REVIEW: Spectre

15 11 2015

Sam Mendes made a great Bond film with writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade in “Skyfall” because they embraced a tricky opposition between the past and the future.  Could the unabashedly old-fashioned spy James Bond survive in a more gritty, grey world without sacrificing his core identity? They found that the answer was yes by striking a balance between these two forces vying for the soul of 007.

The band gets back together for “Spectre” (plus an additional writer in Jez Butterworth, architect of many a frustrating script in the past two years) and finds themselves preoccupied by the same kind of debate. This time, instead of the fear of age leading to obsolescence, the anxiety stems from post-Snowden malaise.

When a government has the ability to do its dirty work with drones and collect information on all its citizens through their devices, who needs human intelligence likes James Bond? This question is being seriously debated outside the world of the movie, and kudos to “Spectre” for not ignoring the elephant in the room. But the way Mendes and the writers choose to resolve the tension feels rather disappointing.

They use this threat as an excuse to retreat to some of the most outdated aspects of the character. Womanizing abounds as Bond pity romances a grieving widow to extract a key plot point. And Bond’s reward for neutralizing a key opponent? The “Bond girl,” Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, immediately feels the need to let him take her to bed. Simply put, there is a way to let James Bond be the ultimate man that does not require denying women agency. “Spectre” does not care to find that way as “Casino Royale” did, justifying lazy misogyny because of a rather facile challenge to Bond’s relevancy.

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REVIEW: Skyfall

22 11 2012

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond’s first appearance on screen, and while Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall” doesn’t explicitly make you aware of that fact until the ending credits roll, the landmark loomed large over the entire film for me.  Perhaps I’m an extreme case as my consciousness of the anniversary was no doubt raised tremendously by all the celebrations of the franchise on the beach at the Cannes Film Festival.  But it’s practically impossible not to notice the filmmakers’ awareness of the superspy’s legacy and how the very nature of the character is being precipitously torn in two drastically different directions.

Funny enough, the two previous iterations of James Bond with Daniel Craig inside the carefully tailored suit reflect the two competing forces for the future of 007.  2006’s smooth “Casino Royale” saw a return to an old-fashioned, suave Bond that harkened back to the glory days of Sean Connery.  You know, when a Bond film could bring in nearly $600 million (adjusted for ticket inflation).  And then, 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” took Her Majesty’s finest in a dirtier, muddier, grittier direction that resembled a Jason Bourne movie.

The makers of “Skyfall” were faced a choice: classic or contemporary, timely or timeless.  The decision was sure to be scrutinized by critics and semi-notable bloggers like myself who realized the importance of the film in the James Bond canon.  Thankfully, Mendes and writer John Logan (who seems to be the one garnering the most credit for the final product) realized that the concepts are not mutually exclusive and found the most intellectually rewarding experience came from examining the interplay between these binary oppositions.  The result is a remarkably contemplative movie of how the nature of James Bond has been determined by the time in which he serves whilst some essence of British class always remains.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 30, 2011)

30 09 2011

Some movies have such a powerful, heartbreaking intensity that you only need to see them once.  They don’t grab you by the shirt; they grip you body and soul.  “Revolutionary Road,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” is one of these movies if you haven’t already figured that out.  In 2008, it was plagued with what I like to call the curse of the Oscar frontrunner – predestination for incredible levels of greatness that it couldn’t possibly live up to its hype.  But now with that season firmly behind us, we can now see it for its incredible capacity to captivate and move us.

Sam Mendes has a particular knack at peeling back societal façades of contentment and revealing the dark underbelly of suburban society, first with “American Beauty” and then with this adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about the 1950s.  Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) are a typical couple – meeting after the war, they have big dreams and aspirations.  Yet Frank winds up taking a miserable desk job at his father’s company and moves them out to Connecticut when April gets pregnant.  A few years later, he has almost disappeared into a grey flannel suit and she into an apron.

However, neither can shake the idea that they have bought into an empty illusion, that there has to be more to life than to be just like everyone else.  Roger Deakins’ haunting cinematography emphasizes their Stepfordian conformity and echoes the story’s implication that they are trapped not only in this house but in this life.  However, April refuses to dismiss what Betty Freidan called “the problem with no name” in her manifesto “The Feminine Mystique,” proposing that the family move to Paris to reclaim their livelihoods.  While she brings in the money in a secretarial position, Frank would be able to relax and discover what truly makes him happy.

They start to go through with the plan, and for a moment, this ideal setup revives a failing marriage.  Even in spite of protests by friends and neighbors left aghast, particularly realtor Mrs. Givings (Kathy Bates) and their best friends the Campbells (Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour), they keep their heads held high.  In fact, the only person who seems to see their logic and rationale is John Givings (Michael Shannon), Mrs. Givings’ brilliant but possibly mentally ill son who has the best perspective on the times of anyone.

Nevertheless, the idea becomes just an idea, no longer a plan of action, leaving an embittered Frank and April to confront their problems with a pugnacious brutality.  In their arguments, Mendes and scribe Justin Haythe fully accomplish Yates’ goal of indicting the glorified hollowness of the 1950s.  While “Revolutionary Road” is beautifully written and directed, the film’s aims are best achieved through the tour de force performances by DiCaprio, Winslet, and Shannon.  As first the paradigm of suburban contentment and then its victims, the Wheelers truly needed to be personified by two actors who can fully realize the tragedy.  It just so happened to play out that these two people are world-famous star-crossed lovers thanks to James Cameron’s “Titanic.”

This may very well be the best work in the diamond-crusted careers of both DiCaprio and Winslet, which is saying a lot.  The fact that neither of them received Oscar nominations for the movie is absolutely criminal, although lack of awards recognition should hardly be the ultimate judge of their performances.  They both perfectly calibrate every scene, every emotion, every last movement so that it resonates with a scarily beautiful ring.  Kate Winslet is particularly striking as the active wife defying stereotype and lashing out against the image of the perfect housewife, making her final act devastatingly crushing.  And with powerhouse Michael Shannon as the mouthpiece for Yates and the Wheeler’s foil, the acting of “Revolutionary Road” is what drives that fist of furious emotion right into the gut.

For that very reason, I must warn you that this movie is not for the faint of heart.  Its mind-boggling emotional power doesn’t end when the credits roll; it may linger in the form of a depressing mood or a bleak outlook on life for anywhere from 1-3 days.  But don’t let that keep you from missing one of the best movies of 2008, and for my money, one of the most formidable films on society in recent memory.  You need only see it once to achieve the full effect – although if you want to see it twice like me, it’s still phenomenal.





Random Factoid #436

7 10 2010

Hooray for memes!  It’s been a while since I’ve been tagged in one of these … good to be back on the circuit!  Thanks to Sebastian for tagging me.  Here’s the pitch:

The idea is that you list off the first 15 directors that come to your head that have shaped the way you look at movies. You know, the ones that will always stick with you. Don’t take too long to think about it. Just churn em’ out.

Here are my 15:

  • Woody Allen
  • Judd Apatow
  • Darren Aronofsky
  • Alfonso Cuarón
  • Clint Eastwood
  • David Fincher
  • Sam Mendes
  • Fernando Meirelles
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Sean Penn
  • Roman Polanski
  • Jason Reitman
  • Martin Scorsese
  • Steven Spielberg (no, it isn’t cliched)
  • Quentin Tarantino

In case anyone was wondering, I got to about 10 and then had a major pause.





REVIEW: Away We Go

12 08 2009

At the request of a dedicated reader, I decided to bump up my review of “Away We Go.”  I drove 45 minutes away to a remote suburb of Houston back in April to be one of the first people to see the movie, and I was not disappointed.  Two months later, I was there to see it again on its first weekend playing at an art house theater in Houston.  So needless to say, I really enjoyed the movie.  It is well-acted, featuring star turns from John Krasinski (Jim from TV’s “The Office”) and Maya Rudolph (TV’s “Saturday Night Live”), but it is really buoyed by its phenomenal supporting cast.  The film features a very heartfelt screenplay from Dave Eggers (author of “What is the What”) and his wife Vendela Vida.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are a gentle, loving couple expecting a baby.  As all good parents do, they want their child to have a better life than they did.  So the two of them set out on a journey to find what they never really could: a home.  They visit old friends and family members, seeing broken relationships, marital tension, and lives that they don’t want to lead.  They discover that all they can do is love each other and hope that everything else works out. Read the rest of this entry »