November 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Ronin (1998)

November's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) again comes from 1998 (which is apparently in a duel with 1996 for the title of Most Underrated Movie Year of the 90's). Known as the last great film from John Frankenheimer, Ronin is also famous for featuring what's arguably considered the greatest car chase ever filmed. I hesitate to use the word "arguably" because it's not really a debate. It's the best chase ever - period.

Sneaking into theaters in September of 1998, Ronin was immediately submarined by the box-office monster Rush Hour, which opened the week prior and took no prisoners on its way to becoming a smash hit. I'd have to reference my ticket stub collection (yeah, I have one) to determine when I first saw Ronin, but it was definitely in the theater that fall because I remember how awesome my friends and I all thought it was.

Unfortunately, we differed from a number of stuffy critics. Writing in New York Magazine (before he became a critic for The New Yorker), David Denby lamented the nonsensical plot, ultimately calling Ronin "an act of connoisseurship for people who have given up on movies as an art form." In the Washington Post, Michael O'Sullivan compared it to "a high-brow Steven Seagal film, with massive gun battles that casually disregard civilian casualties and too many overlong car chases through the twisty streets of Paris and Nice." He even went on to chastise Frankenheimer for filming a car chase in the tunnels of Paris because it was "unnervingly reminiscent of a reenactment of Princess Di's demise." Come on. Reminds me of the "R" rating the MPAA slapped on Changing Lanes in 2002 because the World Trade Center towers could be seen in the background of a few scenes.

Is Ronin a classic crime caper for the ages? Maybe not. The plot is unnecessarily convoluted (Russian and Irish splinter groups are after a mysterious silver suitcase), there's not much character development and the finale is mostly lackluster. But all of these flaws make it merely good instead of excellent, and the action bumps it back up to at least a respectable level of greatness. The star-studded cast, which includes Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Natascha McElhone and Jonathan Pryce, has been overlooked for far too long. While none of them turn in award-winning performances, they each perfectly fit their roles, and De Niro especially does well as the nucleus of the story. His do-it-yourself surgery following a gunshot wound may be a chore to sit through, but at least it's followed by a clever line: "If you don't mind, I think I'm going to pass out now."

Sounds a bit like David Mamet, doesn't it? I mean he rea- what's that? Mamet wrote the screenplay? But the credits list J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz? Ah, I see. Mamet was so upset about sharing a screenwriting credit with Zeik (who created the story) that he refused to lend his real name to the film's credits. Politics aside, Mamet's sharp writing makes for some pretty entertaining dialogue - unusual for your average crime drama. Instead of rolling your eyes at typically predictable lines, you actually find yourself interested in the conversations even when you have no idea what the characters are talking about.

Ironically, however, the scenes without dialogue are the highlights of Ronin. Frankenheimer lets fast cars and big guns do the talking in several outstanding action sequences, all filmed on location in various French cities. Hundreds of stuntmen and stunt drivers were employed on the film, giving it an air of authenticity that you just don't see these days (some Bourne sequences and the opening of 2006's Casino Royale are maybe the last best examples). Why go through all that trouble choreographing long action sequences when you can use green screens and CGI?

I'll tell you why - your car chases won't be nearly as impressive as those in Ronin. Like its peers in Bullitt and The French Connection (curiously, Frankenheimer directed The French Connection II), the chases in Ronin are long affairs that continue to build tension with every thrilling second. I'm not taking anything away from those masterful sequences - and they are masterful - but neither chase is as downright complicated as this one (watch it with full volume in full screen mode for the best experience):

This clip, in addition to an earlier chase scene in Nice (you'll have to rent the movie to see that one), completely changed the game for Hollywood car chases. Many have since tried to beat it (the Matrix Reloaded, the Bourne movies,the Bond movies, The Fast and The Furious, etc.), but they don't come close to achieving the gripping realism of the Paris chase, and it may be years before any movie does. Notice the lack of music during the first three minutes. The perfectly choreographed traffic, impossibly timed crashes and breathtaking near-misses. The first-person and behind-the-driver camera angles. The lack of silly tension-breakers ("Oh, whoops - sorry!"; "Hey, my caaaar!"). The seamless editing, and even the great acting by the drivers and passengers. On first viewing, about the only noticeable flaw in the chase (aside from the eventual use of music) is the fake-looking entry into the final tire blowout/rollover, but Frankenheimer can be forgiven for wanting to make it look like the actors were actually in the car.

It's a stunning seven minutes, and experiencing it in the theater was a thrill comparable to taking a BMW for a test drive. Speaking of which, that's exactly what legions of people would do years later when BMW released its brilliant marketing campaign, officially known as The Hire but informally known as the Best Car Commercials Ever Made. Eight short films featured Clive Owen driving people around in BMWs from different model series. The actors (his passengers) were Hollywood stars, and each of the films was directed by a different filmmaker, including Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wong Kar-wai, and Guy Ritchie. And, at the helm of the very
first of the eight films, The Ambush, was none other than John Frankenheimer, master of the car chase. It would be one of the last films directed by Frankenheimer before his death following a stroke in 2002.

Looking back on his filmography, it's truly a shame that two out of his last three movies can be considered among the worst of the last decade and a half. Both The Island of Dr. Moreau, which immediately preceded Ronin, and Reindeer Games, which immediately followed it, are abominations. In fact if it wasn't for Ronin, you might have to go back to the 70's to find anything respectable by Frankenheimer, whose greatest career achievement was probably The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. He may not have been an Oscar-worthy director (he was never nominated in nearly four decades of work), but with Ronin he's left his legacy by influencing every car chase we've seen in the last 10 years.

November 27, 2008

Short Cuts: "Unless'n You're a Hog, Or a Cattle"

A classic scene from my favorite Thanksgiving movie (but not my favorite scene, which was taken off of YouTube by Paramount this week). Enjoy...

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (1987). Written and directed by John Hughes; starring Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, and Edie McClurg.

Happy Thanksgiving!

(here's a more touching scene from the movie, appropriate for the holiday)

Several of the many things I'm thankful for, in addition to film, are the time, ability and access to technology necessary for writing this blog. And for all of you who make it worthwhile. Thanks for reading.

November 26, 2008

REVIEW: Slumdog Millionaire (A+)

When Barack Obama was elected President three weeks ago, millions of people around the world experienced a vaguely familiar sensation, a fleeting flash of emotion that they savored for the simple reason that it just doesn't happen every day. They felt exhilaration.

Danny Boyle's life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire not only has the power to awaken your heart in the same way, but it has healthy doses of intelligence and style to boot. You can call it a modern-day fairy tale or a touching romantic comedy or a thrilling action-adventure or a tender coming-of-age drama. I'm calling it the best movie I've seen so far in 2008 - and it's not even close.

Boyle has a tendency to evoke these polarizing, effusive reactions to his films. People loved Trainspotting. They hated The Beach. They loved 28 Days Later and Millions, but just last year they hated Sunshine. And now, as the pattern continues, they love Slumdog Millionaire. Chart the critical response to his films over his career and you have what resembles an EKG reading.

In fact Boyle's films might very well be appropriate to use in cardiology research, because while watching them your heart has to pump twice as much blood to keep up with your sensory processes. In Slumdog Millionaire, your ears are put to work as you distinguish the different accents and languages from the bustling urban noises from the thumping soundtrack songs. Your skin perspires as your muscles reflexively contract and relax between adrenaline bursts. You might not taste anything, but it can sure feel like you're smelling something (one scene in particular will have you holding your nose). And your eyes? Your eyes just soak it all in, unsure of where reality ends and fantasy begins. Slumdog Millionaire is the most visually arresting movie of the year next to The Fall (their vibrancy is not their only shared trait), and it shows that Danny Boyle is an artist unafraid to paint the canvas of film with daring brushstrokes of color and light which, in the hands of the another director, would simply come off as pretentious.

But is there substance behind all of that style? Loads of it, actually. Based on a novel by Vikas Swarup and told in a series of colorful flashbacks, Slumdog Millionaire tells the life story of Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel, whose puppy-dog face reminded me of a young David Schwimmer), a mature 18 year-old from the slums of Mumbai who is one question away from winning unimaginable fortune on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". Convinced that no uneducated "slumdog" could advance to the last question of the game, the show's host arranges for a local police officer (Irfan Khan, The Namesake) to interrogate Jamal until he admits to cheating. We enter the story in between these torture sessions, which include electrocution and simulated drowning.

But Jamal isn't cheating, as we soon find out. Nor is he a genius, and nor is he just making lucky guesses. He is...well I won't say more, but it's fair to say that you'll enjoy the movie a lot more if you accept that the story really is a fairy tale, and as Jamal recounts his life story in relation to each of the questions he correctly answered on the way to the final question, we’re meant to be inspired, not surprised. His is a story of hope in the midst of despair, joy in the midst of pain, and love in the midst of impossible circumstances. During his young life, Jamal is betrayed, orphaned, kidnapped, held hostage, beaten, and, most painfully, separated from the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto). It was his heroic quest for Latika, and not the money, that brought Jamal to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in the first place.

The genius of Slumdog Millionaire is that it perfectly balances these two story threads – romance and adventure – with appropriate portions of comedy, drama, and real suspense. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) livened up his adaptation of Swarup’s novel by traveling to India and interviewing street children in the slums of Mumbai, where the film was eventually shot on location. As Beaufoy explained in a recent interview, "I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy." To say the least.

Framing street life in Mumbai as a joyous party is admittedly naïve, but anyone who doesn’t seen the pain, poverty and desperation illustrated throughout Slumdog Millionaire simply has their eyes closed, and they probably aren’t grasping the point of the story anyway. Boyle is not glossing over a terrible situation with syrupy romance, vivid colors, beautiful people, and underdog successes, he’s simply trying to get the attention of the people who believe, rather ethnocentrically, that places like Mumbai are devoid of those universal elements of culture. If you’ve gone home without that realization, wake up and get back to the theater.
Young Jamal Malik has a bright future ahead of him - and he knows it...

Once every few years, a movie comes along that redefines the way you look at cinema. It reminds you that films don't need to be deathly serious in order to be powerful and important, and they don't need to feature Oscar winners in order to showcase impressive acting (especially among the youngest members of the cast). More than anything, they reaffirm your faith in an art form that continues to evolve in ways that you couldn't imagine. Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies. Like Cidade de Deus before it, and Fight Club before it, Slumdog Millionaire gripped my entire being for two hours, transporting me to another place and another life without allowing for even a moment to breathe. As was the case on election night, I found myself on a natural high as the celebratory end credits rolled. It felt like I'd just won 20 million rupees.

Writing - 10/10
Acting - 10/10
Production - 10/10
Emotional Impact - 10/10
Music - 5/5
Social Significance - 5/5

Total: 50/50= 100% = A+

Addendum: You didn't think I was going to pass up an opportunity to shamelessly boast about the featured song in this movie, did you? Indeed, for the second time this year, a song that I chose last January for the 2007 missing soundtrack was featured in a movie in 2008 (the first being Ryan Shaw's "We Got Love" in My Blueberry Nights), and that's not even counting the ones that have been used in commercials throughout the year. M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" can be heard almost in its entirety in Slumdog Millionaire, fortunately leaving a bigger mark than it did when it was hijacked for the Pineapple Express trailer (which ended up bringing M.I.A. from obscurity to popularity). Although the song wasn't used here in the end credits, as I proposed, it was about as close to perfect as you could get. So the question becomes:

Daniel Getahun is awesome at predicting random songs that would fit well in movies. How did he do it?:
a.) He cheated.
b.) He's lucky.
c.) He's a genius.
d.) It was written.

November 24, 2008

How Do You Say "Getafilm" in Korean?

(photo courtesy of Malte Herwig)

The power of film awakens a culture...

My spirits soared yesterday (not that they were really down anyway) while reading Malte Herwig's article in the New York Times about the success of an annual international film festival in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

In an insular dictatorship widely considered to be one of the most repressive and brutalizing in the world, where basic human rights such as freedom of information, religion, association and political opposition are prohibited, where people are starving to death due to preventable food shortages, where daily life is akin to prison life, and where censorship is instituted in every imaginable aspect of communication - there is film. And it's changing the consciousness of a country.

Foreign film, to be specific. Granted, at this festival the projectionist would cover the lens with a piece of cardboard when "unseemly" content appeared on screen, but the fact remains that the 100+ films still "offered a rare chance for ordinary North Koreans to get a glimpse of the outside world." That should be in bold: a rare chance, because while film is big business in North Korea (movie star faces grace the national currency), all of it is locally made and distributed, and all content must meet the government's strict standards. In fact, there is a history of former dictator Kim Il-sung working the sets of North Korean films and instructing the cast and crew on the proper techniques of their trade. Imagine President Bush and Vice President Cheney telling Scorsese, Tarantino and Apatow how to properly make "American" movies.

Of course none of the festival films were from the United States, or from that different world across the border, South Korea, but they did include offerings from China, Russia, France and Italy. Turns out current Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is a bit of a movie buff himself, with a personal library of 20,000 films and a full-time staff of 250 people to manage it - and bring its most propaganda-like titles (An Azalea Behind Enemy Lines) to theaters around the country. Many of those homegrown films played at the festival as well, but they were screened in between foreign epics like Elizabeth: The Golden Age and China's Assembly, which took home the top prize.

The festival, which took place in September, was so well attended that uniformed guards had to turn away crowds, and theater doors were chained shut as the movies started (although for some reason I imagine that happens outside of the festival as well). Audience members were sternly warned over loudspeakers to collect all of their trash (a punishable offense?), and seats were strictly assigned. Cell phones going off? Not a problem - North Koreans are banned from owning them.

(photo courtesy of Malte Herwig)

So what does the popularity of the Pyongyang International Film Festival mean?

Well, I think the obvious answer is that North Koreans realize film offers a unique opportunity to expand their worldview. In other words, North Koreans are unknowingly living out the
raison d'être of Getafilm.

Whether they are seeing documentaries (unlikely), fictional stories about contemporary life, or depictions of historical events in other countries, Korean minds are being positively influenced despite their own government's best efforts against it.

Consider the health warning put forth by culture minister Kang Nung-su at the festival's opening ceremony: movies "must not harm the sound mind of the people
". Here's the translation for those of you who don't speak totalitarian: a brainwashed culture won't want what it doesn't know exists. North Koreans are collectively trapped in a one-world view, and their government wants to safely keep them away from seeing people live happy, independent lives on screen.

Fortunately, I live in a country that not only allows for almost all types of free expression from its own citizens, but also opens its doors to arts and culture from around the world. Let me never complain about the limited NY/L.A. releases that don't make their way here. I get to see 90% of the movies I really want to see in the theater, and the rest are freely available at any time. I can only hope such an opportunity becomes available in North Korea at some point in my life.

It's not just about entertainment (that would be a violation of Rule #10 in the Getafilm Guide to Going to the Movies). It's about sitting in a theater, humbly realizing that six billion people are out there having different life experiences than you, and then celebrating the fact that you can learn new things from those people and those stories on the screen. North Koreans don't get that opportunity, but this film festival is a start. Will it change the country? Only time will tell.

About all I know for sure is this: I may not be in North Korea, but I'm always trying to get out.

(Note: Malte Herwig is a German writer, historian and journalist. Find more information on his website:

November 20, 2008

Local Theater Love #1: The Lagoon

(Note: Yet another new feature I've been meaning to get off the ground in recent months. I don't think it needs any more explanation than the title. Welcome to my homes away from home!)

Since it opened in 1995, the five-screen Lagoon Theater in the Uptown neighborhood of south Minneapolis has been a refuge for those of us interested in independent, foreign, and documentary films. Operated in recent years by Mark Cuban's Landmark Theatres chain, you can always count on the Lagoon to carry a new film that would otherwise never be shown in Minneapolis, even if only for a week.

In recent months, regulars at the Lagoon have been horrified to see major studio films creep into the weekly lineup, often eating up a screen or two that could otherwise have been devoted to something like Shotgun Stories, which has eluded my grasp all year. On one hand I understand that the survival of the theater (which is always rumored to be in jeopardy) depends on attendance numbers, but on the other hand, seeing The Dark Knight, Mamma Mia!, and Quantum of Solace on the marquee just feels...wrong. Add this annoyance to the list of release schedule frustrations.

Concessions are, as per the Landmark norm, outrageously priced compared to local independent theaters and even those in the AMC chain. And honestly, who is getting Dove bars and espressos at the movies?
Fortunately there's nothing too smelly on the concessions menu, but the elitist reputation of the theater is deserved if fare such as vegan cookies and $4 Odwallas are the hot sellers.
Might as well install a salad bar while you're at it.

Additionally, the Lagoon has jacked up its ticket prices significantly over the past 18 months. I don't know if this is a Landmark-directed move or the natural evolution of admission prices, but at this point it's hardly even worth buying the "discount passes", which have saved me significant cash for almost a decade now. Used to be $25 for 5, now it's $36. If my math is correct, that's $7.2o per admission, when the matinee price is only $7. Of course I can still occasionally use the pass to avoid the $9.00 regular price, but the fact is that now I have to figure out when to use it and when not to, when before I knew I was getting a deal no matter what. Ah, the frustrations of a movie addict...

Despite all of my complaining, however, guess where you'll find me just about every week of the year? That's right - the glorious Lagoon, without which my wallet would be fatter and my mind would be narrower.

In just the last year or so, I've enjoyed films such as The Pool, In the Shadow of the Moon, The Pixar Story, Boy A, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Manda Bala, Frozen River, War Dance, the 2008 Oscar Animated Shorts, My Kid Could Paint That, Man on Wire, City of Men, Surfwise, and most recently, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Without the Lagoon, it's unlikely that I would have been able to see any of those in the theater. And a cozy little theater it is. The five screens are all about the same size, and each of them provides an inviting and intimate experience with the film. Considering the size of most multiplex theaters or even other local independent theaters like the Uptown and the Parkway, that intimacy is not something I take for granted.

Nor are the mature movie-goers at the Lagoon, where there's never a kid crying in the back row or teenagers running around (there's no room anyway). This place might as well be 21+, since both the featured movies and the ticket prices discourage the younger crowds from showing up, which is just fine by me. The older audience also probably explains why the theater is kept in very good condition throughout the year, making the job of cleaning that much easier for the friendly Lagoon staff.

Uptown would hardly be a neighborhood worth visiting if not for the Lagoon and Uptown theaters, but the number of local bars and restaurants can save your outing even after a terrible movie. You might want to avoid the weekend scene so as to avoid 23 year-old guys with popped collars and questionably young women wearing skimpy dresses, but then again if you're going to movies at 7:00 PM on opening night then you're probably crazy enough not to care.

Anyway you look at it, the presence of the Lagoon adds significant cachet to the Twin Cities film scene. Even if you're a critic of the Landmark chain and this particular theater's high prices and questionable blockbuster releases, it would be difficult to convince any local movie-goer that the Lagoon isn't one of the best theaters in Minneapolis.

Official Scorecard (as of November 2008):

Location: 10/10
- since I recently moved about a five minute walk away from the front door

Parking: 9/10
- the pay lot is fine, and there's plenty of street parking on Lagoon Ave. east of Hennepin Ave.

Admission Value: 8/10
- and that's possibly generous considering the discount pass fiasco

Concessions: 7/10
- too expensive and too limited in variety

Theater Seats: 9/10
- a little tight but well spaced, well maintained, and on a decent downward slope

Overall Cleanliness: 9/10
- lobby and concession area are in good shape and the theater floors are rarely sticky

Sound/Picture Quality: 10/10
- can't remember there ever being an A/V issue, film always sharp and at the right volume

Staff: 10/10
- friendly, competent, and dedicated to their work (how do you like that, Matt Gamble?)

Audience Behavior: 5/5
- occasionally rambunctious but usually quiet and focused

Bathrooms: 4/5
- mostly clean but cramped, and a messy sink area (I've only been in the men's bathroom)

Local Dining Options: 5/5
- my apartment or any of the bars and restaurants nearby, preferably Old Chicago

Theater History/Vibe/Atmosphere: 4/5
- makes up for young age of theater with classic film posters, but decor/architecture screams 1995

Total: 90/100 = A-

November 19, 2008

REVIEW: Synecdoche, New York (?)

In the 10 days or so since seeing Synecdoche, New York, I've found myself mystified while trying to pin down its best moments. Like a dream that you can't clearly remember, it's a movie that you know is special for some reason - even if you can't quite put your finger on it.

I might as well have just described any of Charlie Kaufman's movies, from Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Despite some striking similarities in plot and character, his is a collection that mostly defies categorization. Are they comedy, drama, tragedy - all three? His latest offering, Synecdoche, New York, has been long awaited by a rabid Kaufman cult following comprised mostly of people who see themselves in a particular character - or see Kaufman as a sulking writer illustrating his own life. In a recent interview with Colin Covert, however, Kaufman explained, "I want to be careful in drawing parallels between characters I write and myself because people seem to take great pleasure and feel a great confidence in doing that for me. And I kind of at this point am not enjoying it too much."

Fine with me, Charlie.
I mostly go to your movies just to get weirded out for a while.

Synecdoche, New York certainly doesn't waste any time giving your eyebrows a workout. Our protagonist, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his distant wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), are two lost souls struggling to remember why they ended up together in the first place. Time as we know it appears to be relative in Caden's world (in the same interview, Kaufman explains: "My experience of time is that the speed at which it moves changes constantly, and certainly gets faster and faster as I get older. There are moments of waking up in the morning and thinking of some event that happened 10 years ago and being incredulous. That understanding of time is represented in the movie."). The majority of the film chronicles Caden's lifelong struggle to write and produce a play representative of his life. This means, of course, that the production won't be complete until Caden dies - a thought that he (and Adele, who leaves him for Germany early on) obsesses over constantly.

On paper it seems like a simple story, and in hindsight it seems like a simple story. But while you're actually watching it, Synecdoche, New York is about as simple as taking a calculus course in Arabic. Despite what you might know before seeing this film (the definition and pronunciation of "synecdoche", for example), you may still lack a significant amount of esoteric knowledge necessary for processing what's going on, such as the signs and symptoms of the disorder known as Cotard's Syndrome. Does this take away from your enjoyment of Synecdoche, New York? Probably, and for most people.

But as much as I was flailing around trying to keep my head above water, I found myself frequently laughing at the absurdity of it all. Like a David Lynch film, the best part about Synecdoche, New York (and most of Kaufman's movies) is the thrill of experiencing what amounts to a lucid dream.
Bizarre metaphorical settings (e.g., a continually burning house) and an incredible job of artificially aging the characters only heighten the surrealism. And if all this goes over your head, or if you're conversely somehow able to easily understand the complexities of Charlie Kaufman's stories, there's always the outstanding acting to appreciate.

As Caden, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns his Self -Loathe-o-Meter to "max", ending up somewhere between his characters in Happiness and Love Liza. There's little doubt Hoffman has moved beyond his years as a supporting actor, though part of me still enjoys him more in tasty bit parts like last year's Charlie Wilson's War. Catherine Keener (who also starred in Being John Malkovich) doesn't bring much new to the table here, but Samantha Morton (In America, Minority Report) shows considerable range playing Caden's muse. Everybody else fills in the gaps with their own memorable moments, but the beating heart of the movie remains with Hoffman, who somehow maintains the semblance of a complete character in this crazy dream.


But a confusing movie doesn't necessarily equal a brilliant movie. In fact, the inaccessibility of much of the material on first viewing prevents the viewer from connecting with the intense emotions playing out on screen, particularly in Hoffman's character. It's like anonymously eavesdropping on a stranger's therapy sessions. With time, however, and in the case of this movie with multiple viewings, you might find yourself fully immersed in this person's world. I probably won't find out until I see it again, but in the meantime I'm happy with Synecdoche, New York as a break from the formulaic norm.

On the other hand, writing about it made me feel exactly like one of Kaufman's struggling playwrights. Maybe that was the point. I haven't read any reviews of Synecdoche, New York but I've witnessed a number of bloggers having fits while trying. Add me to the list, I suppose.

And Charlie Kaufman says he doesn't relate to his characters...

Writing - ?
Acting - ?
Production - ?
Emotional Impact - ?
Music - ?
Social Significance - ?

Total: ??/??= ??% = ? (Take that, Kaufman!)

...alright, alright. 90%, A-.

November 14, 2008

Terminator IV: The Bond Ultimatum (Quantum of Solace)

Who ARE you, and what have you done with James Bond?

I was going to post a full defense of the reasons I love James Bond movies today, but then I ended up seeing Quantum of Solace a day earlier than I expected. So, now I can just review the new one through the lens of the old ones.

It must have been in the late 80's that I saw my first Bond movie. I'm not sure how, I'm not sure when (probably some time between The Living Daylights and License to Kill), and I'm not sure which one it was, but it kicked off what would end up being a number of years of watching all of the movies multiple times with my best childhood friend. We loved how Bond would inevitably triumph over some ridiculous villain, always using the coolest gadget weapons and then cracking wise with some play on words before dashing off with the girl. He was like a funnier version of MacGyver, but with a haircut, a fun accent, and a job (as an undercover agent no less).

I quickly gained a liking for the Bonds of the 60's and 70's. At the time I only knew Sean Connery as the old guy who talked funny, so it was a revelation to see him as a handsome action star (I had a similar discovery when I first saw Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy). I never understood the prevalent sexual innuendo (which is good), but I always knew there was something about James Bond that made him cooler than action heroes like Indiana Jones or John McClane, even if I couldn't put my finger on exactly why that was the case.

Eventually I came to prefer Roger Moore, mostly because he first starred in Live and Let Die, which remains one of my favorite of the series to this day. Although Moore looked more like a news anchor than an awesome secret agent, he brought something new to the character. He could pull of the dashing Bond looks (flirty smirking included), he had a knack for delivering the post-kill jokes (easily the funniest Bond), and he even managed the action scenes admirably. It should be noted, by the way, that Moore was 45 years old in Live and Let Die and 58 years old in his last of the series, A View to a Kill, which despite Christopher Walken's weirdness still remains an underrated Bond movie.

By the mid-90's I was well versed in the older Bonds and simply satisfied with Timothy Dalton's two movies. In fact I was so busy watching the older ones during that period that I didn't even notice a new one hadn't been released in six years. When GoldenEye eventually came out, I was as surprised as I was excited. It wasn't an immediate hit for me when I saw it, but after multiple viewings and what must have amounted to several thousands of hours of playing the N64 game with my friends, I came to include GoldenEye as one of the most watchable of the series. Pierce Brosnan seemed like a great fit, and had it not been for his last three movies in the series, he might have been one of the greats. Of course, it wasn't entirely his fault since by the late 90's Bond had lost his mojo. A new generation wasn't responding to the old tricks, Austin Powers arrived, and Bond became a slick action series instead of a witty spy series. It's no wonder Brosnan's four films each grossed more at the box office than any of the movies all the way back to Moonraker.

If only because I had almost completely lost faith in the franchise after Die Another Day, Casino Royale was a most interesting development. Daniel Craig, whose first starring role was in my favorite movie of all time (The Power of One), did not at all seem like he could do justice to James Bond in my head, but with the help of some solid action and a nod to some of the older Bond movies, I found Casino Royale to be at least as good as anything since GoldenEye, and my enthusiasm returned for the series. Which brings us to Quantum of Solace.

Before addressing the movie, I have to first address my shocking surprise at the amount of Bond backlash I have seen online in the last month, not only among trusted blogger friends of my generation (Fletch and Elgringo, for example), but also in major movie circles. Who knew that so many people disliked James Bond? I'm blinded by my nostalgia for the series, but how can people find not any redeeming quality in a franchise that's lasted four decades? For a character that fights for his country and the world - and makes jokes while doing it (speaking of which, how could you even find anything in Austin Powers funny if you've never seen Thunderball)? For movies that have some of the best stunts and locations of any action movies in history? I don't get it. There are cases to be made against Bond, but I either haven't heard enough of them or I haven't heard any persuasive ones. For the biggest film franchise in history, I dare say it's only fair to judge them on merit according to each other, and not to the popular culture of the day.

"Come with me if you want to live"...

When judging Quantum of Solace only in relation to the other Bond movies, then, you find that it's an almost complete reinvention of both the character of James Bond and the style of the Bond movie. You find, unfortunately, that it's quite awful.

Beginning as it should with a frenzied action scene, we confirm that we're watching what amounts to deleted scenes from Casino Royale. This is no surprise, of course, as the movie is meant to be a full-on sequel. Producer Michael Wilson simply made up the plot for Quantum of Solace during the production of Casino Royale, and the same screenwriting team is back, along with Paul Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah). Ian Fleming? His influence is nowhere to be found.

Aside from being too confusingly edited (which continues throughout the movie, I might add), this opening scene is also way too serious - a real harbinger of the mood to come. Bond is all business now, and he's got no time to have fun or crack a joke about the car he sends off a cliff. As the pre-title sequence ends, we're indeed emotionally "shaken, not stirred".

I first heard about the rumors of the new Bond song at Craig Kennedy's Living in Cinema (I just realized it was actually this thread that produced the Bond series idea, Craig). When the artists were finally confirmed as Jack White and Alicia Keys, I was...curious. Turns out I had good reason, as "Another Way to Die" is possibly one of the worst Bond songs to date, hampered even further by a terribly unimaginative, weirdly futuristic title sequence. I couldn't wait for the beginning to end.

Director Marc Forster (The Kite Runner) doesn't seem to add much new to this production either, aside from some unnecessarily artistic location subtitles and a cloak of confused depression over the entire production. As Bond travels from location to location, we rarely get the same jet-setting feeling present in so many older Bond productions, where we knew we were in a different place because of obvious cultural stereotypes (the gypsy fight in From Russia With Love) and an exotic new Bond girl. The best Forster can offer is Bond's brief time in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, where the hotel clerks inexplicably speak with Jamaican accents.

As Quantum of Solace moves into the heart of the production, we begin to recognize a smidge of Casino Royale and a hint of the old Bond spirit. Some of the same characters float in and out, with a boring new Bond girl (Olga Kurylenko) and a completely dispassionate villain (Mathieu Amalric). There is the obligatory grand party scene (an outdoor opera) and the always creepy villain's sidekick. A boat chase is a particularly welcome sight, but while it's better than the one in From Russia With Love, it's not nearly as much fun as those in Live and Let Die or even The World Is Not Enough. Most of the attempts at capturing the Bond spirit either feel lazy (a complete ripoff of Jill's death in Goldfinger) or accidental (the taxi scene and amusing arrival at the hotel in La Paz was pitch perfect). More than anything else, in fact, Quantum of Solace reminded me a lot more of non-Bond movies.

The scene similarities to The Bourne Ultimatum, for example, could hardly be more obvious, including the hotel room hand-to-hand combat, the cobbled rooftop chases, and even the exact same rear view balcony-to-balcony jump stunt. This James Bond has no gadget weaponry, no tricky killing schemes - not even a cool car! Like Jason Bourne, he's just an amazing athlete with a chip on his shoulder who knows how to use a gun, and like The Terminator, he uses the gun with the same amount of emotion that we use operating a calculator. That the piercingly blue-eyed Daniel Craig doesn't smile one time throughout this movie is about all the proof you need that this isn't good ol' Bond.

Good ol' Bond has a witty line after every elaborate kill (silent after the boat chase?). Good ol' Bond is a charming lothario in the bedroom, not a cold-blooded robot awkwardly trying to crack a joke about not being able to find stationery. Good ol' Bond actually seems to like his job, believe it or not. And really, we don't know much more than that about good ol' Bond, because the old Bond movies aren't actually about James Bond, just like the old Batman movies weren't actually about Bruce Wayne. But now we have The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace, two attempts to breathe new souls into decades-old characters. Both movies also come as sequels to "new" interpretations of a character (Batman Begins is to The Dark Knight as Casino Royale is to Quantum of Solace).

And while both movies are top-notch cinematic productions, The Dark Knight worked well for me because I have no connection to the Batman character of decades past. Tim Burton's Batman was the start for me, just as GoldenEye was the start for many current Bond fans. But for those people who have an appreciation for Ian Fleming's Bond, for Albert Broccoli's Bond, for Sean Connery's and Roger Moore's Bonds, I can only be surprised if they also enjoy Quantum of Solace. I suppose I should expect that many people have been waiting for the dark side of Bond to emerge, but I'm just not one of them.

"007" is simply the model number of this robotic killing machine...

"Bond, I need you back," presses M as Bond walks out into the snowy night at the end of the movie. "I never left," he says as he drops Vesper's pendant in the snow. Um, is there any better proof that you did leave, James? Since when were you driven by vengeance and a broken heart, like Jason Bourne? Well, I suppose since Casino Royale, which is meant to precede all of the other Bonds anyway. It's just that I still have trouble accepting that this Bond becomes the old Bond, because he seems like a completely different person. Hopefully, the dropped pendant is the end of this chapter in Bond's life.

Please move on, because I need you back, too, Bond.


Don't forget to check out these other Bond posts:

November 13, 2008

REVIEW: The Spy Who Loved Me

[Note: this is part of collaborative Bond appreciation series between me, Alexander Coleman, Christian Divine, Craig Kennedy, and Miranda Wilding (surprise, Miranda! But you've already done it...). Also make sure to check out entries in the Licensed to Blog: James Bond Blog-a-thon, hosted by the tireless Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre.]

Nobody does it better than Roger Moore...

Featuring arguably the best pre-title sequence of all the Bond movies, Lewis Gilbert's The Spy Who Loved Me manages to maintain a breakneck pace of action, intrigue, romance and even comedy throughout its 125-minute running time. Though I have an unhealthy admiration for Live and Let Die, it's difficult to make a case against The Spy Who Loved Me being not only Roger Moore's finest installment in the series, but one of the top five Bond movies ever.

Depending on how you look at it, that either makes Ian Fleming a hack or a genius, because aside from two characters (Bond and Jaws), The Spy Who Loved Me took only the title from Fleming's tenth novel. The entire story, in fact, was the work of screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood (who circuitously ended up actual novelizing the movie after its box-office success). Although Fleming was hardly involved, however, we can see upon closer examination that Maibaum and Wood simply added to the dense Bond framework Fleming already had in place. (Although it's interesting to consider that The Spy Who Loved Me takes so much from You Only Live Twice, which also took almost nothing from Fleming's novel. How could these two movies both be "original" but both be the same?)

So if The Spy Who Loved Me wasn't the first "original" Bond movie, it was likely the first one to have so many challenges in pre-production: longtime Bond producer Harry Saltzman's departure, difficulty in confirming a director (amusingly, even Steven Spielberg was approached), and a drawn out legal battle involving the script. About the only constants involved in this film were Roger Moore and producer Albert Broccoli, who had teamed up with Saltzman on the entire series to that point. Considering of all of this, it's no wonder the three years between The Spy Who Loved Me and its predecessor, The Man With The Golden Gun, was the longest period between any of the ten Bond films to that point. But aside from the unlikely success after a shaky production, there are several other reasons The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the best in the entire series, and of them is the clip shown above.

As the film opens, a Russian submarine is electronically hijacked in the middle of the ocean. The Russian Major Anya Amasova (agent codename “Triple X”) is dispatched from the comfort of her bed, which she is sharing rather romantically with another Russian agent leaving on assignment to Austria. It is there, in a cozy lodge in the Alps, that we also find 007 in his favorite place: the arms of a beautiful woman. He receives his own dispatch from London (via a nifty wristwatch that churns out a message imprinted on punch label) and immediately changes into his ski suit. “But James, I need you,” coos the young woman. “So does England,” replies Bond as Marvin Hamlisch’s campy adaptation of the legendary Bond theme begins. Eluding the black-suited skiers and killing Triple X’s lover with his modified ski pole rifle, Bond skis off the face of the cliff into breathtaking silence until…whoosh, relief in the form of a parachute boastfully constructed as a giant Union Jack flag.

As Bond safely descends, he’s cupped in the silhouetted hands of the title sequence as a lovely piano intro begins. Although Hamlisch wrote “Nobody Does It Better” (and received an Oscar nomination for Best Song in the process), it was Carly Simon’s rendition that, three decades later, still sounds as beautiful as it must have in the theater upon the movie’s release in the summer of 1977. It must be considered one of the top three Bond songs, rivaling only Shirley Bassey’s stunning “Goldfinger” and Paul McCartney’s psychedelic “Live and Let Die”.

The greatness of The Spy Who Loved Me extends far beyond this simple title sequence, however. Not only are the stunts and action among the best of the Bond canon, but the characters are among the most memorable. As played by Barbara Bach (who would go on to become Ringo Starr’s wife) Major Amasova/Triple X is a Bond girl with brains, sex appeal, courage and conviction. She’s loyal to her country and, eventually, to her country’s partnership with Britain (in the form of the handsome Bond, of course). Not only is Triple X one of the most impressively well-rounded women in the Bond series, but she’s one of the few with whom Bond actually establishes a legitimate romantic relationship (the flirting in the scene where Triple X is maneuvering the van around the grasp of Jaws in the Egyptian desert is right out of a romantic comedy). When apart from Triple X, Bond simply reverts back to his indiscriminate sexual predation. “When one is in Egypt, one should delve deeply into its treasures,” he says as he ogles his Egyptian informant’s mistress.

If Triple X provides Bond’s pleasure (his wife having been killed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), shipping tycoon Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens) provides his pain, mostly in the form of Jaws (Richard Kiel), the mute giant of a henchman whose last visit to the dentist had to have been painful. Jaws sports gleaming metal teeth and brandishes them in order to chew through steel chains and wood planks - when he’s not taking a bite out of people’s necks, of course. Kiel plays the lumbering Jaws as a bit of a goof, always brushing off his baby blue suit jacket after being foiled by Bond (because Jaws was such an iconic character as I was watching the Bond movies growing up, it didn’t hit me until he recently that Kiel also plays Adam Sandler’s giant former boss in Happy Gilmore). I almost wish Jaws would have been in more than just two movies from the series, but he’s a bit of tiresome villain as well, never letting up and never trying anything new aside from just punching through walls.

As the megalomaniac out to destroy the world (there’s one in every Bond movie, isn’t there?), Stromberg is a bit of a more interesting villain (and the first to make any impression after Bond crippled Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever). Stromberg remains tucked away in Atlantis, the futuristic underwater base from which he plans to launch the warheads from the hijacked submarines, thereby destroying New York and Moscow and paving the way for a new kind of civilization. Amusingly, Stromberg laments the “decadence” of humanity as he sits in his opulent throne room listening to Mozart and Bach while stuffing his face and sending people into his shark tank via a trap-door elevator. Bond’s eventual showdown with Stromberg is frankly bland (and is preceded by an overdrawn three army battle), but the destruction of Atlantis in the open sea is truly a sight to behold.

So are all of the filming locations on land, including Egypt, Switzerland, Italy, Canada, Scotland, England, Malta, and most memorably, the Bahamas, where get to enjoy the gadgets on the Lotus Esprit, simply one of the best Bond cars ever. Equipped with missiles, flash charge bombs, and oil and ink sprays, the Lotus is half car, half submarine (and, amazingly, now a reality). Flying off the dock at the end of a helicopter chase, Bond drops the Lotus into underwater mode, destroys the helicopter, evades scuba assassins, and, hilariously, drives out of the water and onto the beach in Sardinia, dropping a dead fish out the window as the flabbergasted beach goers stare in awe. It goes like this (but without the audio dubbing):

The proof is all right there in The Spy Who Loved Me, boasting among the best songs, best Bond girls, best cars, best villains, best comedy, best locations, and best action sequences in the entire Bond canon. What I have yet to mention, of course, is that it also features arguably the best Bond: Roger Moore. That's not a statement I can take very far, however. Each of the Bonds (even Lazenby) has his own unique charm, but something about Moore (his ability to save the world while looking like a news anchorman?) made his seven movies among my favorites.

The best Bond?

If that doesn't jive with you, read:

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