Killbird


Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

(2019) Thriller (Frozen Fish) Elysia Rotaru, Stephen Lobo, Aaron Douglas, Tahmoh Penikett, Reese Alexander, Jesse Inocalla, Momona Komagata, Joe Zanetti, Hans Potter, Sarah Lindsay. Directed by Joe Zanetti

The problem with paranoia isn’t so much that you could be wrong; it’s the nagging suspicion that you might be right. When caught up between opposing forces, one apparently crazy and the other perfectly rational, it never pays to automatically believe one point of view or the other.

Taylor Crane (Rotaru) is a photographer who specializes in pictures of birds. She’s out in the remote woods of Oregon when her car stalls. Literally in the middle of nowhere, she decides to see if she can hike her way out and to her surprise finds an isolated cabin. The resident, Riad Bishara (Lobo) isn’t particularly friendly but grumpily promises to give her a ride to town when he goes to pick up his mail in a couple of hours.

There are some troubling clues, however. His property has a state-of-the-art security system, for one thing. Maybe you can write that off to a person who is zealous about his privacy but then she discovers a hidden room with computers and a board with newspaper clippings as well as a journal that indicate that Riad may be planning something dark and dangerous. To cap things off, she discovers he’s keeping a man (Douglas) prisoner in his attic, a man who has patently lost his mind (or has he). Riad discovers her snooping, however, and subdues her, tying her up and questioning her as to what government agency she works for. As for her, she has to wonder what is on the flash drive that he is zealously protecting.

As they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you. Maybe it’s that mailman (Penikett) who shows up with a package – when Riad always goes to town to pick up his mail. In any case, the movie becomes a game of cat and mouse. Is Riad a terrorist planning to topple the government or at least kill thousands of people? Is he a watchdog threatening to expose nefarious doings of the government? Is Taylor who she appears to be – a bird watcher in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or is she what he thinks she is, a highly-trained government-employed assassin?

Zanetti does a good job of keeping his viewers guessing. He establishes the dramatic tension between the two fairly early on (that aspect could have been tightened up a bit) and then lets the two actors go to work and they both are effective. Rotaru, who’s had recurring roles in Arrow and Reapers on TV, especially delivers the goods in a physically demanding role. Lobo is at times soft-spoken or in your face angry also gives a memorable performance. The two actors basically carry the movie and the tension between them is what makes (in this case) or breaks the film. The tension between them seems pretty genuine.

The “is she or isn’t she” aspect goes on a bit too long; Zanetti is like the basketball player who gives one or two fakes too many and ends up getting called for travelling. He should have faith in his audience that we don’t need to be whirled around the same dance floor longer than is necessary; trimming a few scenes which emphasize the confusion as to who Taylor and Riad are would have done the film some good. There are also a few red herrings that seem to be borrowed from other similar kinds of films.

Otherwise, this is a taut and enjoyable thriller from a fresh face in the business. The movie made its debut at L.A.’s Dances With Films festival today and will probably be making more festival appearances before making its way to a streaming service. Keep an eye out for it particularly if thrillers are your jam.

REASONS TO SEE: Establishes dramatic tension nicely and keeps the viewer guessing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the film’s aspect are a bit thriller-rote.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Zanetti’s first feature-length film as a director.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: P2
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Detective Shadow

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Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

blackhat


Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

Wei Tang is waiting for Chris Hemsworth to finish his phone call.

(2014) Thriller (Universal/Legendary) Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehorn Wang, Holt McCallany, Andy On, Ritchie Coster, Christian Borle, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Tyson Chak, Brandon Molale, Danny Burstein, Archie Kao, Abhi Sinha, Jason Butler Harner, Manny Montana, Spencer Garrett, Shi Liang, Kan Mok, Sophia Santi Directed by Michael Mann

Cyber crime isn’t just science fiction anymore; it’s a fact of daily life. Between the hacking of Sony and Target, our private information is at risk nearly every hour of every day. So too is the private information of corporations – and governments. And all of it can be manipulated for the benefit of a greedy soul with a computer and an idea.

When a hacker causes a Chinese nuclear facility to explode, it’s a tragedy. When the same hacker infiltrates the Chicago commodities market, them’s fighting words as far as the U.S. is concerned. A joint task force is convened with Chinese military officer Chen Dawai (Wang) and FBI agent Carol Burnett…err, Barrett (Davis). When the code used to hack both institutions turns out to be familiar to Dawai, he recommends that the man who co-authored the software with Dawai himself – one Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) who was Dawai’s college roommate at Stanford – be released from jail for the cybercrimes he’s committed.

Hathaway realizes quickly that the guy they’re chasing is basically using his own software to get into very difficult hacks; the software that the hacker has authored is like a blunt force trauma, whereas Hathaway’s is more like a rapier wound. However, the hacker (van Wageningen) who is one Hawaiian shirt away from living in his mom’s basement, has hired a vicious terrorist named Kassar (Coster) to kill anyone who is in the way or no longer of use. And the point of all of this? Let’s just say that the Tin Man would be thrilled.

Michael Mann has always been a director who has exemplified style over substance and sometimes when that style is cool enough, he can get away with treating the substance as an afterthought. What would seem to be a fairly crucial movie about the effect of hackers and cybercrime on all of us and how vulnerable we are as nations to hackers is almost non-existent here.

Hemsworth who is a pretty great action hero is wasted in this role. It’s not that he can’t play smart; it’s just that he’s playing a guy who can pick up a gun as easily as program a computer virus…or hack into an NSA super-decryption program, which he does at one point – because the NSA won’t allow a convicted hacker to access it, particularly with Chinese military officers in tow. Of course, the knowledge that the guy they’re chasing has already caused one nuclear plant to meltdown might at least give them pause to work with the FBI agent, no? Maybe not.

And therein lies one of the main problems with the movie – the script. There are so many lapses in logic it’s hard to know where to begin. For example, why would anyone parole a hacker who has already shown a lack of respect for authority to chase down another hacker, particularly when the NSA has plenty of computer geniuses available at a moment’s notice? Sure, he co-wrote the code of the software that was used, but still, other than for dramatic purposes there is simply no reason to use a blackhat in this situation. Maybe the Bad Hacker has a personal score to settle with Hathaway, in which case by all means, use that as a selling point, but don’t pee on your audience and tell them it’s raining. Besides, it staggers the imagination that the guy is apparently an unstoppable killing machine in addition to being a computer genius. Are there any computer experts you know who spend time on the firing range, or in hand-to-hand combat training?

And when they get to cities they don’t know – like Jakarta or Shanghai – Hathaway is able to navigate through labyrinthine city streets to get to exactly where he needs to go without fail. Or does he have a GPS chip in his head?

The film has been cast with some fairly well-known Chinese actors in an effort to appeal to Chinese audiences who are quickly becoming a very large slice of the box office pie. However, Wei Tang – who is absolutely stunning and a terrific actress – is essentially shoehorned in so that Hathaway has someone to bed. The relationship at no time feels authentic, it’s just a con who hasn’t seen a woman in awhile getting lucky and for her part, she seems much smarter than to fall into a relationship with someone who is likely going back to prison. And to make her the sister of his ex-roommate and close friends – awk-ward.

A word about the score; it’s annoying, a kind of electronic noodling that reminds you that there’s someone trying to be sophisticated at the synthesizer. It’s so bad that one of the composers credited to the movie, Harry Gregson-Williams, has gone so far to post on his Facebook page that almost none of the score was his. I would have done the same thing, if I were him.

Like all Michael Mann movies, blackhat looks terrific. Lots of beautifully shot cityscapes, plenty of shots of Hathaway staring thoughtfully into the distance past urban wastelands and other thought-provoking vistas. But like a lot of his more recent movies, the style only goes so far and can’t hide the sorry fact that there’s nothing of substance here. While you get the sense that Mann and the writers did their homework when it comes to the computer hacking aspect, they could have used a remedial course in storytelling. Even the presence of Viola Davis, one of the finest actresses in Hollywood at the moment (and who does a yeoman job of trying her best) can’t save this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Typically cool cinematography for a Mann film. Seems fairly authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and often hard to follow. Large gaps in logic. Moviemaking by committee. Annoying score.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language throughout with occasional bouts of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 3,000 extras were used for the movie’s climactic scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Net
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Wedding Ringer

Transcendence


Johnny Depp's salary for the film is displayed behind him.

Johnny Depp’s salary for the film is displayed behind him.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas, Wallace Langham, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Olivia Dudley. Directed by Wally Pfister

Our attitudes towards technology tend to be split down the middle. On the one hand, we appreciate the wonders of it and become addicted to our laptops, our cell phones, our microwaves and our GPS devices. We eagerly speculate as to what amazing discoveries will be a part of our daily lives ten or twenty years down the line,

On the other hand, technology terrifies us. We tremble at the thought of atomic bombs, killer drones and artificial intelligence deciding that humanity is superfluous and wiping us all out like Skynet and Judgment Day. It isn’t hard to imagine our own hubris creating the seeds of our extinction.

Will Caster (Depp) is one of the planet’s most brilliant minds, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence. He and his wife and lab partner Evelyn (Hall) are on the verge of a major breakthrough, creating a machine that  will not only think analytically but feel emotions, thus having more brainpower than the combined intelligence of every human that ever lived. Scary stuff.

A little too scary for some. A group of what I guess you’d call technoterrorists – a group of angry young people out to stop technology from taking over our lives at all costs – launch a coordinated attack on artificial intelligence labs all over the country. Decades of research is wiped out in the space of hours and the possibility that the scientists will never reach their goal looms large. Worse still, Will was shot – well, grazed – but the bullet that grazed him was coated with a radioactive isotope that will kill him in a matter of weeks. You can’t say these terrorists didn’t learn well from the KGB.

Evelyn kind of loses it. She wants to save her husband but knows his body is doomed. After reading some research from a scientist who was killed in the attack, she realizes that consciousness can be uploaded into a computer – he had done it with a rhesus monkey. With no other option, she determines to follow this course. She needs help and recruits Max (Bettany), a fellow scientist and close friend to both Will and herself.

Because this untested research would never be sanctioned in any reputable lab, particularly with FBI Agent Buchanan (Murphy) keeping a close eye on things. Their mentor, Dr. Tagger (Freeman) is unlikely to be supportive either. As Will’s body deteriorates, the attempt is made. Eventually, Will’s body dies. Did his soul?

At first, it seems the effort went to naught but a single line of text – Is Anybody There? – tells them that their experiment was a success. In fact, better than; Evelyn is convinced that everything that was the essence of what Will Caster was lives on in this machine. In a sense, she has become a modern Frankenstein.

But is this really Will? When circumstances force her to upload Will to the Internet, things begin to take a sideways step. Will manipulates bank accounts and stock, allowing Evelyn to create a kind of data fortress in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Will has started making breakthroughs in cell regeneration, allowing those who are infirm to be healed. However, the down side is that Will’s source code is also uploaded into these recipients of his generosity, making them in essence worker bees with greatly enhanced strength and speed.

Evelyn watches this with horror despite the apparently benign intentions of the new Will machine. However, if he is making fundamental changes to the DNA of the people of this town, will he use this ability to control them? And if so, will there be any true humans left?

Depp has had a string of missteps on the big screen lately and this one, according to the box office figures, isn’t going to break that string although in terms of quality it is certainly an improvement over his last couple of films. This is intelligent sci-fi, raising questions about our increasing reliance on technology as well as how much we’re willing to give up for comfort and safety. These aren’t easy questions to answer nor do the filmmakers make much of an attempt to give you any.

This is one of Depp’s most low-key performances in ages. Caster talks in a kind of monotone, probably because he’s so busy thinking. We rarely see any emotion out of Depp and therein lies the problem; Caster is already robotic by the time he becomes a machine. The change isn’t terribly noticeable. Hall, with a Cambridge education, seems overly hysterical here in playing a rational scientist although if I’d seen the love of my life waste away after being shot by terrorists, I might be a bit hysterical too.

Only Bettany acquits himself nicely here, although Murphy and Freeman are solid in small roles. The acting here doesn’t really stand out but the special effects and set design do. There is a sleek futuristic look to the Caster compound and the digital effects, while not breakthroughs, are at least wow-inducing for the most part.

I do like the concept although the film isn’t always true to its inner logic and at the end of the day, falls just shy of being a much better film than just merely entertaining. There is a lot to digest here and while it’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey it is at least better than some of the more visceral sci-fi entries of recent years.

REASONS TO GO: Great effects. Nice concept. Keeps you guessing.

REASONS TO STAY: Misses the mark. Occasional overuse of technobabble.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence (some of it bloody), a bit of sensuality and occasional foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pfister’s debut as a director. Previously he has been a renowned cinematographer working for such directors as Christopher Nolan and Kevin MacDonald.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lawnmower Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Heaven is For Real

The World is Not Enough


Sophie Marceau thinks Pierce Brosnan looks fetching in this choker.

Sophie Marceau thinks Pierce Brosnan looks fetching in this choker.

(1999) Spy Thriller (MGM) Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Judi Dench, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, Desmond Llewelyn, John Cleese, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Samantha Bond, Michael Kitchen, Colin Salmon, Goldie, David Calder, Serena Scott Thomas, Ulrich Thomsen, Claude-Oliver Rudolph, Omid Djalili, Daisy Beaumont, Nina Muschalik. Directed by Michael Apted

Nifty gadgets. That’s why we see Bond movies. That and the outrageous stunts, fabulous action sequences, droll witticisms … and oh yes, the babes.

The 19th Bond movie finds our man James (Brosnan) looking out for a wealthy heiress by the name of Elektra King (Marceau). Bond feels responsible for the death of her father at the hands of a crazed terrorist named Renard (Carlyle). As “M” (Dench) was a personal friend of her father and that the murder took place at MI6 headquarters, she sends all the dogs after Renard.

Renard is unique in that a bullet fired by an MI6 agent has entered his brain and is slowly killing him. At the same time, it renders him impervious to sensation of all sorts, making him stronger with each passing day. Renard is out to steal a nuclear weapon from one of those pesky ex-Soviet republics. I won’t tell you how everything turns out; suffice to say that there follows mayhem of all shapes, sizes and description.

Bond gets lucky with a number of buxom women that would keep most of us awake nights just considering. And, of course, he saves the day after a final battle with Renard, while aboard a sinking submarine.

If you like Bond movies, this one isn’t going to disappoint. Pierce Brosnan is more comfortable than ever here in the role, and he proved why many thought that he should have been the one to replace Roger Moore. There’s more sexual tension between him and Moneypenny than there’s been in the Brosnan Bond movies, which is welcome, and we get to see a LOT more of M, which is a great thing. Dench makes a formidable M.

On the down side, this is the last appearance of Desmond Llewellyn as Q, making him the last of the original cast to depart. Llewellyn exits gracefully, but not before bringing aboard ex-Python Cleese to replace him – sadly, they never really utilized Cleese properly.

As is typical for Bond movies, great casting in the recurring roles. Marceau is a lustrous, otherworldly beauty who carries the right mix of innocence and steel necessary to carry out a complex role. She has a fascinating character and while Elektra is no Pussy Galore, she is memorable notwithstanding. Carlyle makes a terrific Bond villain, one who at the end turns out to be flawed and human, making him one of the better villains to come down the pike in a long time. Guest appearances by Coltrane as a Russian mobster (previously seen in Goldeneye) and musician Goldie as a bodyguard are memorable. Richards is unfortunately miscast as a buxom nuclear scientist. She, like Marceau, is pleasant on the eyes but unlike Marceau the former Mrs. Charlie Sheen is given little depth with which to work.

The World Is Not Enough suffers like most post-1985 Bond movies from the lack of a cold war. There is no evil empire to oppose; consequently, the movies lack the world-shattering urgency of such classic movies as Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Thunderball and Diamonds are Forever. Still, Bond soldiers on in an era when spies seem to be anachronistic. Bond’s anachronisms hold up, however, which is why the series continues today.

As sheer entertainment, the Bond movies are among the best bets on a continuing basis, as dependable as our own mortality and the inevitability of April 15th. It’s truly amazing that the series, now half a century and lots of different Bonds into the fray, is as consistently good as it is. The fact is, we need that kind of dependability in our lives. Presidents may come, monarchs may go, but Bond lives in a world that we remember and long for; one in which virile men can seduce gorgeous women by virtue of their sheer manliness, where bad guys always get their just desserts and a well-chosen witticism can deflect a bullet from its path.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid Bond entertainment. Carlyle a formidable villain and Marceau an excellent Bond girl. Brosnan at the height of his game.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Denise Richards totally miscast. Over-reliance on gadgets. Needs a SPECTRE or SMERSH.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some action violence and plenty of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The boat sequence is the longest opening pre-title sequence of all the Bond films to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a music video of the title song by Garbage as well as the ability to play featurettes at appropriate times during the playing of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $361.8M on a $135M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Supremacy

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mao’s Last Dancer

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

Traitor


Traitor

Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels are moving at cross purposes.

(Overture) Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Archie Panjabi, Alvy Khan, Said Taghmaoui, Raad Rawi. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Our government uses the term “war on terror” despite the fact that from its outer trappings, its not so much a war as it is a guerilla action. In this fight, boundaries blur and it is not always possible to tell who is innocent and who is not. In the war on terror, the casualties are not always easily apparent.

Samir (Cheadle), as a young boy, saw his father killed in the explosion of a car bomb (who set the bomb and why is never explained in the film). As an adult, we see him in Yemen, attempting to sell plastic explosives to a terrorist group. When that group is captured by the Yemeni police, Samir is thrown in a Yemeni prison along with Omar (Taghmaoui), a high-ranking soldier in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Samir is questioned by Agents Clayton (Pearce) and Archer (McDonough) of the FBI. They’re anxious to make a deal with the soft-spoken, highly intelligent Samir but he demurs. They basically throw up their hands and leave him in prison to rot.

In prison, Samir and Omar develop a bond as Omar witnesses Samir’s devotion to Allah and when the Brotherhood stage an escape for Omar, he takes Samir with him. They flea to Marseilles, where the former army demolition expert Samir helps develop a remote-controlled device to use to detonate a bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Nice. Eight people are killed in the explosion, the news of which apparently disturbs Samir – he had been hoping for a higher body count, he tells Fareed Mansour (Khan), their Pakistani handler.

As it turns out, Samir had been hoping for a certain body count that had been lower – the bodies had been planted at the Embassy by security advisor Carter (Daniels), who was Samir’s real handler. Samir is actually an undercover agent looking to get to Nathir (Rawi), one of the highest ranking terrorists in the world. He is also trying to find out what large-scale operation the Brotherhood has in mind on American soil.

But is Samir really an American operative, or does he have his own agenda? Time is running out; the operation is taking place soon, Samir is wanted by police organizations world wide for his part in the embassy bombing and Clayton and Archer are closing in. Who will protect the innocent when the lines are so very blurred?

Director Nachmanoff has delivered a taut, well-paced thriller that keeps you guessing as to Samir’s loyalties despite the fact that they tell you he is working for Carter early on. The fact that you’re never quite sure whose side he’s working on til near the end is a tribute to Cheadle the actor, and his performance is the primary reason to seek this movie out.

Everything in this movie is about motivation and the fact that the motivation for so much is unclear. What drives Samir – be it the boyhood tragedy we see in the first frames or the prejudice he encountered in America – is never fully explained. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions, mostly from Samir’s actions.

Other than those playing FBI agents, the driving forces behind the characters remain foggy in them as well, particularly the Muslim characters. The exception is Omar, who seems to be simply driven by the convictions of his faith. Omar doesn’t hate the Americans he wants to kill so badly; he is merely a soldier in a jihad doing Allah’s will. If those he follows tell him it is Americans he must kill, then so be it.

The movie travels from location to location with dizzying speed (done on a relatively modest budget so kudos to the producers) and keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next. While the scenes taking place in the Middle East are vivid with color, there is a grainy, washed out aspect to the scenes taking place in Europe and North America I found intriguing. I’m not sure what the filmmakers intention was in terms of message – it could well have been that the weather was bad while they were shooting on location. It is a bit annoying, at least to my sensibilities.

There is an authenticity to the movie – Nachmanoff, who also co-wrote the movie, consulted with several intelligence community professionals to try and get the procedural and political aspects right and this pays off. He also succeeds in humanizing terrorism, putting a face on what we sometimes tend to characterize as mindless fanatics. While there is certainly fanaticism within the radical jihadist movement, these are also human beings with an agenda, a plan to achieve it and the patience to see it through – patience from an unshakable belief that God is on their side.

While there are several twists and turns that I thought a bit too unnecessary (the last one regarding Carter is a particularly hoary cliché and could have been excised from the movie), this is still worth giving a look to. After all, in the war on terror the ultimate casualty has been the truth.

WHY RENT THIS: Cheadle’s performance is rock-solid, as is Guy Pearce’s. A very different look at the war on terror and its (unintended) casualties. A nicely-paced, taut thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Needlessly twisty, plot-wise. Much of the movie looks grainy and washed out, particularly when the setting is in Europe and North America.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very violent imagery and raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be made by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, but after a management change there the property was dropped, allowing Cheadle to take it to Overture Films, the big screen subsidiary of the Starz premium cable channel..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Simpsons Movie