2012: The Year in Villainy, Part One

It’s hard to be a villain. A villain has to accomplish a lot of things: he has to be a plausible threat for a hero, he has to create a conflict for the hero to resolve, and he has to be evil enough that you root for the hero to beat him (though it is fun to root for the bad guys sometimes). Frequently, villains are underdeveloped, which can make a story seem unsatisfying if the hero does not have to overcome a plausible threat. There is a lot riding on a villain. Here, then, are my picks for the best television and video game villains of 2012 (movie villains coming soon).

Vaas and Hoyt in Far Cry 3

In the game Far Cry 3, you play as Jason Brody, a regular Joe on a tropical vacation with his pals, when, wouldn’t you know it, you end up captured by a terrifying pirate named Vaas. Vaas kind of reminded me of the Joker in The Dark Knight, he’s terrifying but you kind of miss him when he’s not around. Vaas captures your friends and intends to sell them into slavery, so you spend the first half of the game rescuing them. I was kind of sad in a twisted sort of way when you kill Vaas halfway through the game, the story doesn’t have as much energy without him. But in the second half of the game, you go after Hoyt, Vaas’ boss, a psychotic drug runner and human trafficker, who forces civilians to run through minefields and later cuts off one of Jason Brody’s fingers. The storyline in Far Cry 3 was a little wonky overall, but Vaas and Hoyt were two of the more memorably nasty video game villains of 2012.

The Didact in Halo 4

The Didact is a classic example of how the threat of the villain needs to match the strength of the hero. The Master Chief is a genetically-enhanced supersoldier in a totally sweet suit of armor who has slaughtered aliens across the galaxy, so it takes a sizable bad guy to pose a threat to him. The Didact fits this description. He’s some sort of evil alien who’s been imprisoned for a really long time, and when those silly humans manage to awaken him, wouldn’t you know he’s got all kinds of evil plans. The story of Halo 4 was a bit muddled in my opinion, I had a hard time figuring it out, but I knew I had to stop the Didact from digitizing the entire human race (which would be bad). When your evil plans involve the destruction (or something) of nothing less than the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE, you know you’ve got a very evil villain on your hands.

Raul Menendez in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

Menendez is the most well-developed video game villain of the year. He’s extremely evil, but he manages to come off as a human being instead of a cardboard cutout. He does some horrible things, but knowing about his backstory makes you sympathize with him to some degree, which is impressive. There are even a few parts of the story where you play as him, which is a first for the Call of Duty series. He’s much more interesting than the villains from the first Black Ops game, Dragovich and Kravchenko, who were certainly evil but not much more than stereotypical Russian Cold War bad guys in the vein of early James Bond flicks. At the end of Black Ops 2 you can choose to either kill or capture Menendez, and it is a legitimately tough choice to make, which really speaks to how well his character is developed.

Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2

The wonderfully-named Handsome Jack is one of those sarcastic, snide, taunting bad guys that really makes you hate him. He calls you periodically throughout the game to taunt you, and his taunts are well-written and well-delivered. Whoever voiced him really did a great job. The first Borderlands game lacked a central villain which made it feel unfocused sometimes, but the addition of Handsome Jack to Borderlands 2 added a clear sense of meaning to your actions, and it upped the stakes considerably. He’s a bit cartoonish which is in keeping with the rest of the game, but his taunting gives the player a strong motivation to get rid of him.

Derek C. Simmons in Resident Evil 6

Wait, what? Simmons? If you’re like me, you think that Simmons is the absolute lamest name for a villain in the history of the universe (though there was villain named Irving in Resident Evil 5, which is also pretty lame). This freaking guy looks like Colonel Sanders and is about as threatening as a pile of used Kleenexes. Sure, he’s evil, unleashing zombie viruses and whatnot, but the plot of RE6 made no sense whatsoever, and Simmons never emerges as anything more than a moustache-twirling villain, who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. I’m half-surprised he never tied someone to railroad tracks and cackled with glee. So why am I including him? Well, he is memorable in the sense of being a complete joke, though not in the sense of being memorably evil. I mean seriously, Simmons? Worst. Villain name. Ever.

The Governor in The Walking Dead

Ah, the Governor. The most infamous villain from the comics, he finally made his debut in the third season of the hit TV series. He seems okay at first, offering a safe haven to some of our main characters. But he is soon revealed to be pure evil, keeping severed zombie heads in fish tanks and brutally interrogating two of the most likable protagonists. He took a shard of glass to the eye in the midseason finale a few weeks ago, and I am looking forward to finding out what kind of brutal vengeance he has in store in the second half of the season, which I think starts in February. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead also lacked a central villain (other than, you know, the zombies) and the addition of the Governor to the show has given it a boost it sorely needed after the slow-moving second season. Much of the credit goes to actor David Morrissey for giving him the right balance of likability on the surface and dangerous insanity within. The third season of the show has been, in my opinion, the best so far, and the Governor has a lot to do with that.

Glaber and Ashur in Spartacus: Vengeance

I love Spartacus. To the uninitiated it is little more than a delivery vehicle for copious amounts of gore and nudity, and while there are indeed plenty of both of those, there is also a surprisingly deep and resonant story, populated by a cast of memorable characters. That many of these memorable characters also happen to be evil as sin works out pretty well for my current purposes. Gaius Claudius Glaber is the main villain, at whom much of the titular vengeance is aimed. He is the man responsible for selling Spartacus and his wife into slavery, and Spartacus holds him responsible for the death of his beloved wife Sura. Glaber is another one of those sneering villains who is just utterly detestable. Ashur, the treacherous Syrian, who survived the massacre that ended the show’s first season, also returns to cause all kinds of trouble. I might write more about these two at some point in the future, since I love this show and have been wanting to write about it for a while, but for now let’s just say that the final season of Spartacus, subtitled War of the Damned, is one of my most-anticipated entertainments of 2013.

COMING SOON: My favorite movie villains of 2012, and a nice cheery New Year’s movie.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Advertisements

The Greatest (Christmas) Movie of All Time

There is a lot of talk about what film is the greatest ever made. There’s some poll or something every year from a bunch of snooty film critics where they all vote on what the best film ever made is, I think it’s the American Film Institute. Usually it’s “Citizen Kane” or “Gone With the Wind” or some such (personally I hate “Gone With the Wind” but that is a discussion for another time), and most recently it was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

With all due to respect to these films (except “Gone With the Wind” which I hate), none of these is the greatest film of all time.

No. There is only one film worthy of being dubbed The Greatest Film of All Time.

That film was not made by Orson Welles.

Or Alfred Hitchcock.

That film, my friends, is DIE HARD.

That the Greatest Film of All Time also happens to be the Greatest Christmas Film of All Time is a coincidence, but a well-timed one since today is Christmas Eve.

I am serious when I say this, by the way. I have yet to see a movie that is a better combination of action, drama, heart, great acting, writing, and filmmaking. I heaped a lot of praise on Lethal Weapon last week, and I do dearly love that film, but there is no film I love more than Die Hard. If someone told me that I could only have one movie to watch for the rest of my life, that movie would be Die Hard, hands down. I would take my DVD of Die Hard with me if I had to go on the run from the zombie horde. If the world ended tomorrow (like it was supposed to last week) I would defend my DVD of Die Hard from the roving packs of Mad Max-style bandits.

But let’s start at the beginning. Die Hard opens with a plane landing at an airport. A man’s hand uncomfortably grips an armrest, and it’s clear he doesn’t like flying very much. “You don’t like flying much, do you?” the man seated next to him asks. “What would give you that idea?” the first man replies.

And right away we have learned some things. We have learned that A) the main character (John McClane, played of course by Bruce Willis) doesn’t like flying, which would imply that maybe he doesn’t do so well with heights, and B) he’s sarcastic. He’s a wise-ass. Both of these elements of his personality will appear again later. In only two lines of dialogue and about one minute into the film, we have already learned some things. And the great thing is, we don’t even necessarily realize it at the time. The significance of these little pieces of characterization doesn’t really sink in until later.

And to top it all off, it is a relatable situation. Lots of people out there don’t like flying, and even more don’t like heights (I would be one of those). I’ve gotten used to flying, but it always helps to not think about the fact that you’re in a metal tube several miles up in the air, far higher than even the tallest building in the world. It is an understandable and relatable fear.

This is also a conversation that real people could actually have. I’m all about dialogue that people would actually have, and these two lines are funny and realistic.

Die Hard is also very much a portrait of its time. When McClane stands up to get his luggage out of the overhead compartment, his fellow passenger sees that he has a gun in a shoulder holster. “It’s okay, I’m a cop,” McClane assures him. “Trust me, I’ve been doing this for eleven years.” He takes an oversized teddy bear out of the overhead compartment and eyes the attractive flight attendant as he makes his way off the plane. He then lights up a cigarette pretty much as soon as he enters the terminal.

We all know that these days, there is no way in hell you could just bring a loaded gun on a plane, and there is also no way in hell you could just light up a cigarette at the baggage claim without an airport attendant politely but firmly asking you to take it outside (I assume, at least, since I don’t smoke). But back in 1988, you could get away with a lot of stuff that are big no-nos nowadays.

So in about five minutes, we have learned that our main character is a cop, and has been for a while, he’s a smartass, he smokes, he doesn’t like flying, and the teddy bear implies that he has kids. If the bear is a present, we can also guess that it is either Christmas or his kids’ birthday. This is more characterization in one fraction of the movie’s 130-minute running time than other protagonists get in entire movies. By way of comparison, I wrote a while ago about the remake of “Total Recall,” and can you name one single aspect of Colin Farrell’s character’s personality? Me neither, because there really wasn’t any (personality, that is). Before the movie has even really started, before we even know the main character’s name, we see him as a human being. He has personality, he has vices, he has fears, and the look at the pretty flight attendant tells us that he’s human like the rest of us (especially if we noticed the wedding ring on his finger).

Whew. I promise I won’t go that in-depth into every scene in the movie, because if I did we would be here all day. I just really want to express how much this movie conveys in the opening scene, since it really encapsulates the style of the film.

Wow, nearly a thousand words and we’re not out of the opening credits. I’m going to have to rein myself in a bit. I do so love this film.

Okay. Turns out our friend John McClane is a New York cop, and he’s in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to visit his estranged wife at her office Christmas party. She’s a high-ranking executive at the Nakatomi Corporation, a decidedly white-collar sort of establishment. It’s clear that they’ve had a bit of a falling-out and haven’t seen each other for several months. She took the kids and moved to LA to pursue her career, while he stayed in New York because “I had a six-month backlog of New York scumbags, can’t just pack up and go that easy,” as he tells Argyle, his talkative limo driver. Argyle sees through this and calls him out, saying that he (McClane) didn’t think his wife’s job would pan out, so why bother to move across the country? McClane does not confirm this or deny it, he simply says, “Like I said, Argyle, you’re very fast.”

So he is having some marital issues, but there is clearly still affection between him and his wife Holly, shown when they meet up at her office Christmas party. The way she pauses and simply says “John,” conveys a lot about their relationship. They’ve missed each other but there are still clearly some issues between them. This is seen when he becomes angry with her for using her maiden name instead of her married name, and it’s apparent that there is still quite a ways to go for both of them.

He chastises himself for his outburst after Holly leaves the room, knowing that his short temper got the better of him again. He’s a wiseass to be sure, and sometimes that comes back around to bite him. The viewer gets the impression that this sort of thing has happened before. All of this continues to be relatable, and grounded in reality. There are lots of people with marital issues. It happens. John McClane is a character firmly grounded in reality. Some of the Die Hard sequels drifted away from this a bit as the plots grew more outlandish, but the original never forgets its protagonist’s humanity.

And all of this is before the bad guys even show up. And what a bad guy it is. Hans Gruber, as played wonderfully by the great British actor Alan Rickman (best known to American audiences as Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies), is everything John McClane is not: he is cool, calm, and collected where McClane is headstrong and quick to anger. Thinking about Hans Gruber, I am reminded of that one line from “My Fair Lady” where someone is described as “oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor.” That perfectly sums up Hans Gruber. In contrast to some of the more skuzzy-looking members of his crew, Hans is immaculately dressed in suit and tie. He is clearly the brains of the operation: smart, confident, and always in control.

When Hans and his pals crash the party, everyone is taken captive except for good old John McClane, who eludes the bad guys and begins a game of cat and mouse, picking them off one by one, sort of like a reverse slasher movie. The rest of the film follows him as he first tries to get the cops involved, and then has to deal with the monumentally stupid Deputy Chief of Police and two brainless FBI agents. The movie doesn’t skimp on the action either. Director John McTiernan (who also directed “Predator,” one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films) fills it chock-full of shootouts, explosions, and good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat.

Through it all, the tension is palpable, the action intense, and the acting excellent. Willis and Rickman play off each other wonderfully, their characters’ disparate personalities making them perfect adversaries. Hans is cool and collected, John is brash and sarcastic, they are both able to get under each other’s skin. It is also noteworthy that they spend much of the film communicating via radio, and much of the tension builds between them before they have actually met, since they don’t physically meet until late in the film.

It is also surprisingly poignant. The scene where John tells Al the police Sergeant (and only intelligent law enforcement officer in the film) to find his wife and tell her John says he’s sorry always makes me a bit misty. At this point in the film, John has every reason to expect that he won’t make it out of the building alive, and he wants his wife to know that he realizes his mistake in not being more supportive of her. It’s a textbook example of not knowing what you’ve got until you’re afraid you might lose it.

A while ago I wrote about ONE MAN movies, where ONLY ONE MAN can save the day. John McClane is the ultimate ONE MAN. He has only himself to rely on for most of the film (excepting Al the police sergeant, of course) but he’s not Superman. He gets hurt, he bleeds, he is visibly afraid on more than one occasion. All of this adds to the viewer’s liking him, since he gets hurt but he keeps on going. His vulnerability adds to his appeal, making him easy to root for because he seems more like a real person and less like an unstoppable killing machine. He’s a badass, and as a cop it’s safe to say he probably has a few skills most folks on the street would not have, but none of this makes him any less relatable. He is also a textbook everyman, since he really could be just about anybody.

Feel free to disagree with me about this being the best movie ever made. It is my personal best movie ever made at least. I have yet to see a movie that tops this one. It is certainly one of the finest action movies ever made and, like Lethal Weapon, has been often imitated but never equaled. It’s got a relatively simple setup which works to its advantage, it has memorable characters, zippy dialogue, great acting, intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense, lots of heart, and to top it all off, a generous dose of Christmas cheer.

It is, simply put, cinematic Nirvana.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Christmas in L.A.

Chemistry between actors is a tricky thing to define. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it, but you also know it when you don’t see it. Sometimes actors click really well together and they seem like real people instead of actors playing characters. Other times they seem like two slabs of wood attempting to communicate. Good chemistry, like good dialogue, is something to be appreciated because it too seems like it’s all too rare these days.

God bless “Lethal Weapon,” then, for having both of these elements in such great abundance. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are the original buddy-cop duo, often imitated but never equaled. (The closest in my opinion would be Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s brilliant “Hot Fuzz,” which you really should see if you haven’t yet.) Gibson and Glover are two peas in a pod, yin and yang, and all of those other clichés. But clichés become clichés because they are based in truth, and Gibson and Glover work so well together that the buddy-cop movie has since become something of a cliché.

This is unfortunate, because it makes it easy to forget just how good of a movie 1987’s “Lethal Weapon” is. It is well-made, well-written, well-acted, surprisingly moving at times, and, above all, it is supremely entertaining. It is also, of course, a Christmas movie.

The first thing the viewer hears as the film opens is “Jingle Bell Rock,” which plays over the opening credits, as the camera pans along the skyline of Los Angeles. The camera eventually zooms in on one particular building, and a figure standing on the balcony maybe twenty stories up.

It is a girl, young, blond, and attractive. She seems a bit dazed, perhaps drugged. This is confirmed a few moments later when she sniffs a few lines of cocaine off a table. She then jumps off the balcony and falls to her death, crushing a car below. The credit “Directed by Richard Donner” appears over the image of her seminude corpse on top of the smashed car.

Heck of a way to start a movie.

The scene then shifts to the home of one Roger Murtaugh, who is sitting in his bathtub when his wife and three kids come barging in to wish him a happy birthday. He’s turning 50 today, and boy is he starting to feel old (Interestingly, Danny Glover was actually 40 when this movie was made).

The scene then shifts to a mobile home parked by the beach, wherein resides Martin Riggs, who, in stark contrast to the family life of Roger Murtaugh, wakes up naked and treats himself to a healthy, balanced breakfast of a beer and a cigarette, and tosses a treat to his dog.

Then, we’re back to Murtaugh, whose wife tells him if he knows a guy named Michael Hunsaker, who called recently. Roger says yes, they served in Vietnam together but he hasn’t heard from in over a decade. Why would he be calling now?

Then, we’re back to Riggs, who is now clothed (thank goodness) and loads up his gun before sticking it in his pants (who needs a holster?) and finishing off his beer. He looks at his TV, on which an obnoxious infomercial is playing, and in a sudden burst of anger he throws the bottle at the TV screen, shattering it and knocking over the picture of his wife he had placed on the top of it. He immediately appears regretful, rights the picture, and mumbles, “I’ll buy you a new one,” before he heads out the door.

All of this is paced perfectly. It moves along at exactly the right clip, and it provides great introductions to the core duo which are very effective because of how sharply different they are from each other. The viewer knows that these two very different individuals will meet eventually, although it’s not immediately clear how just yet.

When Roger gets to work at the police station, he finds out about the jumper from the previous night. Turns out her name was Amanda Hunsaker, and she was the daughter of Roger’s old ‘Nam buddy. From there the story plays out, involving a nasty ring of drug smugglers called Shadow Company who got started running heroin out of Vietnam. Now they are operating in Los Angeles, and they are not very happy that the cops are suddenly on to them.

I’m not going to detail the rest of the plot, because that would take too long and I really want to focus on the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh. Say what you will about Mel Gibson these days, Lord knows the man’s reputation is pretty much shot to hell, but he made some damn good movies in his heyday. Despite some of his deplorable behavior over the last couple of years, he really was a heck of a good actor.

Never, in my opinion, was his talent on better display than it is in Lethal Weapon. Martin Riggs seems like a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and in many ways he is, but it also becomes immediately obvious that he is, shall we say, a deeply troubled individual. In one heartwrenching scene, he considers suicide as he sits in his trailer, his wife’s picture on his lap and his gun in his hand, a Bugs Bunny Christmas special babbling away on TV.

He’s even bought a special bullet, a hollow-point, just to make sure it does the job properly (hollow-points expand as they pass through a body, so the exit wound is substantially larger than the entry wound). He loads the round into his gun, and presses it against his forehead…his fingers strain against the trigger…tears stream down his eyes…he puts the gun in his mouth instead…he closes his eyes…he almost pulls the trigger…then at the last second he wrenches the gun away with a sob. He slaps himself in the face with it and looks down at his wife’s picture. He picks it up and holds it to his face. “I miss you,” he mumbles, sobbing. “I miss you, Victoria Lynne.” He looks at the picture again, tears streaming down his face. “That’s silly, isn’t it?” he says. “Well, I’ll see you later,” he says, dropping the picture. “I’ll see you much later,” and he cries into his arm (here’s the scene on YouTube if you want to watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpOqkz86_lg).

It’s a hell of a scene. Gibson’s acting is superb, and the look of pain on his face as he looks at his wife’s picture is one of the most genuine expressions of emotion I’ve ever seen on film. It’s a powerful scene that moves me almost to tears. It’s not the kind of scene you’d expect to find in a summer blockbuster. It feels heartfelt and is genuinely moving. The scene is also incredibly suspenseful, and it is remarkably successful in getting you to believe that he might actually pull the trigger.

Riggs is suicidally depressed because his wife was recently killed in a car crash. He engages in reckless and dangerous behavior because without her, he feels rudderless. Much to its credit, the film does not judge him for this. It does not make Riggs’ pain feel sappy or sentimental, it feels very genuine. Everyone at the police department either thinks that Riggs is crazy, or that he’s faking being crazy in order to draw a pension. But they don’t know his pain like the viewer does, and like Roger Murtaugh will once they become partners and start investigating the Hunsaker case.

I love Riggs and Murtaugh. They are one of the greatest cinematic duos of all time. Both are so immensely likable that you spend the whole movie rooting for them wholeheartedly. But what is so extraordinary about them is that they feel like real people. Sure, they’re goofy and they banter and all that, but their relationship really rings true. These two go so well together that you start to wonder why you ever thought they wouldn’t. The film doesn’t pull any cheap tricks in order to make you like them, and it doesn’t force you to root for them. You like them and you root for them because they are genuinely likable people.

And oh, man, that dialogue. Lethal Weapon was written by a fellow named Shane Black, a wizard with zippy dialogue if ever there was one. Pretty much every line from the movie is extremely quotable (though admittedly there are some lines you wouldn’t necessarily want to repeat in polite company). So many times movies try to have characters engage in witty banter and they just fail miserably. Just fall flat, like Mark Sanchez after he bounced off his own defender’s butt.

In Lethal Weapon, it succeeds marvelously. The banter flows back and forth between Riggs and Murtaugh as if they were characters in a Shakespeare play. The movie is also funny as hell, evidenced in this scene where Riggs takes down a couple of drug-dealing scumbags dealing dope out of their Christmas tree lot:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=dUlfNMTc6Xc&feature=endscreen

That scene is also an example of the balancing act that Lethal Weapon pulls off so effortlessly: It’s funny, then tense, then funny again, then tense again, and then you learn something about one of the characters. It is the perfect mix of action, comedy, and drama. It is the buddy-cop movie Michael Bay wishes he could make. It is just awesome.

And to top it all off, it is downright full of Christmas cheer. How can you beat a movie that starts with “Jingle Bell Rock” and ends with none other than Elvis Presley crooning “I’ll Be Home for Christmas?” It would be pretty tough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Christmas with Batman and Sherlock Holmes

Good dialogue is hard to come by these days. Too often it feels as if people in movies don’t talk realistically, or are just saying whatever explanatory dialogue is necessary for the viewer to understand something. This is partly due to the limitations of film as a medium, since there’s no way to look directly into the mind of a character and see what he or she is thinking, short of using a narrator, which many films do not have. Literature does not have this problem, since it is able to enter the minds of characters more easily. (Depending on what kind of narrator you use, anyway, but that’s a literary discussion for another time.)

But what does all of this have to do with Christmas? Nothing, particularly, I just wanted to convey how much I appreciate well-written and well-delivered dialogue. I was thinking about this last night when I watched “Christmas With the Joker,” the Christmas episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which I watched religiously when I was but a lad and still enjoy to this day.

After the Joker makes a typically-ludicrous escape from Arkham Asylum, this time via rocket-powered Christmas tree, Batman is paranoid on Christmas Eve that Joker is going to try something. Robin, ever the optimist, tells him he’s being paranoid, reasoning that “Even scum spend the holidays with their families.” Batman is unconvinced however, so Robin makes a deal with him that if they go out on patrol and Gotham is quiet, then they’ll go home, have Christmas dinner, and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Batman considers this, then says, “You know, I’ve never seen that. I could never get past the title.”

I love this. It’s great. For one thing, it’s funny. It makes you laugh. For another, it’s well-delivered. Kevin Conroy, who voices Batman, and Loren Lester, who voices Robin, are both fantastic, and give their lines a lot of emotion. Third, it tells you about each character’s personality. Robin is cheerful and upbeat, Batman is dour and grumpy. And fourth, connecting to what I was talking about earlier, it feels natural. It’s a conversation that two actual human beings could really have (outside of the context of superheroes and escaped supervillains, anyway).

I love that little exchange so much that I just had to point it out. But moving on to the rest of the episode, Batman of course turns out to be right about the Joker, who has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, reporter Summer Gleeson, and crusty Detective Harvey Bullock and plans to kill them if Batman can’t figure out where he is by midnight. All of this is conveyed via Joker’s television broadcast, which takes the form of one of those cheesy Christmas specials hosted by some famous guy. I don’t really know how else to describe one of those cheesy specials, I think that kind of thing was maybe a little bit before my time. Regardless, Joker’s Christmas special is complete with cheesy one-liners, canned laughter, and Words From Our Sponsor. He even wears a green turtleneck and a red sweater instead of his usual purple suit, although the purple pants remain in place.

Christmas-related shenanigans ensue, including the Dynamic Duo fighting off some gigantic if apparently poorly-constructed mechanical nutcrackers, and Batman whacking a bunch of little Joker-airplanes with a baseball bat, leading to the somewhat obvious joke from Robin, “They don’t call you BATman for nothing!” ZING!

Come to think of it, I have no idea what remote-controlled Joker-airplanes have to do with Christmas, but music from the Nutcracker plays in the background during that scene so what the heck.

They eventually track down the Joker, where he has his three captives suspended precariously over, what else, a giant bubbling vat of acid (there were a lot of giant bubbling vats of acid on this show). He tosses Batman a present and tells him to open it. He cautiously does, despite Robin’s warnings, and…a pie comes out of the box and splats in his face, and Joker laughs hysterically.

Think about this for a second. Think about all of the things that Joker could have put in that box. A shotgun to blow Bats’ head off. A bomb to blow him up. Some kind of horrible Joker nerve gas or something. But no. It’s a pie. Splat. Maybe I’m overthinking this, I dunno. Batman and Joker really do have kind of a symbiotic relationship with each other, it almost seems like Joker doesn’t want to kill Batman (Christopher Nolan would explore this later in The Dark Knight, of course).

But despite what that may or may not say about the nature of the twisted relationship between these two great adversaries, the episode ends with the hostages rescued, Joker back in Arkham (you’d think they could keep him there for longer than five minutes at a time) maniacally singing Christmas carols, and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson back home at Wayne Manor, having just finished “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “And it is a wonderful life,” Dick says. “It… has its moments,” Bruce admits with a grin.

Next up is the 80’s British television adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” starring the inimitable Jeremy Brett as the famous detective. I enjoyed the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock movies well enough, but for my money Jeremy Brett is and forever shall be the greatest screen incarnation of Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. Every movement, every gesture, every line of dialogue is so perfectly contained and controlled. It had been a while since I had last watched one of Brett’s Holmes episodes, and he reminded me a lot of Alan Rickman in how he is able to convey so much with relatively little movement and a very clipped way of speaking.

The story concerns a famous jewel, the titular Blue Carbuncle, which has gone from owner to owner, with many people murdering whoever the current owner was in order to obtain it. It is currently owned by some rich, stuck-up baroness or countess or something, until it is stolen from her and finds its way into the gizzard of what was doubtless a very confused Christmas goose.

The story is composed of how the carbuncle came to be in the goose’s crop, which of course entails the identity of the person who put it there and how he came to subsequently lose the bird with such an important item lodged in its gullet.

The Blue Carbuncle is a fun story, I think it’s one of Conan Doyle’s less dark ones. There are no nasty murders or general creepiness, aside from the carbuncle’s previous owners all being murdered. It’s also a fun Christmas story, with lots of talk about the Christmas Goose and whatnot (“The Christmas Geese” would be a good name for a rock band). It’s so odd now to think about carrying a dead goose around by the neck with the body slung over your shoulder like Santa’s sack of presents.

Watched back to back, “Christmas With The Joker” and “The Blue Carbuncle” make for a fun Christmas double feature, and if you have them both handy I suggest you give it a try.

As a side note, on Christmas Eve I am going to post about the Greatest Christmas Movie Of All Time, which also happens to be the Greatest Movie Of All Time, period. So keep an eye out for that if you’re interested.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Retired Extremely Christmassy

Next up on “Colin’s List of sort-of Christmas Movies” is RED, the 2010 action flick starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. They all play retired CIA agents or some such who have put away their guns and settled down. Willis plays Frank Moses, who was something of a legend in his heyday as a CIA assassin.

He lives a quiet if routine existence in his sparsely decorated suburban home, with his only regular contact being his pension agent (representative? I don’t know the right word here) played very sweetly by Mary-Louise Parker. He tears up his pension checks when he gets them in the mail just so he can call and talk to her.

One day when he is taking out the trash one of his neighbors waves to him and says hi. In the process of waving back he looks around his neighborhood and realizes that every house on the block is festooned with Christmas decorations- lights, trees, snowmen, Santas, wreaths, reindeer, the works. Every house on the block, that is… except his. Realizing that this simply won’t do, he sets up some decorations of his own. No more than Frosty, a wreath, and some reindeer, but hey, it’s better than nothing.

But wouldn’t you know it, some bad dudes dressed in black show up that very night and shoot the living crap out of his house. Seriously, there’s a solid thirty-five seconds of nonstop machine-gun fire. It rivals the scene in Predator where Arnie and company shoot the living hell out of the jungle. Frosty and Rudolph get completely shredded. It’s pretty awesome. And of course, Bruce Willis being Bruce Willis, he kills the bad guys and sets off on his adventures that will take up the rest of the movie.

And that’s pretty much it for Christmas stuff in this movie, to be honest. It’s not as Christmassy as certain other Christmas movies Bruce Willis has been in (more on that later) but it’s a fun flick, and I remember it as being one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had recently of seeing a movie in a theater with other people. There was uproarious laughter in several scenes, and I got the impression that everyone was really enjoying themselves. It was a fun reminder that movies are meant to be shared, and it is a movie that I still enjoy.

As a side note, it occurred to me while I was writing this that it might seem callous of me to write a post talking about how awesome sustained machine-gun fire is in movies in the wake of the horrific school shooting in Connecticut last week. In no way do I mean any disrespect to anyone. I was planning on writing about Christmas in this movie anyway, the timing is unfortunate though. I’m not going to get into the subject of violence in movies vs. violence in real life, since that’s a discussion best had elsewhere. All I want is to assure people that I am not trying to make light of a horrific and tragic event. I have always been a firm believer in the ability of laughter and humor to help ease people’s burdens and make people feel better, which is all I’m trying to do here. I don’t know, maybe I made a mistake bringing this up at all, maybe no one except me even thought of this. Regardless, all I really want to do is make people smile, and maybe think a little sometimes, so if I have succeeded in that then I am happy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Merry Christmas…Jones?

Denise Richards is a terrible actress. I feel a bit guilty writing a post that references one of her “characters” because it might seem like I like her or something, when in fact I do not.

But now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on to the latest installment in my ongoing series of Off-the-Wall Christmas movies. Today it’s “The World is Not Enough,” Pierce Brosnan’s third James Bond outing which was released in 1999. It’s a movie that gets kind of a bad rap nowadays. Lots of people seem to look down on Pierce Brosnan’s Bond flicks, which is really a shame because I always thought he was great as 007. “Goldeneye” was the first Bond flick I ever saw, and as such it marked an important milestone in my deep and abiding love of cinema.

But on to the Christmassy stuff. Specifically, Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist in a Lara Croft outfit “played” by Denise Richards, widely regarded as one of the worst Bond girls of all time. I can’t say that I disagree with this sentiment. The esteemed Dr. Jones has no personality whatsoever, she exists simply to spout off random science-y sounding stuff and to look good while doing it, which, admittedly, she does.

Her name doesn’t even make sense. Why would anyone bother to name a character Christmas in the first place? Has any real human being in the history of the world ever before been named Christmas? There are only two reasons for this that I can think of: 1) because Bond girls of the past have had… shall we say, some interesting names, and 2) as a setup for a double entendre at the end of the film that completely flew over my head when I first saw this movie at the ripe old age of 11 but am now slightly embarrassed to admit that I actually understand.

So really, pretty much the only reason for naming a love interest “Christmas” is as a setup for a raunchy joke. And also so she can say the awful line, “Isn’t it about time you unwrapped your present?” before she and Bond kiss at the end of the movie.

This strikes me as just…odd. TWINE is in many ways a much more serious and emotionally hefty Bond film than its predecessors. There are no space lasers, no volcano lairs, and no flying cars. The villains are more grounded and the movie goes into some pretty dark territory. The character of Elektra King, played very well by the lovely Sophie Marceau, is one of the more complex and well-rounded characters to show up in a Bond film, even if she is completely unhinged.

There are flaws, sure. The main terrorist bad guy who feels no pain is a bit over-the-top, and there are some aspects of the plot that I still can’t seem to make any sense of. But overall it’s a complex, thoughtful film, which is why it is so strange that there would be a character like Christmas Jones who exists solely to look good, explain things to the audience, and be the setup for a raunchy joke.

It would have helped if she had been played by an actress with even a hint of charisma, but as played by Denise Richards she is as flat onscreen as she must have been in the script (well, metaphorically flat anyway). She’s the kind of character who drags down every scene she’s in, and when Bond saves her from drowning in the sinking submarine at the film’s climax, you kind of wish he had just left her so you wouldn’t have to continue to put up with how annoying and pointless she is.

But no, she gets to live, while lovely, complex, tragic Vesper in “Casino Royale” and sweet, innocent Agent Fields in “Quantum of Solace” die horrible deaths. I still think TWINE is a good movie, it’s just always frustrating when one really bad performance is so noticeably bad in an otherwise solid flick that the rest of the film suffers because of it. Ah, well. Life is fundamentally unfair, and it seems that applies to James Bond films as well.

But at least there’s still plenty of Christmas cheer in the movie, right?

Right?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Christmas Cheer in a Movie Full of Slimy Tentacle Monsters

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Prometheus is a Christmas movie! I didn’t either until I re-watched it last week. But sure enough, there is a Christmas tree in one scene so that is enough for it to qualify as an Off-the-Wall-Christmas-Movie under my extremely lax standards.

For those who haven’t seen it, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is about what happens when a group of well-meaning but painfully naïve and unobservant folks go looking for the origins of life on a distant alien planet. Bad things happen, but hey, Christmas!

The aforementioned Christmas tree shows up after the crew of the spaceship “Prometheus” has been awakened from cryosleep when they are finally nearing their destination. Their destination is the also-aforementioned distant alien planet (maybe it was a moon and not an actual planet, I forget), and they have been asleep in cryostasis for something like two and a half years because that is how long it took for them to get to the alien planet where the bad things will happen.

The ship’s captain Janek, played rather awesomely by Idris Elba, sets up a Christmas tree in what I guess was the ship’s rec room. When the character played by Charlize Theron asks him what the hell he is doing, he responds that the crew needs a holiday in order to orient themselves in time after having been asleep for so long. Makes sense to me. If I had been in cryostasis for that long I can imagine that it would be a bit difficult to anchor myself.

Of course, it’s not like I can really identify with that or anything since cryostasis or cryosleep or whatever you want to call it doesn’t currently exist the way it is portrayed in science fiction. As far as I know.

This silly little discussion reminds me of a similar scene in one of the Walking Dead comics. I’ve forgotten the exact details but there’s a scene in one of the comics where someone tells protagonist Rick that, if so-and-so’s calendar-keeping has been correct since the whole zombie apocalypse thing started, it will be Christmas soon. Rick tells her not to tell anybody, especially the kids in their group, since the last thing they need in the midst of a zombie apocalypse is for the kids to be expecting Santa to show up.

I always liked this scene. It just, I don’t know, made a certain kind of sense to me. I also liked it from a storytelling perspective, since it helps give the reader a sense of time and it orients the characters, and it helps to show how much time has passed since everything went to hell in a handbasket. So I guess Janek had the right idea.

There’s a scene later in Prometheus where Janek plays some snippet of a Christmas carol on an accordion. This man is full of so much Christmas cheer that I half-expected him to put on a Santa hat at the film’s climax. Interestingly, at the end of the film the last surviving character mentions that it is New Year’s Day, so I guess Janek’s Christmas tree made more sense than Charlize Theron’s character realized. But then, she doesn’t seem like the type of person who would really enjoy Christmas much anyway. Santa must not have brought her a pony when she was eight.

Prometheus is a deeply flawed film, I’m not going to go into more detail because this film has already been so thoroughly dissected on other parts of the interwebs that there’s not much I could add to the discussion that hasn’t been said already. But watch it and you’ll find a surprising amount of Christmas cheer (you know, maybe an iota or two) amongst the stupid character decisions, gaping plot holes, frustratingly unanswered questions, sumptuous visuals, and tentacle-monster maulings.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.