*I wrote this as a piece of "Bond coverage" for my school newspaper leading up to the release of Skyfall. The second part is here and the review of Skyfall is here.
Before I loved music, long before I could adequately formulate
thoughts in writing and prior to building an appreciation of film on any
significant level, I was still a fan of James Bond. That fandom, for
myself and for many other members of my generation, undoubtedly began
with the Goldeneye 007 videogame on the Nintendo 64, a pop-cultural
stepping stone that consumed many hours of many lives, whether we were
blasting our way through the single player campaign (again and again) or
staying up until three in the morning with friends, eating junk-food
and yelling at each other over intense multiplayer shootouts.
I have long since outgrown videogames, but James Bond has stayed with
me. I began delving into the films during my childhood (despite
possibly inappropriate connotations), taping the movies off television
airings during the big “Bond week” marathons, renting VHS copies of the
Connery classics with my brother and even buying a “Bond encyclopedia”
of sorts following the release of 1999’s The World is Not Enough.
Revisiting the films now, I realize just how much about them I missed,
how silly the plots, as a general rule, often become, how comical the
villains sometimes are and just how many women Mr. Bond…ummm…“seduces.”
But I also am amazed at just how well some of the older entries in the
series hold up. Make no mistake, there is no “perfect” James Bond film
(though two or three certainly came close to mastering the formula), but
almost every entry in the series has its redeeming qualities, be they
memorable villains, unforgettable one-liners or pieces of double
entendre or, especially, still-stellar action sequences.
For awhile there, it seemed like Bond wasn’t going to get the chance
to continue, at least not with actor Daniel Craig in the lead role. A
late-decade writer’s strike hindered
the production of 2008’s Quantum of Solace, an underwhelming (but
still solid) stall-out for a series that had so promisingly rebooted
itself only two years previous with Casino Royale. And then, to make
matters worse, MGM went bankrupt, a disaster that came at the worst
possible time and kept James Bond out of the theaters for four years.
Questions arose whether or not Craig would reprise the role, whether
Bond 23 would ever happen and, if it did, whether we would have to wait a
very long time for it to come to fruition. Suddenly, 2006’s promising
restart seemed like it was going to get swept away by the tide.
But it would take nothing short of Armageddon to stop the James Bond
machine, which, over the past 50 years, has become the most successful
film franchise of all time out of sheer force of longevity. Sure, the Harry Potter films made more in ticket sales, but figure in inflation
and there’s simply no question of who wins the dogfight.
Other heroes have come and gone. The Indiana Joneses, the Jason
Bournes, the Captain Jack Sparrows: they all made big entrances,
achieved iconic status and then proved that they could hardly thrive
beyond the confines of their original trilogies. And that’s not to say
that they have been forgotten, or that the ill-advised fourth
installments of their franchises didn’t do well. Indiana Jones is a hero
we still raise our children on; the mechanics of the Bourne films
changed the way directors shot action movies (Bond’s Quantum of Solace
among them); and Captain Jack is the most iconic movie character of the
last ten years.
None of them would work if they re-cast their star; none have the
ability to adapt so firmly to the changing times and trends as 007; and
none of them have retained (or will retain) such a stranglehold on the
pop cultural mindset as Bond…James Bond. From vodka martinis (shaken,
not stirred) to Q-branch gadgets to Aston Martin automobiles to Armani
Tuxedos, James Bond remains the action hero that men, to this day, like
to fancy themselves as most. He’s a slick, charismatic badass, a
remarkably smooth womanizer; he’s a man who has been to every exotic
locale in the book, whose actions and efforts exist outside the law and
extend past the reach of any authority. To put it briefly, he is the
epitome of “cool,” and the fact that he has been able to remain that way
for 50 years is, arguably, the single most impressive feat in the
history of cinematic storytelling or marketing.
But Bond didn’t get where he is today simply by being a concept that
appealed to a lot of people. No, along the way, there have been some
truly excellent cinematic moments as well. For every stumble the series
has had (and there have been a few, Roger Moore’s space-traveling farce, Moonraker, and Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day chief among them),
there have been two enjoyable action movies and one genuinely great
adventure to compensate.
So what films are the best? Which classics should you dig up in
anticipation of Skyfall? Check back tomorrow as the Western Herald
counts down the best of the best, the films that fit into the
aforementioned “genuinely great” category and that, justifiably, have
risen to the top of the James Bond canon for enthusiasts and casual fans
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Studios, 2012
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston
Warner Bros. Pictures, GK Studios, 2012
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston
When it reaches the CIA that the six escapees are hiding out with a friendly Canadian ambassador (a reliably solid Victor Garber), extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) hatch a rescue mission revolving around a fake science fiction film. With the help of a CIA-connected make-up artist (John Goodman) and a charismatic Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin), Mendez builds an elaborate cover scheme around a bogus science fiction epic (the titular Argo) and an even-more bogus “location scouting trip.” The idea is that the six in-limbo ambassadors will pose as Mendez’s (Canadian) film crew as he scouts Iranian locales for possible film settings. After they have all played the charade for a few days, they will get on an airplane, fly back to the United States and be home free: needless to say, things don’t play out quite so simply.
Affleck, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Good Will Hunting has been on somewhat of a role lately, kicking off his directorial career with a pair of Boston-centered crime dramas (Gone Baby Gone and the aforementioned The Town) that gained both critical acclaim and audience approval. But Argo branches away from Affleck’s “Southie” stomping grounds, following its globe-trotting narrative and vast ensemble cast with the sweep of classic thrillers. Affleck drives the production with a craftsman’s eye for detail, adopting authentic costumes and a grainy, 70s-esque cinematography technique that recalls the work of all-time-great directors like Frances Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski and Sydney Pollack. He also takes the lead role, bringing the same kind of internalized conflict, drive and intensity that marked his leading turn in The Town. It’s not a showy performance, but it is a subtle and nuanced one, a showcase of an actor/director who, even when he casts himself as the hero, is still willing to let his supporting cast steal the show. It was that directorial mentality that helped net Jeremy Renner a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2010 (also for The Town) and part of the reason that Argo is receiving such widespread critical acclaim.
But while Arkin is getting the majority of the Oscar buzz, the best-in-show here is Bryan Cranston, whose commanding passion and emotional energy anchor the film’s third act. Those who have seen Cranston light up the small screen in AMC’s Breaking Bad (a show for which he won three consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards) know that he is one of the best actors working today and will doubtlessly enjoy watching him play a role more in the “good guy” corner here. And while Arkin and Goodman get the lion’s share of the film’s one-liners, Cranston gets arguably the definitive one (“This is the best bad idea we’ve got,” he dryly remarks to a superior in the State Department). The rest of the cast is filled out by lesser-known talents, actors and actresses who step into the roles of the ambassadors and bring appropriate gravity, fear and restlessness to their situation…all as the walls begin to close in. Each scene the six of them share with Affleck feels entirely organic.
tremendously consistent box office performance, Argo is currently the Best Picture frontrunner, and it’s not at all hard to figure out why. Not only is the film strong across all filmmaking benchmarks (from acting, to directing, to craft categories like Cinematography and Costume Design), it also offers the same kind of tribute to Hollywood that made The Artist such an unstoppable force last year. The way the film lovingly (and often, hilariously) portrays the moviemaking process is nothing short of infectious, injecting the film’s serious subject matter with a lighthearted tilt, and making it difficult to envision anything resonating more consistently with Academy audiences this year. Will Argo win Best Picture? And will the guy who starred in such critical and commercial disasters as Gigli and Surviving Christmas walk away from the 85th annual Academy Awards with a Best Director Oscar in hand? Only time will tell, and a lot of things could certainly change between now and the Feb. 25 ceremony, but as of right now, both of those things seem exceedingly likely. I, for one, could hardly be more pleased.
Friday, July 20, 2012
The Dark Knight Rises
Legendary Pictures/Syncopy/Warner Brothers, 2012
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Thankfully for us though, Christopher Nolan did.
The Dark Knight Rises, all hype aside, all of the polarizing reviews and all of the fans who will doubtlessly cry out that it doesn't live up to its predecessor (untrue, but we'll get to that in good time), manages all of the above and more. This movie is massive, boasting an epic, almost three-hour runtime, and bringing the series to a resounding full-circle conclusion. It's also a definitive ensemble piece, allowing every character we've come to care about throughout the series (and numerous new additions, all of them positive) their moment to shine, bringing all of their stories to a satisfying and deserved finale. Even Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes, a pair of characters whose presence (and ultimate demise) was of pivotal importance to the last installment, linger in the hearts and minds of the people of Gotham City. Only Ledger's Joker is left unmentioned, a loose end that Nolan had never intended to leave, though, after seeing what he orchestrated here, I can't help but wonder how the character could have fit into the story anyway.
That twist sends us hurtling toward a shattering climax, and suffice to say that the film's final minutes exceeded every one of my lofty expectations. There are crowd pleasing tie-ups, Inception-esque cliffhangers, "a ha!" moments galore, last-minute twists, and then, to top it all off, the traditional swell of Hans Zimmer's theme music, right before the film cuts to black. It's an emotionally weighty and viscerally satisfying conclusion, one that leaves questions to be debated, references to puzzle over, and plenty to re-examine on repeat viewings. And repeat viewings will come, that's for sure, but the film does on its first glance what it's supposed to: it takes a great trilogy out on its highest note. As soon as the credits rolled, I clapped, I cheered, and I wanted to see it again right away. And as I drove home, pondering everything that had just played out on the screen in front of me, I was ready to call it a masterpiece. I could hardly recall a better moviegoing experience. I had my reservations about The Dark Knight, about the claims that it merited Oscar attention, and about the "classic" status it was almost instantly annointed with, but this time around, I'm thoroughly on board. This film, in scope, in ensemble performance, in overall depth, is the best picture of the year so far. It's a beautifully executed summer blockbuster, loaded with stunning camerawork and special effects, but it's also more than that. It's the conclusion of one of the most riveting stories any filmmaker has told in my generation. It completely transcends its genre, making other comic book films look almost silly in comparison. And as a trilogy, it stands among the greats, with The Lord of the Rings and Toy Story from the last decade, or alongside Star Wars and The Godfather from the catalog of classics. At it's heart, Nolan's Batman is about a man who struggles with his anger, his past, and his own shortcomings to become more than a man. To become a legend. But with all the talent on display here, with all the characters and storylines and complexities that Nolan outfits this final film with, it becomes something even deeper, something more profound. Something that needs to be seen to be understood. Something that audiences will be watching and discussing for decades to come. It would be shameful for the Academy to ignore that.
"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called 'The Pledge.' The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called 'The Turn.' The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call 'The Prestige.'"
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Well here we are: seven years down the line from the first film, and four since the sequel that lit the world on fire, down to a mere 25 and a half hours to the conclusion. I've got my tickets all set for tomorrow night and for the big midnight blowout of Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated Batman finale, called The Dark Knight Rises, and I've spent a few nights this week re-acquainting myself with the rest of the series. Needless to say, I can hardly even describe how psyched I am for this movie.
I'll admit that there have been a few times over the past few years where the ridiculously hyperbolic praise for Nolan, and especially for The Dark Knight, has really started to irritate me. And I'm a big fan of his: I think The Prestige and Inception are science fiction masterpieces, and I think he certainly stepped things up for comic book movies with Batman Begins. When that movie unraveled in the summer of 2005, Nolan was picking up the pieces of a franchise that had been, essentially, left for dead eight years earlier. Joel Schumacher's disastrous Batman & Robin is the kind of deal-killer that every major studio has spent the past 15 years trying to avoid. It took a bankable property and proceeded to do almost everything wrong with it, from having George Clooney play himself in a Batman suit, to Arnold Schwarzenegger's plethora of cringe-worthy lines, to bat nipples. Schumacher's obsession with cheesy camp (and the resulting lack of dark, realistic textures or storylines) and a barrage of horrific reviews (the film scores a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 28 on Metacritic) led to a disappointing box office gross. Or perhaps the studio realized that the script was, in fact, the worst ever written. In any case, the movie was acknowledged as the piece of crap it is by everyone. from studio heads to Schumacher himself, and the planned follow up, supposedly called Batman Triumphant, was canned. Years later, Clooney would hit the nail on head by saying "I think we might have killed the franchise."
And it seems likely that I will get my wish. While I've sworn off reading any full reviews and kept myself deliberately in the dark concerning specific plot points and characters (just like last time around), the RT blurbs seem to agree on one thing: that The Dark Knight Rises, as great as it is, "doesn't quite live up to its predecessor." It's a weird qualifier to get excited about, but that's just what's happening for me, because the buzz says that we get back to Wayne and we see him come full circle from where he was in the first film: we get back to the heart of the matter. I trust Nolan to do that, because, for all of the fanboy hype and exaggerated claims, he has never made two movies that are even similar, let alone the same. The ballet-like story choreography of Inception is worlds away from the innovative filmmaking structure utilized on Memento, which bears no resemblance to the unraveling mystery of The Prestige. And his Batman films, while both members of the same trilogy, could hardly be further apart: one is a clear portrait of Wayne's psyche as he becomes more than a man, the next a cloudy glimpse of it, fraught with horrific threats, death, pain, and conflict; one is sheltered in the safety of Wayne Manor, the next consistantly shrouded in the shadows of a broken city; one is a man who loses his parents and vows to never let his loved ones be harmed again, while the next is the shattering realization that his transformation has only brought them closer to danger and doom. And the third film...well, I'm not sure what that will be yet. That's the point, right? But I'm hopeful that, by the time I walk out of the movie theater, sometime after 3 a.m. on Friday morning, I will have just experienced something visceral.
Something completely satisfying in every way.
So bring on that midnight showing: it's time to see how this thing ends.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
The Amazing Spider-Man
Columbia Pictures, 2012
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans
|Not quite "untold," but entertaining nonetheless.|
including one brilliant cameo), and a completely separate story with only a few overlapping characters. Right out of the gate, The Amazing Spider-Man makes the mistake of choosing to retread the origin story that was already aptly covered in the first film, and indeed, some portions of the two movies are almost identical as a result (the biggest offender being the storyline that surrounds Martin Sheen's Uncle Ben character). For that reason, The Amazing Spider-Man has earned one of the worst critical tags a movie can gather: unnecessary. The writers who have called it that are certainly not far off, as at its worst, The Amazing Spider-Man is essentially an improved version of Raimi's original, but I believe there's more to this film than that: director Marc Webb (who helmed one of the best romance films of the last decade with 500 Days of Summer) wisely chooses to focus on the love story this time around, and the romance between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) soars at heights that the Peter/Mary Jane storylines never reached for a single frame during the first trilogy. That's because Garfield, a should-have-been Oscar-nominee for The Social Network, and Stone, who delivered the break-out performance of the decade (so far) in Easy A, are significantly more talented than their predecessors. The two share an electric chemistry that leaps off the screen, and both bring more nuance and humor to their characters than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were ever able to find in theirs. In short, the screenplay, which is solid but unoriginal, manages to thrive thanks to the life these two stars inject into it: things wouldn't work out so well in lesser hands.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Disney/Pixar Animation Studios, 2012
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Starring: Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly (Voices)
Three and a half stars
to earn a "rotten" rating from review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes (and the first to receive zero Oscar nominations), moviegoers and critics everywhere began speculating about what that first crack in the facade meant for the world's most consistent studio. Was the Pixar golden age at an end? Certainly no streak can last forever, but the moment Pixar's fell, the sense that they were untouchable, like they could do no wrong, was shattered, and critics began to realize that kicking them around was actually a viable option. This brings me, at last, to Brave, Pixar's latest full-length feature, the first to feature a heroine in the lead role, and unlucky number 13 in their oeuvre.
There has always been this sort of unspoken belief in the film industry that animated movies can't be "serious art," that these films are made for kids and they can't possibly measure up to the works that are showered with big awards recognition at the end of each year. But that's not true, and right from the beginning, Pixar Animation Studios have spent every one of their films proving that. Sure, these movies can be enjoyed by kids: the audience I saw this movie with was at least 60% children, and they all loved it. But I've always felt that Pixar is not aiming at the kids: they're aiming for the parents, they're aiming for the film buffs, and they're aiming for my generation, the generation that fell in love with the first Toy Story in the first days of its original release, the generation that has been there with them every step of the way, growing up alongside Pixar, their films, and their characters, and finding new pieces of wisdom every time we sit down to watch a new feature or revisit an old one. Because in every Pixar movie, there are themes or moments that can only be fully appreciated with age, with time, and with experience. It's a gift that we have an animation studio so thoroughly committed to making great films that are resonant across all age groups, and it's a testament to their high level of work that I have never seen two people rank their output in the same order. Some may say that the Cars 2 debacle and the less-than-perfect reviews for Brave are a sign that the studio is weakening, but on the contrary, I'd rank Brave as one of their most enjoyable films to date...if not one of their best, and that deserves celebrating.
*Note: As is customary with Pixar features, a short film plays before Brave. The wide-eyed wonder of this year's version, a beautifully rendered short called La Luna, is not to be missed, so make sure you show up in time to catch it - even if you have to sit through a bevy of terrible previews first.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Joules Films, 2012
Directed by Chris Eyre
Starring: Josh Lucas, James Cromwell, Ayelet Zurer
One and a half stars (out of four)
I really wanted to love Hide Away, and that's not just because it was filmed in my hometown and is graced, on so many frames, by the gorgeous expanses of Grand Traverse Bay. No, I wanted to love Hide Away because I loved the concept and because Josh Lucas is one of the most likable and underrated actors working today. At very least, Lucas's talent isn't in doubt, as he does a terrible amount of heavy lifting in a film that, ultimately, renders his efforts as both a thankless task and a moot point. When we land on the shores of the Grand Traverse Peninsula at the outset of the film, we are introduced to Lucas (as a character who is never explicitly given a name). He's come to the docks to buy a boat, and, rather inexplicably, he's wearing a suit. We don't need the screenplay to tell us that he's running away from something, but it throws us a few bones anyway. "Are you divorced?" asks the guy who sells him a frighteningly decrepit sailboat. "No, I'm not," Lucas replies. Apparently these docks are a haven for divorced men, running away from their pasts and trying to regain some vestige of youth and happiness. Neither of those options seem very likely for Lucas's character, who seems thoroughly grounded in his own personal darkness from the first frame to the last, but he's still here for the same reason: to disappear.
Springsteen's "Queen of the Supermarket" instead...) Amidst all of this, Lucas sinks into mourning and succumbs to an alcohol-fueled depression, rebuilding the broken-down boat as he tries to rebuild his own heart, soul, and life. It's a nice idea, as crushing loss has led to many great works of art in the past. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will relate to our young mariner: when we lose the things that are most important to us, it feels impossibly wrong to move on without them, and Lucas plays that kind of unendurable pain very well. But the screenplay betrays his efforts, and clunky editing only makes matters worse. A long, drawn out montage during the film's mid-section shows Lucas's descent into alcoholism, but it feels more like an anti-drinking commercial than it does a movie. Even the nice moments in there, like one where he reads out loud to imaginary children, or where he loses his temper with another phantom in his head, have their emotional force truncated by tonally awkward fade-to-black cuts. The segment ends up feeling both painful and eternal, and the only solace comes from the fact that the film improves somewhat after it's over.
There isn't a whole lot of dialogue in Hide Away, and Lucas gets to spend a good deal of the (mercifully brief) runtime onscreen by himself. But even with so many intimate moments, we don't really get a deep sense of who he is. The same holds true for the supporting characters, who each have a few shining moments, but seem thrown in to fulfill decidedly more calculated plot points. Listed as the "Ancient Mariner" in the credits, we're (probably) meant to believe that Cromwell and Lucas are essentially the same person, with the latter being on a 20-year delay, but that slice of symbolism only gets a few moments of clarity. Zurer's character ("Waitress," how exciting) is even more of a caricature, with the film's most cringe-worthy moment coming when she solicits a sexual encounter with Lucas's character late in the film, eliciting a brief flashback that shows us just what happened to his family (and a too-subtle hint as to why he feels guilty enough to run away from it).
To Lucas's credit, he pulls this all off very well, giving us a handful of emotionally resonant moments in a film that otherwise never feels the slightest bit organic. The "plot twist" with his family doesn't work though, and it mutes the impact of his struggle with himself. The screenplay oscillates randomly between not giving it's audience enough credit and expecting them to make huge leaps in logic without the slightest bit of exposition or clarification, and the result is a frustrating, muddled mess of a movie that never finds its feet and has no damn clue what it wants to be. It would have been better to leave Lucas as an enigmatic figure, suffering from a nameless pain, to leave the funeral suit he arrives in at the film's outset as the only physical link to his mourning and his past life; it would have been better to build on the strong onscreen relationship he shares with Cromwell in their few scenes together and to pretty much eliminate Zurer from the film altogether; it would have been better if this film had a discernible story arc. Sadly, the film and it's director Chris Eyre (with whom I am entirely unfamiliar) don't take the ideal or sensible paths here, opting instead for something more minimalistic and abstract. But you can't have meaningful minimalism without a fully formed idea to build it on, and despite some nice flashes of concept, the framework here is distinctly half-baked.