Black Panther


King T’Challa surveys the kingdom of Wakanda that the world sees.

(2018) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, David S. Lee, Nayibah Be, Isaach De Bankolé, Connie Chiume, Dorothy Steele, Danny Sapani, Sydelle Noel. Directed by Ryan Coogler

 

It is not accidental that Black Panther was released during Black History Month. It is a movie that has gone on to make history and brought huge crossover appeal to the segment of African-American audiences who aren’t necessarily going out to see superhero movies – although obviously a large chunk of them are. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is Shaft in spandex though – this is a superhero movie that is going to set the bar for superhero films that follow it.

T’Challa (Boseman), King of the African nation of Wakanda, also carries the mantle of the Black Panther, the protector of his country who is mystically endowed with superpowers. He inherits a country that is technologically advanced but has chosen to hide its true nature so that they don’t become targets. Their isolationism is a sticking point with Erik Killmonger (Jordan), nephew of the recently deceased King, who was raised in America after the murder of his father. He sees things from a much more global point of view and thinks Wakanda should be sharing their technology – particularly their weapons – to help oppressed people of color to rise up and throw off the yoke of colonialism.

There’s a lot more to the film than that but this is a short review. Sure, it’s got the eye candy and jaw-dropping action sequences we come to expect in a superhero film – and they are well done here, make no mistake about it – but also, they are not the be-all and end-all of Black Panther. Rather, they are a jumping off point to discuss more weighty matters – racial relations, colonialism, turning a blind eye to suffering, sexism – things not normally a part of the superhero film equation. It should also be mentioned that the Dora Milaje – the King’s army – are all women and  are the most badass fighting force to turn up in a superhero film ever, even more so than the Amazons of Wonder Woman.

It should also be mentioned that this might be the most talented ensemble ever in a superhero film. The crème de la crème of African-American actors do their thing on this film and none of them turn in anything less than their best. Gurira from The Walking Dead brings the badassery of Michonne and bringing onto the big screen and giving it an African twist. Nyong’o plays a spy and the ex of T’Challa and she plays a fine love interest. Whitaker lends gravitas to his role as T’Challa’s mentor. Best of all though is Wright as the king’s kid sister – a scientific genius responsible for many of the gadgets used in the film. She steals nearly every scene she’s in.

All in all, this is a movie that lives up to the hype and re-confirms that the superhero genre is not just for fanboys but for fans of all sorts. Just for the record, Black Panther isn’t a great superhero film because it has an African-American hero – it would be a great superhero film no matter who the lead was. Come to think of it, Black Panther isn’t just a great superhero film – it’s a great film period.

REASONS TO GO: This is a benchmark for all superhero films. Jordan and Boseman are both terrific in their roles. Coogler hits the director’s A list with his big and bold vision.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, superhero and otherwise, as well as a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan has appeared in all three of the feature films directed by Coogler to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Lear
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Workshop

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Keeping Up with the Joneses


One must keep one's focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

One must keep one’s focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

(2016) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, Yi Dong Hian, Art Shaffir, Marc Grapey, Karina Bonnefil, Darin Cooper, Angela Ray, Amy Block. Directed by Greg Mottola

 

Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone; we all were in each others’ business. Now, we barely acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. Does anyone really know who their neighbors truly are anymore?

The Gaffneys have a good life. Jeff (Galifianakis) is an HR guy at a big defense contractor. He’s basically a good guy but he hasn’t met a problem yet that he didn’t think could be solved with an aphorism and a stress ball. His wife Karen (Fisher) is an interior designer who has put her career on hold to raise her kids. The cul-de-sac in which they live in suburban Atlanta is well-to-do and close-knit. Jeff is as happy as a clam, Karen a little less so especially now that the kids are gone for the summer. Still, it feels like something is missing in their lives, something that doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon – a sense of excitement.

That is, until the Jones family moves in across the street. Natalie (Gadot) is super sexy and capable, absolutely excelling at everything she does; Tim (Hamm) is a travel writer, accomplished, handsome and pretty much an authority on everything. Tim and Jeff hit it off straight away, developing quite the bro-mance. Karen is a little bit more hesitant to connect with the ice-cold Natalie, although she is a little attracted to her sexuality (who isn’t?) to be honest. In fact, perfect Natalie has her a little bit suspicious.

And, it turns out, with good reason; the Joneses are spies and they have their eye on some chicanery going on at Jeff’s place of employment. It involves a mole within the company, a vicious arms dealer known only as the Scorpion and an agency that employs the Joneses who aren’t worried about collateral damage and with the Gaffneys now involved, there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

The ordinary people drawn into extraordinary espionage situations have been popular in the movies with things like True Lies and Spy among others. They act as avatars for the audience, drawn into a world of excitement, glamour and danger. Who wouldn’t want to be a superspy, suave and debonair or beautiful and deadly?

The four leads all interact well among each other, although surprisingly the best chemistry is between Hamm and Galifianakis although considering the two have been friends for awhile offscreen, it may be less surprising than at first glance. The two develop a relationship that is realistic and the kind of friendship most men want to have with other men. The ladies are sexy and made to give each other an obligatory kiss (why is it as a society we find women kissing each other far sexier than men doing it?) but given that Karen are so suspicious of Natalie to begin with whereas the more open Jeff is accepting of Tim right away that the two ladies don’t really develop a friendship as deep as the one the men forge. Perhaps that’s meant to be a commentary on the nature of interactions between women in general. Perhaps not.

The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and mostly played for last. There is a car chase that’s reasonably cool (given that there are four people in the car that’s being chased rather than the usual two) but again, nothing new is added to the genre here. Of course, it’s not really a requirement that every action sequence has to be innovative.

This is the kind of movie that you really have to turn your brains off for and there’s no shame in that; sometimes what we’re looking for is just pure escapism. Still, you can have escapism without sacrificing story and character development and while the actors do game work here, they are ultimately betrayed by a script that doesn’t give them a whole lot of character to hang their hats on. Maybe the Agency ought to look into that.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between the leads is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: A predictable tired plot sabotages all the best intentions of the filmmakers.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of espionage action, some rude humor, scenes of sexuality and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  One of three major studio releases in 2016 with the name “Jones’ in the title, the other two being Bridget Jones’ Baby and Free State of Jones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Cents

London Has Fallen


Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

(2016) Action (Gramercy) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Colin Salmon, Alon Aboutboul, Waleed Zuaiter, Adel Bencherif, Mehdi Dehbi, Shivani Ghai, Penny Downie, Deborah Grant, Nigel Whitmey, Andrew Pleavin, Julia Montgomery Brown, Elsa Mollien. Directed by Babak Najafi

What do you do when you’ve already foiled a hostile takeover of the White House? Why, for most of us it would be resting on our laurels. For any action hero worth his salt, that’s just the beginning.

But Mike Banning (Butler) has had enough. Despite the fact that he has the world’s best tough-guy name (just say it out loud over and over again – you’ll get what I mean), his wife (Mitchell) is having a rug rat and is due any day now. He wants to settle down and be a dad and a husband. He’s even writing out his resignation letter.

But when you’re a Secret Service Agent with a Special Forces background who goes jogging with the President every morning that’s not such an easy task. When the Prime Minister of Great Britain has a fatal heart attack, the world is coming to London to attend the funeral, and President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) is not one to miss the funeral of a world leader. So with Banning’s boss (Bassett) breathing down his neck to be in charge of the President’s security while he’s in London, he can’t really say no.

It’s a good thing he decides to go because bingo bango bongo five world leaders are assassinated and the President’s chopper is shot down by terrorists. Like most terrorists, they have an axe to grind with the United States, but unlike most terrorists they seem to be well organized, infiltrating nearly every stratum of security in Britain. Getting the President to the U.S. Embassy is job number one for Banning but he’ll have to negotiate the streets of London which are now overrun with bad guys impersonating cops, soldiers and Central Casting.

While I liked the predecessor Olympus Has Fallen just fine, this is a step backward from its predecessor. The first film was a wild ride in the vein of Die Hard; this one just dies hard. The action is on the pedantic side, never a good thing. Action junkies may end up yawning which is always a bad thing – there is a definite been there-done that feel to the action. I don’t expect them to reinvent the wheel but there needs to be a lot more passion invested than apparently was put in here.

The shame is that I have always really liked Gerard Butler as an actor and you can tell he’s really doing his best with a subpar script. Butler is one of those guys that you’d probably have a great time sharing a beer with and telling tall tales to in a pub. He’s what I call a working class actor; he’s not  the sort of guy who gets offered roles that win Oscars, but he gets the job done day in and day out and in the end comes off as a likable guy, even when he’s playing a real douchebag (as in Gods of Egypt). I think he doesn’t get the respect he deserves, either from critics or casting agents but that’s just me talking.

He has a decent supporting cast, but many of them are wasted in roles that feel like they mostly ended on the cutting room floor – Leo and Forster have both got Oscar nominations on their resumes but barely get a line or two in here. Morgan Freeman, maybe one of the most respected actors of this generation, has a little bit more to do but not by much; his role is essentially display dismay, frustration and once in awhile deliver a “we’re gonna kick your ass” zinger as is necessary in most action films. Like the previous one, there is a bit of a right wing dick swing vibe here as the President gets tough on terrorism directly – with a machine gun. Go, POTUS, Go!

I get that with most action movies you really don’t want to think about the plot too closely as there are often logical holes in them but there has to be at least a LITTLE bit of logic; most people understand that the President is protected by a virtual army and when he goes to a foreign country, he is literally surrounded at all times by Secret Service agents and if his helicopter was shot down in a friendly country like England, there would be a rescue operation already in place and scrambled even before the chopper hit the ground.

Still, even as mindless entertainment goes, there is a bit too much disbelief to suspend here. I’m one of those people who thinks that there is something noble about creating a vehicle for people to forget about their troubles for a couple of hours but this movie could have used a serious rewrite (and it got several, judging from the number of screenwriters credited) or more likely scrapping the project altogether. While I wouldn’t mind seeing the character Mike Banning again, I would rather see him in a much better movie than this. Check it out if mediocrity is your thing, but don’t make too much of an effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty action sequences. Butler is excessively likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Really hokey script. Lacks any sort of credibility and any sort of logic.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of action, mayhem and violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fredrick Bond was set to direct but dropped out due to creative differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White House Down
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: TBA

The Expendables 3


Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Ronda Rousey, Kelsey Grammer, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi, Ivan Kostadinov, Slavi Slavov, Natalie Burn, Sarai Givaty. Directed by Patrick Hughes

Back in 2010, action fans eagerly awaited the debut of The Expendables which united action heroes from days gone by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Bruce Willis and of more recent vintage Li and Statham. The novelty factor alone made the movie a big hit but a single soliloquy by Mickey Rourke made the movie more memorable than the average action film.

Then came The Expendables 2 which added Jean-Claude van Damme and Chuck Norris (as well as more recent action star Liam Hemsworth) which was still entertaining in its own way but the novelty was beginning to wear off. Would the pattern continue?

Yeah, it does. While this is the most star-studded of the series, it is also the least fulfilling. I use that term advisedly – The Expendables 3 has a massive dose of testosterone that will grow hair on the chest of a Disney princess, and is surprisingly entertaining but not necessarily in a good way. You can sit back and watch this and take it for what it is, but if what it is doesn’t thrill you so much, you’re in for a long evening.

The team – leader Barney Ross (Stallone), right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham), surly Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), just as surly Toll Road (Couture) and abs-tastic Hale Caesar (Crews) board a prison train carrying a single prisoner – former Expendable Dr. Death (Snipes). As usual, lots of people get shot and stuff blows up but Team Ex wins out in the end.

But it turns out that the prison break was kind of a side trip on the way to something else. They’ve to head out and intercept a shipment of bombs from an arms dealer, who turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson) who just happened to co-found the Expendables before turning rogue and going out on his own. That job turns out to be something of a cluster frump and gets one of the team shot and in critical condition. Shaken up, Barney decides to retire the team and find a new one.

He needs one because their CIA contact Drummer (Ford) wants Stonebanks picked up alive and taken to the Hague to answer for his crimes. That’s easier said than done however and while Barney’s new team – including tech wizard Thorn (Powell), chatterbox Spanish killing machine Galgo (Banderas), team muscle Mars (Ortiz), beautiful but deadly Luna (Rousey) and anti-authoritarian potential team leader Smilee (Lutz) has more of a modern edge to them, they don’t do any better than the first team and things go sideways in a hurry. It will take the old team to rescue the new team and a final mano a mano brawl between Stonebanks and Barney to settle this once and for all.

Da Queen, being a pragmatic sort (and a bit of a masochist) decided to count up the ludicrous scenes in the movie when something that simply was too much of a stretch of the imagination to ignore; the end figure was in double digits. I can take a certain suspension of disbelief; after all, I used to love those ’80s action epics as much as the next guy. However, there comes a point where you’re inner brain starts to say “come on, you can’t be serious” to your testicles (or the female approximation of same) and the action fix begins to clash with your inner need for some sort of logic. How much you like the movie will depend on how bad you need an action fix.

Stallone, clean-shaven for the first time in the trilogy, looks every bit an AARP member at this point. There are several close-ups on his trademark sneer and as his righteous anger leeks out from his upper lip and into his eyeballs, you can tell he’s going to go all Rambo on somebody’s ass. Statham, not so nearly long in the tooth, merely looks uncomfortable most of the way through – perhaps that’s because he was involved in a near-fatal truck crash when the brakes on the truck he was driving in the movie failed and he was forced to abandon truck before it crashed into the sea.

I will say that the much-maligned Gibson fares the best here, channeling his Martin Riggs from back in the day and if Riggs were a villain in the Lethal Weapon series this is how he’d have turned out. He’s actually pretty fun to watch although I imagine that those who still haven’t gotten over his anti-Semitic drunken rant to the cops will be less sanguine about his performance. Snipes, recently released from prison, reminds us why he was such a great action star in the first place. I thought at one time he had the potential to be as big as Will Smith, although a series of bad roles and poor life choices derailed that. It still might happen though – he could use his performance here as an audition tape for any action movie in the offing and get serious consideration. He also has the best line in the movie; when asked by Toll Road what he was in prison for. I won’t tell you what he responds because the surprise is half the fun.

There is some CGI here and they must have done it on somebody’s Commodore VIC-20 because it is absolutely miserable, some of the worst I’ve ever seen. For example, for the scene near the movie’s end where he is hanging from a winch cable on a helicopter as the chopper pulls away from the camera, I’d much rather have stopped the scene with him dangling underneath it asking his snarky teammates to winch him up now right at that point instead of seeing a clearly CGI silhouette of the copter with the distant semi-humanoid figure and cable being sucked into the helicopter like a strand of spaghetti. I don’t like my action reality messed with.

This is a series whose novelty has run its course and needs to survive simply on the success of its action sequences and the quirkiness of its characters. For one thing, too many characters get virtually no screen time (Li shows up near the end and gets three or four lines and no fighting sequences which is a complete waste of his talents) and while the cast members are pretty able individually, the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts.

REASONS TO GO: Definite testosterone overload.

REASONS TO STAY: Super predictable and super brainless. Some of the worst CGI ever. Novelty has worn off.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh yes, all sorts of violence with guns, blades, you name it – mayhem deluxe. There’s also a fair amount of language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Expendables film not to be rated R.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Commando

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Code Name: The Cleaner

Miss Bala


The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

The life of a beauty queen is harder in some places than others.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Coururier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque, Juan Carlos Galvan, Lakshmi Picazo, Javier Zaragoza, Leonor Vitorica, Hugo Marquez, Eduardo Mendizabal, Sergio Gomez Padilla, Felipe Morales, Sergio Miguel Martinez, Gabriel Chavez, Leticia Huijara Cano. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

Innocence is a commodity that falls by the wayside in a corrupt society. It is hard not to take sides when absolute power rules with brutality and intimidating force and often the side you take is not one taken of your own free will.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a sweet and unassuming teenager who works selling secondhand clothes with her father (Zaragoza) and little brother (Galvan). On a whim she and her close friend Suzu (Picazo) decide to enter their names for the Miss Baja beauty pageant. That night they decide to go to a local night club and party.

During the evening, a group of thugs shoot up the club. Laura, who was in the bathroom at the time, escaped but witnessed the whole thing, being one of the few survivors. Her ordeal is just beginning; she is kidnapped the very next day and taken to Lino Valdez (Hernandez), the head of the drug cartel. Lino. Rather than executing the witness however, he uses her as a courier to ferry money across the border into the United States, bringing back arms and ammunition.

Lino and his gang use her brother and father to control her, threatening to execute them if she doesn’t do as they say and so she becomes a part of the gang. When they figure she can be useful for them as a pageant winner, they get her into the Miss Baja pageant and bribe the judges into letting her win. Her high profile allows them to use her as a means of seducing the powerful General Salomon Duarte (Couturier) and gaining control over him by that means. However, when she discovers that Suzu had not survived the shooting at the club (they assured her that she had), she realizes that nobody is getting out of this alive and she is left with a big decision to make.

As thrillers go this one is raw and gritty and sometimes not so pretty, even given the beauty pageant background. It displays the effects that intimidation, violence and brutality have on the lives of those caught in the crossfire and does so very effectively. Although it didn’t make the final short list, it was submitted as Mexico’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2012 Academy Awards.

There’s a gritty realism that shows not only the desperation and poverty of the people who live in Baja but also the arrogance, the brutality and the opulence of those in power. The consequences of our war on drugs have never had such a human face as this.

Sigman is not well known to me as an actress; she has mainly appeared in Mexican films and since this movie was made has had a recurring role on the F/X TV series The Bridge. She certainly has the beauty and the innocent look but there isn’t a lot of emotion that we get from her other than terror which isn’t necessarily a deficiency on her part – the role doesn’t really call for much else and therein lies the main problem with the movie.

We really don’t get to know Laura at all before the massacre and kidnapping. She seems like a fairly sweet kid, a typical Mexican teenager trying to help her family make ends meet. However, the movie gets into the action so quickly (which isn’t normally an issue for me) that by the time we really know what’s happening Laura is already in victim mode, and that’s really the only way we know her throughout the film all the way to its ambiguous ending.

Sometimes the ins and outs of the politics of the movie can be a bit confusing as to who is on who’s side, who is screwing who and who is at war with who. Things do come out of left field seemingly and while that keeps us off-balance a little bit, some further explanation might have been helpful, particularly for us gringos.

Where the movie excels is in its suspense and tension. From the moment the massacre starts most viewers will be on the edge of their seats, and not really sure what’s going to come at them next. Think of it as riding a roller coaster blindfolded and never sure if you’re going to go flying out of your seat. Some might find that an unpleasant experience but for the purposes here that does satisfy the Type A personality in me.

Despite the recent upsurge in quality Mexican films, this one didn’t get a great deal of attention when it was released back in the early months of 2011 which is a bit of a shame. While it isn’t as good as, say, Y tu mama tambien or Amores perros it is as good as any thriller that has come out from Hollywood in recent years.

WHY RENT THIS: Raw and gritty. Raises the thriller bar up a notch..

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Don’t really connect with Laura as much as we should. Occasionally confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a goodly amount of sometimes strong and bloody violence as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on Laura Zuniga, the former Miss Sinaloa, beauty queen and model who was arrested on December 22, 2008 for narcotics trafficking.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maria, Full of Grace

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Being Flynn

Casino Royale (2006)


Casino Royale

"All right, damn it, I'll say it - I'm Bond, James Bond. Now someone get me my freakin' martini!"

(2006) Action Adventure (MGM) Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Akbarian, Caterina Murino, Jesper Christensen, Ivana Milicevic, Isaach de Bankole, Tobias Menzies, Claudio Santamaria, Sebastien Foucan.  Directed by Martin Campbell.

There is a kind of comfort in certain things that don’t change. French waiters will always be rude, politics as usual will always be depressing and James Bond will always ride in to save the day. Of course, the franchise itself has been full of change. Circa 2006, there have been six men who have played Bond in the “official” series (more on that later). The newest one is making his debut in this, the last original Ian Fleming novel to have its title on a film from Eon Productions, who have been making the Bond movies since 1962, first under producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, and later under his daughter Barbara Broccoli, who went to college at Loyola Marymount University, where yours truly took several classes together as we both majored in Communication Arts (and no, I didn’t know who she was until much later). But how did Daniel Craig do in his first outing in the role? 

The filmmakers go a little radical here, choosing to create something of a Bond origin story. MI-6 agent James Bond (Craig) is promoted to Double O status after killing a double agent in the ranks of the British diplomatic corps and his contact. Afterwards, he is chasing a bomb maker (Foucan) to try and get closer to the terrorists that hired him (some amazing free running stunts here) when he is captured on camera apparently murdering unarmed diplomats in an embassy. This infuriates MI-6 chief M (Dench) no end and embarrasses the agency.

Bond being Bond, he doesn’t back off. He continues following the money and manages to determine that the next target is going to be a prototype airplane. He manages to avert the destruction of the prototype, unknowingly thwarting the plans to manipulate the stock of the airplane’s manufacturer by Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen), a kind of investment banker for terrorists. Now in the hock to a bunch of guys who like to kill innocent people (just imagine what they’ll do to someone who isn’t so innocent), he has to recoup his losses. Being an extraordinary poker player, he organizes a card tournament at the prestigious Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI-6, sensing a major opportunity to break Le Chiffre’s bank (which would effectively put him at their mercy, and perhaps in exchange for protection they could find out detailed information on most of the world’s terrorist organizations), know they need to beat him at his own game. And who do you send in to do it? The best card player in MI-6 – namely, Bond, James Bond. M is reluctant to do it – “I promoted you much too early” she snarls at him when he breaks into her home to hack her encrypted computer. Still, it is their best chance for success.

To keep an eye on the double “o’ bad boy, they send Vesper Lynd (Green) from the Ministry of Finance to keep an eye on the ten million pounds they are floating Bond to enter the tournament. Bond, having an eye for figures (ahem) manages to charm the frosty Lynd even though they don’t hit it off right away. Le Chiffre is desperate to win the tournament by any means necessary. Bond will have to use more than his card-playing skills to survive this Texas Hold’em tournament.

The filmmakers are returning to the style of James Bond that Ian Fleming originally envisioned when he first wrote the books more than 50 years ago. This is a gritty, rough around the edges Bond who can be urbane and elegant when he has to be. You see the cold, efficient killer in Bond more than the charming one-liner machine we saw in later incarnations of the character. Bond gets beat up something awful during the course of the movie, but he dishes out far more than he takes.

Director Martin Campbell, who got the Pierce Brosnan era off with a bang with GoldenEye does much the same here, although he is completely kickstarting the series. This is more real world Bond, relying less on gadgets (although there are some here, they aren’t the supercool spy gadgets of yore; these are things that you’d probably be able to find at your local Sharper Image) than on the skills of the world’s best spy. 

I was surprised to find that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) was one of the writers on this movie. It didn’t seem to be his style, at least so I thought, but he, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have put together one of the more complex screenplays of the series. There are many twists and turns to the story, some of which you don’t see coming (some of which you do) and it’s nice to be kept guessing while watching a Bond movie. Bond movies have always tended to stick to a formula – a very successful formula, but a formula nonetheless – and the producers have served notice here that they intend to shake things up and they have, in a good way. 

The Bond girls, led by Green, are less Barbie Doll goddess gorgeous than past Bond girls; in fact, it could be said they are more conventionally pretty, the sort of girls you’d find in a shopping mall or at the beach rather than in an ultra-expensive spa or casino. Unfortunately, most of them are written pretty colorlessly, although that’s fairly standard practice for Bond girls of the last 20 years, Die Another Day excepted. This installment could have used another Jinx-like girl to liven things up.

Craig makes a pretty decent Bond, although nobody can replace Sean Connery. Even if someone was the perfect Bond(and I don’t think Connery was), he couldn’t compete with the memory of Connery who established the category and was as close to perfect as you could get in playing him. Craig may well have moved to number two on the list. He is ruthless, tough and brilliant. He doesn’t toss out facts like the know-it-all Bond would occasionally become; instead, he just knows the things he needs to. Craig may not fit the tall, dark and handsome stereotype of Bond but he captures the essence of the character. That goes a long way in my book. 

There were a few bugs in the movie – the poker sequences go on far too long, and the movie’s momentum is screwed up as a result. There is no Q Division or Moneypenny in the movie and both are missed, even though I do understand their absence. The early free running stunt sequence is SO spectacular that the climactic sequence in Venice pales next to it. These are not minor things exactly, but they are truly fixable. What’s important is that the producers have a Bond who they can count on for at least the next couple of films. Keep this kind of momentum up and who knows, they may be doing Bond movies when Barbara Broccoli’s grandchildren are producing. I’ll take mine shaken, not stirred.

WHY RENT THIS: Craig makes a terrific Bond, perhaps the best since Sean Connery. Tremendous action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bond girls are colorless; no Moneypenny or Q. Poker sequences shut down the movie’s momentum dead.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence, a little torture, some sexuality and even a little nudity. A little more extreme than the average Bond but still Bond.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  “You Know My Name” is the first Bond theme song since 1983’s Octopussy to have a different name than the film itself.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are featurettes on the Bond Girls, as well as the selection process for the new James Bond. There’s a music video for the theme song as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $594.2M on  $150M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paul

Knight and Day


Knight and Day

Club Med, this ain't.

(20th Century Fox) Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas, Jordi Molla, Falk Hentschel, Lennie Loftin, Dale Dye, Rich Manley, Celia Weston, Gal Gadot. Directed by James Mangold

Although I can’t prove it, I do believe that all women dream of a dark, handsome man who’ll whisk them away on the adventure of a lifetime. Most every woman I’ve ever asked has said that’s a fantasy of theirs. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

June Havens (Diaz) is returning home to Boston after scouring junkyards in Wichita for car parts for the GTO she’s rebuilding for her sister’s wedding gift. In the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise), a handsome, nice man who seems genuinely polite. June is immediately attracted to him but as usual dithers about doing anything about it. Her problem is that she’s been burned by the skeletons in the closets of the men she chooses too many times. Of course, there are skeletons and then there are SKELETONS…

Roy has a doozy. He’s a field agent for the CIA who has stolen a battery from an agency lab, along with its inventor, whiz kid Simon Feck (Dano). It’s not just any Duracell, either; it’s a perpetual energy battery that can indefinitely power, say, a small city. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to get their hands on, not the least of which is Roy’s partner Fitzgerald (Sarsgaard), his boss Agency Director George (Davis) and Spanish arms dealer Antonio (Molla).

Fitzgerald sends some agents on the plane from Wichita to Boston to try and apprehend Miller, but they fail. Unfortunately, both of the pilots get caught in the crossfire and the plane goes down in a field. Roy and June are the only survivors.

June wakes up (after Roy drugs her, a repeated theme throughout the movie) in her own bed and wonders if it was a dream. However, the post-it notes Roy left for her throughout her house advising her not to get in a vehicle with anyone claiming to be from an agency, to deny all knowledge of Roy and to get as far away from any agent as possible who tells her that she’s going somewhere safe and secure as this is code for “we’re going to execute you.” She tries to explain all this to her would-be boyfriend, fireman Rodney (Blucas) but they are interrupted by Roy who takes June hostage.

They get away and try to find Simon but Roy is late getting there and the understandably nervous Simon has fled for Austria. Right about then the Spanish gunmen arrive…

The plot here is really secondary to two things; the action and Tom Cruise. Mangold has crafted a fairly competent action movie with some nice stunts, although nothing terribly elaborate by say James Bond standards. The attraction here is Cruise. He is in full-on movie star mode.

Back in the day, there were movie stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who mesmerized you just by being onscreen. They had an indefinable charisma, something you can’t really explain but certainly can feel. You’re drawn in. There are very few of them left today. Tom Hanks is one, Julia Roberts is another. Cruise is like that, too.

He is no longer the young guy in his tighty whities sliding across the floor to Bob Seger, but he still has that incandescent smile and that self-confidence that makes him so irresistible to women, even if he has developed some middle age jowls. Whenever he’s onscreen (which is nearly the entire movie), the screen sparkles.

You have to feel for Cameron Diaz. She’s a fine actress in her own right and quite pretty, but she doesn’t have the kind of screen presence that Cruise possesses. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a pretty rare commodity – but it does make her almost an afterthought when you remember the movie, even after just having seen it.

There’s a pretty fine support cast, including the urbane Sarsgaard doing his best villainy, and Davis who resembles facially and vocally a young Alfre Woodward here. Dano is nearly unrecognizable as the Hall and Oates-loving genius who is perpetually in a state of shattered nerves.

That Hall and Oates thing is what lies at the heart of the flaws that the movie possesses. I know teenaged geniuses can be quirky but loving Hall and Oates music? Doesn’t seem realistic to me; I would have thought it better if the kid was into Lady Gaga or something a little more contemporary. Also, Paul Dano didn’t look like a young teenager or even a college student; that also took me out of the film’s world a little bit.

The conceit of drugging June constantly so that Roy can rescue her got a bit wearisome and kind of smacked of lazy writing – that way we didn’t get to see Roy get them out of the sticky situations they were in. It was bang, he knocked her out, there were a few brief moments where she faded into consciousness at various stages of the operation, and then bang, she’s awake in some totally different locale. Yes, we get that Roy is very, very good at what he does – it wouldn’t have hurt to see a bit more proof of that onscreen. The writers make a half-hearted attempt to put some doubt as to Roy’s motivations, but we know he’s a good guy from the beginning; this is a non-twist and these are the kinds of things that tend to distract viewers from a movie’s better nature.

Otherwise, this is a pretty good movie, not great. Certainly it kept me entertained the entire time and I enjoyed myself while I was watching it. It’s not as bad as I heard it was, nor is it as good as I hoped it was. It’s a standard action comedy, elevated by Cruise to something better. That’s good enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Tom Cruise is at the top of his game. The movie is fun and lively.

REASONS TO STAY: Again, nothing particularly new or cutting-edge here and the CGI is a bit atrocious in places. A little too Looney Tunes for my taste at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence (action style) throughout and a little bit of bad language. Perfectly suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally titled All New Enemies and the movie was shot under the title Wichita before changing its name to the current title.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the action sequences look to need a larger screen, by and large this one is perfectly adequate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Land of the Lost