Monday, January 31, 2011

The Man with the Golden Tunes

John Barry cameos in The Living Daylights, his final Bond film

John Barry, musical composer for the James Bond films From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and The Living Daylights, died yesterday at the age of 77. I won't wax poetic about the man's life, which I honestly don't know that much about, and I'll leave it to all the other news sites and movie blogs to go "but of course, Bond was only the tip of the iceberg that was Barry's musical career" and expound on his other credits, but as a lifelong Bond fanatic it's his work with 007 that has continually dazzled and will stick with me forever. The bold, brassy style he created is still emulated by new composer David Arnold and continues to set the series apart half a century later.

Of course, everyone knows (and most websites will be content with only mentioning) the iconic James Bond theme which Barry created along with Monty Norman, almost certainly the greatest theme song for a single character ever conceived in the history of cinema. The style, the energy, and the sheer, unrivaled sense of cool that pulsates from it is singular; unequalled. When the main hook kicks in at forty seconds, just for a moment, everything in the world seems badass. The way Barry weaves it into the larger tapestry of specific film scores is also sublime, such as the way it announces "JAMES BOND IS HERE, ASSHOLE!" in this cue from Goldfinger before taking on a more subdued tone befitting a secret mission.

But the work Barry did for the Bond films goes way beyond just that one tune. The music that accompanies the Moonraker fleet's ascension to Drax's space fortress proves that strong orchestration can render onscreen images sweeping, captivating, and larger than life. Barry could make a trip to the casino scream elegance from the highest rafters (particularly once the piano kicks in) or make spying in Turkey feel like the coolest job in the world. He incorporates an eastern influence without missing a beat in You Only Live Twice and makes Bond scoping for snipers at the beginning of The Living Daylights tense and atmospheric in a way other filmmakers would kill to have in the climactic scenes of their movies.

Hell, he was able to make a movie that's basically entitled Eight Vaginas seem ritzy and stylish with a few horns and strings and flutes. That's like someone upending a dumpster onto your kitchen counter and you making a gourmet meal from it.

This may sound weird to people who go by the prepackaged Bond "knowledge" of critics and mainstream collective thought, but one of Barry's best Bond scores is for his next-to-last and Roger Moore's last Bond film, A View to a Kill. It's generally regarded as one of the silliest movies of the franchise (and even I won't dispute that it probably has the worst Bond girl ever, even over The World Is Not Enough's Dr. Christmas Jones), but god damn does Barry bring it in the musical department. Some of cinema's most atmospheric creepiness ever in "Bond Underwater," while tunes like the brass-heavy "Airship to Silicon Valley" and especially "He's Dangerous" make Max Zorin into one hell of a villain. When the instruments drop out about 25 seconds into "He's Dangerous," that's exactly what it should sound like when a megalomaniacal Bond villain is coming to kill you.

But for my money(penny) the most impressive accomplishment of A View to a Kill's soundtrack may be the way Barry takes his and Duran Duran's rockin' intro song and, changing very little except the tempo and instruments it's played with, remixes it into the movie's supremely classy love theme. I mean, god damn, that is one elegant tune.

However, as is often the case with the Bond franchise, 1964's Goldfinger reigns supreme. Anyone who knows anything about movies knows the scene where Bond finds Jill Masterson's golden corpse in his hotel room, but I do wonder if that moment would be quite so legendary if our first glimpse of her body weren't synchronized with the alarming notes 49 seconds into this song. What Barry does with strings toward the middle and end of the scene where Bond is about to be sliced lengthwise with Goldfinger's laser is incredible, the way he incorporates Shirley Bassey's opening title theme as Oddjob goes about his business is brilliant, he somehow manages against all odds to make Miami seem classy and appealing, and Auric Goldfinger's raid on Fort Knox is aurally overwhelming (especially past the one-minute mark).

So I guess all I have to say is a massive thank you to John Barry for the hours upon hours of music he composed for the James Bond series between 1962 and 1987. Much of my love of movies stems from James Bond and much of my love of James Bond stems from John Barry, so however little I may know about the actual man behind the brass, his work has meant a lot to me, and I'm glad it'll live forever through the Bond films' constant reissues on Blu-ray and DVD and airings on television and his style being incorporated into new Bond films, Bond 23 and beyond, as we embark on the sixth decade of 007's cinematic career.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black Swan

If being able to generate whiteknuckle tension from thin air, make the screen pulsate with life with little blatant action, and direct actor after actor to career-best performances weren't enough to assure Darren Aronofsky's status as one of our greatest living filmmakers, it’s his proven talent at making topics that generally bore me to tears absolutely fucking fascinating that clinches it. First he made a crackling, insane thriller out of theoretical math in Pi, then he made the manliest of men weep with professional wrestling in The Wrestler, and now, in Black Swan, he crafts ballet into a brilliantly demented journey into psychosexual horror anchored by the best screen performance of 2010. Whatever the subject, when Aronofsky touches it, cinematic gold floweth forth.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, who has just been promoted to the lead role in her New York ballet company's production of Swan Lake and lives and breathes her art to a horrifying degree. Her drive for perfection in dance at the expense of all else has not only left her a socially-stunted emotional child still pampered by her overbearing stage mom (Barbara Hershey) well into her late 20s, but drained the life from her dance itself. Her moves are precise, exacting, technically perfect, cold, soulless. This makes her ideal for the pure and innocent White Swan she is to begin Swan Lake as, but she finds herself struggling to capture the verve and raw, erotic energy required from the devilish Black Swan she's supposed to transform into over the course of the performance. Adding to the pressure is the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a less technically proficient but far more passionate new dancer in the company, who may or may not be angling for Nina's spot.

But the film's key relationship is between neither Nina and Lily nor Nina and her mother, but Nina and Thomas, the director of the ballet company, brought to life with compelling predatory sleaze by French actor Vincent Cassel. To call his means inappropriate for the workplace would be putting it mildly — in order to bring out the inner Black Swan he sees in Nina, his tutoring revolves far more around sex than choreography and his homework assignments for Nina involve not dance steps but going home and touching herself. These methods reveal the cracks in Nina's shell, but as the already psychologically unstable ballerina embraces the Black Swan, her tenuous grip on reality starts to fade, and the film takes us on an equally dazzling and terrifying journey into delusion, paranoia, and insanity.

Unlike ballet itself, Black Swan is not the highest of art, something I say not as a criticism but with great admiration. Don't let anyone dress the film up with euphemisms about it being a "psychological thriller" — this is a horror film, drawn in intentionally broad and melodramatic strokes, packed with lurid sexuality and gruesome body horror as Nina's toenails crack and bleed and her skin rots off, driven by composer Clint Mansell's eerie, aggressive, almost omnipresent score. That the horror genre has largely allowed itself to be redefined by teenage slasher flicks and the seemingly endless Final Destination franchise is as much of a shame as if comedy allowed itself to be all grouped in with Adam Sandler movies or drama entirely with daytime soap operas. Tackled with the creativity and bold artistry of Black Swan, horror can be given life anew, at least if critics aren't afraid to label it such when they see it.

While Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and particularly Barbara Hershey all deserve commendation for their performances, this is unmistakably Natalie Portman's film; she's the focus of every single scene and close enough to every frame, and it's easily the best performance of her career and one of the best of the last several years of film, period. Even putting aside the months of training Portman put in to depict a convincing ballerina and become alarmingly skinny and seemingly bulimic, she creates a character wound impossibly tight and constantly dancing on the edge of psychotic breakdown. It's a performance that evokes sympathy as the film opens and terror as the Black Swan begins to emerge. Portman and Aronofsky deserve equal credit for making nearly every second of the film's final act feel like something dreadful might happen at any moment. For her not to win Best Actress in on Oscar night would reveal the entire event as a farce.

Darren Aronofsky has stated on record that he sees Black Swan as a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, both being character studies of people who sacrifice all for their performance art, but I see it much more as the spiritual sequel to his 1998 debut film Pi. The Wrestler was a straight-faced drama set in the real world, absent dread, hallucination, or that chilling, persistent score. Pi and Black Swan are both horrific journeys of obsession, showing paranoia and insanity emerge as we follow their protagonists down a dark psychological well in search of perfection of their craft, be that craft math or ballet. Watching them back-to-back it's clear that Hollywood hasn't drained Aronofsky of one ounce of his intensity or mad genius, and Black Swan is one of the best films of 2010.

4 Stars out of 5

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Brief History of Actors Being Nominated In the Wrong Category

The 83rd Academy Award nominations contained a few nice surprises (Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom, Jeremy Renner for The Town), a few irritating snubs (Christopher Nolan for Best Director, Andrew Garfield for The Social Network), and of course plenty of stuff that got nominated where it shouldn't have been (The Kids Are All Right in every category), but the one thing that most immediately jumped out at me as absolutely bizarre was Hailee Steinfeld being nominated for Best Supporting Actress for True Grit. Which isn't a criticism of her performance at all — on the contrary, she handled her poetic, convoluted, old-timey dialogue with panache and arguably outacted both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. It's one of the best screen performances of 2010.

But here's the thing: Steinfeld was in no way, shape, or form a "supporting" actress. Her character, Mattie Ross, was the protagonist, at the center of every single scene of the entire movie and with more screentime and dialogue than anyone else by far.

Sure, one could point out that Amy Adams' unexpected nomination for The Fighter may siphon votes from Melissa Leo in the same film, giving Steinfeld a small but extant chance of rallying from behind for the surprise win, something that never would have happened if designated a lead actress. And if that comes to pass, I doubt she or the Coens will shed any tears about it being for the wrong category. But I'm not really discussing outcome or the backstage politics of awards-rangling here, I'm just offering some straight-up real-world talk about when the nomination just ain't right. Hailee Steinfeld is only the most recent of several offenders (and probably a lot more I'm overlooking):

Anthony Hopkins, Best Actor for Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Why's it all wrong? Because Silence of the Lambs is a 118-minute movie and Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter has fewer than twenty minutes of screentime, less than not only every winner but almost every single Best Supporting Actor nominee of the last ten years, with maybe two or three exceptions. It's a supremely creepy, timeless performance so powerful it overwhelms the entire film around it, lingering so strong in the mind that it's easy to believe he had way more screentime than he actually did after your first viewing, but he is objectively not a lead. Not until the shitty sequel, anyway.

Why'd they do it? Because they thought he could win, which he did. But the actual best leading male performance of 1991 (John Turturro in Barton Fink) wasn't even nominated in the first place, so no big loss.

Ethan Hawke, Best Supporting Actor for Training Day (2001)

Why's it all wrong? Because he's the main character, with more screentime than costar Denzel Washington, who was nominated for Best Actor. Note that unlike Anthony Hopkins I'm not arguing that Denzel should been nominated for Best Supporting Actor — he was present through the vast majority of the film and clearly a lead — but simply that there is no way Ethan Hawke was a supporting character. Either they both should have been nominated for Best Actor or they should have just left Hawke out entirely. The Best Supporting Actor nomination almost seems to be damning him with faint praise, saying, "well, you were pretty good, we guess... but not good enough. Here's a consolation Best Supporting Actor nomination for your leading role."

Why'd they do it? Because they didn't want to divert Best Actor votes away from Denzel. Rightfully, as Denzel would go on to win, but as I said up top I'm not talking about outcome here, just nominations.

Jamie Foxx, Best Supporting Actor for Collateral (2004)

Why's it all wrong? Again, because he's the main character, appearing in almost every single scene of the entire film except for the first minute or so where Tom Cruise walks through an airport and a few moments of the final chase we see from Cruise and Jada Pinkett Smith's points of view. He occupies a greater percentage of total screentime than, for example, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller, or Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. If you believe Jamie Foxx's Max in Collateral to be a supporting performance than all the roles I've just named are damn near tertiary.

Why'd they do it? Because they didn't want Jamie Foxx diverting Best Actor votes away from his own performance in Ray, which, again, he would go on to win. Never mind that his performance in Collateral was actually superior — in Oscar land, successfully impersonating any real dead person = masterpiece.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 1/20/11

Another year, another bout of weekly NBC sitcommery. There's a bit of change in the water, though; Parks and Recreation has obviously joined my lineup, but I've also added a new "Funniest Moment" category to the end of each review, plus weekly power rankings of all four shows at the bottom of each roundup. Perhaps at the end of the season we can add up the rankings and consider the show (by which I mean Community) with the lowest score the winner. Think of it like golf, but with less funny clothes and more funny people.

The Office, Season 7 Episode 13 — "Ultimatum"

The Office has had many, many rough spots this season, but I thought it rallied magnificently in the midseason finale, "Classy Christmas," largely thanks to the return of Amy Ryan's Holly Flax, and that high level of quality is mostly maintained in this midseason premiere. I've talked before about my love of Ryan / Holly and I won't reiterate the same ground again, but one great, specific thing this episode nailed is how Michael and Holly really get and play off each other in a way that everyone else finds wonderfully annoying. The whole E.T. dialogue run which left Kelly shouting from over the wall for them to please shut up was perfect.

But it was actually the B-plots I enjoyed most about "Ultimatum," namely Darryl, Andy, and Dwight's book store / roller rink / strip club excursion (particularly Darryl's interaction with the book store cashier and Andy's with the skating DJ) and most everything that stemmed from Pam's chart of new year's resolutions. The scenes with Kevin crying while being force-fed broccoli and Erin stealing Creed's cartwheel thunder (Creed: "FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU! GOD!") made me laugh and laugh. This may also have been the single Jim-lightest episode of the entire series outside of the one where he was off on his honeymoon, with him inexplicably vanishing after the cold open. This isn't a criticism, exactly, as I thought the episode worked just fine without him, but it was a bit strange.

However, the one thing that was so unforgivable that it sinks the entire episode in my eyes unless I block out that it ever happened was them relying on an honest-to-god fart for comedy in the final act. I felt wildly embarrassed for the show at that moment. Never again, Office. That's not okay.

Funniest Moment: Holly holding up her ring fingers, followed by Kevin flipping her off and going "Hey! Right back at ya, bitch!" Coupled with Amy Ryan's reaction shot I was quite literally laughing so hard I had to pause the episode. And following that up with Michael and Erin's ludicrously over-the-top party in Michael's office left me with huge grin on my face. Best collective minute of the entire Thursday comedy block.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 1 — "Go Big or Go Home"

Although the last season of Parks and Recreation easily trumped the Office season it aired against in terms of both comedy and character work, I have to admit that this premiere definitely didn't make me laugh as often as The Office's "Ultimatum." But that isn't to say I didn't enjoy it; the ridiculous enthusiasm of Rob Lowe's Chris Traeger and the understated Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt are proving brilliant additions to the ensemble. The running gag of Ben being forced against his will into playing the bad cop over and over again never fails to elicit a laugh. I also like the show introducing a new objective in the form of the Pawnee Harvest Festival. Part of what I enjoyed about the first couple seasons was the way they were always maneuvering toward and around getting the pit behind Ann's house filled and built into a park, and I'm glad something else is filling that same need for narrative drive.

I was a bit iffier on the basketball subplot. It had a terrific buildup in contrasting Andy's lackadaisical coaching style to Ron Swanson's military precision (especially the introduction of the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness), but I thought that, rather than being especially funny, Tom's vindictive refereeing just kind of caused the whole thing to fizzle out into an awkward anticlimax. I also have to ask, what the hell was up with that overly, almost creepily enthusiastic narration during the previously on segment? I was sure it was supposed to be a joke but there was no punchline. That was so weird.

Funniest Moment: A close call between Leslie tossing Jerry's painting into the lake in the opening (Jerry in general makes me laugh my ass off, he's like Toby from The Office taken to the logical extreme) and Andy explaining that "every time I look one of these kids in the eyes and he calls me coach, that's how I know... I agreed to be a coach."

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 11 — "Mrs. Donaghy"

So does Jack and Avery's mostly unseen nuptials going awry mean we're going to end up getting a big wedding episode after all? I was actually kind of appreciative of 30 Rock avoiding that cliche, but whatever. I enjoyed the cleverness of Liz and Jack's accidental marriage and the power plays and arm-twisting that followed, particularly the continuity-rich scene as they're read the list of questions at the end, Liz publicly dedicating $5 million to a school that asks "what is art?" in Jack's name, and Jack exclaiming "My adventures, I am the protagonist!" As usual, 30 Rock is at its best when Liz and Jack share a story rather than being divided.

Also as usual, 30 Rock is at its worst when Jenna and Kenneth are segregated to their own subplot, even if it's supplemented by Danny this time out. The pseudo-marital feuding failed to elicit any laughs outside of Danny telling Kenneth "Don't think for one second this means we love you less. Know that it means that," although Kenneth's scene with a double-drinking Pete was pretty good. Tracy's subplot was fairly nondescript, but it was nice to see Dr. Leo Spaceman. Altogether, a mildly amusing midseason premiere, although the weakest of NBC's Thursday comedy block... outside of Outsourced and Perfect Couples, of course.

And lastly, one quick, slightly off-topic question: when the hell is Liz's boyfriend Carol gonna show up again? They're still together, right? I guess only being able to get him for three episodes a year is the downside of casting one of the biggest movie stars on earth as a supporting character on your TV sitcom.

Funniest Moment: By default I suppose it would have to be Liz's press conference. "The Jack and Elizabeth Donaghy High School for Teen Drama, the Arts, and FEELINGS!" "Son of a bitch!" I do wonder how Liz and Jack's marriage could be a secret to Avery after that, but I doubt it'll ever come up again.

Community, Season 2 Episode 12 — "Asian Population Studies"

I knew as soon as I saw "written by Emily Cutler" (of "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Modern Warfare" fame) that we were in for another great twenty-two minutes Community, and the episode didn't disappoint in the least. One thing I especially loved about "Asian Population Studies" was the way that all three stories, about holding tryouts for the eighth member of the study group, Troy and Pierce's secret knowledge of Shirley's pregnancy, and Annie's crush on Rich, all elaborately intertwined into one comedic tapestry, flowing in and out of the same scenes. Outside of Abed and arguably Britta (who at least got to flash Fat Neil) the episode did a masterful job giving each member of the cast a lot to chew on, letting everyone flex their comedic and occasionally even dramatic muscle. Between his horrific puns, slow clapping, and hiding on top of the bookshelf, it's probably one of Chang's top five episodes of the series. I'm also curious to see whether or not he's actually in the group now (and whether the baby is his or Andre's, but that's for a few more months down the road).

One nitpick, though: Jeff saying to Rich at the end, "I've known you for almost two years now." Rich first appeared in the episode "Beginner Pottery," which aired on March 18th, 2010. I'm no mathemagician but I'm almost positive that's nowhere close to two years ago. Jeff couldn't even really say that to Britta or Troy, let alone Rich.

Funniest Moment: The moment I admired most for its absurdity and creativity was Chang slow-clapping himself and Jeff angrily explaining that you can't do that, but for some reason the single line that made me laugh longest and loudest was "My name is Kendra, and I spell it with a 'Q-U.'" Never seen that actress before in my life but she made a monstrous comedic impact in her five or so lines.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. The Office 3. Parks and Recreation 4. 30 Rock

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TV Pilots, Day 1 — Bob's Burgers, The Cape, Episodes, Shameless, Off the Map

Has it really been half a year since I began my last batch of TV pilot reviews? (Answer: No, but let me have my wistful opening!) Since then I've dismissed many shows about cops and lawyers and seen half the small handful of new series I deemed worthy of regular viewing canceled, but I won't be dissuaded from my mission of watching and reviewing at least one episode of every new show that hits the air. At least not until I have to sit through another sitcom as atrocious as Mike & Molly.

Nothing that bad this time though. Nothing all that great either, but hey, that's television, baby. Today we put the spotlight on Fox's Bob's Burgers, NBC's The Cape, Showtime's Episodes, Showtime's Shameless, and ABC's Off the Map:


The premise in ten words or less? Animated sitcom about a family-run burger joint.

Any good? I'll say upfront that I'm not much for the animated sitcom subgenre. On rare occasion, maybe once every couple months, I'll load up a random recent episode of The Simpsons or Family Guy on Hulu to kill half an hour, but by and large I find that The Simpsons and all of Seth MacFarlane's shows have grown tired (except The Cleveland Show, which didn't "grow tired" so much as was stillborn), and I don't watch South Park because I'm not a 20-year-old state college libertarian.

So no surprise that I wasn't a big fan Bob's Burgers. There were a handful of chuckles at the dark humor and I do kind of admire the way the show rejects the pop culture-infused surreality of most animated sitcoms in favor of a story taking place in something vaguely resembling the real world — no aliens, talking dogs, or talking babies to be found — but the overall tone and pacing was sleepy and slack and I really don't like the visual design of the show's human characters. In fact I'd go so far as to call them ugly as shit and a tremendous eyesore, more reminiscent of an internet flash cartoon made by one guy in his spare time than a professional production, although the settings surrounding the characters look just fine. I also kind of hate how the wife and older daughter are both voiced by men, something which must have seemed funny on paper and maybe even in the recording booth and editing lab but in practice is just stupid in the obnoxious way, not the funny way.

Will I watch again? A show like this doesn't demand you watch every episode, so me tuning into another isn't impossible. But if I feel that rare animated sitcom itch I'm a lot more likely to just watch The Simpsons or Family Guy. I'd put my odds of watching another Bob's Burgers anytime soon at about 5%.


The premise in ten words or less? Framed man becomes costumed vigilante in semi-fascist city.

Any good? Well, no. In fact, it's pretty bad. But it's an energetic, lively sort of bad that makes it almost watchable in spite of itself. It's the kind of gleefully moronic show where the main supervillain is named "Chess" and when he goes into villain mode the pupils of his eyes turn into chess pieces, and the hero's weapon is quite literally his cape, which he learns how to whip with extreme power. Compared to other recent superhero shows like Heroes and No Ordinary Family it's easily the one that most resembles an actual comic book in tone and structure despite its lack of true superpowers, giving us a very Batman-esque hero who's actually putting on a costume and going out at night to fight crime by the end of the first episode. The dialogue is truly laughable, but awesome actors James Frain and Keith David do their best to salvage some of it in supporting roles. Summer Glau is in there too, which I guess is a big deal in nerd culture, but she does little to impress. David Lyons is instantly forgettable in the title role.

However, it struck me while watching The Cape that if you took its best elements — namely an antagonist who actually provides a legitimate threat and a city that actually feels like it's hurting and oppressed and in need of a hero — and applied them to No Ordinary Family, you would arguably have one complete, good superhero show, rather than one mediocre one and one comically shitty one.

Will I watch again? Geez, probably not. But I'd rather watch it than Generic Police Procedural #487, anyway.


The premise in ten words or less? British TV writer couple remakes their hit sitcom in America.

Any good? Not amazing, but easily the best of the shows I'm discussing today. Interesting thing is that it really is a British sitcom at heart, something I say not to sound snobby or to imply that I think British comedy is superior to American comedy (on the contrary, no contemporary British sitcom comes within a mile of Community), but just as an objective evaluation of its mostly dry and sardonic tone and the fact that, despite Matt LeBlanc being put front and center in most of the advertising, the British couple trying in vain to remake their hit sitcom in Hollywood without sacrificing its integrity are pretty clearly the protagonists and LeBlanc the supporting character. In fact, LeBlanc has all of one minute of screentime in the pilot, which was a bit of a shame. It's not cool to admit in elite TV circles, but I loved Friends back in its day, and there's no question that LeBlanc (along with Matthew Perry) was shouldering way more than a sixth of the comedic load for most of the series.

As Hollywood satire, I'm not sure Episodes is saying anything that films and TV shows haven't been regularly mocking themselves for for a couple decades now (especially the 2006 film The TV Set), presenting the network brass as foiling the creative people at every turn, but I did mostly like the way it was presented. The scene where the writers bring in the star of their original British show (played by no less than Richard Griffiths) to audition for the network suits and sit helplessly by as the audition slowly dies was superbly awkward and funny. Let's put it this way: Episodes ain't reinventing the Hollywood satire wheel, but it's about a million times less insufferable and smug than Entourage.

Will I watch again? I don't actually have Showtime and was only able to watch Episodes and Shameless because they put the pilots up for free online, so I won't be watching it as it airs on television. However, I'll Netflix it once it's released on DVD. I mean, Christ, the entire season is only gonna be seven episodes long. At half an hour apiece, that's a one-sitter even if I rewatch the pilot. Hopefully it won't take long too long after the season finale airs next month. You never know; sometimes these cable shows take horrifyingly close to a year to hit shelves.


The premise in ten words or less? Poor family, drunk dad, too many kids.

Any good? It's atmospheric, at least, presenting a world of semi-poverty in Chicago's West Side that feels lived in and authentic, and Emmy Rossum's leading (I think leading, more on that in a second) performance is very strong. But I don't find myself particularly gripped by the show's premise, which lacks any real drive outside of just asking us to watch these people live their lives. In the pilot, one of the teenaged sons accidentally outs himself to his brother when he gets caught blowing a male convenience store cashier, but it's okay because his brother accepts him, while Emmy Rossum hooks up with a car thief who buys her and her family a new washing machine. It's certainly preferable to any daytime soap but it wasn't exactly high drama that grabbed me by the balls either.

One kind of strange thing is that William H. Macy's family patriarch seems positioned as the protagonist — first name in the credits, gets an opening voiceover narration, focus of the first scene — then proceeds to disappear for almost the entire episode, making a couple tiny cameos as a sloshing drunk, while Emmy Rossum firmly takes the lead as the oldest daughter and her family's de facto mother, despite being second billed. I guess that's fine, since I certainly have no problem with Rossum, but it seems odd they would pay an actor as big as William H. Macy to be a series regular then deploy him for five minutes of screentime, much of it spent passed out.

I should also note that Shameless is a remake of a British show of the same name that began in 2004, and from what I've read the pilot in particular is a fairly exact scene-for-scene recreation, not unlike the pilot of the American version of The Office. Whether it will continue to stick closely to its forebear or blaze new trail like The Office did I have no idea, and seeing as finding out would necessitate watching not one but both versions I doubt I ever will.

Will I watch again? Keeping in mind that, again, I don't have Showtime, I could see myself throwing it on my Netflix queue and waiting for it to float to the top. But my Netflix queue is several hundred deep and contains films and shows that have literally been on it since 2007 and are still in the triple digits, so consider that a fairly loose and noncommittal endorsement.


The premise in ten words or less? American doctors working in South America, including Matt Saracen!

Any good? There is nothing in this world I care less about than episodic medical dramas. Like, you know that stupid fucking dream you had last night that you insist on telling me about, ignoring my reflexive yawning as you begin, "I had the weirdest dream last night"? I'm actually more interested in that dream than I am in medical dramas, which even includes the critic-approved House, a show featuring a fine leading performance which has been telling the exact same story every week for six years now. All this being a longwinded way of saying that I hated Off the Map; it bored me to tears. It's just ER or Grey's Anatomy set in a jungle, and I didn't / don't watch those shows for the very specific reason that I didn't / don't want to.

Which is actually saddening, because the show is co-starring Zach Gilford, who, via his role as Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights, is one of my favorite TV actors of all time. Shame to see him rocket from gold to shit with such velocity. It's also starring Meryl Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer, who, despite being American and having two American parents, has the most British-sounding name I've ever heard. Like, if someone said to me in a British accent, "Hello, I'm Mamie Gummer," I'd be like, "Nice to meet you, Mamie." If someone said the same thing to me in an American accent I'd be like "GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE"

Will I watch again? I would rather suffer grievous injury and receive surgery at a poorly-stocked South American hospital.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Made in Dagenham

I'm first to admit that I didn't know a damn thing about the events leading up to the United Kingdom's Equal Pay Act of 1970 until I saw Made in Dagenham last night, and other than that a major strike preceded it and that it was largely spearheaded by then-Secretary of State Barbara Castle being true I have no idea to what degree the film fictionalized, embellished, or streamlined said events. But with that disclaimer out of the way, I thought it was a pretty good movie! A blunt one absent a shred of subtlety, making sure every idea it wants out there is hammered in via huge, inspirational speeches or fiery, overwritten, impromptu monologues, but a fine glimpse into an era of rapid social progress nonetheless.

The film doesn't waste time; as it opens in 1968 there's already massive unrest amongst the female workers at the Ford Dagenham car assembly plant, who are being paid considerably less than men doing equally skilled labor. Soon enough this unrest morphs into a strike led by ordinary sewing machinist Rita O'Grady (a fictional character played by Sally Hawkins compositing various real female labor leaders into one), a strike which soon cripples the plant, leaving the men without work as well, and catches the attention of Ford, the unions, the Prime Minister, and Secretary of State Barbara Castle (a highly non-fictitious British politician played by Miranda Richardon).

Though the path the film takes towards the Equal Pay Act is a wildly predictable one — something I'd say The Social Network proved a movie doesn't have to be just because you know the ending — it still works on account of its performances, its energetic, frequently humorous tone, and especially how big the movie feels in spite of its small budget and small stature. It's a film about sweeping social change and it really does feel sweeping as we watch the plant shudder to a halt, the workers file out en masse, the national news turn their focus on the strike, Ford threaten to pull its business from England, and Rita speaking in front of larger and more powerful crowds as her cause makes its way towards a meeting with the Secretary of State. The narrative powers forwards and upwards at a brisk clip that keeps the "tainment" in "edutainment."

There's a litany of supporting players, including Rita's husband, several other female workers who receive one character trait apiece, a sympathetic union head played by Bob Hoskins, and a number of sexist businessmen who care about only the bottom line and do little but twirl their mustaches, but no one outside of Sally Hawkins's Rita and Miranda Richardson's Barbara Castle stands out in the least. I understand why the film needed a lot of warm bodies — depiction of a massive social movement can't feel massive without a lot of people — but it made specific individuals difficult to invest in. But Sally Hawkins is a chameleon of an actress who slips just as seamlessly into her overworked and underpaid auto worker as she did into her elite boarding school teacher in Never Let Me Go, her accent, posture, and very essence taking on a more burdened, working class vibe, and she anchors the movie with panache.

Made in Dagenham has its share of flaws, almost all in the script department, but as a snapshot of a time and a place of social change it's a successful work that may move you and warm your heart and even win a laugh or three. I specifically refer to "social" change as opposed to "political" throughout this review, because I don't really think believing that women should be paid the same amount as men for the same amount of work is a "political" stance unless you're a lunatic. But I know there are a lot of lunatics just like that out there. I'd say they're the one group of people I wouldn't recommend this film to, but on the other hand, shouldn't they see it more than anyone?

3 Stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 17

3 Backyards

Chances of me seeing it: 3%. Showing over two whole minutes of fleeting images without presenting a single coherent theme, story, or idea really only works when the vast majority of images aren't of mundane suburbia. Maybe the actual film is better than the trailer makes it out to be, but god, what an astoundingly boring, formless trailer. You can tell within seconds that it wasn't edited by a professional.

Chances of me liking it: 0.3%. However, I should say that I've enjoyed Elias Koteas's recent big screen resurgence, having seen him in Shutter Island and Let Me In in the last year alone. But however many years go by, however old I get, even if he stars in a future iconic masterpiece (oh shit, I've just acknowledged that I don't believe every cinematic masterpiece was made between the 40s and the 70s and there may even be some yet to come; my critical credibility is shot), I'll always see him as Casey Jones from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "Two minutes for slashing... two minutes for hooking... and let's not forget my personal favorite: two minutes for high sticking!"

Beyond the jump: Keanu, Christopher Lee, and King Arthur!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Overrated, thy name is Tangled. I'll admit straight-up and first thing that I loved seeing Disney go back to wonderfully nostalgic traditional animation in 2009's The Princess and the Frog and was disappointed to see them retreat to standard-issue 3D the next movie out, so I probably walked into Tangled with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. If you think that makes my opinion and review biased bullshit, then that's totally cool. Be on your way; I take no offense.

But as it turns out, I was wrong — not about it being a rather lukewarm cinematic experience, but about the visuals, which were probably the best part of the film. I still would have preferred to see it traditionally animated, but outside of the human characters being a bit plasticky Tangled is enormously successful at establishing gorgeous fantasy settings. The stark, lonely look of Rapunzel's tower echoes Beauty and the Beast, the majestic royal kingdom across the lake evokes "once upon a time" with perfection, and there's one scene involving countless floating lanterns that probably trumps anything in Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon for sheer visual beauty. There's no denying this is one pretty film.

It's the meat and potatoes that wind up being a little moldy with Tangled, not the visual plate they're served on. For starters, whatever the trailers may suggest, Tangled is very much a Disney musical, packed with plenty of songs. Which is great! Except that each song, with the possible exception of the love song "I See the Light" which has the luck of being paired with the visuals of the aforementioned lantern scene, goes in one ear and immediately out the other, including Rapunzel's opening ditty that's really just Mandy Moore singing like Mandy Moore and a villain song that's a third-tier "Poor Unfortunate Souls."

In all fairness, I made the exact same gripe about fairly forgettable music when I reviewed The Princess and the Frog last year, but what that movie did have was a very flashy and entertaining villain in voodoo master Dr. Facilier, pretty much a black version of Jafar. Tangled on the other hand gives us Mother Gothel, who steals Rapunzel as a baby and locks her in a tower so she can live forever using Rapunzel's enchanted, life-giving hair (the magic hair being the main embellishment to the original fairy tale). Gothel has no henchmen, political status, grand schemes, or magical power outside of the hair, just selfish intentions, emotional manipulation, and a thirst for longevity. She's about as intimidating as Aladdin's Iago.

On the heels of Scar and Ursula and Maleficent this simply wasn't acceptable, and it made the conflict feel loose and minimally gripping the minute that Rapunzel and the dashing thief she was obviously going to fall in love with, Flynn Rider, escaped the tower together in the first act. Yeah, Gothel swings back around to make more trouble for 'em, but you never really feel like the pressure's on. And without giving away specifics, Tangled ends with one of the most absurd and unearned deus ex machina finales that I've seen on the big screen in years, a moment that spits in the face of the film's internal rulebook. Let's just say that it's reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast... but shittier and less explicable. I felt insulted, to be perfectly honest.

I didn't find Rapunzel and Flynn's love to be particularly believable as anything beyond lustful infatuation either, but that's really true of most Disney love stories outside of Beauty and the Beast and arguably Tarzan, the films that give you a sense of passage of time, so I won't hold it against the movie too much. I do love The Little Mermaid, but if you go back and rewatch it as an adult, which I did a year or two back, it's kind of hilarious how nonexistent and borderline-creepy Ariel and Eric's relationship actually is, and let's not even get started on "we meet, now we're immediately in love" in The Lion King.

So ultimately you have a film with lush fantasy visuals and a somewhat likable Disney princess trying to make up for instantly forgettable music, one of Disney's weakest villains ever, a lack of tension or stakes, a harmless but extremely generic love story, and a piss-poor climax. Long gone are the days of Aladdin and Jafar's apocalyptic final showdown. You should certainly watch it if you're a Disney princess junkie, for completion's sake if nothing else, but if you're looking for a fun animated fantasy adventure you'd be much, much better off watching DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon, a film that one-ups Tangled several times over in almost every one of the categories I've just mentioned.

2 Stars out of 5

Monday, January 10, 2011

Season of the Witch

Season of the Witch is an agreeably terrible medieval adventure yarn about six armed, grown men being terrorized by a young girl in a cage. It's full of war, pestilence, stabbings, man-eating wolves, demonry, diseased corpses, English accents that make Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves sound like Michael Caine by comparison, and no less than goddamn Christopher Lee. I can think of no better way to scratch that January bad movie itch.

Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman star as Behman and Felson, two Crusades knights who take the bold moral stance that the wanton slaughter of women and children is wrong and abandon their army. Upon stumbling back to plague-ridden England, their identities are discovered literally within minutes (not master deserters, these two) and they're offered a choice between death or escorting a caged wagon with an accused witch inside to the monastery where she is to be put on trial for starting the plague with her black magic. Accompanying them on the journey are a number of warm bodies to be killed, including a priest named Debelzaq, an untrustworthy guide named Hagamar, a young wannabe knight named Kay, and some guy named Eckhardt whose distant descendant will presumably go on to play Two-Face in The Dark Knight.

(Winner of the "Most Unwieldy Name in Season of the Witch" Award: Debelzaq! Congratulations, Debelzaq!)

To give credit where it's due, each of these characters except Eckhardt is distinctly-defined enough that you know where they stand with each other, the church in general, and Anna, the accused. Soon enough people start dying and it becomes clear that whether or not Anna is a witch, she's at least hiding something. Although the plot makes it sound like an adventure movie, it's too gray, dank, and dreary to earn a label that likens it to Indiana Jones and Willow; the tone and timbre is much more along the lines of horror. I won't give away where the story goes, exactly, but I will say that it all leads to a gloriously cheesy and supernatural finale that may not be quality cinema but is at least more immediate and personal the similarly CGI-laden climax of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

To call Nicolas Cage hilariously miscast hardly scratches the surface of how bizarre and awkward his performance is. There are certain actors — your Sean Beans, your David Thewlises, your Marton Csokases, etc. — who are versatile enough to step into and be instantly believable in medieval settings. Nicolas Cage is not one of those actors. Even putting aside the baffling quasi-English(?) accent that drifts in and out of his performance on a whim, everything about his look and presence is so unmistakably contemporary and American that not for one second he's onscreen do you actually believe you're in the 14th century. Basically, it's the perfect performance for this kind of B-movie garbage and I will fight any man who suggests otherwise.

Season of the Witch may be shit, but it's shit with a certain flavor and personality to it, like the stool of man who's eaten too much spicy food. It's the kind of almost defiantly trashy film where Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman banter about who's going to buy the drinks in the middle of battle, Behman's horror at the Crusades is hammered in through a series of blundering dream sequences and flashbacks, maggots crawl out of corpses, Felson decides to test young Kay's skill in a swordfight for no reason other than that the filmmakers figured they needed a swordfight, and Christopher Lee's face is twisted and bleeding like a final-stage leprosy victim for no reason other than that the filmmakers figured it would be cool. It dares critics to hate it (and, indeed), but as far as medieval pulp goes I thought it kind of hit the spot. Of course such a movie could never in a million years be described as "good," but I'll take it in a second against an overproduced cartoon like Alice in Wonderland.

2 Stars out of 5

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I decided to finally start a Twitter account. I admit I'm not a huge fan of the format — if you read this blog you're well aware I have trouble keeping my thoughts limited to 140 words, let alone 140 characters — but eh, why the hell not. With any luck I'll hate some really popular movie or TV show, post about it there, and get into a hilarious flame war. Check it out, if you wish:

(I wanted the username TimKraemer without an underscore, but it seems some ass not only beat me to it, but managed to get himself suspended. This man shames my name.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Nowhere Boy

I don't give a shit about The Beatles. Never have. I can name all four Beatles, of course, along with a handful of albums and songs through sheer pop cultural osmosis, but of the roughly two thousand songs in my iTunes library there are exactly zero by The Beatles (although there is one Paul McCartney song, "Live and Let Die") and when conversation turns to the brilliance or influence of The Beatles all I can really do is rock on my heels or quietly slink away, because the only thing exceeding my lack of ability to contribute is my lack of interest to do so. I say all this not to be King Contrarian but to make the point that when I declare the not-new-but-new-to-me John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy to be a really good movie it's not coming from any kind of Beatles or Lennon fanboyism whatsoever; it's just a damn good movie.

The narrative decision that sets it apart from musician biopics like Ray, Walk the Line, and The Runaways (along with my personal favorite, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) is how little it actually focuses on Lennon's music career. We do see Lennon start a band as a teenager (The Quarrymen, not The Beatles, which is what it's known as for most of the movie) and we meet a startlingly tiny Paul McCartney, followed by George Harrison, see a few musical numbers, and even get the musician biopic obligatory recording booth scene, but this is really just a major subplot that unfolds in the background and the film stops years short of The Beatles' peak.

What Nowhere Boy is really about is the odd three-way relationship between Lennon and his two moms: his somewhat strict and emotionally guarded Aunt Mimi who he lived with and who raised him, and his more freespirited biological mother Julia who reenters his life in the mid-50s after his uncle dies. Although Mimi loves him in her own way, Lennon finds himself drawn increasingly towards Julia, spending more and more time at her flat and awkwardly trying to integrate himself into her new family. The movie places John's relationships with Paul and George far down in prominence below Mimi and Julia, which was great for someone like me who knew of The Beatles but didn't know shit about the man's life story, because it was all new and fascinating information. At a certain point even John himself seems to recede a bit into the background as Mimi and Julia begin reconnecting as sisters and laying bare their decades-long gripes with each other.

And while I can't speak for how actual Lennon fans may feel about him being occasionally sidelined in his own movie, it was all well and good far as I was concerned. Aaron Johnson (formerly of Kick-Ass, now getting a chance to finally flex his real British accent) gives a casually cool performance as Lennon, but the movie is effortlessly stolen out from under him every time Anne-Marie Duff or Kristin Scott Thomas enter the scene as Julia or Mimi, respectively. Anne-Marie Duff in particular absolutely glows; she's so good that she almost deflects some of the creepiness from the inescapably present Oedipal vibe as she and John dance and cuddle and seemingly flirt with each other. A quick skim of her IMDb page reveals that I've never seen her in anything else, but she won me over completely within her first minute of screentime and I hope to see her on the big screen again in coming years.

If anything, Nowhere Boy's weakest moments are when it drifts away from Lennon's moms to focus more on the man himself, taking pains to make sure we know he was a rebel teenage badass who talked back to his teachers and fucked the pretty girls, easily the least interesting of the movie's insights. But these more generic musician biopic segments take backseat to the familial strife that keeps the film fresh and interesting until the end credits roll. I still don't give a shit about The Beatles' music, but I must say I'd have no problem if in five years they picked up with Aaron Johnson and the same filmmaking team for a sequel about The Beatles when they were more popular than Jesus.

3 Stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tim's Trailer Talk, Vol. 16

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules

Chances of me seeing it: 0%. I can honestly think of probably a half dozen movies ever made that I'm less likely to see before I die.

Chances of me liking it: 0%. The best part is that if you go to this film's IMDb message board there's a topic entitled "So Chloe Moretz is too good for this now?" gloomily suggesting that Chloƫ Moretz considers herself better than reprising her role from the original Diary of a Wimpy Kid after Kick-Ass, Let Me In, and being second lead in Martin Scorsese's upcoming Hugo Cabret. Gee, ya think?

Beyond the jump: Natalie Portman and Amber Heard duel it out for peak awfulness.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

10 Action Movies The Rock Should Have Starred In Since The Rundown

In my last post I bemoaned the fact that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, after being personally handed the keys to Arnold's throne, has starred in exactly two action movies since 2003's extremely promising The Rundown: 2005's shitty Doom and 2010's mediocre Faster. And while, to quote Jonah Hill in Superbad, I know I talk a lot of shit, I wanted to actually put my money where my mouth is this time and name ten action movies since 2003 that The Rock would have been perfect for. Most of these movies aren't particularly good — a few border on awful — and with one exception none are particularly serious in tone, but that's exactly along the lines of Arnold's 80s and 90s output: generic, comforting action crap interspersed with a few nuggets of gold. These are in no particular order other than grouping them by whether The Rock should have been the lead, a supporting character, or the villain.

— As Protagonist —


Replacing who? Martin Henderson as Cary Ford.

Reasoning being? While Torque is already one of the most delightfully absurd movies ever made, perfectly straddling the line between Fast and the Furious knockoff and Fast and the Furious parody, The Rock would have effortlessly one-upped Henderson's competent but fairly flat line readings and given it 10-15% more zest still.


Replacing who? John Cena as John Triton.

Reasoning being? Everything about The Marine screams 80s action, with its uber-masculine hero with an uber-masculine name chasing and killing bad guys who have kidnapped his wife, but Cena just doesn't have that immediate charisma that makes a watchable 80s action star. This is probably the single film on the list I'm most positive would be instantly and drastically improved for the swap. (Same goes for 2009's 12 Rounds, but I didn't want to blow two slots on John Cena flicks.)


Replacing who? Jamie Foxx as Special Agent Ronald Fleury.

Reasoning being? This may be the most controversial of the list, seeing as The Kingdom is an utterly straight-faced post-9/11 drama about war and terrorism in the Middle East, but I see no reason why the star of Booty Call anchoring such a film is all well and good while The Scorpion King suddenly puts a man out of the running. Not to mention that The Kingdom is from the very same director of The Rundown, Peter Berg, who definitely needed a second go-round with Dwayne Johnson. I believe he could have pulled it off engagingly.


Replacing who? Gerard Butler as Kable.

Reasoning being? Gamer is an action movie where this happens when the hero finally meets the villain face-to-face. Thus I think it needed a star with a little more spark and humor than Gerard Butler, an actor who has only really served 300 and maybe Law Abiding Citizen for the better.


Replacing who? Jason Statham as Jensen Ames.

Reasoning being? Now don't get the wrong impression — I loves me some Statham, which is why you won't be finding either Crank or any of the Transporters on this list. But everything about Death Race is just so goddamned raw and American that I'm not sure it was best served by the inherent classiness of Statham and his British accent. It needed someone less sleek and more hulking, someone less a viper and more a rottweiler.

— Supporting Cast —


Replacing who? Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare.

Reasoning being? Replace Robert De Niro? What fucking blasphemy is this, especially in the best movie on this list by a hundred miles? Well, I'm not here to deny that De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time, but he's also pretty humorless (watch his appearances on any talk show to confirm this) and was just a little shaky and awkward as the flamboyantly gay Captain Shakespeare. We know from the lousy Be Cool that The Rock has no qualms about going gay, so maybe he should have saved that secret comedic weapon for a movie that was actually, you know, funny.


Replacing who? Pretty much any of the men except for Jeremy Piven, Jason Bateman, Matthew Fox, or Ben Affleck, really. Just to be vindictive let's say Martin Henderson yet again.

Reasoning being? Smokin' Aces is a bizarre, nasty, funny piece of work that I don't even have that much to say about other than that I think The Rock could have fit perfectly into its huge, goofy ensemble.


Replacing who? Any of the male good guys other than Channing Tatum (somehow a plasticky action figure protagonist serves this franchise well) or Ray Park as Snake Eyes.

Reasoning being? I can't believe they didn't think of this one themselves. The Rock already looks like a goddamned G.I. Joe character, why on earth didn't they make him one? Amidst one of the most dull and lifeless casts to hit the big screen in years (outside of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's hilarious Cobra Commander), The Rock could have invited us to actually enjoy scenes with our supposed heroes.

— As Villain —


Replacing who? Any of the three main villains; Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, or Jean Reno.

Reasoning being? None of the three villains did a bad job by any means, but they were all just sort of there, delivering their lines and hitting their marks (and hamming it up a little in Fishburne's case). The Rock's imposing presence and physicality would have amped up the tension a few notches for our hero.


Replacing who? Byron Lawson as Eddie Kim.

Reasoning being? Because, with all due respect to who I'm sure is a perfectly nice guy, who the fuck outside of Mr. and Mrs. Lawson knows who Byron Lawson is? This legendarily absurd and goofy film needed a bad guy who could wink at the screen without openly breaking the fourth wall with the same expertise as its hero Samuel L. Jackson, and that man should have been Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Arnold Schwarzenegger's passing of the Californian governorship to Jerry Brown got me thinking about the last time he handed off his stewardship, and it has nothing to do with politics.

In 2003's The Rundown, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's first true outing as an action star beyond the dismal The Scorpion King, Johnson passes Arnold while entering a nightclub and Arnold tells him, "Have fun." The message was clear: The Rock was to be the new face of the pulp action genre Arnold had dominated for two decades. And unlike most of the blank, pretty faces Hollywood foists on us, he actually deserved it, too! With his imposing physicality backed up by legitimate screen presence, charisma to spare, no ego about self-depricatation, and sharper comic timing than most of Hollywood's actual "comedians" (see the cast of Grown Ups for further details), he immediately established himself as one of the best athletes-turned-actors of all time, The Rundown hinting at many great action flicks to come.

Unfortunately, The Rock's tenure as action king has been the biggest flop this side of the Wachowskis' as the new godfathers of sci-fi, marked by a litany of dumb kids movies, supporting roles in a couple comedies (Get Smart wasn't that bad, but it was Steve Carell's movie), a sports drama, and exactly one true action flick, 2005's Doom, which stunk like a sack of skunk scrotums. In seven years! I mean, within five years of Conan the Barbarian, Arnold had given us The Terminator, Commando, and Predator.

So when I saw the trailer for Faster my response could best be summarized as "fucking finally!" The Rock back where he belongs, wielding a gun and capping some motherfuckers. Which makes the movie's ultimate mediocrity all the harder to stomach. You know all the things I praised Johnson for — charisma, likability, comic timing? Faster doesn't utilize any of them. Johnson is forced to play the most incredibly grim, unsmiling, humorless protagonist of the year, a man who may be flesh and blood put nevertheless makes the Terminator look positively vibrant by comparison. I've seen dinner tables with more personality. Sure, he kicks some ass, but that's only half the equation, and the movie as a whole is a profoundly disappointing waste of his talents.

There is a threadbare plot here, a more or less standard-issue revenge yarn in the model perfected by Kill Bill some years back. Johnson plays an unnamed former getaway car driver who is released from prison, quickly handed a list of the people who betrayed him, murdered his brother, and left him for dead, and sets out to kill them one by one. Some are as bad as ever — especially one pedophile rapist whose death is easily the film's most satisfying — while others have reformed and made families and ordinary lives for themselves, bringing up some moral qualms in the driver about whether or not there's any nobility in revenge, but none of them put up particularly memorable fights and none of the confrontations are cinematically creative in the least.

A few other key characters, namely cops played by Billy Bob Thorton and Carla Gugino and a hitman played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, are all in pursuit of the driver. Which sounds well and good except, without giving away who, I will say that one of these characters has a lot of screentime sunk into them — I'd guess twenty minutes of the film's 98-minute runtime, going into their home life, psychological issues, relationships, wants, needs, and desires — and proceeds to contribute nothing to the film's outcome and resolution. I don't mean almost nothing, I mean absolutely fucking nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Could and probably should have been entirely deleted from the film without losing anything (I call this "pulling a most-of-the-cast-of-Lost," and not just because Shannon and Mr. Eko are in the movie).

So ultimately you have an oddly-structured and poorly-paced film that takes itself way too seriously, lacks any truly engaging action scenes, and gets overly sermonizing about the futility of revenge in its final act. Again, yes, Faster does have The Rock killing dudes to gory, R-rated results, so if that's all you want maybe the film will be up your alley. But it's all so grim and humorless that I can't imagine actually enjoying it. My recommendation? You want revenge, just watch Kill Bill again. You want The Rock, just watch The Rundown again.

Thankfully we won't have to wait half a decade to see The Rock kick ass again this time, with a supporting role in Fast Five due this April. Not that I'm counting on the fourth sequel to The Fast and the Furious to be particularly good, but at the very least I expect it won't be so fucking dour.

2 Stars out of 5

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

2005's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and 2008's Prince Caspian were flavorless but basically tolerable affairs, held back more by their bland casts (outside of Tilda Swinton's White Witch) and visuals, especially cartoony and weightless CGI talking animals, than any deficiencies in the larger plot. But with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Disney has seen fit to bless us with the first Narnia that doesn't just out-and-out suck but is one of the worst movies of the year and could eventually go down as one of the worst of this young decade. Until I saw this movie I was wondering how and if they were planning to adapt all seven of C.S. Lewis's books; now I'm just praying they take this lumbering corpse of a franchise out back and put two through its skull. Congratulations, Lewis, you got me praying after all. Mission accomplished.

Most everyone who's gone through puberty has been purged from the cast. Younger Pevensie siblings Lucy and Edmund are back along with Reepicheep the talking CGI swordsrat and King Caspian the poor man's Orlando Bloom, but Susan and Peter are off in America, reduced to a couple tiny cameos in flashbacks and dreams. Taking their place is Lucy and Edmund's pompous cousin Eustace Scrubb, who spends the entire first half of the movie in histrionics, talking down to people and hating Narnia and everyone in it. While it sounds and is obnoxious, I disagree with reviews that claim he ruined the movie. The movie ruined itself, and shrill asshole or not it was a relief to have at least one character with a personality, more than can be said for either of Eustace's cousins.

Frankly, I wouldn't have cared if they had just cut out the middle men and focused on Caspian and Reepicheep. I doubt there's a single person out there who can claim to be legitimately invested in the Pevensies as characters, because there's nothing there to invest in. In 2010's lamest cinematic subplot, Lucy spends most of the movie fantasizing about being as pretty as her sister Susan. I could sort of relate, because I spent most of the movie fantasizing that she and her brother would fall off the Dawn Treader and drown.

The story picks up three Narnian years after Prince Caspian with Caspian sailing the world on the titular Dawn Treader to find the seven swords of the seven missing lords that will ambiguously defeat some ambiguous evil for some reason upon being reunited. It's the series' most clear-cut adventure movie to date. I hate to use that positively-connotated word, adventure — this is an "adventure" much in the same way that CBS's $h*! My Dad Says is a "comedy" — but it's the best way to differentiate it from the more warfare-based narratives of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and especially Prince Caspain. No armies charging each other here, just lots of sailing and visiting islands with some goofy trap or creature on them. Naturally, we watch Eustace mellow out and become a better person during the journey, which means that when The Silver Chair descends upon us with the cold inevitability of death he'll be just as bland as his cousins.

There is absolutely no explanation why one real-world year amounted to 1,300 Narnian years between the first and second movies but only three Narnian years between the second and this one. If they wanted it to be three Narnian years later the Pevensie kids really should only have had time to take a shit and a shower and then head right back in after Prince Caspian.

It all comes down to a battle against a giant CGI sea monster entirely made up for the film because it's tough to adapt a book that's just a religious parable about going to heaven. It's all pretty boring and weightless but at least I can pretend that it makes up for never getting the battle against Pirates of the Caribbean's Kraken that we were promised in Dead Man's Chest. (It doesn't, but that's why I said "pretend.") Then Aslan shows up and drops some heavyhanded Jesusness on us by talking about how he has a different name in our world and we all must know him by it, which was lame until Aslan's voice actor Liam Neeson hilariously trolled Narnia fans in real life by saying that Aslan could have been talking about Mohammed.

The worst part of the movie is a close call between Lucy dealing with a bunch of invisible one-footed garden dwarves in a scene that feels like it was deleted from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Edmund having visions of the White Witch again (Tilda Swinton is, along with Peter Dinklage in Prince Caspian, far and away the best actor to have graced this series with her live-action presence, but that doesn't mean we need to keep visiting the same well over and over), and Reepicheep telling us "we have nothing, if not belief." Yes, I get it, movie, Jesus rocks! Is that sledgehammer enough to drive the point in or should I run and fetch you a hydraulic press? Voyage of the Dawn Treader was directed by Michael Apted, the same man who in 1999 gave us The World Is Not Enough, so I guess I have to congratulate him on his proven ability to take franchises to their lowest points ever.

1 Star out of 5