Monday, December 15, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

During the Christmas season, we tend to see an uptick in New Testament movies, largely focused around the birth of Christ.  Early this year, we saw the Old Testament get a little representation with Noah, and now we’re turning to the second book with Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. But where I appreciated Noah’s steps away from the source material (odd though the rock monsters may have been), Exodus turns out to be too devoted to the text without taking advantage of the technical and narrative innovations the film teases.

Christian Bale stars as Moses on the eve of his step-brother Ramses’s (Joel Edgerton) ascension to the throne of Egypt.  After the revelation that Moses was born a Hebrew slave leads to his exile, a visitation from God (“I Am,” in the persona of a small boy) compels Moses to return to free his people, with ten plague-shaped assists from the heavens.

The first thing about Exodus is that it’s very competent. Scott’s direction of the action scenes recalls his good work on Gladiator, and the plague scenes are terrifying for their computer-generated precision.  And of course Bale is doing his usual top-quality work in a performance as Moses that sees him undergo at least two distinct physical changes, two major philosophical paradigm shifts, and frequent conversations with thin air that lack no conviction.

Edgerton is a great Ramses, as well, and the scenes leading up to the plague of the first-born are highly effective.  It’s a shame, though, that some of the editing in the film turns his public executions into punchlines, compromising a more nuanced performance by equating it with mustache-twirling villainy.  Exodus recovers with a strong supporting cast, including Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, and John Turturro as Seti I.

These are all great performers, but they’re not given terribly much to do.  Kingsley is basically shorthand for gravitas, meant to lend weight quickly to the Hebrew elders, and he manages to check off another ethnicity on his career’s bingo card without having much to do outside of two or three scenes.  Ditto for Paul, whose role as Joshua should have been the Robin to Bale’s Batman, so to speak, but he’s mostly set dressing with an unconvincing accent.  Weaver and Turturro are out of the movie in about twenty minutes; a subplot in which Weaver wants Moses dead peters out rather quickly.

The idea that Ramses’s mother is plotting behind his back to assassinate her stepson is a fascinating one, but the film doesn’t know what to do with it.  This is actually a major problem with Exodus because it has so many opportunities to make an original stamp on the Moses story, but it never commits to any of those.  The apparent emphasis on the brother relationship between Moses and Ramses seems like the centerpiece of the film, but it too fades away, never really delivering on even the basic comparison of the two men as leaders of opposing armies (teased by an opening shot of a priestesses reading offal).  Even the idea of God appearing as a small boy is a neat riff, but it’s never more than set dressing when it could have been the defining element of the film (similar to how Noah replaced God for a more sci-fi being called The Creator).

The most interesting subtext in the film is a broader allusion to the history of the Jewish people.  In one scene, assassinated Hebrew slaves are burned en masse, while elsewhere slaves are forced to hide under their homes to evade Egyptian search parties. In these moments, it seems Scott is building an analogy to the Holocaust, and the film’s conclusion, gesturing toward nation-building, seems to weigh heavily on the side of the Israelis in the contemporary conflict over the Holy Land.  A film more dedicated to this analogy would have been an amazing inflection of the story we all know so well, but three scenes in 150 minutes isn’t enough on which to hang a comprehensive interpretation.

Exodus: Gods and Kings isn’t a bad film (a tremendous improvement from the last Scott film I saw, the dismal Prometheus), but it is disappointing for how little it pushes the story beyond what we already know. For anyone who knows the story, even in its broadest strokes, the film won’t hold much suspense or even any emotion beyond a feeling of obligation as events proceed unremarkably.  For all the technical skill at work in rendering lifelike plague sequences, what’s missing is a sense of spectacle, something we saw quite successfully in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  Despite the dated Technicolor and the mild doses of camp, DeMille’s original epic had a scope and a pervading attitude of wonder that Exodus is sadly lacking. Exodus isn’t a big-budget remake of The Ten Commandments, just a more precise, condensed, and slightly better-acted version of the same story without the grandeur the narrative demands.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is rated PG-13 for “violence including battle sequences and intense images.”  The standard bevy of plagues is seen here, with boils and insects being particularly grotesque; some combat scenes feature violence without any blood.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birdman (2014)

It’s no secret around here that superhero films are really my cup of tea, and I love a good bit of deconstruction as much as anyone.  And with the Oscar race nearing the starting line, I’m ready what the studios have left in the barrel for 2014 to see what they consider to have been the best saved for last.  Birdman is a combination of all three, familiar in some places but oddly unique in others – mostly mystifying but never anything less than riveting.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomas, a washed-up superhero actor who hung up his Birdman costume after three successful films twenty years ago.  In a bid for new relevance, Riggan is helming a Raymond Carver stage adaptation, a Broadway show with more obstacles before opening night – chief among them the interference of a thespian (Edward Norton) who takes himself far too seriously, the skepticism of his producer (Zach Galafianakis), and the backstage presence of his recently-rehabilitated daughter (Emma Stone).  All the while, Riggan seems to be haunted – or is that possessed? – by the voice of Birdman.

I’ll begin by echoing what nearly everyone has already said – the 87th Oscar for Best Actor is really Michael Keaton’s to lose.  The apparent self-reflexivity of the role – Keaton left Batman after two films, amid creative differences and concerns of typecasting – had lured me to the theater, but it is by far the least interesting thing about the role, which says something about the staggering amount of depth Keaton brings to the part.  It’s weird that the last time I “saw” him was as Ken in Toy Story 3, a part which had already seemed so perfectly cast.

More interesting than the modest overlap between Riggan and Keaton’s career is the similar approaches to relevance.  Where Riggan wants to be admired once more, his whole arc in the film a bid to be taken seriously, there is no scent of that desperation in Keaton’s work.  Instead, any renewed relevance comes ipso facto from the fine performance.  Keaton, like the best comic actors, is able to walk the line between pathos and punchline; he can turn it on or off as needed but often finds more versatility in the gray areas.  Especially remarkable are the scenes where he and the other actors are rehearsing the play, the rapid-fire conversation toggling between the playscript and their own actor’s notes on the script.  These are brilliantly done, showcasing the number of levels on which Keaton can work, and they raise one of the film’s most significant themes – the blur between truth and performance.

I’ve always been aware of Alejandro González Iñárritu, but I’d never seen one of his movies before Birdman.  As it stands, this interrogation of performativity is absolutely fascinating, inviting comparisons with Black Swan, which similarly dealt with a performer’s questionable grasp on sanity at the key moment of her career.  Unlike Black Swan, though, Iñárritu has so many themes on his plate that the balanced attention he gives to all of them is a superpower in and of itself.  In the film’s two-hour runtime, Iñárritu tackles performance, love, respect, blockbusters, reinvention, social media, critique, and a handful of others.

This deft balance of the film does, however, leave me a bit perplexed in the sense that Birdman is such a full-bodied satire that I don’t fully know where we stand by the end of it.  Iñárritu is obviously not a fan of superhero blockbusters (Riggan complains that all the good actors are wearing capes), nor does he have any patience for the pretensions of the arthouse crowd (Norton’s technique-obsessed Mike Shiner, a spot-on caricature, is only real on stage).  Iñárritu dismisses lawyers, loathes anyone with a cell phone in front of their face (“Can’t you just have a real experience for once in your life?”), and isn’t too fond of art critics, either.  Birdman targets all of these to expose their absurdity, but the ground on which we’re left is a little shaky.

Many critics are falling over themselves to talk about the film’s apparent long-take filming, and while Iñárritu has clearly disciplined his cast to handle these scenes, I’m not too impressed by the overall longness of the takes because I’m certain there’s some digital fakery afoot.  It does, after a while, start to feel like a gimmick – Hitchcock did the same thing in Rope, and it called attention to itself there, too.  Fortunately, however, it’s not a gimmick that takes away from the film, just another neat thing Birdman does.  (Just setting the record straight – it was impressive when Hitchcock faced the challenge on film, but in a digital world, it’s nothing we didn’t see in Children of Men.)

I mentioned the film’s shotgun-style approach to satire, but I do think that ultimately what you make of the film depends entirely on its ending.  The “ambiguous final shot” is so pervasive these days that it’s almost to the point of a cliché, so I would be interested to know what others make of the film.  For me?  Without spoiling anything, I’m a subscriber to the “happy ending” interpretation, for all the science-fictional/superheroic implications that come with that.  Your destination may vary, but your mileage won’t – Birdman is a fabulous thought-provoking crowdpleaser.  I didn’t always know what to make of it, but it managed to feel compelling all the way through.

Birdman is rated R for “language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.”  The film is littered with F-bombs and other adult language.  A man is seen nude from behind, and in another scene his costume reveals an (exaggerated) outline of his genitals.  There are about three bloody scenes (many involving fake blood for the stage) and a few hamfisted fistfights played for laughs.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The James Bond Countdown

Welcome back to the ostensible finale of the two-year Double-Oh-Seventh celebration of the James Bond franchise.

What a time for it, too, with Thursday’s announcement that “Bond 24” will be entitled Spectre (release date October 23, 2015 – so expect our review on October 26).  The title has such delightfully ominous associations in the world of 007.  The official plot synopsis:

A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organisation. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.

With Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci as the Bond girls, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw returning as M and Q, and Christoph Waltz and Andrew Scott rumored to be playing the villains, perhaps the most exciting news is that Sam Mendes is back after a franchise high-point with Skyfall.  It seems like he’ll be picking up on plot points from the Craig era – secret organizations, political pressure against MI6, further exploration of Bond’s heretofore unseen past.  All good news, especially for someone who loved Skyfall the way I did.

But just how much did I love Skyfall?  At the end of two years’ worth of reviews, what do I make of the entire James Bond film series?   You’ve come to the right place; after the jump, you can read my James Bond Countdown, ranking all twenty-four 007 movies.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Equalizer (2014)

I honestly don’t know how I missed this one on its initial release back in September, because it has all the hallmarks of a Cinema King must-see:  Denzel Washington, man-against-the-odds plot, Antoine Fuqua in the director’s chair, and smaller/more personal action.  It is, essentially, Taken starring Denzel Washington, and while there’s nothing groundbreaking about that equation it is a surefire way to entertain me for two hours.

Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall, a quiet man seeking peace who finds himself the unlikely avenger of young Alina (Chloe Moretz) after she falls in with the Russian Pushkin mob.  Robert’s violent actions draw the attention of a mob fixer (Marton Csokas), who’s been sent to stop Robert at all costs.

Taken was a strange picture in the sense that it wasn’t poised to be as culturally profuse as it ended up being; I’d argue that Liam Neeson’s recent renaissance has much to do with Taken, and I’ve seen impressions of the famous “certain set of skills” phone call from people that I’m relatively certain have no idea where that line comes from.  Yet here we are, a post-Taken cinematic landscape where A-list stars are leading action films that are, frankly speaking, elevated by their very presence.

Not that Fuqua has directed a bad film here.  As always, he’s directed a compelling flick better than his Olympus Has Fallen – though not, I think, better than Training Day, at which he and Denzel were at arguable peaks (and for which Denzel won a much-deserved Oscar).  Knowing nothing about the television show from which the film takes inspiration, I have to take the film on its own merits, and what we have is a very competently told straightforward vigilante narrative that delivers on all the viscera of the R-rating while developing interesting side plotlines for Robert to show off both his calm and his fury.

It is, however, somewhat by-the-numbers, with numerous Chekhov’s guns littered around the film.  When a reference is made to a security guard needing to be able to carry a person, there’s no doubt that the selfsame guard will be called upon to do just that; when we see that Robert works in a hardware store, you can only imagine what sort of garish death-traps are rigged up in one of the more memorable closed-location setpieces since the Guggenheim shootout in The International. 

Having said that, I’m not particularly upset by the fact that The Equalizer doesn’t do much in the way of innovation because the film is carried ably by Denzel himself, one of only a few actors who, it seems, can do no wrong.  He’s also that rare performer who doesn’t need to disappear into a character because his persona itself is engaging enough.  (Compare to Gary Oldman, who’s never the same person twice.)  So Robert McCall is really just another variation on the quintessential Denzel Washington character – affable man of peace, induced to violence, with a pragmatic optimism about humanity – and he continues to do it well.  As I write this, though, I’m remembering how vastly different Malcolm X is from Alonzo Harris (Training Day), John Q from Flight’s Whip Whitaker.  At their core, though, is a certain Denzel-ness, a screen presence which most performers are all too lacking.

The Equalizer ends with – no surprise, in this day and age – a wink towards future films about the character, and so long as Denzel is involved I’ll be in attendance.

The Equalizer is rated R for “strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references.”  A smattering of F-bombs and the presence of prostitution as a plot element comprise the sexual content.  The violence is somewhat bloody – not the most graphic action film by far, but there are some very creative kills with strikes and blows that you can almost feel.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monday at the Movies - November 24, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  Horror and mixed feelings this week.

You’re Next (2013) – Adam Wingard helmed one of the less offensive bits of The ABCs of Death, but his work on a feature film is a bit more successful, even if it leaves me a bit divided.  Sharni Vinson stars as Erin, a woman caught in the midst of a dysfunctional family when her boyfriend brings her home, only to find that the family is being targeted by a vicious group of masked home invaders.  In a blend of pitch-black comedy and revisionist horror, it turns out that Erin is far from helpless.  This Whedon-esque empowerment move is one of the film’s better angles; Vinson is a capable action heroine, and it ably picks up the slack when the home invasion horror beats drop off.  The film does make the mistake of taking off the masks, separating it from the infinitely more terrifying 2008 film The Strangers, though as the film evolves it steps away from the horror and closer to the dark comedy; if you had any doubts, the creative use of a blender in one killing should dispel any doubts.  Taken individually, I like the “strong female protagonist” approach, and self-aware black comedy is always welcome in more recent horror films to prevent the genre from going stale; added together, however, there’s a tonal imbalance that is very distracting.  As usual, I settled in with all the lights out, and that creeping dread set into my stomach as good horror does to me, but then the film gets us cheering for Erin without fully letting go of the jump moments.  Don’t get me wrong, I had a good time watching You’re Next, but I don’t think I’d call it a well-made movie.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week, but n the meantime don’t forget to have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

It’s been a good month for science – we landed on a comet, Big Hero 6 brought scientific imagination to the Disney crowd, and the Internet was able to withstand the gravitational pull of Kim Kardashian’s bottom.  But leave it to Christopher Nolan to outdo all of the above by treating us to what a true filmmaker can do with his own material and his own vision.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper, a top pilot turned farmer in the midst of a total collapse of the earth’s ecosystem.  Without giving away too much of the plot, Cooper is torn between his loyalty to his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and the initiative spearheaded by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), which promises hope for humanity among the stars.

Interstellar is, to be quite blunt about it, Inception meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, combining Kubrick’s science-fictional aesthetics with Nolan’s knack for tight and highly personal storytelling.  Where 2001 lacked humanity amid god-babies and monoliths, and where Inception delved deep into an individual’s dreamspace, Interstellar opens the scope considerably, beyond galaxies, while never forgetting the heart of the story is Cooper’s love for his family.  This, I think, will be the crux of Nolan’s oeuvre – high concept anchored by a deeply personal love story (especially, more recently, the love of a father for his children).

It’s been six year since Christopher Nolan’s last wholly original film – with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises in between, concluding his take on the mythic DC Comics character – and as much as I loved his Batman films I couldn’t be more excited that Nolan is doing his own work again.  By way of disclaimer, I do feel a bit like a devout churchgoer when I attend a Nolan film, seated quietly as the lights dim and expecting to receive some enlightenment or at least feel the touch of the divine.  Nolan hasn’t disappointed me yet, and I appreciate his emphasis on the cerebral.  Nolan is, for my money, one of only a handful of “directors to watch,” whose output has been consistently strong and who deliver a stable brand of films.

Interstellar is through and through a Christopher Nolan product, which is to say that it continues to develop his major themes, continues to push the envelope in terms of practical effects, and does so in a very smart way that resists the puzzle-box style of Inception while preserving that film’s investment in dense scientific concepts.  That is to say, Interstellar isn’t a rigorous intellectual workout like Inception, but it isn’t any less clever for being more temporally straightforward; Nolan is still interested in the relative experience of time, but it’s grounded more in Einstein than in Freud.  It is the high science-fiction followup to Inception that I wanted from Transcendence, but Wally Pfister – Nolan’s frequent cinematographer – gave us more an impression of than a exercise in Nolan’s brainy auteurism.  Interstellar doesn’t just look like a Nolan film (as Transcendence did); it thinks like one, and it even feels more deeply than Nolan films usually do.

The heart of the film – and indeed, it has one – comes from McConaughey’s love for his daughter, and The New Yorker couldn’t have been more right when they dubbed this stage of his career “The McConaissance.”  There’s a moment in the film where I thought to myself, “This is the same guy from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days?”  I wouldn’t be averse to seeing McConaughey join the troupe of Nolan staples, as Michael Caine has (and, to a lesser extent, Hathaway).  Nobody in the film is bad – Jessica Chastain continues to be reliably compelling in everything from Zero Dark Thirty to Mama, and John Lithgow does crotchety-old-man quite well.  McConaughey, though, is the emotional center of the film, perhaps a step in the evolution of a filmmaker who’s been accused of being a sort of cinematic Tin Man.

Interstellar is Nolan at his biggest and most expansive, his longest film to date but also his most emotional, leading to a few misty-eyed moments.  I don’t think it’s his best – Inception is still a masterpiece, and The Dark Knight is just consummate filmmaking – and it is a little bit long, though I struggle to see what could have been cut from a movie as tightly crafted as this one.  What it undeniably is, though, is another strong creation from a big-budget auteur with an unmistakable vision and a profound understanding of the value of cinematic spectacle.  Your eyes may mist, but they’ll be wide in astonishment.

Interstellar is rated PG-13 for “some intense perilous action and brief strong language.”  Like most Nolan movies, Interstellar is entirely bloodless; there are a few explosions, fistfights, and tidal waves, including one very successful jump moment.  Two F-bombs are heard, and there is a pervading sense of just how dangerous space travel is.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Interstellar Review Delayed

We could give you a big physics lesson, but the simple truth is that our Interstellar review was affected by the gravitational pull of a black hole.  It exists, out there in the relative future, but for those of us living in the present, we won't be able to see the effects of the review until Monday.

But hey, Neil deGrasse Tyson liked the movie, so that's got to count for something.  But his review has spoilers in it, so you'll have to wait for The Cinema King to take on Nolan's latest.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Big Hero 6 (2014)

My immediate reaction after seeing Big Hero 6 is that it feels very much like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Incredibles, combining the Pixar film’s wide-eyed appreciation for the superhero genre with Tyson’s ardent zeal for scientific innovation.  That’s a winning combination in my book, the latest victory for Disney’s animated line.

Inspired by his brother to attend San Fransokyo’s Institute of Technology, robotics savant Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) finds himself adrift in the wake of tragedy, wallowing in his grief until his brother’s greatest invention Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare robot, activates.  The two soon discover that Hiro’s microbots have been appropriated by a kabuki-masked menace, whose intentions are doubtless insidious.  To thwart “Mr. Kabuki” (as an incredulous cop describes him), Hiro and Baymax, along with other robotics geniuses, don suits of armor and become – as the title promises – big heroes.

As the first Marvel property adapted fully by Disney, Big Hero 6 isn’t connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though they have two things in common, the post-credits sequence and something that happens therein).  What this isn’t is all the bad things connoted by the term “Disneyfied.”  Indeed, after films like Frozen, I’m not sure that term even has much capital anymore; Disney and Pixar have been deconstructing the animated feature film for the past decade or so, and Big Hero 6 merely adds the superhero genre to the list of things that Disney can do well.  It’s not as cleverly deconstructive as The Incredibles, but it doesn’t have to be.

In place of genre self-awareness – of which there is some, in the character of Fred, who frequently shouts metafictional observations like, “This is our origin story!” – Big Hero 6 is heavily affective, swimming in the pathos we’ve come to expect from the House of Mouse.  There’s the aforementioned sense of wonder that pervades the picture, both in the superhero trappings and the awe at what science can do when shackled only by imagination.  But it’s that classically Disney combination of comic relief and tearjerking tugs at the heart.  There’s a moment at the very end of the film where, after feeling fairly certain I wasn’t going to tear up, the film hits a beat that makes my eyes misty even now.

More moviegoers will come away feeling the deep and memorable humor of the film, embodied solidly by the “huggable and non-threatening” marshmallow-like Baymax, whose perpetually blank face, doughy body, and simple voice provide most of the laughs in the film, to the point that Baymax is impossible to tear your eyes away from.  I throw the word “scene-stealer” around a lot on this blog, but I can’t remember the last time a character so thoroughly owned the film and tore it away from its lead.  Adsit’s voice is so perfect for this character, and he does amazingly emotive things with a lilting robotic inflection, finding humor in the moments when Baymax’s programming is confused.

While the other performances are fine, they’re more noteworthy in comparison to the highly complementary screenplay, which creates characters so deftly that it’s a wonder we even need the Plinkett test anymore.  In a quick one-scene introduction to the supporting characters, the film tells us precisely what their personalities are, their strengths and weaknesses.  Even the names, somewhat offbeat (Wasabi and Go-Go among them), fit quite well and make them easy to remember.

Big Hero 6 is a simple movie, not dull and predictable, but in the sense that the film is so streamlined and so sleek that the two hours pass by before you’ve had time to refill your popcorn.  It’s the kind of film that will leave you smiling throughout, and not just because Baymax is the most adorable thing ever.  There are shots in Big Hero 6 that are truly breathtaking, many of which feature the stunning San Fransokyo skyline.  What I take away from the film, though, is a breathless optimism and satisfaction at another well-told entry.

If this is what we can expect from the more direct partnerships between Disney and Marvel, I say bring on Big Hero 7: Baymax Boogaloo.

Big Hero 6 is rated PG “for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements.”  There’s a somewhat scary sequence near the middle in which (spoilers?) Baymax’s programming is overridden, but other than that there’s very little reason this couldn’t be a G.

Our unofficial “science at the movies” week continues on Thursday with The Cinema King’s take on Christopher Nolan’s latest – Interstellar.  Join us, won’t you?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Quantum of Solace (2008)

I don’t want to be “that guy,” someone who extrapolates a grandiose criticism from a very nitpicky observation, but Quantum of Solace is the only Bond film that doesn’t begin with the gun barrel sequence, which should be an immediate red flag that what we’re about to see is either not a Bond film or one that exists in a rough unfinished state, missing a few key components.  Obviously, Quantum of Solace is a case of the latter – an unfinished product with a puzzler for a plot and an apparent attempt to refuse to be the James Bond movie Casino Royale promised.

While pursuing the secret organization who killed his lover, James Bond (Daniel Craig) discovers that one of its members, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), is conspiring with a South American despot to stage a coup and dominate a key world resource.  Bond works to prevent this conspiracy, avenge his lover, and help Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) find her own peace – all while M (Judi Dench) struggles to contain an increasingly renegade Bond.

First of all, the plot of Quantum of Solace is exceptionally thin; Bond encounters the main plot only by coincidence, and he’s only following suspicion of wrongdoing for the bulk of the film.  I much prefer either the classic “mission briefing” mode of storytelling for Bond, or the slowly unraveling grand conspiracy.  Quantum is neither, a mingle-mangle of setpieces that almost feel as though they’re out of order (Bond flies to the desert to uncover Greene’s plot, goes back to the city to not confront Greene, then travels back to the desert).

In a Bond film, those setpieces can be everything, with great action sequences even partially redeeming a bad Bond film.  For me, that’s honestly what sets Quantum of Solace a notch below Die Another DayDie Another Day had that memorable duel sequence, a half-chase through a Cuban clinic, and an outlandish but still fun hovercraft fight.  Quantum’s action pieces begin promisingly enough, with a great car chase through Siena, but it quickly becomes apparent that director Marc Forster is not as deft with directing action as Martin Campbell was on Casino Royale.  Often Forster will cut away from the action at its most interesting, as when a plane stunt occurs largely behind a mountain.  It’s artistic editing that reminds us how good Forster was in Stranger Than Fiction but how out-of-place he seems in a big-budget franchise.

The willful cutting of the camera’s gaze away from the action is just one of the places where Quantum stubbornly refuses to be a Bond film, completely missing the memo from Casino Royale.  In Casino Royale, Martin Campbell and the crew showed us how to update Bond while staying true to the (let’s be honest here) formula of the franchise – disfigured villain, suave (super)hero, sultry siren with a curious name, big-stakes plot.  Casino Royale added in “psychological realism,” shook it up (never stirred), and turned out an invigorating fresh approach to Bond.  Quantum seems to have taken the lesson as “be as un-Bond as possible.”  Dominic Greene isn’t disfigured beyond his small stature, which is probably meant as a comment on the banality of evil, but it doesn’t work when the script asks him to become a physical threat to Bond.  Gemma Arterton’s turn as Agent Fields feels like a bad gag when she refuses to tell Bond her first name, which the credits reveal is “Strawberry” – it’s a wonderful gag with a wink toward outlandish predecessors like Pussy Galore and Xenia Onatopp, but the movie dangles it in front of us like a cat toy on a string.

The best material in Quantum, it seems, is elsewhere – off camera, in the credits, or nestled in the viewer’s imagination.  The saddest thing about the film is its unlived potential, glimmers of what the follow-up to Casino Royale should have been; there are disparate plot threads involving a Bond driven mad by revenge, Felix Leiter’s attempt to work against a corrupt CIA, M’s begrudging willingness to trust Bond, and the parallels between Bond and Camille’s quest for vengeance – but these are presented in mere outline form, painted with the broadest of strokes.  Any one of these could have made a compelling backbone to the second in a new era of James Bond, but crumpled together as they are, the whole ends up being so much less than the sum of its parts.

Let’s be fair – Quantum of Solace was damaged by the 2007-2008 Writers’ Strike.  Forster and Craig are on record as saying that they personally tuned up the screenplay between takes, and that almost certainly accounts for the lack of cohesion or semblance of narrative structure.  Essentially, it’s like taking a blacksmith to task for not being a computer engineer – to which I have to respond, however, that it would have been better to wait for Steve Jobs.  Quantum would have benefited immeasurably from a professional writer’s eye, and I would rather have waited for a true successor to Casino Royale.  What we get instead is a Godfather III, more epilogue than proper sequel.

Quantum of Solace fortunately ends with one of its best sequences, in which Bond finally confronts the double agent responsible for his lover’s death and (minor spoilers) steadfastly refuses to kill him.  He and M have a semi-touching conversation about revenge before she asks him to return to the agency.  “I never left,” he answers, trudging away alone in the snowfall.  If Casino Royale ended with the promise that James Bond truly was back, Quantum of Solace at least accounts for its own missteps in this moment by reassuring us that Bond hasn’t gone anywhere and is perhaps finally ready to inherit the mantle suggested by Casino Royale.

Of course, we know that’s what ended up happening.  Consider Quantum a speedbump on the road to Skyfall.

Quantum of Solace is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content.”  The violence isn’t quite bloody, but especially in the last sequence you can really feel some of the more visceral bits.  It’s not as intense as Casino Royale, though.  Aside from one brief encounter, Bond doesn’t sleep with the Bond girl, and any other sexual encounters are only mentioned, not shown, though there is an attempted sexual assault.

We’ve reached the end of a two-year journey through the Bond canon, but don’t hang up your tuxedos just yet – James Bond and The Cinema King will return with a special bonus feature on December 7, 2014!  (And you don’t have to wait until then to read a review of Skyfall – we did that ages ago.)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Monday at the Movies - November 3, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  We haven’t reviewed a musical around these parts, so let’s give it a go.

Rent (2005) – Let’s begin by separating the film from the stage play (which I’ve never seen) and take the movie adaptation on its own merits.  I feel about Rent very much the same way I felt about the last musical I reviewed, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge – on a technical level, I see that the moving parts work, and there are some fine performers clearly invested in the material, but from an audience perspective both Moulin Rouge and Rent felt very empty.  I’ll qualify this review by quoting my Moulin Rouge review – I don’t think I’m the audience for this film – but as a reviewer that doesn’t let the movie off the hook.  Rent feels empty because it seems to strip away a lot of what makes the characters individually definable (see the Plinkett test) and reduces a lot of their motivations to “I’ve got problems, man, and life is tough.”  A few deleted scenes really draw this out, especially with the character of Mark, who seems hollow in the film proper but has a much fuller characterization when he gets to, for lack of a better term, sing about his feelings.  I already have a tenuous relationship with musicals – I really like exuberantly dumb musicals like High School Musical or tonally thick ones like Sweeney Todd – so I’m certain that Rent isn’t for me.  Maybe if I’d come to it with the stage play in mind:  I get the strong sense that this particular Rent is targeted to those with the stage play near and dear at heart.  For those of us newcomers, however, the effect is much closer to wondering what all the fuss is about.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week for reviews of Big Hero 6 and Interstellar, and this Friday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month... The Cinema King has a full dance card, so be sure to subscribe – you won’t want to miss a moment!