Friday, April 29, 2016

A memo to pop stars: If you're filming a highly stylized visual album and you take your preschooler daughter to work one day, she's going to get antsy

I've watched Beyoncé's Lemonade visual album only once, when HBO Go had the streaming rights to the visual album for just one day (I'm not a Tidal subscriber, and $9.99 a month is too steep for my blood--lower the price, Hov). Yet the sounds of Lemonade are still reverberating in my head.

The anthemic, Just Blaze-produced "Freedom" contains a typically superb Kendrick Lamar guest verse. "Hold Up," the Jack White contribution "Don't Hurt Yourself" and "Sorry" are a triptych of intriguing songs about coping with infidelity, and Beyoncé's jab at "Becky with the good hair" during "Sorry" makes me wonder if "Becky" isn't one lady but is actually a composite of several. I doubt Beyoncé's husband has had just one side chick since marrying Bey. "Daddy Lessons," a tune that explores both her Texan roots and her relationship with her estranged father (and former manager), is a rarity: a black country song, but this time from a woman instead of Charley Pride, Darius Rucker or Kool Moe Dee. Beyoncé experiments with country, but it's not an epic fail like that time Lil Wayne made a rock album.

I always thought Solange was the more musically interesting Knowles sister, and I still do, but with Lemonade, Beyoncé has really evolved from the "Independent Women"-style anthems and adult contemporary radio-friendly ballads she's known primarily for. I didn't expect something so introspective, confessional and politically charged from Beyoncé, although there have been hints of that introspective direction throughout her last visual album and during, of course, the #BlackLivesMatter-influenced "Formation" single (some say that direction surfaced as early as 2003's Dangerously in Love). Lemonade is basically Beyoncé's Craps (After Hours). In other words, it's the turning point for a new kind of Beyoncé. I believe I have a clip from her new visual album.

Woops, wrong artist.

Friday, April 22, 2016

May U live 2 see the disc: Prince's out-of-print Sign o' the Times movie deserves an American Blu-ray because it shows why the late musician was a consummate live performer

I never got to see Prince perform live. But every time the eccentric musical genius and consummate guitarist performed live on TV (instead of lip-syncing on TV, aside from earlier appearances on The Midnight Special and American Bandstand), it was a can't-miss event, even whenever I had to sit through a bunch of unfunny SNL sketches just to watch that SNL episode's purple-loving musical guest, who died yesterday at the too-young age of 57.

Sure, it would have been dope to attend a Prince concert or better yet, rock out to one of his even more legendary surprise sets inside smaller and more intimate venues. But I didn't have to check out Prince live to know that he was tremendously skilled when it came to both putting on a show and making a song (whether it was one of his own songs or another artist's) sound even more alive and vibrant than the original recording of it, especially when he shredded on his electric guitar like there's no tomorrow. On stage, nothing compares to Prince.

Inside both my MacBook and my phone, I have a good-quality mp3 of a terrific Prince cover of Radiohead's "Creep" from Coachella 2008 that I've never removed. Prince, who hated encountering footage of his music he had no control over, assigned one of his techie goons to wipe out all traces of his live "Creep" cover. That goon clearly sucked at attempting to wipe them all out.

I love Prince's epic take on "Creep" more than Radiohead's original version. Even Thom Yorke himself agrees that Prince improved upon "Creep."

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The most intriguing part of The Magicians isn't the magic--it's the material that explores the dark side of being a fantasy or sci-fi nerd

The following contains spoilers for the first-season finale of The Magicians.

So Syfy's bawdy and foul-mouthed The Magicians, which wrapped up its first season earlier this week, is Harry Potter for grown-ups, right? Well, I wouldn't really know. I never read any of J.K. Rowling's novels, and I've watched only Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, better known in America as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I found the 2001 Chris Columbus movie to be a ponderous slog back in 2002, so I never sat through another Harry Potter flick again. Not even Daniel Radcliffe can sit through most of his own Potter movies: he actually dislikes most of his performances as the titular boy wizard ("My acting is very one-note and I can see I got complacent and what I was trying to do just didn't come across," he once admitted) and considers his performance in the fifth movie to be his least flawed.

Potter is a franchise that just won't die, even after I resisted watching the seven other Potter movies for so long because of both the tedium of much of the 152-minute (!) first movie and the fact that the Potter franchise is white as fuck. Universal opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at its Universal Studios Hollywood theme park last weekend. In July, the Wizarding World attraction will be followed by the West End premiere of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part stage play that takes place 19 years after the events of Rowling's final Potter novel, and then in November, Warner Bros. will attempt to build a series of Potter prequel movies out of the 2001 Rowling book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a fake school textbook about the creatures Harry and his Hogwarts classmates encountered in the Potter novels.

So because of the onslaught of all this Potter shit (and because that new Fantastic Beasts teaser trailer actually looks enticing), I've lately been considering doing a rewatch of Sorcerer's Stone and a marathon in which I would be viewing the Potter sequels for the first time, as homework for the AFOS blog's "I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" series. For now though, if I want my magic school genre fix, I prefer Syfy's adaptation of Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, a series of novels I was unfamiliar with before the January debut of the Syfy version, which has been renewed for a second season.

"Potter for grown-ups"--the most frequently repeated shorthand description of The Magicians by the press--isn't a completely accurate breakdown of the show, although there are a few campus scenes of beloved character actors (whattup, "Cutthroat Bitch"!) teaching difficult sorcery techniques to the younger cast members, just like the only scenes in Sorcerer's Stone that didn't make me snooze. In its first season, The Magicians has been more like a millennial In the Mouth of Madness, which, for me, is a more enticing hook than "Potter for grown-ups."

Friday, April 8, 2016

AFOS Blog Rewind:, "A Brief History of PG-13"

Even though it's been nearly a year since the demise of Pitchfork Media's smartly written film discussion site The Dissolve, the now-defunct site's animated short about PG-13's negative effect on the quality of American movies continues to resonate. From May 8, 2015, here's a repost of my discussion of "A Brief History of PG-13."

The webseries Frames takes musicians' NSFW anecdotes and reinterprets them in animated form. For example, Detroit rapper Danny Brown's tales of his days as a drug dealer were transformed by Frames into the Hanna-Barbera cartoon I always dreamed of. All that was missing from Frames' Danny Brown episode was Don Messick voicing a Philly blunt that talks and greets Danny Brown with "What up doe?" Now Frames director Mack Williams has taken "The ongoing failure of the PG-13 rating," an excellent 2014 article Chris Klimek wrote for Pitchfork's sister site The Dissolve, and given it the animated treatment for as well. In only two minutes full of genuinely funny sight gags by Williams and the animators at the Brooklyn studio Pig Apple (my favorite sight gag has to be the MPAA disrupting the duo from Once), "A Brief History of PG-13" amusingly elucidates how much the MPAA rating system is bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 1, 2016

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Archer, "The Figgis Agency"

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. Stream "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," my one-hour mix of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, right now.

Two seasons ago, Archer's season-long experiment as "Archer Vice" was a divisive one for fans of the animated spy spoof. The viewers who disliked the kinds of storytelling that resulted from Archer creator Adam Reed's decision to change the characters' jobs from spies to drug dealers found the fifth season to be aimless, while I enjoyed Reed's willingness to experiment that season and found the subsequent season, in which the perpetually immature Archer, new mom Lana, Malory and Ray returned to spying and worked as independent contractors for the CIA, to be the more aimless season.

But as Archer has gotten older, the show's animators have developed a knack for crafting satisfying action sequences that have gotten more impressive in scale and scope with each year. That's mostly why my favorite episode from Archer's sixth season is "The Kanes." Lana's visit to her parents' house in Berkeley presented a great balance of large-scale action (the episode's homage to the classic Bullitt car chase was second to the avalanche in "The Archer Sanction" as an impressive sixth-season set piece) and the smaller-scale kind of character-based comedy that's pulled off well by bottle episodes like "Vision Quest."

A lot of the rest of Archer's sixth season suffered from a lack of stakes. Sure, the addition of a baby to the relationship between Archer and Lana brought a bit of welcome depth to the character of Archer, but Reed seemed to be sleepwalking through the same kinds of espionage storylines he appeared to be getting bored with shortly before the "Archer Vice" revamp. Archer's new season seeks to rectify the lack of stakes by changing the show's backdrop again to Hollywood and putting the disgraced (and after the disastrous events in "Drastic Voyage," unemployed) spies to work as private investigators. The P.I. storylines will hopefully restore some stakes to the show and allow for the animators to continue to outdo themselves in the action department, and if "The Figgis Agency," Archer's seventh-season premiere, is any indication, Archer's new detective agency may just turn out to be a better creative shot in the arm for the show than the cocaine-slinging thing.

Technically, it's Cyril's detective agency, and Archer, Lana and Ray are his unlicensed gumshoes, applying their spying skills to investigative work. So far, Archer isn't exactly Michael Westen yet. In "The Figgis Agency," he gets badly bitten by a couple of attack dogs in a scene that made me wince and is straight out of The Boys from Brazil, the same movie that inspired Krieger's possible origins as a Hitler clone. He also falls down the same canyon twice and fails to notice that Cyril's client (Ona Grauer, a.k.a. Bionic Katya), a movie star who hired the titular agency to retrieve a disk that's in the hands of powerful L.A. sleazebag Alan Shapiro (Patton Oswalt, who seems to be channeling both the villainous Henry Gibson and Mark Rydell characters from The Long Goodbye), is actually an imposter. It's like if all the spy tips that pulled Michael out of countless jams as a P.I. during Burn Notice went wrong.