Skyfall

Skyfall delivers a fascinating and engaging plot, the best character development in all of Bond-dom (aren’t you glad I didn’t say ‘Bond-age’?), and a pace and cinematography that refuses to let your attention wander.

It’s the best Bond film to date, but it’s also nearly not a Bond movie.

Here’s the trailer:

The deets:

Released November 9, 2012

Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan (based on the character created by Ian Fleming)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, and Rory Kinnear

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Skyfall opens with Bond (Craig) in pursuit of someone who has gunned down some MI6 agents and made off with a hard drive that contains the name of all of Britain’s undercover agents. (This, by the way, is the only weak point of the film. It’s too easy and begs the question, “WHY DO YOU HAVE ALL OF THEM ON ONE HARD DRIVE?) Bond chases the bad guy through the streets of an exotic locale on foot and motorcycle and then on top of a train. They have a very cool fight and Bond’s partner, Eve (Harris), has a possibility that she could shoot the bad guy from a nearby ridge.

She takes the shot at M’s (Dench) order and.. well.. she misses. Obviously, Bond isn’t really dead, since this happens about 20 minutes into the 140+ minute movie.

Not long later, we see M writing Bond’s obituary and then MI6 coming under attack, presumably by the people who stole the hard drive. Now MI6′s agents are about to be exposed and M seems to be the ultimate target of the attackers. Pan to Bond, womanizing and drinking incessantly somewhere, probably in the Caribbean. He learns of the attack and shows up, ready to take the fight to the bad guys.

Now we have the action-packed cat and mouse Bond movie we’re used to.

Except we don’t. Bond is flawed, vulnerable, maybe even unsure of himself. When the villain is revealed to be someone from M’s past named Silva (Bardem), Bond gets a view of who he might become in the future. This villain has been planning his attack for years and is one step ahead of MI6 the entire way until the final thirty minutes of the film. He is vile, strangely sympathetic, and is played to perfection by Bardem.

The story takes us to the depths of Bond’s devotion to country and queen, and his queen is M. We also learn more about his past and childhood and even get to meet Kincade (Finney), a caretaker with whom Bond has a.. well.. a bond.

All of this, of course, culminates in a showdown. But this is almost an Old West showdown and Bond and M are very much outnumbered and isolated. It’s a glorious, explosive, and heartfelt ending, with Bardem nailing his final scene perfectly.

Critique

In Skyfall we get homage paid to beloved Bond tropes, a delightful opportunity to see M become an actual person, and we see a bit of a new guard coming on the scene in the Bond world. We also get the best written, directed, and acted Bond movie we’ve ever seen.

The plot is simple on its face: a fellow from M’s past wants retribution for perceived offenses and goes after her and all those around her, making Bond have to hunt down and stop the fellow. But there’s more going on. The British government is wondering if MI6 is even necessary and there’s a new watchdog keeping an eye on M and her division. Bond, usually an opaque vision of a superspy, has had his vulnerabilities exposed to himself and he needs to find a way to move past them.

The direction lets scenes develop, opting against a frenetic camera and allowing emotional investment and characters’ choices to determine the pace and emotional impact of the events on the screen. We get to watch these people closely, in delicious detail, as they make some of the toughest choices of their lives.

Adele’s rather melodramatic song aside, this is the single best James Bond movie ever, due to its depth, strength of story, and powerful acting. I kid you not, Bardem’s villain is the most creeptastic person you will ever try to avoid meeting.

It’s worth waiting 4 years if we get this kind of movie after the wait.

Content warnings: Plenty of hand-to-hand violence, some scenes of sensuality, some harsh language.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

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Cowboys & Aliens

The premise and story of Cowboys and Aliens is preposterous. It’s easily as outlandish as the premise of Source Code, but Cowboys and Aliens is far better because it doesn’t jump the tracks and try to make the premise more than it has any right to be.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released on July 26th, 2011

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, and Steve Oedekerk

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Adam Beach, Paul Dano and Sam Rockwell

*     *     *     *

Story

The movie start with Daniel Craig waking up in the middle of a New Mexico wasteland. He doesn’t know he is, has a strange wound on his side, and also has a strange contraption attached to his wrist. He can’t get the thing off.

Within the first couple of minutes, this guy’s toughness and meanness are established, as he finishes off a trio of prairie scum without blinking. He takes their clothes, weapons, and dog.

Soon after showing up in the town of Absolution, he is stitched up by a local preacher and finds out that he is named Jake Lonergan. After standing up to Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the bully son of local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), Lonergan gets a drink in the saloon run by Doc (Sam Rockwell). It is there that a mysterious and beautiful woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), recognizes that Jake may be the key to some strange goings on.

Then the sheriff arrives, reveals that Lonergan is a wanted criminal, and tries to take Jake in. Jake shows he is a scrapper and is only taken down because he doesn’t see Ella coming. Now the sheriff has Percy and Jake in custody and is going to ship them off to a court in a different town.

Meanwhile, Dolarhyde is trying to find out why a bunch of his cattle have been charcoaled. He finds out from his faithful man, Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), that Percy’s been arrested. So Dolarhyde goes to retrieve his boy.

While all this is going on, Jake has been having flashbacks that allude to his being in love with a woman but that she was taken from him suddenly.

And now the set-up is complete. Dolarhyde shows up to get Percy, sees Lonergan and wants him too because Lonergan and some old cronies stole a bunch of gold from him, and then the aliens show up. A frenzied scene of explosions, wildly cool alien versions of aliens lassoing humans, and Jake finding out that his wrist band is a weapon, ensues. Percy is taken, as are Doc’s wife, the sheriff and many other townspeople.

The menfolk, along with Ella and the sheriff’s grandson and the dog, decide to work together to find all of their abducted people before they die. Add to that the fact that an alien survived having its ship shot down by Jake’s fancy weapon and now the alien is heading back to its headquarters, but it’s also hunting them, and you have some nice conflict.

There is also conflict between Dolarhyde and Lonergan, although that settles down fairly quickly as the two men prove their mettle to each other. The Ella character adds some mystery to the film, as do questions of why the aliens are there and what they want the people for. You won’t be surprised by the aliens’ motivation.

Critique

Cowboys and Aliens is a pleasure to watch. The performances are so very good, with Ford delivering a performance that is easily one of his best. Ever. Craig does an excellent job with his taciturn character, making him much deeper than anger and frustration. Olivia Wilde does a nice job, giving her inhumanly beautiful character humanity and motivation. Finally, Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano turn potentially by-the-numbers characters into interesting people who we want to know more about.

I have to applaud the writers (all of them… whew!) for some restraint. There were times where one-off lines would have been easy to have the characters say. But the dialogue rang true to the characters and there were no cheap shots. What’s more, the screenplay plays it straight, as do the actors. Any goofiness, such as in Galaxy Quest, would have killed the movie on arrival.

Another highlight is the locations. Too often, the towns in westerns are inauthentically laid out. Absolution looked perfect. Plus, the fact that some of the movie was obviously filmed in parts of Utah was pretty cool.

Cowboys and Aliens had the potential to be very silly, or quite schizophrenic. There was a danger that the filmmakers not be able to stay true to both the Western genre and the Sci-Fi genre. Luckily, none of this came to pass. The movie is fun, interesting, engaging and quite satisfying.

Content warnings: Plenty of gunfighting and action. Some explosions too. Some western-style harsh language. One almost-nude scene.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4.5

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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