Thursday, June 25, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Spy (2015)

A much easier movie title to place on a marquee than The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love
Every Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm intentionally pulling out the ticket that says "Spy," due to the Melissa McCarthy comedy's box-office success and the excitement over the beginning of the filming of McCarthy's Ghostbusters reboot. This will be the final post here on the AFOS blog before I take a two-or-three-week-long break from the blog in July. The blog--and that goes for the blog's year-long TBT series as well--will resume with new posts in the middle of July.

The least creative thing about writer/director Paul Feig's enjoyably foul-mouthed action comedy Spy is its title. Spy is also the title of a fairly recent Britcom about an MI5 agent and his 10-and-a-half-year-old son. The Feig movie's original title was Susan Cooper. By the end of the movie, Melissa McCarthy and Feig have created such a distinctive and likable new heroine--and managed to give her a satisfying dramatic arc in addition to her comedic antics--that you won't forget the name Susan Cooper, and her name deserves to be part of the branding of the super-spy franchise that will likely arise from Spy, much like how Austin Powers' name is part of the title of every movie of his and Jason Bourne's name is in the title of every Bourne movie, including ones he doesn't even bother to appear in.

But then again, Feig's the kind of director who seems to prefer movie titles that don't take up too much space on a marquee. I Am David, Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and Ghostbusters are all titles that are easy work for marquee changers, especially ones who'd get an anxiety attack after finding out they have to put the letters up for Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.

Birth.Movies.Death., the new name of Badass Digest, makes me think of some Godfathers song for some reason.
Mondo poster illustrated by The Dude Designs (Photo source: Birth.Movies.Death.)

So had Sky 1 not come out with a show called Spy, I'd be more enamored with the movie's title because it nicely conveys in just three letters that Susan was born to be one. But because Spy is a comedy, the transition from mission control support to CIA field agent for Susan, who's a winning mix of Midwestern politeness and the fearlessness of McCarthy's Boston cop character Shannon Mullins from The Heat, isn't exactly a smooth one. That transition is initially loaded with the usual slapstick McCarthy frequently excels at, as well as the honest and comically appalled reactions many Feig characters have to any kind of mayhem (think the bridesmaids' varied reactions to food poisoning in Bridesmaids or Sandra Bullock amusingly panicking over a knife shoved into her thigh and wanting so badly to break her vow to never curse in The Heat). Spy arose out of Feig's wish to make a spy movie like one of his favorite movies, the 2006 version of Casino Royale, but because these are Feig characters, not Bond movie characters who respond to everything in the most badass and suave (as well as PG-13-friendly and extremely--and implausibly--sanitized) ways, they puke from the sight of accidentally impaling someone they've killed or launch into a barrage of F-bombs when they don't get their way.

But once McCarthy's Bridesmaids co-star Rose Byrne enters the picture and Susan becomes more confident about her field work and is able to infiltrate the Byrne character's enemy organization, thanks to a very particular set of skills (like intuition) that Susan's overconfident colleague/work rival Rick Ford (Jason Statham) is too bullheaded and inept to possess, Spy takes an interesting turn as a spy comedy. It becomes a comedy about an underestimated spy who's good at her job instead of incompetent (Get Smart) or competent but immature (Archer), which also makes it an intriguing companion piece to the Marvel Studios show Agent Carter, another story of a frequently underestimated female spy. But where's the conflict when the central character's a competent spy? Isn't that a comedy killer? When McCarthy has such great--and often improvised--dialogue and trades insults with the consistently funny likes of a perfectly cast (and perfectly big-haired) Byrne as a villainous arms dealer and Statham in what has to be the funniest and greatest role of his career as the hilariously useless Ford, nobody has to worry about the disappearance of humor.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The late James Horner was the master of suspenseful '90s hacking scene music during Sneakers and Clear and Present Danger

James Horner's arpeggios are swirling in the heavens tonight.

"There were so many Horners," said Matt Zoller Seitz to fellow journalist S.I. Rosenbaum during a conversation about the work of legendary film composer James Horner, who died at 61 in a single-engine plane crash earlier this week. "There was the shoot 'em up, macho, urban Horner of 48 HRS and Commando and Red Heat, the grand adventure Horner of the Trek films and Aliens and Titanic and Avatar, the caper Horner of Sneakers... He really did have range."

Anyone who's a film music fan has a favorite Horner. Film music heads who are into Horner deep cuts--and are of the opinion that Horner tended to repeat himself, especially in the middle part of his career--will likely say the Horner of Battle Beyond the Stars is their favorite, while more casual film music heads will likely pick the Horner who made teenage girls cry with his score to Titanic. For me, it's either the Horner who made nerds cry with his scores to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock or the Horner who gave the third best performance, right below Denzel Washington and Andre Braugher, in Glory and crafted, with the help of the Boys Choir of Harlem, a powerful and operatic score for that 1989 white-savior-movie-that's-somehow-better-than-the-average-white-savior-movie.

The eerily prescient Sneakers is one of many movies I just never got around to seeing until more than 20 years after its release. On New Year's Eve 2014, it was one of several titles Netflix streaming was getting rid of from its library after that night, so I couldn't pass up the chance to stream before its expiration this caper movie I--a fan of caper movies--bizarrely overlooked for too long. I instantly fell in love with the score Horner wrote for Sneakers. It's now one of my favorite Horner scores. Like Gimme the Loot composer Nicholas Britell said about the Sneakers score, it's music you wouldn't expect to hear in a hacker movie. "It features unlikely elements--choirs, folk themes, minimalist piano, the saxophone of Branford Marsalis--that lend the film an unusual emotional richness and depth," wrote Britell.

Dig the score cue Horner created for the scene where Robert Redford's crew discovers the codebreaker to end all codebreakers, and Redford and Sidney Poitier both realize it's too much power for anyone to have. I'm not a musicologist--I'd be unable to tell you the difference between an arpeggio and an ostinato--so I have no idea what Horner was doing with the piano during this scene. It sounds like he grabbed a cat that was wandering around the recording studio and let it walk all over the keys. It turned out to be an inventive and effective way to build tension for that scene.

So now I have a new favorite Horner: the Horner who, through his music, could take something as mundane-looking and boring on the screen as typing things into a PC and make it exciting. Horner's work in Sneakers reminds me of Clear and Present Danger, where Horner also worked his magic on a similar moment of computer-related tension. The nerve-wracking Bogota ambush sequence is what everyone remembers about Clear and Present Danger, but an equally memorable sequence--and one that's handled with a bit more humor, especially when Harrison Ford discovers there's no paper in his printer--is Ford's attempt to salvage all evidence of the government conspiracy Henry Czerny helped orchestrate right when Czerny deletes it from what we now call "the cloud." It's the second best action sequence in the movie, even though nobody fires a gun or a missile and nobody dies. Horner had a lot to do with that.

There's an old featurette TCM used to frequently air between movies about how crucial Elmer Bernstein's score was in enhancing The Magnificent Seven. The featurette took a clip where Bernstein's rousing main theme accompanied shots of Yul Brynner and his crew riding on horseback rather lethargically and posited that without Bernstein's theme, the scene was dead. Without Horner's "Deleting the Evidence" cue, which is part of the playlist for the AFOS espionage genre music block "AFOS Incognito," the computer showdown sequence would have been dead too.

Throughout Clear and Present Danger, Horner made use of a shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, to heighten tension. It's kind of an unconventional choice, just like the clumsy kitty cat stepping on the piano keys during Sneakers, because it makes you think, "Did one of those Peruvian pan flute bands that invaded South Park also invade the orchestra?," but it works for the hacking sequence. Horner would get pilloried a lot by film music critics for recycling his own previous motifs when he was alive, but that's not the case here: his score to Clear and Present Danger, a blockbuster that came out two years after Sneakers, sounds much different from his score to Redford's movie, and it echoes the differences in tone between the serious-minded Clear and Present Danger and the much more light-hearted Sneakers.

Today, hacking scenes are such a cliché that I can't watch another hacking scene without thinking of Jimmy Kimmel Live's transformation of Scandal into a telenovela. In one of those Kimmel Live sketches, Scandal star Guillermo Diaz made fun of the ways actors pretend to type on laptops by basically channeling the piano-playing sight gags in Tom and Jerry's "The Cat Concerto" and Bugs Bunny's "Rhapsody Rabbit" while he was typing. So from now on, every time I sit through a dramatic hacking scene, I can't get out of my head the funny image of Guillermo Diaz typing like Bugs Bunny on the piano. But back when these scenes hadn't yet crossed the line into unintentional silliness and very '90s Fisher Stevens entrances, Horner was the master of scoring these scenes, and his skills with those scenes were honed while working on the franchise that made his career: Star Trek. Again, it all goes back to Star Trek. Hell, everything goes back to Star Trek. What David Strathairn and Harrison Ford are doing at their terminals is basically what Kirk and Spock did to trick Khan into lowering his starship's shields in Star Trek II and what Kirk and Scotty similarly pulled off to steal back the Enterprise from Starfleet in Star Trek III. Horner's brilliance with musical texture and enlivening action that has the potential to look as dull as office work was also key to why those moments of starship bridge console trickery are such highlights of those Trek films.

I haven't been interested in a Horner score in ages, but now that his score to the upcoming Chilean miner survival drama The 33 has ended up being one of the last things he composed before his death, I'm curious about his work in The 33 (and in this summer's Antoine Fuqua-directed boxing drama Southpaw). I wouldn't be surprised if Horner was able to take another potentially static-looking scenario like a bunch of miners trapped for more than two weeks under a collapsed mine and help make that compelling as well. Which Horner are we getting for his last couple of scores?

Selections from Horner's scores to Star Trek II and The Rocketeer can be heard during both "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS, while selections from his score to Clear and Present Danger (and hopefully someday, selections from his score to Sneakers) can be heard during "AFOS Incognito."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Anatomy of a melody: Hrishikesh Hirway's Song Exploder podcast entertainingly breaks down the components of a TV score cue or pop song

I'm so glad Song Exploder will never do an episode about the theme from Enterprise.
Hrishikesh Hirway

The one-and-a-half-year-old podcast Song Exploder has a tantalizing premise for a show about the craft of music. Each episode, produced and edited by musician Hrishikesh (pronounced "rih-shee-kaysh") Hirway, who records under the name The One AM Radio, takes a new or recent piece of music from any genre, whether instrumental or with vocals, and explains each of the components that form the composition. As a sometime hip-hop blogger, the Song Exploder installments about tracks by Open Mike Eagle, Ghostface Killah and RJD2 (whom people outside hip-hop only know as "the Mad Men theme guy," but he's more than just "A Beautiful Mine," old white fogeys) definitely captured my interest, but my favorite Song Exploder episodes would have to be any installment that delves into the making of a film or TV score cue, and they're all worth a listen.

Bob's Burgers presently kicks off with one of the most effective mood-setting themes in animation, a ukulele piece accented with xylophone and Casio keyboard samples of drum fills and some of Gene Belcher's favorite sound FX, in much the same fashion as a beef patty getting accented with outré ingredients or toppings by Bob Belcher (an example of one of these outré ingredients is when Bob attempts to win a burger contest by adding Korean black garlic, and an enemy of his amusingly responds to his intro for the garlic burger recipe with "Don't blame Korea for your stupid burger, Bob"). On Song Exploder, Hirway got Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard to go into detail about how he composed the show's opening theme, which he also revealed is actually a longer composition than what we currently hear on the air.

Bouchard said, "This had to be a story of hardship as it pertains to running a restaurant, but it's supposed to be an optimistic show and a nice slice of life with a lot of happiness in it. The ukulele was perfect, so I knew that I wanted to start with that." In more recent seasons, Bob's Burgers has occasionally flirted with slicing out the opening titles--and sadly, the local business name puns during those titles as well--and cutting straight to the first scene of the story, but fortunately, the theme survives in the form of the presence of Bouchard's uke during those episodes.

Other score music-related installments of Song Exploder have delved into Jeff Beal's House of Cards theme; Brian Reitzell's eerie and complicated sound design for his music on Hannibal, as part of a crossover with Roman Mars' architecture-and-design podcast 99% Invisible; the brief score cue Brian Tyler wrote for the Avengers: Age of Ultron title card; and Jeremy Zuckerman's creation of the very last cue in the final episode of The Legend of Korra ("On a kids' show, showing a lesbian relationship... I kind of wanted the music to reflect that this is a historic moment"), during what has to be Song Exploder's most oddly affecting installment. Zuckerman's masterful Korra cues are a good example of what animator Timothy Reckart once told me about score cues that excel by not overdoing sentimentality: they don't dictate the emotions and instead suggest the depth of those emotions.

For its premiere episode as a new addition to the podcasting network Radiotopia about two weeks ago, Song Exploder chose as a suitably grand first subject the global phenomenon that's spawned everything from billions of YouTube musician covers of its main title theme to really annoying and asinine fan reaction supercuts of narcissistic viewers recording themselves and hamming it up for the camera while they watch beloved characters perish: Game of Thrones. The Ramin Djawadi episode doesn't go into the pressure Djawadi must have been under when he had to replace Stephen Warbeck as the Game of Thrones composer about a few weeks before the premiere of the very first episode. That's a forgotten part of the history of the hit show's music I'd like to hear more about.

But the episode does have Djawadi breaking down each element of his Game of Thrones main title theme (which can be heard during "AFOS Prime" and "Hall H" on AFOS), from the cello to the female choir. The ability to finally get to hear about the origins of this piece of music I've heard trillions of times in many different forms--including the vocal version South Park came up with--is one of the many aural highlights of Song Exploder.

'Wow, I can see Cersei's naked body double from up here,' said the astrolabe.
(Photo source: The Art of VFX)

I wish the miniature model shots of Mister Rogers' neighborhood looked as fucking cool as this.
(Photo source: HitFix) aptly compared each Song Exploder episode to watching somebody take apart a car and put it back together. Hirway's podcast is also the aural equivalent of a chef visiting the table and describing the ingredients of his meal before unveiling it and letting the diners savor it. It's a terrifically edited and very cut-to-the-chase podcast, which explains the 10-to-15-minute length of most episodes. After 15 minutes, any music discussion by anybody--I don't care if you're Sheila E. explaining hi-hat techniques in a Victoria's Secret catalog outfit or in Ava Gardner's femme fatale gown from The Killers--can start to wear thin.

Hirway is clearly aware of the virtues of brevity, hence the thankfully short length of each episode. He speaks only during the podcast's opening, the intro to the score cue or song in its entirety and the podcast's outro. The rest of the time, he gets out of the way, and the musicians behind the track do all the talking. This approach is a nice change of pace from the often tedious navel-gazing of too many podcast hosts, even during some of the comedy podcasts I like. Song Exploder is far from omphaloskeptic. Look it up, fool!

If you prefer your podcasts to be insightful about the creation of art but very succinct--or if you're a film or TV score music fan who's curious about the scoring process but doesn't have time to sit through lengthy discussions of the process, which can be tedious or incomprehensible if you're not versed in music theory--Song Exploder is your jam. Too bad Song Exploder didn't exist when I was a kid. I really wanted to know what was going on inside the head of the genius who wrote "By Mennen!"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Godzilla (2014)

Too bad the feature presentation wasn't preceded by Bambi vs. Godzilla because that would have fucking ruled.

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.

Jurassic World just experienced the most successful opening weekend in film history, outgrossing even the opening weekend of the original Jurassic Park, a kaiju (Japanese for "strange beast") movie where smaller-sized dinosaurs are the kaiju instead of a 164-foot-tall lizard with atomic breath. But as much as I like both the craftsmanship Steven Spielberg brought to the moments of suspense (and occasionally, levity) in the first installment and Stan Winston and ILM's effective blend of practical FX and CGI in that installment, I find the Jurassic movies to be oddly underwhelming in comparison to Spielberg's masterful work in the original Jaws. As material in between the creature scenes, which are the main reason for flocking to these Jurassic blockbusters, the "Sam Neill learns to get in touch with his paternal side" storyline--a tiresome staple of post-SNL comedy vehicles starring either Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler or more recently, Will Ferrell--is less intriguing than the character interplay between Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw in Jaws.

I lost interest in the Jurassic franchise about halfway through The Lost World: Jurassic Park and never got on board the franchise again (I still haven't seen Jurassic Park III and will most likely wait until Jurassic Not-Yet-5, as I like to call it, comes to Blu-ray). I remember falling asleep in the theater during The Lost World--at some point between Julianne Moore nearly falling to her death while glass slowly breaks beneath her and the lame moment when a raptor gets kicked in the face by the gymnastic moves of Jeff Goldblum's preteen daughter, I dozed off with my eyes open--and I got the sense that Spielberg, whose first shot of Goldblum in The Lost World shows the star yawning in a subway station, was equally disinterested with the material in his own sequel. (Fifteen years later, you could sense the same thing when Christopher Nolan only truly became alive during the stunning plane hijack sequence for The Dark Knight Rises, and for the rest of the project, it felt like the death of Dark Knight star Heath Ledger had sapped Nolan of his enthusiasm and energy.) Spielberg was phoning it in. He, in fact, later admitted in interviews to experiencing a constant feeling of "Is that all there is? It's not enough for me" throughout the filming of The Lost World. However, there is one moment in The Lost World where Spielberg didn't phone it in, and it's that literal cliffhanger scene with a petrified Moore unable to move or sneeze, the only genuinely nerve-wracking scene in The Lost World, as well as the only moment where Spielberg is back to his old enthusiastic and alert self, and it's not even a dinosaur attack.

So the Jurassics have never been my favorite kaiju movies. But Korean director Bong Joon-ho's The Host, a.k.a. Gwoemul (Korean for "monster")? Now that, to me, is the perfect kaiju movie, in which the human side of the movie is, for a change, as satisfying as the monster action and isn't an ordeal to sit through in order to get to the monster action. The Host is an effective mix of monster movie thrills, dysfunctional family comedy and political satire (about the incompetence of both American and Korean institutions) that's reminiscent of the anti-nuke satire in Ishirô Honda's original 1954 version of Godzilla.

Bong wanted to take everyday people like the extremely flawed members of the working-class Park family (in comparison to Sam Neill's sole flaw of being awkward and standoffish around kids, which isn't all that interesting as a character flaw) and place them in a central role that's usually reserved in monster movies for scientific geniuses or muscle-bound heroes, the kinds of characters Bong says he finds to be boring. His risky and unconventional decision resulted in my favorite human protagonists in an earthbound kaiju movie since, well, the trio in Jaws. Like all the films in Edgar Wright's superb Cornetto trilogy, The Host isn't a genre spoof; it's a thriller with genuine stakes that happens to be comedic and is full of characters worth being invested in, so that when one of the protagonists dies or is nearly dead, it's a moment that genuinely stings.

Even the creature in The Host, despite being an efficient and single-minded killing machine, or rather, in the parlance of both Matt Hooper and Jaws trailer announcer Percy Rodrigues, an "eating machine," is imbued with personality too. The film's digital FX may vary in quality, but they're never too cartoonish-looking. The creature's clumsy gait cleverly mirrors the klutziness of Host star Song Kang-ho's anti-hero Park Gang-du. Sure, Gang-du learns to be a better dad just like in that sappy Jurassic Park/Billy Crystal/Adam Sandler storytelling device that annoys me so much, but The Host handles that device so much better. It also handles humor better than Roland Emmerich's Jurassic Park-ified 1998 reboot of Godzilla--a kaiju movie in the form of a terrible and unfunny '90s Fox sitcom stretched out to over two excruciating hours--did (the terrible '90s Fox sitcomminess of it all is further enhanced by Emmerich's casting of both Maria Pitillo, star of Fox's short-lived Partners, as Matthew Broderick's love interest, and Simpsons veteran Hank Azaria, star of Herman's Head, a.k.a. Inside Out if it were an oversexed '90s Fox office sitcom).

The Host's effectiveness as both a character study and a creature feature is precisely why I've never warmed up to any of the old-school Godzilla movies, except for the intriguing first movie, which I first caught on TCM, luckily without the stupid Raymond Burr-related changes that were made to it by the movie's first American distributor (the horrendous dubbing in the American versions of these films has also made me avoid the Godzilla franchise; except for spaghetti westerns and some of the Studio Ghibli films, I can't stand watching foreign films when they're redubbed by Americans or the British). As a kid, I took one look at 1973's Godzilla vs. Megalon back when it was once the feature presentation on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and thought, "That's the formula for Godzilla? It's a terrible one. Nah, I think I'll skip the other Godzilla flicks."

Godzilla vs. Megalon is one of the least beloved Godzilla installments, partly because Godzilla was basically a guest star in his own movie. It was produced during a time when the Toho Studios franchise was past its prime and had abandoned its nifty roots as an allegory about post-war Japan to strictly cater to the kids in the audience. I know Godzilla vs. Megalon is a lousy way to be introduced to the Godzilla franchise. It would be like if someone who's never seen any of the 007 movies chose A View to a Kill or Die Another Day as their first 007 flick to watch; they won't understand what all the fuss over the other movies is about. But Godzilla vs. Megalon is a good example of how boring and pointless the human characters tend to be in kaiju movies, a problem that doesn't afflict the 1954 Godzilla and is also a problem I was hoping British director Gareth Edwards wouldn't fall prey to when he got the chance to not repeat Emmerich's countless mistakes while reintroducing Godzilla for a second time (not counting the two Americanized and badly butchered Godzillas that starred Perry Mason) to non-Japanese audiences.

Godzilla threatens to unleash his atomic garlic breath on this MUTO.

While there's much to enjoy about Edwards' gritty, Fukushima-inspired 2014 version--like Alison Willmore said, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and the redesigned Godzilla look terrific and are "lumbering and massive with a sense of incredible heft to them, despite being CGI creations"--Edwards, unfortunately, has a problem of focusing his films on white lead characters who aren't as interesting as he thinks they are. It's a problem that goes back to Edwards' prior sci-fi film Monsters, his low-budget 2010 breakthrough. Monsters is a film about Mexico experiencing first contact with giant alien creatures, and it's told not through the eyes of any of its citizens but through the eyes of the most annoying white hipsters since those douches who gentrified the barrio side of Arlen and slipped salmon into Enrique's fish tacos?

As The Daily Dot astutely pointed out, Godzilla suffers from a boring white guy problem--a problem that mars another recent kaiju flick, Pacific Rim--and is part of a long line of Hollywood tentpole blockbusters that opt for the least interesting characters as their leads. Out of a cast that includes the likes of Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins as audience surrogates, Edwards chose to center the film around the individual with the least charisma or personality? Yo, Honest Trailers, your "Discount Channing Tatum" line is dead fucking on.

"The funny thing here is that the franchise originated in Japan. I actually haven't seen any of the old movies, but I'm going to assume that they--at least the Japanese ones--don't use Japan and its people as merely the backdrop against which white protagonists can shine and save the day," noted one of the teen authors of the blog Cool Asian Kids. "And that's essentially what the new film does."

Warner Bros. advertised Edwards' whitened-up take on the Japanese franchise as Godzilla and his atomic breath vs. Cranston and his atomic toupee--the studio made it look like Cranston would be channeling Dr. Loomis from Halloween--but (spoilers!) that's not the movie we got. Edwards told Willmore in a BuzzFeed interview that he chose to kill off Cranston's nuclear physicist character early on in Godzilla in order to raise the movie's stakes and create the sense that "anything could happen." Sure, Cranston's physicist dad character is kind of a boring white guy too, but kicking his badacondunk out of the movie so early is such a mistake because Cranston is much more alive and present in his scenes than Blando McBombdefuser--who, as Willmore says, "jumps through a series of increasingly improbable plot hoops to stay in the path of the creatures"--is in his.

It's just the wrong character to be spending a huge chunk of the movie with (and as the type of white savior Cool Asian Kids rightly criticizes him as being, he's amusingly inconsequential in comparison to Godzilla's heroics in the movie), and it's a shame, because Edwards kicks the movie off so promisingly with one of my favorite opening title sequences in a recent tentpole blockbuster. The sequence is a cleverly assembled montage of both real and fake archive footage that establishes the history of MUTOs, nicely scored by Alexandre Desplat--who's skillfully following in the footsteps of the old Akira Ifukube score music that both Pharoahe Monch and Tracy Morgan love so much--and surrounded visually by hastily redacted text from fake government files. The Prologue Studios opening titles are one of the 2014 Godzilla's few instances of humor, one of many things Edwards accomplishes better than Emmerich did. The passages that are redacted to isolate the names of the cast and crew are either silly, freeze-frame-worthy sentences like "The monster communicates through music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat" or are full of in-jokes like "Walter Malcolm has claimed that government men dressed in white lab coats routinely appear at site and Bryan Cranston shortly after the event all residents are sworn to silence." Walter is a reference to Breaking Bad, and Malcolm is, of course, a shout-out to Malcolm in the Middle (although shouldn't it say Hal, Cranston's character's name on Malcolm, instead of Malcolm?).

Despite all the sleep-inducing moments involving Discount Channing Tatum, as well as the fact that it's nowhere near the league of The Host, the 2014 Godzilla is superior to Emmerich's previous attempt to bring Godzilla to America and is more effective at building tension and staging monster action. Also, it's not trying to rip off so much of Jurassic Park. Recent Throwback Thursday guest blogger Hardeep Aujla, who hails from Word Is Bond, a U.K.-based hip-hop blog I've contributed pieces to, disagrees. He dislikes the 2014 Godzilla so much that he's skeptical about how Edwards will handle Star Wars in his next directorial effort, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One. So Hardeep, how would you have improved the 2014 Godzilla if you worked on it? Would you have made the reboot into a boy-and-his-best-friend-who's-a-strange-creature story like the old Godzilla sequels, the Gamera sequels and my favorite of all those stories, The Iron Giant? Or would you have said "Fuck the American audience" and told it from the point of view of Ken Watanabe's scientist character? Or would you have completely gotten rid of any audience surrogate characters and told it from the point of view of Godzilla, which would have probably caused the movie to cost 200 million more American dollars to make but is a kaiju movie that's never been done before?


Hardeep Aujla: I think I read that Godzilla's screen-time was only 10 minutes in the whole 130-something minute film. This isn't Jaws, Edwards - less is not more in kaiju films.

As for what I would have done, I love The Iron Giant and that whole story too but I would've gone with your last suggestion, hands down. This is what I always thought AvP should have been. I would have started the film introducing a crack team of badasses equal to Dutch's or Apone's team, but then would've had them torn apart gloriously by the titular creatures (perhaps they stumbled into the vicinity of a one-on-one confrontation). Then the title of the movie comes up accompanied by strong audio tone with the intention of stating "That's fucking right" to the audience and their expectations. I'm thinking a very loud shrill-type noise that starts off monotonous but evolves a couple of seconds later into something with a bit more character before ultimately revealing itself to be the war-cry of either a Predator or an Alien as we cut straight back to the duel (yep, this idea has been rolling around in my head for a while). From there on out we get a pure Aliens versus Predators narrative with no more English spoken.

'Speaking words of wisdom, let them fiiiiiiiiiiight.'

I haven't seen many of the old kaiju movies (the Gamera trilogy from the 90's is superb though), and the ones I did see were a long time ago, but I do remember some very protracted sequences where it's just Godzilla or his kid doing stuff and the audience just follows along. I may be completely fabricating those memories though. Either way, the challenge for Gareth Edwards would have been to make an engaging film like this in the modern era, one that is good enough to stand strongly unaided by human faces and words. There could of course be some human characters (retaining Ken Watanabe who was wasted in the actual film) but they should have minor roles. I can see how this would be tricky for a character like Godzilla who seemingly doesn't have a rich variety of activities to fill a movie with apart from swim, smash and roar, but therein lies the challenge, and I would be a lot more impressed with Gareth Edwards as a filmmaker if he pulled it off, or at least respect his effort if he tried.

None of Alexandre Desplat's score cues from Godzilla are currently in rotation on AFOS, but Desplat's main title theme ought to be.

Monday, June 15, 2015

If you think GoodFellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are inspirational stories of triumph, you need professional fucking help--and a lobotomy from Thelma Schoonmaker

Diminish the role she played in the making of GoodFellas, and she'll inflict cuts on you that are as bad as a jump cut in a Ridley Scott movie.
Thelma Schoonmaker

When I recently wrote about The Wolf of Wall Street, I said, "A lesser filmmaker would rain down judgment on Travis [in Taxi Driver]... or he'd make Rupert [in The King of Comedy] and Belfort... experience a personality change and become remorseful after their short prison time. But not Scorsese. He wants to sit back, let the audience judge Travis/Rupert/Jordan for themselves and see what happens. If many in the audience squirm over their behavior and the repercussions, that's great. If others view them as their hero or spirit animal--like how several Homer Simpsons out there cheered The Wolf of Wall Street on as if it's School of Hard Knockers... to the dismay of those who completely sympathize with Belfort's victims--that's great too. It's weird but great. As for a man named John Hinckley..."

Right-wing film critic Kyle Smith definitely belongs in the "It's weird" category. If you stayed away from Twitter all last week like I've been frequently doing lately, you might have missed the appalled reactions to Smith's umpteenth attempt to troll everyone: "Women are not capable of understanding GoodFellas," his so-ridiculous-it-could-be-easily-mistaken-for-a-ClickHole-parody New York Post op-ed.

It's funny how--like a clown--the New York Post published Smith's op-ed the day after GoodFellas re-entered my consciousness when I stumbled into the film's 25th Anniversary Blu-ray in a rack of Blu-rays at Target, and I became worried that I'd have to double-dip because the new Blu-ray contains a cast and crew commentrak with Scorsese, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino (I was relieved to find out a few days later that my copy of the 2004 GoodFellas DVD contains the same commentrak). In his article, Smith says things like "To a woman, the GoodFellas are lowlifes. To guys, they're hilarious, they're heroes. They rule the roost." Remember Henry Hill's coke-fueled meltdown on his last day as a wiseguy? Yeah, that was really heroic.

Fans of GoodFellas, both male and female, went apeshit on Twitter over Smith's sweeping statement--his op-ed is such a hacky '80s stand-up routine about the differences between men and women that I can practically smell the brick wall--but they went apeshit in sardonic and entertaining ways that made nuance-free, often way-too-shrill-and-humorless-for-my-tastes Twitter worth reading again.

Why do right-wing film critics often misread gangster movies as endorsements of gangster behavior, just like how so many right-wingers misinterpret rap lyrics? Smith's misreading of one of his favorite mob movies as Entourage with guns (I'm looking forward to someone--with way too much time on their hands--mocking the much-ridiculed Smith article by replacing GoodFellas' dialogue with dude-bro dialogue from Entourage) reminds me of when Armond White, who currently writes for the right-wing National Review, panned Better Luck Tomorrow in 2003 because he was dissatisfied with what he thought was the Justin Lin film's endorsement of the Asian American friends' slide into crime and bloodshed. Better Luck wasn't endorsing and fetishizing the murder in the garage towards the end of the movie, you old conservative fuck. Same to you, Mr. Rosso lookalike who prefers his entertainment to be Pollyannaish and, like White, condescendingly accused Lin of selling out his own people by making an "empty and amoral" portrayal of Asian Americans in Better Luck.

What GoodFellas and Better Luck--and in a not-as-gory way, The Wolf of Wall Street--are doing is initially reveling in the allure of a gangster lifestyle (for me, the most alluring part of the gangster lifestyle in Better Luck was Roger Fan's sociopathic character beating up at a party a racist jock who needed his ass kicked). Those films have to do so in order to sell you on why these characters are attracted to crime--Scorsese once described the Copacabana sequence in GoodFellas as a moment when the gangster lifestyle seduces Henry--but then they kick the seat from under you and switch to focusing on the downsides of such a lifestyle. Unlike the boring lifestyle porn of Entourage, those films intend to undermine the gangster fantasy they introduced.

GoodFellas excels at its hard right-hand turn into the downsides of its characters' behavior by not stupidly opting for the bad-movie-screenwriting route of having a character--or an on-the-nose pop song--flat out say, "This is bad, mmm-kay" (Scorsese's terrific use of existing songs to comment on a scene, but only "in an oblique way," was partly why existing songs from GoodFellas like "Monkey Man" were all over the playlist for the now-defunct AFOS block "Rock Box"). The pre-MTV Films, pre-DJ Shadow cut of Better Luck excels at that hard right-hand turn as well. The MTV Films cut? Uh, not so much. Lin, perhaps more rattled by Mr. Rosso's outburst at Sundance than he'd let on, tweaked the ending in the MTV Films version so that the characters, including a pre-Fast and the Furious Han Seoul-Oh, ended up being a little more remorseful about their actions.

Of course Smith wouldn't be aware that a woman edited GoodFellas because he strikes me as an idiot who never reads the credits on the boxes of things. Last time I checked, reading the credits of things is one of the requirements of being a film critic. The outcry over the New York Post article is a good time--hell, it's always a good time--to reassess or pay more attention to longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker's pivotal role in making GoodFellas a classic of adrenalized pacing, rock n' roll filmmaking and moral ambiguity (my favorite line from Schoonmaker about the editing of GoodFellas was her reply to someone's bafflement over how such a demure and unassuming lady could be the cutter of Scorsese's most violent works: "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them").

Scorsese and Schoonmaker's partnership ranks as one of the all-time greatest director/editor partnerships. Without Schoonmaker in the editing suite, I don't think Scorsese would have been able to take four hours' worth of material he shot for The Wolf of Wall Street and whittle all that material down to three hours. Yeah, three hours can be demanding on someone with a weak bladder, but that's why I never buy any beverages at the movie theater or drink anything before the feature presentation.

The outcry over the New York Post article is also a good time to remember that all Rupert Murdoch's right-wing daily is good for is lining a bird cage. One of the 4,080 things I learned from listening to Public Enemy in its prime was to never take anything published by the New York Post seriously. Like Chuck D said, it ain't worth the paper it's printed on.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Bridesmaids

Judd Apatow's next female-led comedy movie is the Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck, whose title automatically disqualifies it from getting shown as entertainment aboard Amtrak.
Every Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm intentionally pulling out the ticket that says "Bridesmaids" because of last week's release of the enjoyably subversive Spy, the third--and certainly not the last--film in a bunch of collaborations between Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig, whose successful partnership started with Bridesmaids.

The 2011 smash hit Bridesmaids may be the first Judd Apatow-produced comedy where I prefer the unrated cut on Blu-ray/DVD over the shorter theatrical cut. Unrated cuts of Apatow comedies usually wind up with a little too much filler--these already two-hour-plus comedies end up becoming even longer--but the unrated Bridesmaids cut rules over them all, simply because it contains a genuinely funny scene that should have been part of the theatrical cut. It's when star/co-screenwriter Kristen Wiig's character Annie (named after Annie Mumolo, Wiig's Bridesmaids writing partner)--a single lady in her late 30s who's not enjoying the loneliness of the single life and is worried that she's being similarly shunted aside by her bride-to-be best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph)--gets grilled by the inquisitive son of one of her blind dates. The kid, who, of course, has no filter, is too young to understand that his questions and comments are on the rude side ("Your hair looks burned").

I can see why it was excised. Paul Feig--a longtime master of cringe comedy, whether it was in the episodes he directed for The Office or the material he wrote for Freaks and Geeks, the classic Feig/Apatow collabo that lifted tons of real-life cringeworthy moments from the adolescences of both Feig and Apatow--must have felt that Annie had been through enough humiliating moments in the theatrical cut already, and this awkward living room talk with the little boy was one too many. But the uncomfortable talk amusingly points out how Annie's douchey fuckbuddy Ted (an uncredited Jon Hamm)--the most evil character in the film, even more so than Rose Byrne's character, who, unlike Ted, actually changes and becomes less evil over the course of the film--behaves exactly like this kid. "Your hair looks burned" and "My grandma died where your sitting... right where your underpants are..." are lines that could have easily come out of Ted's mouth.

Also, I'm a connoisseur of scenes where actors are trying their damnedest not to laugh. Towards the end of the living room scene, Wiig can be seen breaking character and laughing, just like when she had to turn her face away from the camera during her MacGruber sex scene with Will Forte because his weird-sounding moans and the sweat droplets landing on her face were causing her to corpse. Part of the enjoyment of the living room scene is due to Wiig's own enjoyment of interacting with this weird kid, and her reactions bring to mind Eddie Murphy's visible amusement over Bronson Pinchot's ad-libs during Beverly Hills Cop, which Elvis Mitchell once pointed out as a rare moment of Murphy getting a kick out of letting another comedic performer upstage him.

In fact, quite a few of the other deleted scenes that made it to Bridesmaids' extended cut contain shots of actors corpsing or trying to hide it. The audio commentary even points out when Byrne--so good as Annie's wealthy and ultra-competitive nemesis Helen--is corpsing behind an airplane seat that's shielding her lips from the camera. She does it while watching Melissa McCarthy improvise dialogue as Megan--the amusingly unfiltered, Guy Fieri bowling-shirt-clad character who landed McCarthy a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and kicked off a De Niro/Scorsese-style partnership with Feig that's continued with The Heat, Spy and next year's all-female Ghostbusters reboot featuring Thor as the new Janine--during Megan's attempt to seduce her seat neighbor (McCarthy's real-life husband, Tammy director Ben Falcone) as Annie's experiencing her pill-induced airborne meltdown. Also, Byrne's eyes are clearly saying, "Aw shit, Kristen, please don't cause me to corpse during this take," when she sees Wiig singing gospel in an old-timey voice. That's how funny the material in Bridesmaids was: not even the actors whom you'd expect not to corpse because of their largely non-comedic bodies of work (Byrne is best known for that hilarious knee-slapper of a show, Damages) were immune to corpsing.

Speaking of immunity, I've always been immune to chick flicks. During the holiday season, I'm allergic to Love Actually. I prefer Johnnie To over Johnny Depp. So I wouldn't have given Bridesmaids the time of day had I not known the Freaks and Geeks duo of Feig and Apatow was involved. But any time those two join forces, the results are bound to be terrific, and, of course, Bridesmaids turned out to be better than the average chick flick. It makes sharp observations about class issues (Annie is still reeling from the failure of her Milwaukee bakery, which she made the mistake of opening during the recession, and her economic woes are partly to blame for the dissolution of her friendship with Lillian) and the excesses and absurdities of American wedding culture. It doesn't end with Annie making a clichéd rom-com run through the city streets to tell Chris O'Dowd's cop character she loves him. Old SNL buddies Wiig and Rudolph (I love how her character's parents are Franklin Ajaye and Miss Yvonne) have chemistry for days, including during their one dramatic scene together. Feig's ability to let all six of the female principals--many of whom are, by the way, Groundlings alums--shine comedically makes me eager to see him handle the Ghostbusters reboot that's set to drop in summer 2016. The cameo by Wilson Phillips of "Hold On" fame makes for a good gag about Helen's competitive nature, even though Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle's use of "Hold On" remains funnier.

Oh yeah, and the film is consistently hilarious. You're left wanting more of Annie and the new friends she's made from her duties as maid of honor, but at the same time, you're relieved that Wiig--whose movie canon, as Vanity Fair once said a year before she had her first massive hit with Bridesmaids, has been an acting lesson on how to be funny without being the loudest person in the room--never gave in to greed and rejected the idea of a Bridesmaids sequel. Except for The Great Muppet Caper, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Police Story 3: Supercop, Addams Family Values, 2011's The Muppets, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas and 22 Jump Street, modern-day (as in post-Star Wars) comedy movie sequels have never been any good, and I get the feeling Wiig is aware of that. "We knew during the first one, this was it," said Wiig to Harper's Bazaar in 2013. A sequel would be as pointless as one of Annie's many blind-dates-gone-bad.

That glove she wears to treat her carpal tunnel problem looks oddly cool in a Michael Jackson kind of way.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Game of Thrones "Hardhome" massacre and Mad Max prove that near-silence is golden, so why hasn't anyone stepped up to make the first great modern-day silent action movie?

The village becomes majority wight.

Paul Nice, the beathead behind one of my favorite mixtapes, 2005's Do You Pick Your Feet in Poughkeepsie?, dropped an enjoyable (but not exactly danceable) Shaw Brothers tribute mix full of Shaw Brothers movie soundbites and Shaw library music cues last week. His tribute to everyone's favorite movie studio with a logo that clearly was filmed against someone's office door window has got me thinking that unless Marvel Studios tops the Raid-inspired fight choreography on Daredevil with even more impressive choreography on its planned Iron Fist martial arts project for Netflix or in the Daughters of the Dragon adaptation I've been wishing for, I doubt anyone's going to assemble a similar tribute mix about Marvel Cinematic Universe filmmaking 40 years from now, in the same way that the Poughkeepsie DJ sampled The Daredevils and Masked Avengers about 40 years after their release.

Throwback Thursday guest blogger Hardeep Aujla and Marvel Studios' harshest critics might be onto something about the MCU movies not holding up as action filmmaking 15 years from now. But if they ever YouTube how Universal Television shot Captain America in the '70s, they'd probably be like, "Wow, that was wack. It makes the studio that brought you Sharknado look like Spielberg. Okay, Joe Johnston and the Russo brothers for the win."

In the '80s, Marvel Comics published a Larry Hama G.I. Joe story about Snake Eyes and Scarlett that contained no dialogue and is still remembered as a groundbreaking piece of comic book storytelling. If Marvel Studios wants to be remembered for more than just snappy banter or one-liners and the transformation of Andy Dwyer into an action star and be thought of as an innovative action movie studio like Shaw Brothers, they're going to have to do something ballsier than even single-take fight scenes in a hallway or in front of a blind Chinese guy singing in Mandarin. I think they should make a silent action movie like that classic G.I. Joe issue and goddamn commit to it like Hama did.

Aw, man...
(Photo source: Mars Will Send No More)

... if only G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra...

... was completely devoid of dialogue.

Mad Max: Fury Road is nearly a silent action movie. The guy from Skins is chattier than either Tom Hardy or Charlize Theron. The enthralling 15-minute White Walker/wight attack on the Free Folk and the Night's Watch two Sundays ago on Game of Thrones--in which David Benioff and D.B. Weiss basically knocked on The Walking Dead's door that night and said to Scott M. Gimple, "Try and top this"--isn't exactly chatty either. I'm surprised no one outside of the TV industry has attempted to do a silent action flick like Buster Keaton's The General, which George Miller cited as an influence on his latest Mad Max installment. Think of all the Akiva "My Best Work Was on the Underrated Fringe" Goldsman-penned blockbusters that would have been improved--or all the post-1996  two of the  one of the  all the three-fourths of one of the post-1996 Michael Bay blockbusters that would have been improved--if they'd been completely scrubbed of dialogue.

Oh yeah, there's director J.C. Chandor, whose 2013 film All Is Lost, with Robert Redford alone on a boat, almost contains no dialogue--Chandor said he wanted to see what Redford would be like as an actor if his voice was taken away--but All Is Lost is a survival drama, not an action flick. Whether part of the action genre or not, a huge part of what makes Fury Road, the "Hardhome" massacre sequence and All Is Lost riveting is their minimal dialogue and the performers' reliance on their physicality to carry the story. Before Fury Road, Game of Thrones and All Is Lost, a few writers and directors--all working for TV--were aware of how riveting depriving their actors of their voices could look, especially in a dialogue-heavy medium like TV, so they experimented with near-silence.

Some of Breaking Bad's most memorable cold opens were done as mini-silent action movies. Genndy Tartakovsky, who drew storyboards for Iron Man 2, did a silent action movie a few times on Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars (the minimized dialogue is why I always preferred Tartakovsky's cel-animated Star Wars prequel tie-in over George Lucas' actual prequels, which, at their worst, turned into C-SPAN in space). The director of Avengers: Age of Ultron himself did it once for almost an entire hour on Buffy, and it remains one of the show's most popular episodes. I'd make a silent action movie if I had the money and the connections. So what's stopping the studios from experimenting with wordless action sequences for two hours?

Sure, The Artist was one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture Oscar winners, but a modern-day silent movie isn't exactly box-office poison. People (who are open-minded enough to put aside the notion that a silent movie is too old-timey) will go see such a movie if they're fans of whoever's going to be doing all the non-talking. Mel Brooks' star-studded Silent Movie was a hit in 1976, and I bet that if IMAX theaters show for just one week the "Hardhome" massacre sequence--and only that sequence--droves of Game of Thrones fans will roll into those theaters that week like that creepy "Hardhome" zombie avalanche.

With their one-act or one-episode experiments, Vince Gilligan (and his Breaking Bad army of imaginative directors like Michelle MacLaren), Tartakovsky and Joss Whedon proved once again that far braver creative souls have been emerging from TV. So maybe a silent movie would be too bizarre for the playing-it-safe (and now Joss-less) film division of Marvel Studios. Someone said Jackie Chan, who worships Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, should be the one to tackle a silent movie, but I doubt Chan would get that experimental these days: he's in the "Steve Martin shifting back and forth between Father of the Bride and more serious movie roles" phase of his career, not the "Steve Martin doing weird shit like recording banjo albums" phase. But you know who I think would be up for a silent actioner because he has proven that just because you're a 70-year-old filmmaker, that doesn't mean you have to phone it in? George Miller.

The Aussie director considered making Fury Road silent. A silent version of Fury Road is even being planned as an extra for its Blu-ray release. Also, it looks like Mad Max is getting less chatty with each installment. I wouldn't be surprised if by the time Hardy does his last movie as Max--and Hardy's inevitably going to make more of them--he'll say only one line in the whole movie: "Oy."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Yes, Virginia, there is a better version of Supercop, superior to the one where Tom Jones got flung onto the soundtrack like a pair of panties at his face

Quick! Make up a name for a porno version of a Jackie Chan flick in five seconds! Shanghai Poon! Armour of Cock! The Suxedo! Drunken Masturbator!

Disney's recent decision to scrap its Tron threequel may be due to the studio becoming cautious about its spending after yet another one of its big-budget films, Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, tanked at the box office, but I think that cancellation is also due to the fact that threequels tend to suck. However, the hugely entertaining 1992 Jackie Chan/Michelle Yeoh action classic Police Story 3: Supercop--a recent subject in Stereogum editor Tom Breihan's "Netflix Action Movie Canon" column for Deadspin, as well as a movie recently brought up in this blog's comments section by both Bay Area film critic Richard von Busack and I--is a rare case where a threequel doesn't suck.

In its overviews of the films of Chan the modern-day Buster Keaton, Subway Cinema noted that Police Story 3 "was a movie that feels like a breath of fresh air for Chan... The foreign locations give things an expensive sheen, and [director Stanley] Tong's eschewing of complex choreography in favor of wide, clearly presented stunt sequences brings a crisp, new feel to Chan's movie repertory." It was also, according to Subway Cinema, a movie Tong (who took over as director after Chan directed the first two Police Story flicks) offered to Yeoh as a way to keep her spirits up after her divorce. The addition of Yeoh's mainland cop character to the mayhem ended up being the high point of Chan's Police Story franchise.

Chan and Tong's wild symphonies of comedic property damage (achieved without any fake-looking CGI!) and "look, Ma, no stunt doubles!"-style martial arts slapstick are represented on the AFOS playlists by J. Peter Robinson's main theme from Jackie Chan's First Strike, the American version of Police Story 4: First Strike. That 1996 installment also had Chan and Tong venturing into foreign locations, for a 007-style story where Hong Kong police inspector Chan Ka-kui, the hero of the franchise in its classic era, gets embroiled in international espionage (the American First Strike theme is part of "AFOS Incognito" rotation, to be exact). The franchise made its return in 2013 with the non-comedic Police Story 2013, which has nothing to do continuity-wise with the previous adventures of Inspector Ka-kui (Chan's playing a completely different character, just like in 2004's New Police Story). A massive hit in mainland China, the mainland-made Police Story 2013 debuted in American theaters and on digital platforms just last week--to mostly negative reviews--under the title Police Story: Lockdown.

Present-day American viewers are lucky to be able to see Police Story: Lockdown in English subtitles and in its original Mandarin (whereas the previous Police Story movies, all Hong Kong-made, were originally in Cantonese, the most common dialect in Hong Kong), just like how I was lucky to see the original version of Police Story 3 back in 1993, at a Bay Area AMC multiplex that was experimenting at the time with showing badly subtitled--instead of badly dubbed--but thankfully uncut action flicks from Hong Kong. This was three years before Chan had his first box-office hit in America with a redubbed version of Rumble in the Bronx, the filmed-in-Vancouver action comedy that gave us a Bronx surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The surprise hit led to several older Chan flicks hitting American theaters and getting redubbed and butchered as well, as part of a misguided attempt--there's always a tinge of imperialism to this shit--to make them more palatable to American moviegoers. One of those flicks was Police Story 3.

Here we see a typical morning of Michelle Yeoh on her way to work.

I refuse to ever watch the version of Police Story 3 everyone in America has seen, even though Yeoh's crazy and legendary motorcycle-to-train jump stunt and all the other jaw-dropping stunts remain intact. It's the version that concludes with a very '90s Tom Jones cover of Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting," the same version that Dragon Dynasty--an Asian action film imprint of The Weinstein Company that's otherwise respectful of the Asian action classics it introduces to non-Asian audiences and gives them the option of watching those films uncut and subtitled--stupidly chose as the only version of Police Story 3 for the film's special edition DVD release.

Why do I refuse to watch that Miramax/Dimension version? I don't want my memories of Police Story 3 to be soiled. Police Story 3 in its original form was perfect, man--even with "I Have My Way," the slightly cheesy Cantopop tune Chan sang during the outtakes that concluded the film. Don't get me wrong: Tom Jones is the illest. His Burt Bacharach/Hal David-produced theme from Promise Her Anything, which is part of "AFOS Prime" rotation, is an underrated tune, graced with a guitar riff that's like "Jimmy Page fronting the Byrds," as Allmusic once put it, as well as a tune that's so evocative of Carnaby Street in the '60s. But "Kung Fu Fighting" and its asinine and stereotypical "Oriental riff"? What the hell's it doing in Police Story 3? Miss me with that shit.

I want to always tell anyone whose only taste of Police Story 3 was the Miramax/Dimension version that these Hong Kong films are always better in their original form and that something vital is lost when a terrific sequel like Police Story 3 is deprived of its connections to previous installments. Inspector Ka-kui may not have much of an arc in the four classic-era Police Story movies--in each movie, no matter what rank he's at, he's the same fallible but stalwart character, a "frustrated conformist," to borrow the words of Film Comment's Dave Kehr, rather than a rebel--but in this age of Netflix streaming and Amazon Prime, I wish I could be able to marathon on a lazy afternoon the inspector's fall to demoted cop, followed by his rise to respected lawman (and finally, globe-trotting defender of the security of the world), without any of the changes Miramax/Dimension and New Line Cinema made to the last two classic-era movies (Police Story 4 remains the only classic-era installment I've seen in just its butchered form).

Let's take another enjoyable threequel from a long-running action franchise just like Police Story. Now imagine if Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade got imported to another country, and an editor in that country replaced the first few minutes of Last Crusade's elegant opening sequence in the Utah countryside (actually a seamlessly edited amalgam of Utah and Colorado locations and movie sets in England and Hollywood) with a montage of Tiger Beat snapshots of Harrison Ford, and then the editor changed Indy's name to Adventure Jones. So that when Brody barks on horseback at the end, "Indy, Henry, follow me! I know the way! Ha!," he's been redubbed to say, "Adventure, Henry, follow me!" Then that's followed by John Williams' end credits score music getting replaced by Engelbert Humperdinck doing a cover of the Dazz Band's "Let It Whip" that horribly updates the tune for the '90s. That's exactly what happened to Police Story 3, and that's how inane Miramax/Dimension's butchering of it was.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Mad Max: Fury Road

Aeon Flux, Charlize Theron's last big attempt at a tentpole action flick before Mad Max, tanked back in 2005, simply because it didn't have a guy with a flamethrower guitar.
Every Throwback Thursday, I pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I didn't throw away, and then I discuss the movie on the ticket. Today, instead of drawing some random ticket, I'm intentionally pulling out the ticket that says "Mad Max: Fury Road" because I'm just in awe of both the film's visuals and the intriguing writing for its female characters, and I want to discuss how satisfying an action film the fourth Mad Max installment is--as well as discuss the one aspect that's disappointing. Mild spoilers ahead.

The boldest thing about director Destin Cretton's 2013 indie drama Short Term 12 is its lack of on-the-nose exposition and speechifying, which makes it stand apart in a genre where dramas about counselors or social workers who want to protect child abuse victims are frequently on-the-nose about their storytelling and over-explanatory or preachy. "None of the backstories of the film's four main characters... are unveiled in clumsily written infodumps or pointless flashbacks," I said a couple of months ago. "They're unveiled gradually, piece by piece, and at believable moments."

The same goes for Mad Max: Fury Road, Australian director George Miller's incredible and much-talked-about return to the post-apocalyptic action franchise that made his career 36 years ago. Aside from an introductory voiceover that's reminiscent of the recap about the fall of civilization at the start of Miller's earlier action masterpiece The Road Warrior, Aussie ex-cop Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, ably taking over Mel Gibson's titular role) has even less dialogue in Fury Road than he did in The Road Warrior. He makes Detective Frank Bullitt look like a flibbertigibbet doing an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.

It's remarkable how outside of the introductory voiceover, Fury Road conveys Max's PTSD and his guilt over the lives he was unable to save strictly in visual terms, namely two-second flashbacks to a dead little girl who keeps taunting him (either she's a daughter he raised many years after bikers killed both his toddler son and his wife in the first Mad Max film or a kid he failed to save from a recent massacre). During one of those flashbacks, another apparition appears in Max's mind, and he's the only Aboriginal in the whole goddamn movie. The Nerds of Color blog points out that out of Fury Road's cast, "actress Courtney Eaton is part Maori and Chinese, Zoe Kravitz is African American and Megan Gale is half-Maori. The text of the film does not reveal these to be necessarily conscious choices, meaning these actresses did not need to be persons of color, but here they are." But aside from those three cast members, the movie's ensemble, just like the casts in so many other recent movies about the future, is as white as a Lawrence Welk Show taping.

Max ignores Chris Rock's advice about staying off the pole.

The Caucasity is a small speed bump in a car chase movie that's a mother lode of great examples of show-don't-tell storytelling, from Max's minimal dialogue to any scene involving war-rig driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron), both the film's real hero--even more so than her adversary-turned-ally Max--and its breakout character (aside from, of course, the bad motherfucker with the flamethrower guitar, a.k.a. the Doof Warrior). Not until Fury Road's third act does the audience realize why Furiosa chose to turn against her despotic, water-hoarding boss Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and help five of the warlord's female sex slaves--one of whom is pregnant with Joe's child--escape to safety.

Furiosa's doing it out of remorse for being previously complicit in the same exact sex-slavery system that kidnapped her as a child. She was abducted from her home in the region known as the Green Place, along with her mother, and was raised in the Citadel, the mountaintop society ruled by Joe, and she wants to return to her matriarchal tribe in the Green Place and provide Joe's breeders with sanctuary there. But the film never specifies if Furiosa was actually one of Joe's sex slaves before becoming one of his imperators, a.k.a. lieutenants (a character detail that's not stated in the movie is Furiosa's infertility, which explains why she's a rig driver and imperator instead of one of Joe's breeders), and it doesn't have to. Like Chris Klimek said in an NPR piece about Fury Road, "We're not subjected to a cinemas-interruptus monologue where she tells us why [she's helping the women escape]. We get why. Theron's eyes show us why."

Lenny Kravitz's daughter and Elvis' granddaughter are two of the escapees. Replace the other two girls with Keith Richards' granddaughter and Bob Dylan's granddaughter, and they all could form the world's most interesting new rock band.

The beauty of Theron's lean and mean performance--by the way, when Theron said "guzzoline" instead of "gasoline," that moment, even more so than either the return of Max's old Interceptor or the presence of Junkie XL's suitably chaotic-sounding score, really made me feel like I was home again in the dystopic desert world I grew to enjoy during The Road Warrior--is similar to the beauty of Brie Larson's performance in Short Term 12, where many of the things Larson's equally laconic character doesn't say and is unable to share with other people are more powerful than the things she does say. If Short Term 12 is a triumph of economical storytelling, Fury Road is a fucking 62-foot buzzer-beater of economical storytelling.

"Miller didn't have much money [for 1979's Mad Max], but he made his action look astounding by focusing on clarity," noted Kevin Lincoln in the Dissolve essay "What modern action films could learn from the original Mad Max." In Fury Road, which was filmed on location in Namibia, Miller has much more money, but his action sequences continue to focus on clarity--instead of opting for something like ultra-fast cuts that end up making everything incomprehensible--and they emphasize old-school stuntwork and old-school practical FX in the age of 007 windsurfing a fake-looking CGI tidal wave and Indiana Jones being chased through an equally fake-looking CGI jungle. Fury Road is 80% practical FX and 20% CGI, and most of that CGI was used not for explosions--or animating Max's leaps and dives in the same way that animation was used to create Spider-Man's movements in live-action Spidey movies--but for removing stunt rigs and creating Furiosa's mechanical left arm.

There's a purity to Fury Road's action sequences that's as appealing and intriguing as the purity in both the film's dialogue (part of me wishes Miller made Fury Road into a silent movie like Buster Keaton's The General, which he's cited as an influence on his "western on wheels" and has already been mashed up with one of Junkie XL's Fury Road score cues by some genius over on Vimeo) and the characters' motivations. So it bugs me when I stumble into a criticism about the purity of those motivations, like Leonard Maltin's complaints that "I didn't care about any of the characters" and "They are so sketchily drawn." Are you basically saying, Mr. Maltin, that Fury Road could have used more exposition to get you inside the characters' heads? Because Fury Road really doesn't need more. Just like Short Term 12, it's a film about survivors of abuse and PTSD sufferers learning to overcome their difficulties with both communication and trusting others--or turning those difficulties into their strengths--to fight their adversaries together and regain their agency. There's no time for speechifying or letting everyone know at length how they feel. They've got a Green Place they need to drive to.

'Is it weird that I think the most romantic movie moment of the year is Furiosa resting the rifle on Max's shoulder to aim?'--Kyle Buchanan from Vulture
(Photo source: Feminist Mad Max)

None of Junkie XL's score cues from Mad Max: Fury Road are currently in rotation on AFOS, but they ought to be.