Monday, October 27, 2014

Monday at the Movies - October 27, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  After being disappointed by last week’s sojourn into so-called horror, it’s time to return to what we do best – something we haven’t done, believe it or not, since July!

Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014) – First of all, the title of this film is an abject misnomer.  Assault on Arkham is unequivocally a Suicide Squad movie in which Batman makes a few appearances.  But because of the Dark Knight’s marketability and a welcome performance by Kevin Conroy (who so thoroughly owns the character at this point), the title misleads.  The Suicide Squad, working on the deceitful orders of government official Amanda Waller, is tasked to break into Arkham Asylum in order to recover a stolen piece of data; being that the team is comprised of supervillains working off their sentences – led by the master assassin Deadshot (Neal McDonough), with Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch) stealing the show with her repeated cries of “Yahtzee!” – the team can barely keep from betraying itself to stay alive.  I really enjoyed this film, for precisely the reason that might turn off a lot of viewers:  Assault on Arkham is probably the edgiest animated film out of DC, replete with a fair amount of gore and PG-13 brushes of nudity.  It’s a welcome relief to see that the studio is willing to take a risk here and there with some of their lesser-known properties, even if that gamble is counterbalanced by the presence of the ever-bankable Batman and a tenuous tie to the wildly popular Arkham video games.  That said, to long-time fans of the comic book source material, there’s little to surprise in Assault on Arkham; anyone with a casual knowledge of the Suicide Squad knows exactly who’s telling which lies, and so the real joys of the film are to be found in the edgy appropriation of character relationships (especially the manic way Harley Quinn tries to bait her former lover, The Joker).  With a Suicide Squad movie en route from DC’s live-action division, this is a good introduction to the concept.  (Recommended also:  the “Task Force X” episode of Justice League Unlimited, which finds a similar roundup of rogues breaking into the Justice League’s orbital Watchtower.)

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday at the Movies - October 20, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  In the immortal words of the legendary Hank Kingsley, “It’s October, and we all know what that means.”

The ABCs of Death (2012) – Two enthusiasms of mine, readers of this blog will note, come together in The ABCs of Death:  horror and anthology.  Unfortunately, that’s about the nicest thing I can say about the 26 shorts alphabetized in The ABCs of Death, because there are at best one or two tolerable segments and a few memorable moments in what is otherwise an execrable mess marrying the worst excesses of torture porn to some of the poorest examples of visual narrative.  The shorts that work tend to be quite simple and straightforward, while it’s the high concept ones that fumble on basic principles of storytelling.  I won’t methodically track and evaluate each of the 26 shorts (the Wikipedia page is actually quite thorough in this regard), but I’ll single out a few.  A and B aren’t bad, doing basic Twilight Zone style twist endings on morality plays, while R and X are memorable for their intensely graphic gore (in one, a man’s flesh is sliced and developed into celluloid; in the other, body confidence leads a woman to take a turkey slicer to herself).  F is, if you can believe it, a five-minute joke about flatulence, while K deals with an unflushable turd – and I’m not exaggerating here when I say there is far too much surface-level toilet humor, even for a late-twenties male like myself.  (There is, and I’m not joking, even a short called “T for Toilet.”)  Even with a few tolerable shorts, The ABCs of Death is far far less than the sum of its parts, grating in places and downright dull in most.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Monday at the Movies - October 13, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  James Bond aside, it’s been two months since we reviewed a superhero film around these parts.  That lapse in judgment is just downright villainous.

Unbreakable (2000) – Before M. Night Shyamalan became a director of diminishing returns, he was a clever auteur with a penchant for puzzle-box movies that didn’t admit to being such until the final reel’s big revelations (we all know how The Sixth Sense ends, yes?).  His second feature, Unbreakable, is an unconventional superhero story, set in “the real world” after David Dunn (Bruce Willis) miraculously survives a locomotive catastrophe.  As he struggles to make sense of his lack of injury, he’s contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art dealer who specializes in comic books; Elijah suspects David is the world’s first superhero.  Unbreakable is a bit of a slow burn, exceptionally broody as David wrestles with the “great responsibility” which we know necessarily comes “with great power.”  But the quiet moments, which might challenge devotees of the cinematic Marvel method, pay off by lending gravity to those moments when David does act, replete with knowing touches on the superhero genre’s mainstays (including a clever approximation of a costume).  The real standout, even for folks who love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is Jackson’s turn as Elijah, a positively electrifying performance that crackles in his scenes with Willis.  Indeed, Jackson is almost more the star of the film because his Elijah – dubbed “Mr. Glass” because of a brittle bone disability – is a commanding performance, riveting as only Jackson can deliver, even without the assist of a well-timed F-bomb.  So don’t go in looking for the twist-ending approach from The Sixth Sense.  What you get instead is a smart and engaging revisionist superhero tale that begs for a sequel (which, alas, never came).

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Casino Royale (2006)

After Die Another Day nearly killed the franchise with excess, Casino Royale is exactly the course correction audiences needed, expected, and desired from James Bond.  Perhaps the greatest thing about Casino Royale is how it desperately wants the audience’s faith in the franchise, coupled with how brilliantly the film achieves that goal.

Casino Royale reboots the franchise to the early days of James Bond (Daniel Craig), newly minted as Agent 007 in the 00 division of MI6.  In the wake of his pursuit of a small-time bombmaker, Bond follows the trail of clues to the Bahamas, then Montenegro, where he is enlisted in a high-stakes poker game against terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).  Armed with $15 million courtesy of treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Bond must bankrupt Le Chiffre, an expert poker player who already knows Bond is coming for him.

From the black-and-white precredits sequence, which almost makes one wish the whole film had been shot monochromatically, what is immediately striking is just how visceral Casino Royale is.  Doubtless this is the casualty of living in the shadow of The Bourne Identity (released the same year as Die Another Day), which is widely credited with injecting a healthy dose of gritty realism into the spy film genre, but Casino Royale never seems like it’s aping someone else’s act; rather, the film succeeds by adapting the lessons in realism from Bourne into the preexisting template of what a Bond film should be.

That lesson is to step away from all the theatricality of the Bond films because they often made the character a pawn in a larger-than-life aesthetic catastrophe.  Take Moonraker, which tried to up the scales by sending Bond to outer space but succeeding only in escaping the gravitational pull of being watchable.  Consider the other space laser in the Bond canon, Die Another Day, a frigid mess unwilling to commit to tonal consistency.  No, it’s impossible not to hear the voice of director Martin Campbell, who had helmed Goldeneye to great success, shouting at the previous films, “Look what you’ve done to the place!”  You can’t tell me that it’s an accident that Campbell was summoned back to right the ship, because as before he excels at exactly this sort of thing.

Once more, Campbell is asked to introduce us to a new Bond, Daniel Craig.  Dubbed “James Blond” by viewers focusing on entirely the wrong aspect of his performance, Craig brings an icy exterior to Bond, his sense of humor coming less from a place of self-confidence and more from a Dalton-esque disdain for his enemies.  Where Connery and Moore delivered the one-liners with a wink and a slight smirk, Craig manages to be deadly serious about being clever, something that really comes out in subsequent viewings beyond the initial shock of thinking he’s not very funny.  We have to remember that this is an early Bond, a prequel reboot (a preboot?), and Craig does a first-rate job of giving us glimmers of the Bond we expect to see while layering in psychological nuance.

Something we’ll really see developed in the Craig era is the relationship between Bond and M.  Judi Dench is held over from the Brosnan films, and thank God for that because she’s bloody brilliant.  From her very first scene in Casino Royale, which finds her refusing to let her assistant get a word in edgewise, Dench is inspired casting, continuing her force-of-nature portrayal of the head of MI6.  Her relationship with Bond is especially compelling, not quite maternal but oddly affectionate nonetheless.  M is clearly confident in the abilities of her newly-promoted protégé, initially without cause, and this faith in Bond is much more engaging than the steely nature of the male Ms before her.  I’ll never complain any time Judi Dench shows up anywhere, and the apparent continuity contradiction of her presence shouldn’t bother anyone in the slightest because her M is a fantastic addition to the Bond canon.  (If it truly distresses you, just imagine that “James Bond” is a codename and not a real name.  It’ll also explain why a secret agent is so flippant about using his real name.)

I could take a few paragraphs to say effusive things about Mikkelsen and Green, but the thrust of it is that they fit perfectly with the more grounded ethos of Casino Royale and their performances are delightful updates on the “Bond baddie” and “Bond girl” (respectively).  What I’m more struck by, though, is how effective a director Campbell is, measurable by his dexterity with purely visual language.  There are many sequences that proceed without dialogue, yet the film communicates it all deftly.  We don’t need to be told, for example, that Bond is putting on a façade each time he plays it cool, because Campbell gets a hell of a performance out of Craig.  The brief moments of running commentary during the poker games feel slightly abrasive because the film works so strongly with the visual, even for someone who knows little about card games.  The action sequences – which, incidentally, are stellar – bear the mark of solid direction, both for remaining exciting and for slickly refusing to call attention to themselves.  Bond’s chase-parkour-siege sequence early in the film never flounders, and it’s to Campbell’s credit that he stages a stairwell fistfight with as much dexterous grace as Bond’s attempt to discern Le Chiffre’s ‘tell.’

If I have a complaint about Casino Royale, it’s that it ends twice when the first conclusion would have sufficed.  But the second ending does set up a vital piece of Bond’s character – his detached womanizing – and gives us the dynamite last shot in which 007 finally delivers the one line you’ve been waiting the whole time.  Once those five words get spoken and the film cuts to black with the musical sting you’ve also been anticipating (I won’t spoil either, but true believers know which ones I mean), I can’t imagine anyone not feeling a strong chill of accomplishment up the spine with an awed murmur of “And we’re back.”  “James Bond will return,” the credits promise in that noble tradition, but Casino Royale has demonstrated that Bond has already returned.  And we’re back.

Casino Royale is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity.”  While the violence isn’t pervasive, it is quite intense when it happens; the fight scenes are very well choreographed, and they feel very visceral, including a scene in which a nude Bond (nothing is shown) is assaulted with a carpet beater.  Bond has romantic encounters with two women who don’t show anything more than their neckline.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of Quantum of Solace (2008) on November 7, 2014!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl walked a fine line between pulpy page-turner and thematic depth, grappling with important issues while never losing the breakneck pacing shared by some of its shallower neighbors on the bookshelf.  With Flynn adapting the novel into a screenplay for director David Fincher, though, Gone Girl has well and truly arrived.

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his house disheveled and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing.  A media hurricane ensues, in part because Amy was the subject of a series of children’s books authored by her parents, but largely due to Nick’s suspicious behavior during the first 48 hours.  What’s more, Nick is oddly evasive while helping the police follow the clues Amy left for their anniversary scavenger hunt.  As the film also reveals Amy’s diary entries, it asks:  Did Nick kill his wife?

As you saw from the summary paragraph, I’m going to do my best not to spoil any of the labyrinthine twists in the plot.  In fact, the surprises in the film are so well navigated that I almost wish I hadn’t read the book first.  There’s an element of almost unsettling tension in the film, even for a book-reader, and to that end I have to give kudos to Flynn for neatly adapting the structure and narrative of her novel into a finely tuned screenplay.  At two and a half hours, I was never bored because the movie keeps turning and churning, meticulously crafted with all the tightness of a boa constrictor wrapping itself around you.

I could attribute much of the success of Gone Girl to the stellar cast, as well.  Neil Patrick Harris is divinely unsettling as Amy’s suicidal first boyfriend, and who would have guessed that Tyler Perry’s turn as smarmy defense attorney Tanner Bolt would have been very nearly my favorite performance in the film?  (He certainly gets the best line, a perfect tension-popper right near the end of the film.)  That honor, though, goes to Rosamund Pike, who I’d say is looking at a very real Best Actress nomination once awards season rolls around.  Her Amy is even better than the character I’d imagined, her uncanny stares giving her the ice queen quality for which Hitchcock would have killed.  Affleck is a fine choice, too, but he’s exactly the Nick I pictured in my head; the film is Pike’s, and she owns it.

The individualist in me squeals with delight, though, at the fact that this film ultimately feels like the vision of a single person, plainly the product of the unmistakable eye of David Fincher.  For my money (noncontroversial claim ahead), Fincher has never made a bad movie, so the winning streak continues.  I love it when filmmakers so thoroughly retain their own style across projects, and as I grow older I’m really invested in movies that have that je-ne-sais-quoi “look” to them.  Christopher Nolan does it quite well, especially with Wally Pfister (and, because of the Pfister connection, Transcendence had the Nolan-look, too), and David Fincher is the other master of a consistent, distinctive look.  Marked by half-dim lighting and a loving lather of shadows, Fincher’s work always communicates visually the themes he intends to develop in the film proper.  Of course, the vaguely unsettling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross has become a Fincher staple; as sore as I still am about it defeating Inception at the Oscars, the Reznor/Ross score for The Social Network suited the movie snugly.

This is a Fincher movie, with all the promise and directorial grace that Fincher brings to the table, and I think we can even understand it as part of a thematic trilogy, with The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, about sociopaths and the carnage they leave in their wake.  The novel was a little bit more about the mutually destructive consequences of a dishonest long-term relationship, but the Fincher treatment is heavily inflected by the director’s own consistent theme of the banality of evil and the quotidian lurkings of the savage.  Where the novel emphasized the dishonesty of its first-person narrators to broaden the range of suspicion in Amy’s disappearance, Fincher’s adaptation focuses more on the performance of normalcy, demonstrating that the suburbs is a site for disguise and deceit.  Nick might be lying when he says he’s innocent, but so might his neighbor, who parlays a friendship with Amy into a tour of the talk show circuit.

There’s so much more to say about the movie, and maybe this isn’t the venue for it.  This is a film that needs to be discussed, among people who’ve been through it.  It’s an experience that shouldn’t be spoiled, maybe up to and including by the source material itself.  I’d like to revisit this film once the spoiler embargo is lifted, but in the meantime I’ll probably be going back to the Fincher well and hit up some of my DVDs.  For you, dear reader, if you’ve enjoyed any of Fincher’s recent work, Gone Girl demands to be seen.

Gone Girl is rated R for “a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language.”  A throat is cut in a very graphic sequence, covering both killer and victim in blood, but the color is manipulated so it looks more black than red.  We see one woman topless twice, another nude from the side in the shower, and two male rear ends.  Language consists of a few F-bombs and one monologue revolving around a crude anatomical synecdoche for a woman.

Oh, hey, tomorrow is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month!  Former Fincher collaborator Daniel Craig makes his MI6 debut in Casino Royale, so be back on Tuesday.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 29, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  I don’t review as many documentaries on here as I should, so I’ll work on rectifying that over the coming months. 


The Woman Who Wasn’t There (2012) – As if the events of September 11 weren’t horrifying enough, this documentary trots out the most grotesque of all the sideshow freaks in the traveling circus of terrorism’s aftermath.  I don’t know how much readers are aware of the story of Tania Head, but whether you know the horrid “twist” (reality mimicking art, in this sense) or not the documentary unfolds with all the building dread and slow-burn anxiety of a well-done psychological horror flick.  In a nutshell (spoilers?) Tania Head lied about being in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and rose to a prominent role in a survivor’s support group, even ousting legitimate survivors in what seems to have been a mad grab for power.  Head herself is only featured in archival footage, having obviously avoided the filmmakers, though as Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  While the film never provides a rationale for Head’s actions, it does a meticulous job tracing out her web of lies and the inevitable collapse of the charade as more of her friends realize just how severely they had been duped.  This is a very well-made documentary, avoiding the dry recitation of a History Channel special and instead giving Head’s victims – themselves doubly injured, having already survived 9/11 – the floor in a fascinating exposé that has more in common with Hitchcock than Ken Burns.  Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, the film never answers why someone would fabricate a story like Tania Head did, but perhaps that makes the documentary more effective as a narrative about an ineffably monstrous person.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 22, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  We won’t pretend that today’s review has anything to do with birthdays or coincidences of the calendar – rather, here’s a movie watched and reviewed in the past week (you know, just like this feature used to be).

The Truman Show (1998) – Half Philip K. Dick and half Plato’s allegory of the cave, Peter Weir's The Truman Show is a prescient critique of reality television (a full two years before Survivor) with a strong dose of existential philosophy and a little Christian creation theory for good measure.  Jim Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, who unwittingly stars in a reality show orbiting entirely around him.  In short, he’s the only genuine thing in the simulacrum of Seahaven; think Leave It to Beaver meets Big Brother.  While his whole life is being directed by television auteur Christof (a smartly understated Ed Harris), Truman discovers holes in his own reality as he wonders why he can’t leave town and whether he’s the center of the universe.  Carrey, at the time known mostly for his broad strokes comedy in Ace Ventura and The Mask, delivers a more restrained performance here; there are a few flashes of slapstick and the facial clowning which made Carrey famous, but by and large the film is more cerebral than that and explores the character’s psyche quite well, in a frankly brilliant screenplay by Andrew Niccol.  Indeed, this is a very smart film, and it never panders to the audience by overexplaining the high concept; in the hands of a lesser crew, the interview sequence with Christof would have been overladen with exposition, but instead The Truman Show uses it to explore some of the implications of this particular reality program, rendering Christof not as a mustache-twirling villain but as an antagonist with a high emphasis on aesthetics over ethics.  Eventually the film addresses a key existential theme – the necessity of choice in freedom – and the film’s conclusion subverts our expectations by denying us a key confrontation but leaves us with the only ending this story could have.  The Truman Show comes highly recommended, both as casual entertainment and as thought experiment.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 15, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  Continuing our string of bizarre coincidences, tomorrow is screenwriter Justin Haythe’s birthday, he of the largely ill-conceived Lone Ranger reboot.

Revolutionary Road (2008) – If you want to remember the postwar era fondly, the door to Turner Classic Movies is that way.  Director Sam Mendes helms this adaptation of the eponymous novel by Richard Yates, and you’ll find it astounding to believe this is the same director behind both Skyfall and American Beauty.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a couple for whom the sheen of marital bliss is quickly cracking; the two deliver reliably solid work, and the tension between the two is divinely palpable.  As unfaltering as these two performances are, they’re also relentlessly depressing.  They’re fantastic performers, and we enjoy them on-screen for it, but good Lord – it’s very trying to watch two of your most beloved thespians berate each other for two hours in a self-destructive, mutually abusive marriage.  The goal here is a warts-and-all exposé on the darker side of the late-40s American optimism, with a heavy dose of Peyton Place thrown in for those who still held the suburbs as idyllic.  On that count, Revolutionary Road is a bleak success, but feel good it ain’t.  To lighten the mood, though, Michael Shannon wanders into the frame every so often, and – as is usually the case with him – it’s as though he’s in an entirely different movie, one I can’t say I wouldn’t rather have watched.  His supporting role as the son of the Wheelers’ realtor neighbor (Kathy Bates) comes with equal parts mental derangement and frightening outburst, a fine and effective complement to the repressed Frank and April.  The real treat is in watching him act, with an occasional tic or bizarre vocal inflection making his the only real fun performance to be had in a film that is creatively successful but otherwise oppressing to watch.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 8, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  Tomorrow is Michelle Williams’s birthday, so we’re going to pretend that this next review isn’t a complete coincidence and act like we timed this perfectly.

The Station Agent (2003) – For those who weren’t already aware of Peter Dinklage’s star-making performance in Thomas McCarthy’s directorial debut, the rising star of Dinklage thanks to his household status in Game of Thrones will be inviting newcomers to what is a truly compelling feature, imperfect in the way that most debuts are but worth experiencing the remarkably brief runtime.  Dinklage delivers a phenomenally moving performance as Fin, the eponymous man who lives in an abandoned train depot, and it’s a remarkable role since the film never patronizes to the audience by demanding sympathy for a protagonist with dwarfism; instead, Dinklage’s quiet solemnity and the occasional condescension from a passer-by make the case eloquently for basic human dignity.  Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale costar as Fin’s friends, who break through the insulation he’s erected around himself, and the film is highly enjoyable in developing the relationship between this unlikely trio.  Fortunately, the film also treats its audience with respect by not forcing the clichéd “damaged people” love affair between Dinklage and Clarkson; that plotline goes to a young Michelle Williams, who’s less a broken soul and more charming librarian who bonds with Fin over his need for a library card.  Unfortunately, the film stumbles a bit when it gives equal time to Clarkson’s plotline about her separation from her husband; under the weight of two despondent protagonists, the film buckles, and there are a few beats where the depressing quality almost overwhelms.  I applaud the film for its anti-Hollywood ending, in which love doesn’t quite conquer all, for it makes a more affirming statement about friendship, and as the characters smile at the end, it’s a gift to the audience that we too feel that we’ve found a new batch of misfits with whom we can spend time.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Die Another Day (2002)

After forty years and half as many movies, the James Bond franchise has legs like few others (Godzilla comes to mind for longevity), and on the surface Die Another Day pays homage to a lot of great moments from the long history of the series.  The film itself, however, is the epitome of a trainwreck:  it starts strong and quickly derails, all the while remaining a ruin away from which you can’t tear your eyes.

After months of torture in a North Korean prison camp, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is released in a hostage trade orchestrated by M (Judi Dench) to root out a British conspirator.  Bond pursues Korean terrorist Zao (Rick Yune) to Cuba, where he learns that American spy Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) is also on the case.  Together, the two follow the trail to British diamond baron Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) and his orbital laser satellite.

From that plot synopsis, you already have a sense of the biggest problem with Die Another Day – its staggering unevenness.  The film sprints from setpiece to setpiece with little connective tissue between scenes other than someone coming in and expositing to Bond, “This is where you need to go next.”  The more dangerous message of these weak transitions is the intimation that Bond is rusty and doesn’t know his way around a secret mission anymore.  Consequently, the inorganic quality of the plot results in a film that is neither a triumph nor a catastrophe.  There are moments when Die Another Day is quite entertaining, but the moments when it isn’t prevent the whole from coalescing into a fulfilling moviegoing experience.

Case in point – at about the midpoint of the film, there’s a fantastic fencing match between Bond and Graves.  It’s energetic, fantastically choreographed and directed, and essential in developing the personalities of the two men.  The stuntwork is quite excellent, and the scene positively crackles.  Like any good setpiece, it’s easily divorced from the larger narrative, enjoyable on its own merits, but everything surrounding the duel is incomprehensibly disconnected; it’s anyone’s guess why the two men duel in the first place, nor does it make much sense for Graves to invite Bond to his secret lair after the duel.

And when the whole film proceeds in such a way, it’s just exhausting.  The fundamental flaw of the film is that in nearly every aspect of the narrative, Die Another Day is unable to commit to one direction.  In the character of Jinx, the filmmakers have an opportunity to give Bond an equal number, a female American agent every bit as skilled as he is; instead, Jinx is as often (if not more frequently) a damsel in distress.  Halle Berry is very good in the role, equally smart and sexy, but the role itself is somewhat thin.  After one particularly great fight sequence in the bowels of a plummeting airplane, Jinx dispatches her adversary and then quite literally sits down and waits for Bond to save her.

The Jinx of the first half of the film would never have done that, but it seems that halfway through Die Another Day everything in the film goes topsy-turvy and stops making sense.  The film’s opener, with hovercrafts and silly puns, is ludicrous enough but remains safely within the loose realism of the Bond films.  Once we get into the second half, with space lasers and ice palaces, the film surrenders entirely to poor CGI effects and absurd gadgetry far beyond what the boundaries of credulity can accommodate.  As if the invisible car weren’t preposterous enough, the film sees Bond surfing multiple times, and in the film’s climax Gustav Graves dons an electrified suit of armor for no apparent reason whatsoever; there’s a gag about making his suitcase device more ergonomic, but you won’t find this gizmo in an IKEA near you. 

It’s a real shame that Die Another Day goes so far off the rails, not only because it’s Brosnan’s final outing as 007, though it is tragic that the promise of Goldeneye was never fully met during Brosnan’s tenure.  The presence of story beats that actually work well – the motivation of the villain to live up to his father, the traitor within MI6 as an update on the classic henchman trope, and M’s unwavering faith in Bond – each make the film that much more excruciating because there are glimpses of a Bond film that could have been.  Instead, we get a movie with more explosions in the opening sequence than any other entire Bond film, turning up the volume instead of the intellect.

Perhaps the worst aesthetic offense is the moment when M tells Bond, “While you were gone, the world changed,” suggesting a post-9/11 self-awareness and a recognition of the new state of geopolitics.  Unfortunately, though, the film never really engages with that idea.  While positing a new paradigm for Bond, the film goes for broke in the direction of the worst excesses of the franchise; the space laser recalls Moonraker, while the hyper-technology seems like an unironic version of the exploding pen Never Say Never Again pulled off with a knowing wink.  With all the other callbacks to earlier films – Jinx’s bikinied exit from the ocean a la Dr. No, the Union Jack parachute ripped from The Spy Who Loved Me, and even more overt allusions like the Thunderball jetpack’s cameo, among others – the fortieth anniversary of the film franchise seems to attempt to argue implicitly that Bond doesn’t need to change.  The end result, however, tells an entirely different story; this is a Bond in desperate need of a new wind of change (so long as he doesn’t attempt to surf on it).

Die Another Day is rated PG-13 for “action violence and sexuality.”  There’s a quick flash of blood in one scene of impalement and an occasional slash during a duel sequence; other characters die with no blood visible, while the film shows glimpses of Bond being tortured in North Korea.  As noted above, nearly everything explodes in this film.  Bond sleeps with two women (a low number for him), but all we see are bare backs.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of Casino Royale (2006) on October 7, 2014!