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Spectre (2015)

MV5BMjM2Nzg4MzkwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA0OTE3NjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It’s hard to keep a franchise that can almost count its decades on one whole hand fresh and relevant, but Daniel Craig’s time as 007 has done just that. Starting with 2006’s magnificent Casino Royale, we got a grittier Bond, a man with a bruised psychology that was interested in more than just how many bad guys he could callously kill and sexy ladies he could securely seduce. It was a franchise that modeled itself more after the Jason Bourne films, and it worked tremendously, giving the 40-year-old franchise new relevancy for modern audiences that have grown up on the Bond canon. 2012’s Skyfall was the biggest bond hit of all time, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. It was going to be a hard act to follow. Spectre, for all intents and purposes Craig’s franchise farewell, is a lousy swan song. It’s the weakest of the Daniel Craig Bond era but that claim would require me to rewatch 2008’s Quantum of Solace; however, just from memory, Solace had more engaging moments, stunts, and even a better theme song, so I’ll stick with my proclamation: Spectre is the most mediocre Craig Bond.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is hunting the organization responsible for the deaths of those closest to him, namely Vesper (Eva Green) and the prior M (Judi Dench). His path has lead to the nefarious SPECTRE terrorist organization and its mysterious and feared leader (Christoph Waltz), who has his own personal reasons for causing Bond misery.

maxresdefaultThe movie’s biggest mistake was its insistence that the audience will want to know how all the events tie together as a whole. Due to this position, it makes Spectre the awkward retcon exercise it is, trying to provide winks and nods to past Craig Bond outings while saying, “Oh yeah, all that evil stuff, well this guy is The Guy behind it all.” Adding an extra layer of a criminal conspiracy doesn’t somehow make those events more interesting or provide the need for conclusion; it piggybacks off the earlier movies and pretends it has shown its own work. Spectre thinks the accumulated plot events and deaths of three movies is the same as properly setting up a story and its villains, and that’s just not the case. The other problem with trying to connect the dots to three previous movies is that Spectre has even fewer chances to stand on its own merits, which are admittedly fewer. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) is a bland addition as a Bond Girl, and oh does she pale in comparison to the capable and indispensable Rebecca Ferguson in the latest Mission: Impossible sequel. Their relationship is never as interesting or as properly developed as the film thinks. The stakes of the movie (surveillance abuse) feel too abstract and low-key, or at least poorly articulated, to feel important. If you’re going to turn the focus of the narrative on offering an apparent climax for multiple movies, it better deliver and feel like it was worth the effort, and Spectre just does not feel like that.

The other thing hat just doesn’t work is the bad guy, which is puzzling because Waltz was born to play a James Bond villain. The Craig Bonds have followed the more stripped down route even in their villains, once the parlance of the most colorful megalomaniacs that action cinema had to offer (and there’s also the eccentric henchmen). There’s a delayed buildup to revealing Waltz (Django Unchained) where other characters will talk in hushed whispers about just how dangerous and powerful the man in charge of Spectre is. A nagging problem is that we’re too often told these things without being shown them. A similar problem affected Skyfall where we spent half the film being told how dangerous and skillful its villain was, but at least Silva (Javier Bardem) lived up to the hype when he arrived, at least for a little while before degenerating into your standard psychopath. Waltz has exactly two sequences before the final showdown. That’s it, and for one of them he’s almost entirely in shadow at the end of a large table of shadowy figures. He’s not given a strong angle to play with his villain (spoilers) and his ultimate personal connection to our 007 agent feels far too forced and slight. Just like the rest of its hasty retconing, Waltz’s connection is meant to feel significant but its not dealt in any way like it should be significant. It’s almost a casual toss-off. It’s even worse when Waltz calls Bond his “cuckoo,” meant to be dark but is just really silly. Waltz is completely wasted in what is little more than a perturbed middle manager role. His climactic showdown with Bond feels impractical even for Bond movies. His downfall is even worse and made me laugh out loud how easily it all comes crashing down. If the emphasis of your movie is how the Big Bad is responsible for all the previous misfortune, then you better make sure the character was worth the wait.

spectre-daniel-craig-monica-bellucciSam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) returned to the director’s chair and stages some nicely photographed sequences, but with the exception of a stirring opening sequence, the action of Spectre is quite tame and forgettable. The opening in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations has an interesting atmosphere and an ongoing tracking shot to pull us in from the start. From there, Bond has to take out a high-profile Spectre baddie and their struggle eventually carries over into a helicopter, both men punching wildly and trying to hold on for dear life as the copter whizzes upside down repeatedly. It’s a good set piece with some fun and unique aspects, like Bond escaping the crumbling wall of a building, but it’s the sheer thrill of watching the battle inside the helicopter that makes this opener a doozey. After that, I was sad to discover that nothing could measure up. Skyfall also peaked with its opening action caper but it still held my interest as it barreled toward its conclusion. I was resisting the urge to go to sleep with Spectre. An air chase over the trails of a mountain is interesting but doesn’t evolve, which is something vital to all exciting action sequences. If the action is static, it’s most often not going to be good after the initial rush wears off. There’s a decent car chase late at night in Rome but I got to think why Bond would be fleeing just one henchman even if that paid muscle were played by physical brute David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy). The film’s budget was reportedly $245 million and I just do not know where that money went.

The Craig era will be known for revitalizing the franchise, saving it from its self-parody excesses that were swallowing the series alive. We were watching Craig’s version of 007 become the hardened, quip-heavy, flippant killing machine and womanizer, except that he doesn’t feel like that character by the end of Spectre. If the course of four films was to bring the Bond we know into fruition, then it didn’t quite work, and that personally thrills me. Craig’s character is far more interesting, haunted by the people he couldn’t save, than the action hero Bond staple. However, while Craig’s character maintained a trajectory that staid true to its aim of bringing more depth to its central hero, the series was starting to hew closer to the classic Bond mode of empty bombast, and Spectre is the final proof of this. It’s getting closer to the crazy villains and spy hijinks of old territory. It’s a story that wants climax and resolution but cannot supply it without relying heavily upon the three previous movies to supply the weight this one lacks. It’s a rather lackluster farewell for Craig, an actor who deserved better. Judging by his interviews, I think he’s just happy to be out. He’ll be missed. Spectre will not. Now bring on Idris Elba please!

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond franchise, one of the most enduring of all time, has been open to criticism since it came back in a big way with 2006’s Casino Royale. Fans have started to whine that the Bond movies are no longer the Bond they remember, and they’re probably right. In 2006, the producers decided to go back, reboot the series, and introduce a more grounded Bond, a man with more demons than quips. This backlash to a successful reboot seems so funny to me, especially considering the dubious nature of these older Bond movies. Can we all just take a moment and objectively admit that half of the Bond movies are absolutely awful? Skyfall is the third in the new Daniel Craig Bond era, and it’s received universally ecstatic reviews. It’s a fine work, surprising and satisfying in equal measure, but it’s no Casino Royale for me, but what can be?

James Bond (Craig) is recovering from a serious injury after a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally shoots Agent 007. In her defense, he was atop a speeding train battling a baddie and her boss, M (Judi Dench), ordered her to fire. In the weeks that follow, Bond is struggling to adapt. He’s lost a step physically and now has to deal with his own doubts. Naturally, this isn’t the most opportune time for crises of faith. MI6 is under attack by one of their own, a former agent turned powerful techno-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem). The man has a serious grudge against M and is exposing MI6 undercover agents to punish her. After an attack at MI6 HQ, the agency is left scrambling and sends Bond out to nab Silva, even if Bond isn’t physically ready to return to field duty. Silva is determined to kill M and destroy the agency that left him for dead.

While Skyfall is indeed a good Bond movie and worlds better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it still cannot meet the rapturous applause it’s receiving among critical circles. It starts off strong with a nifty action sequence in Istanbul (the go-to action setting for 2012). Bond is chasing a bad guy, and we go from foot chase to car chase to rumbling on top of a speeding train. And there are natural complications that take advantage of geography! When Bond hops on the train, he climbs into a construction crane to fight back, smashing open the back of the train car. It’s a terrific opener that gets things starts briskly, and the sexual chemistry between Craig and Harris (28 Days Later) is palpable. Then the movie pretty much deflates in the second half. There’s a build-up to the villain and his master plot, but once that plot is revealed the film can’t live up to the hype. There are enough plot elements that feel important but eventually get discarded. Here’s a minor example: Bond is given a handgun programmed to his palm print, so it will only fire with Bond wielding it. It’s the only gadget in the movie, so you’d expect it to be utilized in a significant way. One nameless thug uses it then gets eaten by a Komodo dragon. That is it. Seems like an awful waste of funds for it to be thrown away so casually.

The last act has a protracted finale in Scotland, exploring Bond’s ancestral home and his tragic backstory. I’d like to think the insights we’re offered are important but I don’t believe they are. Bond was an orphan (the best recruits, says M) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) was his quasi-father figure/caretaker. It’s not enough to compensate for the slack pacing and encroaching boredom present. The good guys are holed up in an estate, waiting. And that’s what you want in a Bond movie, let alone any action film, for the heroes to sit and wait. An action movie should be building to a climax of intensity, thematically as well as plot-wise. Skyfall is that rare Bond film that flirts with coming undone; each passing action sequence seems less interesting than the one before.

With Mendes directing and Roger Deakens, the greatest working cinematographer, at his disposal, this has to be the best looking Bond movie. The shot compositions are often stunning, making fine use of the visual space and the balance of light and shadow. There are even some shots that might remind you of Mendes previous films like American Beauty or Road to Perdition. Added with some above average action, it makes the thrills an even better sight. There was a fight sequence in a Chinese high-rise almost completely in unbroken silhouette, with the neon tentacles of advertisements dancing in the background. It’s a wonderful image. Even when the movie was losing me at points, I could at least admire the visuals. I was worried that Mendes would not have a deft feel for action. After all, another indie director mostly known for dramatic work, Marc Foster, helmed Solace. That selection did not work out so well, though the script was notably weak. Mendes, on the other hand, can stage some pretty exciting action sequences with judicious editing, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. He’s not exactly a knockout when it comes to constructing action sequences, but the results are more than adequate for a guy whose last two movies were Away We Go and Revolutionary Road.

For the previous Craig entries, it feels like the movies have borrowed more from Jason Bourne than Bond. They’ve gone for a grittier, darker, more realistic portrayal. Skyfall takes a very interesting angle with the character, showing a Bond coming to terms with his physical limitations. It’s a Bond that has to confront his most nefarious foe: aging. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells the agent that the whole spy business is “a young man’s game.” In the old days, you needed men with lairs in volcanoes and giant doomsday lasers. Now you can send the world into irreversible chaos with a laptop. Skyfall is at its most engaging when it confronts the old world of spies and the scary new world of technology. Can the Queen and MI6 compete or will they be left behind? Bond and his organization must confront their limitations and mortality, and this added dimension of vulnerability makes the series far more emotionally resonant.

Here’s my main problem with the villain: it’s a bait and switch affair that leads to unfulfilled potential. Silva has been spoken of with such awe, a man who could bring governments to their knees with the click of a button. He’s made out to be this dangerous cyber-terrorist genius. So what happens for the second half of the movie? He chases people around and shoots guns. It’s like Skyfall completely forgets what made their villain special. Bardem gives a flamboyant performance with an extra dash of actorly nuttiness, but it’s nowhere near the memorable menace of 2007’s No Country for Old Men. That’s an unfair comparison, I know, but where the movie really starts losing it is when Silva loses it. He becomes just another garden variety psychopath, though one with a creepy oedipal complex. Psychopaths do not work in the James Bond universe. Agent 007 needs a foil that is smart, not crazy and a mad genius rather than mad. I recognize that Silva’s psychological shambles is meant to be a sign of the potential fate of all agents, let alone agents that are given up by M. That doesn’t mean you abandon all the traits that make the villain who he is. The problem with Silva, despite a rather jarring monologue about the effects of surviving a cyanide capsule, peaks with his first appearance. He has a grand entrance and places Bond in a very precarious position, forcing him to confront his physical failures. That’s the villain I want to see. And the awkward handsiness of Silva will also lead many to question whether he’s gay, which wouldn’t matter if the movie wasn’t so clunky.

It also feels like Skyfall may be the conclusion to this incarnation of Bond. I know Craig has been signed for two more films, and that’s great news as he’s fully made the character his own at this point, but the movie seems to setup the Bond we’re better acquainted with. We started from scratch with Casino Royale and now the familiar world, with the reemergence of familiar characters, is coming into focus. The scenes with the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a gangly whiz kid, are enjoyable and they contribute thematically to the old vs. new/age vs. youth conflict at heart. This feels like a transition film, meant to pass from the bruising realism into the polished pyrotechnics of the franchise’s past. There’s a reason the famous gun barrel shot happens to conclude the movie, because by the end of those 142 minutes, it now feels like the formation of James Bond has completed. There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Bond aficionados to lap up. Even the (lackluster) title song by Adele is in the vein of the old Shirley Bassey numbers.

While not living up to the exultant hype machine, Skyfall is certainly a good Bond movie, though not nearly good enough to be in the conversation of the best. The action starts strong but is prone to diminishing returns especially as the movie transforms into a more ordinary action thriller. The most memorable sequence is in the opening, which isn’t a very good sign for the rest of the movie. It’s still a suitable action movie, and one that pays closer attention at character for a character that’s lived for 50 years in various film incarnations, but just because it pays more attention to character doesn’t mean it does it well. Perhaps I’ve just become spoiled after the artistic and commercial heights of Casino Royale. This is still an entertaining movie that often looks great and has some great actors doing suitable work. We’re still far and away from the loonier Pierce Brosnan episodes, so there is that. I imagine audiences will be more favorable than I am and make Skyfall the most successful James Bond film in history. That’s fine because it feels like, with everything established, that we’re about to hit a new and exciting phase with Craig’s version of the character, and that will leave me shaken and stirred.

Nate’s Grade: B

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Never as good as a film should be given the talent involved, nor as bad as its detractors might have you believe, Cowboys & Aliens is an entertaining genre mash-up that’s about 60 percent Western, 30 percent alien thriller, and 10 percent naked Olivia Wilde, which is too small a percentage in my opinion. For a solid hour, the movie follows the rhythms of classic Westerns and Daniel Craig has a face vividly made for the Western canvas. The sci-fi elements feel well integrated in small doses, however, when the movie goes all-out intergalactic gun slinging is when the narrative gets swallowed whole by the crude blockbuster nature of this beast. The plot is pretty standard Man with a Dark Past stuff, and can we put a moratorium on people suffering amnesia and choosing to be better people? The characters never really feel real but they feel believably stock for their genre. For a PG-13 movie, the violence can get pretty gruesome, especially in its gooey disembodiment of the alien invaders. You almost feel sorry for these nefarious gold-hoarding (yes, you read that right, the aliens are after our gold – Glen Beck was right!) creatures. The action sequences are a notch above average, the emphasis on practical effects is appreciated, and the movie takes some darkly comic turns, which kept me amused even when the movie’s IQ was dropping at a precipitous rate for the last act. Cowboys & Aliens never pretends to be anything more, or smarter, than its blunt title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Nothing says holiday treat for the whole family like a nearly three-hour movie about rape. Late author Stieg Larsson’s best-selling trilogy made three very successful Swedish films, all released last year in indie theaters. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood optioned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, benefiting those averse to reading subtitles. At least they hired the right director in David Fincher, a man used to plumbing the depths of human depravity in films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Fincher’s take is pretty dark and hardcore, but once you wash all that perfectionist grime off, I prefer the Swedish film in just about every way.

Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is smarting from a court case that found him guilty of libel. He’s commissioned by a wealthy businessman Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his granddaughter, Harriet. Henrik strongly believes she was murdered by one of the sinister members of his extended family, a group of shady characters with some allegiance to Nazism. Mikael is assisted by the unorthodox computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a rail-thin Gothic gal clad in tattoos and piercings. Their partnership sometimes gets blurry as they grow closer over the course of the investigation. Together the pair investigates a series of grisly, ritualistic murders related to Harriet’s disappearance, and the closer they get to discover the truth the more dangerous things get.

So the burning question: is Fincher’s take better than the original Swedish version? Well, in some areas yes but in many areas I’d have to say no, that I prefer the lower budget, no-name Swedish version. Obviously a director of Fincher’s caliber is going to significantly raise the quality of a production, and the technical merits of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo are without question. This is a seedy, grimy, prurient, and very dark (in both lighting and thematic material) little movie. There’s always been an eerie beauty to Fincher’s cool aesthetics, and it’s on display here as well. Many of Fincher’s Social Network crew carried right over to Dragon Tattoo, so the editing is crisp, the cinematography sleek, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is a storm of ominous tones. Their plaintive score is actually a fairly unmemorable muddle, never approaching the energy, intricacy, or diversity of their Oscar-winning score for The Social Network. However, the extra polish and the glut of familiar actors takes away from the intrigue of the movie. When something meant to be gritty is too artistically stunning, it detracts from the thematic intent of the story. That sounds like a contrary way to insult Fincher for making his movie look too good, but perhaps that’s the best way of stating the point. Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere near the filmmaker that Fincher is, nor did he have the budget or creative freedom afforded Fincher, but perhaps someone of lesser talents was better suited to best tell this tale. By all means, the American Dragon Tattoo is a more visually alluring film, but Oplev’s film is more fully felt. I recently rewatched the Swedish version again for points of comparison and found myself much more involved in the characters, the story, and the actors, even though I had already seen the movie. Fincher’s version may be the better-looking movie, but surprisingly Oplev’s is just the better movie, period.

The adaptation by Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List) actually hews closer to Larsson’s book than the Swedish film, though Zallian redirects the film into a new ending. But the additions don’t seem to add anything of substance to the narrative (Blomkvist’s teenage daughter; dead cat), and the new ending feels more confused than helpful. Most of all, Zallian’s script devotes less time to the characters of Lisbeth and Blomkvist. I had a better understanding of these characters and their complicated, shifting relationship in the Swedish film. That narrative was much cleaner with helpful, clarifying procedural details and a dose of ambiguity. Simply put, the story just flowed better in the Swedish film. The personal connection Blomkvist had to Harriet (she was his babysitter long ago) has also been severed. Many of the story’s problems are still the same regardless of language or adapter. There is a clear disparity when it comes to audience interest in the two leads. What’s more interesting, a punky, bisexual, computer hacker or a disgraced, somewhat bland journalist? Exactly. Also, the story takes far too long to put our lead characters together, over an hour at that. The murder mystery is filled with murky plot points, pieces that seem like they might be integral but then turn out to be incidental. It takes a good while to process and familiarize oneself with the expository details of the case, but under Zallian’s draft, the mystery is given less room to breath. For a movie clocking in at 150 minutes, things feel untidy and rushed. The resolution feels drawn out to ungodly Lord of the Rings-lengths; I swear there must be a solid 20 minutes after the eventual serial killer is dealt with. It just feels like it goes on forever. Still, the characters are what ultimately makes Dragon Tattoo engaging, and Zallian’s efforts cannot dampen the captivating, curious nature of Lisbeth Salander.

Both Craig and Mara give fine performances but I prefer both Swedish actors to the A-listers. Craig is certainly a better actor than his Swedish counterpart, but the role is a middle-aged journalist and not James Bond, and thus a better fit for the unknown Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist (Mission: impossible: Ghosts Protocol). Blomkvist isn’t supposed to be an ass-kicker. As a result, you don’t feel his terror as he gets in deeper and lands in serious physical jeopardy. Likewise, following in Noomi Rapace’s  (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) shoes was going to be a difficult feat for any actress, but Fincher got the girl he wanted, Mara, who tore down Mark Zuckerberg with precision in The Social Network. Mara commits herself completely to the role and undergoes a severe physical transformation (bleached eyebrows, wiry frame, nipple piercings), but she lacks the intensity of Rapace, the spiteful attitude, the recklessness and the resourcefulness. Rapace felt like a caged animal that could explode at any moment; Mara feels more like a lost puppy. I’m being intentionally cavalier with my word choice. Mara is quite good as Lisbeth; it’s just that Mara can’t quite measure up to the preceding tattooed girl. It feels like there’s a lot more going on with the Swedish Salander, whereas the American (still Swedish) Salander is waiting for her cue. It’s like Mara has dressed the part and waits for the character to just click over.

I’m not one for lazy analysis, but I feel like the uncomfortable issue of sexual violence/ voyeurism needs to be addressed, and I find that everything I wrote a year ago in my original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review could readily apply to its Hollywood counterpart. So here goes: “The book’s original title was ‘Men Who Hate Women’ and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies’ appeal.”

For those new to Lisbeth and Larsson’s sordid saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will more than likely play well, a squalid thriller with the nicest coat of gloss you could ever hope for given the material. This is dark, rape-heavy stuff, and an odd adult drama to position as a Christmas release, but the collective appeal of the best-selling books should guarantee so many butts in the seats. It’s likely a safe bet that a high majority of those paying customers are unfamiliar with the Swedish version of the same story, which is a shame because, short of a few technical advances, I believe the Swedish film to be the superior movie. It had better acting, more appropriate casting, a rounder narrative that fleshed out the characters, their relationships, and their histories better, and a better score (sorry Trent, better luck next time). It’s still a movie that registers a “good” on most critical accounts, and Lisbeth Salander is still a fascinating person, a wounded warrior that catches the imagination. I’ll be curious to see if the subtitle-free Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does well enough at the box-office to warrant filming the next two decidedly lesser books. Whatever the case, there will always be the Swedish films and Ms. Rapace’s star-making performance.

Nate’s Grade: B

Quantum of Solace (2008)

We pick up things almost immediately from where we last left James Bond (Daniel Craig). He’s been wounded by being betrayed by his deceased lover, Vesper (Eva Green). A shadow organization known as Quantum kidnapped Vesper’s boyfriend and threatened to kill him if she did not get close to Bond and then betray him. So now Mr. 007 is on the hunt for anyone associated with this secret club responsible for his lover’s demise. Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) is a slimy businessman who fronts an environmental company but really wants to control world resources. He’s a bigwig with Quantum and Bond follows along, leaving a trail of bodies behind that makes his agency believe he’s gone rogue. But Bond isn’t alone when it comes t seeking vengeance. Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is out to avenge the murder of her family by a Bolivian general, a close ally to Greene. She and Bond form a partnership that naturally extends into the bedroom.

Quantum of Solace feels less like a sequel than a plot hangover. Nothing remarkably new is thrown into the mix, and the story is drilled down to the brass tacks of finding whoever was responsible for Vesper’s betrayal and untimely death. Revenge is a fine motivating factor, and many great movies have been developed around the idea of vengeance, but Quantum of Solace barely takes a breath from the action because it really doesn’t have anything else holding together its tale. By the end of this caper we know precious little more than what we started with. We know there is a big bad shadow organization that “has people everywhere,” as big bad shadow organizations are wont to do in the Bond universe, and we know it’s name is Quantum and that it does bad things. That’s just about it, people. There’s even one plot point that is such a huge rip-off of an iconic image from Goldfinger that I’m baffled that either nobody caught it or they were naïve to think it would be a well-received homage (you’ll know it the instant you see it). The movie is the shortest Bond film ever, barely cracking 100 minutes, a full 40 minutes shorter than Casino Royale. It’s as if the filmmakers are expecting everyone’s good feelings from Casino Royale to cover up for the fact that the story is a leftover. It’s like the plot for Quantum was accomplished by the previous movie; therefore, this flick can be nothing but brawn and steely nerve. I’m not expecting my Bond movies, or even my action movies, to dazzle me with nuanced screenwriting, but I do expect there to be a little more something going on than, “Man chases intel. Gunshots and explosions occur. End.”

Naturally any hiccups or lapses in plot would be overlooked if the action sequences were something to get excited about. Quantum has taken the Bourne mantra to heart, far more so than its Bourne-flavored predecessor, and that means lots of bursts of action but told through quick-cuts that assault the senses. Now, I’m not one of those who complain about the Bourne fighting style and its infamous editing, but imitators generally fail to find the same pizzazz. The flick is front-loaded with 45 minutes or so of solid action but there’s never really any set-up to the action; it just sort of happens. What really hurts the movie is that none of the action sequences is truly memorable. I can easily recall three or four sequences from Casino Royale, but the only sequence in Quantum that I think will stick in my mind is a fight sequence over scaffolding where the camera follows the plunging actors. There are car chases, boat chases, airplane chases, foot chases, and it all has a more realistic vibe without the assistance of technological wizardry. The stunt work is still sterling but it?s fleeting moments of awe in a landscape of forgetful action sequences.

Making the franchise more closely mirror our own world is an interesting and mildly refreshing decision; it sure has helped the Batman franchise. But there are problems when the typical over-the-top fantastical Bond elements sneak back into the movie. The villainous organization Quantum is pretty vague. They look to rule the planet by some means, but then again if the Bond franchise is taking a more realistic approach then having a world-wide secret organization that can infiltrate loads of covert agencies is pushing it. The baddie of this go-round is an effete Euro trash businessman, fine, but don’t give him an axe and pretend that he’s going to be an effective force against Bond. Also, what’s the point of having a glass hotel in the middle of a desert? Why to blow it all to hell, of course. It reminded me a bit of the ridiculous ice palace in 2002’s Die Another Day.

Craig is still one of the best decisions the Bond producers ever made. He brings the same level of intensity he did to his blockbuster introduction to the series. Craig is all bruises and determination, doing whatever he can to get his answers. He does his best to show the humanity beneath the brutality, but the script fails him. He’s more reactionary this time and seems to behave like a missile that’s in search of its target ready to explode. The caged fury is still there but it seems put to less good use. Kurylenko (Max Payne) is less a Bond girl than an ass-kicking sidekick. She’s given some minute amount of back-story but she’s essentially the pretty face that gets to handle the big guns. Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) can be a sleazeball thanks to his natural bug eyes and he doesn’t get much more to do than sneer. He never comes across as being a fierce threat. Gemma Arterton (RocknRolla) is a fairly pedestrian Bond girl with a fairly tame name, Strawberry Fields. She plays the role like a hot librarian coming alive after being seduced by the sexiest man on the planet. Her time in the movie is so short that I question what significance she had other than supplying a requisite sex scene. Dame Judi Dench is still holding her head high amongst all the spy hijinks.

I think I have figured out a way to make Quantum of Solace feel like its own movie, though it does require some creative license. Pretend that Casino Royale ended shortly after Bond was freed from his naked genital torture (it still hurt to think about it). Now, imagine that the opening of Quantum of Solace is the last twenty minutes of Royale, where Bond and Vesper are canoodling in Venice before the bad stuff happens. That sets up Qauntum‘s conflicts and provides a plausible plot trajectory that makes the movie more its own entity; Vesper establishes the conflict, the conflict is resolved by the end of minute 100 (though it would be minute 120 if we’re adding and subtracting parts). Wouldn’t that be a better Bond movie? At least the film would then have one memorable action sequence, albeit the sequence was stolen from another movie.

I suppose my disappointment is coming across more than I intend, because Quantum of Solace is a rather solid action caper with exotic locations, some nifty camerawork, and a brutal efficiency when it comes to pacing out the action. I certainly was entertained and had a fun time with Quantum of Solace, and I?m sure most filmgoers will echo that experience. But in the age of a realistic James Bond cribbing from the Bourne franchise, I was expecting more than a leftover from an earlier albeit terrific movie.

Nate’s Grade:C+

The Invasion (2007)

The fourth remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a more interesting behind-the-scenes story than as a film. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) created a movie that was described as more psychological thriller than action chase movie. The studio and producers scrapped many pieces of the film, hired the Wachowski brothers to rewrite portions of the story and cram in some action, and then James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) directed the reshoots. As a result, the movie is wildly displaced and hacked together and never feels whole. There’s a slow burn of intrigue and mob madness and paranoia that gives way to chase scenes, car wrecks, and a ridiculously contrived happy ending. I’m sorry, but when you do The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you cannot have humanity win; that destroys the entire point of the story. It’s like having King Kong climb the Empire State Building and deciding to live there and dance for peanuts. Nicole Kidman and her lithe frame seem like an odd choice as humanity’s last hope with a gun. The Invasion flirts with some philosophical ideas about free will, assimilation, and the cost of peace, but then it speeds headfirst into an abrupt finish. This movie is unsatisfying to all parties.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Golden Compass (2007)

Beloved by many and condemned by others, Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, is widely popular. New Line Cinema placed an expensive wager in adapting the first book of the series, The Golden Compass, with the express desire of having their own Narnia-style franchise. Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) was hired to adapt and direct the enterprise. The final tally had the budget somewhere around $180 million, add in an extra $60 million for marketing, and New Line was pretty much banking their studio’s fortunes on this would-be fantasy blockbuster. Trouble is, there is not built in audience for a Golden Compass movie. The books are more popular overseas and less than ten years old, so there hasn’t been enough time to build a sense of lore or greater anticipation, like with Narnia. As of this writing, it looks like The Golden Compass is going to tap out at about $70 million domestic haul, and while I have no doubt that figure will be much higher overseas, I do not think it is a coincidence that soon after The Golden Compass fizzled New Line buried the hatchet with Peter Jackson and started the process on engineering two Hobbit movies. You see, that’s guaranteed money in the bank unlike The Golden Compass.

On a parallel Earth, people walk around with their souls in the form of animals known as daemons. These creatures serve as conscience, servant, and protector. Until a child reaches adulthood the daemon will often change form until it settles on one creature, be it a cat or a hawk or a toad. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered an inter-dimensional hole around the Arctic Circle, and a magical substance known as Dust is seeping through. The all-powerful Magisterium feels that they know best for others and that people need to be told what to do, and they most certainly do not appreciate Lord Asriel’s scientific discovery. They have decided to silence him permanently as he travels to the Arctic.

Meanwhile, Lord Asriel’s niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is investigating poor orphans that seem to be vanishing around her school. The Magisterium has taken an interest in Lyra and “asked” that she accompany Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an icy woman with a wicked monkey as a daemon. She has great hopes for Lyra, but soon the child realizes she is a prisoner in the care of Mrs.. Coulter and that the Magisterium is responsible for abducting children and conducting experiments to remove their daemons from them forever.

She escapes and heads to the North, and finds help amongst nomadic people known as Gyptians, an air cowboy (Sam Elliott), a group of flying witches led by Serafina (Eva Green, as lovely as ever), and a scarred and grumpy polar bear named Lorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) who has been exiled from the Ice Bear kingdom after losing in one-on-one combat with the cruel current king, Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane). Lyra leads this motley crew to the Arctic where the Magisterium is keeping the absconded children for experiments.

Most noticeably absent is a sense of wonder. The Golden Compass kind of plods along, and when new magical creatures are introduced they’re done so with such matter-of-fact complacency. If they can’t pretend to be impressed then why should I? There’s a difference between playing the fantastic straight and just shrugging it off. The structure of the screenplay doesn’t help things much. Many subplots feel rushed or grafted on to a lumbering plot that collects minor characters like static cling; it isn’t until the climax that the whole slew of people combines forces. As a result, some subplots are far more interesting than others, like the world of armored polar bears. This imaginative diversion, like much of Golden Compass, reveals itself as simply a side step in a plot littered with nothing but side steps. Just as soon as the storyline has started it’s pretty much over and the movie has moved on to new ground.

The movie fluctuates between the silly and the confusing. The hardest part of any fantasy film is establishing the rules and laws of this new realm, and The Golden Compass seems a tad overburdened in trying to explain its world. Weitz’s adaptation is heavy in lugubrious exposition without the benefit of drawn-out explanation. Often some character will explain something briefly and then the audience is left to orient themselves with this new morsel of information. Cosmic dust, alternate dimensions, Magesteriums, daemons, Gyptians, polar bears, witches, prophecies, it’s a bit much to decipher for an adult let alone a child (I’m convinced that the sluggish pace and confusing jumble of a story will totally bore kids). The golden compass itself is a very awkward creation and really has little purpose or connection to the events of the film. First off, in order to pose a question a person must align three hands to varying pictures to best describe what they will ask (how many pictures do you need to ask where you left your keys?).

The book’s anti-ideology stance has been severely watered down and replaced with half-hearted euphemisms. Gone are any overt references to the church or Christianity, instead the movie couches its ire in vague authoritarian terms, a giant entity that wants to separate children from their daemons (souls) to purify them from Dust (sin). I do find it amusing that the villainess is a tall, thin blonde woman named Mrs. Coulter, though this seems more coincidence than indignation. There is a brief scene in the film where a bunch of frowning, older white men (one of them Christopher Lee) sit around a table clucking their tongues and talking up their evil scheme; that’s about as provocative as the movie gets. But by sanitizing the book’s provocative nature, Weitz has produced a movie adaptation that feels too silly to be taken at face value and too bland to be taken as anything but.

From an effects-driven perspective, The Golden Compass is admirable even if few of the CGI works manage to truly dazzle. The special effects are sturdy for a tale with such demands as talking animals and winter icescapes. The bear battle is the film’s highlight but a climax involving a sprawling brawl, which visually indicates a person’s death by a daemon vanishing into a cloud of gold smoke, is fun to watch. Sadly, an ongoing sense of fun or enjoyment is missing from most of The Golden Compass. It feels more dutiful when it should be wondrous and timid when it should be exciting.

The Golden Compass is a less spirited fantasy adventure that skimps on what makes the genre special. It has no sense of awe and wonder, and even worse the movie is structured in a rush with little time for clarification and growing characters. The film is crammed with cheerless exposition and the bulk of the plot is built around a lame rescue attempt. Weitz has sanitized the intellectual and religious provocations of the book to appeal to greater mass audiences, but by doing so he’s robbed the audience of substantial subtext. The Golden Compass even ends on kind of an unresolved, Fellowship of the Ring, “Oh, it’s over” kind of way, finishing before even reaching the climax of the first book it’s based upon. I have read that the studio shot these scenes, and you can even see them in the original trailer and access them via the video game tie-in. They wanted to save them for the start of a second movie. It may be painfully obvious to most, but allow me to say it: there is not going to be a second movie. The Golden Compass is a slightly entertaining but mostly charmless fantasy film. Someone figure out the right three pictures to ask, “How could we have made this movie better?”

Nate’s Grade: C+

Casino Royale (2006)

This is very different James Bond and it’s about time. The Bond film franchise began all the way back in 1962, and it essentially became the blueprint for the modern action movie. Quips, alluring women, exotic locations, car chases, colorful villains, and spoiled plans for greed or world domination. But even if Bond got the ball rolling, the action movie became its own insatiable beast, thanks to the likes of studio bean counters and the ubiquitous uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The 90s Bond revival followed suit. The movies became more about extravagant fireballs, throwaway characters, and preposterous scenarios. After 2002’s Die Another Day, where Pierce Brosnan’s Bond drives an invisible car through a melting ice palace caused by a solar laser from space run by a yuppie playboy who really had the DNA of a North Korean dictator… well, you don’t need to be an expert to figure out that something was rotten in that state of Bond.

The Bond films have great history to them, but let’s not get overly romantic here; a majority of the James Bond movies are outright crap, especially the ones with Roger Moore. There were jaunts into space, men with metal teeth, Timothy Dalton, a title called Octopussy, and Christopher Walken trying to have California fall into the ocean. Let’s face it, half the movies are rubbish. Someone, anyone try and tell me the redeeming qualities of Moonraker. The last good-to-great Bond movie was Brosnan’s debut, 1995’s Goldeneye. The Bond franchise has been in desperate need for a makeover. This is it.

The producers went back to Bond basics. The long-time producers had the rights to every Ian Fleming novel, except for Casino Royale, which was turned into a cheesy comedy lampooning Bond instead of competing with the franchise. Several decades later, we’re given a serious adaptation of Royale, Fleming’s introductory book about the secret agent that rewrote movie rules. The new Bond has a splash of Jason Bourne in him and seems more tightly wound and hard-boiled. He doesn’t have time for trivial decisions like shaken or stirred. “Does it look like I give a damn?” he barks at the bartender.

Bond (Daniel Craig) is more thug with a badge than a suave secret agent. He’s just risen to double-O status and his boss, M (the incomparable Judi Dench), doesn’t feel that he’s ready or can be trusted. But then, he is the best poker player MI5 has. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is entering into a high stakes poker game worth millions of dollars. He’s playing with the money of African warlords and terrorists and has promised them a great return on their investment. Bond is assigned to gather information and stop Le Chiffre from financing terrorism. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is a representative of the bank that will be sponsoring Bond in the card game. It’s up to her to keep tabs on Bond and make sure her bank?s money is wisely invested.

Now this is what action movies should be like. Casino Royale is a terrific ride with great action sequences, great intrigue, strong acting, and some wonderfully exotic locations. The movie, like Bond to Vesper, sure feels the need to prove money was well spent. The story is smart and filled with sharp dialogue, perhaps thanks to co-writer Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash). This is Bond dialed back, stripped of fancy gimmicks and gadgets and left to battle with his wits and his brutality. This is a meat-and-potatoes action movie without irony or frills. It’s serious about its business and business, let me tell you, is good. Casino Royale is monstrously entertaining.

There was a lot of grumbling when Craig was selected as the next actor to fill the 007 shoes. Some scoffed at the idea of a blonde Bond, as if hair color had shot to the top of the list of important qualifiers. I wrote this about Craig after seeing 2005’s Layer Cake: “This man is a modern day Steve McQueen with those piercing blue eyes, cheekbones that could cut glass, and the casual swagger of coolness. We may never see Craig sweat but he still expresses a remarkable slow burn of fear so effectively through those baby blues.” This man is the perfect candidate for a Bond reboot. He has a boxer’s face, those wonderful eyes, and a sculpted body that will take many a breath away. But even better, Craig is likely the best actor that has even been tapped for 007. Connery will always be the sentimental favorite, and rightfully so, but Craig imbues his Bond with startling amounts of emotion and vulnerability. In the dramatic black and white opening, his first kill isn’t clean and quick, it’s long, drawn out, messy, and leaves Bond shaken, not stirred. His relationship with Vesper gives him even more opportunities to feel and be tortured, sometimes literally (Note: a naked torture sequence is far too intense for children, especially those with their genitals on the outside). Craig gives a rich performance. When he’s chasing bad guys you see the determination of his running, the anguish on his face. When he’s flirting with women you can practically feel the smolder. This is a far more pragmatic Bond and Craig is the right actor for the job.

Green leaves her mark as one of the best Bond girls in the franchise. Usually the Bond women are either respites for fine-tuned lovemaking, or damsels wronged by the eminent domain of evil. She’s sinewy and sexy in a way more film stars should be, and her acting is on top. She has a nice moment where she sits in the shower in shock after being witness to the reality of murder. She showed a lot of promise, and about every inch of herself in The Dreamers, and gives a commanding performance on her biggest stage.

Director Martin Campbell has some history with the Bond franchise, restarting it with Goldeneye. He’s a pro at orchestrating action sequences, and there are some doozies in Casino Royale. The beginning sequence is a thrilling foot chase inside a construction zone. Bond’s target, a bomb maker, bounces off walls, swings along ledges, and motors around beams and ladders like he was a trained monkey. It’s an exciting French style of acrobatics called Parkour, and it was used to dizzying effect in this year?s District B13. The chase just goes from one level to another, and the stunts are brutal and of the death-defying variety. It’s a showstopper opening. An airport sequence is also quite memorable, as Bond races to stop a bomb from reaching an airplane. Campbell has taken a hint from the Jason Bourne spy movies and made Bond more reactionary to his surroundings. Many fight sequences feel tense and un-choreographed, even though we know that isn’t the case. When this Bond gets into scuffles you don’t know whether he’ll make it out unscathed. Campbell keeps the pace steady and the visuals crisp. Best of all, Campbell allows the audience to fully see what’s taking place. There’s no MTV-style edits. The film feels totally in control like the best action movies do. You’ll feel battered, bruised, but exhilarated all the same.

However, Casino Royale is not a perfect action movie. It feels way too front-loaded; all the big action sequences seem to occur within the first hour. The film then settles in for a climactic game of… cards? I’m not one who fell into the spell over Poker on TV the last few years. It just doesn’t seem that thrilling to me to watch one guy turn over his cards and then wait for another to turn over their cards. There are only so many combinations to be had, and hoping for Bond to have a flush to beat out four of a kind is just not high drama. It’s luck. The poker scenes seem to last longer than they should, as does the film as a whole. This is on record the longest Bond movie ever, clocking in at 144 minutes. It’s a whole hell of a lot of fun, but the tacked on ending in Venice seems like an entirely different movie slapped together for closure. The villain is somewhat weak. He’s given a nifty visual item, weeping tears of blood, but it is meaningless. The plot also gets too convoluted for its own good, with double-crosses, triple-crosses, and finally a reveal as to who the Big Bad in Charge was and I could not for the life of me remember who he was. Seriously, there are so many characters and faces shoved in that the producers could throw us a bone. All I’m asking for is some clarity while I chow down on my popcorn.

Casino Royale is the Bond movie Ian Fleming would have paid to see. Craig and Campbell have given new life to a teetering franchise. This Bond is much scrappier and more cunning. The action sequences are slick and the movie is fun and engrossing, plain and simple. In the closing seconds, when the familiar notes of the James Bond musical theme come alive you will feel like the journey has been earned.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Munich (2005)

If 2005’s War of the Worlds was Steven Spielberg’s look at 9/11, then Munich should be considered his examination of the aftermath. What could be more relevant today than a film about combating terrorism, violent reprisals, and where a government leader says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values?” Anyone seen the news lately? Spy eavesdropping, prison abuses, hemming and hawing on what the definition of torture is, it’s all compromised values in the name of security. This is our world and Spielberg analyzes the costs of war. Munich is visceral, haunting, thoughtful, and compelling as both an idea piece and as a mainstream thriller. It’s Spielberg’s most mature work in a decade.

In 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September took 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the Munich Olympics. The world watched as the standoff stretched for hours, finally ending in a firefight at the airport and the terrorists throwing grenades into helicopters housing their hostages. Every Israeli athlete and Black September member had been killed. “They’re all gone.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynne Cohen) recruits Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana) to run a secretive counter strike. Avner is to assemble a team, track down the architects of the Munich massacre, and assassinate each one. Their mission is only known by a select few, and their only contact is via a handler (Geoffrey Rush) and a safety deposit box that fills up with money. Joining Avner are Steve (Daniel Craig), the South African with a hot-head, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitch), the toymaker turned bomb maker, Hans (Hanns Zischler), the document forger, and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the clean-up man. The men crisscross the globe hunting down their targets, and with each successful kill there is escalating retaliation by Black September. Soon Avner’s group becomes a target themselves and he questions if the men they are snuffing out have any connection to Munich.

When I first heard about Munich I thought it would be a dramatization of the hostage situation, and Spielberg does revisit the sequence in horrifying and bloody flashbacks. The film’s focus is on the aftermath of Munich, though it does not pretend to be fact. This is a made up story based on rumors. As new evidence clears, it looks like the Munich retaliatory slayings were unrelated Palestinian men.

For events that began in 1972, Spielberg punctuates his drama with a gnawing sense of timeliness, closing his film with the very image of the World Trade Center in the New York skyline, connecting an invisible line from Munich to our world today. This is a mature, meditative examination on the retaliatory response to terror. Munich is even-handed in its views and dives into challenging territory where an easy answer is an insult. This isn’t a pro-Israeli movie or an anti-Palestine movie (though it’s already earned condemnation from fundamentalists on both sides), and every side gets a moment in the spotlight to effectively argue their case. The result is a movie that thoughtfully and reflectively looks at the cost of vengeance and compromising our values. Munich, even with its glut of important messages and mouth pieces, never forgets to be entertaining. The cameras are often handheld and Speilberg’s winding shot compositions give a visceral feeling to the events.

Bana (Troy) is the moral anchor of the film and gives a staggering performance. He begins proud and humbled, living in the shadow of his father’s name, an Israeli war hero. As the assassinations play out, each changes Avner and Bana expertly expresses his character’s turmoil, finally succumbing to paranoia and fear. The final act has relatives telling Avner he has done right, that his dead family is smiling with approval, and Bana’s sad, haunting eyes tell the full story of what he truly believes. He looks like he’s aged ten years in such a short time span. Each member of the hit squad fills out their role nicely, with Craig (Layer Cake) imparting tough, hip savvy, Kassovitch (the director of Gothika, oddly enough) is nebbish and the first to morally crack, Zischler is stoic button-lipped,and then there’s the fantastic Hinds (Julius Caesar on HBO’s Rome), an experienced man that?s so calm and knowing and wryly warm-hearted. He’s such a delightful onscreen presence. Rush is only onscreen in spurts but is brash, humorous, and unsentimental to the very end. He’s an actor that rarely misfires, if ever.

Too often we bandy about the term “evil;” our enemies are “evil,” atrocities are brought about by “evildoers,” but by painting in such broad, simplistic strokes, demonizing the enemy as “evil” (and conversely implying you are the side of good) you strip away the reality of the situation. The worst thing you could do in this war on terror is simplify the situation. These are not evildoers; these are people deciding to commit atrocious acts. If they are dubbed monsters or simply evil then we’ve reduced the argument to a kindergarten lesson. Munich doesn’t show the Palestinian targets as mustache-twirling evil doers (no one is spotted tying a damsel to railroad tracks). These are men with convictions, family, and humanity. “Evil” is too tidy a term, and Spielberg understands this. Are evil acts necessary to combat evil? Do we become our enemies when we resort to their ruthless tactics? Robert, shaken from a recent kill, pleads that Jews are supposed to be righteous, that’s what separates them from their persecutors. Assassination is not a righteous act, despite what Pat Robertson may spout off on TV. In the end, the only trustworthy people in the film may be a strange French family that sells information to the highest bidder, regardless of politics.

There’s one moment in the middle of Munich that will stick with me forever. There’s only one pure vengeance murder in the movie and it involves a female killer (Marie-Josée Croze). It’s a kill the audience is thirsting for and demanding; the other assassinations were murky, men unknown to have any involvement in terror other than being a name on a sheet. This is an instance where the audience wants revenge and then Spielberg gives exactly what we want and disgusts us. The kill is so sharp, so uncompromising that the violence is startling and, more importantly, it hurts. The reality of it is painful to watch. The scene seems to be a sexual affront as well, leaving the victim naked, bloody, purposely disfigured. Spielberg has masterfully turned our quench for violence and shown the ugly reality. The audience never thinks the same from that moment on.

Munich also succeeds as a thriller, pulsing with immediate danger and drawing the viewer in. There were key moments that I was chewing on my knuckles because of how taut the suspense was. As a thriller, Munich briefs us on these men’s mission like all good spy movies, brings us into their fraternal order, and then we watch each assassination play out, many never going according to plan. What elevates Munich is how real everything feels and how dangerous every moment comes across. This is a thriller that it makes the heart pound but also courses with subtext, and exquisite dialogue by Tony Kushner (Angles in America), who magnificently frames his characters with the tiniest details, who crafts deft symbolism in moments of doubt and paranoia, and who, channeled with the film’s masterful acting all around, creates a stirring study of the cost of violence and the broken bodies it leaves behind, even those that live to ponder another day. Kushner’s writing is a perfect match for Spielberg’s effortless artistry.

This is Spielberg maturing as a filmmaker, despite some missteps here and there, mostly with the length and a late sequence where he juxtaposes the final Munich hostage flashback with Avner climaxing in coitus with his wife. The characters are sharp, the acting is resonant, and the thrills are palpably engrossing, giving the film a refined sense of danger where anything could happen. Munich is more than a thriller and more than a think-piece. It’s a close examination of the cyclical nature of retaliation and reprisal, dooming both parties into an endless bloodbath. Don’t be frightened by all this heady talk because it’s also a very entertaining movie. Munich isn’t the best film of the year; it’s pretty good but it’s definitely one of the more important movies of the year and worth seeing.

Nate’s Grade: B

Layer Cake (2005)

Layer Cake may be the least intimidating name ever for a crime movie. It conjures images of bridal showers, cooking shows, and birthday parties. It does not necessarily bring to mind thoughts of gangsters, assassins, drug trafficking, and the seamy underbelly of London’s criminal underground. Unless you’re watching some really awesome cooking show I don’t know about. The “layer cake” in question refers to the hierarchy of criminals. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Matthew Vaughn, who produced Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. This time it’s Vaughn sitting in the director’s chair and the results are exceptionally entertaining. Layer Cake is a cinematic treat.

Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) plays our untitled lead, referred to in the end credits as “XXXX.” He’s a cocaine dealer but not a gangster by any means. He wants to make his money, not step on any important toes, and then walk away on top and without any gaping holes in his body. Craig is summoned by his boss Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) and given two missions, whether he wants to accept them or not. The first is to relocate the missing daughter of a very powerful friend of Jimmy’s. The second, and far more dangerous job, is to secure a package of millions of stolen ecstasy pills and make a profit. Complicating matters is the angry Serbian mob that the pills were stolen from. They’ve dispatched a deadly assassin known as Dragan to track down their stolen drugs and kill anyone involved. Craig is left to juggle the investigation, find a buyer, stay ahead of Serbian hitmen, get some time in with a hot new girl, and all the while keeping his higher-ups content enough not to kill him themselves.

Layer Cake should be the film that makes Craig the star he so rightfully deserves to be. This man is a modern day Steve McQueen with those piercing blue eyes, cheekbones that could cut glass, and the casual swagger of coolness. Craig grabs the audience from his opening narration as he explains the ins and outs of his business. We may never see Craig sweat but he still expresses a remarkable slow burn of fear so effectively through those baby blues. He’s in over his head and the audience feels his frustrations. In an interesting character twist, when Craig does resort to killing, he’s actually tormented and haunted by his actions.

As with most British gangster flicks, there are a batch of colorful characters that leave their mark. Dragan (Dragan Micanovic) is a wonderfully enigmatic ghost of an assassin always one step ahead of Craig and the audience. Morty (George Harris) and Gene (Colm Meaney) add heart and bluster as Craig’s trusted right hand men. But the actor who steals the whole film with a malevolent glee is Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). He plays Eddie Temple, the man behind the men behind the scenes. Gambon delivers the harshest of speeches with a velvety pragmatic calm. We don’t know what runs deeper with Eddie, his tan or his scheming.

Sienna Miller plays the thankless love interest to Craig. She’s pretty, sure, but there isn’t much acting ability on display in Layer Cake beside some smoldering glances. We never really know what Craig sees in her besides being another cute blonde to choose over. Miller isn’t alone in the “underwritten character department.” Layer Cake is crammed with secondary characters that pop in and out when it’s necessary. It’s not too annoying but it does mess around with an audience?s ability to follow along coherently.

Layer Cake is not one of the slick, whack-a-mole ventures Ritchie has given us (pre-Madonna). No sir, this is a brooding, serious and nearly terrifying look at the old adage “crime doesn’t pay.” Very few crime centered films express the day-to-day anxiety of just being a criminal. Jimmy reminds Craig that he’ll never be able to walk away because he?s too good an earner for his higher-ups. In Layer Cake, you can get killed for being too greedy, being too careless, being too good at your job, and even just being in the wrong place. Eddie sums it up best whilst describing Faust: “Man sells his soul to the devil. It all ends in tears. These things always do.”

Vaughn has a polished visual sensibility that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer. He keeps the camera fluid and steady with a minimal amount of cuts. A nifty opening scene involves an imaginary drug store (stocked with pot, cocaine, and the like) melting into a real drug store (one hour photo, impulse items at the register). When the tension does mount Vaughn knows just how to turn the screws. A late sequence involving a chase between the SWAT team and our batch of criminals had me on the edge of my seat. For a first time director, Vaughn also has great patience. He doesn’t rush his storyline and he doesn’t suffocate his movie with visual flourishes. He also has a great deal of faith in his audience’s intelligence. This isn’t as lively as Snatch or Lock, Stock, but that’s because Vaughn’s film is also much more serious and dangerous.

This is an intricate and gripping film but it might be a little too complex for its own good. Twists and double-crosses are expected in this genre, but writer J.J. Connolly has so many characters running around and so many hidden agendas that it’s nearly impossible to keep track. Some of the subplots and back stories add very little like the inexplicable “Crazy Larry” flashbacks. I left the theater still confused about plot points but refreshingly satisfied nonetheless.

Layer Cake is the most thoroughly exhilarating time I’ve had at a theater this year. This pulpy daylight-noir caper is full of memorable hoods, plenty of twists and turns, and a star making performance by the steely-eyed wonder that is Daniel Craig (rumored to be the next 007, though in my heart I’ll always root for Clive Owen). Fans of Ritchie’s frenetic gangster flicks should be entertained. Anyone looking for a clever and exciting potboiler that treats violence and crime seriously should start lining up immediately. If you’re suffering from the cinematic wasteland that 2005 has shaped up to be so far, then have yourself a generous helping of Layer Cake and thank the Brits.

Nate’s Grade: A

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