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.

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.