Thursday, December 31, 2015
As is customary, I will start off with a couple of reservations and caveats. To begin with, I saw fewer movies this year than I have in years. This is a function of my schedule, a new dog in the house, and a variety of other personal issues. I did make a conscious choice to postpone some of the fine pictures that will be in contention for the Academy Awards because I knew they would be coming back in the Best Picture Showcase that AMC Theaters hosts each year. I will get to see them then, and I will share my opinion before the Awards are handed out. It simply is not fair to rank movies that I did not yet see although I expect several of them would be on my list and displace films that did make it.
Second, I don't limit my personal list to just the "Best" pictures, I include films that I frankly enjoyed more than the others I saw. I like to use this opportunity to encourage people to try some things that they may have missed but that I thought were just fine. This does mean that genre pictures and action films are likely to be included, even though they are not artistic and are rather, just entertaining.
After you view the video clip, you can proceed to the next page where the films will be laid out in order and there will be a brief commentary and a link to the original review.
Thanks for taking the time, hope everyone will come back during the new year to get some more.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Watch the trailer, you will have a better time than if you watch the whole movie. This unnecessary remake makes two important changes from the original. First, the extreme sports pictured are not limited to following the perfect wave around the world. Second, they jettison any charisma that the stars had in the original production. Both are bad choices.
Let's start with the two stars of the film. Oh, I said stars didn't I, sorry, the two lead actors in this picture because at this point, they sure as hell ain't stars. Neither the good guy, nor the bad, can hold the screen. Fortunately for the director, who was also the cinematographer, there are a lot of scenic vistas and rivers and oceans to take the focus of the film goer. The guys have no ability to sell a line, and if you thought Keanu Reeves line readings were unintentionally hilarious in the original, be prepared to discover that he was at least trying to act.
The extreme sports are shot nicely, but you can see a lot of the same kind of footage on YouTube, done with a GoPro camera, and then you can skip the pseudo-intellectual philosophy of Bohdi and Utah. It's as if "Occupy Wall Street" was taken over by Morpheus from "the Matrix", and it is really not about economic inequality but saving the planet. I can't begin to describe some of the stupidity that is trying to pass itself off as profundity here. When the girl in the story, wearing the kind of garb you might expect to see at a commune, explains that the eco-warrior who created the extreme sports metaphysics that are being pursued by the gang, was killed trying to put himself between a whaling boat and it's prey, I almost burst my gut in laughter. It was funnier than anything said in the Tarantino film from yesterday. This dialogue is jaw-dropping bad.
The original film is notorious for being a "good" bad film. It is enjoyable hooey that is sparked up by Patrick Swayze and Keeanu Reeves and is propelled by action director Kathryn Bigelow. It was stupid, but fun stupid and it knew that it was just a piece of entertainment. This version seems to have higher aspirations and lower ability to reach them. I saw fewer movies this year than usual, but I was more selective and saw fewer turkeys. This one fills my quota of crap for the year. I did not expect much, and I got even less. The one pleasure that the film affords me is that it provides a target for me to mock for a few days.
Let me finish by giving you one quick example so you can mock the movie without seeing it. In the original, Johnny Utah catches Bohdi on the beach at the end and lets him paddle out to meet his fate. It was corny but almost plausible in a physical sense. Here, Utah descends from a helicopter, onto a small boat in the middle of the ocean, while a storm the likes of which would have done justice to George Clooney and Mark Walberg. There he has a seventy-five second conversation before zipping back up to the sky. That's right, the F.B.I agent basically uses a huge amount of resources, and risks the life of his pilot and others on the chopper, to deliver a cliche. DUMB!!!
There are fans of Quentin Tarantino who will love everything he does and have an issue with any criticism. There are critics as well, who find his approach to film making to be infantile and sensationalist without much discipline. Lovers and haters, welcome to the latest film from the man who re-invented independent cinema and has copied himself repeatedly ever since. "The Hateful Eight" is exactly titled. There are no characters that are redeeming in the main cast, and the secondary characters may have sufficient drawbacks for you to dislike them as well. This three hour plus version of the movie is as indulgent as anything in the "Kill Bill" films but without the same level of bravado as those movies. The camera does not make itself an extra character, the violence is standard for a film from Tarantino, and there are long passages of dialogue that lack the wink and smile that made earlier films such a treasure. There are still plenty of things that make it worth seeing, but it may be the first film of his since "Deathproof" that cinema fans may not see as essential.
Let's start with those things that are confusing, wasteful, annoying or just plain dumb about the film. We saw the road show version of the movie and I have great fondness for some of the trappings that go along with such a presentation. An overture and an intermission provide a special feeling to the experience you are undergoing. The Ennio Morricone music during the overture was great, but it took two hours to get to the intermission, and it the first real action beat of the movie. Everything else has been set up of character, story points and setting. It was the right moment to break for the intermission, but it was an odd tone that lead up to it. There is some pretty awful plot development that leads to the moment of action. It is implausible, distasteful and designed to inflame racial animus not only between characters in the movie but for those watching as well. The story is supposed to be provocative, but the language and tone are anachronistic, and the visualization that goes along with it was gratuitous. We are lead to believe that no one in this group will be deserving of any respect, and Samuel L. Jackson makes sure that whatever empathy we might have had for his plight as a black man in a white man's world is dissipated by his lack of any decency or humanity. I saw a couple of younger kids in the theater, and while the violence that comes later is disturbing, the cruelty exhibited in this flashback moment of incendiary personal history was hard to bear. Not so much for an indignity being imposed on a white man by a black man, but for the galling brutality that one human being might be willing to impose on another. It's bad enough to imagine Eli Wallach as Tuco, forcing Clint Eastwood's "Blondie" to cross a desert without water in a Spaghetti Western from fifty years ago, it's another thing to layer on excessive humiliation on top of the torture. Layer that with spiteful and vivid imagery and yes, as Jackson's character says, we start to get a picture in our head. Tarantino makes sure we see that picture, not that we simply imagine it.
The story spools out as if it is going to be a version of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" (and when you know the original title, you will see why Tarantino must have wanted to use t as the basis of a story). It plays out as the long form version of his favorite trope "the Mexican Standoff". From Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained, Tarantino has filled his stories with faceoffs of antagonists and built tension and suspense with them. The basement sequence in "Inglorious Basterds" is probably the pinnacle of his story telling skills using this tool. That scene played out over a twenty minute time span, not a hundred and eighty seven. He is going to this well too often and too long in this film. While there are some great moments in the process, it feels exaggerated and overdone. The eloquence with which Oswaldo Mobray explains civilized justice is worth listening too but it lacks the same flair that it might have had if the character were played by a Teutonic Christoph Waltz rather than an effete Tim Roth. Kurt Russel inexplicably disappears through the whole set up of the first gunplay in the film and Michael Madsen makes laconic look like an active status. The characters don't get to do anything for the first two hours, they just listen, and many of them, we never see any reaction from. When there finally is some confrontation between characters, it is resolved with some pretty disgusting screen moments. It will provoke a laugh and a gag reflex at the same time.
If there is one perfect vehicle for the dialogue that Tarantino writes, it is Samuel L. Jackson. He conveys the irony and viciousness of the words with great effect. He is given a good run for his money by Walton Goggins. His inflection is almost enough to raise the language to the heights we have come to expect from a QT film. The script though robs him of the poetry that his character in "Justified" might have used. Had the colloquial terminology of Charles Portis been more of a presence, this would have been eloquent and memorable. None of the lines are really quotable, and the impact they have is mostly dependent on the reading provided by the actors. The conversations just do not snap they way they did in any of the previous seven films from Tarantino. They are still better words than you will get in ninety percent of the scripts you will see on the screen, but it feels like a step down.
The last confusing or disappointing element I want to mention is the decision to shoot in 70 mm. I heard Goggins speak about the lenses and cameras used to make the film being the same ones used in widescreen epics like "Khartoum". This would lead you to believe the story will be a spectacular visual treat with David Lean like shots. Instead, it is a stage bound single set piece, which makes the Panavision 70 mm seem like a strange affectation rather than a bold attempt to capture the grandeur of a big scale story.
Ok, now for the stuff that works. Goggins, Russell, Jackson are the jewels in the crown. Jennifer Jason Leigh has to wait until the last hour to sparkle, but when her character gets the chance to become part of the story, it is finally clear why they need to have an actress of her type, tough and intelligent. The shoot outs and special effects eviscera are enough to satisfy even the most demanding gore hounds. There are also some nice twists that are revealed in the non-sequential formatting of the story, another Tarantino trademark, and they work great. The music is also worth wading through the movie to get to hear. There are very few snippets of the music cues that Tarantino is used to relying on, this is a much more traditional score and it is beautiful. There is a sense of closure that seems appropriate to the characters, but you will still want to take a long shower after spending so much time with these types. In the end, I liked it, but it may be one of the least successful of stories in his filmography. Like "Death Proof", you have to meander through a lot of narrative that goes nowhere to get to the stuff you have been waiting for. Take it or leave it, I doubt it will have the repeatability of any of the other seven films from Quentin Tarantino.
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Well here is a movie that I don't have to worry about spoilers for at all. "Trumbo" is a biopic that follows a well known chronology concerning events that occurred about sixty years ago. Film fans will be familiar with the lead character, they know the end of the story and the villains for the most part are identified early on. Hedda Hopper would be the main figure of evil in this piece but there is plenty of vitriol to be spread around, and most of Hollywood gets some on them. The script plays it as if Trumbo were a saint with magical powers and a short sighted ego that crushes his family as much as the events that take place do. As with all stories, the history is more convoluted than the film is and we will not in that direction here. Instead we will focus on the film and it's many fine qualities and few weaknesses.
The greatest asset the film has is it's star, Bryan Cranston. In the last few years he has moved from being the excellent but often overlooked comic performer in "Malcolm in the Middle" to a celebrated TV performer, who impressed for multiple seasons of "Breaking Bad" and enjoyed the endorsement of many in the industry for his fine work there. He has worked effectively in an ensemble including the award winning "Argo", but he has not yet shined as a movie star, that is no longer the truth, he fills the screen with talent in this movie. His line delivery is distinctive and works well with many of the grandiose passages of dialogue that have been written for him. Even when he is in simple conversation he sounds as if it could be a speech he is delivering to an audience. That fits the character quite well. His sly smile, furrowed brow and mannerisms with a cigarette holder all feel genuine for the outlandish egocentric that Dalton apparently was.
The supporting cast is also excellent, ranging from Elle Fanning as the apple that does not fall far from the tree to John Goodman as the crass studio head that exploits the blacklisted writers but also respects their work. The film is a who's who of Hollywood talent. Diane Lane is effective as Trumbo's wife Cleo and she gets a juicy scene with Cranston when they fight over his behavior. Helen Mirren is Great Britain's answer to Meryl Streep, always cast well and always excellent in her scenes. With the exception of Dean O' Gorman as Kirk Douglas, most of the actors portraying famous performers from the period have little resemblance to their real life counterparts. Some nice digital work inserts O'Gorman's face into a scene from "Spartacus" and that did enhance the believably of that sequence. While John Wayne would probably be considered on the wrong side of the issue, the screenplay makes him a fairly sympathetic adversary, at least one who has a true sense of morality concern the human beings involved. Trumbo is shown to have flaws (although they are largely skimmed over) when he uses Wayne's military status during the war as an attack point and then self righteously suggests that he be allowed to remove his glasses before being punched by a man whom he has just invited to do so. It was one of a few ugly moments that Trumbo as a character is allowed to have.
Not faring quite as well is Edward G. Robinson, a supporter of the Hollywood Ten until his career is mangled by the blacklist. Another opportunity to show Trumbo's vindictive side occurs when he confronts Robinson, who ultimately testified as a friendly witness, and Trumbo dismisses Robinson's justification for his actions, despite the fact that he gave many of the same justifications earlier to fellow refusenik Arlin Hird ( a very solid Louie C.K.), an apparently fictional character that espouses some of the true philosophies of the Communist Party of the United States. Whether the confrontation took place or not, it must surely have been endemic of Hollywood at the time since there were so many people effected in some way by the blacklist.
I am usually suspicious of a movie that works in a speech to an audience as a story telling device, it seems a lazy way to sneak in narrative with an emotional content, but the speech given at the end to the Writer's Guild appears to have been genuine and it is suggested that it went a long way to healing the wounds of the blacklist. That makes it all the more odd that after finishing with an effective dramatic moment, the film turns polemic with a series of screen scrolls that start the argument all over again. The sour tone is probably designed to make the political message more important, but it feels like the screenwriter simply felt like the drama had failed to do so and therefore a post script was required. I thought it undercut what was to that point a human drama that showed the turmoil of the times and the confusion of the figures involved. That's too bad because for the most part, what came before really was compelling.
Friday, December 18, 2015
A long time ago, in a theater not too far from here...
I've been a fan of Star Wars since May 25th 1977, when on opening day, for the second showing, my group of friends walked right up to the box office and bought tickets and we went inside. There was no hype, there were no lines yet and the phenomena was just about to hit. By the time the weekend arrived, the lines were around the block and the film was making headlines. If you watch the first primitive trailer for the film, you might think it looked corny and old fashioned. In a way, that's what sold it to me and millions of others trapped in the 1970s. Cynicism had run amok, in politics and popular culture and Star Wars was an antidote that went down smoothly. Almost 40 years later, with the world in sad shape and our culture dominated by pornography masquerading as television and political fecklessness as a national mantra, we need another dose. "The Force Awakens" attempts to be that cure and for the most part it works. This movie is fun and real in a way that has not been the case since the 1980s.
As usual, you will find no spoilers here, and J.J. Abrams may have achieved the near impossible in this era of social media by keeping the pleasures of his new film under wraps for us to discover on our own. There are plot twists and secrets everywhere in the film and fan service sufficient to satisfy even the neediest of old school geeks, but there is also a freshness to the film that makes the plot devices less important than the spirit of action and adventure we are witnessing on the screen. This movie is highly accessible to fans and non fans alike. The Force Awakens looks more like a sequel to the original trio of films than the prequels do, and that in large part accounts for it's ultimate success.
There are deep roots to the story we are given, and not all of those rhizome sprout plants in this episode. In fact, the very first section of the opening crawl, gives us a macguffin that drives the plot and very little else. In the course of the story we learn a few things about our past heroes and the lives they have lead since the restoration of the Republic, but it sometimes feels like the facts and stories are being parceled out by a selfish Santa. There is just enough information to explain a plot point, but not enough to satisfy our interest in just what happened. Some of those seeds are certainly going to come to bear fruit in future episodes, but it is a bit frustrating. There is an exceptionally obtuse sequence in the basement of character Maz Kanata. It raises our expectations, makes some soon to occur events more plausible but ultimately raises questions that are designed to be answered in episode IX.
The structure of the story will be familiar to everyone who saw the original Star Wars in 1977. There is an as yet unaware hero, ready to step forward, there is a set of secrets hidden in a droid, there is a wild card rogue second lead, and there is a wizened master to teach the ways of the force (or at least the rules of the game). The action beats will also be familiar. Agents of the First Order, the remnants of the empire and a new developing Sith relationship, are pursuing our heroes and adventure ensues. J.J. Abrams and the writers manage to substitute a few scenes and use different characters, but you will recognize the Cantina scene and the escape from the empire dogfight. The call backs to earlier films are found throughout the movie, including the story line. I did not see it as a lack of creativity but a desire to make sure that the audience understands the universe that these characters inhabit.
Maybe it is bad form to pile on, but I think it is necessary to explain how this film manages to do so much that the prequels did not. To begin with, the casting is correct. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are not cardboard pretty faces being moved around on the gameboard. The character of Rey is dynamic rather than passive like Padme from the prequels. Finn acts as if what he does matters and unlike Hayden Christenson, Boyega has more expressions than a scowling face. Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and Abrams himself, have an ear for how dialogue should sound when being spoken in a scene. The veteran actors also add some zing to the film, especially Harrison Ford, who in returning to the character of Han Solo, has managed to age gracefully and still be charmingly funny. The biggest asset to the films success in entwining us in the Star Wars universe was the decision to limit CGI to those elements of the story where they are needed rather than where they might save money of merely produce awe. The actors interact with their environment more effectively when there are real sets and locations being used. The desert looks like it is made of sand dunes rather than pixels. That sequence near the end was a real ocean scene and not a painting created in a computer. The forest may have some CGI trees, but in the running sections, those are real trees. The way the film looks helps us project ourselves into the story rather than holding it at arms length admiring the cleverness of the computer guys. There are still some stunning effects scenes that use computer generated images effectively, but they work better in the battle scenes and action moments than they would in the quite transition or narrative spots in the film. In preparation for this experience, I watched all of the previous six films and it was so clear how much better those choices were in the original trilogy. The technology is important but it can't substitute for what makes the scene believable.
A few plot points are rushed, and that feels like a cheat but it may be that we will be getting more detail in the next stories. There is plenty to enjoy here and there are light saber battles, comedic characters that don't irritate, and a strong sense of fun rather than a permanent sense of dread hanging over the characters. The transition of the story from our older characters to the newer ones is done much more smoothly than say the same technique which is used in a film like "The Expendables 3". We care about the new characters because we get a chance to know them. Early on, a great new relationship develops in a good action scene and then that relationship is ignored for two thirds of the movie. That was one of the few mistakes in character development in the story. There are two new digital characters that are introduced and both are intriguing but they seem peripheral to the main thrust of the character arcs we are looking at, so either use them more effectively or lets move on.
The final shot in the movie manages to raise the hair on the back of your hand a little bit and whet your appetite for the next film in the series. As I understand it, there will be a stand alone film next year and it will be two years until we get the next chapter in this story. That should give everyone enough opportunity to reset the hype machine back to a level that is tolerable. I doubt that any film could live up to the expectations that this movie carries with it. Still it manages to be successful and entertaining, if slightly less than perfect. If you want a ranking, I'd put it exactly in the middle. Not quite original trilogy perfection, but so far above the prequels that it might be embarrassing to the creator himself.
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
A nasty little piece of Christmas fun that should sustain you through the overly cheerful holidays. It's not a coal in the stocking per se but it is a bit of a bird being flipped at all the traditional Christmas schmaltz that usually crops up at this time. If you are evil hearted enough to want to see this, then I can say for the most part that you will enjoy it. Although not perfect and much less gruesome than it might have been, it has some wicked humorous bits and a fairly well presented scenario. There are also a couple of special delights that I don't want to say too much about because it might spoil some of the show.
The traditional family Christmas of Clark Griswold's imagination is set up exceptionally well in the opening parts of the story. From the first scenes of "Wal-Mart" style chaos, we know this movie has been designed to let the air out of the celebrants. Adam Scott and Toni Collette are a contemporary couple trying to cope with the holidays. Their oldest daughter is too hip for the room, their youngest son is a little too passionate in his defense of Christmas. Grandma speaks German in most of the film and she seems to understand little Max the best. We suspect a secret will be coming and it turns out that is exactly right. The addition of Collette's sister and her obnoxious family, completes the set up for a variation of the group trapped in a cabin, again.
Everyone is well cast and does a good job with their parts. Sarah, the Mom in the story is not a hard part to play and Collette fits just fine. She does get a couple of scenes where her shrieking and surprise need to be genuine and she sells it. Adam Scott as her husband Tom is just world weary enough to be honest with his son about his own frustrations with the holiday and the family, and instead of being the douche that he frequently plays, Scott comes across as sincere and empathetic. David Koechner on the other hand is exactly the blowhard you expect him to be. The movie has several critical barbs pointed at modern society and Howard is the stand in for all the conservative Uncles that the DNC wants to give you talking points for over the dinner table. The jewel in the crown though is once again the wonderful Alison Tolman. After her turn as Officer Molly in last years superb Fargo television series, I'd watch her in most anything. She is the somewhat browbeaten but loyal wife to Howard and the mother of three monstrous kids. She also gets a nice sequence where she gets to let loose with a great deal of ferocity.
The title character is shown mostly in shadow in the first sections of the movie and that is fine because as usual, the reveal is less than it should be for a horror film. One of the pleasures of the film though is that Krampus has a whole troop of helpers, sort of like Santa's elves and reindeer, but far creepier. Suffice it to say your Christmas cookies will be getting some extra sidelong glances and if clowns freak you out, be prepared to cover your eyes. These sequences play like the sour moments from "Gremlins", there is something just wrong about what you are seeing, but you can't help but laugh at it. My favorite scene involves all hell breaking loose in the attic, if for nothing else you should see the movie for the demented joy that scene will bring.
An impressive bit of animation is also stuck in the middle of the film. Reminiscent of "Coraline" or "The Corpse Bride", Krampus has it's back story told through a vivid imaging of Grandma's youth. It was really interesting that it was included in the film, it could actually be a stand alone short. Along with the house set and the creepy storm background, this sequence gives the movie a production design that is very much better than a film of this nature would expect. I had a little bit of an issue with the resolution of the film, but it also looks great so while the story was a bit frustrating, the visual imagination for putting it together was outstanding. "Krampus" is not as morally reprehensible as "Bad Santa" and it may not be as scary as "Black Christmas" or as funny as "Gremlins" but I am ready to add it to my annual line up of Christmas films. You should as well, but maybe keep it away from the little kids, visions of sugar plums will not be what fills their heads after seeing this.
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"