Category: Action Thriller


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When Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992, it was clear to the entire film loving world that despite that film’s lack of polish, Rodriguez was going to soon be a major player in stylistic film-making. Cue three years later with his debut studio feature, Desperado, and Rodriguez shot himself into alternative superstardom. I hadn’t seen Desperado in probably over ten years before I watched it for this blog, and I had completely forgotten that Desperado might be the greatest B-movie ever made.

Working within the realm of mythic folk heroes, neo-Westerns, and John Woo action crime thrillers, Desperado is such an astonishing second effort that one can only imagine what Rodriguez could have done on El Mariachi if he’d had more than $7,000 to make the film. Understanding that I’m in the vast minority here with regards to how highly I now hold this film, I can name few other action films that drip with so much wit, playfulness, and energy as Desperado. If Rodriguez had kept this type of quality up his entire career, he could have been as important to the industry as his good friend Quentin Tarantino.

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Desperado is a unique film in that it is both a sequel to the original El Mariachi as well as a sort of spiritual remake in that it’s the kind of movie Rodriguez wanted to make but didn’t have the money back in 1992 which is why elements of the plot feel somewhat familiar. Replacing the first film’s Carlos Gallardo, Antiono Banderas (Puss in Boots) plays the unnamed El Mariachi. Several years after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and getting shot through the hand, El Mariachi is a whirlwind force of justice in the small border towns between the US and Mexico dispensing vigilante justice on the drug crews that were responsible for the murder of his love.

With the help of his partner Buscemi (Interview‘s Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi has attained a mythic status in the haunts of the Mexican drug dealers including a bar secretly run for the powerful cartel head Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). Bucho was the real head of the cartel that killed El Mariachi’s lover, and El Mariachi believes that Bucho is the last man standing in the way of his quest for vengeance. But when El Mariachi meets the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) as well as a young boy who wants to learn the guitar, he must decide what he will sacrifice to get his revenge.

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Quentin Tarantino shows up in this film (Desperado predates their partnership for From Dusk Til Dawn by only a year), and it’s clear that Tarantino’s early work was having on influence on Rodriguez’s writing (and would have an influence for years to come). In the film’s brilliant opening segment, Buscemi goes to the bad guy bar (with the great Cheech Marin in a small bit part) to put the fear of El Mariachi in these criminals (and to see if they recognize El Bucho’s name). It’s one long, extended story told by Buscemi (with visual accompaniment), but it adds to the mythic nature of the film as well as its own awareness of its pulpy roots.

What makes Desperado great though (even in a way that Tarantino’s later works like Django Unchained fail to achieve) is that it is entirely self-aware without winking at the audience. Desperado knows it’s an action movie where Antonio Banderas blows drug dealers across rooms while duel-wielding shotgun-pistols (not making that up) and owns a cod-piece machine gun. And it knows that it can’t take itself too seriously under that premise. But, Desperado manages to walk that balancing act of being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek without playing every moment for laugh (though I must admit that I was cackling with glee during some of the film’s more ridiculous moments).

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Antonio Banderas has become more of a caricature than a legitimate actor over the last ten years, but Desperado reminds me of why he had the potential to become such an exciting figure (alongside his great, smaller performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia). El Mariachi is larger than life. He’s essentially a comic book superhero thrown into the dusty streets of Mexico fighting knife-throwing psychopaths (a memorable and early role for Danny Trejo) and Mexican drug dealers. And Antonio Banderas has all the cocksure bravura and swagger (with just the right sensitivity) to nail the role.

The movie loses just a little bit of its special energy and insanity in the final act. A plot twist arrives totally out of nowhere that feels a little too “wink wink” unless it too was played straight in which case it was poor writing for entirely different reasons. The romance between El Mariachi and Carolina doesn’t cohere in a plot sense though the sizzling sexual chemistry between Banderas and Hayek was so intense that it threatened to derail the film. They have a love scene that is among the absolute sexiest in mainstream cinema. Desperado might not be quite perfect, but as far as B-movies go, it’s more than you could ever hope for.

Final Score: A-

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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+

 

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When movies are shot on paper-thin budgets but go on to be massive successes anyway, it gives heart to independent film-makers around the world that you don’t need a studio-sized checkbook to make an appealing movie that others will want to see. Whether that’s Paranormal Activity, Clerks, or The Blair Witch Project, there are plenty of great examples of accomplishing a lot with very little (Paranormal Activity was first shot in 2007 on a $15,000 budget and now it’s one of the most profitable films of all time). 1992’s El Mariachi was very profitable if not a huge box office smash (it made around $2 million compared to the $7,000 it required to shoot it), but it’s success is notable for an entirely different reason. With a movie financed almost entirely by taking part in a medical research study, Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) shot himself to international superstardom as a filmmaker and it only got better from this impressive debut.

Although it will become somewhat clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, that respect is primarily related to how professional this film is able to feel despite the fact that Rodriguez had never made a feature-length film before, shot the movie entirely in single takes, and made it for a grand total of $7,000. Because, at the end of the day, El Mariachi is a B-movie at it’s heart (though, let’s face it, all of Rodriguez’s films are), and if this same movie were made on a budget of over half a million dollars, people would probably laugh in his face. But, the film was shot for $7,000 and for someone who struggled to shoot a five minute short film on a literal $0 budget with film-making tools given to me for free, it’s impressive to an absurd degree that Rodriguez was able to make this film.

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When a white gangster, Moco (Peter Marquardt) in Mexico double-crosses a vengeance-fueled Mexican hit man, Azul (Reinol Martinez), an all-out war breaks out between Moco’s men and the one-man death army known as Azul. Azul’s MO is to wander around as a traveling Mariachi but he secretly keeps his stash of weapons hidden inside his guitar case to be able to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. And this spells trouble when an actually mariachi, known only in the film as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), stumbles into town just looking for a job and a place to play his music. But when a case of mistaken identity leads to El Mariachi being mistaken for Azul, El Mariachi becomes the prime target of Moco’s men and though he flees to the safety of a saloon ran by the beautiful Domino (Consuelo Gomez), that only spells more trouble for himself and his unwilling savior.

I won’t waste your time harping on any of the performances of the principal actors because none of them are worth praise (though Carlos Gallardo seemed like he had potential. It was a shame his career never really took off after this film). Instead, what’s impressive is Rodriguez’s ability to tell a mostly compelling action story (that was a fun spin on the classic North by Northwest tale of mistaken identity) with so few tools at his disposal. Even this early on, Rodriguez’s talents as a pop auteur were on full display and even as a neophyte, Rodriguez already had a mastery of pacing and editing. In fact, it’s the editing of the film that I often found the most impressive because as someone who’s written, directed, shot, and edited a film, editing is without question the hardest part.

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I’ll keep this review extra short cause it’s been a couple days since I’ve watched it and other than being a feat of budget wizardry, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about El Mariachi other than how enjoyable it remains even 21 years later. There’s nothing deep about this movie. It’s an action movie centered around a case of mistaken identity that happens to feature a surprisingly sympathetic hero and love interest. If you aren’t a fan of B-Action films, knowing that Robert Rodriguez made this movie on a shoe-string budget won’t make you like it more. But, for those who have a soft spot in their heart for camp, El Mariachi is a delightful exercise in independent film-making and a fascinating insight into the formative years of a star who is one of the most talented popcorn filmmakers out there today.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. Yes, I know there’s supposed to be an accent mark over the “e” in “Léon” in the title of this piece but I have no idea how to add it. Also, it feels like it’s ten million degrees in my room right now so I apologize if any of my writing is unintelligible. My brain is totally fried.)

The poetic action film is the Great White Whale of film-making for men that don’t want to feel guilty about testosterone-fueled entertainment. We want to believe it’s out there somewhere, but despite all of that, 99% of the time we’re chasing a myth. 1994’s Léon: The Professional from French director Luc Besson (1990’s La Femme Nikita) is likely the closest cinema’s ever come to the truly poetic action film. Though the film is not without its flaws, its devotion to story, mood, and characters alongside a hyperviolent tale of both revenge and love marked Luc Besson as one of the rare purveyors of action cinema that is also a true auteur. The Professional is the sort of film that early period Tarantino could have been proud of, and thanks to an electric big screen debut from Natalie Portman (Black Swan), The Professional is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Léon (Margaret‘s Jean Reno) is a cleaner. But, he’s a cleaner for the Italian mob which means he’s a hitman. And he’s a damn good one though his code of “No women. No kids,” means he has a moral system he operates by. And besides the fact that he’s an almost mind-bogglingly efficient killer, Léon is almost a child at heart. He can not read English. He cares for a single potted plant like it were his own child. And he goes to watch old Gene Kelly movies at the theatre with the pure adulation of only the most innocent at heart. He barely even spends the money he earns which mostly just sits in the “bank” of his mobster boss, Tony (Moonstruck‘s Danny Aiello). But, when he crosses path with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12 year old girl living in his apartment building, his simple life is thrown violently off track.

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The chain-smoking, frequently-cursing Mathilda is the emotionally and physically abused daughter of a local hood who gets himself in over his head with a corrupt and borderline psychotic D.E.A. Agent, Stansfield (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Gary Oldman). When Mathilda’s father and the rest of her family is murdered by Stansfield and other corrupt cops, Mathilda’s life is only spared because she was out buying milk at the time the hit went down. And, against his better judgment, Léon welcomes Mathilda into his home to protect her. Though Mathilda could care less about her abusive father, Stansfield’s men killed her four year old brother, and she desperately wants revenge against the men that killed her family. And so, she forces her way even more into Léon’s life and makes him teach her how to be a cleaner so that she can get the revenge she so desperately craves.

Out of the three principal leads in the film (Portman, Reno, and Goldman), you have one simply jaw-dropping performance, one deliciously hammy performance, and one “meh” performance that works within the context of the character. Natalie Portman’s ferocious turn as Mathilda is easily one of the top 10 child performances of all time, and it should be no surprise that she would later go on to win an Academy Award for Black Swan. She should have been nominated for this. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mathilda puts a gun to her head to force Léon to teach her to be a cleaner where the sadness and desperation that is consuming Mathilda is painfully apparent. Most adult actresses would have struggled with the part. Portman blew it out of the water as a 13 year old.

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Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that I refer to as being deliciously hammy. There is no question that it’s over-the-top. It is insanely over the top, but Stansfield is a villain of monstrous, pure evil, and Luc Besson gave Goldman the freedom to run crazy with the performance. There are two moments in particular that stand out. One is him sashaying to Mozart as he massacres Mathilda’s family. And the other is the infamous “EVERYONE!” quip during the climactic action sequence. Jean Reno is, unfortunately, not the world’s greatest actor. His English wasn’t very good in the 90s, and it shows in this film. But, Léon is a man of quiet contemplation and few words, and so, though Reno doesn’t deliver one of the most exciting performances of the film, he certainly delivers what is needed for his character.

As I’ve said earlier, beyond Portman’s star-making performance (had she never made another film, this would have been legacy-cementing in its own right), The Professional soars because of its singular commitment to character-development and genuine emotional pay-offs over typical action pyrotechnics. Let their be no mistake. The climax of the film is as thrilling as it gets, but its power rests in the fact that two hours into the film, we are now incredibly invested into the outcome of Léon and Mathilda’s lives. They are fully rounded, three dimensional characters, and just like in La Femme Nikita, the psychological aspect of these characters throws off more sparks than action scenes ever could. As a warped coming-of-age tale as well as an equally warped romance, The Professional finds the poetry in its carnage.

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When The Professional was first released in 1994, it generated a fair bit of controversy for the seemingly Lolita-esque nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon. And while I think Mathilda’s attraction to her mentor and savior was decidedly one-way (and based mostly around the lack of a reasonable father figure in her life), I have an entirely new set of contentions with the film’s handling of a thirteen year old heroine. The Professional sexualizes Mathilda. That’s just a fact. From the many angles that the film shoots her, it’s clear that Besson’s camera views Portman as a sexual object. Though it’s clearly not to the level of exploitation of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, I lost track of the number of times that the film shot Portman from the ass down. It was weird and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I think the controversy surrounding Mathilda’s love for Léon was mostly misplaced because this is why people should have been upset.

When the film was released in America (where it was called The Professional as opposed to Léon in Europe), we were given a massively pared down version of the film, and though I’ve fallen in love with the European cut of the movie, I would be interested in seeing the edited version of the film because besides the sexualization of Natalie Portman, my most substantive complaint about The Professional is that it drags a little towards the end. I understand that I love this film because of the character development and commitment to building these characters up, but at times, certain elements felt like filler. Also, there’s one scene during the climactic action sequence where Jean Reno bellows (there really isn’t a better word to use here) that is the bad kind of hammy.

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If you’ve not seen The Professional, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say that outside of the confines of particular war films, it’s arguably one of the greatest action films ever made. It has its flaws, and its particularly French (i.e. Louis Malle committed the same sins in Pretty Baby) with the sexuality of a young girl struck me as heartily disturbing. However, I can forgive Luc Besson his trespasses when the rest of his storytelling and character-building are so strong. From the first time I watched this film more than ten years ago, I fell in love with The Professional. And with each viewing, I find something new to appreciate and notice. Luc Besson is an auteur, and in a world where seemingly every action film (outliers like Looper the glorious exception) feels like a Michael Bay debacle, one must take the time to appreciate the art of a movie like Léon: The Professional.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review: I watched this film Thursday night with my dad. We didn’t get home until after midnight. I worked Friday until 2 AM, and then today I went to see Monsters University with my sister which I will also be hopefully reviewing today. The moral of this story is that my brain is at least minorly fractured. Hopefully, these two reviews make sense)

After the dark and crushing ending to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, there is one theme  that seems to have held constant across the entirety of the zombie genre of horror. The zombie curse becomes an allegory for humanity’s existential dread and our own certain knowledge that one day soon, something will wipe us out. There is a rotting, hope-sucking fatalism at the heart of all great zombie films and even in the lightest moments in the best zombie works, you always know in the back of your head that any minor victories will only lead to the most tragic fall later. So, when World War Z trades in the usual stark damnation of the zombie genre for actual, legitimate hope, it is only one of many signs that this particular zombie film lacks any teeth.

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Perhaps it’s the film’s PG-13 rating and (more likely) perhaps it’s the film’s obvious and pathetic attempts to appeal to a mainstream summer blockbuster audience, but from beginning to end, World War Z turns the zombie apocalypse into a sterile, market-tested crowd pleaser that isn’t nearly as fun (or terrifying) as it wants itself to be. World War Z has individual set pieces that are a legitimate rush (a moment in a crowded plane stands out for sheer inspiration), but with emotionally wooden characters, mostly ineffective performances, and literally no sense of stakes in the outcomes of these characters, World War Z falls prey to most of the bad parts of zombie films without any of the gore-ridden excess or social commentary that makes the best Romero pictures so fun.

Gerry Lane (The Assassination of Jesse James‘s Brad Pitt) is a former U.N. investigator who finds himself caught in the middle of a mysterious infection that is turning humanity into murderous, suicidal shells whose only purpose is to continue spreading their infection. Gerry’s family is with him when the infection breaks loose in Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) and though Gerry and his family are able to escape to a UN battleship in the Atlantic ocean, the price for Gerry’s family’s spot on that boat is Gerry returning to field duty and helping to discover the cause of the zombie outbreak before it’s too late to save humanity. And, thus, Gerry is sent on a trip around the world from Korea to Israel to Wales as he searches for answers and for a cure.

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Even more than the fact that World War Z trades in zombie ultra-violence for confusing and schizophrenic editing (in a vein similar to but not as well-exectued as The Hunger Games film), this movie is plagued by a lack of a reason to care. Having watched post-apocalyptic films for decades now, writers and directors have to provide more than the potential extermination of humanity to garner an audience’s sympathies, and World War Z fails there on every possible front. The film adopts an episodic approach to it’s storytelling (keeping in line with its summer blockbuster lineage as opposed to traditional zombie archetypes), and in the downtime between set pieces, the writers fail again and again to develop its characters enough to generate even the most marginal interest in these figures as anything more than plot devices.

Brad Pitt is serviceable in the role of Gerry. But, considering that I think Brad Pitt is one of Hollywood’s most talent and consistently intriguing A-listers (just watch Killing Them Softly and tell me I’m wrong), serviceable is not enough. Pitt gives the distinct impression the entire film that he’s only here to pick up a paycheck, and during what is supposed to be one of the film’s most emotional moments during the movie’s end, Pitt doesn’t sell the uncertainty and despair that must have been rocking through Gerry at that moment. None of the performances make much of an impression although Mireille Enos’s turn as Gerry’s wife was interesting enough that I’d like to keep an eye on this new talent.

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I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I totally hated this movie because I didn’t. When the actual action is taking place (and let there be no question, World War Z is an action movie that happens to feature zombies), it is fast-paced and exciting, and it has several moments that are just buzzing with energy and innovation. A scene where zombies make their way onto a crowded plane is the best of the bunch (and prominently featured in the trailers), but other moments like an escape from an airport and the breaching of the walls of Israel have real verve and pleasure. Sadly there isn’t enough tying these moments together.

If you like real zombie movies of the Romero variety (even the cheesier ones like Diary of the Dead), you will probably find yourself disappointed by World War Z because it lacks practically all of the hallmarks of zombie cinema. And if you’re a fan of summer blockbusters of the Rolan Emmerich variety (i.e. Independence Day), you may still find yourself thinking that World War Z is wanting in some vague aspect. At the end of the day, the film gets the job done with its action-fueled moments, but it doesn’t accomplish nearly enough for just how dead and lifeless this film feels (pun about half-intended).

Final Score: C+

 

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I’m going to posit a fairly unpopular opinion right now, but it’s one that I’ve held for a long time now (and my most current viewing of the film didn’t dispossess me of this belief), the original 1979 Alien is one of the more over-rated science fiction films of all time. It is generally held up as one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, and if that’s true, sci-fi horror must be a sadly dull genre of cinema. Even now, 34 years later, it’s clear that Alien was a crowning technical achievement. And much like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down, it should be obvious to everyone that Ridley Scott is a masterful director with a keen visual eye. Sadly, the pacing in Alien is downright tedious at times and the film never frightened me once. Through in the fact that, outside of Ripley and the character played by Yaphet Kotto, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film, Alien is a sadly stale if exceptionally technically well made sci-fi horror.

Alien is considered to be one of the premier films of the “less is more” philosophy of horror film-making. And I am a huge supporter of that genre. The original Paranormal Activity crafted a genuine modern horror classic on that principle, and Roman Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion is also from the same vein. But those films succeed where Alien often fails with an understanding of how to fill the scenes in between the horror. Paranormal Activity had the great banter between Micah and Katie and Repulsion had its omnipresent social commentary on the dangers of sexual repression. Alien has its plot and practically nothing else besides its admittedly suffocating atmosphere. If Alien had found a way to breathe life to the characters portrayed by its star-studded cast, it might have been a great film. As it is, Alien simply is not.

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In the future, the commercial towing ship Nostromo holds 7 passengers (plus a cat) as it returns to Earth after a successful mining operation. However, before the ship can reach Earth, the crew is prematurely awakened from its cryogenic stasis when they intercept an emergency distress beacon on a remote planet. An away team consisting of the ship’s two commanding officers, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt), as well as the navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), heads down to the planet’s surface to investigate the distress beacon where they find a crashed, derelict space craft with nothing left alive on board. Or so they think. Kane finds an egg in one of the ship’s chambers and a mysterious alien life form attaches itself to his face, even breaking through his helmet, creating a parasitic attachment to Kane’s head. When the chief science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), breaks quarantine rules and let’s the away team back on the ship, the whole crew’s lives is put in danger.

It is quickly apparent once the away team returns that the alien attached to Kane’s face is very dangerous. Warrant officer Ripley (The Village‘s Sigourney Weaver) is angry enough that they let the alien on the ship in the first place, and the engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) aren’t too pleased about it either. No one knows what the alien is or why it’s attached itself to Kane’s face, but there’s a ray of hope when the alien seemingly disappears. Kane seems to be alright until an infamous dinner sequence where an evolved version of the alien bursts forth from his chest. And from that point forward, it’s a race against time to either kill the alien or be killed as it evolves and starts to take more and more of the ship’s crew down with it.

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I’ll give Alien credit for the things it does astoundingly well. As I’ve said, this movie is 34 years old now. Other than a hilariously 1970s/1980s idea of what computers will look like in the future (apparently they all still run on DOS), the special effects and general feel of Alien has aged remarkably well. There were only a couple occasions where I thought the effects looked laughably aged (an explosion at the very end of the film being the most prominent one), and like the original Star Wars films, Alien is a film you could show to today’s kids and they wouldn’t laugh at its look. And, beyond the effects, Ridley Scott makes the atmosphere and look of the ship absolutely suffocating and dripping with dread (even if nothing especially scary ever happens). The lighting and camerawork of the movie are superb, and I just wish it’d had a better script supporting it.

The film is also chock full of some of the best character actors of the 1970s and is the film that shot Sigourney Weaver to stardom. And the performances are great. While the characterizations of the people aboard the ship are paper-thin, the actors have a strong chemistry, and the animosity between Ash and Ripley is so strong that one almost wonders if they disliked each other in real life. They legitimately gave the impression that they simply couldn’t stand to be around one another. Sigourney Weaver helped to encapsulate one of the ultimate female bad-asses in movie history, and her turn as Ripley is one of the great parts of the film, although I loved the consistently scheming and disapponted Parker played by Yaphet Kotto. Parker and Ripley were the only two characters in the film that seemed to have any bite to them.

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I’ll draw this review to a close. I hope you can tell that I don’t dislike Alien. It is an inarguably well-crafted film, and it helped bring Ridley Scott’s talents to mainstream prominence. Unfortunately, it’s script is simply alright, and it doesn’t do justice to Scott’s artistic vision and talent. Black Rain is one of the least remembered/discussed of Ridley Scott’s films, but I honestly think it’s better than Alien. It is smart and stylish from beginning to end, and though it’s not some shining example of cinematic art, it always remains fun. Alien wants to be cinematic art, but it isn’t good enough to pull it off. I think everyone should watch Alien. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s required sci-fi horror viewing 101; I just don’t think it’s the timeless classic that everyone else does.

Final Score: B

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. Long time readers may remember that I used to be a bartender a year and a half ago before I went on my sojourn to New York City to be a music critic. For whatever reason, I didn’t decide to do that again when I came back from NYC, but I’m back at it again. And if I do alright enough on tips this summer, I will probably make it a habit of going to be the big summer blockbusters that I’m interested in while they’re still in theaters. If I don’t get good tips, that won’t happen, but hopefully that’s not the case)

In superhero movies fandom, there is no more nerve-wracking moment than when new blood is infused into your favorite superhero franchise. This anxiety can be traced back to Joel Schumacher’s stewardship of the Batman franchise who utterly obliterated all of the good work Tim Burton had done to transition comic book films to the big screen or when Brett Ratner unleashed the horrific X-Men 3: The Last Stand after Bryan Singer’s excellent first two entries in the series. But, sometimes, new blood can bring a series back to life, and after the emotionally stunted and dull Iron Man 2, Shane Black brought his wit and smarts to the series to make Iron Man 3 everything you could want from a summer blockbuster.

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Shane Black is famous as being one of the most highly-paid screenwriters in Hollywood history, particularly when he set the record for highest payday for a spec script ever for The Long Kiss Goodnight. However, to most Americans, he most famous for penning the first Lethal Weapon movie (the best one) as well as The Last Boy Scout and for writing and directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (his best film). And in so many different ways that it begins to border on insanity, Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black film through and through. Witty dialogue, a crackling sense of humor, a “buddy cop” dynamic, Christmas, and a love of bad guys carrying sub-machine guns, Iron Man 3 has all of the Shane Black staples and I loved the film for it.

After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He can’t sleep, he has panic attacks, and he spends all of his spare time tinkering in his lab to the point that he’s made at least 42 versions of his Iron Man suit. And the stress and anxiety is tearing his relationship with Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) apart. To make matters worse, a psychotic terrorist of unknown origins known only as the Mandarin (Hugo‘s Ben Kingsley) is causing destruction around the world. As Tony’s emotional state is disintegrating around him, a disgruntled biotech scientist (Guy Pearce) teams up with the Mandarin and brings the destruction literally to Tony’s doorstep.

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Iron Man 3 is nearly a point-by-point response to everything I hated in Iron Man 2. Whereas the latter was emotionally uncommitted, Iron Man 3 explores the frailer and more vulnerable side of Tony’s life and the price of his arrogance and general bastardry earlier in life. Whereas the latter’s action felt stale and unoriginal, Iron Man 3‘s set pieces are overflowing with excitement, originality, and a genuine sense of “stakes” towards the outcome. And where the first sequel felt dull and lifeless from beginning to end, Iron Man 3 is unequivocally hilarious from beginning to end, and it was rare when a scene in the film didn’t have my sister and I rolling in our seats with laughter from some great Tony Stark quip (or from a certain precocious kid but no spoilers from me).

Robert Downey Jr. gives one of his best performances since Zodiac as Tony Stark in this entry in the series. Perhaps because Shane Black helped coax Downey Jr. back into respectability with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but Shane Black helps Robert Downey Jr. tone down the mugging and incessant smirking that made Tony seem too one note in Iron Man 2, and we see this as a man who has confronted gods, aliens, and powers beyond his ken and the full front of his tiny place in the universe is bearing down on him, and through Downey’s performance, we see the full weight of this pressure. He still brings the laugh, but he also taps into something much deeper as well.

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Some have complained that while virtually everything else was great about Iron Man 3 (the action set pieces, the characterization, the dialogue, the performances), the actual story itself was kind of dumb. That may be true, but only in so far as Iron Man 3‘s ambitions are far different than say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. With the exception of a general lambast of greed and hubris, Iron Man 3 has no political overtones (unlike the libertarian bent of Iron Man 2). In the best Shane Black tradition, it is simply an exercise in smart popcorn cinematic storytelling, and there wasn’t a minute of this film where I didn’t enjoy the action unfolding on screen.

If we can have a post-Nolan superhero world where people like Joss Whedon and (now) Shane Black can tap into some of the most treasured figures in American mythology (for what are superheroes except the ultimate American mythology) without finding themselves mired in overt political subtext and remember that superheroes can just be “fun” if they want to, then count me in. Because unless you’re Alan Moore, odds are that making your superheroes too serious will ruin what made us love them in the first place. Iron Man 3 may not have something grand to say, but you’ll have a hell of a time watching it unfold regardless.

Final Score: A-

 

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2008’s Iron Man breathed new life into the cinematic Marvel universe after catastrophe after catastrophe including Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine threatened to derail all of the good will Marvel superheroes had earned from movie goers in the late 90s and early 2000s. With a fresh script, Jon Favreau’s “one of us” direction, and Robert Downey Jr.’s career-resuscitating performance, Iron Man was a hit with critics and audiences alike, and is still one of the standard bearers of great superhero storytelling alongside The Dark Knight and The Avengers. I’ve avoided watching the sequel, Iron Man 2, for nearly three years now because all of the critics said it couldn’t hold a candle to the original film. And, sadly, they are right. Not only does Iron Man 2 completely lack the character-driven sparks of its forebear, it lacks most of the smart, fun spectacle that made the first such a massive hit to begin with.

Even when films are full of mindless explosions and endless action-sequences (ala any Michael Bay film), one can at least appreciate the spectacle of big-budget bombast. The Transformer films may be intellectual hogwash, but they are rarely boring (except for the over-long second film). So, it’s astounding that Iron Man 2 is both often mind-numbingly boring and totally devoid of compelling character development or witty dialogue. That it manages to not be as stupefyingly bad as Thor is only because of the natural and omnipresent charm of Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle as well as an absolutely scene-stealing turn from Moon‘s Sam Rockwell. Summer superhero blockbusters are supposed to be fun. More than any other trait that is what needs to matter (except for, maybe, Watchmen), and at the end of the day, Iron Man 2 was as far from fun as humanly possible.

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After defeating his father’s old partner at the end of the first film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has helped create an unheralded period of peace on Earth thanks to his powerful Iron Man suit. Although Tony lives the life of a rock star, it’s not all fun and games because the palladium used in the arc reactor keeping Tony alive (and that also powers his suit) is also slowly poisoning Tony’s bloodstream. To make matters worse, the United States government (in a situation that I can only say has to be a reference to Atlas Shrugged hero Hank Rearden) is calling on Tony to hand over the Iron Man tech to the military which Tony does not want to do. This also puts Tony at odds with his best friend, Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a military pilot who may be forced to act against his own best friend at his country’s orders.

The situation is compounded even further by the presence of an ambitious and greedy rival weapons manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who will stop at nothing to develop his own version of Tony’s weaponry in order to secure lucrative development contracts with the government. And Tony’s life keeps getting worse when a revenge seeking Russian nuclear physicist, Ivan Vanko (Diner‘s Mickey Rourke), makes a suit of his own and terrorizes a Monaco speedrace under the moniker, Whiplash (they never actually say it in the film, but that’s who he is in the comics). As tensions grow high between Tony, Vanko, Hammer, Rhodes, and the U.S. government, Tony must choose where his loyalties lie, and he must find a cure to his Palladium poisoning before time runs out and before his increasingly reckless decision making runs his company into the ground.

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There really isn’t much to say about Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in this film. It’s par for the course from what we now expect from his portrayal of Tony Stark. No new ground was broken. And, hell, just like the rest of the film, there were times where even Downey’s performance felt phoned in. Perhaps he was just playing to how thin the script is. Don Cheadle proved an adequate replacement for Terrence Howard (who left the franchise after money disputes) although Rhodie himself didn’t have much to do in the film. The only real acting suprise/delight of the movie was Sam Rockwell’s deliciously pompous turn as the sneering and scheming Justin Hammer. It wasn’t a meaty part, but Rockwell ran with what he was given, and for the vast majority of the film, it seemed like he was the only one having any fun with his part.

And, in addition to the general predictable nature of the performances and characterizations (at least in The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale tapped into new layers of the Bruce Wayne character), the superhero spectacle of the film was virtually non-existent. During the film’s two-hour run time, which was mostly padding, there were exactly two moments where I felt the action was fun, witty, or new. The first is a fight where (SPOILERS I guess) Rhodes commandeers one of Tony’s power suits and becomes War Machine for the first time and Tony and Rhodes duke it out. It was fun and funny, and the fight furthered the story’s examination of the breakdown of their friendship. The other moment may not have had as much symbolic story impact, but a sequence where Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow infiltrates Hammer’s facility is pure, ass-kicking fun, and we don’t see enough bad-ass women in the movies these days (or ever).

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All in all, Iron Man 2 has to be one of my biggest superhero disappointments since the emo shenanigans of SpiderMan 3 (seriously, how freaking bad is that movie). Iron Man was one of the movies that helped make it okay to be a nerd at the box office again, and The Avengers would have never happened had it not been such a massive success. Thankfully, the reviews for Iron Man 3 have been much more positive than they were for this entry, and its release a couple of weeks ago was the only reason I even caved and watched Iron Man 2 in the first place. If you’re a fan of the Tony Stark character, I suppose it’s necessary to see for it’s place within the Marvel film canon, but if you’re a more casual superhero movie lover, go ahead and avoid this clunker. You aren’t missing anything.

Final Score: C

 

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2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford remains one of the most under-appreciated Westerns of the last decade, and were it not for it’s semi-bloated final act, it could have been one of the true masterpieces of the decade (visually, it remains a work of genius despite its narrative missteps). With just that film (I’m yet to see 2000’s Chopper),  director Andrew Dominik asserted himself as one of the true artistic visionaries working in the modern cinema field, and his visually resplendent work harkens back to other celebrated filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick. Combining slower-paced epic crime yarns with cinematography that is simply stunning, Andrew Dominik  is making movies unlike anything else being created right now, and while 2012’s Killing Them Softly ends on a too obvious note, it is an incendiary work from one of Hollywood’s most promising talents.

Born out of what can only be described as unchecked fury with the American psyche and cultural/economic/social institutions that allowed the 2008 economic crisis to occur, Killing Them Softly is Andrew Dominik’s fiery reaction to greed, capitalism, and our culture of cruelty and exploitation. While some were bothered by the “anvilicious” nature of the films political message (click on that link, if you need the phrase explained to you), I applaud a modern director actually trying to make a political statement when ironic indifference seems to be the critical vogue these days. Taking place in the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Killing Them Softly mixes in a large amount of speeches and news reports from the financial crisis during the more quiet moments of the film, and by the film’s end, the criminals, robbers, and murderers at the heart of the film become inseparable from the robber barons who wrecked our nation’s economy.

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After being egged on by his boss, Johnny Amato (The Sopranos‘ Vincent Curatola), small-time hood Frankie (Argo‘s Scoot McNairy) teams up with his heroin-addicted friend Russell (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a mob-ran poker game organized by pathetic criminal Trattman (Smokin’ Aces‘s Ray Liotta). They think they can get away with the crime because Trattman robbed his own game years earlier and drunkenly admitted to it without any consequences. Though the robbery goes right according to plan, Russell’s big mouth eventually draws attention to their exploits and mafia hitman Jackie (Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt) is called in to take care of the problem. With the “assistance” of depressed, whore-chasing fellow hitman Mickey (The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini), Jackie does what he does best. Clean up messes.

Just like The Assassination of Jesse James, this is a very “talk”-y movie. Probably even more so than Jesse James. But, unlike your average crime film (even some of the better ones), you actually feel like you know the people driving the action of the film. When Russell inevitably fucks up and blabs about the crime, it doesn’t seem unexpected (while the reveal of the situation avoids predictability through how well-shot the scenario was). While the entire film carries an air of tragic inevitability, it works within the context of Dominik’s work. As our nation’s economy is crumbling around these men, it makes perfect sense that the once mythologized criminal underworld would lose its sheen and glamour. In fact, much how Jesse James deconstructed the classical American Western, Andrew Dominik takes a bazooka to the tropes and mythic stature of the American crime film.

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Brad Pitt continues his remarkable transition into one of the most respected acted talents of his generation. It was obvious as far back as 12 Monkeys and Fight Club just how talented he was, but in recent years, the man has undergone a career renaissance (thanks in no small part to mostly consistently excellent career choices, though I am nervous about The War Z), and more than almost anyone else, he is a massive A-List star who seems to spend as much time in indie-ville as he does more mainstream affairs. His Jackie is a terrifying creation of greed, professionalism, and absolutely no remorse. Yet, thanks to the strong writing and Pitt’s subtle performance, he is a fully-dimensional create and more than just a commentary on the cultural forces that would produce a man like him.

I’m going to keep this review short. I’m going to see Aziz Ansari tonight (!!!) at the Creative Arts Center here in Morgantown. He’s doing a stand-up show. My sister got tickets for free, and I drove her around town when she needed something, so she’s giving one of her free tickets to me. It should be a good night since I like Aziz’s stand-up and I also love Parks and Recreation (a show I began watching after this blog stopped reviewing television). If I have one major complaint about Killing Them Softly, it’s Brad Pitt’s final speech which I understand sums up all of the themes and anger of the film. But it’s also so mind-numbingly obvious and apparent that it’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Otherwise, the film continues to paint Andrew Dominik as one of the most intriguing and rising talents in the industry.

Final Score: A-

 

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Is there a more storied franchise in cinema than the James Bond series? Obviously, there are better series. Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, the original Star Wars trilogy. But, I’m unsure if there is a single character in the pop culture lexicon that has infiltrated the popular imagination as much as James Bond. And considering the fact that he has now been portrayed by five men (unless you count the satirical Casino Royale, not the new one), it makes that fact all the more impressive. As the definition of everything that is masculine, suave, and debonair, James Bond, the man, is a paragon of action heroics that has continually stood the test of time for 50 years now.

One of the most apparent goals of the James Bond franchise as carried by the broad shoulders of Daniel Craig has been a deconstruction of the entire James Bond mythos. It was a goal that Casino Royale met with ease, and that’s probably why that film remains my favorite of the whole franchise. Quantum of Solace was a great action film but a rather stale affair after the more cerebral Casino Royale, and while you saw the dark path that James had gone down, it didn’t do enough to add to his character. With the addition of Sam Mendes (American Beauty) as director, Skyfall had the potential to be the best Bond yet (and quite a few critics seemed to think it was), but the film’s ambitions ultimately outweighed it’s actual accomplishments, and while Skyfall was a riveting, dark experience (with perhaps the best Bond villain I’ve experienced yet), I was left with a nagging sense of disappointment and incompleteness through much of the picture.

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It’s difficult to discuss this movie without spoiling it’s truly excellent opening set piece which comes to set the mood for the rest of the film. Here goes. After 007 and his new partner Eve (Naomie Harris) fail to stop a terrorist from getting away with vital espionage information, not only is all of MI6 put in danger but that of every undercover NATO agent in the world. It isn’t long before they discover they’re up against a threat (No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) from M’s (Judi Dench) past who has as legitimate a reason to hate MI6 as the British government now does to hunt him down. And when Bond’s and M’s failings draw the attention of the British government (including a perfectly cast Ralph Fiennes), the film takes a sharp focus on James’s fallibility and how he always a well-placed bullet away from death.

I had to be intentionally vague about the plot of the film because while I had a myriad of issues with its plotting/pacing (I’ll get there), there were some remarkably well-timed twists and turns that I wouldn’t want to spoil for any future viewers. So, before I get into some of the problems I had with the film, let’s go with the good. Which certainly has to begin and end with the film’s top-notch casting. Daniel Craig remains, in my humble opinion, the best Bond to ever grace the screen. He brings a sense of humanity and nuance to the role that is missing from the other, more mythic Bonds. And this film sees Craig channeling a far more haggard and broken Bond than ever before. He loses nearly everything, and through this loss, Craig (and the script) form a weirdly insightful commentary on the rebirth and resurrection that is at the heart of the franchise.

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While Craig was great as usual, the real show-stoppers in Skyfall were Judi Dench’s M and Javier Bardem’s Silva. I might even go as far to say that while Bond was still the star of the show, M actually carried much of the philosophical weight of the film as well ultimately symbolizing its themes. Judi Dench should have gotten an Oscar nomination for her part in this film as I can definitely say that the only Bond side-player I’ve ever been as invested in was Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynn. And Javier Bardem gives his best turn since Vicky Cristina Barcelona as the ambiguously gay Raoul Silva. With bleached-blond hair and flamboyant but controlled mannerisms, Bardem turned Silva into a memorable character not just from his excellent backstory and devious actions, but also through the very effective way that Bardem found both the sympathetic side in this once good man but also the darkest, most terrifying sides of his villainy.

The film was also one of the most visually striking entries in the series to date. Director of photography Roger Deakins does a phenomenal job of not just setting the visual tone of the film (which is bleak and despairing). He also provides maybe the most artistically conceived hand-to-hand combat sequence in the modern era of the franchise. Bond has tracked a villain down to a Shanghai building that’s under construction. And 007 and the bad guy fight as they’re photographed against a black silhouette while a holographic and shifting billboard outside the building provides a gorgeous backlight. And the film is just chock full of little moments and touches like that including some great shots in Scotland at the film’s end that I wouldn’t spoil even under torture. For fans of great cinematography, Skyfall is an exceptional delight.

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The high quality of so many other areas of the film is what makes it’s disappointments harder to bear. My biggest complaint is the hardest to explain but it bears exploring. To be perfectly honest, Skyfall just feels flaccid. In some regards, that was surely the film’s intent. They want to explore a more human, fallible side of James Bond. And there are moments where the film does it without robbing the movie of the propulsion that defines the series. But, over the film’s two and a half hour run (the movie is far, far too long), Sam Mendes and the screenwriters take a sledgehammer to the audience about how broken and vulnerable both M and Bond have become in the modern world, and it seems like they’re just dropping anvils on the audience with no eye/ear for subtlety. The Dark Knight Rises/The Dark Knight took a similar deconstruction of the Bruce Wayne/Batman mythos without robbing those series of what made them great in the first place.

And the film’s over-bearing length adds to the film’s other major problem. Something about this film just feels redundant. While the whole idea of Bond being an analogue man in a digital world is handled in clever ways (the introduction of the new Q was very well executed), it’s ground that other films have trod in the past, and I’m not sure if Skyfall brought much new to the table in that regard. The interplay between Bond and Q in this film could just have easily been the back and forth between Justin Long and Bruce Willis in Live Free and Die Hard. Similarly, while we see a broken down James in this film, I honestly felt like most of the development and interesting growth went to M. I didn’t feel like Bond grew very much, and in a post Casino Royale world, I have become attracted to the modern Bond franchise by the possibility of intelligent action and interesting character development.

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I’ll draw this to a close because I don’t think many people want to read a 1300 word review of why I thought this movie was really good but just shy of great. But that’s an accurate description of this ambitious though flawed entry into the franchise. Javier Bardem continues to show that he can be one of the greatest supporting men of this generation (I haven’t really seen him in many leading roles), and Judi Dench is one of the true gems of the British acting world. I honestly feel bad for anyone making a Daniel Craig James Bond film though. The bar was set so high by Casino Royale that they have to capture lightning in a bottle twice to find that magic again. I think it’s possible, and Skyfall came close. It just didn’t get all the way there.

Final Score: B+