Skyfall

I have to guess that Daniel Craig’s James Bond doesn’t like his job much.  He continues his profession to fill a void with another void.  After all the hammy fun of previous actors playing the role, Craig’s interpretation is probably the most realistic because he approaches the character as an actual human being with a scarred soul, rather than an immortal playboy hero. Yet, I still wonder if Craig is ever going to have any fun.

Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, the latest of the 007 franchise, attempts to humanize the infamous covert British agent by tearing away at Bond’s wounds, wounds we never knew he had as far as the films are concerned.

Could it be more ironic that Craig feels a bit of disdain for the role?  Especially since Skyfall has the character about to walk away from his profession following the series’ most explosive opening sequence in which he is accidentally shot by his own agency.  Bond survives the bullet and attempts to leave behind the hired gun by drinking himself into the night with scorpions resting on his arm.  Once danger strikes London, he reconsiders early retirement.

He returns home with a problematic shoulder and in desperate need of a shave.  M, or Mom (Judi Dench), is about to lose MI6 after a bombing on the agency’s headquarters, as well as the hacking of her own confidential files including the identities of the agents on her payroll.  As soon as these spies begin turning up as corpses, M only trusts Bond to seek out the individual responsible.  This leads Bond to Shanghai where he reunites with his former partner (Naomie Harris).  He also finds himself introduced to Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), a woman under the threatening grip of a mad villain, Silva (Javier Bardem).  I call Silva mad, but really as played by Bardem, he is the most terrifying of all Bond villains, kind of like a blending of the Joker and Bane in terms of insanity, genius, intimidation, and character backstory.  How fitting it is then that Bond takes on the persona of Bruce Wayne throughout the film.

Silva is interested in the destruction of MI6 and has stolen the computer files necessary to track down its agents and kill them.  Bond and a few others may be the last hope to save the organization.  Mendes, the very capable director here, gives Bond, M, and Silva plenty of dimension and texture with this film.  Why do we actually care about Bond?  Why do we root for him after 50 years?  Why is Silva so evil?  Why is M so attached to Bond?  Mendes actually answers some important questions all the while dazzling our senses.  In fact, the more I reflect on Skyfall, the more I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more than I did a week ago.

This is by-and-large the most visually stunning and entrancing James Bond adventure we will ever get.  The exotic locales of Instabul, Shanghai, and even London look absolutely gorgeous.  The action is filmed in a much-appreciated, non-contemporary style—meaning you can actually see what’s happening.  Try making any sense of the action in Quantum of SolaceSkyfall also boasts terrific performances from the entire cast.  Attempt to pin down a disappointment in this bunch… I dare you.

While Craig has never been my favorite Bond, he fills the role perfectly for this particular film.  I’ve never appreciated the grit and glum of his interpretation.  But this generation is all about the dark and grim.  And given the backstory Mendes presents for the character, we begin to understand why this Bond resembles a tattered Bruce Wayne, or a thankless Jason Bourne.  In fact, this film really marks a turning point for the character and for the franchise.

Before the film fizzles into a tense-thriller version of Home Alone, Skyfall centers on Bond looking at himself, literally reflecting in mirrors, and making sense of his past.  MI6 also does the same as the government attempts to shut them down.  With changing times and new threats afoot, are 007 and his cohorts necessary?  Is it time for a new agency?

But Skyfall reminds us of Bond’s brand of justice, and the immortality of rogue action-taking.  Perhaps that’s the immortality of this franchise.

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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Director Steven Spielberg and Producer Peter Jackson collaborate for their marvelous adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin.  As a welcome Christmas gift to fans of the classic long-lived European comics as well as the uninitiated, this is the first motion-capture animated film I can fully praise with an abundance of exclamation points.  Spielberg has directed a sprawling action-adventure film for families that springs with life and leaps with wit.

In the 1940s, young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases a model collector’s ship, the Unicorn, that immediately thrusts him into danger.  The model contains a riddle and secret code, but what does it mean and where does it lead?  Accompanied by his trustworthy pup, Snowy, Tintin must elude several dangerous characters seeking to steal his rare artifact.  This leads the young adventurer to Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a notorious drunk who may be the key to solving the secret of the Unicorn.

With Tintin, the infamous Steven Spielberg finally returns to light up cinemas following a 3-year absence.  Ironically, this film may have more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark than his last disappointing outing with the famed archeologist. Tintin is full of exciting mystery and grandiose action sequences, brilliant animation, shades of inviting humor, and a gorgeous 3D presentation.  This is easily the best animated film I’ve seen all year, and contains one of the year’s most entertaining action sequences, live-action or animation.

As for the motion-capture technique, Spielberg and Jackson know what they’re doing here.  I’ve found the work done by Robert Zemeckis (who’s recently been obsessed with the technology) over the last seven years to be a total snooze.  The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Christmas Carol never got it quite right despite painstaking efforts to be sure.  Tintin, however, is a visual marvel.  The animation is spot-on, and the performances behind the characters onscreen, chief among them Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, and Andy Serkis, are uniformly excellent.

The film ends with the setup for another adventure, and I hope American audiences seek out The Adventures of Tintin, as it is not a well-known property here.  Forget about needing to know anything.  Walk in blind and let the film dazzle you from beginning to end.

 

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher closes out of his Facebook to take on a remake of the Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on the first installment of a trilogy of novels.  I sat through this film, encompassed by the calculated grim atmosphere, taken in by the stylish cinematography, and ultimately slapped around by the incessant violence.  Ignore the snowy landscapes.  Dragon Tattoo is utterly and completely the anti-Christmas film of the season as it so proudly advertises.

Daniel Craig plays investigative journalist, Mikael, undergoing a major setback in his career that has him crawling out from an under a lawsuit.  As an escape for Mikael, he accepts an invitation to a Swedish island from aging Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to unearth a 40-year-old missing person case—Harriet Vagner (Henrik’s niece), a young girl who was abducted and likely murdered—her body was never found.  Mikael leaves his boss and lover (Robin Wright) back at the office to isolate himself in a tiny house on the island where he studies old photographs and police investigation reports, while also conducting interviews of the family members scattered within close radius on the island.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is introduced as an intelligent, and mightily troubled 24-year-old woman working as a private investigator.  Her life has been and continues to be flooded with trauma.  She undergoes sexual abuse from an overseeing guardian responsible for withholding her monetary earnings, and generally is mistreated by all the men that occupy her life.  She’s cold, quiet, pierced, tattooed, gothic-looking, bisexual, and every adjective that might make a 65-year-old white businessman uncomfortable.  Midway into the film, she partners with Mikael, both professionally and otherwise, to piece together the puzzle of the long-missing Harriet.

David Fincher, an auteur when it comes to such material, displays a deft hand for sinking audiences into uncomfortable darkness.  Zodiac, Seven, The Game, and others have become his bread and butter, so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  This is almost certainly his darkest film yet.  What holds him back from greatness here is the source novel which screenwriter Steven Zaillian attempts to translate over a very, very long 2 hour and 40 minute runtime.  If the mystery were as engulfing as it ought to be, the film might not be as tough of a sit, but the film meanders before sinking its teeth in, and treads water for 30 minutes after the film climaxes.  While Fincher often had me enraptured in the film’s most piercing and horrific sequences, the whole is missing a few pieces.

Both Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig commit to their roles completely, especially Mara.  She’s uncomfortable and intoxicating in the role.  Craig has a cool confidence that exudes James Bond (go figure), and offsets his internal desperation.  However, their teaming happens much later in the film than I was anticipating.  And their sexual affair threw me for a loop.  Not because Craig is about twice her age, but because the spark between the two is missing.  There’s no chemistry, there’s no heat, and even less plausibility.  The character of Lisbeth wields her sexuality like a weapon, but there’s little buildup between her and Mikael.

It must also be noted that the film unleashes some of the most shocking scenes ever filmed.  Fincher’s eye never shies away from the graphic nature of the story.  Nothing goes implied here.  It’s all onscreen.  I’m guessing the novel did the same.  Anyone interested in seeing this film needs to be prepared for some horrific depictions of torture and rape.  It’s blood-curdling, and stomach-twisting.  The scenes emphasize the horror endured by Lisbeth and that has shattered here trust in men, until Mikael offers her a first brushing of kindness that draws her to him.

Where does that leave me with this film?  I walked out of the screening without the slightest guess as to how I responded to it.  I know it’s certainly not in line with Fincher’s best work.  The chemistry between the leads was also lacking, or simply not amped up enough.  No amount of onscreen intimacy can generate chemistry.  However, the performances were right.  The mood of the film carried me through.  The cinematography captured the ugliest corners of this cold world.  The film’s ending left me wondering where the characters go next.  I cringed, I looked away, but I was also pulverized by this film.  And I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  I’m certain that’s what Fincher wanted.  I won’t ‘recommend’ this film to anyone.  It’s impossible to enjoy, there is only enduring.  But overall, the film does exactly what it’s designed to do in a compelling way.

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Cowboys & Aliens

Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) enters the town of Absolution in 1873 as a man with no name.  In fact, he’s a man without an identity.  He doesn’t know his own ‘who,’ ‘where,’ or why.  What he does know is that he can speak English, he’s wounded, he can easily disarm and maim a group of men singlehandedly, and he has a permanent shiny bracelet on his wrist.  Soon enough he is made aware that he is a wanted murderer and thief—what he did exactly he can’t recall.  Luckily for him he angered the wrong fellow, Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a wealthy rancher trying to industrialize Absolution.  Dolarhyde’s son Percy (Paul Dano) is a wreckless and cowardly twit.  The town has had about enough of him and Lonergan fails to last even minutes in his presence without putting him in his place.  When both Jake and Percy finds themselves under arrest, Dolarhyde comes to rip them both from the hands of the law.  Things aren’t boding well for our antihero until bright lights peer in from above.  The bracelet on his wrist starts blinking.  Enemy alien spaceships zoom in overhead and begin snatching people up from the street, including Dolaryde’s boy and the town sheriff.  The cowboys are forced to chase after their loves ones that were abducted by ‘demons.’  Lonergan is coerced into joining Dolarhyde and his posse as he searches for answers to his past.

While part of me feels that Director Jon Favreau could have just as easily skipped the whole ‘aliens invade’ plot and delivered the best straight-up western of the last decade or so, I would be lying if I said I didn’t still enjoy the heck out of Cowboys & Aliens.  Favreau could’ve turned this into a gooey camp fest, but instead he’s taking things dead on serious.  The threat is immense.  The violence is gritty.  Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig are bent on saving the Old West and they deliver top-dollar performances.  Even with such silliness in the plot (and there are a few howlers and head-scratchers—some of them hybrids), the movie plays like it’s a full-out invasion assault.  I rather appreciated that even if it seems other viewers wanted a more self-aware picture.  Sorry folks, there’s no snakes on this plane.

Favreau improves on Iron Man 2.  He feels much more like a competent action director.  Cowboys & Aliens has several impressive gunfights and aerial battles, giant special effects, and it moves at great speed.  In between the lightning and thunder, we get actors doing something great—called acting.  Ford, Craig, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, and others have interesting dialogue and several moments of humor.  I really felt like Favreau and his team put together the ideal summer popcorn film.  Cowboys, aliens, guns, pow and laughs—what more can you want?

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