Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Yo, CDC, there are far cooler pieces of music to time your hand-washing with than "Happy Birthday to You"

Writer's block is a problem I've been afflicted with since the days when I had to churn out college term papers, and it took me 17 years to realize that film and TV score albums--the kind of album I sometimes listened to as term paper writing music, as well as the kind of radio format I dabbled in for the past 18 years--are ineffective as a solution to writer's block. They're far from a solution. They're the cause of the problem.

Score albums are really shitty as music that helps me to concentrate on writing. In 2013, I wrote, "As study music, score albums were especially effective because... they often don't contain words, so they don't distract you too much from whatever you're reading." But when I'm not reading and I'm trying to write a blog post, score albums distract me, especially when a grandiose-sounding action movie score cue starts blasting in my headphones. That kind of music often wrecks my attempt to concentrate on filling a blank space with a paragraph and causes me to start thinking about the action sequence the cue was written for, followed by all the camerawork that went into it and then how excellent the action sequence choreography was. And then my brain starts to shout, "Yeaaaah, go, Iko Uwais!," or "Yeaaaah, throw that shovel hook, Michael B.!," and my concentration is completely destroyed.

Classical music and instrumental hip-hop don't come with that kind of baggage, which is why a few years ago, I switched to listening to those two genres while trying to write, and they've helped immensely. Having the Bay Area classical music station KDFC in my headphones helped me to finish writing a long post about David Bowie and Labyrinth and a longer post about The Grinder. But the classical music hasn't been working for me while I've been trying to get started on a post I've been wanting to write since December about Creed, Ludwig Goransson's catchy score from that film and Ryan Coogler's sublime use of 2Pac's "Hail Mary" as Donnie Creed's ring entrance music. I don't know why KDFC has failed to prevent writer's block in that instance, and it's made me notice one thing about KDFC: why is Hoyt Smith weirdly obsessed with germs? Every time I've awoken to Smith's program being broadcast in my headphones, it seems like his idea of morning-show levity is to intersperse the classical music suites with either disgusting studies about pillows that contain bacteria or studies about hand-washing. When did Adrian Monk find the time to become a classical music DJ? Because Monk as a classical music DJ is oddly awesome.

Smith mentioned something about hand-washing I was never aware of: people use "Happy Birthday to You" to time their hand-washing. So I Googled "Happy Birthday to You" together with "hand-washing" to see if this is actually a thing, and I found out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that you should "scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds," and if you need to time yourself, "hum the 'Happy Birthday' song from beginning to end twice."

Uh, "Happy Birthday to You"? I have enough trouble trying to power through that ditty when I have to join in singing it to a person I dislike, and now I'm being told I ought to hum that song to nobody, while I'm washing my hands? Nah, B, I'll pass. "Happy Birthday to You" should only be hummed or sung above a birthday cake. Above a bathroom sink is just weird. Also, "Happy Birthday to You" is expensive to clear, and I might get sued.

There are much more effective--and much less awkwardness-inducing--20-to-40-second pieces of music than "Happy Birthday to You" to time your hand-washing with, and in keeping with my ban on listicles because the AFOS blog is a listicle-free zone, I'm going to replace the CDC's choice of "Happy Birthday to You" with any one of those pieces of music, without inanely organizing them into a list. A KDFC listener suggested to Smith that a snippet of Mozart's take on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" would work like gangbusters as a hand-washing timer from the classical music world, but if you're a film score music nerd, you don't want to hear "Twinkle, Twinkle" or "Happy Birthday to You" while you're bathing your hands. You want your hand-washing to be soundtracked by the 1997 Men in Black trailer music, a.k.a. Elliot Goldenthal's 32-second "Confronting the Chief" from Demolition Man, the bizarre 1993 sci-fi flick that's either a reflection of Sylvester Stallone's right-leaning politics (many interpret the film as a conservative parody of Clinton's America) or a liberal's satirical nightmare about a conservative's idea of utopia (Sandra Bullock lives in a future where people get fined for swearing and anti-abortionists won out in the abortion debate) or is possibly intended to be both things at the same time.

I use my phone mainly as a music player, and I fill it with hip-hop mixes or singles. I don't have it inside my phone right now, but if it were inside my phone and my headphones were plugged in to my phone while washing my hands, I would put on as a hand-washing timer DJ Shadow's 41-second "Why Hip-Hop Sucks in '96."

Why wash my hands like a brain-dead zombie when I can both wash my hands and think about the greed of the copyright industry and its crippling effect on creativity in hip-hop at the same time? People hate on Sacramento all the time, but if it weren't for Sacramento, we wouldn't have Shadow or the succinct genius of "Why Hip-Hop Sucks in '96."

But if you're a white person with OCD, go with "Kashmir."

And if you're a person of color with OCD? Kanye's "Last Call."

See, CDC? That's what happens while you're busy trying to protect the world from Chipotle. Your Spotify playlist comes off as if it's frozen in 1893. There's a whole world of beautiful music out there besides the song that keeps the pockets of Warner/Chappell's copyright lawyers fat and makes world-weary waiters and waitresses want to shove some cake into the faces of annoying customers who demand that they sing it to them.

The Creed score, the score that will make you frequently say, "Yeaaaah, hit him with the quickness, Michael B.," is the penultimate score to be added to the AFOS playlists. The final score that's been added to the playlists is John Williams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens score. Both scores are currently being streamed on AFOS until the station goes off the air for good on January 31.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A beautiful grind: Some of the best jokes on The Grinder come from composer Jeff Cardoni and music editor Ryan Castle

Where the fuck is Todd? He'd be way more enthusiastic than Stew about taking part in this photo shoot with the Grinder.

Every year, there's a bunch of "funniest shows you're not watching," and Fox's The Grinder (no relation to the gay dating app Grindr), which hasn't exactly been pulling in Empire season 1-type numbers but has been devastatingly hilarious, definitely falls under that category this season. Rob Lowe and the showrunning duo of Jarrad Paul, who's best remembered for his role as the struggling screenwriter of the wonderfully titled Beverly Hills Gun Club on the 1999 Fox cult favorite Action, and Andrew Mogel have somehow come up with a character who's even funnier and stranger than Chris Traeger, Lowe's fitness-obsessed, touchy-feely character from the beloved and similarly underwatched Parks and Recreation (although this new show's shtick of Lowe giving other men intense, head-rubbing "man hugs"--"Everyone should get hugs from Rob. It's like a massage," said Fred Savage about his Grinder co-star in New York magazine--initially felt like a rehash of Chris kissing a typically flustered Ron Swanson on the lips on Ron's birthday or Chris weeping in Ben Wyatt's arms).

On The Grinder, the former Brat Packer stars as Dean Sanderson Jr., a pampered Hollywood actor who grew tired of the network TV, uh, grind. After quitting his role as Mitchard "The Grinder" Grinder, a super-brilliant maverick lawyer, on The Grinder, a long-running Fox legal drama that's as popular overseas as Baywatch was in countries where nobody speaks English but they all speak in worshipful tones about C.J. Parker as if she were a bottle of Coca-Cola, Dean Jr. has returned to his hometown of Boise, Idaho to check in on his younger brother Stewart (Savage) and their close-to-retirement father Dean Sr., who are both actual lawyers (as Dean Sr., William Devane doesn't really get to do much, but Devane does enough with his character to make us realize where Dean Jr. inherited all of his weirdness and sunny optimism, and like everyone else in the Grinder cast, Devane's able to do a lot with just one or two lines).

The Grinder's man-hugs are increasingly turning into epic Scooby-Dum handshakes.

But Dean's stopover in Boise turns into a permanent stay when he realizes he wants a more normal life like Stewart's--Stew is happily married to Debbie (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), and they have two kids, Lizzie (Hana Hayes) and Ethan (Connor Kalopsis)--and he wants to be the Grinder in real life, and his delusions of taking the most absurd TV tropes from his old show and bringing them into the much more mundane reality of practicing law continually irritate Stew. Unlike Dean, who believes he doesn't need to pass the bar to practice law, Stew went through years of law school and hard work to get to where he's at today at Dad's law firm (Stew has also gotten the chance to blossom far away from his celebrity brother's shadow, so he resents having to go back to being the Sanderson brother who's not the center of attention in Boise).

Dean's favorite response to any person's admission that a goal or strategy is impossible is "But what if it wasn't?," a line his character used to frequently say on the old show. As Todd VanDerWerff notes over at Vox, "Dean doesn't know how our 'real' reality works; nearly everyone he encounters is so excited to get a taste of Dean's version that they go along with whatever he says should happen." However, there are two lone holdouts in Boise who object to whatever he says, and they are Stew and Claire (Natalie Morales, another Parks and Rec alum), the Sanderson & Yao firm's attractive new hire.

Claire is the only character other than Stew who has always found the plot twists on Dean's old show to be ridiculous. Dean is under the impression that Claire's dislike of both his vanity and his cluelessness about legal procedure in the real world is actually that old network TV cliché of masked sexual tension and that she's his love interest on this new show called real life, just like all the equally hot female second-chair characters he got to make out with when he played Mitch (Emmanuelle Chriqui and Arielle Kebbel are among the sultry "Grinder girls," and it's remarkable how they're able to not corpse whenever Lowe overdramatically slides office supplies off his desk before each of his love scenes with them for the show-within-the-show). But Claire is genuinely not interested in Dean (she prefers Dean's nemesis Timothy Olyphant, who nicely plays a very Zen--as well as douchey and childish--version of himself), and feminist viewers have interestingly found Dean's pursuit of Claire to be The Grinder's weakest element and way too reminiscent of the "Boyle wants to date Diaz and won't take no for an answer" storyline that Brooklyn Nine-Nine thankfully abandoned early on in its run.

Meanwhile, Debbie stands by her man Stew, but we get a slight inkling from the body language of Ellis' rather underwritten character (I'm enjoying how Ellis handles Deb's incredulous reactions to anything, particularly whenever junior-high-age Ethan emulates his Uncle Dean, but what the hell does Deb do for a living at her office?) that Deb's secretly enjoying the intrusion of TV reality into our reality a lot more than her husband is. She appears to be as fascinated by that intrusion as she is by the old show's implausible writing (whenever she and the other Sandersons are seen watching The Grinder or The Grinder: New Orleans, a spinoff starring Olyphant as Mitch's brother Rake, Deb's curling up with a relaxing glass of wine, as if the Grinder franchise is some trashy yet highly entertaining paperback, which it essentially is). Deb has the look of someone who sees Dean's weirdness not as an embarrassment but as an advantage for Stew and a welcome challenge to push Stew out of complacency and make him the best lawyer (and Sanderson) in any reality. Maybe the recapper community should start calling her Lady Macdeb.

The Grinder is a great mismatched sibling/business partner/buddy comedy in the vein of The Odd Couple--the Jack Klugman/Tony Randall one, not the Matthew Perry/Thomas Lennon one--and Savage is a terrific and relatable everyman foil to the bizarre Lowe in his first regular series role since 2006 (Savage had taken a quasi-Dean-style break from acting to become a prolific TV comedy director, working for shows like the one that introduced his current TV wife to comedy nerds as "the Waitress," It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). But the things that make The Grinder really stand out as a mismatched sibling comedy are the way that, as VanDerWerff puts it, the collision between TV reality and our reality borders on becoming a horror movie and, of course, the show's extra doses of Community-style meta-humor.

Dean, who's quick to recall storylines or tropes from his old show as if he were Manhattan E.A.D.A. Jack McCoy rattling off the names or outcomes of past trials from other courts, is basically Abed with abs. He's constantly talking about the rules of either TV logic or the TV industry like Abed--who, in my favorite moment of Abedness on Community, drove the super-pretentious professor at a Who's the Boss? studies course crazy over his elaborate theory that Who's the Boss? ruled in favor of Angela as the boss--used to do. For instance, Dean brings up the difficulties many showrunners experience whenever they have to follow up the pilot with the second episode while he's playing back his old show's second episode for Stew's family during, of course, The Grinder's second episode.

As clever as those bits of dialogue about TV logic are, the juicy little clips of the show-within-the-show, which foreshadow the themes of the A-plot during each of the cold opens, are actually more enjoyable as moments of meta-humor on The Grinder. In those clips, The Grinder astutely makes fun of a certain kind of early '00s network TV show that, due to changing tastes and the popularity of anti-hero dramas on both streaming services and cable, doesn't really get made anymore, except by CBS or TNT: the procedural as glitzy wish-fulfillment fantasy, anchored by the noble and hyper-competent cop or attorney who can do no wrong and always gets his man (or woman). On the show-within-the-show, the Grinder never settles and never loses a case. This gives him a better win record than that of Perry Mason, who was allowed to lose only once on CBS.

The show-within-the-show contains some nods to the soapy writing from one of Lowe's own post-West Wing attempts at wish-fulfillment TV, the 2003 NBC flop The Lyon's Den, in which he starred as the most idealistic and virtuous attorney in a law firm full of sharks. Mitch's scenes are even lit to look exactly like The Lyon's Den. In the name of justice, Mitch frequently pulls unlawyerly stunts that, in the real world, would either get him disbarred or cause evidence that could have benefited his clients to get thrown out of court, like disguising himself as another litigator with the help of a mask straight out of Mission: Impossible. Every episode of the show-within-the-show also finds him pulling some unbelievable skill out of what the ambiguously gay Craig Robinson thug character from Pineapple Express would have referred to as his little sexy ass, like the ability to canvass a crime scene more effectively than any other homicide detective in the city. All that's missing from Mitch is a cape.

If all this reminds you of Horatio Caine, the Miami-Dade police lieutenant who was written like a superhero and played by David Caruso as if he were auditioning to be Hyperion in a Marvel Studios screen version of Squadron Supreme (Hyperion's the only orange-haired male superhero I could think of), that's exactly who The Grinder is spoofing. Mitch even punctuates a courtroom scene with the Horatio-style donning of shades at one point. There's also a great little jab at Caruso's well-documented ego when Cliff Bemis (Jason Alexander), the creator/showrunner of both Dean's show and its spinoff, plans to kill off Mitch on The Grinder: New Orleans, and Stew reminds Cliff that Dean has a clause in his contract that says only Dean has authority over Mitch's fate--a deal that's similar to the one that was demanded by Caruso, who, in the universe of Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel's show, became so convinced that he was Horatio in real life that he asked for a clause stipulating that Horatio can't be killed without his permission.

Friday, January 15, 2016

I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!: Labyrinth

(Photo source: FictionMachine)

An updated-in-2020 version of the following blog post can be found in If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You: The Movies and TV Shows Some of Us Regretted Not Catching Until Later. The 2020 book was written and self-published by yours truly. Get the paperback edition of If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You now!


"I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" is a new series of posts that will appear sporadically here on the AFOS blog rather than weekly. In each post, I will reveal that I never watched a certain popular movie until very recently, and that's largely because I'm Filipino, we're always late to the party and that's how we do.

Luther is turning into yet another TV show that has no reason to go on after the departure of its breakout star, and I'm not talking Idris Elba. The star I'm referring to is Ruth Wilson, who's currently busy with Showtime's The Affair. But I can see why Elba is eager to go on playing DCI John Luther for as long as possible and why he enjoys playing him way more than any other role, like the role so many of his fans want him to aggressively pursue, James Bond. And who could blame him? As Luther, Elba gets to live out fantasies he must have always had about outwitting or intimidating all the ugly-looking white psychos who either make life difficult and unpleasant for people of color in the U.K. (and in any other country marred by racism) or scare Chris Rock out of sharing an elevator with them.

At times, Luther interestingly feels like a non-comedic version of Rock's post-Columbine stand-up routine in which he takes away power from the racist Trenchcoat Mafia in the only way he knows how: by making mincemeat of them and their whininess comedically. But as a procedural, Luther is nothing really extraordinary, and the psychos Luther tangles with tend to be boring and one-dimensional--except for gorgeous but sociopathic astrophysicist Alice Morgan, an antagonist-turned-ally beautifully played by Wilson. Without Alice to play off of, Luther as a character feels a little less alive. All the character has going for him are the badass way he stuffs his hands into his pockets, Elba's charisma and occasional sense of humor in the role and my favorite trait of Luther's. It's the one trait of Luther's that has kept me interested in Elba's show, even though I dislike shows built around serial killers: an immense love for the late David Bowie, whose music helps Luther to think.

Luther's favorite hero isn't Sherlock or Shaft. It's Bowie, and it's hard to dislike a detective character who worships Bowie and applies his songwriting process to criminal profiling. Without Alice, the show doesn't really have a reason to go on living. But I'm not worried about the show right now. I'm more worried about DCI Luther. How's he dealing with Bowie's passing? Without Bowie around to record another album and give him motivation to outwit serial killers, Luther's probably now an even more broken man than he already is.

In the underwhelming, Wilson-less Luther two-parter that premiered last month on BBC, the only enjoyable moment briefly revisits Luther's admiration of the Thin White Duke and his ability to quote the deepest of Bowie deep cuts. In this case, "We Are the Dead," a track from 1974's Diamond Dogs, gets Luther to realize that a cannibalistic serial killer is suffering from Cotard's syndrome, a mental disorder in which the patient thinks he's dead. DS Emma Lane (Game of Thrones alum Rose Leslie), a younger detective who partners up with Luther to track down this madman, who killed DCI Theo Bloom (Darren Boyd), her partner, with a bomb, quotes a line from Star Wars to Luther--she and Bloom were Star Wars fans--but Luther's tastes in sci-fi lean more towards Bowie concept albums like Diamond Dogs. That's probably the only kind of sci-fi Luther's into, so the Star Wars reference sails past him. Sensing that Star Wars isn't helping a still-grieving Lane to stay focused on her work, Luther attempts to get her to stay focused by introducing to her his favorite method of staying focused. He asks Lane, "Do you know any David Bowie?" She replies, "Um, yeah, I liked him in that film, the one in the maze, with the baby and the puppets," and Luther's wordless response is a funny little look that says, "Are you bloody kidding me?"

The film Lane's referring to is, of course, the Jim Henson-directed, George Lucas-produced Labyrinth. She outs herself as having come from the generation of little girls who grew up watching on telly a teenage Jennifer Connelly rescue her kidnapped baby brother from Bowie's Tina Turner wig-wearing, codpiece-clad Goblin King, and that film was their first taste of Bowie. Meanwhile, I'm from the generation that was first exposed to Bowie via MTV, which was dominated by Bowie's outlandish and suave presence for most of the '80s. But MTV would only play either the Lodger/Scary Monsters years (the funereal, gloomy-looking video for "Ashes to Ashes" used to creep out my five-year-old self, who was allowed to watch anything that wasn't R-rated movies, and that anything included funereal, gloomy-looking Bowie videos), the chart-topping Nile Rodgers era or the "Blue Jean"/Labyrinth/Glass Spider stuff. So I was totally unaware of the sounds of pre-1979 Bowie--a lot of his pre-'79 material (like the 1973 tune "Drive-In Saturday," which I was originally going to name the AFOS weekend block "Hall H" after) is on some other level of excellence--and I had to discover those sounds somewhere else, and that place was the local new wave station, which, in my teen years, was Live 105. In the late '80s and early '90s, that station was especially fond of "Suffragette City," "Golden Years" and "Young Americans," so those three became among my favorite Bowie tunes (my all-time favorite Bowie tune, by the way, is a tune I discovered much later, when I started downloading singles off iTunes: his Giorgio Moroder-produced Cat People theme, which is currently in rotation on AFOS, until my station goes off the air for good on January 31).

KITS also ended up being the station where I first learned Bowie passed away. I was flipping from station to station (no pun intended) on my portable FM radio while making myself a late dinner, and I stumbled into a double shot of "Rebel Rebel" and "Ziggy Stardust," two Bowie tunes I hadn't heard in ages. I couldn't help singing along to both tunes while cooking and was like, "Wow, Live 105's listenable again."

Then the Live 105 DJ explained that he was playing nothing but Bowie tracks for an hour, after being shocked to receive about an hour ago the news of the death of this legendary musician (and sometime actor) he admired because Bowie made it okay for him to be different. I too was stunned to learn about his death because Blackstar, the Kendrick Lamar-influenced album that's, sadly, now his final album, had been released only two days before on Bowie's 69th birthday, and also because Bowie was a seemingly immortal alien from the planet Rocksalot. I thought he was going to live forever.

(Photo source: cosmicbreadcrum)

Thanks to cancer, Bowie wasn't able to live as long as Jareth the Goblin King, whom I've always assumed is hundreds of years old. I also always assumed that Labyrinth was inessential, watered-down Bowie, both music-wise and acting-wise, which was why I never watched the film until shortly before Netflix streaming removed it from its library in December (watching Labyrinth for the first time after marathoning Netflix's Jessica Jones resulted in Jones and Labyrinth turning into a fascinating double-header about women who triumph over sexual predators who are basically spoiled man-children, and that's exactly how Bowie approached Jareth, as "a big kid"). I'm glad to admit I was so wrong about Labyrinth.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The end of an era: Live365's demise means the demise of AFOS as a radio station after 13 intriguing years on the air

'What the fuck did I do?'--Antoiney McNulty

My very first blog post of 2016 was originally going to be either a piece about Electric Boogaloo, the Cannon Films documentary that's now streaming on Netflix, or a piece about Creed and why I like Ludwig Göransson's original score from that film so much that I'm adding the score to AFOS rotation. It was going to be a typically quiet and uneventful slide into the new year here at this blog, right? [Dana Carvey's John McLaughlin voice] Wrong! Live365, the Bay Area Internet radio hosting platform I've gotten along well with--it's the company that's powered AFOS for 13 years--ended 2015 with a huge announcement.

Recent changes in music licensing regulations and the end of the Webcaster Settlement Act, which allowed for low-revenue Internet radio stations to pay lower royalties to record labels than those paid by the likes of Pandora, have resulted in Live365's investors leaving the company and Live365 laying off nearly its entire staff. The company has already moved out of its longtime Foster City office space.

The future doesn't look good for Live365. The company informed its Pro broadcasters that it will allow them to continue running their radio stations until January 31. I'm one of Live365's Pro broadcasters, so that means, yes, unless Live365 is somehow saved by a new group of investors or it gets some other kind of 11th-hour rescue, AFOS is going off the air on January 31.

My response to that is this: good. It's time to call it quits as an Internet radio broadcaster.

When Tom Cruise becomes a fugitive and goes off the grid early on in Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation, his facial hair during his shirtless pull-up bar scene hilariously makes him look like Zach Galifianakis if he cosplayed as Bruce Lee at an Alamo Drafthouse midnight screening of Enter the Dragon.

I've seen a few Live365 Pro or non-Pro broadcasters tell their listeners that they either have started to look for other streaming platform options or have shut down their Live365 streams to begin streaming independently. I won't be doing the same for AFOS. Some of the enthusiasm I had during the first few years of running the station has simply disappeared. The audience for AFOS has also disappeared, although there are still one or two listeners who holler at me on Facebook or Twitter. Why listen to a 24-hour station when other platforms allow you to curate your own playlists with ease or when you can simply YouTube any piece of music you like? (I don't even listen to Internet stations anymore. I prefer to listen to DJ mixes. The Internet has changed so much since 2003 and 2004. Those years were when my listeners were at their most responsive and vocal, so I used to do hour-long shows where I would read aloud their e-mails to me. And then one day, the e-mails suddenly stopped coming, so without those e-mails, I stopped doing mailbag shows.)

I still listen to the film and TV score albums that my station's programming is comprised of, so I've continued to update the station playlists once or twice a month to attempt to keep the station from sounding stale. But I haven't talked into a microphone and recorded original content for AFOS since 2009. I got tired of not getting paid for speaking on the mic.

I never earned a dime from AFOS, much like how college radio DJs who currently host score music radio programs (just like I did when I was a university student) or any other kind of program don't get paid by their stations for spinning music. But I never intended to earn a dime from AFOS anyway. I did all this only because I like to stream score music and I'm passionate about the work of a few film composers, many of whom are prolific (Ennio Morricone), while others aren't as prolific and really ought to be prolific (like David Holmes or, from the rugged lands of Shaolin, RZA, who's better at film scoring than acting).