Friday, November 27, 2015
This is a movie that was getting a high amount of positive buzz in the last two weeks. I had it on my radar since last summer when the trailer first came across my eyes and I was looking forward to it even before the publicity hounds started to work their magic. I am happy to report that this is not a case of professional hype managing to sucker in a few journalists and cinema fans, this is a very solid movie with two great performances. It does not do anything too different from it's predecessors, except that it is as serious and well played as the original film was.
Basically, this is the seventh film in the "Rocky" series, but it is the first to feature a fighter other than the "Italian Stallion" himself. It was a bit of a stretch nine years ago when Rocky came out of retirement and fought an opponent nearly half his age. There is no way that this film could have sold us on Rocky as the protagonist despite the fact that Sylvester Stallone is in fantastic physical shape and probably could outlast someone a third of his age. He probably spent any credibility in that regard two years ago when he cashed in on the Rocky legacy in "Grudge Match" with Robert DeNiro.
"Creed" takes a different and much smarter direction. Rocky becomes the reluctant trainer of a new fighter, the illegitimate son of his old foe and close friend Apollo Creed. Donnie (Adonis) Johnson is an orphan with an attitude when he is taken in by Apollo's widow eight years after his death. We sort of have to bend the rules of time and space to allow the events to play out as they do, because it is just twelve years later that he is trying to break into the boxing game himself. The set up of the story line ignores the real ages of the legacy characters, so that the young fighter is indeed barely an adult and still seething with anger and self doubt. Michael B. Jordan (who will probably use his middle initial for the rest of his career for obvious reasons) is a talented young actor,who is a veteran of several excellent television programs and had a breakout role in "Fruitvale Station" a couple of years ago. He manages to reach us through his hard headed demeanor and uncertain station in life. The physical gifts required to be a fighter are demonstrated pretty well, but there is an effective romantic angle in the film also. It is his scenes with Rocky though that make the performance resonate so well.
Jordan is matched in his performance by the man who created the character, the series and the trope of "Rocky", Sylvester Stallone. Sly has not always gotten the credit he deserves as an actor. The Rocky series was dominated after the first original story, with plot lines that demanded less and less of him. The same thing was true of his other franchise character, John Rambo. The films made a lot of money, but the artistry was sometimes lacking. I thought his performance in "Rocky Balboa" would be his swan song with the character and he was excellent in that film. His work in this film however far surpasses that. He is more subtle here than anything he has appeared in in ages. Rocky is a little bit subdued by age and cognizant that time is not on his side. He puts on the role of Mickey, the Burgess Meridith character from the first three films, but plays the character as Rocky, the good hearted and loyal former Champion. There is an admittedly soap opera storyline in the plot but it plays out so honestly and with real emotions that a guy like Rocky might have, it is easy to accept it.
The movie is a boxing film with the Rocky heritage behind it, so it needs to be rousing and inspiring as well as dramatically satisfying. The director Ryan Coogler manages to make the old bits of Rocky films feel fresh, even when they are directly aping them. This is his second feature film and he moves the story forward with assurance and creativity. The first major fight in the film is staged in a marvelous fashion, as if it were shot in a continuous take. The climactic fight, even though it follows very familiar paths from previous films, still manages to arouse our spirit and build tension. Donnie's story feels authentic because of the way he interacts with the world and the language and behavior of those characters he encounters. When he crosses over into the cinematic world of Rocky, the director manages to bring the credibility of the character to the formula of the fight film. This is one of the better films I've seen this year and I expect I will be seeing it again down the road in the annual "Best Picture Showcase." Yeah, it could do that.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
In case you had not noticed over the last few weeks, I am a James Bond fan. I may even be an apologist, since I managed to find things to like in all the Bond films, even the ones at the bottom of my list. From a critical point of view, it's best not to let your passions interfere with your judgement, but as someone who has listened to a lot of argument, I can tell you that passion often trumps good judgement. A thoughtful idea is often no match for an instance of visual gratification or nostalgic touch on ones memory. I can't really pretend not to have a prejudice in regard to these films and everyone reading this should be forewarned, this is an opinion influenced by fifty years of conditioning.
[Spoiler Alert] A plot point is discussed in the next paragraph that might reveal more information than you want on characters in the film.
"SPECTRE" is a solid action film, with the requisite 007 tropes, and several terrific sequences. It was very satisfying in my opinion, but it does not rise to the levels of greatness it's predecessor achieved. That it suffers in part from that comparison is largely the fault of the screenwriters who found it necessary to inject every Daniel Craig Bond film with a continuing story line concept. "Skyfall" is the Craig version of our hero with the least degree of attachment to the previous films, and one of the reasons it works is the stand alone nature of the script. "SPECTRE" reaches into the grave to pull a thread that suddenly becomes the link between all of these stories. There is an intriguing idea in having the greatest threat to humanity and humanities greatest protector be connected in a very essential way, but it strains the story to make it work in the quick way it has to develop. "The Ten Commandments", "East of Eden" and "Thor" all explore the same territory but manage to do it with more aplomb than can be mustered here. There is not enough time to go into Bond's history again, and then make him the "Good Twin".
That having been said, let's talk about the stuff that makes the movie worth your time and money. The Bond girl in this film is a bright psychologist who is half Bond's age. She is also fairly self sufficient when it comes to some of the action bits. Léa Seydoux is a blonde innocent trapped in a world of venomous manipulators. The fact that she becomes part of the story is a result of one of those threads I mentioned before, being tugged at in a pretty effective scene. A recurring character is a victim of Polonium type poisoning, and his only desire is to protect his daughter. James is traditionally a misogynist in the chauvinistic style of the past. He dismisses women and he treasures them simultaneously. The writers give Madeleine Swann enough to do to make her not be an impediment that Bond must drag around for the last third of the film. They do however fall back on the oldest of story telling shortcuts in modern suspense films and it is a bit tired. Daniel Craig's James Bond has been on a train before, but usually on the outside getting a beating as the scenery passes. In this film, his character finally gets to appreciate the romantic elements of train travel that made previous versions of Bond so happy. Of course he does get the beating as well.
Three characters get used more in this film than they have in previous films. "M" is a player in the story and not just a spear holder as as so often been the case. This is a continuation from the previous film that is welcomed. The political angle of the story is an opportunity for "M" to do something not just say things that advance the plot. Ralph Fiennes might have played Bond twenty years ago, now he is well cast as the civilized version of espionage, that the world will see. "Q" is the resident geek who gets a chance to make choices that will give Bond the ability to act more freely than he might have, and "Q" gets to work in the field a bit more as a consequence. Moneypenny is the least used character, but she does ultimately get out from behind the desk or computer and helps out as well. These are all improvements that a Bond fan like me will be glad for. They were the kinds of things I anticipated at the end of the last outing.
Now when I saw a year ago that the title of the new film was going to be "SPECTRE" , it was inevitable that the head of that criminal organization would return in this re-booted universe. There was not really any doubt that Christoph Waltz was going to be that character. If there were a grand plan that the organization was responsible for and Bond was sent to stop it, I'd have been alright with that. As it is, we have a more insidious plot that draws on recent films to make us doubt our allies and ourselves. The paranoia factor is ratcheted up so high, it makes the quislings of Quantum seem like pikers. As it turns out, they and every other foe that our current version of Bond has faced end up being tied together in an unnecessary complication of previous plots. Yet somehow, with the stakes as high as they are, it feels like this is a showdown between figures that really have not had a relationship before. The story tries to build a background but it is under done and unsatisfying. There are still some sequences though that make the mano a mano approach work anyway. When Bond boldly enters into a meeting trying to pass himself off as a member of the organization, the shadowy image and disembodied voice work at building some suspense and tension. There is also a good scene back in London, late in the film , which contains the viciousness of the organization and it's leader quite well. The scene of torture in the desert is a bit anti-climactic but it turns out to be the penultimate confrontation rather than the final one, thank goodness.
Waltz does not get as much screen time or character development as a villain probably needs. Le Chiffre and Silva in the two highwater marks of this iteration of Bond were the models of that kind of storytelling. Here it all relies on moods and asserted links to previous actions to make Waltz the bad guy. When he finally acquires a signature feature of the character, I thought the real plot was kicking in, unfortunately, this takes place in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. So the challenge that Bond usually faces is the formidable substitute, Mr. Hinx. David Bautista is a modern version of "Oddjob" or "Jaws". He is relentless, tough and resilient. He also has enough charisma to pull off the silent role and get away with having a single verbal line in the film. Although Bond ultimately prevails over his enemies, they may not be down for the count permanently. I'd be fine with that as long as the story were more direct and the pacing a bit stronger.
All of this criticism might make you think I did not like the film, as I've already said, far from it, I enjoyed the heck out of it.
This is the unique ticket I bought from Regal Entertainment, it entitles me to admission to see "SPECTRE" every day that that it plays in a Regal theater. They only sold 1000 of them across the country, so it is a unusual souvenir and a threat to the financial foundations of that company, because I plan on using it a lot. The opening scene by itself might be worth a visit or two. There is a really solid car chase through Rome that provides some thrills and a couple of the humorous beats that a Bond film should have. The fight scene on the train is another few minutes that make a return visit worthwhile.
I don't care much for the Opening Song, it seems to lack a melody and there is never much drive to it. I have learned over the years though that some things can grow on you and I finally appreciate the Chris Cornell song from "Casino Royale" so maybe this will work it's way into a more favorable status down the road. The "Day of the Dead" setting in Mexico City was visually interesting and the lonely trek through the Austrian Alps to try and track down a lead was a solid moment of loneliness. There were some aspects of the secret desert lair that were also interesting, so I can say that the movie looks great. I just think it needs to be a bit tighter, and it would have benefited from starting a fresh adventure rather than dragging in parts of the past few films. Monica Bellucci was hailed as a breakthrough in casting a mature woman as a counterpart to Bond, but her part is brief . It did have an awkward sexual element to it but there was also the most sensual image of the film in one of her scenes so if you are a fan it might be worth it to you but it was frustrating that she was gone so soon.
I may come back and offer a different view of the film, maybe after the tenth trip I take on my dime and Regal's foolishness. For now let's just say 007 fans will be satisfied and the world is safe for a couple of more years.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
We made it to the end. I don't know how my fellow bloggers who post on a daily basis manage to find time to do so. It has been an exhausting four weeks. Everyday I have been scanning the films, compiling a list, capturing shots, finding images to share and it was always so much because I wanted to look at everything. It has all been worth it. This post is going up the morning of the day I will be seeing the new Bond film "SPECTRE". I hope it has helped wet your appitiete as much as it has mine.
"Skyfall" is just about perfect in my mind. I have seen haters out there who have had the audacity to say it is a bad film, they have no idea what they are talking about. This movie is packed with things that action film lovers will want to treasure, that Bond fanatics like me will geek out over, and it has qualities that film professionals have honored in numerous ways. Here are the Double O Seven ways it did it for me.
001 Adele gives Shirley Bassey a run for her money.
The title song is lush, mysterious and romantic. It kicks in with a chorus that is dramatic and brings the intensity level up very effectively. That it is played over some spectacular title images adds to it's luster.
002 Judy Dench Classes up the film like you can't believe
This was the biggest role for Dench in the series, she plays it tough and has just the right amount of vulnerability in the key scenes. She gets to participate in the climactic battle at Bond's ancestral home and she is completely believable. In the opening, she is unsentimental in risking Bond's life in pursuit of the Macguffin.
She has to defend herself at a public hearing where she will be humiliated for political reasons, still she does not give an inch.
As she and Bond flee London to draw their nemesis into a fight away from others, she is not alone, but still feels the weight of the world and the isolation with 007 at her side.
003 Let's Hear it for the Movie Magician Roger Deakins
Shadows that tell the story as well as the pictures and words do.
Backlighting for effect and hiding the face of the character in the bright red light from a fire, awesome stuff.
Composition is another of the arrows in his quiver.
I know "The Life of Pi" was beautiful, but Roger Deakins was robbed at the Academy Awards this year.
004 Once again, the villain makes the movie.
Javier Bardem as the betrayed and bitter ex-agent Silva, is all quirky body movement and lilting articulation when he speaks.
The story he tells of his Grandmothers Island and the rats is creepy, but watch the way he tries to get to James by delicately manhandling him.
Of course Jame's response was classic bravado with a twist of humor.
Even when he is captured, Hannibal Lecter-like, we know that he is a snake that is too dangerous to let live. A terrific character matched by a terrific performance.
005 Fan Service from Aston Martin
I'm only slightly kidding when I say I may have peed myself when the lights go on in the garage. "Goldfinger" is my favorite Bond film, but this one proves there is always a chance it could be replaced. At least as long as a car with Machine Guns and an Ejector seat in in the mix.
006 The New M
Ralph Fiennes is well cast as a younger but mature new head of the Secret Service. He also know how to handle himself as he shows in the attack on the public hearings.
He starts off in the film as an uptight prig but turns into the wise and knowing heir to the Evil Queen of Numbers.
007 The Perfect Summary of 007
He kicks ass, chases the bad guys around town on every kind of vehicle you can imagine, shoots a bucket load of bullets, and still cares about how his clothes drape properly.
If you don't jones on this shot, why are you reading any of this?
James Bond Will Return in "SPECTRE"
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
A slight misfire from the EON team after the success of "Casino Royale". Maybe it suffers from comparison to it's companion piece, or maybe it is the dour villain and odd subject. I got the feeling there was a political statement here somewhere, but it was not clear what they wanted to say, and people don't go to a Bond movie for the message. It does have a revenge theme to it that I like, and there are a few sequences that work pretty well, but my guess is that they had the wrong director and an incomplete script. Camera movement can't solve weak story telling. Here are seven things I liked about the film despite it's weaknesses.
001 Hotel Hell
The lavish hotel that the evil general and the main villain Dominic Greene occupy at the end of the film,the Paranal Observatory's ESO Hotel, gets burned up in a fire in the middle of the desert, when the macguffin of the story is water. Go figure. It looks pretty spectacular though.
002 Agent Fields leaves the story.
The beautiful British spy contact that Bond woos while in pursuit of the villain in the story, ends up dead, covered in black oil. An image that recalls the horrific end of an earlier innocent in "Goldfinger".
003 The last gunshot of the foot chase originating from an interrogation of Mr. White.
This was a daring shot while hanging upside down after a vigorous chase and fight. Bond dropping near to the ground and then struggling to grab a gun just at his fingertips works visually because of the camera work.
004 Euro Weenie Roast in the Desert.
Bond demonstrates that he lacks the Quantum of Solace that would allow any humanity to survive. After he interrogate Dominic Greene, he abandons him in the middle of the desert, with no water to drink (irony) and only a can of oil to quench his thirst (spite for the death of Agent Fields). It is one of the brutal acts of 007 that makes him an intriguing and not always pleasant companion at the movies.
005 A Different End to a Knife Fight
Bond gets jumped in a hotel room and has a brutal but very quick fight to the death with his attacker.
006 Rene Mathis
Giancarlo Giannini returns as the French spy master Rene Mathis. After being suspected in "Casino Royale" of selling Bond out, Mathis was roughly taken into custody and questioned. His dignity and affection for Bond evaporate. Bond needs his assistence and brings him back into the fold for this story.
Mathis is the only companion to ever see Bond drunk, and he listens to the bitter tale of woe and advises James as a friend in spite of his temporary animus. This scene takes place in a Virgin Atlantic Skybar.
007 The Opera
The best scene in the film involves Bond flushing out the members of the secret group "Quantum" while they take a meeting during a performance of Tosca.
Bond encounters the head rat on his way out and Greene sends his killers after Bond.
James Bond will Return in "Skyfall"
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
I can safely say there is nothing about this film I don't like. If I could break my own rules, there would easily be a dozen moments to highlight, although it might be simpler to just list all two hours and twenty four minutes of the film. The villain is perfect, the girl is perfect, the resolution is devastatingly perfect, and the final line is the most perfect of all. It is not just an over reaction to the sad state the series was in from the last film, it was the complete overhaul of the concept and the integration with the established that makes this movie work. This was Ian Fleming's first Bond novel and it took forty years after he died to bring it to life, I'm so glad they waited to get it right.
001 A Real Bond Moment and a Touch of Humor
The re-boot of the series takes the stories in a decidedly more serious direction. It was easy to worry that the more somber 007 would ruin the joie de vivre of the movies. It turns out, there is still humor here, it is just a lot more subtle. A single self referencing smile blows the cool demeanor of the character for just a moment as he soaks in the situation he finds himself in while wearing a brand new tuxedo.
From the demented mind of his creator, James endures the torture scene that created the whole aura of sadism around the series. It is brutal and hard to watch, but it is also a test of wills between two very dangerous men.
003 Least Worst Alternative
After chasing the bomb maker across half of Northern Africa, and catching him with great difficulty, James is confronted by the entire security force of an African Embassy with guns pointed at him. He seems to give up on the captive, pushing him toward the head man on the staff, but quickly makes a choice that cause all kinds of trouble but one which was the least worst he could choose.
Yep, that's our man.
004 The Free Running Chase
The bomb maker sniffs out a trap and starts to run, Bond follows. A terrific action sequence that is capped off by the previous point but which deserves it's own slot on the list.
He is not as smooth at the running style as his prey, but 007 is determined not to let his man escape.
005 The Black and White Opening
The re-boot starts off like a spy film from the 1960s. Not the glamorous Bond films but the John Lecarre type. Dirty, tough and Black and White.
How did he die? Not well
The Second is easier.
And then a real switch, the gun barrel logo is integrated into the scene and a new era starts.
006 Vesper Lynd [Spoilers]
Eva Green is the most desirable Bond girl and she is a femme fatale. She is clever and emotional and just the kind of a bird with a wing down that Fleming imagined his hero would fall for.
The moment of betrayal hits him as hard as the rope lanyard that Le Chiffre used on his testicles.
007 The Final Line
They make you wait for it. Director Martin Campbell who revived Bond with "Goldeneye" a decade earlier, does it again with a brilliant shot, just the right amount of a pause, and then Daniel Craig's delivery of the introduction that fills all of our spy dreams.
"The names Bond..."
James Bond will Return in: "Quantum of Solace"