Thursday, May 28, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Dark Knight Rises (with guest blogger Hardeep Aujla from Word Is Bond)

Much of The Dark Knight Rises was based on DC's Knightfall crossover event, or as I like to call it, 'the one where DC thought it was wise to give Batman a fucking ugly '90s Image Comics-style makeover.'

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket. This time I've gotten Hardeep Aujla, an editor from a U.K.-based hip-hop blog I've contributed pieces to, Word Is Bond, to come back after his guest TBT post about The Signal and discuss the movie on the ticket I drew.

I've noticed that the strongest Christopher Nolan movies contain the least amount of scenes of male actors crying, while the least satisfying Nolan movies are the ones with the most male cry-face scenes. Following? I haven't watched that one yet. Memento and Insomnia? Barely any male weeping scenes in those standout Nolan thrillers. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception? Slightly more male blubbering. But it was kept to a minimum--just three or four male crying scenes in the first two Batman films--and in each of those two films, one of those three or four scenes proved how much of an asset Gary Oldman, who's great at crying scenes and didn't overdo it in those films, was to Nolan's Batman trilogy. I can't remember if Hugh Jackman or Christian Bale were ever in need of one of those magician's hankies for more than just a magic trick in The Prestige, but I believe the crying was also kept to a minimum in that one.

As for The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, Michael Caine had to cry in every single scene of his in The Dark Knight Rises, and he did it in that anguished voice I can't ever hear again without thinking of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's hilarious impressions of later-period Caine sounding like he's yodeling during emotional scenes, while 70% of Interstellar's nearly three-hour running time consisted of Matthew McConaughey blubbering exactly like Jon Hamm in the SNL auto-tuned crying sketch. The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar have turned out to be two of Nolan's least satisfying blockbusters, although I'll take The Dark Knight Rises over the Joel Schumacher version of Batman any day. So Mr. Nolan, if you want to win back some of the critics who weren't impressed with Interstellar, maybe you should try relying less on making several of your stars cry-talk like Felicity on Arrow all last season. Meanwhile, Hardeep enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises more than I did. He explains why.--JJA

Batman and Bane face off to see who could sound the most like a goofy monster from The Muppet Show.

The Dark Knight Rises
By Hardeep Aujla

Bob Kane thought the cake-bomb-pondering Batman of the 60's was an enjoyable farce, but that wasn't the character he had in mind when pencilling his way to a 6000% pay-rise in 1939. Such was the success of Batman. But it wasn't all enjoyable for the one-time kid who just wanted to draw goofballs like Popeye when he grew up. If things went south when he slapped the first sketches on DC editor Vince Sullivan's desk, he would have gladly gone back to drawing funnies. "I received more pleasure from drawing them than I ever did from drawing Batman", wrote Kane in his '89 auto-biography Batman and Me. And that's kinda the point of Batman; we're supposed to feel uneasy about being in the company of this character who at first glance looks like he reps the villainous axis. Furthermore, Batman is alluded to be a personal projection of Kane's; it's right there in the bio's title, the coalescence of a beat-down he took as a kid whilst pretending to be Zorro and rum-running-era New York. Roger Ebert found Tim Burton's noir-laden Batman (1989) to be "a depressing experience". Then many viewers deemed Christopher Nolan's recent trilogy, particularly the concluding entry Dark Knight Rises, to be sullen and overwrought, which was vindication in the ears of others who were on board with Bob's (and writer/character flesher-outer Bill Finger's) intimate, dark vision and had waited years to see it return to the screen.

It's as if the Halle Berry Catwoman movie never existed.

Sure, the films might not bring a whole lot of new ideas to the table that the many weekly rags and hardback "graphic novels" have given us over the decades, but if you asked Bob Kane, nothing else ever did after Superman and Batman bookended the continuum of all superhero possibilities. Regardless, it's probably fair to say that Bob and Bill would've approved of Nolan's submersion of Batman back into the dark and his eagerness to use him as a device to speak to audiences on a different level. And I have enjoyed how Nolan speaks about contemporary issues pervading our times in these films.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Selina Kyle, covertly anomalous (or perhaps not entirely given the crowd) during a ballroom thing, whispers to Bruce Wayne, "You'll wonder how you ever lived so large and left so little for the rest of us..." While this does echo contemporary economic injustices and does unsettle Bruce in a similar way it probably unsettles the real-life financial "elite" in the West who are somehow surprised that billions in the East would like the same standard of living as them, this film doesn't have a neo-imperialist agenda just like The Dark Knight didn't have a pro-George Bush agenda, despite how many opinions would have you otherwise believe. Instead we have Bane, whose character is conveyed superbly, overriding the need for facial expressions with a menacing mask and subtly expressive body language, from placing the back of his hand on someone's shoulder to an unflinching walk despite the surprise revelation of the Bat-Glider: small touches that spoke volumes. Bane attacks a city we are shown to be undeserving of pity or protection primarily, again, through the indignation of Selina Kyle, who observes how the rich show no austerity and resorts to cat-burglary out of inevitability in an unjust city: a product of Gotham (a character in its own right in this film) as much as Batman or his supervillains are. Bane's storm on the stock exchange is therefore a not-so-subtle device to this end, and from there on in we get a few big plot holes and, more importantly, a Tale Of Two Cities-style discourse which Nolan openly footnotes the entire film with via a direct quote at the end.

Christopher Nolan kept the IMAX footage to a minimum in the Batman movies because IMAX cameras are so fucking noisy when you switch them on. They're the Sam Kinison of movie cameras.
Fan-made poster

But like he did in The Dark Knight with the ferry climax, Nolan counters villainy with the kind of virtuous responses that all great comic books often do (Raimi also struck gold with the same idea during the train sequence in Spider-Man 2). This time Batman must re-live his genesis following a beat-down of his own that would've had Bob Kane flashing back. Spurred on by the words of his late-father that've echoed throughout the entire trilogy, he rises once again from defeat but this time things are noticeably different. Most striking cinematically is that his final punch-up with Bane is in broad daylight, a departure from pretty much every major fight scene in the series. He no longer relies on the shadows as an accomplice; his mission now is not to strike fear into the enemy but to inspire Gotham's oppressed inhabitants. The classic formalities of narrative dictate that Batman too must perish with the darkness of the city that created him, and his sacrifice at the end achieves this whilst also redeeming him from the long-standing dishonour established at the end of The Dark Knight. In this regard, The Dark Knight Rises has a much more positive and conclusive ending than many attribute it with: a story that shows Bruce Wayne won't always be a victim of both the city and himself, and a story that Bob and Bill, at least, might've taken professional and personal comfort from.

Batman w Slanket: Yawn of Justice

Hardeep Aujla writes and edits album reviews for Word Is Bond in Leicester, England. Selections from Hans Zimmer's Dark Knight Rises score can be heard during the AFOS blocks "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H."

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Is Christina Hendricks a "trouper" or "trooper"?

Before Mad Men, Christina Hendricks was best known for appearing on Firefly, the show where white people always curse in Chinese, but none of the writers ever stopped to think, 'Hmm, isn't it fucking weird that none of the cast is actually Chinese?'
A few days ago, I was looking for the YouTube link to that old viral video of a KTLA morning TV interviewer transforming into a total dweeb after Christina Hendricks, star of the recently-concluded-for-good, unlikely-to-do-reunion-movies-guest-starring-the-Harlem-Globetrotters AMC hit Mad Men, mentions how she received news of her first-ever Emmy acting nomination while she was preparing to take a bath. The image of her bathing is all the interviewer can talk about for the rest of the interview. Way to keep it professional, KTLA guy! "He sits there silently for a whole minute, and by the time he gets back into the conversation, he's a stuttering mess. Although to his credit, he still has his pants on," wrote Uproxx in 2010.

This wasn't Conan turning his awkwardness around hot women into the kind of comedy bit Inside Amy Schumer hilariously parodied in its recent sketch about the clichés that always take place during late-night talk show interviews with flirty female guests (I love how Schumer's sketch references that 2009 Conan-era Tonight Show interview where Gwyneth Paltrow's legs somehow got greasier and greasier after each commercial break). This was a journalist who, in front of an all-female news desk, was unable to prevent himself from regressing into a nervous 14-year-old school dance attendee in the middle of one of the least suitable places for doing that, a mostly non-comedic morning news show, with Hendricks throwing in a couple of amusing "Down, boy!"-type responses, like "That [bath story] was like two conversations ago, but thank you for remembering," which were both why the clip went viral. Why do the most awkward and NewsBeFunny YouTube channel-friendly things always happen on morning shows, whether it's The Today Show, The View or Fox & Friends?

Then I finally found the KTLA clip and copied and pasted into TextEdit both the URL and embed code, which is something I always need to do with YouTube videos I might want to include someday in posts such as this. I gave the TextEdit file the name of "Christina Hendricks Handles Brian McFayden's Drooling Like a Trooper."

But as I was typing out the file name, I became unsure about the spelling of "trooper." I kept changing it back and forth between "trooper" and "trouper."

I hear the expression "handling it like a trooper" all the time. But I've never stopped to think, "Where the hell does that expression come from?"

I opened the dictionary in my MacBook. A trooper is either "a state police officer" or "a private soldier in a cavalry, armored or airborne unit." I knew that. I didn't know a trooper can also be "a cavalry horse" or British jibber-jabber for "a ship used for transporting troops." So in the U.K., I guess that means the novel and movie title Starship Troopers sounds to them like Starship Starships. The title Starship Starships would be as absurd as whitewashing the Filipino hero of a sci-fi novel, which Hollywood would never do, right? Oh, wait...

Meanwhile, a trouper is "an actor or other entertainer, typically one with long experience" or "a reliable and uncomplaining person." I always thought it was "handling it like a trooper" because they're handling it like a brave soldier or a slick and smooth member of the '90s R&B group Troop.

I guess "a reliable and uncomplaining person" makes sense too. So which sides have professional writers taken in the war between "trouper" and "trooper"? While mentioning Sopranos star Nancy Marchand back in his Newark Star-Ledger, pre-HitFix days (the year 2000, to be exact), TV critic Alan Sepinwall said, "Marchand, who has cancer, proved herself to be a real trouper." Over at MTV News, where a Nicki Minaj backup dancer who received a snake bite qualifies as news, they said that the bitten dancer "handled it like a trooper." Meanwhile, what do etymologists outside of Dr. Webster, Dr. Merriam, Dr. Wagnalls and Dr. Uptown Funk have to say about all this?

The Grammarphobia Blog says "trouper," which also means "a member of a performing company (theatrical, singing or dancing)," also known as a troupe, has evolved in the 20th century so that the term can be used to refer to "a hard worker, a good sport, a reliable person, a mensch." Their stand on "Trouper or trooper?" is "trouper" over "trooper" because it's been spelled "trouper" since the 19th century, but due to Google searches showing "like a trooper" to be more commonly used than "like a trouper," "trooper" is alright with them too.

I also checked with a site called Daily Writing Tips. The site, which notes that "troop" and "troupe" both originated from the same French word ("troupeau," a variation of "troppus," the Latin word for "flock," according to my MacBook's dictionary), takes the following stand: "If the context has to do with courage, trooper is appropriate. If the context has to do with cooperation, dependability and the show business attitude of 'the show must go on,' then trouper is the word to use."

Joan from Mad Men was both a bit courageous (to be awake and sharp-witted that early in the day) and very unflappable in the face of live-on-L.A.-morning-TV drooling. So either spelling is correct--unless you're in the galaxy where a band of rebels has been fighting an oppressive intergalactic empire for decades and "handling it like a trooper" means you're handling it like a genocidal space Nazi in a shiny white helmet.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Wolf of Wall Street

No Rolling Stones tracks during this one!
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

When many film directors reach their 60s or 70s and continue to direct, they tend to lose their spark. They're simply no longer the inventive or energetic filmmakers we used to know from their earlier work. Even the most beloved late-night hosts get this way too. In a 2012 WNYC interview, David Letterman, who retired from the late-night airwaves, admitted that one of the differences between his period at NBC, where he hosted two groundbreaking and anarchic talk shows, and the slightly less adventurous Late Show on CBS was simply that "I'm 65; I don't have the energy I had when I was 35."

As for directors as they age, they become either more hackneyed and sentimental or more out-of-touch and complacent--so their later films suffer as a result, and for fans of the original Star Wars trilogy, the worst example of this was the pointless and woodenly acted (except for in the case of Ewan McGregor) Star Wars prequels George Lucas directed after a 22-year hiatus from the director's chair. As the now-defunct Stylus magazine points out in a depressing 2007 overview of bold '70s filmmakers who had trouble sustaining their hot streak after their first few films, "Boldness and originality becomes [sic] harder to achieve as time moves on and business interests close in."

Another example of a distinctive director losing his spark is the late Billy Wilder. Although Wilder remained his usual sharp-witted self in interviews (man, I really ought to check out Cameron Crowe's Conversations with Wilder from the public library one of these days), his movies towards the end of his career aren't as fondly remembered as earlier Wilder masterpieces like Double Indemnity or Some Like It Hot. You don't exactly see cineastes jumping for joy over Buddy Buddy.

But there are a couple of recent exceptions to the theory that as filmmakers get older, they lose their edge. George Miller, who's now 70, was in his late 60s when he shot this summer's incredible Mad Max: Fury Road, and Martin Scorsese was 70 when he directed The Wolf of Wall Street, my favorite of the five films Scorsese has made with Leonardo DiCaprio so far.

'Must... insert... Rolling Stones track during husband-taunting scene,' thinks Scorsese to himself.

Scorsese's invaluable and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker--who, together with Scorsese, remarkably whittled down four hours' worth of largely improvised material between DiCaprio and the rest of The Wolf of Wall Street's ensemble cast to 179 minutes--once said to Variety, "Marty's movies are so unusual. He doesn't repeat himself, so [the studios] don't know what to expect." Eh, actually, Scorsese's repeated himself--existing song-wise, that is. His umpteenth use of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" in The Departed was a sign of a filmmaker who needed to take a break for a while from hitting repeat on Let It Bleed tracks on his iPod.

But otherwise, Schoonmaker's right. Scorsese's films have never had a problem of being interchangeable (he revisits motifs and themes like greed, media attention, addiction or religious guilt but is somehow able to do so without becoming repetitive and derivative), whereas many of his filmmaking peers have ended up making the same film three or four times--another example of when directors show their age. "Gangs of New York is so different from The Aviator, which was so different from The Departed or Age of Innocence or Kundun," said Schoonmaker to HitFix. And after Scorsese directed 2011's Hugo, he followed up his first family film--as well as one of his least controversial works, unless you're a stickler for accuracy in terms of how the Eiffel Tower gets depicted on film--with perhaps his most sexually explicit film to date, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Favorite movie newspaper or magazine headline: 'Boy Trapped In Refrigerator Eats Own Foot' from Airplane!

Adapted from the memoirs of former stockbroker and former cokehead Jordan Belfort by screenwriter Terence Winter (who created and showran Boardwalk Empire, which Scorsese co-produced), the 2013 Scorsese flick reunited the New York filmmaker with an old pal: controversy. Many haters of the film felt it glorified the scummy and misogynist behavior of Belfort the white-collar criminal and his cronies at the Wall Street firm Stratton Oakmont. Other haters--particularly audience members who are about as old as Scorsese or older than him--found the amount of debauchery on display in the film to be excessive. They wished The Wolf of Wall Street contained less debauchery, even after Scorsese already kept the film from getting stamped with a financially risky NC-17 by making a few additional edits, like turning to Rob Legato, the Hugo visual FX wizard whom I'll always remember for giving away on Reading Rainbow the FX magicians' secret of how he filmed the Star Trek: The Next Generation transporter beam FX (hint: glitter stirred in a glass of water), and his team to digitally insert an Eyes Wide Shut-style chair as a visual barricade for a gay orgy scene.

But the excessiveness makes perfect sense in The Wolf of Wall Street: it's a film about hedonistic Wall Street culture and all its emptiness (as well as its enticing qualities), and it would have been inane to depict that culture in a watered-down, Hallmark Channel-friendly way. In the GQ blog post "Olds Heckle The Wolf of Wall Street for Being Too Awesome," Scott Christian nicely criticized the olds and their disgust with Scorsese's focus this time on sex--instead of the usual GoodFellas-style violence he's most known for--when he said, "He's not some pervy old man, he's actually trying to show us how fractured and ugly these characters are... What is shocking is that people are so outraged by a bit of T&A but not by violence. Of course, that's nothing new."

The Wolf of Wall Street is neither a pervy old man's movie nor the shrill cinematic equivalent of an old man shouting at millennials to get off his lawn, which was basically what Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom was. Scorsese said repeatedly in interviews that he made The Wolf of Wall Street as an expression of his own frustration with how materialism has become a religion in the last 35 years--no wonder Scorsese staged Belfort's office pep talks to his employees as if they're revival meetings--but Scorsese has done something clever with that frustration. The easy way to approach anger over economic inequality and the swindling of ordinary working folk is to turn it into a solemn movie about the Way America Ought to Be, But America's Too Broken and We'll Never Be Able to Fix It. The problem with that kind of movie is that it's been done to death, and it's boring as hell.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Varèse Sarabande's "LP to CD" series is a bonkers idea only hoarders would sign up for

April Fool's Day is also the title of the best Weird Al parody of U2 that Weird Al recorded in a parallel universe that's more fun than our drab-ass universe.
The AFOS blog has a schedule each week: just two (or sometimes three) new posts, and one of the posts is a Throwback Thursday post where I draw from a desk cabinet a movie ticket I saved and discuss at length the movie on the ticket (occasionally, if I draw a ticket for a movie I won't find to be stimulating to write about--like, say, Transformers: The Torture of Hearing Shia LaBeouf Scream "No!" 50,000 Times--I'll change it to a different movie). I chose a two-per-week schedule so that this blog has something new every week and it doesn't wind up looking like tumbleweed drifting across a vacant lot, which is what has happened to so many blogs I used to enjoy reading before their authors simply lost interest and abandoned them without even saying a proper "I'm Swayze."

Finding a topic to write about other than the Throwback Thursday movie-of-the-week has sometimes been difficult. In the last couple of weeks, I've wanted to write about how I wish the late, great movie trailer announcer Percy Rodrigues were alive to read promo copy for Penny Dreadful or trailer copy for 2011's Attack the Block because they look so much like things Rodrigues--whose favorite trailer campaign of mine has got to be the one he recorded for 1995's Tales from the Hood--would have been hired to read copy for when he was alive.

But the problem I've been having with that topic is that it's difficult to write about in a structure that's not a listicle. Earlier this year, I vowed to never write a listicle again because 1) listicles at their worst are such lazy and vapid writing; 2) every time I see an article hed that consists of a numeral followed by a plural noun followed by "That You Didn't Know Were This," I feel like punching a millennial hed writer in the face; and 3) if your film music blog or pop culture site has posted tons of listicles where the hed starts with a numeral, and it continues to post such lists, your blog or site sucks.

So while I was experiencing starts and stops with the topic of trailer campaigns Rodrigues would have been perfect for, I saw "Varèse Sarabande Launches LP to CD Series" in my e-mail. Then I said, "Interesting. I've found my non-TBT topic for next week." And good thing it's the kind of topic that can't be shaped into a fucking listicle.

"Varèse Sarabande has delved deep into our vinyl soundtrack vaults to locate fan favorites and hard-to-find gems that have never been released on CD to date!," announced the inkblot-logoed soundtrack label on its site last week. "The LP to CD subscription series will feature one CD soundtrack per month culled from Varèse Sarabande's archives and available only to subscribers."

The label plans to debut 12 long-out-of-print score albums in CD form instead of in mp3 download form. Subscribers who pre-order for "LP to CD" membership ($10 per month, plus shipping) before June 14 will receive from Varèse (pronounced "vuh-rez") a CD carrying case in the shape of a vintage vinyl carrying case. After June 14, people can join the subscription series on a month-to-month basis. The first out-of-print score in the "LP to CD" series is Charles Bernstein's score to the '80s horror comedy April Fool's Day.

Eh, I've never seen April Fool's Day (even though I kind of remember the tongue-in-cheek April Fool's Day TV spots from when I was a kid, and judging from those TV spots, it looks like the type of horror comedy I'd be into renting these days), so the score doesn't interest me. But bringing 12 score albums from Varèse's pre-CD past back into print is both a nice thing for Varèse to do--it's reminiscent of the MOD (manufactured-on-demand) business model Warner Archive has created to give film geeks access to previously unreleased or out-of-print catalog titles from the Warner Bros. and Turner libraries--and a subscription series I'd get on board with if I had more money.

Actually, I thought it was a subscription series I'd get on board with--until I found out the other 11 score albums in the series haven't been announced by Varèse yet. So anyone who subscribes before June 14 won't have any idea what they'll be filling their red carrying cases with after the April Fool's Day score and maybe whatever score is scheduled to follow that one, which I think is crazy. To be put into that kind of guessing game is the kind of thing I wouldn't sign up for. A guessing game might be great for a pie-of-the-month club, but it wouldn't be so great for a score-album-of-the-month club. To give other score album collectors an approximate idea of what else Varèse might reissue for the "LP to CD" series, someone on the Film Score Monthly message board posted a list of Varèse titles that never made the jump to CD. There are more than 12.

The Ewok movies? Why am I not surprised no one was exactly clamoring for them?

Yeah, that's not exactly an enticing list. Meanwhile, the world's only two or three fans of Blame It on Rio or From the Hip just creamed their pants.

I've always liked Varèse, and I put selections from tons of Varèse albums into rotation on AFOS all the time. My favorite release of theirs has to be the six-CD 2010 release of both Alex North's 1960 Spartacus score and the various cover versions of North's Spartacus love theme, a tune that became a jazz standard and one of the late Nujabes' favorite things to sample. The handsomely packaged, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Spartacus box set is a release that, on paper, sounds like the old "We've put 50 songs on 50 CDs!" joke from the "Greatest Hits" game on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but it's no joke, and that box set is the impressive pinnacle of Varèse's work in both giving beloved film and TV scores proper releases and honoring the art of film and TV scoring.

But despite my liking of Varèse, I've never been a Varèse soundtrack release completist like the completists who would subscribe to the "LP to CD" series. Who out there makes it their life's mission to collect every single release put out by a record label--rather than a musician or band they might love--even if an album made by the label contains a score from a movie or TV show they're not familiar with and even if a score released by that label was written by a composer they never liked? That's like if a hip-hop head bought every single release from Def Jam just because it's from Def Jam, including everything from the failed Roc La Familia imprint and even Kingdom Come, which Jay Z considers his worst album. It's just so bizarre. I call it bizarre, while A&E has a different word for it. Maybe you've heard of that word. The word is Hoarders.

Paul Chihara scored The Haunting Passion, an '80s TV-movie that caused me to have a crush on Jane Seymour, even though the movie's kind of cheesy--especially Chihara's softcore porn-ish score--and it's basically about Jane Seymour awkwardly fucking a ghost.
Paul Chihara

Only one out-of-print Varèse score on the above list interests me. It's Paul Chihara's score to 1981's Prince of the City, one of my favorite Sidney Lumet films and a film that inspired Dick Wolf to create for Prince of the City star Jerry Orbach a wiseass Law & Order detective character slightly modeled after Orbach's corrupt and racist NYPD narc character (hey, Law & Order afternoon marathon-obsessed moms and stand-up comics who don't work during the day, remember when Briscoe was introduced as the formerly crooked, estranged-from-his-grown-up-daughters and twice-divorced antithesis of Paul Sorvino's fatherly and happily married Sgt. Cerreta?). Prince of the City is also a film that must have influenced Shawn Ryan in his TV work. The Shield, The Chicago Code and even the non-police-related Last Resort owe a lot to Prince of the City, which the late Lumet signed up for after Brian De Palma left the film (man, take me to the parallel universe where De Palma made Prince of the City!) because Lumet wanted to tackle a portrayal of the police that was more complex and morally ambiguous than his own 1973 smash hit Serpico. Prince of the City is the kind of audacious and grown-up cinematic fare that, like I said in my discussion of Horrible Bosses, major Hollywood studios used to be good at crafting in the days before the stink of PG-13, and it's the kind of fare that's found only as original shows on cable TV or streaming services these days.

The melancholy Prince of the City score--which was recorded in Paris with Jules and Jim and Contempt composer Georges Delerue as conductor instead of Chihara, due to an American musicians' strike at the time--is an important score to me and a noteworthy achievement because it's a solid score written by one of the few Asian American composers in the still-not-so-diverse world of film and TV music. Chihara, who collaborated frequently with Lumet and Farewell to Manzanar director John Korty, may not be as active in that world anymore (his last significant screen scoring credit was additional music for the John Turturro-directed 2005 musical Romance & Cigarettes), but the Japanese American composer remains active in the classical music world.

Outside the context of the film, the Prince of the City score isn't exactly a rollicking good time like, say, "I Don't Know" by Slum Village or "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'" by De La Soul, but it nicely reflects the isolation and angst of Treat Williams' character Daniel Ciello, a corrupt-cop-turned-whistleblower-taking-down-other-corrupt-cops. "Conceptually, Danny Ciello was to be treated always as one instrument: saxophone. Over the body of the picture, his sound was to become more and more isolated, until finally three notes of the original theme, played on sax, was all that remained of the music," wrote Lumet in his 1995 book Making Movies.

Chihara's score is an effective score from a film that's still underappreciated, and if Varèse's "LP to CD" series does rescue the Prince of the City score from the out-of-print doldrums, then we're getting somewhere. For now though, the series' "hey there, completists, for $10 a month, you won't know what you're getting!" concept just gives me bad--not to mention Hoarders-y, crazy cat lady-ish--vibes.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Horrible Bosses

Horrible Busses is what they should call a supercut of all the disgusting times when that gangster made out with his mom on Boardwalk Empire.

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

Horrible Bosses is a comedy that should not work. See what I did there? "Work"? Yet it somehow does. Its running time is a commercial-TV-friendly 100 minutes, which often screams out "lame studio product." It overuses The Heavy's overplayed "How You Like Me Now?" Jason Bateman is basically rehashing Michael Bluth at his least optimistic. Jason Sudeikis, who was a great utility player on SNL, plays an Indian name-mangling, skirt-chasing frat-bro type who's the most obnoxious of the film's three disgruntled worker characters when he's not sharing scenes with the always hilarious Charlie Day or playing straight man to an unhinged, buried-under-a-combover-hairpiece Colin Farrell. Horrible Bosses' third act contains a pointless car chase intended to wake up restless and bored teenage smartphone zombies who are checking their texts inside the theater. Only the car chases in Color of Night are more pointless.

Finally, there's been a lot of talk lately about how PG-13 has sanitized Hollywood movies so much that the kind of audacious, unconventional and grown-up fare that used to frequently hit theaters in the '70s is found on TV these days instead of in theaters, and all the shitty, mindless and bland TV shows Fred Silverman and Aaron Spelling subjected late '70s kids to (plus all those 30-minute toy commercials '80s kids grew up watching) are what's currently dominating the multiplexes. Once in a while, Hollywood will attempt to break the monotony of PG-13 blockbusters with an unapologetically R-rated studio comedy modeled after the popular works of Judd Apatow, Adam McKay and Todd Phillips. At times, Horrible Bosses feels like Warner Bros./New Line Cinema wanted to get a little piece of that Apatow/McKay/Phillips action by doing a raunchier, more homicidal take on Office Space's brand of disgruntled-worker comedy and rehiring the entire Office Space cast, but instead of getting any of the real MVPs of that 1999 cult classic (Stephen Root, Veep regular Gary Cole, his current Veep co-star Diedrich Bader, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Richard Riehle, the O-face guy, the "case of the Mondays" lady...), they got only Jennifer Aniston from that movie's cast.

She's the kind of dentist whom both pre-religious, late '80s Prince would have written dirty songs about and Rick James would have written ripoffs of Prince songs about.

So all those things should have brought Horrible Bosses down. But they don't, thanks to the comedic skills of both The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters director Seth Gordon--who, together with writing partners Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Sam from Freaks and Geeks!), dusted off a 2005 Michael Markowitz screenplay that came from the Black List roster of beloved unproduced screenplays--and an ensemble whose joy in getting to curse up a hard-R storm and play such unhinged characters is infectious instead of off-putting and self-indulgent. Well, actually, Day gets to curse up a storm on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia all the time, although he can't say "fuck" because of FX and FXX's weird ban on "fuck."

Danny DeVito, Day's It's Always Sunny co-star, and his 1987 hit movie Throw Momma from the Train are mentioned at one point in Horrible Bosses by Day's dental assistant character Dale. If Horrible Bosses were made in the '80s, DeVito would have played one of the titular bosses Day, Sudeikis and Bateman's quietly frustrated everyman ineptly attempt to murder (unlike the disgruntled Initech employees in Office Space, Dale and his friends actually like their jobs; the only thing they hate about work is their bosses). DeVito's the one thing that's sorely missing from Horrible Bosses, which is such an enjoyable and well-paced throwback to '80s DeVito black comedies like Throw Momma and Ruthless People. Fortunately, standing in DeVito's place are Farrell, who's usually exhibit A in the case of British, Irish, Scottish or Aussie actors who suck at doing American accents, but he pulls off a convincing American accent in Horrible Bosses; a dark-wigged and totally game Aniston in an oversexed-dentist role I find to be funnier than much of her material as Rachel on Friends (it's my favorite comedic performance of hers); and Kevin Spacey as foul-mouthed office bully Dave Harken.

Spacey's horrible boss character is how I wish Spacey played Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, even though I prefer Spacey's take on Luthor over Gene Hackman's. Imagine Luthor, freed from both the language restraints of PG-13 and Bryan Singer's annoying slavishness to Richard Donner's Superman and the worst aspects of that 1978 blockbuster, particularly the Hackman Luthor's propensity for lame real estate schemes. To borrow a catchphrase from one of Spacey's Oscar-winning performances, that would have ruled. There's a great little piece Abraham Riesman wrote for Vulture called "What Can Superhero Movies Learn from Whiplash and the Other Best Picture Nominees?" "Our super baddies tend to be either tortured (like Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen as Magneto), enjoyably ridiculous (e.g., literally every villain in the Iron Man trilogy) or blandly blusterful (can we retroactively give Michael Shannon a Loudest Yelling in a Motion Picture award for Man of Steel?)," said Riesman, who wishes that superhero movie villains were written more like the J.K. Simmons character from Whiplash. I'd add the equally mean and foul-mouthed Harken from Horrible Bosses to Riesman's interesting suggestion for Hollywood to opt for a more Whiplash-like mindfucker as a supervillain.

His real name is Dean Jones, but he prefers to go by Motherfucker Jones. So that means if you ever call him 'Snowball Express,' he'll bite your fucking ear off.

There are so many little things that make Horrible Bosses hold up to repeat viewings, from the funny way Jamie Foxx sips his drinks as image-conscious "murder consultant" Motherfucker Jones--it's nice to see Foxx taking a break from serious roles and reminding us how he used to kill as a sketch comic on In Living Color--to the weird way Julie Bowen's philandering housewife character keeps referring to Dale, after he inadvertently saves her husband Harken's life, as "this young man," as if she's June Cleaver or Marion Cunningham whenever she'd address the Fonz as "Arthur." Also, blink and you'll miss The Wire's Chad L. Coleman as a bartender, scowling over the Sudeikis character's tendency to stereotype black folks in a now-interesting little moment where Coleman is much calmer than during his recent viral outburst on a New York subway in response to a racist passenger calling him the N-word.

But the chemistry between Day and Sudeikis, who previously worked together on a 2010 It's Always Sunny episode where Sudeikis guest-starred as Charlie's rival Schmitty, is the most enjoyable of all those little things that make Gordon's 2011 surprise hit hold up. Last year, Day, Sudeikis, Bateman and nearly all the rest of the Horrible Bosses cast reunited for an unnecessary and much-maligned sequel I won't waste my time watching. It was also a sequel neither Goldstein/Daley (who went on to co-direct the upcoming Vacation reboot starring Ed Helms and Christina Applegate) nor Gordon were involved with. I doubt Horrible Bosses 2 is even as hilarious as the 2011 SNL sketch that reunited Sudeikis with Day, who played a pop-culturally illiterate homicide detective canvassing an apartment crime scene.

Day was so hilarious and so committed to embodying the lunacy of his cop character in the "Crime Scene" sketch--just like how he's so committed to embodying the lunacy of Charlie on It's Always Sunny--that it's one of the rare times Sudeikis broke character on SNL and laughed, but Sudeikis didn't let his corpsing derail the sketch for too long because he's a professional, not like Jimmy Fallon during most of the times he used to corpse on SNL and the sketch would just die a horrible and unwatchable death because of it. Like in Horrible Bosses, Sudeikis played the exasperated straight man very well in the SNL sketch with Day, and I like how his "Oh, come on!" sounds exactly like his frustrated off-screen reactions to the bad reporting and racist antics of elderly news reporter Herb Welch. Sudeikis' reactions were actually the second funniest part of Bill Hader's Herb Welch sketches, right below Herb's outdated references.

Not even the return of Horrible Bosses composer Christopher Lennertz has made me want to watch Horrible Bosses 2. The first Horrible Bosses is elevated by an original score where Lennertz "put together a band that would record the score together the same way that they would make an album," as Lennertz himself described it in the Horrible Bosses score album press release. His all-star team of musicians included DJ Cheapshot of Styles of Beyond and Fort Minor on turntables, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and on keyboards, frequent Beastie Boys collaborator "Money" Mark Ramos Nishita. Money Mark's keyboards are the first thing you hear during the Beastie Boys classic "So What'cha Want" from Check Your Head. I've said before that Ad-Rock's original score to director Jeffrey Radice's No No: A Dockumentary is the closest we'll ever get to a second Beasties all-instrumental album after MCA's death. Thanks to Money Mark's funky contributions to the Horrible Bosses score, it's like a third Beasties all-instrumental album.

"[The Horrible Bosses score] isn't overproduced or shiny and digital in any way. It's brash, noisy and full of bravado and swagger," said Lennertz in the score album press release. He recorded his score cues on two-inch analog tape instead of digitally, as a way of--like Gordon said while being interviewed by WaterTower Music--channeling the music Dale and his friends might have listened to while growing up in the days before digital music consumption, just like how a cassette of Check Your Head was one of my favorite things to borrow from the public library back in high school. It's also the same kind of music that helped me endure some shitty jobs, even though none of my bosses were so abusive they made me want to murder them like how Dale and his pals are driven to murder in Horrible Bosses, a surprisingly solid disgruntled-worker farce that overcomes its hackiest elements to show how effective and satisfying hard-R studio comedy filmmaking could be--think Slap Shot or Robert Zemeckis' sharp and raunchy 1980 cult classic Used Cars--when it fired on all cylinders and before PG-13 ruined everything.

None of the all-star score cues from Horrible Bosses are currently in rotation on AFOS, but they ought to be.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week:, "A Brief History of PG-13"

Why the fuck did they make the Asian kid the only one who looks interested in the eyeball soup? Not all of us fuck with that eyeball shit.
Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week. "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 webseries Frames takes musicians' NSFW anecdotes and reinterprets them in animated form. For example, Detroit rapper Danny Brown's tales of his days as a drug dealer were transformed by Frames into the Hanna-Barbera cartoon I always dreamed of. All that was missing from Frames' Danny Brown episode was Don Messick voicing a Philly blunt that talks and greets Danny Brown with "What up doe?" Now Frames director Mack Williams has taken "The ongoing failure of the PG-13 rating," an excellent 2014 article Chris Klimek wrote for Pitchfork's sister site The Dissolve, and given it the animated treatment for as well. In only two minutes full of genuinely funny sight gags by Williams and the animators at the Brooklyn studio Pig Apple (my favorite sight gag has to be the MPAA disrupting the duo from Once), "A Brief History of PG-13" amusingly elucidates how much the MPAA rating system is bullshit.

As narrator Radam Pooman says in "A Brief History of PG-13," the MPAA created PG-13 in 1984 as a response to the outcry from parents over the violence or intense moments in blockbusters Steven Spielberg either produced or directed. The subversive dark comedy Gremlins, which Spielberg produced and Joe Dante directed, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (and to a lesser extent, the Spielberg-produced, credited-solely-to-Tobe-Hooper-but-Spielberg-actually-did-a-shitload-of-the-directing-too original version of Poltergeist in 1982) were too graphic and harrowing as PG films. But they also weren't R enough--or rather, as Bullhorn pronounces it in the ad campaign for the original Black Dynamite, R-uh enough--to be stamped with R-uh. In fact, Temple of Doom's posters and ads got stamped with a box that said, "This film may be too intense for younger children." The Dissolve article points out that Spielberg himself approached the MPAA with an idea for a rating between PG and R-uh. So PG-13 was born, crawling out of the MPAA's slimy sac like Stripe in Gremlins, but while Stripe caused small-town mayhem, PG-13 has done something far worse in the years since its inception.

"It makes movies more generic and less adventurous," wrote Andrew Whalen in a 2014 iDigitalTimes article that, just like the Dissolve piece and the animated short, decries the damage PG-13 has done to American filmmaking and the overall brokenness of the rating system. "It was meant to provide more flexibility to filmmakers, not less. It failed because it soon became clear that the PG-13 rating hit the sweet spot for putting butts in seats: not too mature that a family can't attend together, edgy enough that teens don't look down their noses at it."

When film critics like Matt Zoller Seitz complain about a certain sameness in present-day, live-action superhero movies and their lack of inventive filmmaking or even human personality (the fact that the animated superhero movies The Incredibles, Big Hero 6 and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm have more personality in their filmmaking than most of their live-action counterparts is proof that animation is where the superhero genre works best), PG-13 is mostly to blame for those things. In trying to conform to a PG-13, the directors of these movies have ended up stifling their own creativity (or maybe they never had it to begin with). Does anybody ever wonder why Paul Verhoeven, at one time the king of hard R, returned to the Netherlands? It has to be because a film like his hard-R original version of RoboCop--the kind of subversive and offbeat superhero movie the likes of Seitz must be longing to see more of these days--couldn't get made today by a major Hollywood studio. Those studios are too busy chasing PG-13s. In fact, that's exactly what happened to RoboCop when Elite Squad director José Padilha rebooted the former Orion Pictures franchise last year for Sony. It spawned a bland-as-fuck PG-13 remake. When Gremlins gets remade too, that version's bound to get a PG-13 as well, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be blander than the PG-rated Dante version.

Speaking of which, PG-13 has also led to strange contradictions. As "A Brief History of PG-13" points out, affection between gay characters in Love Is Strange and F-bombs in Once landed those inoffensive and non-violent indies an R. Meanwhile, the exploding head in the 1989 Bond flick Licence to Kill--an example of graphic violence neither "A Brief History of PG-13" nor the Dissolve essay mentions, as well as the most gruesome moment in the Bond franchise, before Daniel Craig's nads came into contact with a carpet beater in Casino Royale--merited only a PG-13. And what did Casino Royale also receive, in spite of that brutal torture scene, the gore and the 22-person body count? Yep: a PG-13.

"A Brief History of PG-13" is such a good animated short that I'd like to see Williams do more animated tie-ins with The Dissolve. The site's discussions of Midnight Run with Adam Scott and Running Scared with Paul Scheer are crying out for the animated treatment, as is Noel Murray's essay "Why great comics don't always make great movies." If there's one thing that's missing from "A Brief History of PG-13," it's an idea for a solution that's better than PG-13. But what would that idea be? /Film's David Chen was onto something when he implied that the MPAA should be dismantled.

"We're heading towards an age when we don't need a mommy-like organization to dictate what our delicate sensibilities can and can't be exposed to," wrote Chen in 2010. "I deeply hope that the MPAA's irrelevance is imminent."

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Kung Fu Killer (2014)

The problem with the title Kung Fu Killer is that you don't know if it means he's a killer who uses kung fu or if he's trying to put an end to kung fu as if it's a grizzly bear that killed his dad.
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

As a streaming service, Netflix has both merits and drawbacks. Let's get the drawbacks out of the way first: some of the widescreen movies the studios hand over to Netflix's streaming library aren't in their original aspect ratios, so customers are subjected to poorly cropped and confusing-looking versions of those movies (the version of Step Brothers I watched on Netflix Instant in 2009 was one such poorly cropped version). And whenever Netflix loses the streaming rights to a title it's licensed to carry for a limited time, procrastinators like me often find ourselves scrambling to watch that title a couple of hours before it vanishes from the site.

They're annoying drawbacks. But they're outnumbered by merits like Netflix's terrific HD quality; no ad breaks; content that never freezes like it often does on a DVD or Blu-ray rental that's not in the best shape; and easy access to so many foreign films, which wouldn't have been possible in the VHS days when barely any home video companies cared about fully satisfying or catering to niche markets and the only way to experience a classic Jackie Chan actioner from Hong Kong was to grudgingly accept whatever Miramax or New Line Cinema gave you, and that would always be a butchered and badly dubbed version.

Donnie Yen channels Harrison Ford in Air Force One and tells Wang Baoqiang to get off his boat.

Those foreign films that are easy to access through Netflix's streaming library include the oeuvre of Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen. With the exception of the Miramax-butchered version of Iron Monkey that currently exists on Netflix, many of Yen's films are on Netflix in their original and untouched form, thanks to niche companies like Well Go USA, the way-more-hands-off-than-the-Weinsteins distributor of Yen's Ip Man films and the most recent Yen actioner to hit American theaters, the 2014 serial killer procedural Kung Fu Jungle, which reteamed Yen with his Bodyguards and Assassins director Teddy Chen. On Netflix, it's easy to get to know the charismatic (and unlike Chuck "1,000 Years of Darkness" Norris and Steven Seagal, able-to-act-during-non-fight-scenes) performer whom Deadspin "Netflix Action Movie Canon" columnist Tom Breihan calls "Hong Kong's greatest action star right now."

Breihan also refers to Yen as "one of the great movie-fight visionaries working today" due to his preference for making fight scenes look more visceral and tough, not to mention coherent--unlike the incomprehensible work of too many non-Asian directors who attempt to tackle elaborate action sequences--and never bringing in stunt doubles to replace the stars (who have done so much fight training that they don't need to be replaced), which lends authenticity to even the most improbable-looking moment of wirework. As Breihan says, Yen's preference for visceral fight scenes has elevated the movie-fight game (Tony Jaa's Thai actioners and director Gareth Evans' Raid movies are other similar examples where that game has been raised), and it "elevates something like 2007's Flash Point past standard Hong Kong cops-and-mobsters fare, turning it into something truly special."

The fight scenes in the Chen-directed Kung Fu Jungle don't break new ground like the climactic Flash Point brawl between Yen and Collin Chou did when it incorporated MMA fighting moves that were new to Hong Kong action cinema at the time, but they're still thrilling to watch, thanks to Yen, who directed the fight scenes in Kung Fu Jungle, and his fellow fight choreographers, who all won Best Action Choreography at the Hong Kong Film Awards a few weeks ago for their work in Kung Fu Jungle. The film pits both Yen, who stars as Hahou Mo, a former martial arts instructor for the police who's doing time for manslaughter, and Charlie Yeung, who plays a female Hong Kong police inspector, against a serial killer who could only exist in movies: a martial arts expert who learns to master other martial arts experts' skills and then uses their skills against them so that taking their lives will result in him being the greatest fighter in Hong Kong.

Yen may be playing the hero in Kung Fu Jungle, but the performer who gets to really shine in Kung Fu Jungle--even more so than Yen--is Wang Baoqiang, whose serial killer character Fung Yu-Sau is able to vanquish his targets despite being born with a club foot. He's the club-footed ass-kicker Damon Wayans--who was born with a club foot and turned his tough, orthopedic shoe-wearing past into both material for his stand-up act and a Kids' WB animated show about his childhood--must have always dreamed of becoming.

Wang Baoqiang channels Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and gets himself involved in a clumsily tacked-on motorboat chase.

I don't know if a club-footed serial killer antagonist with kung fu skills would have saved Dexter as it degenerated after its first two seasons into an often poorly written slog and a right-wing vigilante fantasy that became far too worshipful of Dexter, but such an antagonist would have definitely made post-season 2 Dexter less of a slog to sit through. The most preposterous aspects of the titular killer and the stupidity of the cops pursuing the killer are also a lot less grating and noticeable as convenient plot holes in a fast-moving two-hour action flick than as plot holes on an eight-season, 96-episode drama where said plot holes are recycled so often that the show turns into a wheel-spinning mess (I blame network interference and showrunner musical chairs for that show's decline, or rather, treadmill fall into lumberjack-y absurdity).

As Fung Yu-Sau, Wang actually does more fighting in Kung Fu Jungle than Yen does. Yen's in his 50s now, and while he's still in prime physical shape, like during a prison brawl where Hahou takes down 17 other inmates all by himself or Hahou's climactic fight with Fung Yu-Sau in the middle of a busy highway, Kung Fu Jungle is basically Yen's acknowledgement that this will be the last time he'll make as intense and brutal an action flick as this one or Flash Point.

Actually, Yen's not completely saying farewell to action: his next few films will include Ip Man 3 with Mike Tyson (I take it this one's a remake of Rocky III, and Tyson's supposed to be playing Clubber Lang, like how Ip Man 2 was a remake of Rocky IV featuring Sammo Hung as Apollo and the late Darren Shahlavi as Drago) and Netflix's upcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel. But for this quasi-swan song, Yen passes the hyperkinetic-martial-arts-cinema torch to Wang, and--slight spoiler--in another act of stepping aside, Yen generously gives the film's final heroic action-movie moment to Yeung's cop character.

Charlie Yeung's frequently incompetent police department in Kung Fu Killer makes Miami Metro from Dexter look like a tight ship.

As part of its victory-lap feel, Kung Fu Jungle is populated with cameos from legendary Hong Kong figures like Golden Harvest studio founder Raymond Chow and so many of Yen's martial arts cinema colleagues. For instance, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky star and Ip Man series regular Fan Siu-Wong appears as one of Fung Yu-Sau's targets, a Hong Kong stuntman Fung Yu-Sau challenges on an empty movie set to a weapons duel that's nearly as entertaining as similar fight scenes on fictional movie sets in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

The only major change Well Go USA made to Kung Fu Jungle was retitling it Kung Fu Killer, which makes little sense because the title change causes Yen's movie to get easily confused with another movie of the same name, a poorly received 2008 American TV-movie that reunited David Carradine with his Kill Bill henchwoman Daryl Hannah. However, Well Go USA forgot to scrub away the movie's original title from the on-screen text during the lengthy dedication to martial arts cinema colleagues at the end. Whichever way you prefer to call the Yen actioner, the film is worth a look when it inevitably hits Netflix's streaming library--and hits Netflix hard like Fung Yu-Sau's orthopedic shoe to the face.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Penny not from heaven: The welcome return of Penny Dreadful

On Halloween this year, the pasta dish of the night will be penne dreadful.
Penny dreadfuls, a.k.a. penny bloods, were lurid supernatural or crime stories that were published in weekly installments in 19th-century England. In a Showtime featurette about the first season of Penny Dreadful, the supernatural drama that takes its title from that Victorian-era form of fiction, creator/showrunner John Logan noted that penny dreadfuls, which cost only a penny per installment, marked the first time the mass media brought horror into people's living rooms. "So I thought, 'That's exactly what I'm doing with television.' What I'm writing is a penny dreadful, and it just stuck," said Logan in the featurette.

But the penny dreadful Logan is writing costs way more than a penny to enjoy and consisted of only eight weekly installments in its first season. That season was imperfect, but it told a riveting Victorian story about what Abel Korzeniowski, the talented composer whose score music from Penny Dreadful is currently in rotation on AFOS, once described as "trying to find oneself in the world." The show's horror side wasn't even the most interesting part of the season; if Logan got rid of all the supernatural moments from the first-season episode "Possession," it could easily have been an episode from a modern-day non-horror drama about family members agonizing over helping a junkie relative through withdrawal. The character interactions in episodes like "Possession" were mainly what got us hooked on Penny Dreadful.

'Ah, Aveeno.'

This week, Penny Dreadful returns to Showtime for its second season, and "Fresh Hell," the season premiere Showtime unveiled online two weeks ago in a censored, "yeah, throat-slashings are okay to show, but boobs and bush are terrifying, mister!" version before it premiered on Showtime last night in unedited form, indicates that the new season will be as riveting as the first. It might even turn out to be better than season 1, which lacked an antagonist who was as compelling a character as Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) or Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the demonically possessed psychic who's still rattled by the question a priest presented her with at the end of last season and she's been unable to answer: "Do you really want to be normal?" Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), a mysterious spiritualist who was introduced in last season's "Séance" episode, takes over as the new season's primary antagonist, and if things go right, Evelyn and the Nightcomers, the coven of shape-shifting witches she leads, could turn out to be the kind of charismatic and formidable menace this show's always needed. Last season's rather run-of-the-mill and too-easily-defeated vampiric adversaries didn't quite cut it. "Fresh Hell" establishes that the ruthless Evelyn and her followers have ominous and currently vague plans for Vanessa's powers.

Penny Dreadful is basically an Avengers for the Victorian horror lit crowd--but if Black Widow were the leader everyone else would take a bullet for and she were a demonically possessed psychic instead of a guilt-stricken spy. They have a Hulk, and he's a gunfighter and a werewolf instead of a scientist who often transforms into a green-skinned beast. The gathering of Victorian-era characters created by different authors also brings to mind Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, but while Mina Murray led the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Penny Dreadful relegated Mina to being a largely absent figure whose disappearance brought together her father and the other members of Penny Dreadful's Victorian Scooby gang.

Kept out of the inner circle of the Victorian Scooby gang are Dwight the Troubled Teen Caliban (Rory Kinnear), Dr. Frankenstein's unwanted son and a lab creation he's kept secret from his colleagues; Brona Croft (Billie Piper), the dying prostitute Frankenstein murdered late last season and then successfully re-animates in "Fresh Hell" to give the angry Caliban the bride he demanded from Dad; and promiscuous socialite Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). The show has yet to come up with a compelling reason for why we should care about Dorian. He doesn't even appear in "Fresh Hell." If the new season can come up with a better way to integrate Dorian into the team's adventures than "obligatory premium-cable drama character who bangs the entire younger half of the cast," then that finally takes care of an even bigger problem than "Do you really want to be normal?"

Selections from Penny Dreadful's first-season score album can currently be heard during "AFOS Prime" on AFOS.