its best scenes--to be much younger than he appears to be."

Now envision Boyega bringing all those moments of believability and vulnerability to a Jedi who's learning the ways of the Force, under the direction of a filmmaker who didn't take a 22-year break from directing that resulted in his storytelling skills becoming as rusty as the chassis of a Gonk droid. Perhaps my lapsed faith in Star Wars will finally be restored.

I have no idea who she is. Maybe some Downton Abbey nerd can tell me.
British newcomer Daisy Ridley will help keep Star Wars: Episode VII from turning into a sausage fest.

Hear the music of Star Wars during "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS. Star Wars is represented in both those blocks by the Empire Strikes Back score cues "The Battle of Hoth" and "The Rebel Fleet/End Title," by John Williams, who's returning to score Episode VII.

Friday, April 25, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Archer, "Arrival/Departure"

Guest star Christian Slater attempts to kill this show like he's done with My Own Worst Enemy, The Forgotten, Breaking In and Mind Games.
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

Earlier this week, in a nice little audio essay by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans ("TV's roster of late-night talk show hosts is whiter than a bobsledding team from Scandinavia."), he recommended to CBS that they should consider handing over the Late Late Show time slot to Archer cast member Aisha Tyler if the enjoyably off-kilter Craig Ferguson quits The Late Late Show. In addition to being a funny stand-up and a decent interviewer during her own podcast Girl on Guy, the current Whose Line Is It Anyway? host has plenty of TV interviewing experience (she's one of the 80 jillion hosts of The Talk on CBS and was even once a frontrunner to replace Craig Kilborn, Ferguson's predecessor), so she'd be the perfect replacement for Ferguson.

Plus a nightly show wouldn't interfere with Tyler's voice work on Archer (according to another Archer cast member, Judy Greer, it takes about only 30 minutes to record lines for the show). Her role as Lana Kane, the seemingly level-headed and continually frustrated ISIS agent, closet Republican and now, new mother, easily outstrips all her previous acting roles, much like how Mark Hamill's voice work as the Joker for Batman: The Animated Series, the B:TAS spinoff movies and the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game franchise is the best thing Hamill ever did, even more so than his on-camera work in the Star Wars movies (or his campy guest shots as the Trickster on the '90s Flash TV series).

16 shots and pregnant
In Archer's satisfying fifth-season finale, which finds the gang still stuck in the fictional dictatorship of San Marcos, Tyler continues to demonstrate why she's a tremendous voice actor, whether it's when her character's experiencing what has to be the first sitcom childbirth scene in TV history where the mom gets slapped and punched around by other women (I particularly love how the animators gave Lana such bloodshot eyes while she's in labor) or when Lana's quietly introducing Archer to their baby daughter Abbijean. There are times during Archer's run when I've felt like Lana is on the underwritten side in her role as the straight man to the likes of Archer, Malory, Cheryl/Carol/Cherlene and Pam, despite how much life and nuance Tyler brings to her character. But when Lana reveals to a suddenly tinnitus-stricken Archer in "Arrival/Departure" that she stole his sperm in order to procreate, it's a great reminder that Lana isn't always as level-headed as she thinks she is and that she's capable of being as batshit twisted as the rest of the gang.

"So I guess it maybe wasn't the most ethical thing I've ever done in my entire life," muses Lana to an adrift and distracted Archer. It's not the only example of unethical behavior in "Arrival/Departure." There's also the whole convoluted deal that had the former ISIS employees (unsuccessfully) slinging cocaine for the CIA, an arrangement that turns out to have been masterminded by Archer and Malory, while everyone else in the gang was kept in the dark about Archer and Malory's involvement in the CIA-ISIS deal. Archer's bold, season-long experiment as "Archer Vice," which is brought to an end in this episode by Malory successfully blackmailing CIA operative Holly (Gary Cole) to restore ISIS to her, was fun while it lasted. It proved that the show could still be enjoyable without the spy agency backdrop and that Archer creator Adam Reed could handle much more ambitious storytelling as capably and effectively as he did with the mission-of-the-week structure during the show's previous seasons (particularly the second and third ones).

The fiasco that was the gang's cocaine mission also gave a new sense of purpose to secondary characters who have always been funny but whose subplots were starting to feel repetitive late last season, particularly Cyril and to a lesser extent, Cherlene. Her new career as a country singer spawned perhaps the show's cleverest piece of tie-in merchandise, an actual country album featuring musician Jessy Lynn Martens as Cherlene (one of its tracks, "Cherlene's Broken Hearts & Auto Parts," a cover of album producer Kevn Kinney's "Broken Hearts and Auto Parts," is briefly used in this episode as source music while the gang attempts to flee San Marcos).

So now that ISIS is back in the picture, I hope Reed doesn't revert next season to the mission-of-the-week structure that he admitted was starting to bore him last year. "Archer Vice" was as close as Archer got to the Wiseguy approach of storytelling (as in one long undercover mission lasting for seven to 12 episodes), which I've always wanted to see more spy shows experiment with (missions-of-the-week are more their jam). Earlier this year, Reed said he was considering sending the gang to prison for Archer's sixth season, but I like to think he remembered the tedium of My Name Is Earl's season behind bars and then dumped the idea.

Maybe Reed should send the ISIS agents to go undercover as execs from Cherlene's record label for the entire season, a la Wiseguy's Dead Dog Records arc. But whatever Reed decides to do with ISIS next season, let's hope it continues to result in funny bits of business like Cyril delivering Rambo's climactic monologue from First Blood after Juliana Calderon (Lauren Cohan) dumps him, Cherlene referring to Lana's vagina as mauve or Abbijean being her father's daughter when she does Archer's "Hold up, I'm drinking" gesture while being breastfed. And now that Lana's the mom she always wanted to be, hopefully, the addition of a baby won't ruin Archer (like it has with too many other sitcoms) and put a damper on how much of a great role Lana has been for Tyler, whether or not she becomes, outside of the show, the late-night host she deserves to be and a sea of mauveness in the way-too-lily-white desert that is the late-night landscape.

Stray observations/memorable quotes:
* Remember all those clips in the montage that concluded "White Elephant" at the start of the season, which I said was a "season 5 trailer that's badly disguised as Sterling's fantasy sequence about his new life"? Most of those clips turned out to be fake. As Reed said, "almost none of the things in the original trailer as written wound up in the season. So we went back--and I guess how they make real trailers--watched seven episodes and used footage to put in the trailer." Shit. I was really looking forward to seeing more of Cherlene fending off adversaries with a rocket launcher.

* "Aww... All the gardeners are running away."

* "Psh! You know how many times I've helped a cow give birth in the barn? Plus one time, my sister Edie? Well, she couldn't have it in the house. Long story. A long, racist story."

* Malory: "Lana Kane, you have known me for a long, long time. When have I ever been honest with Sterling?" Lana: "Huh." Malory: "Exactly."

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "Ricksy Business"

I like Spike Jonze's movie Her, but if there's one thing I hate about the movie, it's Jonze's attempt to get guys to rock Urkel pants on fashion runways and in the streets. Not gonna fucking happen, Spike. Urkel pants are things Republicans would be into wearing.
(Photo source: Collectors Quest)
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

After the interdimensional mayhem of "Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind," Rick and Morty chooses to go smaller-scale for its first-season finale, "Ricksy Business," by tackling that old sitcom staple of the kids in the house--in this case, Summer and the overgrown kid that is Grandpa Rick--throwing a wild house party while the parents are gone. But because this is Rick and Morty we're talking about here, both the Smiths' house and everyone inside it wind up in another dimension during the party, after Morty accidentally activates one of Rick's experimental portal devices, and Rick sends Morty out on a dangerous mission on the alien planet to find Kalaxian crystals--not because, as Morty assumes, those crystals could act as fuel to transport everyone back to Earth, but because Rick wants to snort the crystals at the party. Spike the punch bowl with some uproarious dialogue about anti-alien slurs and bukkake--plus a bunch of horny and sometimes cannibalistic alien partiers whom Rick's befriended from his travels, including an alien feline named Squanchy (Tom Kenny), who's got fetishes for both using the word "squanch" as a verb and auto-erotic asphyxiation--and you have a house party episode that blows almost all other house party episodes of past sitcoms out of the water.

Although "Ricksy Business" is marred by the B-story about Jerry and Beth's disastrous romantic getaway at a reenactment of James Cameron's Titanic, which is Rick and Morty's weakest B-story since the Pluto B-story in "Something Ricked This Way Comes," the episode earns points for building a gag out of that '80s and '90s TV cliché of a character who's neither a musician nor an actor somehow finding the time and money off-screen to record with professional studio musicians a novelty single about a dance he's named after himself. Examples include "The Urkel Dance" on Family Matters and small-town lawyer Douglas Wambaugh in a Dracula costume singing on Picket Fences a cover of Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash" called "The Wambaugh Mash." That kind of scene used to annoy the fuck out of me.

Rick and Morty is the first show I've seen that makes fun of that absurd cliché, during Rick's brief--and very "Urkel Dance"-esque--musical number, "The Rick Dance," in "Ricksy Business." Jaleel White was undeniably a great slapstick actor on Family Matters, but I was never a fan of that show, because I preferred The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, plus I've always been allergic to the sappiness and catchphrase-heavy writing of Miller-Boyett sitcoms (even Bronson Pinchot knew that the writing on Perfect Strangers was weak, so, as he said in his A.V. Club "Random Roles" interview, he poured all his energy into Balki's slapstick to make the show more bearable for himself). As Family Matters became more popular, it got weirder (but the joke writing never got any funnier). What was originally a bland Perfect Strangers spinoff about the elevator operator at Balki and Larry's newspaper and her working-class family was gradually re-conceived by Miller-Boyett as a sci-fi sitcom about the family's wacky scientific genius neighbor: Family Matters basically morphed into a proto-Rick and Morty. So Family Matters wound up with storylines where Urkel built sentient robots and time machines and became capable of recording pop-rap joints that would somehow spawn huge dance crazes in Chicago. I love Rick and Morty's twisted take on "The Urkel Dance" and similar scenes from other shows: here, Rick bursts into an elaborate dance number because he's methed-up, and the explanation for the source music during his number is because it's created by an alien friend who's a boombox robot.

The tagline for season 2 of Rick and Morty should be 'We're back, bitch. With twice the drool.'
"Ricksy Business" marks the first time that a character sees Rick's functional alcoholism--and now, occasional enjoyment of hard drugs--for what they are: attempts to dull the pain of some sort of past trauma from either his interdimensional adventures, his split from Beth's unseen mom or both. The character who addresses this is, oddly, neither of the Smiths. Instead, it's Rick's friend Birdperson (Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon, in another one of his vocal cameos on the show), an alien stud at the party and a Hawk (from the '80s Buck Rogers) lookalike, who points out to Morty that in his people's native tongue, Rick's favorite catchphrase, "Wubba lubba dub dub"--which Rick's been trying to turn into another "Did I do thaaaat?"--actually means "I am in great pain. Please help me."

This is where Rick, Morty and Summer's house party storyline gets really interesting, and it's what keeps "Ricksy Business" from being a disposable and kind of empty way to close out season 1. The season has been building towards Morty's dissatisfaction with both his grandpa's behavior and his treatment of him as a human shield, ever since that final scene in "Rick Potion #9," where Morty's shock and remorse over burying his own body was juxtaposed with Rick's boozy jadedness and affectless demeanor. Birdperson takes notice of Morty's growing discontent, especially after Rick's antics at the party, and basically tells Morty, "Maybe you should quit having adventures with Rick. The decision's all up to you."

I'm predicting this shit now: Birdperson spinoff to debut on Adult Swim in 2016. Pass it on.
(Photo source: Brent Noll)
But Morty changes his mind about further distancing himself from his grandpa when he's reminded why he used to like Rick in the first place. Rick activates another one of his ingenious inventions, a device that can stop time, so that he and his grandkids can have more time to clean up and repair the house before a returning Jerry and Beth step inside, and the previously contentious trio ends up bonding over paint fights, covering Jerry and Beth's heads in pumpkins, pantsing the frozen townspeople, stealing a flatscreen from an electronics store and bashing Titanic while watching it on the stolen flatscreen. Morty notices that Rick isn't saying "Wubba lubba dub dub" anymore, and he explains that it's because he has a new catchphrase--"I love my grandkids"--but before things can get further sappy, Rick reverts to his usual jerky self, shrugs off "I love my grandkids" as bullshit and kills the huggy mood by bumping one of the tunes from the party playlist, Splack Pack's 1993 Miami bass hit "Shake That Ass Bitch." This is the happiest we've ever seen Rick, Morty and Summer together, and I like how their "shit yeah, Joffrey is dead!"-level happiness arises from Bart-and-Milhouse-style pranks on the town, criminal acts and Miami bass.

It's too bad the B-story isn't as solid, funny or even deep as Rick, Morty and Summer's A-story because I prefer my Rick and Morty subplots to not remind me of Too Close for Comfort's infamous "hey, Monroe got raped, ah-hyuck!" episode. We learn that one of pathetic Jerry's favorite movies is Titanic--no surprise there--so he totally fangirls over the reenactment of scenes from the movie (unlikely male fandom surrounding a franchise that's marketed to females was better handled this week in the Bob's Burgers episode about bronies). Beth thinks the whole vacation is stupid and prefers to spend all her weekend time reading in their room, so she gets a dowdy Mexican maid, who's far more enthusiastic about reenacting Titanic, to be Jerry's companion while she avoids the weekend's activities. But the maid turns out to be crazy and rapey when she forces Jerry at gunpoint to paint her nude and reenact the film's backseat sex scene, and Beth rescues him in the nick of time, right when the naked maid forces him to drop his pants.

When Morty was nearly raped in "Meeseeks and Destroy," there was some weight to the ordeal, and it advanced both Morty and Rick's characters and planted the seed for Morty's discontent. But when Jerry's nearly raped in "Ricksy Business," the situation doesn't add anything substantial to Jerry and Beth's characters (other than containing the season's second moment with Jerry where he implies that he was molested as a kid). It's as empty and pointless as, well, the Monroe rape episode. However, the B-story isn't completely devoid of funny moments. Actual guided tours of the locations from chick flicks like Somewhere in Time and Twilight are worthy of a sendup, and exaggerating those vacations to the point where even a blockbuster like Titanic receives the couples' getaway treatment is a great way to poke fun at those vacations. The best part of the B-story is when the iceberg collision is beset by technical difficulties and interrupted by dining schedule PA announcements ("Iceberg, right ahead! The buffet is now closed. Iceberg, right ahead! The buffet is now closed.").

Even when a Rick and Morty subplot doesn't quite fire on all cylinders, the show somehow remains stronger than most other sitcoms, animated or live-action. This was a superb first season for Rick and Morty, a Doctor Who parody in Back to the Future clothing that, thanks to Justin Roiland, Dan Harmon and their crew, evolved into something greater, a richly written and darkly funny show about sociopathic behavior, in whatever dimension Morty finds himself.

The Traflorkians look like those body condoms from The Naked Gun.
Other memorable quotes:
* Summer: "What do you mean you're having a party? Are some Glip Glops from the Third Dimension going to come over and play cards or something?" Rick: "'Glip Glop'? You're lucky a Traflorkian doesn't hear you say that." Summer: "Is that like their N-word?" Rick: "It's like the N-word and the C-word had a baby and it was raised by all the bad words for Jews."

* "I love watching bukkake. I mean, like, I don't know if I personally would ever do it..." Former Degrassi star Cassie Steele was listed in the episode's guest voice cast. That's definitely her as Tammy, further tarnishing her Degrassi persona with her Rick and Morty character's enjoyment of bukkake.

* "Brad is here! Quick, make my hair look drunk."

* "Yo! Whattup, my Glip Glops?!"

* "Tammy, I should let you know I just got out of a highly intense soul bond with my previous spirit mate."

* "Prepare to be emancipated from your own inferior genes!" The familiar pipes of former Futurama voice actor Maurice LaMarche turned Abradolph Lincoler, a failed creation of Rick's who has the DNA of both Lincoln and Hitler, into a character I'd like to see reappear, though I doubt he'll ever find a way to escape from the giant testicle monsters while they circle-jerk each other with the live human flesh of Lincoler and a few other unlucky partiers.

* "That's the end of season 1! That's the end, motherfucker! 'I don't give a fuck' is my new catchphrase! Fuck you! That's season 1! Boom! Season 1 up in your face, motherfucker!"

Monday, April 14, 2014

TCM celebrates 20 years of being more than just a channel full of old American movies only old white people like

T-800 River
(Photo source: The Branding Source)
Turner Classic Movies first launched on April 14, 1994 with Robert Osborne as its host, so the channel turns 20 years old today. I don't have cable anymore, but I was able to hold onto hours and hours of unwatched programming in my DVR (whattup, Pacquiao/Clottey fight), and I DVR'd so many movies off TCM it was as if I still had access to TCM long after I lost all those channels. I don't like really old things--especially old racist movies--and TCM airs a lot of old racist movies. Yet it remains one of my favorite channels because it does much more than air the usual old racist movies. (Most of its audience is also surprisingly young. Two-thirds of the channel's estimated 62 million viewers each month are ages 18 to 49, according to the New York Times' 2013 piece on TCM.)

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month, TCM devotes hours of programming to works featuring actors of color (or made by filmmakers of color) and gets film historians of color to sit with Osborne and provide their input on those films. It's aired cult favorites and obscure gems like The Crimson Kimono and Killer of Sheep that I was dying to see and weren't available on DVD when they aired (before a manufactured-on-demand service like Warner Archive came along to rescue many of those titles from unavailability) or were difficult to get access to on Netflix because they'd get stamped with that dreaded "Very long wait" status. The channel frequently exposes you to marathons of works by filmmakers you wish you were more familiar with. TCM is like film school without the outrageous tuition fees.

I missed Spike's TCM night, but I assume his TCM segments were filled with lots of 'Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?'
Ted Turner's movie channel isn't the first basic cable channel to broadcast movies uncut, commercial-free and in their original aspect ratios, but as competitors like TCM's precursor AMC, IFC and FXM succumbed to censoring their movies and inserting commercials to stay afloat, TCM has stubbornly stuck to its principles of never laying a finger on its movies (if a movie from the '70s, '80s or '90s is full of profanities, TCM airs it only late at night). Instead of ads, TCM makes a profit through experiential marketing, or as the Times explains that lofty term, "a guided tour of New York movie sites and sights on a sightseeing bus, to be offered by TCM and On Location Tours three days a week, beginning on Thursday; an annual Hollywood film festival in April; a yearly TCM Classic Cruise in December; an auction of movie memorabilia, planned for November, in partnership with Bonhams; screenings of movies like Frankenstein and To Kill a Mockingbird in theaters around the country; and DVD collections sold online and by retailers." As Osborne told the Times, all those things are "anything we can do to keep the company making enough of a profit so we don’t have to have commercials, sell underarm deodorants and all that."

Isn't Osborne just the coolest host? He's the anti-Rex Reed, as in he knows what he's talking about and he isn't a racist douchebag. And when he interviews older movie stars or filmmakers, he's the anti-James Lipton, as in he's respectful to them without coming off as creepy and he doesn't do that stupid "I'd like you to respond as your character from blankety-blank" thing. It's amazing that Osborne's still the face of TCM, even though he's started cutting back on his on-air time due to his age and recent health problems. The day when he either completely retires or dies is going to be a very sad one for TCM. I'm grateful to TCM for the following 20 moments in the channel's history (16 of them are movies I first saw on TCM and the rest of them are either special programming events or activities outside the channel schedule).

Victoria Shaw and the fucking mack
The Crimson Kimono
Asian America loves it when a young Asian American actor gets to defy Hollywood's tendency to emasculate Asian guys and play the romantic lead on TV for once, whether it's John Cho hooking up with Gabrielle Union on FlashForward or currently, Steven Yeun romancing Lauren Cohan on The Walking Dead. But decades before Cho or Yeun, James Shigeta actually got the girl in Samuel Fuller's amazing 1959 noir The Crimson Kimono. As Philip W. Chung wrote in YOMYOMF, "Now Fuller wasn't perfect. His House of Bamboo (1955) was a typical white man in Asia action thriller, and in China Gate (1957), he couldn't resist putting Angie Dickinson in yellow face, but overall, his films were pretty progressive." And The Crimson Kimono is a great example of Fuller's progressiveness, as Shigeta's Nisei homicide detective Joe Kojaku falls for art expert Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw) while he and his partner (James Corbett) investigate a stripper's murder in Little Tokyo, a part of L.A. that receives a remarkably non-stereotypical treatment from Fuller's film. As Ryan Reft said in his piece on The Crimson Kimono for KCET, "Fuller attempts to distinguish Little Tokyo, but not in any exoticized way; these are just normal Americans going about their business." The Crimson Kimono is one of several Fuller films I was introduced to by TCM, and it's made me want to see more of his works.

Jason Bourne stole his moves from these Watts kids.
Killer of Sheep
A black-and-white 1977 gem that UCLA grad student Charles Burnett made about the working class in Watts, Killer of Sheep wasn't released theatrically until 2007 and is a landmark achievement in both African American cinema and indie cinema I was first exposed to through a TCM marathon of Burnett works hosted by Burnett and Osborne. Too many contemporary American films that are centered on communities of color are heavy on the speechifying or pandering and do more telling than showing. Killer of Sheep simply shows. At one point, Burnett's camera captures a little girl (dog mask-wearing Angela Burnett, the director's daughter) playing with her doll and clapping and mumble-singing along to Earth, Wind & Fire's "Reasons." The kid's off-key sing-along and a wordless slow dance between her parents to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" are examples of how Killer of Sheep establishes the film's setting and mood more effectively than any piece of lengthy dialogue or voiceover ever could. Another moment along those lines is the visual of kids leaping from rooftop to rooftop--hey, they're the first parkourers--and it's such a striking shot that it's no wonder Mos Def turned it into the cover of his 2009 album The Ecstatic.

Three Days of the Condor
I first caught Three Days of the Condor back-to-back with Marathon Man as part of a TCM night of '70s political thrillers, one of the channel's countless, cleverly programmed theme nights. Long before Robert Redford gave one of the best performances in a Marvel Studios blockbuster in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he was attempting to outwit assassins hired by his own CIA employers to snuff him out in this enjoyable 1975 conspiracy thriller that heavily influenced the Russo brothers when they directed The Winter Soldier. While Chris Evans is joined in his crusade against HYDRA by a nicely diverse cast of allies (Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders), Redford, the lone survivor of a CIA office massacre, has only his wits to keep him alive. The silliest part of Three Days of the Condor is that Redford's supposed to be playing a book nerd, and when you think "book nerd," you don't picture Redford. You picture sickly Steve Rogers before the super-soldier serum transformed him into Captain America. But it's a testament to Redford's skills as an actor that he makes you buy his character's nerdiness and inexperience in the field despite his movie-star looks.

Godzilla searches for a bathroom after eating so much Chipotle.
Godzilla (1954)
If your idea of Godzilla is that it's a cheesy and campy franchise, prepare to be surprised by how dark and suffused with post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki paranoia the first and most serious of the Toho Godzilla films really is. Monsters director Gareth Edwards' upcoming Godzilla remake is reportedly modeled after the 1954 Godzilla, so if you're turnt up by the recent Godzilla trailer footage, check out the 1954 film to get a taste of what Edwards intends to accomplish with his gritty remake. The version of the 1954 film I saw on TCM was the original Japanese version, so if you wind up with the version where Perry Mason is frequently seen interrupting Zilla's rampage, get the hell rid of it.

Dersu Uzala
My journalism teacher Conn Hallinan once recommended Dersu Uzala to me in class while we were discussing a capsule I wrote in the campus paper about the video release of one of my favorite films, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. So when the 1975 Kurosawa film turned up on TCM 17 years after he first mentioned it to me, I finally saw it and was particularly impressed by the nail-biting sequence where Russian explorer Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) and his Siberian guide (Maksim Munzuk), the titular woodsman, battle both the harsh winter winds and their own physical exhaustion to build a straw hut in order to save themselves. It's one of my favorite sequences in a Kurosawa film.

Sophia Loren's striptease is a great argument for why Hollywood under the Hays Code sucked.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Like Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, the director of Bicycle Thieves, is another foreign filmmaker whose works I got to see on TCM. I don't think I've ever seen a film like De Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a 1963 triptych of stories each set in a different part of Italy, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni starring as a different couple in each one. Loren's striptease towards the end of the film still sizzles despite its chasteness.

Why do the only good disaster movies--Juggernaut and A Night to Remember--both come from the U.K.?

Lord Love a Duck
Roddy McDowall is the least convincing high-schooler ever. When McDowall did Lord Love a Duck, he was 90210 years old.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind"

This episode featuring various Ricks and Mortys makes that '90s Nike ad with the dozens of Bo Jacksons look like the flying pie pans in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

The only hackneyed thing about "Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind," Rick and Morty's latest brilliantly plotted round of interdimensional mayhem, has to be that episode title. The episode titling system over on Community, Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's other current show, is far more clever than Rick and Morty's titling system of late, with titles in the style of esoteric-sounding community college course names ("Cooperative Calligraphy," "Geothermal Escapism"). (Perhaps the Rick puns in each episode title--which have varied from corny to decent, like "Something Ricked This Way Comes," my favorite of the punny titles--are intentionally awful. If it's true that these titles are Harmon and Justin Roiland's joke on the lameness of most of the puns in animated show episode titles, then "Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind" tops them all in terms of intentional awfulness.)

Everything else about "Close Rick-Counters," a whodunit story in which Rick is framed by an unknown foe for murdering Ricks in other dimensions, is far from hackneyed, as well as an example of how much Rick and Morty has grown over the course of its first season from a fun Doctor Who parody to something richer and darker. If you take away the sci-fi trappings, the parallel universes gimmick and the gags about greasy grandma worlds or planets inhabited by chairs, Rick and Morty is fundamentally an often downbeat family comedy about the difficulties of living with a genius who does many amazing things (and has been responsible for showing his family the wonders they've seen, to borrow the opening narration of Farscape, a favorite show of Roiland's that must have influenced the dysfunctional relationships within the Smith household) but is also such a cold and unfeeling asshole. In "Close Rick-Counters," which was penned by Ryan Ridley (who also wrote the series turning point "Meeseeks and Destroy"), we see how the lack of compassion of the Ricks of the universe--or rather, various universes--pushes both Morty and Jerry close to the breaking point and has sent one of Morty's parallel counterparts way past that point. Enter the eyepatch-clad Evil Morty, the show's first formidable villain.

What exactly did the Rick in Evil Morty's universe do that caused Evil Morty, who had grown tired of being unappreciated, to go insane, murder him, take control of his brain (resulting in the minion/red herring that is Evil Rick) and then murder 26 other Ricks? What were the jerky things that Rick said to Evil Morty that made him believe that the Ricks in all the universes don't care about the Mortys? Other than the cold open, Evil Morty gets only two scenes in "Close Rick-Counters." One scene is mostly wordless, way before we know who Evil Morty really is, while the other is the final wordless scene before the end credits, and it's such an awesome reveal of both his treachery and his knack for keeping that treachery well-hidden, nicely soundtracked by Blonde Redhead's 2000 tune "For the Damaged Coda." I'm dying to see what else Evil Morty has up his sleeve, and I can't wait to see how our learning disability-afflicted Morty--or rather, Earth Morty C-137--will react when he finds out that there's a Morty who broke the mold and is as much of a genius as the Ricks.

We, of course, know that Evil Morty, for all his genius, is wrong about Rick not caring about Morty, as we see in the great little moment where C-137 Rick tears up while watching his memories of himself with Morty being projected by Evil Rick before the minion attempts to murder him. Why does Rick hide his compassion for his grandson from him?

"Maybe he wants to keep people at arms [sic] length, because it IS so normal for people to die around him," theorizes the Rick and Morty fan who runs a Tumblr called Morty and Rick. "It makes it easier, and easier to deal with the dizzying concept of there being yous in other dimensions that may be better than you, happier than you, etc."

Hey, broh, check out on the wall that sexy Maxim pin-up of a portal gun.
(Photo source: Morty and Rick)

There's one more episode left in Rick and Morty's first season. I hope the question of why Rick prefers to make himself look tough in front of Morty isn't answered for a while. Also, as Harmon said about that kind of question when he was interviewed by Alan Sepinwall about Rick and Morty, "if Rick does or says something that indicates that he doesn't care about you as a human being, is he expressing a flaw in his brain or is he more evolved than us? Or is it both?" Having Rick immediately confide to Morty about how he truly feels would go against how the show has painted Rick as a complicated human being rather than a typical '70s and '80s sitcom character who nobly speechifies about feelings and social issues and makes my eyes roll. At the same time though, I don't want to see Rick, seven or eight years from now, becoming as repetitive and tiresome an asshole genius as Gregory House became about seven seasons into House. I want to see him change a little, just like how the similarly abrasive Jeff Winger did over the course of Community's run.

On the other side of the compassion spectrum stands Earth Rick J19-Zeta-7, a.k.a. "Doofus Rick." He pales in comparison to the other Ricks who comprise the Council of Ricks, the transdimensional government that presides over all matters pertaining to the Ricks (it's also a club the bureaucracy-hating C-137 Rick refuses to join), and he's continually teased by them for hailing from the universe where people eat their own shit. But like Evil Morty, Doofus Rick is an outlier. Unlike the other Ricks, Doofus Rick's unafraid to show compassion. When he tags along with the various Ricks, who stop by the Smiths' house to investigate C-137 Rick's whereabouts, his kindness to Jerry wins over the friendless and currently unemployed advertising man, who's constantly insecure about being surrounded by a heart surgeon wife and scientist father-in-law who are smarter than him and keep giving him a hard time about his ordinariness.

Eating shit and dying laughing

Doofus Rick doesn't ridicule Jerry for his love of collecting Star Wars coins like Beth and presumably C-137 Rick do. He says to Jerry, "You bought them because you like them. They have value to you. That's what matters," although I like how a little bit of the other Ricks' bluntness remains when he precedes that sentence with "You know, Jerry, I'm not gonna tell you that these will increase in value or even hold their current value." This B-story in which Jerry gets the nice father-in-law he always wanted--but in the form of a Rick from another dimension that has customs I kind of don't want to know more about, because of the whole shit-eating thing, which sounds like something Shailene Woodley would be into--is both poignant and amusing. The funniest part of the B-story is a gag that can easily be overlooked during first viewing: Doofus Rick's little lesson to Jerry on how to make ovenless brownies out of titanium nitrate and chlorified tartrate. Compared to regular people, Doofus Rick isn't really much of a doofus because of his scientific know-how. So because scientific things that, on paper, look simple to a Rick, whether he's C-137 Rick or Doofus Rick, are gibberish to a regular person like Jerry, he's unable to notice that Doofus Rick's tasty brownies are actually feces.

Now that we've gotten a tiny glimpse of Evil Morty, I wonder if Evil Jerry will be as pathetic as the other Jerrys we've seen so far or if he'll be as much of an evil mastermind as Evil Morty. Or is it both?

Memorable quotes:
* "Will you at least unfreeze my daughter's idiot?"

* "W-w-wherever you find people with heads up their asses, someone wants a piece of your grandpa, and a lot of versions of me on different timelines had the same problem, so a few thousand versions of me had the INGENIOUS IDEA OF BANDING TOGETHER! Like a herd of cattle or a school of fish or those people who answer questions on Yahoo! Answers."

* "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got pancakes back home with syrup on top of them. They're about to hit that critical point of syrup absorption that turns the cakes into a gross paste, and I hate to get all Andy Rooney about it, but I think we all like fluffy discs of cake with syrup on top, and I think we also like to be accused of crimes when there's evidence! So as they say in Canada, peace oot!"

* "Earth Rick C-137, the Council of Ricks sentences you to the Machine of Unspeakable Doom, which swaps your conscious and unconscious minds, rendering your fantasies pointless while everything you've known becomes impossible to grasp. Also, every 10 seconds, it stabs your balls."

* C-137 Rick: "The slow clap? Really? Kind of played out, dude." Evil Rick: "Not in this dimension, it isn't. In fact, I invented it. Nobody else has ever even done it here before." C-137 Rick: "Well, la-di-da." Evil Rick: "Hey, that's mine!"

* Evil Rick, gesturing at the array of monitors showing disturbing images of naked Mortys being tortured: "Ah, isn't it beautiful?" C-137 Rick: "Yeah, yeah. Looks like payday at Neverland Ranch in here. Zing!"

* Evil Rick: "Unh-unh-unh, Rick, quiet. You're missing my symphony." C-137 Rick: "Hey, I'll take it over Mumford & Sons. Zip!"

* C-137 Rick, referring to a minion of Evil Rick's who comes from a planet of crab creatures and appears to be the only one chuckling from his quips: "This guy is on it!" Evil Rick: "He's not laughing at your dumb jokes, Rick. That's just a random noise it makes every 10 seconds."

* One of the imprisoned Mortys: "I'm sick of being a human shield. I-I-I w... I want to be a gardener!" Another Morty, who comes from a dimension where Rick and Morty have antennae on their heads: "I want to write really crazy intense action novels!"

* Evil Rick: "You're crying? Over a Morty?" C-137 Rick: "No, I'm just allergic to dipshits."

Friday, April 4, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Space Dandy, "Even Vacuum Cleaners Fall in Love, Baby"

And now it's time for her to burst into a shitty Alan Menken show tune about wanting to see the world.
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

QT the outdated robot is my favorite character on Space Dandy, mostly because of actress Uki Satake's terrific voice work as this unusually sensitive vacuum cleaner who speaks in a little boy's voice and loves to clean (likewise with Alison Viktorin's voice work as QT in the American dub). There are five ways Space Dandy could have written QT as a comedic robot sidekick: as either a coward (a la C3P0), a machine who takes humans' idioms literally (a la Data or Get Smart's Hymie), a depressed droid (a la Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), a snob (a la KITT) or a party animal (a la the alcoholic Bender or the much more family-friendly BMO over on Adventure Time). I like the primary comedic characteristic Space Dandy has chosen for QT instead of either of the above: his habit of forgetting to provide Dandy with the most valuable info, particularly when Dandy heads off to an unknown and dangerous planet, is a surprisingly good running gag that never gets old on this show.

Screw the material about parallel universes and incompetent Dr. Gel's mysterious obsession with capturing Dandy. The Space Dandy episode I've been looking forward to the most during the show's first season has been QT's solo adventure (after Dandy was the focus of "A Merry Companion Is a Wagon in Space, Baby," and then Meow got a slightly similar showcase in "There's Always Tomorrow, Baby"), and "Even Vacuum Cleaners Fall in Love, Baby," the QT-centric season finale, doesn't disappoint.

Dandy and Meow barely appear in "Vacuum Cleaners," and when they do, it's either to browse through dating sites or complain about QT's absence from the Aloha Oe, which becomes a pig sty because QT isn't around to clean the ship. The Aloha Oe is stuck without fuel on a planet where dreadlocked humanoids co-exist with intelligent appliances, who make up much of the planet's workforce. QT has wandered off to a coffeehouse in a metropolis called Deathroid City, where he's fallen in love with a friendly coffee-brewing machine named Maker (Aya Hirano) and has gladly volunteered to clean up after her whenever she accidentally spills coffee.

We get an early hint that Maker is actually in love with the coffeehouse's cash register robot (Hiroki Gotou), whose name is, of course, Register, but QT, who's never been in love with someone else before, is too awestruck by Maker's beauty and kindness as a machine to notice her feelings for Register. And who could blame QT? She refers to QT as a high-end robot instead of a vacuum cleaner, compliments him on his cleaning and treats him better than the dickish Dandy does. She also challenges QT to be less buttoned-up, especially when she attempts to get QT to try out her coffee. But despite Maker's best efforts, QT's not interested in drinking coffee because he doesn't drink liquids of any kind. Bender would hate to be around QT.

Maker, who doesn't have wheels like QT does, has never left the coffeehouse and has become curious about the world outside its door, so one night, QT awakes her from her robotic sleep and offers to show her around Deathroid City. The ensuing romantic date features my favorite original Space Dandy song (outside of the opening and closing title themes) so far, a vocoderized ballad sung in both Japanese and English. The smooth tune has been frequently compared by viewers in comments sections to Daft Punk's "Something About Us," but it's actually more along the lines of Zapp & Roger, in keeping with general director Shinichiro Watanabe's mandate that the show's musicians aren't allowed to use any instruments that were invented after 1984. The Zapp & Roger-esque score cues during "Vacuum Cleaners" are making me long for a Space Dandy score album (the only piece of music from Space Dandy that's been released so far is a single of Yasuyuki Okamura's "Viva Namida," the opening title theme for the Japanese version of the show, and by the way, that single can now be heard during "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" and "AFOS Prime" on AFOS).

In Deathroid City, appliances are forbidden from becoming overemotional because it interferes with their effectiveness as appliances, and when their emotions get the best of them, they're taken away by the city's authorities to a landfill called Dream Island. Maker starts to express love for another machine, and to QT's dismay, she gets sent away to Dream Island, along with Register, who's removed from the coffeehouse for "ringing up bills as free." QT follows his crush to this island of misfit robots, where he learns how to dance with Maker at a rave that's being DJ'd by Register ("Is this what's called dancing?") and then discovers that Register and the rest of the ousted appliances are plotting to overthrow the planet, under the leadership of the elderly Toaster (Akio Ohtsuka).

A tearful Maker refuses to join Register in the robot revolution because she doesn't want him to die and she'd hate to see death and destruction ravage the planet, and this is where QT finally realizes that Maker's in love with Register. Instead of resenting Maker for sending him mixed signals and preferring Register over him, QT accepts her choice. QT's dignified reaction to being friend-zoned would definitely please the "Boyle doesn't deserve to hook up with Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine because he's been too creepy and stalker-ish around her" crowd. But QT can't stand to see Maker being so upset about this "age of appliances" that Toaster wants to forcibly bring to the planet, so in the most heroic thing he's ever done on the show so far, he attempts to stop Toaster and his followers from unleashing on Deathroid City their doomsday weapon, a giant robot assembled from junkyard parts.

Episodes in which characters with an inactive love life wind up getting kicked in the butt by love aren't usually my cup of tea. But "Vacuum Cleaners" distinguishes itself, first by giving ample screen time and character growth--both figuratively and literally--to a sidekick character I like way more than the other characters, and then by concluding not with a whimper, but with a bang, and it's something you'd be a fool not to love: a giant robot fight. Right when Toaster's robot starts to attack Deathroid City, Dr. Gel, who's too busy with scientific experiments to be concerned with chasing Dandy in this episode, conducts an experiment with pyonium rays right above the planet and fires a ray from his ship that happens to hit QT. The pyonium energy causes QT to grow in size, which allows him to become powerful enough to take on Toaster's robot by himself.

Episode director Shingo Natsume and the other animators came up with remarkable visuals for the nighttime robot fight sequence, both before and after QT's size change, although the way giant-sized QT defeats Toaster's robot looks confusing. So all QT has to do to cause Toaster's robot to collapse into different pieces is to simply give it a hug? It doesn't make sense, but then again, neither do quite a few other things on this show, which will resume its brand of sci-fi weirdness in July for the beginning of its second--and hopefully equally solid--season.

Stray observations:
* Dandy hits on a waitress who turns out to be a Kuato and immediately loses interest. I'm sure the Penthouse Forum letters in the Penthouse mags lying around the Aloha Oe are full of stories about bedding Kuatos.

Kuato prostitutes are the least popular prostitutes on Mars.

* My favorite discarded appliance on Dream Island has to be the rice cooker robot. Astig.

'NotYourOutdatedVideotapeFormat!,' shouted the Betamax machine.

From the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska, it's "Top 10 reasons why the soon-to-retire David Letterman's 4am episode remains one of my favorite Late Show eps"

Letterman wakes up the sewer rats at 4am.
10. The Top 10 List for May 14, 2004 was read by people working the graveyard shift.

9. I was too young to stay up and watch NBC's Late Night with David Letterman when it first aired. But I grew up watching the soon-to-retire Letterman's CBS show (if the words "Happy Da Birthday Ve" or "Dave and Steve's Gay Vacation" don't make you smile, you're clearly a Leno fan), and the May 14, '04 episode with Amy Sedaris and musical guest Modest Mouse, which Letterman taped earlier that morning at 4am in front of an amazingly awake (but not really amazing to most of New York) Ed Sullivan Theater studio audience, was the closest Late Show has gotten to recapturing the weirdness of Letterman's Late Night years.

8. Unless I'm mistaken, Late Show remains the only late-night talk show that ever taped an episode at 4am. "We thought it would be cool, just something different to try... The city is always interesting, but particularly interesting at 4am," said Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett to USA Today in '04 about the show's one-time decision to switch from Letterman's usual late-afternoon recording time to an ungodly hour.

7. Letterman made one of his grandest entrances by riding on horseback to the Ed, to the tune of Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra's rendition of John Barry's Midnight Cowboy instrumental theme. An underrated John Barry movie theme as walk-on music on a late-night talk show! Shaffer's walk-on music choices have occasionally been questionable (he once soundtracked black SNL cast member Ellen Cleghorne's entrance with "Jimmy Crack Corn," a song about a black slave, and then claimed it was because "Cleghorne" sounded to him like "Crack Corn"--I'm not making this up), but otherwise, they've always been clever, and I'm going to miss that part of the show, as well as Letterman's wit and snarkiness.

6. I stopped liking Sedaris ever since Angry Asian Man wrote in 2009 about her history of doing this, but the 4am show was worthwhile also because it featured the frequent Late Show guest, who wasn't accustomed to being in front of a camera at 4am, at her loopiest.

5. Shaffer soundtracked the porno video store part of Sedaris' 4am walking tour of her Greenwich Village neighborhood with the Vince Guaraldi Trio classic "Cast Your Fate to the Wind."

4. There was a segment about catching rats in Manhattan.

3. The rat expert's reply to Letterman's question about why he studied rats was "Because I hate them."

The New York bedbugs will salute Letterman on his day of retirement by crawling into the mattresses of New York Post writers who hate Letterman.
(Photo source: National Geographic Creative)
2. Everyone in the studio audience received an Egg McMuffin. I don't care for Mickey D's, but the only worthwhile part of the Mickey D's menu is its breakfast items. Want to scare away a hipster? Hurl Egg McMuffins at him.

1. Fucking Midnight Cowboy theme, y'all!

Speaking of John Barry, his score cues from The Knack... And How to Get It, The Persuaders, From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and The Living Daylights can be heard during "AFOS Prime," from 4pm to 9pm Pacific and 11pm to 7am Pacific, Monday-Wednesday on AFOS.