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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Lockout

Lockout is essentially Escape from LA or Escape from New York, but in space. With solid performances from reliable stars and a predictable but still effective script, it’s not as big a blockbuster as it wants to be, but it’s entertaining.

A preview:

Now the deets:

Released April 14, 2012

Written by Stephen St. Leger, James Mather, and Luc Besson (From Besson’s idea)

Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger

Starring: Maggie Grace, Guy Pearce, Lannie James, Peter Stormare, Vincent Regan, and Joseph Gilgun

Rated PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Snow (Pearce) is a top-notch agent who has just been mistakenly convicted of espionage and treason. He is a master of one-liners and pretty much spends the movie offering them in place of conversation. It would be nice to know why he is so taciturn and gruff, but the movie doesn’t take the time to help the audience understand this main character, which is a shame. Anyway, there’s a MacGuffin of a briefcase that Snow wants to track down, but he is about to be sent to frozen space prison.

Emilie (Grace) is the president’s daughter and is on a compassionate investigative mission of a space prison. She’s concerned that the cryogenically frozen inmates are being mistreated and that fishy things might be going on with them. While she’s on the space prison, the prisoners stage a takeover of the place, killing lots of people. When they realize who Emilie is, they start trying to make some fairly fuzzy demands. Indeed, we never really know what it is the prisoners want.

Suddenly, Snow is needed. Langral (Stormare), the chief of the spy agency, is hesitant to send the rogue to rescue the president’s daughter, but Shaw (James) thinks Snow is the One Man who can do the job. Snow gets the job, but is on a deadline because Langral is going to attack the place, and then later blow it up.

So we end up with Snow and Emilie trying to escape the space prison, pursued by baddies, and Snow also trying to find his buddy who may or may not have hid the MacGuffin briefcase before being caught and sent to the space prison.

Critique

First off, the fact that this takes place in space is not used enough. There are not enough gravity, depressurization, and other space-centric plot twists thrown in. Second, Pearce is a capable actor and is convincing, particularly with his extra beefiness, but I would have liked to know more about who he was. I wanted more conversation out of him, longer moments where he could explore the character better, and a lot more conversation. Seriously, having a guy speak in one-liners through the entire movie is a mistake.

This movie is also a little Die Hard-esque, since you have a tough-as-nails cop guy being misunderstood by the authorities and underestimated by the bad guys and wandering a place taking out baddies bit by bit. But where John McClane’s motivations are totally obvious and really drive his character, that is not the case with Lockout‘s Snow. Also, McClane gets beat up and feels it, while Snow gets beat up but shakes it off every time.

Maggie Grace’s Emilie is a very nice piece of acting and writing, however. She’s compassionate and wants to make a difference. She’s tough, but also vulnerable.

The story is predictable, but not annoyingly so: the bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys win, and the action is well-paced.

So all in all, Lockout hits the mark, but doesn’t go beyond the mark in any substantive way. It’s an entertaining and forgettable film.

Content warnings: plenty of violence- none of it gory, some language

Writing: 3.5          Acting: 4          Overall: 3.5

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John Carter

It turns out that Tim Riggins still isn’t much of an actor, but lucky for him and the viewer, John Carter turned out pretty great despite that.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released March 9, 2012

Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon (Based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, specifically Princess of Mars.)

Directed by Andrew Stanton (yes, the Andrew Stanton who brought you Finding Nemo and Wall-E etc.)

Starring: Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Taylor Kitsch, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong, James Purefoy, and Daryl Sabara

Rated: PG-13 (for the same reason as the Lord of the Rings movies- those creatures’ blood ain’t red)

*     *     *     *     *

Reports say that the budget for John Carter came in at $250 million. That’s gotta be record-breaking. Luckily, it’s money well spent, because John Carter is a fun, action-packed, mostly coherent, visual treat.

Also, heads-up: critics tend to really dislike this type of movie. So take what you hear or read with a grain of salt. This is the movie you want it to be and you’re going to have a great time.

Story

The film opens with some scenes of magnificent back story, where we see that Mars is indeed inhabited. In fact, humans live there, as do some outstanding bipedal humanoid-types that are giant and have four arms. These are Tharks. They are the primary inhabitants of Mars, but the humans (who have blue blood) have become the dominant species. The humans have divided into two factions and a bad guy by the name of Sab Than (West) has just received a weapon of extraordinary power from Matai Shang (Strong), a Thern. The Therns are mysterious beings, said to be messengers of the goddess, Issa.

So now Sab Than is laying waste and is going to take the final city of the other guys, who are the good guys, of course. He offers peace to the ruler of the good guys, Tardos Mors (Hinds), as long as Mors gives up his daughter to be the wife of Sab Than. The daughter, Dejah Thoris (Collins), is the Princess of Mars who is the focus of the first book by Burroughs. Dejah is a strong character and she refuses to marry Sab Than.

We move to Earth, where John Carter (Kitsch), a former accomplished soldier who fought for the Confederacy, returns from the war and finds his family slaughtered. He turns to gold mining while dodging Powell (Cranston), a Union colonel who wants Carter to join in a fight against the Apaches. Carter escapes Powell’s clutches and comes upon a cave of legend, where he is attacked by a Thern and is accidentally transported to Mars, or Barsoom as Martians call it.

Carter is taken captive by the Tharks, the leader of which is Tars Tarkas (Dafoe), a surprisingly wise and compassionate member of the brutal species. Carter bests a Thark in a fight and is adopted by the Tharks. All the while, Carter still has no idea where he is and is trying to adjust to being able to leap incredible heights and distances and to the fact that he’s immensely strong. Carter intervenes when Sab Than’s forces catch up with the fleeing Princess Dejah, saving Dejah’s life and making an enemy of Sab Than.

Dejah tries to convince Carter to join in her people’s fight against Sab Than, but he just wants to get home. However, Dejah helps Carter understand where he is and what’s going on and sparks fly between the two of them. What ensues is what you might expect: a race to get Carter home, keep Dejah alive, save the innocent people of Mars, find out the truth of the Therns, and stop Sab Than. Of course, we get to a point where Carter must face the choice between going home and staying on Mars.

All of this culminates in an arena battle with two awesome giant white apes and some pretty great action set pieces.

And before we finish the story summary, this story is discovered by young Edgar Burroughs, Carter’s nephew.

Critique

The story summary is long, so the critique will be shorter.

The plot is somewhat complex, but it’s laid out well, with enough moments taken to set each scene well in time and space. Two issues: I want to know why there are blue-blooded humans on Mars and I want to know the truth of why the Therns are involved. The truth is that each character is, surprisingly, nicely fleshed out. There are a lot of people in this movie, but each one is distinct because each has discernible motivations, except of course for the Therns, whose opaque motivations add to the story.

In short, the writing is actually darn good. If critics call the plot too complex, send them to the grave of Mr. Burroughs and tell them to pay attention next time. These are the people who adored Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so they can go eat toast. Andrew Stanton and Michael Chabon did a very fine job with this screenplay.

Note: I loved Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Taylor Kitsch needs to go do some indie films to find a few more levels, but he carries the movie fine. He is at his furious best in the battle scenes. Please be sure to watch for the scene where he takes a stand against a horde of attacking Tharks in order to protect Dejah. It has emotional punch– another excellent sign of Stanton’s adept hand.

The visual effects of John Carter are worth every penny. Where Avatar’s N’avi were alienating and a little plastic, the Tharks are so very good. I love the anatomy displayed in the attention to detail. You will love the scenery, the seamless CGI, the great air ships, and the creatures.

All in all, a little acting help for Mr. Kitsch and a few plot issues are the only critiques of this big-budget pleaser. Yes, John Carter’s story doesn’t surprise and the pacing is slightly uneven, but it’s still a thrilling and visually delightful experience.

Content warnings: Revealing attire on Dejah, loads of alien blood spilled in many action scenes, slight language. (Please also note that in the books, people are buck naked, so appreciate what you get here.)

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4           Overall: 4.5

You think I’m blowing smoke don’t you? I’m not, but you can see that many critics really disagree by going to Rotten Tomatoes. You know what else? GeekDad on Wired.com agrees with me too. Check out their review.

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Safe House

Safe House for being a film about rogue spies, is strangely by the book. That said, it’s carried well by intense, engrossing performances and generally breathless pacing.

Got previews?

The deets:

Released February 10, 2012

Written by David Guggenheim (not DAVIS)

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

Starring Vera Farmiga, Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Nora Arnezeder, Robert Patrick, and Sam Shepard

Rated: R

*     *     *     *    *

There are moments of such intensity in Safe House that the viewer’s heart gets a’thumping and the muscles tense up. Those moments are not the best moments of the film, but they’re close.

Story

Safe House starts with Matt Weston (Reynolds) hitting a punching bag. He is a bored, low-level, rookie CIA operative on assignment as a ‘housekeeper’ in a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s aching to be reassigned to somewhere with a little more excitement. We later find out that he had a rough-ish childhood, ended up at Yale, is middling when it comes to most spy-craft stuff but was excellent at the more visceral tradecraft of shooting and such. His boredom is well established, while his times spent with his lovely girlfriend, Ana (Anezeder), are tender and deeply felt.

Pan to Tobin Frost (Washington). He’s a highly-skilled rogue operative running some kind of deal. He acquires a file that presumably has some very high-value information. Turns out it’s got dirt on lots of people. He wants to sell it. But somebody wants to stop him. He spends the entire movie on the run.

Frost gets in a sticky situation and ends up having to turn himself in to stay alive. He shows up at the safe house run by Weston, accompanied by some CIA operative guards. Robert Patrick plays the head of this group and does a nice, if brief, job.

Frost’s opponents show up, although they shouldn’t have even known where the safe house was. They do this a lot and it becomes clear that they have someone on the inside directing their movements. It might be Linklater (Farmiga) or it might be Barlow (Gleeson), who happens to be Weston’s mentor. It might even be someone else, like Deputy Director Whitford (Shepard). Whatever the case is, all of these CIA types want Frost and they have to depend on Weston to keep him under wraps and safe, all while dodging some relentless mercenaries.

The central premise is now established. What the filmmakers wanted to do differently was have Frost be very sympathetic, very smart, and still be pretty much self-interested. This turned out well in one way: They got Denzel Washington to play Frost.

Safe House rollicks along, with Weston fighting to keep up with Frost and keep him under control. There are intense car chases, visceral fights that suffer from the inconstant and shaking camera, and lots of gunshots. You can predict every twist that comes along and the ending is pretty pat, if also quite a throwback to the ‘everybody’s good’ ending of spy movies from the ’90s.

Critique

Safe House is a good movie. It’s perfectly well diverting and is acted well beyond the pretty workaday script. The script really is where the heart of the problem abides. It’s been done, better in many cases, and really had no surprises. We’ve seen the characters, seen the conflicts, seen the betrayals, and seen the ending.

That said, the production designer did a fine job in helping the audience experience the familiar in a loud, raw, engaging way. Washington and Reynolds also breathe humanity into the familiar characters they inhabit. They deliver the tired dialogue so well that it even perks up a bit. These performances are like a shot of caffeine during the daily, 2 o’clock stretch of most people’s afternoons. The stretch happens every day, we know it’s going to happen, so we grab an energy drink.

Unfortunately, viewers don’t want to see their 2 o’clock afternoon stretch on screen.

All in all, Safe House delivers spectacular action set pieces, very good performances, and a story we’ve seen before. As action fare, it’s good, particularly for the time of year, but Chronicle is better. If you want to see Denzel turn in a great performance, Vera Farmiga put on a clinic, and Ryan Reynolds prove that he really can act, all in an action vehicle, go for it.

Somewhat recommended, mostly for fans of the actors and lovers of action films.

Content warnings: Mid-high level profanity, tons of violence, suggestive partial nudity, painful-looking wounds, and moments of extreme intensity.

Writing: 2          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 3

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