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Column Fri Nov 09 2012
There's a great deal to absorb in Daniel Craig's third outing as Ian Fleming's master MI6 agent James Bond. It's clear that it's important to the actor to give his take on Bond a little emotional and psychological heft without skimping on the death-defying action (which includes another sequence involving heavy construction equipment, as well as a rooftop chase in Turkey that I'm pretty sure are the exact rooftops featuring in Taken 2 — I half expected Bond to trip over Liam Neeson at one point, which would have been awesome). As a result, we get more of the Bond back story than any other film in the past 50 years has given us. Plus, it doesn't suck and it actually adds some welcome depth to the icy spy with a license to kill.
But even more exciting than seeing where Bond has been is where Skyfall leaves off. This is in no way a spoiler, but by the end of this movie, director Sam Mendes (who worked with Craig before on Road To Perdition) has fully set up the Bond we know and love — he's found his sense of humor, he's loaded with gadgets (courtesy of a new Q, played as a mildly cocky young computer whiz and inventor by Cloud Atlas' Ben Whishaw), he's playfully inappropriate with the ladies (although it's clear love is likely out of the question for a while, after the events of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), he's driving a classic Aston Martin with gun turrets in the headlights, he seems to understand his role in Her Majesty's government, and I feel more confident than ever that the next Bond chapter will be the most unfiltered fun we've seen yet from Craig. And that's no small task considering how much of a full-tilt blast Skyfall is at times.
Clearly, some time has passed in the career of 007 since Quantum of Solace, to the point where he and his ways are already considered the stuff of dinosaurs in the eyes of British bureaucrats, including Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a government intelligence lackey who is clearly angling to oust M (Judi Dench, as vital and perfect in this role as ever) and take her job. But before we even get to that part in the story, James Bond must be killed by one of his own — not on purpose, of course, but not exactly by accident either. At the conclusion of a rather harrowing chase that ends up with Bond and his target on top of a train (if you've seen the trailer, you know the scene), M orders Bond's partner, Eve (Naomie Harris), to attempt to shoot their target. She misses and sends Bond tumbling to his supposed death. But even the Grim Reaper can be moved by a stunning Adele theme song, apparently.
Naturally, Bond isn't dead, but he comes back pissed off, slightly addicted to booze and pain pills (bullets do hurt), but still willing to work since the target got away with data revealing the identities of every undercover agent MI6 has working in the field. If leaked, the information could mean the death of dozens of agents. But what they don't suspect is that as M is returning from a meeting, she lays witness to the bombing of MI6 headquarters. I'd have to imagine in the real world that MI6 has all of its data backed up in several locations and many back-up offices in case the main one is somehow disabled. But I can't imagine one of those back-ups is in the place that M and the rest of her team retreat to after the bombing. Cinematically, it's a great choice (that I won't ruin), but the movie's otherwise surprisingly tight grip on reality is strained by it.
Again, not really a spoiler to mention that a character named Silva (Javier Bardem, with yet another winning bad guy hairstyle) is the culprit behind the stealing of the agents' names, the bombing, and one or two other tricks you don't know about yet. Bardem eats this role alive, and while you may think his "Mommy has been very bad" line in the trailers feels silly and camp, it's actually just a precursor to some wicked and ugly behavior. Still, when Bond and Silva first meet, it results in one of the most amusing flirtation/seduction scenes you're ever likely to see in a James Bond movie. The moment is all the more odd when you consider that with Silva comes the stunning Bérénice Marlohe playing the more prototypical "Bond girl," Sévérine, who requests Bond's help in escaping Silva's nasty grip.
But what Skyfall boils down to is the relationship between M, Bond and Silva. Silva has his sights set on killing M in a grand fashion; more than ever before, Bond acknowledges the mother role that M fulfills in his life. He's protective of her for reasons he may not even be aware of, and it becomes a wonderful centerpiece of this film. The cast is nicely rounded out by a figure of Bond's past played by Albert Finney; I'll say no more about him, but his very obvious crush on M makes complete and utter sense in the context of this particular story.
With Skyfall, Bond has completed his journey to maturity, controlled emotions, focus on the job and finding a way to have a sophisticated brand of fun while staying alert and aware. Like I said, by the end of this film, we are left with Bond 1.0, but one living in the modern world. Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (the man who just signed on to write the next two Bond/Craig installments) have done a magnificent job plumbing the depths of Bond's psychological wiring without forgetting to keep things exciting.
Combining that with Roger Deakins' award-worthy cinematography makes the proceedings look as good as any Bond movie ever. When all is said and done, Skyfall is among the best Bond films ever made, and certainly the finest of the Craig movies to date. This one, quite literally, has it all, including the damn near 2.5-hour running time to make it all fit.
The plain and simple truth about Steven Spielberg's account of the last few months of Abraham Lincoln's life is that there's nothing plain and simple about it. Some may accuse the proceedings of being highfalutin due to Tony Kushner's (Angels In America, Munich) magnificently realized screenplay, but the way these words roll off the tongues of this unbelievable collection of actors makes is like listening to fine poetry at times. During other, more vitriolic scenes, the script reminds us that dirty politics and lies told to sway a Congressional vote are not a product of the modern age. But what will ultimately sway you one way or the other on Lincoln is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, whose commitment to inhabiting this character is unprecedented (unless you've seen him act before). By the way, anyone who gets lost in a discussion of the voice that Day-Lewis has chosen for the 16th president has really and truly missed the point. For the record, the voice is fantastic.
Rather than skim across the surface of Lincoln's life from childhood through his early years in politics and on to the White House, Lincoln wisely zeroes in on the president's attempt to end the Civil War and get the abolition of slavery added as an amendment to the Constitution. Washington, D.C., was a whirlwind of activity for those critical weeks, when it seemed all but certain that Lincoln would not have the votes necessary to get the amendment put in place. As much as people may focus on the many great moments in the film that deal with the president's personal life, the most enthralling moments in the movie are the politics. A team of three men (played by an extra sleazy James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) who did everything in their power (shady and otherwise) to secure the votes needed in the Senate. Their wheelings and dealings, along with their rather humorous times giving Lincoln progress reports, are some of the finest moments in the film.
Some of the best moments in Lincoln don't even feature the man himself. Every time Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens is on screen, the world is a better place... as is the film. Stevens not only wants slaves free but he wants them to be declared as equals to whites — a very unpopular opinion even among Lincoln supporters. Much of this film lays witness to the slow and painful erosion of Stevens' moral center in the name of getting this amendment passed. Fernando Wood (Lee Pace, showing a unusual amount of backbone and venom) is Stevens' main opponent ("What sort of chaos and societal collapse would ensue if all the negroes were suddenly set free at once?" seems to be his primary argument.), and their battles on the floor of the Senate are spectacular.
Which is not to say that Lincoln's family turmoil isn't gripping as well. His discussions with wife Mary (Sally Field) are... colorful. His eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is threatening to join the military just to make something of his life and not simply stand on the sidelines of history. There's more than a hint that Lincoln conceded on certain points just so the war would be over, and his son wouldn't have to go to battle. I was particularly impressed with Gloria Reuben's performance as Elizabeth Keckley, a freed slave who became Mrs. Lincoln's personal seamstress and closest confidante. Her role in the Lincoln household was clearly an important one, and Reuben plays her with a quiet nobility that gives her a great deal of significance in this story.
It seems like nearly every single speaking part in Lincoln has been given to an actor of note, including the likes of David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris (particularly enjoyable as Ulysses S. Grant), Jackie Earle Haley and even "Girls" star Adam Driver, who shares one notably fine scene with Day-Lewis that can only be described as a reality check moment for the president. Aside from the insight into politics and Lincoln's family life, the other impressive aspect to the film is how it penetrates the working mind of this great thinker. He apparently had a habit of talking through every major life decision, even to the point where he changes his stance on an issue by simply speaking with and listening to those around him. It's a fascinating process to behold, especially the way Day-Lewis infuses Lincoln's soul with what must have felt like the weight of the world.
That being said, Spielberg and Kushner find moments to lighten the mood so that Lincoln doesn't feel like a burden to watch (or even worse, homework). There are occasionally moments when the film feels so dense as to almost break your brain, but if you can make it through those moments, what you'll find is a gorgeously realized (thanks to director of photography Janusz Kaminski really taking advantage of natural lighting and maximizing dramatic shadows), wonderfully acted and smartly composed chronicle of arguably one of the most important era in American history, anchored by a man who was rarely 100 percent certain of his choices but had a clear vision of the way history would judge us.
Perhaps the most divisive issue among cinema lovers in the last five years has been the value (and sometimes the definition) of found-footage films, which I'm about 50/50 on in terms of liking. I happen to think the best of the bunch include the [Rec] films from Spain, Matt Reeves' Cloverfield and the great superhero story Chronicle from the beginning of this year. I've also thoroughly enjoyed (to varying degrees) all four of the Paranormal Activity films, but they haven't really grown or broken from their own formula since their 2007 debut. But certainly in the horror genre, veteran director Barry Levinson's The Bay is something quite unique, almost unbearably creepy and a highly effective use of a collection of film clips put together as a faux documentary.
That's always been my issue with a lot of found footage works: Who put this footage together exactly? But in The Bay, this question is actually answered. The film we're actually watching is meant to be the creation of an environmental watchdog group, co-directed by an unseen director on the other side of a Skype-like link and former news station intern Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), who just happened to be in the small Maryland seaside town of Claridge when something truly terrible comes to a head during the community's July 4th celebrations. We see footage of Thompson "today" as she watches and provides commentary for footage taken by her news team, as well as additional video from marine biologists, security footage, cell phone video, home movies and cop car cameras of the day's events.
Residents start getting bubbly blisters on their skin that turns out to be horrific, overgrown parasites that have gotten into their bodies and are eating their way out, leaving them dead within hours of the first symptoms showing up. The local hospital enlists the help of the Center for Disease Control, which has no idea what to do at first. The marine experts are doing tests on leeching going on in the town's surrounding waters, thanks to a thriving poultry industry that dumps tons of chicken shit from animals that have been pumped full of growth hormones and other chemicals. And in the middle of all of this, Thompson is doing a truly terrible job interviewing local officials and residents as their lives come crashing in around them.
Even though we see where things are going and know early on what the danger is, there's still a solid level of gross-out moments and genuine scares to keep The Bay exciting and fun. Levinson (Diner, The Natural, Bugsy, Rain Man, Wag the Dog) and first-time screenwriter Michael Wallach do a great job of keeping things moving, and there's something about watching this massive loss of human life from the vantage point of those actually going through it that really personalizes the proceedings and makes the loses just a little more tragic. What doesn't work is the over-written character of the town mayor, who is made out to be the overt villain of this story. He is; I'm not disputing this. But once we establish that, we can move on; there's no need for follow up with an uninteresting character.
You might conclude that Levinson is overqualified for a found-footage movie, but he has a sense of how media works, so the fake news footage here actually rings true. But some of the other video sources feel authentic as well (even the isopod that serves as the "monster" in this movie is a real organism). Anyone who labels The Bay as so much environmental messaging has truly missed the point of this film and has likely never seen the type of activist propaganda that this movie is aping. Much of this footage is said to have been obtained from a WikiLeaks-like website that specializes in obtaining secret government materials, so the resulting "doc" is extremely slanted. The movie doesn't hold back on the gore, the scares or the attempts to make things feel real world. Without question, The Bay is one of the best and ickiest of the recent wave of found-footage films, if only for the most subtle of reasons. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
A Royal Affair
Set in 1700s Denmark, A Royal Affair concerns the insane Danish king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, in his first feature film), who marries an English girl, Caroline Mathilda (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, soon to be seen in Anna Karenina), and brings into his inner circle a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Casino Royale's Mads Mikkelsen, who is actually Danish), whose Enlightened ways threaten to tear the fabric of the ultra-conservative nation... or so the king's enemies would have him believe. It doesn't help matters that the doctor and the queen start an affair that puts both their lives in danger and fuels the jealous rage of an already paranoid king.
Danish director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel, probably best known as the screenwriter of the original film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has compiled a film that is both brutal and lush, passionate and dangerous, and a work about sensible ideals that would bridge the gap between the lower and upper classes (something the elite and members of the church leadership certainly don't want) being squashed by those who have the most to lose. A Royal Affair makes a few bold assumptions — I'm assuming for dramatic effect more than anything else — that the queen's relationship with the doctor was a primary reason reforms took place in Denmark during the period known as the Struensee era. Still, this fascinating work does a solid job of balancing the political intrigue with the romantic entanglements that seem doomed from the outset.
I'll admit that despite a well-crafted love story, the best scenes are between the king and the doctor, whom the king trusts initially because he comes from humble means and has no designs on gaining power through his position as royal physician. Their first meeting, during which the doctor refuses to declare the king insane, is particularly moving. But the real strength of the relationship in terms of the overall movie is that when the affair with the queen is discovered, it's clear that the king is perhaps most upset that his friend betrayed him.
A Royal Affair manages to be both gritty and elegant (the costuming alone should be recognized come awards season), and it generates a great deal of its strength from understated performances from Mikkelsen and Vikander. It's the end of the year so a wave of costume dramas are about to enter our lives. Thankfully, this lovely effort sets the stage nicely. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Having current HBO phenom Lena Dunham's name on anything right now might seem like a safe bet. Her feature debut Tiny Furniture was a festival darling and her series "Girls" seems to be universally loved (I'm a big fan of the show, not so much of the film) for its frank discussions of 20-somethings' lives and exhaustive identity issues. Both of these projects are also uniquely New York, in my estimation, which is why it's a bit surprising to see Dunham's name on a script a about younger couple living in Southern California (Silver Lake, to be precise) with a couple of kids and a seemingly healthy marriage. Directed and co-written by Ry Russo-Young, the resulting film, Nobody Walks, has an entirely different vibe than Dunham's other works, and it's one that neither suits her nor does she seem comfortable in it.
The husband, Peter (John Krasinski from "The Office"), is a sound engineer and designer for films, and he and wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt, recently of Your Sister's Sister) agree to invite young New York filmmaker/artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby) to live in their guest house and work with Peter in his at-home studio during the day. Without really meaning to be, Martine seems to be something of a professional heartbreaker, just going through life having men fall in love with her and then moving on. Her film is an experimental work that will be used as part of an art installation back in New York, and before long Peter is gazing lovingly into her eyes, and the two begin a half-hearted affair.
The biggest issue I had with Nobody Walks is how ill-defined these characters are. Yes, I'm aware that a person doesn't have to be unhappy in one relationship to start another one clandestinely, but Martine isn't that interesting, and Julie actually seems like a pretty great lady. Truth be told, most of the characters here are pretty fuzzy, and so many of them outright unlikable that there's no real entry point into the story. If we don't care about these people, why should we care about who ends up with whom? One of the few people we actually do enjoy spending time with is the couple's teen daughter, Kolt (India Ennenga, who plays Melissa Leo's daughter on HBO's "Treme"), who is being sexually annoyed by her Italian tutor. But even that bit of perversity is dealt with in an idiotic way.
Nobody Walks seems to filled with people who have lost the ability to talk to each other like adults. Brief appearances by supporting cast members like Jane Levy, Dylan McDermott and Justin Kirk add nothing to the film beyond more names in the credits. And to top it all off, the bits of Martine's film we see make it clear the film is going to be a piece of shit. The only adult who has a semblance of humanity in them is DeWitt's Julie, the put-upon, faithful wife and psychotherapist whose happiness and stability is threatened by a younger model and she defends what's hers rather than simply throw him out and walk away from the situation. But for the most part, these creations rarely act like actual people, and that's ultimately what killed my enthusiasm for this movie. Nobody Walks opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.