Thursday, January 15, 2015

Yeah, I'm thinking he's back

  I want very badly to call this movie Keanu Reeves' comeback. Unfortunately, it's not like he ever really left. He just kept making underwhelming stuff. And then he made John Wick. Holy balls. John Wick is the kind of flick Keanu was born to make. It's probably his most emotionally charged movie too, which is astonishing considering how simple and gleefully action-minded it is. He emotes like a seasoned stage actor, taking us through the gamut; grief, anger, rage, depression, and even joy for a moment or two. What's amazing is that for once, he's given the perfect material to work with and his acting is on par with the stunts. I don't think Reeves is ever really a bad actor, he's just an actor who needs a part tailored for him. He gets miscast in a lot of movies, but suffice it to say, John Wick is not one of them.

  Reeves plays the eponymous title character, who used to be a hitman of sorts for the Russian mob. At one point however, he met the love of his life and made a deal with the boss to retire from the life. He actually pulled it off and got out, to live happily ever after with his wife. Unfortunately, an illness claimed her life, and as a parting gift... she left John an adorable Beagle puppy, named Daisy. Then, not a day later, the son of his old boss takes a liking to Wick's car, not knowing who he is. Then, having turned down their offer to buy it from him, they break into his house at night... beat him to a pulp, steal his car, and kill his dog. This sends the entire Russian mob into a panic because this jumped up little shit just send the boogeyman himself into a blind rage.

  Wick dives back into his old life, calling up old acquaintances and meeting familiar faces again. All as he systematically kills his way to the boss' son, Iosef. This is a very simple story. It's cut and dry, black and white, no nonsense. It's also full of neat scenes and awesome secondary characters. Unfortunately, these little interludes, particularly one where Wick seeks lodging at a fancy hotel that seems to be a no-business zone for hitmen and the like- these scenes interrupt the pacing of the movie. They're also one of the chief highlights. John Wick isn't just a plain action movie, it creates a whole world for it's characters to inhabit. One full of shadowy clubs, unspoken rules, and secret alliances. It's really immersive, interesting, and endlessly fun.

  Oddly enough, this movie feels like a sequel. All these familiar faces feel like ones we should've seen before. Not that the movie ever leaves us in the dark as to who they are, it handles that adequately enough, but... even the backstory seems like it could use it's own movie. A prequel maybe, one that has Wick pulling off that one last "impossible" job for the Russians, essentially earning his freedom and riding off into the sunset with his ill-fated wife. It's a whole movie right there, and it's one we don't get to see. I want to see it. Namely because more John Wick at this point can't possibly be a bad thing. I'm skirting around the real topic of discussion here, the real star of the movie...

the action.

  ...And holy hell, is there action. I suppose the fact that John Wick was directed by Keanu Reeves' longtime stunt double Chad Stahelski played a big hand in how slick and well shot all the action is. Every single fight is choreographed down to every last bullet, every single movement, and nothing is wasted. Nothing is superfluous. As an action fan, I think the highlight of any action movie is when they do something you don't see a lot, or they do something unique in an action scene. Off the top of my head, just about every fight scene from The Raid (and it's sequel), and even the shootouts in Dredd. They all managed to be really creative, and at the least they were all exceptionally well executed. However, action movies become a drag when all they are is guys blindly firing guns at each other while the camera shakes like it's having an epileptic seizure.

  John Wick doesn't roll like that. Each shootout is paced, tracked, and choreographed. Reeves moves through the scenes with calculated precision, shooting, punching, kicking and judo-flipping enemies as he sees fit. He moves and fights like clockwork. This does more than just give us mind-blowingly cool action scenes, this infuses something into the character of John Wick. This is a guy who the entire Russian mob is afraid of... and the movie is keen to show us exactly why. Wick is a goddamn machine. They way he fights and shoots is part of his character. It's why he's the best. The whole movie hinges on that selling point. He has to be frighteningly good at killing. He can't be a stock action hero. He has to be on the next level of convincing badassery. I'm happy to report, Keanu pulls it off like he was The One all over again.

  Not since The Matrix have I seen him in a movie that utilizes him so well. John Wick is a very good movie. It has a few hangups with the length of the story, and a few momentum hiccups, but I'd be lying if I said I felt these were serious issues. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. With any movie I feel like there's a checklist of a few little things to ask yourself when reviewing it. Would I watch it again? Would I buy it? Would I recommend it to others? When it comes to the case of John Wick, for all three questions, the answer is a resounding "Yes."  It's been too long of a time since I saw a Keanu Reeves vehicle that blew my hair back, because most of his post-Matrix filmography is either moderate (Constantine, Street Kings) to snore inducing (The Day The Earth Stood Still) and some unfortunate misfires (47 Ronin). So, regardless of how you wanna look at it, John Wick is a supremely satisfying return to form for Keanu, and a breath of fresh air for action fans.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Escapist Nonsense

  Based on the comic book of the same name, Wanted is little more than witty escapist nonsense. It's Fight Club with all the über violence of a trigger happy video game. I don't mean to sound down on this movie at all, especially not right out of the gate. I really really like this movie. I'm also pretty torn about it. I saw the movie when it first hit DVD, late '08, early '09. It was fun, but nothing revelatory. No matter my thoughts on the movie; I knew, even then, that James McAvoy was a total badass. Not just because he got to shoot a lot of bad guys and look cool doing it. It was because he has that one-in-a-hundred tough guy stare that you just can't fake. The way he carried himself was that of a no-nonsense action hero. Whatever this movie did or didn't do, it gave us our first look at Badass James McAvoy, and for that, I love it.

  It pretty much takes only the first ten pages and the namesake of it's source material before going in a completely different direction. Which is sad, because a faithful adaption of the comic book would've been mind blowing. It would have been epic proportions of amazing. Unfortunately I don't think any movie studio would throw big bucks at a summer blockbuster that is essentially devoid of any redeemable hero. In the comic book, miserable office worker, Wesley Gibson finds out that his father, who he's never known, was the world's deadliest supervillain, and that being a world-class killer is hereditary... if it wasn't for a lifetime of being trained to be a total "pussy". Wesley ends up getting trained to be a ruthless costumed supervillain who can kill, maim, and destroy with no hesitation, or reason for that matter.

  The comic creates this world that mind-fucks you in the way The Matrix did. It makes you question things that you take for granted. The movie doesn't do any of that. In the movie, Wesley finds out that his father used to be a secret super assassin and he gets trained to be a "weapon of fate" as well. It's a much safer story. The hero is a hero, trained to kill, not trained to be a sociopath like he was in the comics. The movie is also really simple emotionally. It's an un-challenging action flick that employs impossible gimmicks ('bending' bullets?) and stylized adventure to make up for it's lack of emotional heft and intricate plotting. The comic was definitely a much more gripping tale, but it had the balls to be something that Hollywood would never touch with ten foot pole. Which explains why the movie is essentially nothing like it.

  Despite it's R rating, in comparison to the comic, the movie feels nothing if not sanitized. Having said all that, there's no denying that Wanted is an exceptionally well made movie that seems to have a firm handle on how to be slick and satisfying entertainment. From the ground up, it's a fantastically fun action movie. The visual style, the camera work, even the score is all bold and ambitious. It never reaches the genre-shattering heights of The Matrix, but it manages to infuse the feeling of originality back into the summer blockbuster formula. Even though it borrows heavily from a few other movies, and at the same time, is also an adaptation of a superior work of fiction, it still gels and runs smoothly. It's a finely tuned machine, right down to the pacing and dialog. Most of it ultimately amounts to nonsense, but it's clever nonsense. Not to mention fun.

  The movie walks a fine line though, it seems to be somewhat self-aware, but it's also not as clever as it'd like to think it is. I think "clever" might be overstating it a bit. It's more like... witty. Like the writers had seen Fight Club ten times in a row as inspiration before putting pen to paper. Not that I mind honestly. Wanted ends up feeling like it wants to be more than it is, and that's okay, because it's still head and shoulders above what's commonly considered mindless entertainment (i.e. Bad Boys II). It's like an aftermarket Tarantino/Rodriguez project. It has the style, the wit, and the flair, but none of the substance. It's escapist fantasy at best. If anything, it's never dull. I've seen it many times and it's definitely grown on me over the years.

  I'm trying to articulate something about it though that so far I've been unable to adequately put into words. It really does seem like it knocks off The Matrix and Fight Club, so it's definitely nowhere near as good as they are... but as a knock off of those two great movies, that does put it above the competition a bit. It's not precisely mindless, even though it asks you to suspense belief to the extent of believing bullets can curve. With nothing more than "What if nobody told you bullets fly straight?" as an explanation. There's no functional context for it. The Matrix had the perfect setting to pull out all the stops and do crazy stuff like dodging bullets and the like, but Wanted has nothing like that. It just is. You either accept it, or you don't. If you don't, you'll probably have a hard time enjoying the movie. It doesn't bother me that much, but it is pretty silly.

  All in all, come for badass James McAvoy (who's amazing facial expressions make the movie that much better) stay for the insane action sequences and escapist fantasy. No matter if you're reading the comic (which I wholeheartedly suggest you do, regardless) or if you're watching the movie... Wesley Gibson is a repressed office dork who undergoes a transformation into a ballsy über assassin. There's something so completely satisfying about that character arc. I think the appeal of Wanted lies in that little part of everyone who wishes they inherit a fortune someday from a dead relative they've never met. Only Wesley inherited superpowers and a knack for killing. Which is also incredibly cathartic. The whole movie is cathartic to be honest. It's not great, but it's great fun. I'd shell out money for a sequel if they ever do one. It's not like I haven't already shelled out money on the comic, the movie (on blu ray and in a collector's edition) the video game and the soundtrack. Bring on Wanted 2. I need me some more Badass James McAvoy.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A balls-to-the-wall classic

  I've been on a Doom-kick for a while now. I don't think it's one I ever get off of, because playing Doom to me is something I can do any time of the day, without really even thinking about it. It's not a game I ever get tired of. Yet I think that while this classic and genre-defining game is adequately revered, its also often taken for granted. Doom came out in 1993 and was largely distributed via mail order and shareware. Within two years of it's release, it was being played by approximately 10 million people. Keep in mind this was 1993. It was a trend setting title that played a huge part in the popularization of First Person Shooters. Yet all of that is bunk if you don't understand the appeal of Doom.

  It's simplicity contributes to it's longevity. You assume the role of a nameless space marine who's been punitively stationed on Mars, at a research facility. The scientists there have been researching teleportation technologies and have accidentally opened a portal to hell. Out come the demon hordes, possessing all the other marines and unleashing swarms of monsters straight from the pit. The game arms you to the teeth with a veritable arsenal of ass-kicking firepower. From classic guns like the shotgun and a pistol, to more formidable weapons like a chaingun and a "BFG". As you progress, you're faced with increasing difficulty but also the means to feel like a badass in the midst of chaos.

  Therein lies it's appeal. It's a perfect way to blow off steam, or kill time. It's like Tetris or snake, but less monotonous. The sound effects, the level design, the weapons, and the break-neck pace of the gameplay all make Doom a classic that could've only been made in it's own era. They essentially tried to remake it with Doom 3 in 2004, but this kind of backfired. That game had many elements that the genre had grown accustomed to over the years, such as a PDA for the player, a flashlight, and many other little things that along with it's shift in tone to a much more claustrophobic and creepier play style, stripped Doom 3 of the things that made it's predecessors so easy to pick up and play.

  As a result, the community of gamers around the originals, Doom, Doom II, and Final Doom, has hardly waned. It's been re-released countless times on nearly every popular gaming console to date. Fans have made custom levels, mods, and almost entirely new games out of and for Doom. Some mods seek to update it, and make it look as nice as possible, while others simply seek to enhance the gameplay. A mod I've been particularly fond of lately, is called Brutal Doom and it certainly lives up to it's name and then some. It's playable on all three original games, and as if Doom was a volume knob, it cranks it up past the point of reason. Guns have more kick, fire louder, the animations are smoother. Enemies can be dismembered. Feel free to paint the walls in blood as you're now able to kick corpses around and perform fatalities.

  Mods and things like Brutal Doom are a huge part of why Doom is still so popular and ever successful. You can play it vanilla and it's still a blast. Or you can load it up with tweaks, mods, and custom levels, and keep the fun going. I can't wait to see what this community will come up with next. Such is the love for classic Doom that people have remade it "properly" from scratch. Billed as the Doom Remake, it seeks to update classic Doom with graphics from the mid-2000's. This update of sorts is quickly dwarfed by Classic Doom 3; a mod for Doom 3 which remakes the first several levels of the original Doom, with all the spiffy graphics and special effects of Doom 3. Which... is pretty awesome. Though at this point, Brutal Doom is just the pinnacle of any sort of mod or remake.

  Thus, my Doom-kick has brought me here. Thought not before having me suffer through the 2005 movie of the same name. It wasn't long before I was back to playing the game, and realizing just how good it really is, and after 22 years even. Nevertheless, while this post hasn't necessarily been a review, I hope it's a decent reminder that this game is still amazing and the community around it is full of new gizmos and mods for you to try out on it and come up with a whole new experience. It doesn't get much better than this. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some demon guts to go 'rip and tear'...

A Doomed effort

  Doom plays like it was made by a team of guys who played the game for 5 minutes when they were younger, grew up and thought, "Oh hey, remember that one game with guns and monsters?" and then the second guy was like, "Wasn't it on Mars?" Then they collectively decided to make it a movie, starring The Rock. If only you could hear my long sigh just now, it would've summed up my thoughts on this flick quite nicely for you. On the flip side, this movie might be serviceable to someone who has either never played the game, or has no knowledge of it. However, if you're a fan of the games, you should have been in the prime target audience for this movie. Yet sadly, us fans are the first people it alienates.

  The movie also seems to exist solely for people who've never seen any other sci-horror/action movies. It borrows so much from Aliens, Resident Evil, and Predator that you wonder why they didn't even try to borrow from the game which it's based on. Because the video game, Doom, isn't really like any of those movies. I don't know why I'm shocked honestly. I think Super Mario Bros. the movie had more in common with it's own game than this movie did. Hell, Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, and all their sequels were more like the games they were based on than Doom is anything like it's source material. I will concede that I have so far only been referring to the '93 video game and it's sequel, Doom II: Hell on Earth. This movie in fact actually shares a bit of likeness with the 2004 video game, Doom 3.

  That's not a good thing though. See, even fans of Doom and Doom II had a hard time accepting Doom 3 for what it was. Why? Because Doom (and Doom II) were balls-out action games in a horror setting. You were loaded to the teeth with guns and ammo, and you had to mow your way through legions of demons and possessed soldiers. The game is a non-stop gorefest. It's nasty, it's in your face, and it's insanely fast paced. Doom 3 is a survival horror game with jump scares and bad guys here and there. Doom and Doom II had waves and waves and waves of enemies after you, but they also gave you the hardware to feel like you could handle it. They made you feel like a badass. Doom 3 doesn't really do that. You never feel like you're on the winning side, unfortunately.

  Point being is that, in order for Doom, the movie, to be remotely worth watching it needed to be like the first two games. It needed to be wall-to-wall gore, satanic imagery, and non-stop action. Instead, it modeled itself after Doom 3 and became a ripoff of every other sci-horror/action movie that's ever managed to be competent in the slightest. Does this make Doom a bad movie? Well, yes and no. Is it original? No. Smartly written? No. However, it is very competently made. From the creature effects, to the camera work, the cinematography, and the industrial rock soundtrack- it all coalesces to make a rather entertaining flick, in a mind numbing way. It's mediocre at best, but not awful.

  It's saved from being a total waste by a number of things. First and fore-fucking-most... Karl Goddamn Urban. This man has saved many a shitfest from being total wastes of time. (Cough. Pathfinder. Cough.) Karl Urban plays a member of the RRTS (Rapid Response Tactical Squad), a group of marines who've been called to a research facility on Mars, to 'deal with' a "level 5 threat". The Rock (I refuse to refer to him as Dwayne Johnson in any movie pre-Fast Five) plays the leader of this team, affectionately dubbed, "Sarge". How original. That's his actual call sign too. It's not just a nickname. Anyhow, if you're not seeing the gi-normous likeness to Aliens yet, you're either dumb, or you haven't seen Aliens. In which case you should stop reading this review right now and go watch Aliens. You'll thank me later.

  If you're still here, and you know what I'm on about, you'll know why this is super annoying. The plot of the game for Doom had a better story, and it was tailor made for the big screen too. The game has a marine, punitively stationed to a research facility on Mars (the most boring assignment imaginable) for disobeying an order to fire on civilians. Whilst there, the resident scientists, who've been experimenting with teleporter technology accidentally open a portal... to Hell. Literal Hell. The actual Hell. Not the figurative "this place is hell" Hell that the movie keeps teasing us with. Oh, yeah. I forgot to point out, the creatures in the movie aren't from Hell. They're not demons. They're mutated people who've been infected with a Martian virus that makes good people... superhuman, and bad people... super bad-er?

  It mutates them into various creatures and blah blah blah. At that point, finding all this out, the movie had lost me. Not that it didn't have me checking my watch before that, but it was bearable, to an extent. They stripped everything that makes Doom... Doom away from it. The only other highlight of the movie worth mentioning, is the First Person Shooter sequence. Once Karl Urban goes superhuman, the film's perspective literally shifts to First Person, and we're treated to a rather awesome action sequence shown entirely through his eyes. Shooting zombies, monsters, and fending off a neat looking creature with a chainsaw in a rather bloody showdown. It's a great freaking scene. The only great scene. Shit, the only good scene in my opinion.

  Karl Urban's stoic glare and natural aire of badassery go a long way towards making any scene with him in it watchable, but not even he can make this a great movie. His talents were put to the best use in 2012's Dredd. Anyways, Doom makes so many rookie errors, and if you think too hard it'll leave you with the stupidest questions. What's the different between a code red lockdown, and a level 5 lockdown? Do they rank by colors... or numbered levels? Why do they flip flop between the terms? Did I miss something? If they're in a level red code 5 lockdown... why are all the lights off? Wouldn't it make more sense to have the lights... on? So nobody trips or dies trying to evacuate or get to safety? Sure it'd sacrifice the half-assed "atmosphere" the filmmakers were going for, but who gives a shit? I want to -see- the monsters.

  The first two games didn't do this crap. Everything was thrown at you to your face. Once in a blue moon you'd run into a dark room, or a hallway with flickering lights. That was scary. But if the whole game was dark like that, it would've been an abortion! Kind of like... the movie. Ah... Not like we're seeing a pattern here or anything. If the movie was more like the game, it'd be awesome. Since it's not, we're left with a mixed bag. Surprisingly, I'm not ready to sentence this flick to death. Maybe it's childhood nostalgia? Or maybe it's because I've seen it so many times, I'd be embarrassed to tell you the actual amount of times I've seen it. Even though it's been a while... I scared myself because I knew all the lines.

  Ultimately no, Doom may be unoriginal and a terrible Doom movie, but it's an okay movie on it's own right. If you have no affinity for the game, Doom might be worth a watch on a Saturday afternoon if you're really curious. The flashy special effects and nicely realized set design go a long way towards making it at the least, watchable. It's not completely bad, and in it's best moments, is even a little fun. But those moments are rare. The Rock's facial expressions are fun. His big video game-y gun, is fun. Karl Urban being a badass is fun. Stumbling around in the dark with the least likeable group of space marines ever to hit the big screen... is not so much fun. So yeah, Doom is a mixed bag for those who don't care about the games. But for us fans of the game, Doom is a travesty. Yet I still find excuses to watch it every five years...

 It makes no sense, and I've been brutally honest about this movie, yet... I can't understand why I like this movie, but strangely enough I do.

Go figure.

  Could it be just because it's a slick and well packaged movie? Right down to the photoshopped DVD cover, that manages to be eye catching and cool looking, yet detestable in it's lack of effort or imagination. Much like the movie itself. I still like the movie against ALL my better judgment, but I can't say I actually ever enjoy it all that much. If that makes no sense whatsoever, don't worry about it. Just know that there's a scene in this movie where the marines are slowly walking through a dark corridor, and a steam pipe or something pops loose, scaring one of them so badly, he shoots at it. If that sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it a billion times in every movie ever.

  In fact, it might just be the scariest scene in the movie because you have to think... someone wrote that. Someone had to direct it, someone had to act it out, and someone had to leave it in the movie. There's nothing scarier than that.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bone-cracking fun

  Anyone who's seen my movie collections know that I have sections devoted entirely to the kind of movie that Out For Justice is. It's good old fashioned balls-to-the-wall action. Out for Justice isn't a Die Hard, or a Lethal Weapon. It's hero isn't a Dirty Harry, or a Snake Plissken , but instead belongs to the onslaught of aftermarket action heroes who had their glorious 15 minutes of fiery fame. Steven Seagal plays New York cop, Gino Felino. Despite the fact he sounds like a guy who might open a sandwich shop, he's an okay action hero. He punches bad guys and waves his gun around, giving lectures to criminals who're too dense to listen. Why does he keep doing this? So he'll have an excuse to flip them on their ass when he's done.

  Gino does a lot of that in this movie. Since just about everyone he meets is a criminal, or a scumbag in general, just about everyone in this movie gets flipped on their ass. I would've tried to count, but it would've been a count that I'd have quickly lost track of. In short, Seagal kicks all the ass. When he's not kicking ass, he's making his rounds through the streets and the 'neighborhoods', trying to find the guy who offed his buddy, Bobby. Yes, there is a plot! Amazingly, it's of little consequence though. We hear "This guy killed Bobby!" about several dozen times and then Seagal is off to track down a rather pathetic looking William Forsythe who's trying his hardest to seem psychotic, but you know... the scary movie villain kind of psychotic. Not the generic kind of psychotic.

  Unfortunately, despite lots of violent theatrics, he just ends up seeming like the generic kind of psychotic. Nevertheless, the paper thin set up has Seagal cranking out lines like... "Just give me an unmarked and a shotgun and let me do this my way." Which is awesome. I mean, it's just awesome. Any more with a headlining action star is just a vehicle to see him kick ass. That's all Out for Justice is. It's a "hard-hitting" action movie that was probably billed as "the most exciting movie you'll see all summer!", along with a dozen other shoot-em-up flicks at the same time. I'm trying to make a point, but it's sort of self defeating.

  Out for Justice isn't a good movie... but it's a good Steven Seagal movie. It belongs to that cluster of movies that action junkies like, but aren't exactly great movies on their own merits. Out for Justice has lots of dialog heavy scenes that don't really go anywhere. Characters are introduced and then dropped just as fast. There's mobs and gangsters and nightclubs galore. We're just here to see Gino navigate this dangerous maze of criminals and psychopaths with his soft-spoken trash talking and his martial arts. It's akin to a video game. There's a bar fight level, a night club level, a streets level, and in each level there's a batch of bad guys for him to fight. Ultimately every action movie boils down to a similar formula, but it's the ones like this that make that formula so obvious.

  You come for the action, you stay for more action. Steven Seagal never had a Terminator, or a Rambo. He never had, to me, that one iconic role that would elevate him above movies like this. Not to say that for what it is, it doesn't do it's job, and does it well at that. It's just standard in every other regard possible. Yet it has some memorable and remarkable action scenes, and some funny moments in general. Gino rescues a puppy thrown away by some dickwad, and it's a cute scene. Throughout the movie, the dog is sort of just, around now and then. It's a cute touch, and somewhat unexpected in such a tough-guy flick. Yet still, the highlights of this movie is like... that one punch here, or that shotgun blast there. Those "Oh SHIT!" moments when Seagal pulls off some crazy stunt that looks super cool.

  That's all this movie's good for. But it IS good for it. No action junkie could turn down Out for Justice on a lazy Saturday night in. I had a lot of fun with it. I'd probably watch it again sometime. It's fun. And honestly, isn't that all these movies really need to be? Just... fun. Mindless, simple, punch-em-in-the-balls... fun. I love these kinds of movie. They're arcade game nonsense, but they're entertaining and well made. Slick, stylized, simplicity. The stories are usually irrelevant, but that's okay. It's all about the punching, kicking, and shooting. Stuff blows up real well, not unlike Stone Cold, Raw Deal, and Rapid Fire. If you enjoy movies with titles like those, you'll undoubtedly enjoy Out for Justice.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Simply unholy

  Being a fan of the character, and at least the three OVAs that have been released, I was excited to find out that a live action Devilman movie had been made. The first warning sign should've been that I'd never heard about it before... and it was made in 2004. The second warning sign probably should've stopped me in my tracks, but no- the painfully low imdb score didn't deter me either. The trailer looked so cool, and well, the OVAs were friggin awesome, so how bad could this really be? I think the movie took that question as a challenge. Although I love Asian cinema (to an extent) I'm not really familiar with a lot of their actors and celebrities, so it's not like I could've offered up casting ideas on who should've played these characters but according to people who seem to know better, they only cast celebrities based on pretty faces, and to hell with acting talent. From what I've seen... I think this was definitely the case. Oh man...

  At first glance, things aren't so bad. The movie seemed to follow the story I knew more or less. I was genuinely excited to see how things went. Well, they went... bad. Fast. In the OVA (and the manga as far as I know) the main character, a young highschooler named Akira, is pulled into a plot to battle demons by his friend Ryo. See, Ryo's dad died trying to implement his theory that a person with a pure heart could 'merge' with a demon and take control of it's powers and strength whilst still remaining in control with a human heart. So Ryo proposed this plan to Akira, the most pure hearted person he knew. Akira agreed, after seeing proof of the demon horde's existence. Eventually, the plan worked, turning Akira into the super powered demon-killing machine, Devilman. HOWEVER, in the movie, Ryo takes Akira back to his house and tells Akira that his Dad turned into a demon and that he's one too. He asks Akira to kill him, and then... I dunno, Akira sorta just merges with a random demon on the spot?

  It was so underwhelming. For one, in the original story, there was purpose and a real drive behind Akira's transformation into Devilman. In this movie, it just sorta... happens. In the original story, they had to elaborately prepare for him to merge with a demon, even setting up a ritual and finding the right location. Again, in this one, it happens on the spot in Ryo's house. Like... what the hell? Then Akira just sorta... feels the urge to find an enemy so he can fight, and this demon bird lady shows up and says he should remember her. He's like, nope, sorry. So she flies him back to Ryo's house to jog his memory. He's like, still nope, sorry. I kid you not, she then says, fine, we'll fight. I have no idea what's even happening! Except that's not entirely true. I saw the OVAs remember?

  According to the OVAs, the demons are after Akira because the demon he merged with was basically the ultimate hero of the demon horde, and they want Akira dead so they can reclaim their hero. This is where the demon bird lady came in- in the second OVA. Akira's merging with the demon Amon was wrapped around a massive climatic action scene of it's own in the first OVA, involving a nightclub full of people who'd been turned into demons. It was long, brutal, gory, and jaw-droppingly cool. Since they changed the circumstances surrounding his merge in the movie, that scene is entirely absent. Thus, they skip right into the story of the second OVA. It feels like a slap to the face, and a major hack job to boot. The demon bird lady fight, which was the major show-stopping battle of the second OVA, is reduced to a lame two-three minute skirmish, followed by a ton more padding.

  This movie is a full-ass two hours. It would feel long even at 90 minutes. Anyways... then Akira encounters another villain from the second OVA. This encounter was terrifying and super important in the OVA, but in the movie, Devilman defeats this creature with one punch, and moves on like nothing happened. So you can see, the movie has a trend of taking the best, coolest moments from the pre-existing stories and completely dulling them down to nothing. Certainly nothing worth watching. If there are any other movies I can compare this to, it would probably be Spawn, and The Last Airbender. Spawn manages to be a better movie surprisingly/not-surprisingly. Better casting, better acting, better effects, it's short, and has a more coherent story. Comparing it to The Last Airbender makes even more sense, and on a whole nother level too. Both are adapted from amazing source material, and both manage to suck all the fun and creativity out of the concept, leaving us with a flashy looking- yet ultimately lifeless hunk of celluloid.

  If the comparison to The Last Airbender wasn't enough for you, or if you didn't loathe that movie (as you should), consider this...

  There is an infamous moment in the manga and the OVAs in which one of the main characters is brutally slain. It's a gut wrenching moment that is hard to look at, and even harder to accept it even happened. When Akira finds the culprits, he 'hulks' out and eviscerates them- then taking the time to grieve on the spot for his fallen friend. In the OVA you can FEEL his anguish. His screams are devastated and I had to cover my mouth because I could feel myself on the verge of unleashing some manly tears too. Yet... this same moment, brought to life with REAL people... ends up completely inert. Akira sorta kinda yells? I mean, Stallone yells better than this brat when his friends die in movies. Apollo Creed in Rocky IV? The chick in First Blood Pt.II? This kid just looked mildly annoyed, and sounded like he was trying to scare a mouse away. The actor was supposed to be reacting to the sight of the decapitated head... but it looked like he was reacting to a shocking tabloid headline instead.

The most devastating thing about the scene was how painfully underwhelming it was to the point of eliciting hopeless laughter from me. I wasn't laughing because it was funny, I was laughing because I realized how utterly bad this movie was. I wanted to like it. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to. I wanted to walk away from this movie and say, this was actually fun. Maybe it could've been on par with Spawn, as a guilty pleasure? No, just... no. It's entirely devoid of merit. It's just plain bad. So bad. So very very bad. Bad. Super bad. It's super bad man. Totally bad. Save yourself. HOWEVER.. I do urge you to check out the OVAs. They're friggin amazing.

The 007 Marathon

  The marathon is over! All 23 James Bond 007 movies. The holidays tripped me up towards the last bit of December here, but my goal of finishing before new years has been reached. It's been surreal to say the least and I'm rather sad the whole thing is over. I've watched a lot of these with friends and family, and I've had a lot of fun. My list of favorite James Bond movies is due to be officially revised any day now, and that was one of my goals, indirectly. I wanted to take an objective look back at the characters and the franchise. See where they've been, and see where they're going. Bond has had his good years and his bad years. Too many of his better films are still underrated, while some of the worst ones have an army of apologists ready to defend it.

  I definitely have some new favorites, and I've had a blast with this whole ordeal. Would I do it again? Sure. It was an excuse to sit through the bad ones, and a perfect reason to reevaluate the good ones.... and now I am done. Itching to get back to other movies and such! Nevertheless, I feel a much bigger appreciation for everyone's favorite MI6 agent having done this. It's been something to remember. I hope you've enjoyed taking this journey with me, given that I've posted -only- 007 reviews since November. Thanks for reading!

  1. Dr.No
  2. From Russia With Love
  3. Goldfinger
  4. Thunderball
  5. You Only Live Twice
  6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
  7. Diamonds are Forever
  8. Live and Let Die
  9. The Man With the Golden Gun
  10. The Spy Who Loved Me
  11. Moonraker
  12. For Your Eyes Only
  13. Octopussy
  14. A View To A Kill
  15. The Living Daylights
  16. Licence to Kill
  17. GoldenEye
  18. Tomorrow Never Dies
  19. The World is Not Enough
  20. Die Another Day
  21. Casino Royale
  22. Quantum of Solace
  23. Skyfall

Now For Something Different...

*For the final review of my 007 Marathon, I've decided to do something a little different. For Skyfall, I approached a good friend of mine who runs a great movie review blog over at Movie Curiosities to do a 'tag-team' review on it. Check out his blog as well, and enjoy the review!

  Skyfall, the 23rd 007 movie, takes a chapter from the Connery era reminding us what we loved about a good classic spy caper. However, at the same time, it inhabits the world that Casino Royale laid out for the current Bond. The bad guys these days aren't the megalomaniacs of old. As M says, in one of the best scenes in the movie, "I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They're not nations, they're individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No! Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque! It's in the shadows.-", "-ask yourselves, how safe do you feel?" The scene is not only addressing the fictional world in which the characters exist in, but also how we view villains for real.

  It bears remembering that the 007 franchise grew primarily in the '60s and '70s, periods that now seem laughably campy in retrospect. Furthermore, Bond himself is clearly a product of the Cold War, which is now thankfully long gone. Making a statement to prove why James Bond is still relevant in the 21st century was a very smart move, especially for the series' 50th anniversary.

 Absolutely. It’s also something they should’ve done for the 20th movie, which just so happens to be Die Another Day; A movie that, to me, is pretty relevant to Skyfall. The villains of this era are desperate and dangerous. They're scary. Bond villain Silva captures this perfectly, and Javier Bardem brings him to life with such flair and gusto. Of course, as an ex-agent, Silva is cut from the same cloth as Bond, he knows MI6 inside and out. Bond himself could have been in his place very easily. In fact, he was. In Die Another Day, Bond was abandoned to the enemy. How much scarier is it to think that our 'maladjusted' hero could've easily been the villain in someone else's narrative?  Unfortunately Die Another Day chose not to do anything interesting with that plot thread and without time to waste, once again reduced Bond to a smattering of cliches, smirks, and raised eyebrows. Skyfall holds up Silva as a mirror to Bond, showing us exactly what Die Another Day could've been. Clearly, it could've been a much better movie. Which is exactly what Skyfall is.

  Sorry, I know I'm in the minority on this, but I thought that Silva was pretty much entirely salvaged by Javier Bardem's performance. Silva's motivation from start to finish was to take revenge against M, which seems rather petty for a Bond villain. It would have been something very different if Silva expanded his rage to MI6 or to England, out to take revenge against the organization and the country that left him to rot. But no, Silva makes it clear that he's only after M. Bardem does a fantastic job of selling the character's mania, and he wreaks some major havoc with the purpose of making M look bad before he kills her, but he still comes off as so small-minded for a Bond villain.

  I disagree. I think his small-mindedness was actually a product of how he was trained as an MI6 agent. Even going rogue, and launching a big plan just to get revenge seems completely within the mental and emotional parameters that I can imagine MI6’s psychological conditioning would’ve instilled. He’s a product of Queen and country, for better or worse. "Blunt instruments" like Bond and Silva seem to have been trained to focus on singular targets, often to detrimental results. Just look at the opening of Casino Royale, which had Bond storming an embassy just to kill one bomb maker.

  Fair enough. Anyway, this really is M's story as much as it is Bond's. Both characters have to deal with all the death and destruction they're responsible for, both have to justify their continued existence in a world that seems to have outgrown their methods, and both have to balance their personal feelings and flaws with their duty to the greater good. It all adds up to a fantastic send-off for Judi Dench and a worthy tribute to her treatment of M as a de facto mother figure for Bond.
Incidentally, watching the movie a second time, I realized that Ralph Fiennes' Mallory character takes a bullet for M during a shootout. That's a hell of a way to pass the torch.

  Oh definitely. I noticed that this time as well, as everyone else on the council was ducking, Mallory was leaping to M’s aide. Impressive no matter what the context. But yeah, aside from operating in the very grounded and frightening world of post-9/11 espionage and murder that Casino Royale introduced, Skyfall also infuses this ongoing reboot of 007 with much-missed elements from yesteryear. Firstly, the sense of humor is on point. There are plenty of moments in Skyfall that make me laugh, but it's not the brand of in-your-face silliness that's plagued the franchise in the past. It's smartly written dialogue, and clever moments that flow with the scene and the characters. In their effort to bring back classic elements, there's a fantastic scene in which Bond makes a quip about the 'company cars' and reveals he still has an Aston Martin DB5. Which is, for those of you who don't know, is the car from Goldfinger. M remarks that it's not very comfortable, and Bond hovers his finger over a very familiar little red button...
"Oh, go on, then, eject me. See if I care." She snaps. Bond then smirks as they drive away. Probably the most obvious example of it's nostalgic mentality and of it's wittiness. It's also a perfect example of how well it works.

  Easily one of this film's greatest strengths is in how it recognizes the Bond cliches of yesteryear without being beholden to them. Q finally appears, but the gadgets that he offers are quite sensible and useful in a variety of situations, unlike the gadgets that could only be useful in some laughably specific predicament (the glass-shattering ring from Die Another Day springs to mind). And of course he asks Bond to try and bring the equipment back in one piece, but the delivery of that line makes it clear that Q is only saying it as a formality.

  It also bears mentioning that Q is now a much younger man, which makes perfect sense given the younger generation of tech geniuses today. Also, Ben Whishaw plays the character in a sort of quiet and contemplative way that contrasts brilliantly with 007. Even better, Q is no longer some recluse who only shows up long enough to dispense the weaponry -- Q uses his computer know-how to play an active role in guiding Bond and tracking Silva.

  By a similar token, it was an absolutely genius move to introduce the new Moneypenny in the opening action sequence. Right off the bat, it's immediately shown that this is a love interest who could be a worthy field partner for Bond if he really needed her. She's a love interest who's an equal to Bond and a black woman, neither of which could have been possible in the sexist and racist years of Bond's heyday. Couple that with sizzling chemistry between Craig and Naomie Harris, and this is a fantastic update for a classic Bond character.

  Definitely. An update that was long overdue if you ask me. Some people have complained about the Daniel Craig era of Bond being 'too rigid' or 'too serious'. Well, I beg to differ. It's well-rounded entertainment. Moreover, it's good James Bond, period. The movie's message of "sometimes the old ways are the best." is not lost on a fan like me. Bond hasn't turned into an aftermarket Jason Bourne yet. The exotic locations still have that spy thriller flair to them, the women are still tragic and ill-fated characters, and the action scenes are still incredible. From the opening chase scene, which involves motorbikes, cars, a train, and a digger, to a claustrophobic fist fight in a casino in Macau, all the action scenes are top shelf stuff. They still manage to wow and impress in an era so desensitized to high flying stunts and elaborate choreography.

  Don't forget the camerawork. Roger Deakins is a master cinematographer and the visuals in this movie are absolutely superb from start to finish. I'm particularly fond of the fistfight with Patrice (the assassin played by Ola Rapace), done in silhouette while the lights of downtown Shanghai dance around them and reflect off all the glass surfaces. Jaw-dropping stuff.
I'll absolutely agree with you that the action scenes are amazing, though the underwater fight scene during the climax is terribly underrated. It's notoriously difficult to stage underwater action in a way that's technically feasible and safe for the actors, but that scene manages it in a way that sells the danger and looks incredible. The pit fight at Macau is a weak point, however; it's hard to get too invested when the Gila monsters look so laughably fake.

  Although they weren’t that distracting to me, I can see how that could take someone out of the movie. But I’m definitely gonna agree with you about that underwater fight sequence. In fact, that whole scene looks simply gorgeous. Visually, it’s stunning, and I think that adds a layer to the fighting and running around that many other movies lack. Another example is the scene you mentioned a bit ago, Bond’s fight with Patrice. Simply fantastic stuff. This whole movie is eye candy, without being insulting to the audience’s intelligence. Far too many Michael Bay apologists claim his movies are simply “eye candy”, yeah well so is Skyfall. It’s also not stupid though. So there’s that.

  Getting back to the love interests, I find it interesting to note that this is the third straight Bond film in which a sympathetic Bond girl dies tragically. Of course, Bond girls are expendable by definition, but Berenice Marlohe's character was just awful all around. Paper-thin, terribly acted, and disposed of without consequence just as soon as her limited contribution to the plot has been fulfilled.

  I can agree with that to an extent. Even Ms. Fields from Quantum of Solace was a highlight of the film; Severine was nothing of the sort. However terrible this may sound… I’m actually glad she died. Because if she hadn’t she would’ve been a useless tag-along like Olga Kurylenko was in the previous film. If that wasn’t the case, she would’ve disappeared from the movie, alive, but only given a throwaway line to resolve her sub-plot. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, she was just a plot device. A tragic one at that, but one that bothers me less each time I see the movie.

Nevertheless, Bond's trademark swagger is in full gear here. The 007 theme creeps into the score every now and then at just the right moment, and it gave me a fantastic feeling. He's back. Not just Daniel Craig, or James Bond, but Ian Fleming's James Bond 007... is back. This feels like a sequel to Goldfinger or From Russia With Love. It captures that classic spy thriller atmosphere, whilst maintaining the modern elements that have saved James Bond from becoming an antiquated dinosaur. It does all this while making Moneypenny a black woman, Q a young man, and Bond a man capable of anger and making mistakes.

  I'd argue that the title theme helped a lot with that as well. Adele has built her career on soulful performances with a retro style and a modern attitude, which is exactly the blend that this newest Bond era was built on. Her song, in tandem with the classic Bond theme, form the perfect foundation for this film. It's hard to imagine a better fit, though I'd be interested to hear the similarly retro-minded Bruno Mars give one of the sequels a try.

  That would’ve been pretty neat actually, and of course, I’m in total agreement about the title theme. Adele was indeed perfect for this. And speaking of perfect, this is the perfect end cap to a trilogy of movies that sought to update and redefine what James Bond could mean to us in this day and age. Casino Royale was a huge bold step in the right direction, shedding almost all affiliation with the "old" notion of 007, but Skyfall reminds us that sometimes... some of the old ways are still good. Still usable. Still the best. As long as you handle with care, it's okay to take the DB5 out of the garage for a spin every now and then.

  The film is solid (albeit flawed), and it's exciting to think that after three movies, James Bond is back in his prime like never before. The sky's the limit with the franchise at this point, and I'm thrilled to see where MGM and Sony take 007 from here. Personally, based on what I've seen and heard so far, I have every reason to believe that they'll continue to honor the character's past while blazing a new trail.
To paraphrase the series' new M, "Good luck, Mr. Bond. Don't cock it up."

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tragic, though not in a good way

  *Given that I actually reviewed Quantum of Solace, publishing it backdated, about two months ago, well before I started this 007 marathon, some portions of this review will be taken from this review. Simply because I feel like that review almost perfectly captured my feelings on the movie, which have barely changed since. However, given that part of my objective with this, and with any, big marathon is to update one's views on a movie. Watching all of the 007 movies in release order has given me a unique perspective on them, which extends into Daniel Craig's era as well. So I have written fresh material for this review which delves into my thoughts on how this one stacks up against the others, what it takes from them, and what it avoids.

  After the massive hit that was Casino Royale, people were eager to see how Daniel Craig would handle another go-round as the eponymous James Bond. Was he a one hit wonder? Was the appeal of his brand of 007 all but gone? Well, when Quantum of Solace hit the screens in 2008, everyone got their answers. For better or worse... The good at least? Daniel Craig was still a damn effective James Bond. The movie around him? ...Not so much. Quantum of Solace plays more as a direct sequel to Casino Royale than anything. Though you'd be forgiven for not keeping up on current events, Quantum of Solace is haphazardly plotted and only seems to really care about it's predecessor in a couple standout moments. Otherwise... it's only a shadow of Casino Royale. Let me break it down for you.

  First, I said in my review of the previous movie- a Bond movie's strength should be able to be determined by whether or not you can market the film entirely around the villain. In that case, let's look at the villain. Dominic Green is the chief bad guy this time, played with gusto by Mathieu Almaric. Unfortunately, this guy is about as interesting as a cardboard cutout. His unique Bond villain endgame is to control 60% of the water in Bolivia so that he can like... I dunno. Swindle then out of paying double for water. So... evil. And yes, while it is evil, it falls flat in a 007 movie. The guy himself has none of the on-screen presence of a proper villain, and comes across more like a greedy business mogul than anything. He has no unique traits about him, and all in all is uninteresting.

  Marketing the movie around him would've been disastrous. He's horribly boring as a character, as a villain, and doubly so in the wake of the profoundly sinister, Le Chiffre from Casino Royale. That's just one issue with this movie. There are plenty more. Secondly, things just seem to kinda... happen? The story is muddy, and the plot is too. Not to mention the Bond girl is entirely dead weight. She actually contributes nothing to the actual story aside from just tagging alongside Bond for the last act of the movie. Compared to how absolutely crucial Vesper Lynd was, this is just criminally disappointing. The movie seems content to be technically competent and only technically competent as he plot is advanced with one bloody action set piece after the next.

  This is wrong. This is a bad formula. Bond should not be reduced to being Jason Bourne in a suit. He has his own brand of suspense and danger, one that is only glimpsed here is a few scenes. Otherwise there is little to separate Quantum of Solace from being an entry in any action franchise. This is the first 007 movie to feature a foot chase, car chase, boat chase AND plane chase. Yet does this abundance of action make for a good movie? No. Solace is thematically weak, and stylishly inept. Director Marc Forster makes some mind bogglingly bad choices here, visually. Cutting to superfluous footage during action scenes, horrible shaky cam, and specific instructions to Almaric to not make any attempts to give his character any memorable visual attributes.

  On top of these issues, the first rough draft of the script was completed right before the writer's strike. It got so bad that Daniel Craig himself would have to re-write scenes, dialog, and even write entire new pages, on the set. It really shows too that the script was sort of thrown together. It's the kind of weak blockbuster formula of fill in plot holes with action scenes. Also, I've yet to find a movie with Olga Kurylenko in which her character has any intrinsic value to the movie itself, at all. Craig's character has little to do besides get shuffled along and swept up with the lackluster insanity around him. Aside from a promising opening, which is properly thrilling, Bond himself is wasted.

  The character we saw built up in Casino Royale has been hopelessly reduced to something with the emotional dimensions of an action figure. Daniel Craig must be commended though because you can see him trying to act right through the confines of this script. The direction was dire, but Craig tried very hard to breathe life into 007 again. And lucky for us too because we eventually got Skyfall, which was a superior effort in every way imaginable.  I cannot fully recommend against Quantum of Solace, because if you've seen all the James Bond films, you know they can get much worse than this. If anything, it scrapes by just enough on a wink and a bullet to be marginally entertaining.

  Watching it this time, I think I actually respect it a bit more. Olga's character may have no direct ties to the plot, but she makes an interesting foil for Bond. Her backstory has led her to a situation which directly mirrors Bond's. It may all be paper thin and underdeveloped, but it interesting on a superficial level. Also interesting, and on anything but a superficial level, was a scene in which another Bond girl turns up dead. The manner of her demise was a visual throwback to Goldfinger, which isn't clever or anything. It's just another nod that these movies keep doing. However, the scene around the girl's death was actually fantastic. M is there, and she has a dialog with 007 about his charms with women, and how it always turns out badly.

  In any number of previous iterations, a dialog like this could've been played for jokes believe it or not. It would've been an off the cuff remark and had the characters shuffling along to the next scene. I won't pretend that they managed any lasting effect after this one or two minute scene, because it was over and that was that, but... it did point out something which is largely skirted around in these movies. Bond is a deadly person to know whether you're an enemy or a lover. Especially if you're a lover. They might treat this as a tragic part of his character now, yet one can't help but wonder if there wasn't (as a friend of mine put it) an 'ugly misogynistic center' behind this at one point in the franchise. The movie grapples with this idea in a few short moments, which is altogether too brief, but it's also a few moments more than you'd find in any other Bond movie.

  In retrospect, the movie isn't that bad. It's certainly in the lowest tier of Bond movies, but despite the forgettable villain, the action scenes are on fire. They're directed with confidence and style, ending up being one of the sole highlights of the movie. However this does present a dilemma. This was to be the movie that wraps up the rather emotional loose ends from Casino Royale. It does this... almost as an afterthought. Instead of continuing with the tone and feel of the previous movie, this feels like a gritty throwback to GoldenEye. Which feels largely out of place and uncomfortable in the Daniel Craig era of Bond movies. The movie carts 007 around from one rapid-fire action scene to the next. Even the interludes seem intense and always fast-moving. There's no time to breath, and in a movie like this, we needed it.

  Nevertheless, I must give credit where it is indeed due. The camera manages to capture beautiful locales, stunning action sequences, and even some moments which teeter on artistic beauty. I'm willing to give them that much. Despite the fact the movie is a terribly disappointing misfire, it's a pretty looking one nonetheless. I suppose this movie works about as well as a car wreck. Something you can't take your eyes off of even though you really should look away. It's sleek visual style is somewhat captivating. It's sort of like the fact that anything in extreme slow motion is interesting to look at. Whether it's a water balloon being popped, a fly landing on a table, or someone falling off a bicycle. To watch the intricacies of such things, whether they are mundane or painful ends up being fascinating. I am hesitant to call Quantum of Solace fascinating per se, but it pays close attention to the mundane, and ends up being painful. Take that for what you will.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Best of Bond

  *Given that I actually watched Casino Royale about two months ago, well before I started this 007 marathon, some portions of this review will be taken from this review I published at the beginning of the year. Simply because I feel like that review almost perfectly captured my feelings on the movie, which have barely changed since. However, given that part of my objective with this, and with any, big marathon is to update one's views on a movie. Watching all of the 007 movies in release order has given me a unique perspective on them, which extends into Daniel Craig's era as well. So I have written fresh material for this review which delves into my thoughts on how this one stacks up against the others, what it takes from them, what it avoids, and why it's simply... the best.

  In the several year gap between Die Another Day, and Casino Royale, the powers that be decided that Bond would need to go in a different direction. The "Bond formula" so to speak, had become woefully predictable. The movies themselves weren't strong enough to shoulder the weight of the in-your-face innuendo, the incessant bedroom scenes, and the tired utterances of "Bond, James Bond". The very things that were at one point welcome familiarity, had become annoying cliches. With the Dalton movies, we saw the potential for a darker Bond. One that could maintain the image and the trappings of the MI6 agent we all know and love, but without being weighed down and held back by the cliches that were quickly turning into poison for our beloved 007. The Brosnan era movies had glimpses of that potential realized, but squandered it in the end with the laughable Die Another Day. Thus...

  Casino Royale was made. It was both timely, and on the money with it's depiction of James Bond and the world he inhabits. Everything is sharper and no-nonsense. It dispenses with the super-soldier angle of the Brosnan movies and introduces Daniel Craig as a proper, balls-to-bone spy. Not just any spy, but a spy in vein of Sean Connery's 007. The opening of Casino Royale is in black and white, but the more I see it, the more it reminds me of Dr.No. There's a scene in Dr.No where Bond has to shoot a traitor, and he does so in the most coldhearted fashion. All without rising from his chair. Craig manages to pull off an incredibly similar moment in the opening. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Craig is an old school spy. He kills in cold blood and can dole out even colder quips without it being funny in the slightest. Like Connery, when Craig quips... it's scary.

  He plays Bond well. Not just the suaveness and the swagger, but the blank stares and the detached attitude too. This is the Bond that movies like License to Kill and Die Another Day teased us with. This Bond is at home in the pervasive silence that briefly reared it's head in The World is Not Enough. Bond is here with vodka martinis and bloodied tuxedos. We see him hurt often, bleeding, and broken. Both physically and emotionally. It's no surprise that it seems emotional pain hurts him worse than anything else the movie throws at him, including a gritty torture scene. Yet Bond is Bond, and this is a 007 movie. It's all here, the beautiful women, the nail biting suspense, the flashy cars, and all his trademarks. What works about Casino Royale is that it mixes the best elements of all the previous Bond movies, in just the right measurements. It's most definitely a proper spy thriller.

  It's plot demands you pay attention almost more than even the action scenes do. Which is a pretty amazing feat considering the action scenes are some of the most grounded and impressive stuff to date in the franchise. From a fantastic multi-tiered foot chase early on, having Bond run down a bomb maker, to an explosive showdown at an airport, and a claustrophobic bloody brawl pitting Bond against two machete-wielding bad guys in a cramped stairwell. It's all insanely intense. It leaves you breathless. You'll notice though, it's not the same brand of action as the previous Bond movies. You won't find this Bond driving a tank through the streets of St. Petersberg, or spouting one liners in the middle of a fight. This is as grounded as it gets. Surprisingly, or not, I can't decide- Bond still works, and better than ever. He didn't need a plethora of gadgets, or several dozen scenes with him machine-gunning the bad guys. He certainly didn't need to bed every female that crossed his path, or make his getaways with a rocket pack.

  Casino Royale is almost a response to movies like The Bourne Identity. Another spy thriller that showed us that quick-thinking and brutality immediately trumps wit and gadgets. There will always be a place for wit and gadgets, but if you rely on them to make your movie, it will end up over-saturating. Which is what happened before Casino Royale. Nevertheless, Casino Royale does right and makes Bond a force of nature. After the most grueling ordeal... he can dust off his dinner jacket, adjust his cuff links, and act like he's only been away- freshening up. Not to say other Bonds haven't been able to pull this off to some extent, but Craig embodies it. What Bond is supposed to be like. Retrofitted for the modern spy game, for modern audiences, and for fans who are only capable of chuckling weakly at in-jokes and puns which have become drier than 007's trademark martini.

  With Casino Royale, we're not introduced to a Bond we've never seen before- only one we've forgotten about. Naysayers argue it's not true to form, yet I'd argue it's the truest. Side by side with Dr.No, they match rhythm so damn well. Bond is not a walking cliche this time. He's a character we're rediscovering as he's being introduced into this lurid mess of shady deals and licenses to kill. He lives and breathes the atmosphere, but he's a bit green. Casino Royale is the movie in which Bond cuts his teeth on. He becomes the 007 we all knew we loved. Which is why, at the end of the movie when the trademark theme slowly creeps up on us and we know what's coming- we're not ready with a weak chuckle, but a sense of excitement and anticipation. "Bond. James Bond." Words that had almost lost their impact, yet the movie behind them this time gives them new energy. Maybe they're not so relevant anymore, maybe people only need a hero like Jason Bourne... but Casino Royale itself is the perfect argument that Bond is still relevant.

  The other essential half of ANY 007 movie is the villain, which is what Dr.No did so well. Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. A sinister man who's gravitas is staggering, in the presence of brutal south African war lords and devious socialites who could afford to buy and sell your very life a thousand times over.  His onscreen presence is simply amazing. Sitting across from Bond, merely playing poker, and he somehow manages to be more threatening than a power hungry dictator with his finger on a big red button, wired to something catastrophic no doubt. This is where I am developing a theory... A Bond movie is only good if you could market the entire thing around the villain. I mean... your hero stays the same. More or less, you know what you like, you're already sold. If you can pull off a marketing strategy that focuses almost solely on the villain, then most likely you have a hit. If not... you have a Quantum of Solace. Le Chiffre would steal the entire movie from a lesser character, and Mads would from a lesser actor. Craig and Mikkelsen, Bond and Le Chiffre... they are fierce opponents, more brutal in their methods than any the franchise has seen before.

  Casino Royale updates the character and the franchise for modern times. It does so better than GoldenEye did in the 90's. It recognizes that villains are much more than comic book characters to people in a post 9/11 world. Thus, the stakes are incredibly high, and more is on the line than just money or any one or two lives- but perhaps hundreds and thousands of lives. Because, see, in this universe of 007- it's not so much about a bomb about to go off, or a massive laser orbiting Earth, about to eradicate a whole country... it's about terrorism. Letting a terrorist financier go free would be disastrous, and more or less that's what Le Chiffre is. Those are the stakes. The movie asks us to think ahead, to consider consequences. Not just flashy special effects that blaze across the screen, or allow a car to look invisible.

  A fantastic part of this movie is also how it reminds us about the rest of what makes 007 movies so fun. Exotic locations for example. The movie is nothing short of globe-trotting espionage. It's a broader type of thriller than say... The Bourne Identity. It's not drab or bleak either, lurid for sure. Murder and death follow Bond everywhere. But look at where he goes. The Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, London- it's all simply fantastic. The locations and the locale are interesting if not at the very least, visually interesting. This is something that's to be loved about the Bond movies. Classic sexy looking beach scenery is a must. Bright clear waters, golden sand, stunning blue skies- and yet... right around the corner someone is bound to get shanked in the back, or thrown out of a moving car, or shot, or punched, or... you get the picture. That sort of juxtaposition is really striking. Beauty with violence. Something 007 has revolved around since it's origins.

  On that note, this time, the Bond Girl so to speak, calls him out on it right away "you think of women as disposable pleasures-" and it's true. He does. So... he's not entirely different from the 007's of olden days. You can tell this is a woman who's not here just because she's pretty. She's not a typical damsel in distress, and she's not the opposite cliche either. She's not the sort to pick up a Kalashnikov alongside him and take out a few baddies. She's a real character, played by a real actress who was picked to be able to emote and bring life to this James Bond. It's funny how that works. Most Bond girls are eye candy, and Bond treats them as such. He's expected to. He's Bond. James Bond. Yet... this time, we have a character who seems like a real woman, and he begins to treat her and react to her like a real person. Someone who maybe shouldn't be called a "Bond Girl". The title is too kitschy for such a character. Bond grows to care about her. A statement that in and of itself seems kitschy, but the movie pulls it off in such a way that the inevitable tragedy that climaxes their relationship will forever shape him into the cold hearted secret agent we all know and cheer for. The difference now? We understand, and dare I say... we sympathize. It's a stone's throw from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but somehow pulls it off so much better.

  Is this too serious and droll for a James Bond movie? Not at all. There are poisoned martinis, car chases, foot chases, shootouts, fist fights (a machete ends up involved no less) and death defying stunts that still manage to make me gasp for air a little bit. Yet we actually care about this man, this... James Bond. Who while is so unlike the cookie cutter cliche his namesake had devolved into, he seems new. Fresh. Yet is on a journey which will make him cold and broken. Yet does that mean he has to be a boring character after this movie? Casino Royale promises: No. Because we can care about this character, and because he's wrapped up in such a well written story, airtight if you will- all the stunts and the action scenes and everything is that much more engaging. And the filmmakers' efforts to keep them somewhat grounded and semi-plausible help create this world that this Bond inhabits. It's not above supervillains, but maybe these supervillains play poker instead of rant about world domination... and maybe they're scarier like that.  Which is why this 007 works so damn well.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Leaves you cold

  The 20th James Bond movie should've been better than this. An all time low for the franchise, Die Another Day was an artificial farce. Full of fake looking CGI and some of the cheesiest moments since Moonraker. Halle Berry was awful, Brosnan wasn't given any good material to work with, and the villain looks like he wrapped himself in Nintendos by the end of the movie. I hardly know where to start, but I guess I'll start with the positives. The opening is... mostly great actually. Aside from the fact that Bond basically shows up as a surf ninja, surfing into enemy territory somewhere in Korea. He has a typical showdown with some bad guys. Stuff blows up. A hovercraft chase ensues over a minefield. Bond wins, bad guys die, he cracks a joke... and then the unthinkable happens. Instead of strutting away into the sunset, he gets captured by enemy troops. Then the opening credits start.


  Bond spends the next year and some odd months in a Korean military prison camp. 14 months of torture and near-death. All over the sizzling opening credits. Which are actually really neat. Even the pop song by Madonna is sorta catchy. The opening credits show Bond's torture and pain complimented quite nicely with in-your-face 'fire and ice' graphics, and scorpions. There's lots of scorpions too. Then he gets shoved in front of a firing squad... only to realize he's being traded for a war criminal named Zhao. No gadgets. No flash escape sequence. No one-liner. Bond is broken, defeated, and looks like hell. This was a fantastic way to introduce us to him again. He could've been a changed man, but no. He sets out to find Zhao and break the world record for most one liners and innuendos per minute. I haven't counted because I value my sanity, but I'm pretty certain he holds the title.

  The movie is relatively fine until Bond goes to Cuba and Halle Berry shows up, playing a character named Jinx? Jynx? Who knows. Who cares. Instantly she manages to be the most annoying person ever seen in a James Bond movie since Sheriff J.W. Pepper. Her lines are poorly written, and her delivery doesn't help. She tries to sound hip and cool but she just sounds like she's reading from a script written by a teenager who's idea of witty innuendo is something like...

Miranda Frost: "-I take it Mr. Bond's been explaining his Big Bang theory?"
Jinx: "Oh yeah, I think I got the thrust of it."

  It's dismal and ridiculous. The movie doesn't go more than a couple seconds without lines like this. But yes, I forgot, positives. Well, the first half an hour or so feels really solid. I was ready to revise my opinion of the movie. It's snappy and enjoyable. Bond grapples with those pesky things called 'feelings' but not for long. It's easier to make puns and whisper about 'getting even'. Which is fine but then Halle Berry shows up and it's all downhill from there. Bad music cues, terrible dialog, and laughable villains are just the tip of the iceberg, and I'm not even trying to make these jokes. Ice, as you might've noticed, plays a big theme in the movie. They seem to have taken a page from Diamonds are Forever, because the villain really has another diamond powered space laser. At one point, everyone is staying in an ice castle. Eventually the space laser slices a chunk of the ice shelf off... leaving Bond to improvise, and surf down some waves. Cue global warming pun. Ugggggh.

  The surfing scene has some of the most groan-worthy CGI ever. It's distracting and silly looking. Video games of the era were looking better than this. It's so hard to take anything seriously in this movie. People get in fights, Bond drives an invisible car- which looks ridiculous. There's lots of lasers and more bad puns and just... I could go on and on. But the sad fact of it, this doesn't even feel like James Bond anymore. It feels like any CGI-filled mid 2000's action movie. Charlie's Angels, xXx, et cetera. It feels generic and flashy. Camera movements snap and zoom and the movie blitz from slow motion into super fast motion. It's such an annoying gimmick, it feels like it belongs in a music video- not a 007 movie.

  Bond is finally a superman. Which is shocking because he's never been more grounded and more human than he was in the beginning of the movie. With no arc whatsoever, he's instantly back to being a wise-cracking ladies man with a martini in his hand. Whoever wrote this one had a serious boner for the Roger Moore era. So much of it is tongue in cheek that the previous movies, asking us to take Bond seriously again have been rendered moot. There's awkward fight scenes that start and end nowhere, lame jokes galore, and the boyish anti-charm of Halle Berry making everything that much more unbearable.  The whole point of revisiting the Bond movies, or any movie for that point, is to reevaluate it. Give it a second chance. Trust me, Die Another Day doesn't deserve that chance. Nor did it deserve to be Pierce Brosnan's last movie.

  I don't think Brosnan ever hit his stride as Bond. He came incredibly close with The World is Not Enough, but it was no cigar. Die Another Day misses the mark by more than a mile. It's occasionally fun, but in a very artificial feeling way. You're very aware of the movie itself and that it's all an elaborately orchestrated mess. You stop caring about the characters, about the plot, and by the time we're at the climax, and the villain is wielding dual Nintendo power gloves... and you just wish it was over. It isn't about to let you off the hook so soon either. The climax goes on and on and on and it's just... so overblown it circles right back around to being boring. Too flashy, too sci-fi, and too bad. It could've been better if they had an iota of restraint and grounded the movie. It's not one I'll ever be watching again so long as I have a say in it. Casino Royale can't come fast enough...

A mixed improvement

  After the trendy Tomorrow Never Dies, I think there was a serious push to add more classic Bond elements back into Bond. The plot was more complex, the movie focused more on Bond's character, and there were strong themes of revenge and betrayal. On that note, it was turning out to be a significantly more mature movie than it's mindlessly slam-bang predecessor. Not that I didn't enjoy Tomorrow Never Dies, it was exciting... but unfortunately it was also very simple in almost every way. The World is not Enough is not that simple, in any regard. It induces quite a fit of head-scratching when you wonder why they undercut their own seriousness with silly antics and antiquated innuendo. Although I'm beginning to think I'm one of the only Bond fans who isn't keen on the excessive innuendo. Alas...

  This movie has the 'spy thriller' feel back in place. Even though it's still a big action adventure, it doesn't quite feel like a Mission: Impossible sequel any longer. It feels like a 90's From Russia With Love, with a large contribution from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Granted, it's nowhere near as good or classic as those two, but it seems to take a page from the book that made those so successful. The World is Not Enough feels personal. From the get go both Bond and M are having to confront death and failures that are very close to them. It's a much more intricate and emotional take on a character who's been nothing but an action figure for a while now. Even though the movie departs from that feeling when it suits itself, the overarching themes hold steadfast.

  The action scenes serve the movie this time, not the other way around. They fold into the ongoing story and serve a purpose. Which is good for a movie that's taken the time to be so thoughtful. The action scenes are more like action sequences in this one. Much like the motorcycle/helicopter chase from the previous movie, the action sequences are creative and don't always involve fifty machine guns and dozens of expendable baddies. Most of the time Bond is trying to escape from some insane situation, pulling if off in the craziest way imaginable. From a high speed fiasco inside an oil pipeline with a nuclear bomb, to a skiing chase involving parahawks and a boat chase through London. The movie is exciting and engaging. More so than it's predecessor, but not entirely.

  The sad fact of the matter is that despite it's complexities and nuances, it's just not that interesting. Nothing really grabbed me about The World is Not Enough. It had good characters, good villains and a devious plot, but it had a completely vapid Bond girl following him around and being rather annoying. With acting so stiff, you'd be forgiven for mistaking her for a special effect. I'm thankful her screentime is limited, but the movie pretends like her and Bond have chemistry, but Bond would have the same chemistry with a plank of wood. It's sad too because I like Denise Richards... but she only really works when everyone is delivering their dialog in the same stilted, artificial way. (i.e. Starship Troopers) Hey, she's easy on the eyes though. She's easily one of the worst Bond girls in the franchise. The poster girl for everything that's wrong with the worst of the Bond girls. She may be a nuclear physicist but she feels so incredibly useless.

  She only seems to be around to wear short skirts and to spout  smart sounding stuff when necessary. Because of all that, it's so hard to believe that she's a nuclear physicist. Which just makes it worse. Having said that, I largely prefer her character, Christmas Jones, to Halle Berry's character in the next movie. I dislike Berry on principle. She doesn't have the look or feel of a proper Bond girl. However, I'll reserve my criticisms of her for the next review. In this movie however, a poignant farewell to Desmond Llewelyn as Q is one of the emotional highlights of the movie, undercut peripherally by his replacement's antics. John Cleese seemed like an ideal person to take over in Desmond's absense as the new Quartermaster, but his entire role here is wasted on the most inane comedy. It's so silly, and if the franchise hasn't learned by now, silly is not good. Thankfully Desmond's own irritable brand of humor outshines Cleese and saves the scene. Q is and always was a joy to watch.

  For all the emotions the movie generates, it ends in typical fashion with Bond getting laid with the Bond girl. It's so inert and hollow, it feels like a throwback to the Roger Moore era. Which... is not good. Having said all that, what The World is Not Enough does right, it does exceptionally right. Among which is the spectacular climax, involving a nuclear submarine sinking with Renard aboard it, ready to blow it up. Bond has to get inside the sinking sub and stop Renard from turning into a gigantic nuclear bomb. It's a great sequence that reminds us that a proper climax doesn't need a huge shootout. It relies more on spectacle and raw thrills instead. What the movie also does right is the other Bond girl, one Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). She plays her role with gusto. A role I don't want to give too much away about, but she's the core of the movie. Her and the villain, Renard (Robert Carlyle) are the two biggest highlights of the movie. You think the movie is primed to follow standard Bond formula, but the story between Renard and Elektra is unique and original. Refreshing enough to outshine the basic plot around them and give the viewer something complex and emotional to chew into.

  Elektra's dynamic with Bond is also quite unique. She ends up being quite the femme fatale, and one who's overly convinced of her charm. Bond responds, showing his cold detachment when it really counts. It ends up being one of the best scenes of the movie. Of which there are many. The World is Not Enough is full to the brim of exciting moments. If it wasn't for the pitfalls this movie gets trapped in, it could have maybe rivaled GoldenEye. It's a strong second regardless, infusing come essential Bond elements back into the franchise and into the character. As a result, Brosnan's Bond feels more complete in this movie than he has in either of the previous two. This is the Bond the 90's needed to make him last into the 2000's. He feels like a fully rounded person, complete with flaws and strengths, and everything needed to make a compelling character. If only the movie itself was as wholly compelling as he was, it would be one of the best.