Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

John Carter

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Mild Spoiler Warnings:

An airplane is the wrong place to watch John Carter. Or … maybe it’s the right place. You can’t get overwhelmed by special effects watching a tiny screen twenty feet away from you. Story, acting and dialogue become more important; action less. And so while this review is necessarily of a flawed viewing experience, I think I will probably stand by it after I’ve seen Carter on my big TV.

I’m a big fan of Burroughs’ martian tales. Although certain aspects are outdated, they are imaginative, thrilling and captivating. Captain John Carter of Virginia and Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium are two of the great characters in science fiction and Barsoom is one of the most fully realized science fiction worlds ever devised. Barsoom doesn’t just have places, people and monsters. It has culture, history and religion; the things that make a world real. I read the books in college and loved them and I keep meaning to return to Barsoom again. For a long time, I wished John Carter’s cave were real and I could go there. So my expectations were high, if tempered by the cynicism of a 40-year-old.

I can report that while I was disappointed, I was not appalled. The movie is not bad; it is quite watchable. It has some good moments and retains a bit of a sense of wonder. However, I can’t really see myself recommending it to someone other than … me. I have an ability to watch some films and filter out the bad stuff and enjoy the good stuff. This is why I like the Star Wars prequels better than most people in my age group: I enjoy the good parts and ignore the bad ones. I can’t do that with every film, only with films that hit a particular flawed nexus.

But I can’t recommend to anyone else. I think that those unfamiliar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves a bit lost and bored, not really caring too deeply about it. And I think most of those familiar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves outraged. This is Borroughs filtered through the action film genre: over-expositioned, filled with too many action scenes, lacking the emotional thread of the books.

I don’t regret watching it. There was stuff that irritated me but enough to like that I’m not regretting the investment of two hours of my time . Granted … it was two hours on a plane; not exactly premium time. But I could find giving those two hours again at some point, maybe as background while I worked.

One big question is how Taylor Kitsch fares in the lead role. Kitsch is actually not bad. He’s not Hayden Christianson out there. But … he’s not that good either. Someone with less looks and more acting chops would have been better. Kitsch’s shortcomings stand out, however, because the rest of the cast is very good. Dominic West does some wonderful scenery chewing (and would have been a better choice in the lead); Willem Dafoe is excellent as Tars Tarkas; James Purefoy has a wonderful two lines as Kantos Kan. But the real gem is Lynn Collins, who simply shines as Dejah Thoris (surprise: I thought she must be English but looked her up and she’s American). She brings intelligence, conviction and beauty to the role, overcoming the writer’s “enhancements” of the character. I actually believed her as the Princess of Mars. Kitsch I could take or leave. But a sequel without Collins would not be worth it.

The biggest problem with the film is that it simply does too much. It’s like the makers decided that A Princess of Mars didn’t have enough material; they had to pull in entire Burroughs mythology and throw in some pointless action scenes. There are simply too many elements, too many working parts. We are not given time to marvel and awe at the beauty and grandeur of Barsoom. We simply stand there while more and more stuff is thrown at us: a stupid and unnecessary expansion of Carter’s adventures out West; an unnecessary addition to his backstory; the river Is; the Therns; some of the deeper politics — these are all things that were not really necessary and, frankly, smack of fanboyism. Lord of the Rings solved the problem of taking a sprawling story and trimming it down, even if it meant losing some of the good parts (Bombadil, the Barrow-Wights, the Scouring of the Shire). John Carter has the opposite problem — taking a lean story and going too deep. This makes for confusion. And the movie tries to cover up its sins with action sequences.

Example: introducing and ramping up the role of the Therns created a good enemy and a clever way to end the movie (and Mark Strong is solid in the role of the chief Thern). But it also was part of the general overwhelming confusion. Holding them back for a future movie; hinting at their existence; that might have worked better. Imagine John Carter returning to Earth, then realizing that someone was using that transportation mechanism and devising a method of smoking them out. That would have ended the movie on an intriguing note and set up the sequel. (That said, the entirely original ending of the movie is one of the best parts and left me smiling).

Really, and I hate to say this, almost all of the movie’s problems would go away if they had just followed the damned book. I don’t say this is a Burroughs purist or any other kind of purist. I haven’t objected to changes made to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or anything else because I understand that film is a different medium and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the big screen. I get that.

But there’s something the movie makers forgot: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the books the way he did for a reason. By sticking with Carter’s point of view, the elements of Martian society are introduced more gradually, with new layers of complexity coming with each subsequent book. We are along for the ride, sharing John’s sense of wonder and excitement as he discovers Barsoom. Sticking with that structure would have made for a much more even and far less confusing film.

It also would have taken away the movie’s most glaring problems: the over-reliance on action beats to keep the audience interested; the over-exposition; an arena sequence that is basically ripped straight out of Attack of the Clones. People have a tendency to dismiss Burroughs writing skill since he wrote pulpy stuff. That’s garbage. The man’s books are still read a century after they were written. That’s not because of the cover art. Burroughs could fucking write.

(Aside: I keep referring to action beats. This comes from a Kevin Smith monologue about trying to get a Superman movie made. He recounts a meeting with a Hollywood exec who claimed movies need an action beat every ten minutes to keep the audience interested. If you watch enough movies, you’ll see his philosophy is real. I hate the action beat philosophy and it’s the biggest problem with John Carter. Good films do not need action beats to keep us interested; they build toward action scenes. They don’t rely on them as periodic electroshocks to wake an audience put to sleep by ham-fisted writing.)

In the end, the ultimate test of any movie is “will I buy it on blu-ray?” “Will I spend my hard-earned money so that I can watch this over and over again?” And with John Carter, the answer is, despite my complaints, “probably”. The movie is far from perfect, not even that good. However, it’s not unwatchable and it has its moments. And, frankly, it is likely to be the only John Carter movie worth watching for the next couple of decades.

I will watch it again. I’ll watch it because I’ve been in love with Dejah Thoris for twenty years. I’ll watch it because I like seeing Tars Tarkas on the screen. I’ll watch it because I love Barsoom. And any chance to see it, even a flawed one, is a chance I have to take advantage of.

Your mileage may vary and almost certainly does.

One final note: it an absolute travesty that this film was a flop. It is not bad. It’s quite watchable. It does have a few really good moments. And most of the people I’ve spoken to found it passable. It’s certainly better and more imaginative that the Transformers, Spiderman or Pirates sequels that rake in billions. It flopped because it was badly marketed: the makers thought everyone knew who John Carter was; they didn’t hype it relentlessly — a stunning surprise for Disney; and they put a review embargo on it (always a bad sign). I read several people commenting that they wouldn’t see it because it looked like a cheap Star Wars knockoff.

Disney thought it was going to be a flop, treating it like one and then acted all stunned with their self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled itself. And their lack of vision cost the film the success that could have set up a sequel: a sequel that could have fixed many of the errors, avoided the mis-steps and given us the John Carter movie we have been waiting a hundred years for.

Oh, well. I’ll just have to cling to my hope that someone will throw a hundred million dollars at Joe Stracyzynski so he can get cracking on the Lensman movies.

IMDB rating: 7/10. But that’s on a fanboy filtering curve. For most people, it would be 6/10. And for many Burroughs fans, it would be lower.

Update: One other note. John Carter’s Earth-evolved physique gives him superior abilities in Mars’ lower gravity, both in the books and the film. But this ability is exaggerated to a big and bothersome degree in the film. That’s another thing that could have been fixed in a sequel.

Firefly and Serenity

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

I should have a feature-length post on this, but for the moment, I’ll like to Agony Booth’s nice video review of Serenity. The thing is, I watched Serenity as someone who had not seen a single second of Firefly. I liked it a lot, enough to make me buy the series and watch it. But I do agree with him: you did have that feeling of being at a great party where you didn’t know anyone. Once I’d watched the series, the movie was even better.

Fantasy Death

Monday, May 14th, 2012

This article, which talks about the way fantasy and sci-fi fans react to characters being killed off, reach a conclusion I find ridiculous:

I believe the discomfort comes down to the base fear of death and uncertainty that people face every day. Death is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t surprise me then that people would have such emotional reactions to fictional character death. They come to fiction to be taken away from the concerns of their everyday life. When confronted with the sudden death of a beloved character, viewers and readers are jarred into dealing with the uncertainty of life in their fiction and that can be unnerving. Look at reactions to the first murder in Psycho, or the death of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter as examples outside of Martin and Whedon if you will, as they’re not the only writers who use the tactic to drive the emotional point home.

This is psychoanalytical bullshit. The reaction of fans is much more down to Earth. They realize that these characters are fictional. And so killing them off is the writer’s choice, not something that just happened. Even the phrase “killing them off” acknowledges this.

What fans object to is not a character dying, but a character being killed in what feels like an arbitrary and capricious way. No one — NO ONE — objected to Spock being killed in Star Trek II. It was a great way to go, it was an emotional wallop and it was utterly consistent with the theme of the movie and his character. It was one of the best moments in the movies. People did object to Data being killed in Star Trek: Nemesis because it felt arbitrary and stupid. There was no reason for it to happen other than to shock us and try, unsuccessfully, to recreate the punch from Star Trek II.

Numerous sci-fi/fantasy deaths are well-regarded: Theoden’s fall in Lord of the Rings, Vader in Star Wars, Roy in Blade Runner, Ries in The Terminator, Kong in King Kong, Theo in Children of Men, Kosh in Babylon 5, the Knight’s pending death in Seventh Seal and Dumbledore’s fall in Harry Potter. All of these were cases were the death was consistent, reasonable and even noble.

If you look at the deaths that are poorly regard, they tend to be of the arbitrary “eh, shit happens” type: Trinity and Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, Padme in Revenge of the Sith, Ripley in Alien 3 or almost all the death in The Dark Tower.

I have not seen Game of Thrones or Buffy, but I did see Serenity. I didn’t object to the characters being killed. What I most objected to was Wash being killed so arbitrarily (and even then, I didn’t object that much, even though I loved his character). Yes, life is like that, especially a dangerous life. But we want to see our characters go down fighting, to die for a reason.

I mean, seriously: you’re going to take us on a journey with magic and swords or laser guns and faster than light travel; and suddenly you want to be all realistic when it comes to the characters being killed?

That’s the problem. We realize that we are in a fantasy world. And if our characters are going to go down — by the choice of the writer — we want them to go down for a reason.

Bechdel 2012

Monday, February 27th, 2012

So this video is up:

I’ve blogged about the Bechdel test before. And I think she gets to the heart of why it’s useful — not as an evaluator of a single film but of Hollywood in general. However, there is one issue I had with this and, increasing, with the Bechdel test itself. And it is based on her comments on Midnight in Paris.

Midnight in Paris fails the Bechdel test and it really shouldn’t. There are numerous women in the story and all — the two French women Gil meets, Gertrude Stein, Inez, Adriana — are good roles with smart dialogue and an importance to the plot. That it technically fails the Bechdel test is just that — technical. That Gertrude Stein is not shown relating to her lover is not some slap in the face from Woody Allen. It’s because the movie is not about Gertrude Stein.

And that brings me to the bigger problem with the Bechdel test. It’s less a test of sexism in Hollywood than it is of story structure. The way most stories are written is that you have a single protagonist. Everyone else is defined by their relationship to the protagonist. This is especially true in movies. Films, by necessity, must economize on characters and time. So if your protagonist is male, you will almost certainly fail the Bechdel test. Because two women interacting about something other than the protagonist would be a plot loop that a conscientious editor would almost certainly excise.

It is notable that of the movies she cites that pass the test — The Help, Winter’s Bone and Black Swan — all three have female protagonists. If you applied an inverse Bechdel test to these films, they would fail (although almost other movies would pass easily).

What the Bechdel test tells us is that Hollywood movies tend to still be built around a single protagonist and that this protagonist is almost always a man. That’s a fair point. As I noted in my previous post on this subject, movies that pass the test tend to be much more complete and rounded. But you could get the result a lot faster if you just counted male protagonists instead of interactions.

So why do Hollywood movies tend to center around a single man? Several reasons. First, most writers and directors are male and so they write male protagonists. Second, many movies concern war, prison or sports — which tend to be male-dominated. Third, non-essential characters, interactions and plot elements tend to be excised for economy (which is why so many characters are childless single children). And finally, if you’re plundering the literature for plots, you’re going to encounter an ouvre dominated by lots of men and Jane Austen. Why the literature is dominated by men is a discussion for another day.

(As limited as the Bechdel test is, the imitations are even more so. One of her commenters proposed the “LGBT” test that a movie should have two or more gay characters that interact about something other than their sexuality. This is a little silly. The Bechdel Test is useful because over half the population is female. Less than 3% are gay, so the test simply doesn’t transpose. Most movies don’t have even ten significant characters, let alone the sixty you would need to statistically have two gay characters.)

Machete Order

Monday, February 27th, 2012

I think I’ve made my feeling about the Star War prequels pretty clear. In short, I think they are very good, but flawed. And those flaws drive people in my age demographic bonkers. The hatred spewed at them is way out of proportion to their actual quality. And it is noteworthy that younger and older viewers see the prequels as about on par with the original trilogy. In the end, the original trilogy is elevated in the minds of Gen-Xers because we saw it as children. Nothing could live up to that.

One question I’ve wondered about is what order to show the films to my daughter in. This article as a great suggestion, advocating showing them in the sequence of IV-V-I-II-III-VI. That preserves the big shock of Vader’s identity while keeping things coherent. It’s a fantastic idea and I intend to follow it.

The alternative is hoving off Episode I entirely (“Machete Order”). And I agree with a lot of what he says. It does do away with a lot of the problems of the trilogy and gets back to what I said in my past post: the original trilogy would have worked better had it started Anakin as a troubled teenager rather than an innocent child.

Tree of Life

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Warning: This post is lot more long-haired and poseury than I expected. But the film involved provoked a lot of thinking. Proceed at your own risk. And feel free to call me artsy-fartsy pseudo-intellectual pants when it’s over. I’ve been called it before, so I won’t mind.

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Minimalism

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

I’m sure wiser heads have commented on this, but I was struck by something while watching Tron: Legacy the other night: the growing influence of minimalism in American movie soundtracks.

Let me back up a bit. In the early 90′s, I saw an outstanding documentary called The Thin Blue Line. Errol Morris, who is the film-maker Michael Moore wishes he were, made a compelling case that an innocent man was on death row — such a compelling case that he was released a year later.

One of the great things about the film is the score, which was put together by minimalist composer Phillip Glass. At the time, I had no idea what minimalist music was. When I first heard the name, I assumed it was what it sounded like — an orchestra where the violin would play one note, the trumpet would play another and that would be it: a more upbeat version of Cage’s silence. But minimalism is more complex than that. And Glass’s score, with its emphasis on rhythm and harmony at the exclusion of melody, was perfect for the movie. It gave an unusual urgency to the narrative and the increasing complexity of the harmony emphasized the increasing complexity of the story you were required to believe to conclude that Randall Dale Adams was guilty.

Glass did another score for The Hours which was very similar — his music all begins to sound alike after a while. But it also elevated that movie, especially the scene where Julianne Moore hallucinates that the room is flooding.

So, back to Tron. Daft Punk’s score is very good and also very minimalist. It is built on a handful of leit motifs with lots of repetition, increasing complexity and changing emphasis. It gives the film almost all of its energy and drive. But Tron is not unique. Inception had a very minimalistic score. Doctor Who uses a fair amount of minimalism. Both Batman movies use a lot of minimalism. Hans Zimmer, in particular, has been driving the minimalist train for several years with dramatic success.

So why is minimalism so big now? I think because it is well-suited to the kind of entertainment we’re seeing — fast-paced, quickly-edited, quick moving films that have little time for symphonic scores. They need a score that moves the movie, rather than emphasizes it. This is especially true of science fiction and fantasy films where a minimalist score can match the “techie” look and feel.

That’s not to slam symphonic scores like those of John Williams, whose epic scores for the three Star Wars prequels were the best things about them. Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings, with its strong Wagnerian influence, is wonderful. But the palette has now broadened to the point where a minimalist score can not only be acceptable, but one of the best scores of the year.

We’re in a golden age of movie scores. If only the scripts could keep up.

Tron: Legacy

Friday, January 6th, 2012

I’ll be honest: I did not actually see the original Tron until a few years ago. Even though it had aged a bit, I still enjoyed it thoroughly. It had spirit and style and originality that must have been startling in 1982. Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges are two of my favorite actors.

I just watched Legacy on streaming. I’m sure it was dazzling in the theater in 3-D but it looked pretty damned good on my iPad. The effects are not only dazzling, they are imaginative. The world had a clarity, a style and sense about it that is missing from the usual “see how much fiddly shit we can CGI” style that results in all film spaceships, robots and cities looking like CGI junk piles. The pulsating minimalistic score is fantastic and Jeff Bridges is, as always, wonderful.

Problems? Well, Garrett Hedlund isn’t very good in the lead role and his character is not written very well. Olivia Wilde has startling eyes and can act but her character is criminally underwritten. And there was way too little Bruce Boxleitner for my tastes. His single line as Tron: “I fight for the users”, sent a thrill through me that most of the movie lacked. It also dragged on a bit, especially at the end. (Spoiler warning). We all know Flynn doesn’t die; so the emotional impact was nil (and Hedlund’s acting didn’t convince me). CLU was a good villain, but also underwritten. It’s only Bridges’ performance that makes him in any ways memorable. A real motive — the inability to attain perfection or feeling abandoned by his creator — could have been introduced early and made him a much more, er, three-dimensional villain.

And that really gets to my main point. When I defended the Star Wars prequels, I said that the frustrating and angering thing about them was they were good movies that could have been great. Some more polish, some better acting, some better directing and they would stand tall next to the original trilogy. Tron: Legacy is cut from the same cloth. This should have been an astonishing movie. Instead it was merely good. A better actor in the lead and some better writing and characterization would have made this a must-see movie that blew Avatar out of the water and set a new high mark for 3-D movies. Instead, it’s merely good.

7/10. And I’m a fan so normal people should knock a point off that.

2010 in Film

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Yes, it’s almost 2012. But being only a year behind is an accomplishment for me. If you look up previous “best in film” entries, you’ll find that I’m usually more like 18 months behind. But the combination of Netflix streaming and a new iPad is helping me stay more up to date. A little.

But really, being a year behind is a good thing in some ways. I don’t get swept up in the hype. Some of the films I saw over a year and a half ago, so I’ve had time to grok them, to get over my initial reaction.

According to the critics, the best films of 2010 were: The Social Network, Winter’s Bone, Black Swan, Inception, Toy Story 3, Ghost Writer, the Kids Are All Right, the King’s Speech, Carlos and 127 Hours. Add The Fighter and True Grit and you’ve got the Best Picture nominees. Looking at IMDB’s ratings, we find a broad swath of good films. I’ll go by them in IMDB’s order. As a reminder, here is how I rate films.

Inception I’ve rated this 9/10 and it is probably my best film of 2010. That rating may be skewed a little by my love of sci-fi and movies with big ideas. But despite numerous plot holes, this was a thrilling film. The finale 45 minutes is gripping with wonderful action scenes, huge ideas and a powerful emotional climax. I’ve now watched it three or four times and still love it. All good films start as an 8 since I tend to be conservative but this has moved up to a 9. One of my best friends hates this movie and while I think she makes some good points, it still overwhelms them, in my opinion.

Toy Story 3. Here’s the sign of a good sequel: I have not seen Toy Stories 1 and 2. And I really liked this movie, which managed to pull on the heartstrings like an expert. 8/10

Black Swan: Now this would have been a bold choice for Best Picture. The King’s Speech was utterly safe Academy fare — a period piece with great acting. But Swan was far more daring, far bolder with a searing performance from Natalie Portman and, hopefully, a breakthrough for Mila Kunis. The ballet finale was as griping as the finale of an action film. 8/10 and possibly a 9 in the future as I continue to digest it.

The King’s Speech: It’s not that it’s not a good movie. It’s just that it’s so perfectly pitched to Hollywood’s wheelhouse, it’s massively over-rated. A star cast, a touching story, solid direction. It’s good and Firth is great. But I couldn’t help but be let down a little. It was not a great film. Months later, I’m having difficult remembering more than a couple of great scenes. 7/10.

How to Train Your Dragon: Word of mouth on this animated feature was spectacular. And while I enjoyed it — and it has some spectacular moments — it was just a little too hip, a little too easily aimed. My daughter, who loves animation, was not impressed. 7/10.

Shutter Island: The critics under-rated this one, I think, because (1) critics don’t like films that confuse their mediocre minds; (2) the twist ending was foreseeable. But I found it startlingly well-directed; a wonderful noir atmosphere that was a throwback to a better age of film. Dicaprio plays a nearly identical note to Inception, but again shows why he’s one of the best actors out there. Here’s the thing: combine this film with Scorsese’s recent apparent triumph with Hugo. Scorsese, having finally won his Oscar, is making movies like a man freed from expectations. His last two films show a man no longer aiming at an Oscar but just making the films he wats to make. He hasn’t been this good since the 70′s. And he was pretty damned good in the interim. I’m reminded of Spielberg, who spent years trying to win an award with Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple and Always and then moved to a much better phase of his career when he decided to ignore what anyone else thought. 8/10

The Social Network: I really liked this film. While I’m sure the accuracy is suspect, it was fun to have a film treat me like I wasn’t an idiot. The sharp dialogue was a true joy and the technical/legal aspects were explained without being dumbed down. More like this, please. 8/10

The Fighter: I initially rated this 8/10, but think I was swept up in the great acting by Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as well as the considerable charm of Amy Adams. I’m lowering it to 7/10 but it was a still a fine film.

Kick-Ass: I have this rated 7/10 and that’s probably my ego insisting that I can’t like it as much as I do. This was just so much fun to watch. I know Roger Ebert and others were appalled by a young girl spewing profanities and murdering roomfuls of bad guys. And if I took it seriously, I would be too. But the movie is so ridiculously over the top, so obviously satirical, I was able to enjoy it on its own terms. I hope we see a lot more of Chloe Moretz, who is utterly charming. 7/10

True Grit: The Coen brothers are two more film-makers who seem liberated by having finally won an Academy Award and are back to making the great films they want to make. Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld make this movie, which is more compelling, if less iconic, than the Wayne version. 8/10

127 Hours: I found this to be a bit gimmicky. It was watchable, which is more than I expected. Wonderfully filmed and directed. But a little bit grisly and harsh for my tastes. 7/10

Tangled: My daughter’s favorite movie. Maximus the Horse it the biggest reason to watch this one, although it is also a visual delight. 7/10

Harry Potter 7a: I rate this a point higher than I should at 9/10 because I’m a fan. I will probably lower that rating to 8/10 once I’ve watched it again. There are some dazzling scenes in this one, such as the destruction of the first Horcrux. And the sense of of glowering menace throughout the film is palpable.

Despicable Me: This was simple fun. Cute, funny and a little bit touching. I put this in my queue, forgot about it, got in the mail and enjoyed it. What elevates it to a good movie are the minions. I could watch shorts about them all day. 8/10

Winter’s Bone: This movie continues to haunt me. It’s lack of flash is its strength. No fancy editing, no big stunts, no big actors, no speechifying. It just is what it is: a film that has compelling characters in a believable situation and follows them to their conclusion. Probably one of the best-plotted movies of 2010. Jennifer Lawrence’s understated performance is a gem. And the scene with the Army recruiter is oddly compelling. 8/10

The Kids are All Right: Easily the most over-rated movie of the year. This is an example of what I call the Hollywood Cafe Klatsch film. An insider writer write something semi-autobiographical, a bunch of big-name actors are in it, the critics rave and the audience says … “OK”. The Squid and the Whale was like this too. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just that it’s not that great. I’ll watch almost anything with Julianne Moore in it but this strained my patience. I kept asking why I should care. A movie centered around a lesbian couple can be fine; but not when that’s pretty much all it’s about. 6/10

Easy A: It kind of falls apart plot-wise. But Emma Stone is so watchable and is so easily funny, I liked this film anyway. Please, please let her become the star that Lindsey Lohan should have been. 7/10

Not Seen by Me: The Town, Four Lions, Ghost Writer

Overall, 2010 was not a bad year for film. I doubt that many of my listees are destined to be classics, but there was plenty of good fare to be had. If I had to list my best films, they would probably be, in order, Inception, Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, Shutter Island, True Grit, Toy Story 3, Harry Potter 7a, Despicable Me, Kick-ass. Looking at the DVD test — a test becoming increasingly irrelevant in the days of streaming video — I own Inception and HP7a. And, if money were not an issue, I would probably own all the rest.

That’s not a bad year.

The Bond Films: The Craig Years

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Whether the Daniel Craig era spells a new life for the Bond franchise or just one last burst of glory before the end is unknown. It will be interesting to see what Skyfall is like. But for the moment, it has revived a franchise that was almost dead.

Casino Royale is rated by IMDB at a staggering 7.9, tied with Goldfinger as the best James Bond film ever. I agree, rating it a 9. It wasn’t the Bond film I always wanted; it was something better: the Bond film I never knew I wanted.

After the gory excesses of Die Another Day, it’s as though Barbara Broccoli realized they’d taken the formula as far as it could go. They needed to go back to basics. And where else to go but Fleming’s first Bond novel and a fresh interpretation? I’m not entirely comfortable with franchise reboots, but this one works. It reminds me a great deal of Dr. No, showing us an earlier edgier Bond that is far closer to Fleming vision.

As a pure movie, everything works. The directing is solid and avoids do much ADD editing. The CGI crap and endless chases are ditched in favor of a more visceral approach to the action. The pre-credits fight has a brutality that harkens back to the vicious train fight in From Russia with Love, a level reached again in the tense stairway fight. The chase through the construction sight is dazzling. The gadgets are reduced to a supporting level, used when necessary rather than having a plot built around them.

But what’s better is that the series gets back to what makes Bond Bond — spy intrigue and tension. The card game — a card game! — is one of the most tense sequences in the entire series. The torture scene has an intensity never seen before. Both are taken from Fleming’s novel and both are used to maximum effect. And the shadowy Mr. White and his organization are a wonderful lead-in to future films, promising even more intrigue.

The Bond girls are wonderful. Caterina Murino is so beautiful it floors me that Bond can leave her to chase down terrorists. And Eva Green makes for the best and most believable Bond girl since … I dunno … the Spy Who Loved Me? Jeffrey Wright immediately became my favorite Felix Leiter, doing more in a one-minute stairway conversation than his predecessors did with entire movies. The villainous Le Chiffre is played perfectly by Mads Mikkelsen. He is brutal, brilliant, selfish and arrogant, which makes his losing it in his final scene so powerful.

As for Daniel Craig, I was a skeptic. He convinced me. We have yet to see if he can make Bond into the smoother, more polished version he is destined to become. But his portrayal of Bond as a believable assassin, someone who is damaged and dangerous, is powerful.

Quantum of Solace, rated 12th by IMDB and given a 7 by me, was a bit disappointing. There was going to be an inevitable come-down after Casino, but this was a bit of a steeper drop than I expected.

The bothersome part is that it has trouble being a Bond film. Intrigue and mystery are replaced by action and mayhem. Unravelling Quantum should have taken Bond the entire film. Instead, he gets in by beating someone up.

The character of Bond is kept very narrow. He shows no interest in Camille and little compassion for Fields. He has none of the flashes of wit and charm seen in the previous film. He is cold and focused, which is a part of Bond but not all of him. The action scenes get repetitive. We know Bond is the best; we don’t need to see him take out entire legions of bad guys six or seven times a film.

The villains are too numerous to keep track of. Instead of a primary villain and a top henchmen, we get Mr. Green (who is a pretty decent villain), a forgettable general and a bunch of Quantum members who simply vanish. The Bond girls are OK, but their chemistry with Craig is almost non-existent.

The plot is a bit silly. As Gregg Eastebrook pointed out, the statement that governments change hands in South America every week is wildly out of date. Since the fall of communism, South American governments have been very stable with only Honduras experiencing a coup, if you consider it a coup, which I don’t. Then there’s the exploding hotel …

FInally, the action scenes are simply terrible. Craig is fine, the directing is fine. But the editing is so chaotic, so ADD, so rapid, you can’t tell what’s going on. The parkour chase in Casino had rapid editing, but it was coherent, with a depth of field and a shot selection that kept the viewer oriented and on the edge of their seat. The action scenes in Qauntum are almost unwatchable.

This move just frustrates me. With some competent editing, some more tension and intrigue instead of action and some chemistry between the leads, it could have been very good. As it is, it’s completely forgettable. I watched it two hours ago and I’m already having trouble recalling it.

Fortunately, the Craig era, after some delay, is marching on. I’m cautiously optimist about the next film. Sam Mendes is directing. Javier Bardem, a superb actor, is playing the villain. Hopefully, Mendes can get back to what made Casino so good and move Bond more toward the polished agent he’s destined to become. The hard edge has been fun; now it’s time to soften it a bit.

This has been a fun series of posts. I’ll have one last post to wrap things up before moving on to my next project.

Tuesday Linkorama

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
  • Sullivan delivers a broadside to Obama’s marijuana policy.
  • Spooky pics of a funfair in North Korea.
  • A very funny summary of movie posters that all look alike.
  • Taking out the neuro-trash.
  • The Bond Films: The Brosnan Years

    Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

    If there was anyone who was born to play 007, it was Pierce Brosnan. I don’t remember much about Remington Steele, despite being a fan at the time. But I remember thinking that Brosnan was mostly auditioning for the role of Bond. He had everything you want in a Bond — looks, charm, humor, action skill, wit. It’s interesting to think what might have happened had he been hired for Daylights instead of Dalton.

    It’s too bad the movies let him down as time went on.

    Goldeneye was simply the best Bond in 15 years and a smashing debut for Pierce Brosnan. Almost everything works. The sophisticated plot, sprawling over the Cold War and its aftermath, is a great spy tale. The action scenes are good to great, although the tank chase is a bit over the top and needlessly destructive. I always feel bad for the Russian soldiers getting needlessly killed.

    It’s directed with style and flair, with plenty of tension even in dialogue scenes. Izabella Scorupco is a great Bond girl — beautiful, tough and smart. Sean Bean is his usual excellent self (his performance in Lord of the Rings was an unheralded emotional anchor to the films). The music is good, including Tina Turner’s title song (in an unpublished novel, a character said to hear her voice is to know her life).

    In 1995, this was breath of fresh air.

    The new additions to the franchise also work. Judi Dench is a great choice as M; the scene in which she calls Bond a sexist, misogynist dinosaur — a slap 20 years in the making — is excellent. And Samantha Bond is perfect as Moneypenny. She’s funny, charming and just pretty enough.

    There are a few things that don’t work for me. I can’t stand the character of Xenia Onatopp, who is so ridiculous and over-acted, I want to fast forward every time she’s on screen. I’ve frankly never understood the whole Famke Janssen thing. The absurdity of using Arecibo for the finale bothers me. And the lair of the bad guys gave rise to my coining of the Slick Science Rule.

    So not perfect; but damn good. IMDB rates it the 6th best Bond film, the finest vintage since Spy. I agree. 8/10.

    Tomorrow Never Dies: OK, this is one where I disagree with the critics, the Bond fans and IMDB. This is ranked 18th on IMDB and was tepidly received by numerous critics. I just don’t get it.

    The plot is solid, if filled with technical holes. Stamper and Carver make great villains. I know a lot of people can’t stand Pryce’s performance, but I found it well within the over-the-top tradition of Bond villains. And the idea of a media mogul starting a war for ratings has been believable since Hearst. Brosnan is in top form, even making the scenes with Teri Hatcher believable. The film features several great (if implausible) action scenes, notably a great scene involving a remote-controlled car (the shot of Brosnan grinning like a kid as he pilots it is worth the price of admission). I even like Sheryl Crow’s title song.

    What elevates it to a really good Bond film, in my opinion, is Michelle Yeoh as the Chinese agent Wai Lin. She is one of my favorite Bond girls, although that’s at least in part because Michelle Yeoh is one of my favorite actresses (she was stiffed out of an Oscar nomination for Crouching Tiger). Her character is believable, her comic timing excellent and she and Brosnan have wonderful chemistry. After Die Another Day, a lot of people suggested that Halle Berry’s pointless Jinx character be the subject of a spinoff movie or a recurring role. Screw that; Wai Lin would have been much better.

    I simply don’t get why this is rated so low. Below Octopussy? Below Golden Gun? Below Diamonds? You’ve got to be kidding me. I rate it an 8 when I’m in a generous mood, just a cut below Goldeneye.

    The World is Not Enough: As much as I disagreed on Tomorrow, I have to agree with the consensus on this one. IMDB ranks it 19th. I give it a 6. Brosnan is fine, as always. But the plot, the writing and the action let him down.

    The problem is that it goes for too much action cliche: people outrunning explosions, vehicles exploding at the slightest touch, Elektra’s all-too-predictable betrayal. Not to mention the wild science. A captivating film could get me to ignore these problems. But TWINE is so long and boring, I can’t help but notice. In this film, you see the bad elements that would explode into disaster with Die Another Day.

    Sophie Marceau tries to be a great Bond Girl, but Elektra is such a bad character, it doesn’t really work. Robert Carlyle is a boring villain (And can we rid ourselves of the cliche of people who can’t feel pain being invulnerable? People who can’t feel pain have very serious problems). “Welcome to my nuclear family” has to be one of the worst catch phrases for a villain in Bond history.

    And that’s not even mentioning Denise Richards. She tries. She’s beautiful. She smiles well. I liked her a lot in Starship Troopers. She’s just in over her head.

    World is not bad, per se. But it’s just not good. And the elements that were bad turned our to be merely precursors of what was to come.

    Die Another Day: IMDB, the critics and Bond fans alike agree that this was the worst Bond film ever. It’s the film that almost killed the franchise, despite making lots of money.

    The film itself is actually not horrifying. The problem is that it’s simply not a Bond film. Decades of cinematic history are flushed down the toilet to make a film built not on tension and espionage, but action and chaos.

    It has its good points. Um … Rosamund Pike is quite fetching. Um … there’s some reasonable tension in the climax. Um … Samantha Bond is great … I thought Cleese was a fine Q … the film doesn’t really plunge off a cliff until the second half.

    This film was built with references to all the preceding Bond films. Fair enough, but did they have to take the worst of all the Bond films? Diamonds‘ absurd diamond-powered laser? Moonraker‘s cringe-inducing fight in a glass museum? The alligator sub from Octopussy? On the rare occasion when the reference isn’t stupid, it only reminds us of how much better the other films were.

    Really, the problem is that this feels like something produced by the marketing department with basically no input from writers, directors or actors. It’s cobbled together out of things that were focus-group tested to see what would make a profitable Bond movie. You can almost imagine the meetings: “How about Halle Berry? People like Halle Berry, right? And all that CGI stuff? And those gimmicky wipes and jump cuts? Audiences eat that shit up. I heard something about conflict diamonds in the news lately. Plus, let’s make everything explode the second it is touched.” Every piece looks like it was designed for a trailer or a product placement commercial. The film goes downhill for the very first second, when a stupid CGI bullet whizzes out at the audience. Forty years in, did we really fucking need the CGI bullet?

    Watching it for the third time, I’m just annoyed by the things that make no damned sense. Like how Jinx’s boat managed to park right where she was going to dive. Or why Graves uses a stupid body suit to direct the death ray. Or the absurd claim that hovercraft can not set off mines. Or how the guy Bond punches stay unconscious for hours. Or why Madonna … exists. I shouldn’t be bothered by such stupidities — it’s a Bond film! I mean, I enjoyed Moonraker for Christ’s sake. But the film simply isn’t good enough to carry the absurdity. It’s not that I can’t suspend belief; it’s that I see no reason why I should. (See here and here for more on this film’s absurdity).

    And as for Halle Berry’s Jinx, there was some talk of making a spin-off franchise over her. Please. She’s pretty and can act but has little chemistry with Brosnan. Their “flirting” double entendres are painful. Given that Bond was working with Chinese intelligence, this was the perfect chance to bring back Michelle Yeoh, with Bond calling in his debts from Tomorrow Never Dies. He didn’t.

    I rate it a 6, but it’s cold 6. It’s not unwatchable; it’s just irritating to a Bond fan. Thankfully, however, a miracle was just around the corner.

    Weekend Linkorama

    Saturday, October 15th, 2011
  • Faces of Fear. It’s cruel, but hilarious.
  • You only need to watch about ten seconds of this to get the point: the No Signal movie cliche is getting tiresome already.
  • What a strange job.
  • Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting the new iphone.
  • Scientific awesomeness.
  • The Bond Films: The Dalton Years

    Sunday, October 9th, 2011

    This won’t take long. The Timothy Dalton era, such as it was, was only two films. For my money, it was two decent but not great films. As a fan, I felt the series has taken a step up from the Moore years. But greatness was still a long way away.

    The Living Daylights: My favorite critic, James Berardinelli, dislikes this film but I just don’t see it. It’s got a decent plot, especially the post-credits sequence, which is based on a Fleming short story. It’s very much a spy story set in the Cold War. The actions scenes are good, the plot very spyish and Dalton injects a much-needed edge into Bond. As a kid — well, a teenager — I really liked this movie for bringing some fresh air to the franchise after the weakness of Moore’s last two outings.

    The movie is not without its flaws, particularly Maryam D’Abo. She’s just not a good Bond girl. She’s pretty, but she’s too skinny, too useless, too boring. She’s little more than a plot device. No, no even that. The plot would have gone just fine if Bond had dumped her in Bratislava. She mainly stands around and occasionally screams. If you’re going to narrow Bond’s sexual congress to a single girl, she has to be dynamite and Kara simply isn’t.

    One of the games I like to play when watching a flawed movie is imaging how it could have been better. One way would have been to make Kara a real assassin, or at least a real agent, possibly from a Czech service that had no love of the Russians. It might also have been interesting to cast a woman as Pushkin, not that I’m complaining about John Rhys-Davies’ fun performance.

    There are lot more changes in the franchise, not all for the better. Caroline Bliss takes over as Moneypenny but she’s a little too pretty for the role and doesn’t have the refined air that Lois Maxwell did (although it’s fun, in the next film, to see her in the old office set). John Terry makes his only appearance as Leiter, which is merciful as he’s the least effective actor in the role. Give me Jack Lord or Jeffrey Wright or David Hedison any day.

    Of course, the biggest change is Dalton. He is an improvement on Moore, but he’s not perfect. He seems to think he should be making a serious movie and gets annoyed when it gets Bondish, smirking his way through the romantic scenes. Dalton was a huge fan of the books and wanted the darker Bond Fleming portrayed. It works, to an extent. But it’s weak when Bond isn’t being dark or violent. The aforementioned Berardinelli once said the key to playing Batman is how you play Bruce Wayne. The key to playing an edgier darker Bond is how you play the romantic and humorous scenes. Dalton doesn’t quite there. That would have to wait for Daniel Craig.

    IMDB ranks Daylights 14th, toward the middle of the pack. That sounds about right to me. I give it a 7, sometimes and 8, depending on my mood at the time. It’s not bad. And it’s a blessed relief after the end of the Moore years.

    License to Kill: Boy, does this take me back in time to the early days of the drug war. My views on the War on Drugs did not form overnight. There was a time when I was a drug warrior, especially because of the horrific violence of the 80′s drug lords (as violent as this movie is, it understates the case). Watching this movie reminds me of the righteous anger I used to feel.

    Unlike the last film, the Bond girls shine in this one. I was 17 when this came out and developed a huge crush on the smoldering Talisa Soto. But as time has gone on, I’ve become more appreciative of Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier. She’s not as glamorous, but she’s fun and capable.

    Robert Davi is great as the vicious drug dealer Sanchez and this features an early appearance of Benicio del Toro. The action scenes — particularly the truck chase — range from great to solid. Dalton’s performance is about the same — mostly good, but weak in scenes where he needs to be funny or romantic.

    When I first saw it — and even now — the amount of violence is a bit bothersome. It includes some pretty brutal stuff — an offscreen evisceration, execution by atmospheric chamber, the brutality visited on the Leiters, etc. etc. But overall, I’d put it just a cut below Daylights. IMDB ranks this 17th in the Bond Series. Seems fair. I give it a 7.