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Sunday, December 17

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Quantum of Solace

Is it November already? Then it must be time to kick some ass. I wish I could show you the film titles I'm seeing in the month of November. Since the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards deadline is very early in December, any studio wanting their film to be considered has to show us their goods in the next three weeks. And in my estimation there are a couple of films that are released this week that might just land in my Best of 2008 rundown, and how could I not consider the sequel to possibly the finest James Bond film ever made. In case you've been living in the wilderness for the last year, the latest 007 adventure is actually a worthy continuation of the Casino Royale plot, picking up about 10 minutes after Bond (still Daniel Craig, still the finest actor to ever play the role) has disabled Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) at a villa in Italy. Bond is still hurting something fierce after the death of his love Vesper, and while he won't admit it, he's looking for payback, which may not be as easy as this still relatively green spy realizes. In this newly rebooting Bond world, this is the first film in which Mi6 begins to realize just how insecure its own organization has become and how all-encompassing a new-to-them global criminal organization truly is.

A couple things you're going to notice about Quantum of Solace (look up the many definitions of the world "quantum" to see that this title is actually quite appropriate) upon your first of many viewings. It's a lot shorter than all other Bond films — with credits, it runs about 105 minutes. The only reason I mention this is to say that watching the film, I would not have minded if it had run longer in an effort to explore the more emotional side to Bond. Not that Quantum doesn't touch on this; it does for sure. I'm just greedy. What we do get are a half-dozen or so of the finest action sequences committed to film in a very long time, everything from hand-to-hand combat, foot chases, car chases, speedboat chases, airplane hijinks, you name it. The movie is practically wall to wall action, with just enough time in between to meet a host of new good and bad characters and reunite with a few old friends.

Although not quite as nasty as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Dominic Greene (played by French superstar Mathieu Amalric, best known for playing the lead in last year's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and a memorable supporting part in Spielberg's Munich) is still pretty great as a mover and shaker who seems to be buying up large quantities of worthless land, particularly in South America. Bond and M (Judi Dench, who is blessedly featured a great deal more in this film) believe Greene is looking for oil. The also know for a fact that that he's a major player in the mysterious evil organization. Also new to this film is Camille (Olga Kurylenko, recently featured in Max Payne), a vengeance-filled beauty who had ulterior motives for allowing Greene to sleep with her. As for old friends, I was particularly delighted to see Jeffrey Wright back as CIA agent Felix Leighter, who is forced by the agency to get closer to Greene than he feels comfortable doing.

Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner) and returning primary screenwriter Paul Haggis have crafted a pretzel-tine scheme that is actually timely and scarily possible (to a certain degree). But Forster is a man of emotion, and he never misses an opportunity to let Bond's rage show through. It seems he's incapable in his current state of mind of simply disabling an attacker, and he ends up killing a whole lot of people in this movie. He's also is so focused on his mission that he breaks free of the confines of Mi6 when he needs to, giving M no choice but to cut off his resources. Ha!

The process of discovering Greene's master plan is loads of fun, as is watching Bond still find time to seduce women, help a damsel who might be more emotionally crippled than he is, and continue the search for Vesper's killer (not as easy as one might think). I love that there are almost no scenes in Quantum of Solace in which Bond isn't bruised and/or bleeding from somewhere on his body (quite often his face). Craig refuses to play his version of Bond as a flawless pretty boy who no bad guy can touch. He's a punching bag at times; he's still all-too-capable of making mistakes in both judgment and how execution, and both Craig and Forster relish in Bond's faults. I was also a real fan of Kurylenko's Camille, who is a great beauty who Bond recognizes as a fellow wounded warrior and avoids attempting to seduce her.

So what's missing from Quantum? Not much, although I kind of wish there was a card game-like central battle of wits between Bond and Greene. But this isn't that kind of film. This is a movie about action, about phenomenal stunts, fights, chases, and explosions. And it manages all of these elements without sacrificing plot. With the stakes ratcheted up considerably from Casino Royale, this latest film raises its own stakes along with it. One of the best pieces of news in recent months is that Daniel Craig is doing at least two more Bond films. If Quantum of Solace proves anything, it's that the possibilities are endless for this new brand of James Bond. How often can you say that about a 40-year-old franchise?

To read my exclusive interviews with Quantum of Solace star Daniel Craig and director Marc Forster, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Slumdog Millionaire

There are quite a few great movies to choose from this weekend, but I believe that this one is my favorite. From a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Millions) has made the most vibrant and mature film of his career. At its core, Slumdog Millionaire is a biography of a still-young man named Jamal Malik (played by three different actors, including Dev Patel, who plays Jamal as an adult), who grew up in the slums of Bombay, India, with his brother Salim. Somehow, Jamal makes it on the Indian version of the wildly popular "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and manages to get all of the questions correct before time runs out just before he gets to hear the final question. As he leaves the studio for the night, he is arrested and accused of cheating. The investigating officer (played by the great Irfan Khan of The Namesake and A Mighty Heart) forces Jamal to watch a tape of the show and explain how he knew the answer to each question.

This framework allows us to travel through Jamal's remarkable life through the underbelly of India, including a lifelong love with a girl named Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), who moves in and out of his life over the years. There's really no reason to go into detail about some of the events that define Jamal and make it possible for him to excel on the game show. The fun of watching Slumdog Millionaire is the unveiling, piece by piece, layer by layer, of Jamal's world. His life as an Oliver Twist-like street urchin, con artist, thief, and finally an assistant call-center worker. What happened to his parents? His brother? His lady love? And does he get to come back to the show for the chance to win millions of rupees? It's all in there, and it's an exciting and electric story that will have you vibrating with anticipation. As if that weren't enough, Boyle jams his film with one of the greatest soundtracks of Indian club tracks imaginable. Patel's wide-eyed performance is a real find as Jamal, the young man who finds it impossible to lie. And Pinto's Latika is simply beautiful. I even loved the way Boyle weaves in Hindi and English — I'm guessing this is how things are in the more metropolitan parts of India — to further the authenticity of his stunning film.

You've trusted Boyle to tell great stories about heroin addicts, raging viral maniacs, and the possible end of the world thanks to the sun burning out. You absolutely must have faith in his abilities to tell the most human story he's ever embraced. This is a marvelous achievement, filled with life, danger and thrills, all of which combine to produce one of the most uplifting films of 2008. You're going to cherish Slumdog Millionaire.

Let the Right One In

Known by many as simply "that Swedish vampire movie," Let the Right One In is one of the most original and eerie vampire films ever made, as much for what it does not work into its deceptively story as for what it does. Avoiding all of the usual trappings of modern vampire films, director Tomas Alfredson does not give us fashion-model vampires who dress in black and look like they're on the way to a club. Instead he gives us a pale and frightened 12-year-old girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who moves into an apartment building with her non-vampire father. She becomes friends with a same-age boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a bit of an outcast at school who is picked on ruthlessly by bullies. Oskar doesn't quite understand what Eli is, but she's mysterious and she talks to him, so they become friends.

In the world around Oskar, people begin to disappear and get murdered, only to be found in elaborately staged poses meant to maximize blood drainage. Oskar is captivated by the stories he's hearing about these deaths, while Eli seems decidedly unimpressed (she also seems impervious to cold weather and she can climb the walls). This pair of misfits forms a sweet, non-physical romance that makes Eli feel safe enough to confess her true nature to Oskar. One of the most fascinating parts about Eli's existence is that she's not sure how old she is, but based on the age of her father, we imagine that she's been trapped at 12 for quite some time. After an unexpected turn of events, Eli determines she must leave the apartment, leaving Oskar both heartbroken and again vulnerable to bully attacks.

Let the Right One In (the title comes from the practice of having to invite a vampire into your home before it can have its way with you) isn't about excessive gore or standard-issue scare tactics. The film builds and earns its tension-filled moments with a careful mix of measured performances (especially moving and creepy Leandersson) and a sparse, quiet sense of drama and fear. The film is not just unlike any other vampire movie you've ever seen; it's unlike any horror film I can think of, at least in the last 20 years.You need to seek this one out and see it. It's not overly violent or flashy, but it is a fiercely scary and perfectly realized work. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

JCVD

I don't think I would have believed you if you'd told me this at the beginning of the year that one of the boldest and most risky performances of 2008 would come from Jean-Claude Van Damme. But that's exactly what JCVD gives us, a self-referential work in which the Muscles from Brussels plays himself (or a version of himself) who returns to his homeland a broken and burnt-out actor, all too aware that his glory days are long behind him. He's happy to take lame movies — knowing full well they will likely got straight to DVD — because he's broke, in the midst of a brutal custody battle for his daughter, and losing most action roles to a crop of younger performers (and apparently Steven Seagal, the only plot point I wasn't buying). Director and co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri has pulled together a beautifully structured thriller plot involving Van Damme apparently holding up a bank and taking hostages, creating one the biggest news events Brussels has ever experienced.

What's fascinating about JCVD is that Van Damme agreed to do it at all. The screenplay paints him as a desperate, faded star. He's a loser who can't fight nearly as well as his choreographed, on-screen counterpart. And although I understand that this is a fictional version of the man, there's a lot of truth to this fiction. In one particular sequence from the film that I will never forget, Van Damme is literally lifted out of the movie for a brief, dreamlike moment where he directly addresses the audience. It's a stark, emotionally naked confession, during which the man actually cries quite forcefully. Aside from just being flabbergasted that Van Damme was capable of crying so convincingly on cue, I found the moment one of the most perfect screen moments I've seen all year. El Mechri adds a steely blue look to the movie that manages to make it look both otherworldly and very much a part of Van Damme's bleak world. Above all else, JCVD made me want to revisit Van Damme's Time Cop, Blood Sport, Universal Soldier and a half-dozen other films of this still very athletic action hero who has a real future ahead of him as a genuine actor. Check out JCVD, one of the biggest surprises you'll have in a movie theater in recent memory. The film opens today at AMC Pipers Alley theater.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for more than 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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