QUANTUM OF SOLACE

Daniel Craig returns as England’s toughest spy in Quantum of Solace, and he’s taking no prisoners. In fact, M even tells him at one point that they might find out more information if he didn’t insist on “killing every lead we have.”

I grew up on Sean Connery as James Bond, and I liked them best when it was Bond the Secret Agent rather than Bond the Gadget Guy. Roger Moore had his run, as did Timothy Dalton’s rather limited engagement. For a while, I really enjoyed Pierce Brosnan as 007. Golden Eye was spectacular.

But Craig has brought that old hard-as-nails secret agent back that Connery brought to life. I have to admit, Connery had more of the devil-may-care flair and wowed the ladies more believably, and I have to say that he seemed just as deadly.

Craig is like a sledgehammer, though, and I think that makes him the perfect Bond who’s just starting out at MI-6. This revisionist history, with a nod to Ian Fleming’s original stories, is fantastic. I know there are a lot of fans out there that are probably bemoaning the loss of Q and all the gadgets, but take a look at all the computer tech that’s constantly on-screen.

I wanted to halt the command center sequences just so I could look at the sets and all the possibilities. I loved the touch-screen tabletop operations (and, people, that is going to be coming to a restaurant near you not too far in the future) and thought about how cool it would be to work at something like that. But I digress.

The movie opens with manic action as Bond is pursued by a team of heavy hitters through the hills of Italy. The twisting mountain roads and the desperate maneuvers through traffic really put an edge on the seat and I found it. The action was a little hard to follow, though, and I got lost in all of it more than once, but I was Bond. I’m forgiving where 007 is concerned.

Quantum of Solace also ties directly into Casino Royale. Not much story time has elapsed since that last movie, only an hour. Bond still burns to kill the people responsible for Vesper’s death, and his cold rage is like a tidal wave that pulled me along into his current mission. However, that barely made up for the thin plot that the action sequences hung on.

Judi Dench has never been better as the tight-lipped M. She had more screen time this movie, and she put it to good use. I love the relationship that’s developing between Bond and M, and the throwaway remark 007 makes that M thinks of herself as his mother is very telling. This is great stuff.

The Bond girls in this one were glamorous but not out of reach as so many of them have been. Olga Kurylenko provides a great look and a thirst for vengeance that’s a match for Bond’s own as Camille Montes. Gemma Arterton plays British agent Strawberry Fields (though her name is only given as Fields in the movie). Gemma had such screen presence that she is almost wasted in the rapid-fire backlash of the accelerating script, which is another area where a true plot in the film might have helped. I truly hope she gets another chance at a Bond film or something with equitable exposure on an international scale. She exudes innocence and independence all at the same time.

The villain, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), continues the new trend of having everyday villains instead of strangely warped ones. This is a big difference in the movies, but I’m all right with it so far. However, 007’s final fight with Greene at the end of the movie seems overwrought given that Bond has taken on multiple attackers at once earlier in the film. I had trouble believing that 007 would have trouble with one guy after riding roughshod over so many. However, the action was intense and there was a lot of emotion on another front.

Jeffrey Wright returns as Felix Leiter, and his budding camaraderie with Bond continues. Again, this is another relationship that’s fun to watch develop.

Marc Forster makes the most of his direction and the countries he was allowed to shoot in. Gorgeous countryside and old cities speed across the screen, all carefully orchestrated to ratchet up the tension. Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade concocted a killer plot that’s kind of believable (Bond films really haven’t been so much in the past) and filled with references to the world we all live in regarding natural resources and what’s currently dividing the world.

The film is sleek as a bullet and shot through with action sequences (most of them literally!). The frenetic pacing threw me off at times because the switchbacks simply came too suddenly and I couldn’t stay up with the plotlines. Conflicts rose and fell, M was constantly caught in the middle of things, and James was playing his own game and changing it after every rock he turned over.

Nope, a real international spy would be loath to blow up as many things as 007 does, and definitely wouldn’t have the body count, but this is espionage fantasy at its finest. Leave the critic at home, grab a big bag of popcorn, and settle in for one of the most action-packed 007 films of your life. You’ll leave with a smile on your face and an impulse to drop a heavy foot on the accelerator!

RIGHTEOUS KILL

I’ve been waiting for Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to do a movie together forever. Now I’m waiting for them to do a good one.

I know, that sounds kind of harsh, but after plunking down the bucks and spends months in happy expectation, I’m owed a sour grape or two on this review. That feeling doesn’t come from the acting. Both of them are as good as it gets, at the top of their respective games. But both of them get measured by the material they waded into.

I liked the initial scenes of them working a case together when a child killer gets off and De Niro decides to frame him for another murder. That plot point comes directly from the noir genre, when the good guy does a bad thing even though it’s for a good reason. That one small act sets up the ramifications that are to come.

If De Niro and Pacino weren’t involved in this movie, I don’t think audiences would have paid much attention. The trailers all paint it to be a serial killer movie where the serial killer is a cop. In fact, I was surprised to see the script take so long to develop that idea.

However, there is a big conceit in the film that sets up a nice twist (although I had it figured out before we got there, though – admittedly there were some curves along the way). Unfortunately, that twist also prevents me from talking about parts of the movie, the good and the bad.

The movie plays with time a lot, going back and forth with things as it escalates the action and builds suspense. De Niro and Pacino bring their respective characters to life almost effortlessly, and they play off each other well. However, the plot is almost a cookie-cutter serial killer movie that I’ve seen time after time. Even De Niro and Pacino couldn’t remove that miasma of familiarity.

One of the more stellar arcs of the movie is the enmity expressed between the two homicide teams vying for the lead on the murders. John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg deliver understated yet believable performances as the rival detective team.

Carla Gugino, beautiful as ever, portrays a hard-nosed forensic cop involved with De Niro’s character. I had really mixed feelings about her character, but I think I was supposed to have those. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson played a gang banger leader that became interwoven in the plot. Brian Dennehy was the crotchety boss that’s in every crime flick, leaning on the heroes and threatening to pull them off the case.

The city shots and action in the streets was well done. I felt like I was out there with them, running through alleys, and surrounded by cavernous buildings.

However, the murders and the notes accompanying them just felt like retreads. Playing with the time, shooting back and forth between the past and the present, helped off-set some of the plodding nature of the investigation, but not by much.

I enjoyed watching De Niro and Pacino. I always do. But they just needed something stronger to do in this movie than what they had. When the final frames played through, with the terribly predictable ending after all the secrets had been revealed, I felt robbed in a way. I got De Niro and Pacino, but I didn’t get the movie that I was led to believe would be delivered.

If you missed it in the theaters, the movie will be a good DVD rental. I’ll pick up a copy for nostalgia and watch it again when I’m not feeling so critical, but I don’t think I’ll change my opinion about the package.

 

EAGLE EYE

Eagle Eye landed in movie theaters after a big advertising push. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie stars Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, and Billy Bob Thornton in the key roles. I loved the teasers and trailers I saw, and my appetite was thoroughly whetted for an action/adventure romp.

When the movie opened up with a Middle East terrorist operation, I knew the show wasn’t going to stay out of politics and that bothered me somewhat. Given everything that’s going on in the news at present, I really wanted a respite from politics and the twins, doom and gloom.

Once Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) was onscreen, the tone took a definite change. I relaxed a little as we got into Jerry’s life, and that became a landslide of change when he’s notified of his twin brother’s death. In just a few short moments more, the game was in play. Jerry gets framed for being a terrorist in a way that forcibly made you check disbelief at the door. The first incredible thing, to me, was that he opened all the boxes containing weapons and military intelligence information. After the first one, I would have been out the door. I wouldn’t have needed the creepy voice on the phone.

Unfortunately, Jerry’s instincts are hampered by the script, which says that he’s supposed to stand around there and get caught by Homeland Security. The second incredible thing to me is that Jerry’s connection to his dead brother and the top secret project he was working on didn’t immediately trigger a lot of red flags throughout the intelligence community.

LaBeouf really pulls off the character, though. Jerry felt real, a desperate slacker blindsided by something far beyond his comprehension. Michelle Monaghan plays Rachel Holloman, a single mother, who gets trapped in the same web of deceit and double-cross that has snared Jerry.

After the opening acts have played out, I started grooving on the movie. It feels very Hitchcockian, and I was reminded again and again of North by Northwest, including the attack plane pursuit. I love movies with lots of action, layers, and duplicity that keep me guessing throughout. Eagle Eye did precisely that.

I loved the escalating chase and the unknowable stakes involved. Billy Bob Thornton plays Special Agent Tom Morgan and provides a lot of tough guy lines perfectly. He won me over immediately and ratcheted up the suspense by being so good and so dogged at his pursuit. Rosario Dawson portrays Air Force Office of Special Operations Special Agent Zoe Perez as his counterpart in the USAF. Both of them have limited time onscreen, but they deliver solid performances that keep the movie spinning like a top.

I had a blast during the movie, but a lot of it went through very familiar moves. There’s nothing in Eagle Eye that hasn’t been seen before, but it’s solid entertainment and the kind of story that I love watching. The special effects and stunt crews obviously had a great time putting this movie together, because there didn’t seem to be anything that didn’t get wrecked, shot, or “blowed up real good.”

One stumbling block, for me, was the final scene of the movie. It just felt like a Band-Aid, something that Hollywood insisted on sticking in to hint at a romance. The story was tight enough that it didn’t need the romance. The final scene in North by Northwest works because the story lent itself to that subplot. This one just doesn’t work and felt false.

I forgive the movie its political overtones and undisguised President bashing because it was fun. If you’re going to get irritated over either of those issues, I’d suggest passing this one up. But if you want an actioner with heart, plenty of tech-paranoia, and solid characters doing what they’re supposed to do, Eagle Eye is fun, fast-paced, and entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

UNTRACEABLE

I watched the trailers for Untraceable with great interest and figured I’d go see it at the theater. I’m a sucker for the techno thriller involving computers and hacking.

Instead, life got in the way, then it was gone faster than I thought it would be. But the images of the action remained in my mind. When I saw it was coming out on DVD, I figured I’d pick it up. I even popped the extra bucks for a Blu-ray edition because that’s become my format of choice.

Diane Lane plays an FBI cybercrimes special agent, Jennifer Marsh. She discovers a website called killwithme.com and the violent sociopath driving it. She’s recently widowed, has a small child, and is definitely a candidate for a romantic subplot. However, that would have slowed the plot down and been a distraction.

Instead, the movie focuses on two issues that are made clear throughout the story. As a society, cyber technology has made our lives easier, but it has also made us much more vulnerable to anyone that knows how to turn that technology against us. The movie clearly shows that most people don’t know what they’re doing when they buy a new piece of software or download something off the internet.

The second message is a lot darker. Cyber technology has made voyeuristic vampires of a large segment of the population. Everyone wants to tune into some sort of “personal” website when they’re one of a select “few.” And they want to do it from the safety of their own homes.

I hope that the movie misrepresents how many people would tune in to watch someone get murdered, but I may be naïve. But in the movie, that cascade of viewers ends up being a load that invariably kills the bad guy’s victims faster and faster.

With the movie pared down to move and counter-move, a series of escalating losses as the FBI team closes in, Untraceable speeds along at a nice clip. In the movie theaters, savvy technocrats might not have been able to question as much of the killer’s computer abilities as I was. I watched the film with my wife and we paused it at certain intervals to make sure we were both registering the same information. Then we pointed out the plot holes to each other in the computer tech as well as the characters’ action.

The movie works well as a barn-burner, the action gets faster and faster, and the stakes spiral upward at an alarming rate. I’m glad the decision was made not to use Marsh’s daughter and mother against her, but I fully expected them to be used as bait. In fact, they were so much onscreen that I was almost ticked that they weren’t used in this fashion. At the end, when they promptly vanished to safety, I was irritated that I’d been distracted by the whole foreshadowing of the family-in-danger plot twist.

Still, I was emotionally involved to a degree as the characters pursued their target, and I was constantly trying to figure out how all the deaths tied together. When the reconstruction of what had happened – and why – came about, it was almost handed off to the audience in basically a memorandum sequence. And once the series of events was given a logical progression, the killer promptly broke his motivation for killing the people he chose.

The movie made sense, and then it didn’t. Untraceable is highly watchable, and the messages it carries are worthwhile, but in the end the film comes up short of making a lasting impression. Even the final scenes seems to be by rote and the fade to black is jarring, not smooth.

The Blu-ray disc comes with special features that include audio commentary by Director Gregory Hoblit, Producer Hawk Koch, and Production Designer Paul Eads. It’s worth listening to in order to see how they dealt with the different decisions of filming. The behind-the-scenes featurettes are interesting. But the real kicker is the exclusive to the Blu-ray experience, the Picture-in-Picture presentation that runs concurrently with the move. This is just another example of all this emerging technology at work. Who simply watches a home movie anymore when there are all those extras to play with as well?

GET SMART

I wasn’t a big fan of Get Smart when Don Adams starred as Maxwell Smart in the television series. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was more into serious spying, as with James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry enjoyed their take on spydom and the recent big-screen treatment takes a lot from that treatment.

I also have to admit that I’m new to Steve Carell. I haven’t seen any of the episodes of The Office yet, though everyone I know treats me like I just kicked their dog when I mention this. I saw him in Evan Almighty and was really impressed with how he managed several saving graces during a movie that just didn’t come together the way it should have. Carell’s performances and everyday demeanor just really appealed to me.

With the summer upon us, I’ve tried to take my wife and son out to the theater once a week. We’ve got a new Warren Theater in town and I’m trying to patronize it because it is so good. When we saw Get Smart was releasing, we figured we’d go see it, but we weren’t in any hurry to. My wife and I had both seen the television series, and my ten year old has lately developed a love of spy movies.

Director Peter Segal has a history of comedic movie successes and definitely kept the original series in mind when he made the movie. However, the character of Maxwell Smart stands out as capable as well as socially inadequate. I was surprised to see Smart in action, proving himself to be a great shot as well as good in a fight. I didn’t expect that and it made the movie even more enjoyable. The first shooting range exercise with Smart and Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson) caught me off-guard. From then on, I paid more attention because I knew things weren’t going to be exactly as I remembered.

From the beginning of the film, with all the security doors opening and closing ponderously, and with the phone booth waiting at the end, the movie feels incredibly like an episode of the television series. When Smart was revealed to be an analyst, that underscored the pedantic way his character always delivered his lines and the way his mind worked while building subterfuges. It was a refreshing “origin” story in that respect.

Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 is sexy, provocative, and violent, as much a perfect foil for Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart as Barbara Feldon was to Don Adams. She looked absolutely lovely and was excellent in the role.

Dwayne Johnson stars as smug, self-assured Agent 23, but he’s supportive of Maxwell Smart’s promotion to a field agent. He’s got an ease for bringing larger-than-life characters to movie screens that seems almost innate for him.

Alan Arkin as the Chief was simply inspired. I was laughing constantly whenever he was involved. Arkin’s pitch-perfect delivery of his lines and the way his voice naturally is works well together. I didn’t think anyone would replace Edward Platt as the original Chief from the series, and in truth Arkin hasn’t, but he comes close. His interpretation of the character was great but still different than Platt’s.

The plot, while not terribly original – since it menaces L. A. with yet another nuclear device, serves to hold the story together. Maxwell Smart saving the world in his own inimitable style is what the film is all about, and it delivers everything the trailers promise.

But the goodness doesn’t end there. Bruce and Lloyd, two of the nerdy agents in the movie, also have a direct-to-DVD solo adventure that’s out in stores now. Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control is an adventure actually sandwiched during the same time frame as the movie. Sort of a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch spin-off that looks great. Masi Oka (Heroes) and Nate Torrence (Capital One commercials) play the title heroes. Patrick Warburton (Rules of Engagement) plays Hymie the Robot.

Get Smart is a must-see summer movie. Take the family because this one has something for everybody.

 

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

After almost twenty years of waiting, Indiana Jones is back and once more on the trail of an elusive artifact. Harrison Ford reprises the character in the fourth movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The time frame has been moved to 1957 and the movie opens up with Elvis Presley blasting “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Ironically, the song was written with a female singer in mind who would be singing about her boyfriend. The singer didn’t quite fit the song, but it still made a big hit.

That’s kind of what’s happening with Indiana Jones this time. I think Indiana has a hard time fitting into the 1950s. I much preferred him in the 1930s and 1940s. The world was still so big and so raw during that time. By the Cold War, we’d become aware of how small the world was getting, and how everything seemed to be about the coming days instead of the past ones.

The pulp magazines and serial movies that Indiana Jones had more or less sprung from were dead by this time. It was the end of a fantastic era for heroes.

So, in a way, maybe it’s fitting that the last Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones movie would be set in this time frame.

Harrison Ford is simply an amazing actor. After twenty years, he swaggers back into the role and leaps into the saddle. My God, but it was fun watching him square off against the villains, against overwhelming odds, and figure out clues to archeological mysteries. No one could have ever done this role as well, nor will they ever do it again. Harrison Ford is the epitome of a down-to-earth hero rising to meet outlandish circumstance. His facial expressions alone are with the price of the ticket.

In previous movies, Ford did most of his own stunts. This time around, he didn’t have that luxury. But I was surprised at how lithe and spry he was as he performed the ones that didn’t risk significant injury. He leapt and climbed and ran with grim authority, if not with the alacrity of his younger years. The man is in fantastic shape. Again, the sheer beauty of the Indiana Jones character is that, like Batman, fans can aspire to do what he does. Even when he’s a senior citizen.

Ford still delivers the stalwart hero, the wisecracks, and the tough guy patter. When asked for final words while facing dozens of guns and certain death, Indiana says, “I like Ike.” Of course, I had to explain that Ike was President Eisenhower to my ten year old, but the sentiment fit the time period. The whip action, though not as much of it as I wanted, was in place. During one cool sequence, we see that Indy knows he’s not quite the man he used to be when he swings after a fleeing truck and ends up short of the leap.

One of the best bits about the movie was the nostalgia of seeing Indy toss bad guys from the vehicles he commandeers during the action sequences. The action is still over the top, and I’m still a sucker for it.

Shia LeBeouf stars at Mutt Williams and does an outstanding job of following in Indy’s shadow while at time stepping out and seizing a scene. I’ve constantly admired LeBeouf’s acting, and he gets better every year. (Now that trailers for Eagle Eye, his new film, are breaking, I’m even more interested to see what he can do in a serious thriller.) LeBeouf carries the role well, first as a greaser then as Indy’s progeny because they exhibit a lot of the same traits.

Cate Blanchett is terrific as the Russian villainess. She seems spooky and ethereal from the moment she steps into the scene, and she’s a definite challenge for Indy and company. I liked the look she had. The hair bob was a really nice touch, and the choice of a rapier as a personal weapon was great. She has outstanding stage presence in the movie and looks as relentless as a Terminator in her pursuit of Indiana and the ultimate goal.

The film plays fairly with the 1950s as well. There’s an atomic explosion, paranoia about Communism, and the rivalry between Joe College and the greasers, which I feel certain George Lucas wanted in for nostalgia of his own. But once America is left behind, the timelessness of foreign countries sets in.

The settings looked authentic. The sequence where Indy and Mutt find the final resting place of the “lost” Spanish explorers is well-done. Those scenes are eerie and scary at the same time, and the action is breath-taking. The river sequences were well done, even if though expected.

The special effects guys must have had a blast. Not only on the settings, but on the action as well. The army ants looked and sounded chilling as they took their victims, and the camera work that incorporated all of those elements was superb.

I was particularly enthralled by the “solution” of the puzzle at the hidden city at the end. I thought it was ingenious, but I wish I’d been given a little more time to study the puzzle, been offered more clues, and gotten to think onscreen with Indy. However, not even he solved this one, though I don’t doubt for a moment that he would have. I just wish I’d had a better chance at it.

A lot of people might not be happy with the film. I had some problems with it. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) was given really short shrift in the movie. She doesn’t come on stage till really late, and by then the plot and story are moving so fast that she’s almost eclipsed except for some important reveals. We get no sense of how she’s spent the last twenty years. She was stunning in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and I’d always wondered what it would have been like if she and Indy had hooked up for more adventures.

Another problem for some, me included, involves a spoiler (so here’s your warning) that seems to already be out there on the internet. Even before the film wrapped, there were several rumors that the fourth Indiana Jones film would involve out-of-this-world archeology. In short: aliens.

We got that message loud and clear when the movie beginning more or less starts in Area 51. In minutes, we learn that Indy assisted in the recovery of the alien bodies from the wreck back in 1947.

I personally don’t think aliens and Indy belong in the same movie. However, given Lucas and Spielberg’s affinity for aliens (Star Wars and E. T.), I can’t blame them for wanting to lead Indy that way to tie him into the other worlds they’ve created. But they lost me a little. I was suddenly reminded I was watching a movie, a cool movie, but a movie nonetheless. I ended up being outside of the film in a way that jarred me, and the final scene with the flying saucer taking off was almost anti-climatic at that point.

That being said, Spielberg once again proves himself to be the master of the action movie. The two-hour long film sprints unflinchingly across the screen. There’s hardly time to draw your breath before Indy is thrown pell-mell into some new danger. The motorcycle chase was great, the fight scenes were enthralling, and the scene in the library when a student asks Indy an archeological question after he and Mutt slide across the floor is priceless.

TEETH

When Teeth first started getting shopped around as a possible film project, the premise raised immediate interest…and eyebrows. No one, after hearing the subject matter, could have been totally comfortable with the prospect of the film. I known when I read about it I had my doubts whether the movie could be successfully made in a manner that would allow it the screen time it needed at the box office. However, the potential as a cult hit and a fan favorite nagged at me like a, well, sore tooth.

The idea just wouldn’t go away. As evidenced in the DVD’s special features, the concept of a toothed vagina is spread over several cultures around the world, though there have never been any actual reported cases of it.

Still, I was intrigued and prepared for the worst. I figured the gratuitous violence and potential for maiming scenes would be at an all time high. Instead Director Mitchell Lichtenstein choose to tell a solid story based in a dysfunctional family and with the jaded view of high school as a backdrop. Both of these areas are way too common in our world these days, and they allow Teeth to explore those areas while at the same time shocking the viewer with the diametrical opposition of Dawn’s innocence and capacity for vengeance.

I’m not familiar with Jess Weixler’s other work, but she turns in a great performance as a budding ingénue with a secret that she doesn’t even know about. If she doesn’t get typecast as the Teeth girl, I think she’s going to pull down some serious roles in the near future.

John Hensley stars as bad boy stepbrother Brad. He’s been around several television series (Nip/Tuck) and movies, but just hasn’t broken out. He portrays evil really well in this film. I didn’t like him from the moment he stepped on stage and I waited constantly for him to get his comeuppance.

The movie, for all the imagined gore that comes to mind, is surprisingly less graphic than I thought it would be. The scenes of violence are less bloody than they could have been, and were maybe more jarring because of it.

The pacing is slow at the beginning, but it builds Dawn’s character and shows what she’s up against. All the betrayal she’s going to face is skillfully negotiated up front in the build-up, and most viewers that stick with this one are going to understand where she’s coming from when the end of the movie comes.

However, the “adaptation” that Dawn harbors within her is never – to my satisfaction – adequately explained. It’s supposed to be a jump in evolution, but no one hazards a serious guess as to how this happened. Demonic possession would have been an easy plot hook to hang it all on, but that wasn’t present either. So the biological difference that gives the movie its name and its bite is more a plot convenience than anything serious.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. As with any good horror movie with a touch of black comedy, there were moments when I didn’t know whether to be appalled or howl with laughter. Sometimes I did both – at once. Teeth is a lot of what viewers will expect to see based on the premise, but the movie has some definite seriousness to it as well as a message about being female in today’s world.