Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The New Bond : Spotlight on Quantum of Solace

An interesting thing happened last year when Quantum Of Solace arrived in theaters: it was critically trashed.  Popular opinion, on the other hand, was favorable and now that it's available on DVD I would encourage you to take a second look.  Those of you who know me are well aware that I do not take Bond lightly.  It's hard work being entertaining and nobody knows this more than the Producers of the James Bond franchise.    This Bond, the 22nd, represents Bond's 47th year in cinemas -- making 007 the longest running series in film history by a long shot.

For many,  the previous entry (Casino Royale) represented the freshest take on the character since Connery made it his own in From Russia With Love and Goldfinger -- and deservedly so.  Daniel Craig redefined the role by going back to the roots of the character in Ian Fleming's novel and connecting with the idea that Bond's suave exterior is a front to disguise the brute animal, the "blunt instrument" as M calls him.  Bond's uncanny grace under pressure and his knowledge of the finer things have always been at the core of his appeal, but Craig is the first actor to make us understand that 007's stylish exterior is a carefully constructed mask to hide behind.  His feelings for the women he beds and the enemies he kills are more complicated than his suave persona would let on.  

Quantum Of Solace picks up minutes after Casino Royale leaves off and instantly hurtles us into a visceral, high-speed car chase.  Bond is on a mission to avenge the death of Vesper Lynd, his lover who tragically betrayed him at the end of the last film.  His mission finds him pursuing a mysterious organization called Quantum that takes him from Sienna, Italy to London, to Port Au Prince, Haiti and ultimately Bolivia.  Quantum, like the SPECTRE of the Connery era, is a secret organization with powerful, high-ranking, operatives working in various government agencies around the world.  So clever are they at covering their tracks, that initially Bond finds himself going undercover to infiltrate their ranks, without even knowing who he's supposed to be impersonating.  

On his journey, Bond meets Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who is more than just a pretty face.  Like Vesper, she is a canny heroine who we learn is out for some vengeance of her own.  She introduces Bond to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), the sinister tycoon who is also the slippery mastermind behind Quantum's latest scheme.  A scheme that implicates the U.S. government, providing ample opportunity for fireworks between Bond and series regular Felix Leiter (played to perfection by Geoffrey Wright).  

Compared to the exhaustive character development of the previous film it is easy to overlook how much character this new film actually has.  But, for true aficionados of the series there are many engaging touches, including an especially prominent role for Judi Dench's M, a surprise twist in which the Americans actually turn against Bond and a wrenching death scene where Bond loses someone very close to him.  The key to appreciating the film is in the close-ups. 

Mark Forster's frenetic direction has invited unfavorable comparison to the Bourne trilogy -- the critical assumption being that the wildly imaginative action sequences somehow diminish the subtler innovations of Casino Royale.  But, writers Paul Haggis, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, continue to push 007 in a new direction.  The only difference here is that they do it organically, revealing new layers of his psyche through action rather than exposition and Forster is the right director to bring it off.  His close-ups never let us lose sight of the characters amidst the carnage -- an innovation few modern directors have the patience to cultivate.  Quantum of Solace is the best action movie of last year and one of the best of the franchise.  It delivers more than a quantum of satisfaction.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Coraline: The Third Dimension of Animation

Henry Selick's Coraline, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is a powerhouse of visual invention, filled with the wonder, freshness and singularity of vision that distinguishes only our most beloved fairy tales.  Seeing it in 3-D, in particular, will be one of the great cinematic experiences of your life, provided that you remember the following things:

1) It is not for young children.  The film is fraught with Freudian imagery disturbing enough to rival Un Chien Andalou.  
2) The humor is corrosive enough to bore a hole through a block of steel.
3) This is a movie of subtle wonderments.

This last point is what shocked me the most and instantly made Coraline one of my all-time favorite animated films.  Every other 3-D animated film I have seen (The Polar Express, Beowulf, etc.) has sent me from the theater with a mallet in one hand and a pack of advils in the other -- whichever could do the job of satiating my headache quicker.  In contrast, I went into Coraline already nursing a headache and emerged feeling refreshed.  

The director Henry Selick is famous for creating eye-popping stop motion features like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and The Giant Peach.  The visual design of Coraline is a perfect cross and arguably his best.  It is as macabre as Nightmare but it isn't as grotesque.  It is as fanciful as James and The Giant Peach, but it is also more sophisticated.  There is something wonderfully tactile about the characters and the production design.  

The story concerns a little girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who is unhappy at home and one day opens a portal that transports her to an alternate universe where she meets her "other" mother and father.  Unlike her real parents, Coraline's other mother and father pay attention to her and basically live to satisfy her every whim.  Everything else in this other universe seems to follow suit, until Coraline learns that in order to stay there permanently, she will have to let her other Mother sew buttons over her eyes and this is where (as they say) the plot thickens.  

I wouldn't dream of giving anything else away.  The movie needs to be seen to be believed and probably even to be understood.  Let's just say there are many provocative symbols and meanings hidden beneath the imagery in Coraline.  Enough to get even the most jaded adult reflecting thoughtfully.  Ultimately the movie is a revelation not because of its dazzling visuals or it's taut pacing, but rather because of its subtlety.  

I can't remember the last time I saw an animated film that was this understated yet effective at the same time.  This is the real, untapped, third dimension of animation.  Selick is a director who intuitively understands the dynamics of storytelling and his gifts are instructive in showing us the importance of building to big moments.  Not every moment is a climax.  Instead there is a pace and a structure to the plot and this makes his set-pieces all the more thrilling.  Selick values silence and anticipation as well as he does old-fashioned razzle-dazzle.  As a result Coraline is more enchanting than any other 3-D film you may have seen prior.  It dangles the carrot of imagination in front of us, instead of smacking us over the head with it.  

Friday, March 6, 2009

Costumed Loneliness

If you're reading this you probably already know that Zack Snyder's Watchmen is based on the so-called greatest graphic novel of all time, written by Allan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Like the book, the movie is dense, ponderous, fascinating and ultimately frustrating. It posits an alternate reality in which America "wins" the war in Vietnam thanks to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), their ace in the hole, a physicist who accidentally blows himself up but is miraculously reborn with the power to teleport through time and space. The story is set in 1985 with Nixon as President for his fifth consecutive term. America teeters on the brink of nuclear war and the only thing preventing a Russian attack is the existence of Dr. Manhattan, the shiny blue man with the power to obliterate whole countries. At least, that is until he cracks and exiles himself to Mars.

Anyone familiar with the book will be aware that this is a superhero story for adults. In early press for the film, Snyder promised a very R-rated picture and he makes good on his promise. This is not a movie for children--which makes it all the more baffling why the couple in front of me smuggled in their two toddlers, who looked to be no more than eight years old combined. Once the film gets going, there are severed limbs, split heads, broken bones and splattered blood galore. I especially enjoyed watching the Mother ahead of me try to explain all of this to her infant son, during the graphic sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre.

The text is justifiably famous for freshly re-imagining the entire context of comic book heroism. The masked avengers known as the "Watchmen" are heroes borne out of pain and ultimately shunned by the world they vowed to protect. In their heyday they were relevant, but they have all hung up their capes now to embrace a mandatory retirement imposed by the government. All except for the demented Rorshach (Jackie Earle Hayley), the victim of a particularly cruel childhood who now enacts his rage on the guilty. Watchmen is the first comic book story to ever explicitly address the loneliness of the costumed hero. Their power is so great that there is nobody to share it with and nobody to trust. At least no one except each other. This is why the "Comedian" reaches out to his arch-nemesis Moloch, hours before his death. It is also why Dr. Manhattan, touched with the power of the gods, finds it increasingly difficult to relate to anyone on earth.

Our heroes receive a sexual charge from the costumes and personae they adopt that masks repressed depths of despair. Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), finds himself unable to "perform" in the heat of the moment with the radiant Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), until they agree to re-adopt their superhero alter-egos. The heroes in the film get off on their powers. They get off on the violence they inflict on the criminal element. But, when the fighting stops and they have served their larger purpose, they are painfully remote -- incapable of connecting on a meaningful human level, which in turn makes it hard for us to connect with them.

For the most part the book is artfully rendered for the screen. Snyder is a director with a uniquely fetishistic visual style that alienated me in both his Dawn of the Dead remake and the insanely popular 300. Here his overwrought visuals are largely justified by the text. His action scenes are slowed down, lingering on the spectacle of movement and carnage. His keen eye for color and composition evokes the graphics of a comic book frame, but Watchmen like his other films suffers from over-length. His hyper-stylized visuals grow repetitive and over time begin to wear thin. The movie is visually spectacular to be sure and it is consistently exciting to watch, but eventually it starts to feel like a plodding exercise in aesthetic gimmickry.

Despite being original and refreshingly contrary to genre conventions, the movie is rarely ever fun. Provocative? Yes. Eye-popping? Indeed, but the spectacle lacks focus or emphasis and the end result leaves us with a particularly unsavory aftertaste. Admittedly, the source material is equally grim and Snyder deserves credit for achieving such a credible and coherent adaptation with his writers David Hayter and Alex Tse. But, whereas the graphic novel toted a strong message of anti-violence, the big screen Watchmen uses brutality to titillate.

The action scenes offer us thrills that don't feel thrilling, because of the ugliness behind them. If I'm going to watch a cleaver driven into a criminal's head, once is my limit. Three times or more is overkill. This is the dark side of the super-hero genre. Watchmen is a movie to appreciate, but not a movie that is easy to like. It wrenches our most fearless icons from us and replaces them with fearsome, damaged, souls. I can only wonder what those poor kids thought as they were leaving the theatre asking Mom and Dad what it all meant. At least their parents got their money's worth.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Best of 2008

It may seem a little late, but a top 10 list, like fine African cacao, takes time to grow.  It needs to be cultivated, nurtured and ultimately proffered without regrets.  Besides, if Roger Ebert -- the only film critic to have ever won a Pulitzer prize -- couldn't even narrow his list down to ten films this past year, I still feel like I'm ahead of the curve.  The ten best films I saw last year are:

10. The Wackness
Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck generate fireworks as a psychiatrist and teenager trading therapy for marijuana.  Writer/Director Jonathan Levine keeps us constantly off-balance, lacing every moment of his odd-couple story with the humor and pathos of the unexpected.  

9. White Night Wedding
Chekhov's Ivanov becomes the inspiration for the biggest local box-office hit in the history of Iceland.  Straddling a fine line between comedy and tragedy, the story follows a professor who leaves his wife to marry his student on a strange island where the sun never fully goes down. Watching the various townsfolk react to their new visitor makes for some of the funniest moments of any movie this year.  The climax is shattering yet buoyant.  

8. American Teen
Nanette Burstein's knockout documentary American Teen transports us to a small Indiana town in the Midwestern United States and grants us unprecedented access to a group of teens dealing with uniquely contemporary problems.  The teens share their innermost feelings with disarming candor.  Marketed as "the real Breakfast Club," this one packs a punch.

7. Tell No One
Gritty, authentic and stylish.  This unlikely French adaptation of the Harlan Coban novel by the same name is a roller-coaster ride of twists and turns anchored in the suspense of the human heart.  Dr. Alexandre Beck believes his wife to be dead, until he receives an email with evidence that she is still alive.  Whether or not she is actually alive forms the basis for one of the best post-Hitchcock thrillers ever.  

6. The Visitor
Richard Jenkins stars as an emotionally remote College Professor who arrives in New York City for a conference and finds two strangers living in his apartment.  He also finds redemption in the unlikely friendship he forges with them -- learning to play the drums and relearning how to let others into his heart.  It may sound maudlin, but it is the most subtle and understated drama of the year.  

5. Wall-E
This artful, endlessly imaginative meditation on ecology and society's future is visually arresting and narratively elegant.  For 80 percent of the movie we are held spellbound without a single line of dialogue, as the last robot on earth searches for his electronic soul mate.  

4. Changeling
Angelina Jolie is just one standout in a triumphant ensemble cast, as Christine Collins the real life mother whose son was kidnapped in 1928 Los Angeles.  When the police "found" her boy, she insisted he wasn't hers -- instigating a relentless chain of events that are all the more harrowing because they are true.  Director Clint Eastwood's characteristic mixture of bluntness and restraint are put to fine use in this, one of his most accomplished pictures.  

3. Slumdog Millionaire
The feel-good movie of the year is also a stylistically daring, high-adrenaline juggernaut that has the audacity to sell us a fairy tale message laced with unflinching brutality and stark social critique.  The movie has become a phenomenon and deservedly so.  It will be remembered for many years to come.  

2.  The Wrestler
Bracing honesty, raw emotion and the poetry of suffering, fuel this complex and unforgettable character study.  The actors are the show here.  Mickey Rourke inhabits and owns the screen as Randy "the Ram" Robinson.  Marissa Tomei continues to reveal new layers of vulnerability and depth as an actress.  Evan Rachel Wood embodies the Ram's tragic past effortlessly.  Ranks with the very best of American Independent cinema.

1. The Dark Knight
The biggest hit of the year is also one of the greatest popcorn epics of all time.  I don't use the word "masterpiece" lightly, but TDK inspires such praise.  No other film since The Godfather has found such profundity in a mass entertainment.  

Honorable Mention  
At any given moment, there are thousands of little Joe Frankels in my head, making last minute insertions and substitutions to the above list.  Each of these fierce iconoclasts might make a case for the following films:

Quantum of Solace: the best action film of the year.  Critics complained that Bond was trying to imitate Jason Bourne.  Ludicrous.  This film builds on the legacy of Casino Royale with an equal reverence for Ian Fleming's original conception of the character -- and better stunts.  

In Search Of A Midnight Kiss: epitomizes the reckless, youthful, spirit of no-budget Independent filmmaking, with sharp dialogue, evocative on-the-fly visuals and offbeat casting. Current without being trendy.  This one is a gem.  

Vicky Christina Barcelona: Woody's favorite themes are put to fine use in the most entertaining picture of his late career.  Sly, witty and unexpectedly exotic.  

Gran Torino: Clint's second movie of '08 is also one of the year's best, offering a complex meditation on old age, gang violence and racial discord.  Juggling a variety of disparate tones with surprising grace, Gran Torino is a jazzy, elegiac, reflection on a lifetime of playing Dirty Harry.  

Rachel Getting Married: Jonathan Demme's best movie in years, unfolds like a series of home movies and invites us to be a fly on the wall during a tension filled weekend in the life of a dysfunctional family.   Anne Hathaway delivers the best lead performance by an actress this year and the movie lingers in the memory long after the end credits have rolled.    

JCVD: Arguably the most memorable movie of the year for those who saw it.  Jean Claude Van Damme reinvents himself by playing...himself.  Nobody saw it coming, but the man can actually act!  The movie plays like Jean-Luc Goddard crossed with Luc Besson and it's delightful from start to finish.  

Monday, March 2, 2009

24 Day 7 - 6:00 - 8:00

After six and a half seasons of harrowing twists and countless surprises I can say with absolute certainty that episodes 10 and 11 of this seventh and latest season of 24 are the best two hours of 24 ever.  When I started this blog I had one rule and one rule only: to write about movies exclusively.  Nobody can therefore be more surprised than me that a program on the "boob tube" has inspired me -- like Jack Bauer -- to break my rule.  Sorry dear reader.  If you're disappointed, all I can say in my defense is that the show has always looked more like a movie than anything else on TV and I have been vehemently trying to recruit viewers ever since it started.   

To bring you up to speed on this season: America has been under attack from African militants who hope to prevent US intervention in their civil war.  CTU (for all you newbies this means Counter-Terrorist Unit) has been disbanded and super spy Jack Bauer is stuck in the Senate's crosshairs after years of breaking protocol and employing inhumane tactics to interrogate prisoners in the war on terror.  But Bauer is pardoned by the President herself -- yes her, Tony-winner Cherry Jones -- and asked to lead a covert task force to root out a fleet of traitors who are working within the highest government agencies. Last week, Jack succeeded in unearthing a list of all the government conspirators.  

This is where the spoiler thickens...

Tonight's double-header centered on a mind-blowing incident: an invasion of the white house.  Is this strictly plausible?  No, and that's precisely why I felt compelled to say a few words.  Sometimes the most improbable situations give rise to the most entertaining results.  24 has never been a show that can be categorized as strictly "plausible," but this was an hour for those of us who are willing to indulge in the question: "what if?"  What would happen if a militant group were actually able to infiltrate the White House?  Those viewers like me who are able to suspend their disbelief to get onboard with an occasionally ludicrous premise will witness the unimaginable efficiently imagined.  

Sometimes cleverness and daring are more rewarding than safe adherence to the facts and this week's back-to-back episodes succeeded on the basis of this principle.  They succeeded because the writers have carefully drawn us into the life of a female President who is confronted with an attack on her country her husband and ultimately her estranged daughter, all on the same day.  The writers have drawn us into the life of Jack Bauer, the most doggedly determined hero in the history of television, who persists in ignoring the orders of his superiors and the maxims of his government in order to do what is necessary.

Here Jack is sanctioned by the President herself, while torturing a terror suspect within the very walls of the White House.  Moments later, the terrorist attack takes place and the show asks us to consider the shortcomings of a system that would value human rights over homeland security.  All of this is wrapped up in a package of exhilarating gun fights and white knuckle, sweaty-palm, suspense as the terrorists close in on the President and her daughter.  It works for a variety of reasons.  Subliminally we find ourselves responding to a shift in story structure.  Whereas every episode up to this point has engaged us with multiple alternating plotlines, this week's final hour from 7:00 - 8:00 pm traps us inside the siege without any reprieve.   For the first time I can ever remember seeing on this show, time stands still.  The White House is the show and the intensity is non-stop.  

In the final breathless moments, the President and Jack Bauer are trapped inside a panic room together, as the terrorists capture her daughter and try to leverage her out.  Despite Jack's protests, the President surrenders and Jack becomes a hostage along with many others.  TV was invented so we could occasionally enjoy writing like this.  There's a word for it in every culture.  For now, let's just call it compelling.