Friday, August 28, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Vixen, "Episode 1"

I don't know why the CW went with CW Seed for the name of its online offshoot. If you're going to name yourself after a Roots track, CW Dynamite would be better.

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.

At only five minutes per weekly episode, the six-part CW Seed miniseries Vixen, an animated reintroduction of a black DC Comics heroine who previously appeared in animated, Gina Torres-voiced form on Bruce Timm's beloved Justice League Unlimited, is hilariously short. I expected Chris Rock to channel his old SNL character Nat X and joke about how a black superhero can only get a five-minute webtoon because the Man won't give her a two-hour movie. So I was surprised to discover that Rock has been raving about Vixen.

In a summer that's consisted of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man on the big screen (we'll just forget the whole Fantastic Four fiasco, and, oh, by the way, the only Fantastic Four that matters is these guys), that's huge praise for a superhero webtoon. So is Vixen--which takes place in the Arrow/The Flash/Legends of Tomorrow shared universe and will feature the voices of Arrow stars Stephen Amell and Emily Bett Rickards and Flash stars Grant Gustin and Carlos Valdes in upcoming episodes--as terrific as Rock implies? Animation-wise: yes. Storytelling-wise: it's too early--and too short--to tell. So far, I'm not in love with the presence of the ubiquitous in medias res device--an old storytelling favorite of the Arrow writers, who also scripted Vixen--and the clunky-sounding exposition during a diner conversation between aspiring Detroit fashion designer Mari McCabe (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who's about to discover that a family heirloom she's been wearing can grant her the power to mimic the abilities of animals, and her white foster dad Chuck (Neil Flynn, a.k.a. the dad on The Middle) in this first episode.

My least favorite aspect of Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti's now-defunct DC Animation show Young Justice comes back to haunt this new DC Animation project. Early on in one episode of Young Justice, Miss Martian was seen explaining to a skeptical and typically monosyllabic Superboy why she used her shape-shifting powers to disguise themselves as her uncle J'onn J'onnz and Superman at a press conference that just took place, more for the sake of bringing the audience up to speed than for her ex-boyfriend's sake. "Conner, you know we have to maintain the illusion that Superman, Manhunter and the other Leaguers who went into space are still on Earth. We can't let our enemies know how short-handed the Justice League is right now," she said to Superboy, who, in addition to being miserable about his life as a teenage clone of both Superman and Lex Luthor, has to go to work each day with a pro-torture ex-girlfriend who's fond of speaking in IMDb plot summary-ese.

Arrow veterans Wendy Mericle, Keto Shimizu and Brian Ford Sullivan (all paired up with Lauren Certo, who co-wrote another Arrow-related webseries, the live-action Blood Rush) are a little more skilled at handling exposition than Weisman and Vietti because of the experience they've had writing dialogue for a live-action prime-time show that can't really get away with that type of Saturday morning cartoon exposition too often. So Vixen is slightly more cognizant than Young Justice about how people who know each other well actually talk to each other and is a little less ridiculous and awkward about the exposition--we learn Mari is looking for her birth parents, the difficulties of finding the fashion design job she wants have left her with an understandable temper and she's closer to Patty, an absent and most likely ailing member of Mari's foster family who's presumably Chuck's wife (and will be voiced by Kari Wuhrer), than she is to Chuck--but much of it is still unnatural-sounding expository dialogue. The opening action sequence is much closer to what I want out of an animated sister show to Arrow, The Flash and the forthcoming Legends of Tomorrow, and that would be nicely staged action that's full of visuals an animated show can pull off with more panache than a live-action one, with minimal dialogue during the action. But that rooftop sequence in which Mari outwits the Arrow (Amell) and outraces the Flash (Gustin)--only to accidentally slip and fall--actually goes one better by containing no dialogue at all. It's a wise stylistic choice by both the Arrow writers and miniseries director James Tucker, who previously directed the 2013 DC Animation movie Superman Unbound and showran Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the surprisingly good DC Animation show that proved a light-hearted take on modern-day Batman doesn't have to suck like a Joel Schumacher Batman movie.

The effective animation for Mari's escape from Oliver Queen and Barry Allen, a sequence in which miniseries co-composer Blake Neely gets to restate his main themes from Arrow and The Flash, is mainly what earns the Vixen premiere episode the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week title. But there are a couple of extra touches that elevate Vixen and will make it worth following on CW Seed in the next few weeks.

The show's dialogue recording team is clearly made up of fans of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was distinctive for having its vocal cast record their dialogue outside the recording booth and outdoors in order to make their stop-motion-animated movie sound naturalistic. I'm not sure if the Vixen sound team actually did venture outside the booth to record Mari's reverby scene in jail, her diner scene with Chuck and an upcoming S.T.A.R. Labs scene between Barry and Valdes' lab tech character Cisco that was included in the series premiere trailer, but the Fantastic Mr. Fox approach to getting Mari and the other characters to sound like they're actually in reverby and chilly rooms gives this DC Animation project an interestingly grounded feel and makes it a seamless part of the live-action Arrow/Flashverse.

Oh yeah, and there's the simple fact that Mari is the first female superpowered hero of color in the Arrow/Flashverse (Katana, a heroic swordswoman played on Arrow last season by Rila Fukushima, doesn't have any powers). The character is an appealing middle ground between the fantasy-based heroism of the supers on The Flash and the more flawed (and non-superpowered) heroism of the street-level crimefighters on Arrow (the time frame of the miniseries begins with Mari in jail for self-defense, and the episode implies that the man she attacked was such a disgusting perv that she didn't deserve to be put behind bars).

I'm curious to see how Echikunwoke--whom I remember from her eye-candy roles on The 4400 and House of Lies and is an ideal choice to play Mari if she becomes a live-action character--will tackle both voice acting, especially in a setting that's way more family-friendly than House of Lies (but still salty in the dialogue department, in a CW kind of way, of course), and a heroic character who, like Static from DC's Milestone imprint, clearly means a lot to African American DC readers. So far, the premiere episode has shown that Echikunwoke is a great screamer. I never read the Justice League Detroit comics. I don't think Vixen screams like Mel from Doctor Who in those comics.

Much better-looking than Manimal.

Looking forward to seeing her fight Kelly Hu with the venomous spurs of a platypus.

I'm also curious to see how Vixen will handle what's essentially a story about a black adoptee raised by white parents (she appears to be embarrassed about it)--and in search of both her heritage and her purpose in life--that happens to be dressed up in superhero genre garb. Will it handle that kind of story with the same kind of aplomb Penny Dreadful has demonstrated as a story about identity that's dressed up as a Gothic horror drama? Or will it drop the ball like 2011's Green Lantern, which Arrow creators and Vixen co-executive producers Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti both co-wrote, and turn into another unimaginative--and emotionally flat--daddy issues-driven origin story?

Chris Rock's praise of this webtoon's premiere episode, as well as Flash cast member Candice Patton's similar endorsement of it--even though she's not in Vixen and she didn't get to reprise her role as Iris West--and black viewers' interest in it on Twitter, all remind me of when I was involved in the creation of a similar female superhero of color for an indie graphic novel about Asian American superheroes. I noticed a glint of excitement in the eyes of both male and female Asian American readers who were fans of that novel back in 2009. It was a glint that said, "I've been hungry for this my whole life."

I'm unable to glimpse that same glint on people from Black Twitter for obvious reasons, but judging from Vixen viewers' #DatTotem hashtag and enthusiastic tweets from the likes of BlackGirlNerds and the hosts of The Fan Bros Show, that glint is definitely there in their writing. Everyone's getting tired of superhero movies starring white guys named Chris. There needs to be more Chrisiquas and Cristinas up in this piece.

Times are changing, and the increasingly inclusive Arrow/Flashverse appears to be responding to the frustrations younger viewers have expressed about the presence of underrepresented groups on the screen, but it's responding in mostly sensible--and now with the arrival of Vixen, fascinating--ways. For instance, on The Flash, the police captain isn't an old, pasty Irish guy like it always used to be on cop shows and superhero shows before the '90s (neither is the captain some African American authority figure with no inner life). He's a younger and openly gay Indian Canadian guy. And now the Arrow/Flashverse is boldly placing a black woman at the center of the action instead of behind the action like spymaster Amanda Waller or on the sidelines like Iris. The five-minute webtoon format may make Vixen seem like a small step towards progress, but this step's a big one.

In addition to catching an arrow, she'll also be catching a fade.
Oliver Queen, you have failed this action sequence.
Mari does her best impression of Straight Outta Compton crushing Fantastic Four at the box office.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

This can't be Phife.

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

I grew up listening repeatedly to A Tribe Called Quest's first three albums on cassette: 1990's playful People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1991's more introspective but somehow even more enjoyable The Low End Theory and 1993's celebratory and communal Midnight Marauders, a rare threequel that actually doesn't suck. So while some ATCQ heads might find the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first (and so far, only) directorial effort from actor/filmmaker/copy shop employee Michael Rapaport, to be repetitive because "it was all stuff that any Tribe fan either already knew or could pick up from a thousand different bio's on the internet," I marveled at a lot of the footage Rapaport, a Tribe fan himself, was able to gather about the origins of three of my favorite hip-hop albums, as well as the origins of the Native Tongues collective, which consisted of Tribe and several other acts who appeared on classic Tribe joints like "Award Tour" and "Oh My God."

"We don't have to do 'Fuck tha Police.' There's a time and a place for 'Fuck tha Police.' And a group for that. We don't have to do 'Fight the Power.' There's a time and a place and a group for that. We're allowed to be different," says former Native Tongues member Monie Love about the much more whimsical but no less meaningful sounds of Native Tongues artists during the documentary. Besides Tribe and Monie, the revered collective also included the remarkably still-together De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, the Jungle Brothers and Leaders of the New School, whose member Busta Rhymes had a breakout moment that took place not on an LONS track but as a guest MC on Tribe's "Scenario," a classic posse cut Rapaport wasn't able to include in his documentary due to clearance issues. Since "Scenario," Busta has gone on to have an unusual (and tabloid-riddled) solo career, whether he's reuniting with former Tribe frontman/beatmaker Q-Tip on the 2013 track "Thank You" or rapping in the form of either Prince Akeem or liquid metal.

Viewers who don't know what it's like to go crate digging in a record store might not care for the footage Rapaport and cinematographer Robert Benavides lovingly shot of Q-Tip and former Tribe DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad browsing for potential beats like kids getting lost in a candy store, but as someone who did an awful lot of crate digging as a college radio DJ, that portion of The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest resonates with me. There's an equally lovely moment where Questlove--whose choice of the letter Q for his moniker was his way of shouting out ATCQ--equates Phife Dawg's "Yo!" at the start of his classic opening verse in "Buggin' Out" with N.W.A. bursting through the Martin Luther King "I have a dream" sign at the start of the "Express Yourself" video.

Friday, August 21, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Rick and Morty, "Total Rickall"

Luckily, Hulk doesn't fall 20 feet to the theater floor during this musical.

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.

Has Rick and Morty tackled the Rashomon episode yet? I know Rick and Morty has done a bottle episode ("Rixty Minutes"), and this week's Rick and Morty episode, "Total Rickall," is a crazy hybrid of a bottle episode and that Community fan favorite of a clip show parody where none of the clips are actual clips. But even though the Rashomon episode has been done to death on TV, I would like to see Rick and Morty add its own offbeat sci-fi spin to it (but differently from how Star Trek: The Next Generation's "A Matter of Perspective" and the X-Files episodes "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" and "Bad Blood" previously tackled the Rashomon ep) and do a lot with it visually like "Total Rickall" does when it morphs from being a hybrid of a bottle episode and an anti-clip show and takes the shape of a John Carpenter's The Thing-style paranoid thriller where everyone's driven crazy by being unable to tell apart the real from the fake.

In "Total Rickall," alien parasites invade the Smiths' house, pretend to be relatives or family friends and telepathically implant into the Smiths' brains fake memories of wacky adventures with them, hence a bunch of flashbacks to adventures that never actually happened, like that time the family and Cousin Nicky from Brooklyn wound up on board a Nazi sub. I like how the shape-shifting parasites' objective isn't outlined by the parasites in some typical Star Trek alien leader speech. They aren't out to assimilate humanity like the Thing or the Borg (neither do they admit to being lonely and wanting companionship); they're simply on Earth to drive the humans insane (so that they lose control of the planet), and their first step is to infest the Smiths' house and multiply like ants at a picnic--or Tribbles on a starship. And that's where the episode's visual merits come in: thanks to animation, "Total Rickall" is able to take the bottle episode and do things with it a live-action show like Community would have needed extra FX money for or would have been unable to accomplish. The house becomes so overcrowded with parasites disguised as nonexistent characters that Rick pauses to address whatever parallel reality he (correctly) assumes is watching his life as if it's a TV show--a.k.a. breaking the fourth wall--and notes the coolness of standing in the middle of a shot that looks like a Where's Waldo? page.

"Total Rickall" is tons of fun, especially when the parasites, after Rick doesn't fall for their Uncle Steve/Cousin Nicky phase, experiment with a wacky ABC TGIF sitcom character phase and assume the forms of a Mr. Belvedere clone named Mr. Beauregard and a Herman Munster-style Frankenstein Frankenstein's monster (Kevin Michael Richardson). Then when Rick won't fall for the deceptions implanted by Phase 2 of the parasites, the forms the parasites take become even more absurd and desperate. They range from Reverse Giraffe (sixth-season Community star Keith David) to Hamurai (Richardson), a samurai whose armor is covered in ham (if only we all could be a fly on the wall in the writers' room on the day when credited "Total Rickall" writer Mike McMahan and the rest of the writing staff rattled off the names of fake buddies who would pop up in the Smiths' house).

The solution to defeating the parasites comes not from Rick but from Morty, when he notices all the fake memories implanted by the parasites are pleasant memories instead of the always painful and unpleasant memories the Smiths have experienced as a family. The real memories include Summer catching Morty masturbating in the kitchen at night (why the kitchen?: the excuse Morty gave for jerking off in the kitchen was that he was thinking about one of Summer's friends, but was it actually because he was masturbating to the lady on the Land O'Lakes box?); Jerry being too scared to protect Beth from a homeless guy who's trying to assault her (it's reminiscent of Jeff leaving his wife Hayley alone with a mugger who's sticking them up on American Dad); and perhaps the most fucked-up memory of them all, a drunk Beth accidentally hitting Summer in the eye with a wine bottle. Morty's pivotal role in getting rid of the parasites is a good example of how Rick and Morty has range in its writing and nicely avoids making only one character the same voice of reason every week by alternating between Summer as the voice of reason one week, Rick as that (stammery) voice the next week and Morty after that.

When the other family members follow Morty's example and no longer become gullible to the parasites' illusions, it's as if McMahan, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are commenting on TV from the past: old sitcoms from the '80s and '90s (and in Summer's case, the cartoons she grew up on) may be nice to revisit once in a while, but to live in that world for real--and forever--is its own form of hell (this is why Republicans are so insufferable: they want to keep America similarly frozen in the sanitized, colorless and all-white Father Knows Best/Ozzie and Harriet vision of America in the '50s and '60s). The parasites have basically transformed themselves into old sitcom characters in their attempt to subjugate the Smiths, and the family discovers the way to fight the parasites is to accept their less-than-ideal reality--it's the same kind of road to acceptance the equally miserable characters on Community had to undertake as they learned to make the best of a shitty place like Greendale--and then use that reality to block the illusions. "Total Rickall" is like a battle--for the soul of modern-day TV--between the bland kind of TV that's epitomized by Nick at Nite or Antenna TV reruns (as well as a few present-day multi-cam sitcoms that could easily fit in with the programming on those channels) and the much less idealized TV that Harmon and now Roiland have become known for, and the latter wins.

Structurally, "Total Rickall" is my favorite Rick and Morty episode of the season so far because although Rick and Morty is one of the most inventive and subversive sitcoms around, it can also be blandly conventional in one or two respects, like whenever it deploys the A-story/B-story structure that's prevalent on other sitcoms or half-hour animated shows, and "Total Rickall" actually breaks away from that structure. I've been starting to get tired of Rick and Morty being off on their own adventure while Beth and Jerry have an unrelated subplot of their own (or Rick dealing with Summer while Jerry and Morty are busy with their own shit). Even "Rixty Minutes" wasn't immune from this divide when it separated Rick and Morty from the drama between Beth, Jerry and Summer for most of the story. Involving Beth and Jerry in the same plot with Rick, Morty and Summer is a welcome change of pace.

Speaking of "Rixty Minutes," I prefer "Total Rickall" as a bottle episode over "Rixty Minutes" because the Smiths are doing things that are much more visually busy than sitting around watching TV. Plus it's got a crazy twist, and it's a more surprising twist than Beth and Jerry reconciling after discovering their parallel counterparts would find their way back to each other: the little family friend known as Mr. Poopybutthole--whom the episode tricks us into thinking is a parasite by adding him to the Rick and Morty opening titles a la a pre-Empire-co-creating Danny Strong as dorky Jonathan getting tacked on to the alternate-universe Buffy opening titles at the start of "Superstar"--is actually not a parasite. He's just an off-screen family friend we've never seen before, and when a paranoid Beth shoots Mr. Poopybutthole and is shocked to discover he's bleeding instead of reverting back to a parasite, it's a funny "milquetoast character we didn't expect to get badly wounded" moment that's up there with Forrest MacNeil getting shot by a stranger he tried to goad into a bare-knuckle brawl a few weeks ago on Review and Chad's dad getting stabbed by Charlie Murphy on The Mad Real World.

Beth's shaky grab for the nearest wine bottle she can find--a terrifically animated moment of stress--right after she shoots Mr. Poopybutthole and the incident where she drunkenly gave Summer a black eye both reintroduce Beth's alcoholism, which was hinted at in "Rixty Minutes" and a few other episodes last season. Her alcoholism could potentially be more of a problem than her dad's alcoholism because she's a horse surgeon. What if her impaired judgment during surgery causes a mistake that injures a horse, it throws the rider off the saddle due to the pain it's experiencing and the rider winds up crippled like Christopher Reeve? Or what if some other mistakes due to Beth's impaired judgment lead to malpractice suits that cost Beth her job?

Because Jerry has been unemployed since before the start of the first season, Beth and Summer have been the sole providers for the Smiths. I don't know if Roiland and Harmon would have enough time on the show to turn Beth's alcoholism into a major storyline later this season or next season, but I would be interested in seeing how two unemployed parents would affect the rest of the family, in addition to all the interdimensional mayhem Rick has brought into their lives. Whatever way this drinking problem storyline goes, at least Beth, the Smith family member with the least screen time, is getting some more scenes--and a little more to do than just argue with Jerry. Plus it would allow Sarah Chalke to demonstrate more of her ability to burp on cue. That skill is why Roiland and Harmon hired her in the first place. Or is that a fake memory as well?

Tonz o' gunz, broh. Just like that Gang Starr joint, broh.

Memorable quotes:
* "Get off the high road, Summer! We all got pinkeye because you won't stop texting on the toilet."

* "All I have are pictures of me and my friends from school. [Awkward silence from everyone else.] What? What teenage girl has pictures of her family? It's not like we're Mormon or dying."

* "Shut up, Hamurai! Shut up, Amish Cyborg! What is this? '90s Conan?"

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Cabin in the Woods (with guest blogger Hardeep Aujla from Word Is Bond)

Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket stub I saved, and then I discuss the movie on the stub. 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 Dark Knight Rises and discuss the movie on the stub I drew. Spoilers ahead for the movie that was deemed the best horror flick of the 21st century by a Movies, Films and Flix readers' poll this week.

So Scooby-Doo is getting rebooted as a live-action movie. Aw fuck. Now we'll never get that live-action Scooby movie I've always wanted to see, in which all of Scoob's human pals get killed off just like these Mystery Incorporated-ish fuckers.

The Cabin in the Woods
By Hardeep Aujla

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents..."
H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Friday, August 14, 2015

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of Last Week: Rick and Morty, "Mortynight Run"

The role of Charles Grodin is now played by a sentient fart cloud.
Occasionally on Friday, I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. The "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week is no longer a weekly feature, but sometimes, I'll catch a really good piece of animated TV one week or a few weeks after its original airdate, and I'll feel like devoting some paragraphs to it despite my lateness to the party. Hence the "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of Last 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.

In a Rolling Stone profile about the creative challenges Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon have faced while trying to equal the brilliant first season of their irreverent and renewed-this-week-for-a-third-season Adult Swim hit Rick and Morty, Harmon said, "Most second albums suck." Uh, Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, De La Soul Is Dead, A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory, OutKast's ATLiens, D'Angelo's Voodoo and Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city would like a word with you, Harmon.

But yeah, otherwise, I see Harmon's point as he and Roiland admitted "A Rickle in Time"--Rick and Morty's complicatedly written second-season premiere about the side effects Rick and his grandkids Morty and Summer experience due to Rick's time-freezing device from "Ricksy Business"--is not as satisfying as they wish it could be. Harmon said, "It went off the deep end conceptually and got really over-complicated." I actually like "A Rickle in Time" a little more than Roiland and Harmon do, but the new season's second episode, "Mortynight Run," is where the season really starts cooking.

"Mortynight Run" taps into the thing that surprised me the most about Rick and Morty's first season and made the show stand out from other Adult Swim fare, outside of The Venture Bros.: its downbeat side (and more of that downbeat side surfaces in this week's Rick and Morty episode, "Auto Erotic Assimilation"). I hate to refer to a line from a movie I despise, but Gandalf's line to Bilbo about returning home a different person in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey really applies to Morty. His adventures with his scientist grandpa have made him a better person, and those adventures have allowed the learning disability-afflicted kid to prove to Rick that he's not as dumb as Rick thinks he is. But those adventures have also made Morty better understand his grandpa's misanthropic and nihilistic worldview, and like in "Meeseeks and Destroy" and "Rick Potion #9," we see how much Morty's gradual understanding of why Rick has that worldview wrecks Morty inside in "Mortynight Run." In only less than a half-hour, the episode ends up doing a better job than those interminable Hobbit movies of showing how these exhausting adventures affect the traveler who won't be the same.

Sure, "Mortynight Run" is hilarious. Special guest star Jemaine Clement gets to both sing and make fun of his own association with musical numbers. "Goodbye Moonmen," written by Harmon and credited "Mortynight Run" writer David Phillips and composed by series composer Ryan Elder, is the cleverest David Bowie parody since, well, Clement's Bowie tribute on Flight of the Conchords. Special guest star Andy Daly takes a stock hitman character and imbues him with amusingly incongruous chipperness in the mold of his Forrest MacNeil character from Comedy Central's Review. The Jerryboree--a day care center where the Ricks from various universes drop off the Jerrys of their universes when they don't have time to put up with the Jerrys' shit--is great "let's beat up on Jerry again" material, but it's also an intriguing subplot about Jerry's realization that his ordinariness isn't as awful as others think. I especially love how a maudlin VR game called Roy--the player determines the decisions of an ordinary guy in scenarios that are like a cross between a David Anspaugh sports movie and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light"--is the biggest arcade sensation in outer space instead of a first-person shooter ("You beat cancer and then you went back to work at the carpet store? Boo!").

But what makes "Mortynight Run" especially stand out is the way it treats the moment when Morty--after defying Rick and protecting the life of Clement's character, a benevolent and frequently singing gaseous being, from assassins and cops because he believes all life forms are precious no matter what their flaws are--discovers the being (Rick calls him "Fart") intends to wipe out all life, so Morty makes a difficult decision that was foreshadowed by the scene of him playing Roy at the Dave & Busters-ish Blips and Chitz. "Mortynight Run" doesn't play Morty's moment of anguish for laughs.

On Community, Harmon couldn't have characters actually kill people--hence all those bloodless paintball episodes--but on the much more fantastical and bleak Rick and Morty, Harmon can. Through Morty's dilemma regarding Fart, Phillips, Harmon and Roiland treat the consequences of causing many lives to end because of foolishly sticking to a belief that it's all for the best--and the first time Morty kills somebody in front of him--with the proper weight they deserve. "Mortynight Run" is a good example of what Vox describes as Rick and Morty's "exploration of morality that manages to avoid simplistic fables with pat lessons," as well as the implication during that exploration that "Rick's cynicism is well-founded--and that following Morty's well-intentioned instincts can lead to calamity."

While Bob's Burgers channeled the ambience of Midnight Run in its tribute to that 1988 film (for example, that episode's score music paid tribute to Danny Elfman's score from the film), "Mortynight Run" chooses to pay tribute to the non-comedic side of Midnight Run--one of Harmon's favorite films--without ever quoting a single line from it (the only blatant references to Midnight Run are the scene where all the Jerrys are enjoying a copy of Midnight Run with director's commentary, an extra that, sadly, by the way, doesn't exist in real life, and the moments of Rick, Morty and Fart evading the cops like De Niro and Grodin). Midnight Run is one of my favorite films too. On some days, it skyrockets to being my absolute favorite. GoodFellas may be a more challenging and brutal crime comedy, and Do the Right Thing may be more meaningful because it has something important and complex to say about community and injustice, but at the end of the day, I just want to be entertained by a well-made escapist work that doesn't make me say, "Well, that plot point was dumb"--or "Great, another Asian Stepin Fetchit with a cartoonish accent who helps make it fucking difficult for so many of us to get dates or actual jobs." And Midnight Run is exactly that.

Midnight Run also pulls off shifts in tone from comedic to dramatic more seamlessly than most big-screen comedies--and almost every small-screen comedy from the '80s--where the cast and crew attempt to do the same kind of tonal shifts. Harmon seems to have absorbed Midnight Run's lessons on how to skillfully juggle humor and seriousness during his work on both Community and Rick and Morty, and the De Niro/Grodin film's skillful juggling act receives a proper tribute in "Mortynight Run." The quality of episodes like "Mortynight Run" is why Rick and Morty is now receiving slightly similar tributes from the Internet as well. The Internet's way of paying tribute to Rick and Morty is to recut the dialogue of alcoholic Rick to the rhythm of unapologetic teetotaler Kendrick Lamar's "King Kunta." It makes no damn sense. But it's also brilliant, much like Rick and Morty itself.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Collateral

Collateral refers to both Jamie Foxx's character and all the casualties caused by Tom Cruise, including that poor sandwich Jamie Foxx brought with him to work.

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.

You know you're watching a Michael Mann movie when the drug trade isn't referred to as the drug trade but as "the exotic substances business." In the 2004 thriller Collateral, Mann is, as usual, simultaneously in love with words and so critical of other directors' overuse of them that he shows how satisfying and gripping cinema can be when it's not so over-reliant on words. Unnecessary exposition is a disease that's so awful to experience while watching films or TV that it needs its own telethon. Like how the Jerry Lewis Telethon used to show every year that same moldy clip of Buddy Hackett weeping over the suffering Jerry's Kids experience due to muscular dystrophy, I'd like to see Bobby Moynihan or Broad City star John Gemberling plead weepingly to viewers to give a few dollars to help out the Nolan brothers and cure Jonathan of his tendency outside of Person of Interest to make characters over-explain themselves.

Collateral is fascinating for the way Mann came up with extremely detailed backstories--whether it's for sociopathic contract killer Vincent (Tom Cruise), Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), the mild-mannered L.A. cabbie who becomes Vincent's chauffeur, hostage and reluctant accomplice, or the powerful "off-shore narco-trafficking cartel" that employs Vincent and is run by capos like Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem)--and then threw almost all of that information out of the movie, perhaps as a challenge to himself to keep his movie from drowning in unnatural-sounding, on-the-nose dialogue. Whenever he'd discuss that approach of making the storytelling as efficient as possible in Collateral, Mann would describe it as chopping off the first and second acts of a movie so that it's only the third act. But those elaborate backstories are all there in the eyes and body language of Cruise and Foxx, and sometimes you can miss those nuances Cruise and Foxx bring to their performances, like when Vincent appears to be nauseated about killing a federal prosecution witness (Barry Shabaka Henley) whose love of the music of jazz legends like Miles Davis (he's seen performing Davis' "Spanish Key") was similar to Vincent's or when Vincent briefly panics in the middle of a scuffle during a Koreatown nightclub shootout. Mann pointed out in his Collateral audio commentary that during the scuffle, Vincent is briefly reverting to his 11-year-old self and re-experiencing the fear he felt when he was being bullied, a childhood fear Vincent never once mentions in the film, and Collateral is all the more better for not having Cruise unconvincingly deliver pages and pages of dialogue about a childhood trauma that keeps him sharp (*SNAP!*), on the edge (*SNAP!*), where he's gotta be.

The three months of weapons and combat training Cruise agreed to undertake for his Collateral role is a great example of why Cruise is batshit, but that craziness is also what makes him fascinating to watch as a man of action in this film, Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol and now Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation. He can be obnoxious as either a romantic lead (if there were a drinking game for whenever he touches the face of his leading lady, we'd all be dead from alcohol poisoning), a talk show guest with a psychotic-sounding, unsettling laugh or a Scientology mouthpiece, but in an actioner like Collateral, he's a remarkable actor and not at all obnoxious. Cruise's physicality and his ease in a business suit with performing marksman stances that may look unconventional on film but are commonplace to expert marksmen--especially during the K-town club sequence--would have made him perfect as the similarly dressed Christopher Chance in a more faithful live-action version of the Peter Milligan/Cliff Chiang/Javier Pulido incarnation of Human Target (which the short-lived and much more family-friendly Fox show of the same name was loosely based on).

If Felix wanted to kill all the grand-jury witnesses without attracting too much attention, he could have just sent each of them a delivery of undercooked tacos.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)

Cruise's weapons training really paid off, and he's convincing as a military-trained assassin in Collateral, but then Bardem shows up for his cameo and radiates so much power and quiet menace without ever getting out of his seat that part of me wishes Bardem played Vincent instead of Cruise. Bardem is a huge part of why the scene where Max attempts to trick Felix into thinking he's Vincent in order to recover Vincent's lost intel is my favorite scene in Collateral. Cruise isn't even in this Mexican nightclub scene at all. Once Vincent sets foot in Max's cab, Collateral is non-stop tension, but the tension is at its thickest in the scene between Felix and Max because Max is out of his cab and therefore, out of his element, and impersonating Vincent to prevent him from killing his mother Ida (Irma P. Hall)--a woman Max can barely even tolerate--is somehow an even bigger test for Max than all the other tests Vincent previously put him through. Now Max has to do some acting with a gun to his head, which basically describes every single audition in Hollywood.

Bardem and Foxx play the tension so beautifully (the scene also allows Foxx to tap into some of his skills as a comedic performer, but because this is a Mann thriller and not In Living Color or Horrible Bosses, Foxx doesn't play the humorous side of the scene too broadly). You don't know if or when Felix is going to explode, and you don't know if Max is going to get out of Felix's club alive either. Bardem's smooth dance back and forth between benevolence ("Do you know who they like even better than Santa Claus? His helper. Pedro el Negro. Black Peter...") and pent-up anger ("How do you think jolly old Santa Claus would feel if one day Pedro came into his office and said, 'I lost the list'? How fucking furious do you think he will get?") is a bit more interesting than Cruise's all-intense-all-the-time approach. Oh well, at least Bardem got a chance to basically play Vincent three years later in No Country for Old Men. I think he even won an Oscar for it.

This is as close as Tom Cruise will ever get to making a classroom genre movie.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)

Collateral is the closest the ultra-somber Mann has ever gotten--and will probably ever get--in his film directing career to making a comedy. There are several funny moments in Collateral, whether it's Vincent coaching Meek Max on how to tell his pushy dispatcher to fuck off; the Richard T. Jones cop character's unconvinced reaction to Max's lie about hitting a deer on Slauson Avenue ("A South Central deer?"); the hunter (Mark Ruffalo's Detective Fanning) and the prey (Vincent) not knowing they're in the same elevator; or Max-as-Vincent being unable to resist still being Max the business-minded cabbie when he offers Felix's "Hermès/Façonnable ass" a discount (it's also a clever way for Max to stick it to Vincent and deprive him of some cash). But Mann wisely chooses to play those moments as deadpan and as truthfully and honestly as possible. Even some of Al Pacino's shoutiest or chattiest scenes during Heat aren't quite as humorous as those moments during Collateral. In fact, Mann studied Billy Wilder comedies to nail the right tone and delivery for Vincent's sarcasm.

Jason Statham's cameo in Collateral's first scene as a delivery man who's most likely his Frank Martin character from The Transporter is the first sign that Mann and his actors aren't out to brood about corporate malfeasance, racism or society's encroachment on individualism for two hours and are out to simply entertain and bring summertime moviegoers to the edges of their seats (DreamWorks released Collateral in August). Collateral is to Mann's big-screen filmography what Inside Man is to Spike Lee's: it's his most escapist and most popcorn piece of work. I love how the most comedic scene in Collateral is Max's reluctant introduction of a bizarrely polite and formal Vincent to Ida in her hospital room and how Foxx is the least comedic performer in that scene. Both the hospital room scene and the Bardem/Foxx exchange catapult Collateral into being my favorite of Foxx's serious movies. In another bit of unmentioned backstory Mann revealed in his commentrak, Ida is a Livia Soprano-style cold fish who's alienated all her sons so much that all of them except Max have moved out of L.A. just to get away from her. Ida, who knows nothing about Vincent's killings, appears to like Vincent more than any of her sons. She and the similarly cold-blooded Vincent, whose mother died when he was young (that's why he bristles at Max's reluctance to visit Ida, whom Max unhappily visits every night), were made for each other as mom and son. It's Mann channeling Hitchcock at his most darkly comic.

One of the film's other twisted jokes is that Max's own prudishness, partly instilled by Ida, has stifled and crippled Max so badly (he keeps telling customers about his dream of starting his own limo business but can't admit that he's too scared to act on it) that a sociopath--and not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an unorthodox classroom teacher or some little orphan--ends up being the one to snap Max out of it and teach him to grab life by the balls by taking more risks and improvising. Some black Collateral fans interestingly view Mann's movie as an allegory of black liberation and the struggles against white privilege (how fitting that this allegory takes place in racially mixed L.A., a city the privileged and wealthy Vincent despises for being too sprawling and disconnected), with the working-class Max's conflict with Vincent functioning as the modern-day equivalent of a slave learning to outwit the overseer and Vincent's demise signaling the end of white privilege. But I don't think Mann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie are that savvy enough to have considered that kind of interpretation for Collateral (Beattie based his script on a cab ride he took, and the ride made him wonder, "What would happen if this cabbie picked up a homicidal maniac and ended up trusting this maniac?"). I see Collateral as more like Mann and Beattie's way of playing around with a couple of formulas: the aforementioned "stuffy character who's taught by another character to loosen up" movie (I bet Collateral was pitched at an early '00s DreamWorks pitch meeting as "The Last Detail if Jack Nicholson killed people") and the tiresome "Magical Negro" drama (like DreamWorks' earlier release The Legend of Bagger Vance, which starred Mann's Ali lead Will Smith). While considering Foxx for the role that Adam Sandler once expressed interest in playing, I could see Mann thinking, in his usual wordy way of speaking, "Maybe it would be more stimulating to the amygdala if we reverse the 'Magic Negro' narrative and make the African American male the one who's beaten down by life and is too ossified to better appreciate it, and a Caucasian hitman ends up being his preceptor."

Collateral really soars during its character study half, due to the chemistry between the African American male formerly known as Wanda and his preceptor. It's a good thing the digital video cinematography by Paul Cameron, who left the project a few weeks into filming due to creative differences with Mann, and his replacement Dion Beebe is intriguing and striking from start to finish. There are so many nifty visual things going on with the high-def cameras' ability to capture little subtleties in the colors of the L.A. night sky and the shimmering city lights (like Darren Franich said in his lengthy 2014 EW essay about Collateral, "You're constantly aware that those lights represent real people--and that those real people don't notice the horrors being perpetrated by Vincent") that those things are able to distract you from how conventional the third act is compared to the rest of Collateral--a movie Mann thought of as a two-hour third act!--when you think about it afterward.

Check it out. It's a more fascinating parallel universe where Fish Mooney is much prettier and she chose to be a federal attorney instead of a crime boss.
(Photo source: EW)

The movie ditches the character study stuff and goes into full-on "don't open that door, girl!" thriller mode to place Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), Max's previous customer and the federal prosecutor who wants to shut down Felix's cartel, in danger and in Vincent's crosshairs. The music becomes conventional too: all those bluesy instrumentals Mann originally had in mind for Thief (before he opted for Tangerine Dream) and all those pulsating source cues by the likes of Groove Armada and Paul Oakenfold give way to James Newton Howard in symphonic and percussion-heavy thriller mode a la The Fugitive. Vincent completely shuts off the internal conflict over killing people he's been starting to experience--a little too abruptly for some film critics' tastes--and becomes the Terminator. Sure, film critics, Collateral is a more arresting thriller when Vincent's in conflicted mode, but on second thought, what else is he going to do? Not finish the job? Like Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley when they briefly bond during Heat over their existential worries about a life without their jobs, killing is all Vincent knows how to do, and if he's going to die doing the thing he does best, that's fine by him. He's a typical professional in a Mann movie.

Two big legacies emerged from Collateral. Cruise proved he can really pull off playing a villain whose only purpose for living is killing, but only when a director like Mann challenges Cruise to step out of his comfort zone and gets him to do some acting instead of "ACTING!"--which is what his previous turn as a villain was like in Interview with the Vampire. The other big legacy is the movie's innovations in digital video cinematography in order to capture nighttime footage--or things like the SoCal palm trees behind Vincent and Max--that couldn't have been achieved with regular film cameras.

"Here, while the [Collateral] digital photography seems fresh and oftentimes comes across as electrically alive, it still looks pretty crummy," wrote either Rodrigo Perez or Jessica Kiang or that Playlist guy who got arrested for pimping an underage girl (like Matt Zoller Seitz implied, The Playlist's decision to not conclude each capsule review in its Mann movie retrospective with a byline causes its otherwise solid retrospective to be kind of a muddled drag). Eh, it was 2004. Get off the movie's 2004 ass. That's such a reductive way of talking about Collateral's impact on cinematography. Before Collateral, Mann experimented with digital video in Ali and on Robbery Homicide Division, the short-lived CBS procedural he produced, but Collateral is where he, with the help of Cameron and Beebe, finally figured out how to keep digital video from looking as crummy as it often did on Robbery Homicide Division (the only post-Collateral Mann movie I've seen is Public Enemies, and I don't think Dante Spinotti's HD cinematography in that 2009 movie looks as impressive as Collateral's still does). A bunch of mainstream films (some shitty, mostly good) followed in Collateral's footsteps and chose to shoot completely in digital, and like Beebe said to American Cinematographer 10 years after Collateral's release, thanks to his movie, filmmakers at night can go out into a street and shoot under streetlights instead of having to light entire city blocks (according to Mann, that standard way of lighting movie sets at night would have ruined the realistic lighting he wanted for Collateral's street scenes).

If this were John Woo holding the camera, he'd be trying to imagine how many doves he can squeeze into this shot.
Michael Mann

Also, whatever crumminess there is in some of Collateral's HD cinematography actually adds an element of "Hmm, which of the 15% of Collateral that Mann shot on film am I watching now?" to the movie in repeat viewings (while Franich is fascinated in repeat viewings by how "Mann shoots Collateral on video and doesn't try to hide it"). If you watch enough early '00s indie movies that were shot in HD, you start to be able to distinguish digital grain from film grain, as well as notice how early '00s digital video has weird smear effects whenever someone's in motion, so a second or third viewing of Collateral turns into a diverting game of "Which scene was not shot in HD?" (Answers: Debi Mazar's scene; the late afternoon scene of Max speaking in Spanish to the gas station clerk; the shots of Max cleaning his cab and he and the other cabbies preparing to drive out of their garage; the jazz club scene; Bardem's scene; and all the shots of Vincent and Max inside the K-town club except for when Vincent kills his assigned Korean target.)

The visuals Mann and Beebe were able to achieve with HD cinematography also really emphasize how much Mann is a cinematic Edward Hopper, fixated on lives in perpetual limbo, much like Hopper was in his paintings. Franich concludes his essay with an astute interpretation of Collateral as a story about L.A. as a purgatory for Max, who's been driving in circles for the past 12 years. But Franich likes to pretend that after Vincent's death inside a sort of limbo--a subway train that looks like it won't ever stop running--and the last shot of a newly confident Max and an exhausted Annie heading out together into both the morning and an uncertain but hopeful future, Max is doomed to relive the same hellish evening with Vincent for the rest of his life a la Groundhog Day. Nah, that shit's too depressing. Max just learned to break out of the limbo he imposed upon himself, and the reward he gets is a time loop? Sure, it's in keeping with how Mann stories frequently end tragically, ever since Thief and all those Miami Vice episodes with downbeat conclusions and that gut-punch of an "Executive Producer Michael Mann" credit defiantly saying each week, "You expecting a freeze-framed high-five between Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, motherfucker?" But let Max win this one. The motherfucker motherhater earned it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hawkeye: L.A. Woman makes any attempt at a Rockford Files remake, including Vince Vaughn's planned Rockford movie, pointless

Weed Lord. Isn't that the name of Doug Benson's all-time favorite biopic?
(Photo source: Entropy)

I think beaches are overrated, and so are swimming pools and waterslide parks. Look, I'm no neckbeard who hates to go outside, but at around college, I outgrew the beaches, pools and waterslide parks I used to spend time in as a kid during some summers and just completely lost interest in the concept of them as enjoyable places to be.

That South Park episode where Cartman gets frustrated about first-graders continually pissing in the pool triggered my latent germophobia about pool water, and then decades later, an episode of Ben Schwartz's Disney/Titmouse cartoon Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja that used kids' leftover snot from waterslide parks as a plot device (don't ask) confirmed my growing suspicions about the grubbiness of waterslide parks. When you're a kid, you're unconcerned about such things. When you're an adult, splashing around in water for hours to keep the heat from killing you loses all its appeal after you discover better and cleanlier ways to keep the heat from murdering you, like a cold beer or an iced tea. Even California-loving Best Coast frontwoman Bethany Cosentino has said she gets creeped out by the idea of swimming in the ocean. I believe I have a clip of her thinking about having to do that.

Hello there, Dubsmash. And so long, Dubsmash. Whenever The Today Show starts acknowledging the existence of an app or meme, its 15 minutes of coolness are immediately over.

So I may not care anymore for beaches and pools, but I'm always running into escapist literature that's ideal for beachside or poolside reading. One of my favorite recent trade paperback collections of a comic book storyline is especially ideal for beachside or poolside reading--or summertime reading anywhere--because of its summertime setting. I highly recommend it also because it's simply an entertaining arc from a superhero comic that's special for not being a typical superhero comic and for being tailor-made for comics readers like myself who find most superhero comics to be either puerile or unreadable due to overly complicated backstories or convoluted and clumsily written tie-ins to unwieldy crossover events.

The only word Pizza Dog understands in this conversation is 'cat.'
(Photo source: Errant Critic)

You don't need to have read prior TPB collections of issues of writer Matt Fraction's excellent (and recently concluded) Marvel Now! title Hawkeye to get into Hawkeye: L.A. Woman, although the prior issues are all worth reading, especially Hawkeye #11, an inventively told detective story written from the point of view of a dog and cleverly illustrated by David Aja (with minimal and mostly garbled dialogue by Fraction). The 2014 TPB, the third collection of Fraction's Hawkeye comics, collects Hawkeye Annual #1 (the only issue in the collection illustrated by Javier Pulido, whose minimalist artwork I enjoyed during the Vertigo title Human Target) and issues 14, 16, 18 and 20. All you need to know about Fraction's incarnation of Hawkeye prior to L.A. Woman is that there are two non-superpowered archers who share the mantle of Hawkeye: one of them is recently divorced Avengers member Clint Barton (who, in the Avengers movies, is happily married to a civilian played by Linda Cardellini and raising kids with her out in the Midwest), and the other is the much younger Kate Bishop, a Young Avengers member who may be much better at this hero thing than her mentor Clint. The series alternates between Clint and Kate as the protagonist and follows what both of them are up to when they're not Avengers, and those adventures range from espionage-related peril to slightly more mundane matters like Clint trying to get his apartment building's broken satellite dish to work during a holiday season that's disrupted by tracksuited Russian thugs whose every other word is "bro."

The Russians' addiction to "bro" and the reduction of dialogue in issue 11 so that it's down to only a few words the one-eyed, pizza-loving dog known as Pizza Dog understands (like "collar" and "ex-wife") are hallmarks of the offbeat sense of humor of Fraction, who envisioned Clint as "the Marvel Universe's Jim Rockford" in his update of Hawkeye (the decision to alternate Clint's stories with Kate's is reminiscent of the two-or-more-stars-sharing-the-same-title-role format of another James Garner show, Maverick). Like The Rockford Files, Hawkeye is distinguished by both tongue-in-cheek humor and a bemused hero who'd rather be enjoying a rooftop barbecue with his neighbors (or a show on his DVR he's been itching to catch up on) than stopping trouble, but he always winds up helping out the downtrodden anyway. The Fraction series' parallels to The Rockford Files are particularly visible during the L.A. arc, in which Kate tires of Clint's uncaring attitude and self-destructive streak, packs up everything that belongs to her, like that purple Emma Peeler catsuit made famous by the non-Marvel Avengers (as well as one thing that doesn't belong to her, Pizza Dog), and escapes from New York to L.A., where she starts a private investigation business from her laptop and housesits for the summer a beachside trailer that looks exactly like the Malibu trailer Rockford called home on the show.

Dogs + cats = mass hysteria

Jim doesn't look too thrilled about some TV show from the future that his 1976 TV set is somehow able to broadcast. The show is called Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

That's not all that's borrowed from The Rockford Files. Fraction takes two of Rockfish's occasional sidekicks--Gandolph "Gandy" Fitch, an ex-con who was played on the show by Isaac Hayes, and Marcus "Gabby" Hayes, a private eye who was played by a toupeed Louis Gossett Jr. (and was also a precursor to Tom Selleck's Lance White, a sharp-dressed rival of Rockford's)--and turns them into a newly married gay couple who lives near Kate and tags along with her on her cases. Gandy is renamed Finch, while Marcus gets to keep his name but loses the rug. Finch and Marcus help out Kate as she makes mistakes as a detective along the way but eventually blossoms into both this weird cross between Katniss and Rockfish and a self-sufficient person with a life away from the two father figures who have alienated her (Clint and her actual father, an oily businessman named Derek). Kate's youth and inexperience as a gumshoe might remind Rockford Files fans of another occasional sidekick of Jim's: Richie Brockelman, played by Dennis Dugan, who went on to direct all those terrible Adam Sandler movies that sound like fake Hollywood turkeys David Chase would have made up in one of his Rockford Files scripts that poked fun at SoCal living or how much SoCal pizza sucks ("This ain't a pizza. It's a grilled cheese sandwich").

L.A. Woman also reminds me of the high-quality writing of both Veronica Mars and Terriers, two SoCal P.I. shows that are worthier successors to The Rockford Files than any past or even future attempts to revive Rockford without Garner, whether it's David Shore's unseen and rumored-to-have-been-terrible Rockford reboot pilot with Dermot Mulroney, which failed to get picked up by NBC a few years ago, or the Rockford movie project Vince Vaughn wants to star in and produce. The late Garner's classic show was a once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle thing that was so infused with Garner's distinctive personality and the late Stephen J. Cannell's equally distinctive creative voice, which is why I'm always skeptical of Universal's attempts to recapture that lightning. When not even the creator of House can get it to work, that's how difficult it is to revive Rockford.

If Clint or Kate traveled back in time and landed in a Roger Moore 007 movie, introducing a Flash drive to Q Branch would be like introducing fire to mankind.

Initially, I was mildly skeptical of the idea of Vaughn playing one of my favorite TV characters. But now I'm way more skeptical. I just can't buy Vaughn anymore as the everyman that Garner was (it would be like getting The Hard Way/The Specialist-era James Woods to play Rockford). Also, ever since Vaughn has become more upfront about his political views, I've been concerned about a Republican who worships guns and has equally strange and bothersome views about race playing a far-from-conservative hero who didn't care for guns (but wasn't afraid to use one) and whose attitudes towards race mirrored those of Garner's in real life, because he's likely going to alter the reluctant-about-guns aspect of the character so that it would be more aligned with his politics. If he does that, then the character's not Rockford anymore. He might as well be Mike Hammer. Now if Vaughn were playing Mike Hammer, that would be a more interesting and perhaps more worthwhile movie.

So now that True Detective's second season has emerged as an unwatchable disaster and is far from the career boost Vaughn must have expected, this Rockford movie project--which, when we last heard about it, was being given a rewrite by 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi screenwriter Chuck Hogan--is threatening to become more of a reality. If this fucking reboot ever gets made, I wouldn't be surprised if L.A. Woman turns out to be--just like Veronica Mars and Terriers before it--the better Rockford update. Kate may be female and extraordinary with a bow and arrow, but she's already more convincing in the role of an everyman detective than Vaughn will ever be, due to the relatability and humanity both Fraction and a terrific guest artist, Annie Wu, a Venture Bros. storyboarder and the current artist on DC's reimagining of Black Canary as a goth-y rock musician, bring to the character of Kate.

She's all lost in the supermarket. She can no longer shop happily.

L.A. Woman is such a loving ode to the '70s SoCal P.I. genre that even Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe from another great '70s SoCal P.I. genre piece, the Robert Altman version of The Long Goodbye, shows up in the form of a new mentor for Kate, an obscure '70s Marvel reporter character named Harold H. Harold. Like Gould in that classic movie, Harold, reimagined by Fraction and Wu as a rumpled P.I. who resembles Gould, is seen shopping for cat food in the supermarket. L.A. Woman is essentially a regular P.I. story about both the alluring and corrupt sides of L.A. that happens to have a masked supervillain as one of the bad guys: Kate's nemesis Whitney Frost, a criminal mastermind who goes by the name of Madame Masque.

Frost's recently announced first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an adversary in the upcoming second season of Agent Carter makes L.A. Woman worth picking up for Agent Carter fans who have never read Fraction's Hawkeye and may want to familiarize themselves with Madame Masque, who will be reimagined as a '40s Hollywood actress on the Marvel Studios show. Just like how Agent Carter is a spy show that pits its non-superpowered protagonists against larger-than-life villains straight out of a superhero show and is extremely accessible for people who don't like the superhero genre, Hawkeye, especially during Kate's L.A. arc, is a crime comic where the only superhero comic-ish things about it are the presence of Madame Masque (at one point in the arc, Kate wonders, "What if Madame Masque is the reason why everything in L.A. sucks?") and the occasional cameos by Spider-Man and Wolverine.

With Hawkeye, Fraction wanted to reinvent the superhero comic--and largely succeeded by not approaching it as one. Hawkeye arose from Fraction's frustrations with the inaccessible storylines of most present-day superhero comics. "I think we as an industry fell into this pattern of not caring about new readers anymore," said the Casanova and Sex Criminals creator to the L.A. Times in 2013. "There's a way that you can do it that isn't the clumsy, awkward way that it used to be done where characters refer to themselves in the third person, thinking back on who they are and how they came to be. You don't have to write every comic as if it's the first comic someone's ever read, but you do have to write as though you would like new people to read your comic--which is kind of what Hawkeye is all about."

Glad that Matt Fraction didn't turn to the over-fucking-used 'I Love L.A.' for the title of this Hawkeye arc. And it was a good Doors song instead of an incesty one.
Artwork by Annie Wu (Photo source: Wu)

The series also arose from Fraction's changing views on heroism and his boredom with dourness in superhero comics, which made him long for what he's described as "the Stephen J. Cannell-ness of it all." Fraction was interested in presenting a counterpoint to Batman. "The older you get, the more you live in the world, it's impossible not to look at Batman through class and race," said Fraction to Paste last year. "Batman is a rich white billionaire who beats up poor brown people and the mentally ill. That's weird, right? Kinda weird. A billionaire, punching poor people. But the idea of a guy who came from nothing and stayed just a couple steps away from it, but can't not help you move a couch, that's interesting."

L.A. Woman is a great example of the down-to-earth hero who "can't not help you move a couch," embodied by Kate in this particular arc. She's also a hero whose adventures benefit from a killer soundtrack that's not of the typical John Williams kind. In the letters section of Hawkeye, series artist David Aja would provide a soundtrack for readers to listen to while reading Hawkeye. For example, two of the musical selections Aja listed for Hawkeye's Christmas issue were cues from Sergei Prokofiev's rousing score to the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein epic Alexander Nevsky. For the arc where Clint's ex-wife Mockingbird, Spider-Woman, Black Widow and Kate have to pull Clint out of trouble when he gets himself entangled in the latest predicament of his current girlfriend, a hot, Bridget Regan-ish thief named Cherry, Aja curated a mix of Frank Zappa, surf-rock and fusion tunes like Lalo Schifrin's 1976 disco instrumental "Black Widow" (intended to accompany Black Widow's Grand Central Terminal pursuit of Cherry), Schifrin and Dizzy Gillespie's 1977 collabo "Unicorn" (intended for Kate's badass fight with a pair of Russian thugs) and Herbie Hancock's 1976 jam "Spider" (chosen for the pages where Clint gets slapped around by a plainclothes Jessica Drew, a.k.a. Spider-Woman). As for the classic Pizza Dog issue, Aja's soundtrack consists mainly of jazz to enhance the detective story vibe for Pizza Dog's hunt for a murderer.

Disappointingly, the TPB editions of Hawkeye omit the playlist info. I have no idea what sort of tunes were intended as the soundtrack for the L.A. arc, but I discovered that re-reading the L.A. Woman TPB with tons of La Luz tracks in my headphones works like gangbusters. Or maybe it should be La Luz tracks together with one of Best Coast's love letters to California needle-dropped for the moment when Kate adjusts to SoCal life. There's a propulsiveness to the all-female Seattle band's surf-rock sound that makes their tunes the perfect soundtrack for Kate's arrow-slinging adventures in L.A. and the vibrant visuals of both Wu, who cites Edgar Wright and Nicolas Winding Refn as among her storytelling influences, and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, who brings a consistency to the palette of the arc, despite the many differences in penciling styles between Wu and the more minimalist Javier Pulido.

One of the few complaints from readers about Fraction's Hawkeye was that the wait between issues would frequently take too long for them. The advantage of reading comics in TPB form, which is how I mainly read comics these days, is that TPB readers like myself don't have to worry about waiting. I don't know what it was like for Hawkeye readers to sit and wait for months for the L.A. Woman issues to come out when they were first released. But that would have definitely messed around with the momentum of the arc and prevented me from enjoying the arc in the manner I got to first enjoy it and the manner I recommend to anyone: as light summertime reading, like so many other well-crafted crime novels I've read in the past, whether they're graphic novels or prose novels. The craftiness of L.A. Woman and other equally satisfying crime novels just like it outdoes wading in snot and chlorine any day of the week.

Jack Sheldon's rendition of "The Long Goodbye" from the Altman film of the same name, a film L.A. Woman pays tribute to, is in rotation during "AFOS Prime" on AFOS.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Drive (2011)

Even when he was part of the Mickey Mouse Club, he wouldn't eat his Mickey Mouse Magic Crunch.

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.

Getaway drivers are like the bass players of heist-movie crews: nobody gives two shits about them. Adapted from the 2005 James Sallis novel of the same name by screenwriter Hossein Amini, director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a heist flick that takes a different turn and gives getaway drivers their due by telling everything from the point of view of the wheelman. The film's two heist sequences literally leave out all the lock-picking bits and all the breaking-into-the-vault bits, and as a bit of a sly joke that's reminiscent of Andy Kaufman standing around on stage and waiting for his cue to lip-sync the "Here I come to save the day!" part of the Mighty Mouse theme, the heist sequences just show Ryan Gosling waiting in the car and considering his next move in case the heist goes wrong. Refn is so skilled at building tension in Drive that these sequences are still gripping even without ever setting foot inside the electronics warehouse that's broken into or the pawn shop that gets held up.

Drive is also Gosling and Refn's twisted version of a superhero movie (regarding the subject of superhero movies, Gosling joked, "All the good ones were taken, so I made up my own"). It's done not like a quippy Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster or a shouty Zack Snyder speed-ramp fest but in the nearly silent, actions-speak-louder-than-words style of older action flicks Refn and the Drive producers (and I) love, whether it's Michael Mann's Thief, Peter Yates' Bullitt, John Boorman's Point Blank or Walter Hill's The Driver (Hill's movie is the only one I haven't seen out of those four older actioners).

The superhero Gosling plays is a garage mechanic and Hollywood stunt driver who's never referred to by name in the movie, not even by Shannon (Bryan Cranston, who guest-starred in a standout 1998 X-Files episode that's also called "Drive"), his boss at the garage and father figure. The Gosling character is listed in the end credits as simply "Driver," a shout-out to the way Hill's movie identifies Ryan O'Neal's character as just "The Driver." The mechanic's superpower is his badass stunt driving skills, which he puts to use at night in his side gig as a getaway wheelman. In case we miss Refn's interpretation of Driver (no relation to Adam or Minnie?) as a superhero, the scorpion emblem on the back of Driver's white satin jacket is designed to look like Spider-Man's, and the theme music for the love story between Driver and his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) is "A Real Hero" by the Toronto duo Electric Youth and French producer/remixer College.

There's one other superpower I almost forgot: Driver's prowess with a hammer or knife (or a gun, even though like O'Neal, he prefers not to carry one) whenever either his life is threatened--both Driver and Shannon frequently get into business with dangerous people--or the lives of Shannon, Irene and her six-year-old son Benicio (Kaden Leos) are threatened. You don't want to be on the other end of a fight with Driver whenever he's wielding a hammer or knife. And that's where the twisted part of this Refn take on a superhero movie comes in: Driver also happens to be a sociopath who's capable of terrifying, childlike and almost-got-slapped-with-an-NC-17-rating violence when you least expect it. Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who regularly handles the cinematography for Bryan Singer's directorial efforts (like the bizarrely orange-hued pilot episode Singer directed for House), both shoot Driver's nighttime retribution against an L.A. crime boss named Nino (Ron Perlman) like a horror movie sequence, right down to the creepy, Michael Myers-style stuntman mask Driver chooses to don for his pursuit of Nino.

Amini and Refn also upend one other aspect of superhero movies: the romance (SPOILER). Many of them end with the superhero (unless he's a bizarre monkish type like the Tobey Maguire version of Peter Parker, who doesn't have time for sex even though Kirsten Dunst, Mageina Tovah, Elizabeth Banks and Bryce Dallas Howard all throw themselves at him) getting the girl, while Drive ends with Driver forcing himself to leave behind Irene and Benicio because it's the only way he can protect them from any remaining associates or underlings of Jewish gangster Bernie Rose (a cast-against-type and convincingly intimidating Albert Brooks). Driver's chaste romance with Irene--who's still on good terms with her husband and Benicio's father, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), an ex-con who happens to be returning home from prison right when Driver's starting to bond with Irene--is more interestingly played and more maturely handled than most romances in actual superhero movies. That's because it's depicted with minimal dialogue and expressed mainly through glances between Gosling and Mulligan.

"He sees her in a grocery store. Cut to the parking lot... Cut to them in the elevator. He's helping her carry her bags upstairs. Cut to them in her apartment. She's giving him some water, and an entire movie is happening between them, and we don't need to hear the fuckin' dialogue! It's all in their looks, it's all in the shots. It's just absolutely beautiful," said A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson during his Trailers from Hell discussion of Drive and its refreshing lack of unnecessary exposition.

The idea to discard most of the dialogue that was written for their scenes together came from both Gosling and Mulligan. It was a bold and terrific choice. Moviegoers who either giggled over Driver's laconicism (I'd hate to see them watch Steve McQueen in Bullitt because they'll probably end up fracturing a rib) as if they were watching that old and bizarre clip of Gosling singing some Jodeci on The Mickey Mouse Club or complained that "Gosling doesn't talk enough in this movie!" clearly want everything spoon-fed to them (Drive received a C- from moviegoers at CinemaScore in 2011). I know I keep quoting my favorite line from Road House, but it's very apt here: they're too stupid to have a good time.

Driver is so terse and so uninterested in talking about his past that the only line of dialogue about his past comes from Shannon when he recalls to Irene the day Driver came to his garage looking for work (whereas by the end of that great diner scene between James Caan and Tuesday Weld in Thief--which is full of exposition, but it's delivered naturally and realistically and in the manner of a typical diner conversation--we know every little bit of the Caan character's incarcerated past and what makes him tick). Both Driver's terseness and the lack of information about his past before the garage have caused Drive and its enigmatic main character to be open to interpretation, which is part of what makes this movie continue to be fascinating. Moviegoers like Olson believe Driver is somewhere on the autism spectrum, while an actual psychologist who preferred to remain anonymous and was asked by a movie blog in 2011 to profile Driver's behavior concluded that he's more like someone with obsessive compulsive personality disorder (which isn't the same as OCD) than an autistic savant. That psych profile also theorized that Driver was raised on a farm (!).

My interpretation of Driver is that he did time when he was younger, and Shannon took him in right after he got out of prison (I don't view him as someone who grew up on a farm). It's a backstory Gosling tells primarily through his eyes and body language, just like what Charlize Theron does with her character Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. For instance, look at how Driver silently reacts to the presence of Standard, whose past decision-making hasn't exactly been the best and whose sizing-up of Driver when he first encounters him in their apartment building's hallway is fraught with unspoken hostility towards "Mom's new friend." Driver gives a look in that hallway scene (and in a later scene where Standard tells him he's into the mob for some money) that says, "Bad decision-makers like Standard were all over the yard."

Friendly Neighborhood Driver-Man

I contemplated Olson's reading of Drive as a story about an autistic wheelman and thought it made some sense for a few weeks. But then after rewatching Drive in its entirety, I realized his reading doesn't quite fit, despite Driver's savant-style memorization of the streets and freeways of L.A. for his gig as a wheelman. I don't think Driver's on the spectrum. He's simply a criminal who, like Neil McCauley from Heat, taught himself not to waste his words and to keep himself as quiet and invisible as possible to avoid attracting the attention of either the prison guards, the cops or his enemies.

Even though Driver often looks like he'd rather be behind the wheel of a muscle car or under some vehicle's hood than face-to-face with any of the hotheaded crooks who enlist his services, he's able to maintain eye contact with people whose company he likes, and he can read social cues. He's capable of understanding or expressing humor, especially when he's around Benicio (who's like a less chatty version of the kid in Shane), but he approaches humor stoically, of course. His interactions with Benicio and the only two scenes in the movie where he shows fear in his voice--that would be the scene where he expresses to Irene his remorse for failing to protect Standard even though he tried his best to help him and the scene where he gets mad at Shannon for accidentally putting Irene in danger and pleads with him to leave L.A. to stay alive--all prove he's not on the spectrum. As for Léon, the Manhattan hitman who drinks nothing but milk, wears Urkel pants that are four sizes too short, relates to his houseplant better than he relates to other people and doesn't recommend to a 12-year-old girl who makes a pass at him that she ought to look for boys closer to her age...

Refn never mentioned Léon: The Professional, which I actually watched for the first time last week, as one of his influences during interviews about Drive, but I like to pretend Refn also viewed Drive as a variation on Léon that doesn't contain all that bothersome and creepy material about a 12-year-old girl's sexuality and chooses to split the Natalie Portman character into two different characters: a six-year-old kid and his mom, a more age-appropriate female for the lead to experience romantic tension with. Or maybe Refn just viewed Drive as a metaphor for Christianity's encroachment on the Norse religions, like action film reviewer Outlaw Vern once joked. Whatever the reading, Drive is one of those movies that will be subjected for years to many different interpretations/theories ("He has Asperger's!" "Nah, he's actually an alien from a planet that won't eat cereal!") or film studies essays about its efficient script or stylized visual approach (meanwhile, mainstream Hollywood has started imitating Drive: Jack Reacher has taken the Lee Child novel series and coated it in a Drive-like stylized sheen, while the vicious side of Driver clearly influenced Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Equalizer, which originally had Refn attached to it as director).

I wouldn't be surprised if Drive someday winds up as the subject of an essay for a film studies course about Jews on screen, due to a part of Drive that's not as open to interpretation as other parts of the movie. That would be the uneasy alliance between Bernie, whose line about his Hollywood past as a Golan-Globus-ish producer of '80s B-movies is straight out of The Limey ("One critic called them European. I thought they were shit"), and Nino, whose resentment over demanding respect from his anti-Semitic Italian superiors and never getting it brings about everyone's downfall, including Driver's. Their alliance reflects tensions within the Jewish community over how Jewish modern-day Jews prefer to be, with Nino being the self-hating Jew in this situation (what's the Yiddish name for "Tom"?). I particularly like how instead of on-the-nose, They Came Together-style exposition, food is used in one of their earlier scenes together to illustrate the contrasting ways Bernie and Nino view their Jewish heritage: Bernie's preference for Chinese food gives away that he's Jewish to the core, while Nino's choice of a pizzeria as a front for his business illustrates that he's a Jew who thinks he's Italian. At one point, Bernie says all we need to know about his disdain for Nino when he addresses him by his real name: Izzy.

Drive is also bound to be subjected to many experiments with its music, like last year's BBC Three rescoring of Drive, which was music-supervised by Radio 1's Zane Lowe. He got artists like Banks and Laura Mvula to record new original tracks for Drive, and the results were negatively received, although Refn gave the rescore his approval. I haven't watched the rescored version in its entirety, but after watching just two of the new songs get grafted onto the movie (one of them, "Get Away" by Chvrches, is actually pretty solid, but I would have placed it in a different scene, like one that's unscored and could use a source cue), it proves how irreplaceable both the pulsating and well-chosen existing songs and Cliff Martinez's perfectly realized original score are.

Fans of Gosling or Drive who went over the top on Twitter and tweeted angry reactions to the rescore, I'll let you in on a little secret: you can always go back to the original version of Drive. It's not as if Lowe destroyed all copies of the original version--like what George Lucas was rumored to have done to the negatives of the pre-Special Edition cuts of the first three Star Wars movies--and replaced them with his rescore. But the fans who posted melodramatic tweets in response to BBC Three's rescore acted as if that had happened. The Drive that you know and love isn't going away any time soon. Electric Youth will still be there, serenading a pleasant afternoon drive along the L.A. River with their ode to "a real human being and a real hero." And a real badass with a hammer.

Selections from the Drive score are in rotation during "AFOS Prime" on AFOS.