Thursday, March 31, 2016

Spectre


RATING: A

Although Skyfall was a pretty awesome action movie, it did make the interesting decision to leave behind the story arc it had followed through Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and save that for Spectre; which might or might not be the last Daniel Craig Bond film? We're still not entirely sure. 

Anyways, for this particular Bond film, James has received a posthumous message from the deceased M which sends him on an unauthorized mission in Mexico City. And *that* leads him on a path where he encounters the organization Spectre--which is apparently a big part of Bond lore in general. But I wouldn't know. I barely knew diddly-squat about James Bond before watching the Daniel Craig films. (Apparently that is where much of the criticism for this film came from--from longtime Bond watchers who saw everything coming. Sigh.) 

But he comes into conflict with Spectre, who is led by a mysterious figure from Bond's past who has been manipulating recent events in Bond's life. In the meantime, Spectre and a bunch of politicians are working together to form a total surveillance program--their idea of world domination, and what is referred to as "George Orwell's worst nightmare." 

Ultimately, Spectre turns out to be a fantastic action/adventure movie that manages to put itself just above Skyfall--carrying a multi-layered plot centering around a secret Illuminati-like organization (which I'm admittedly a sucker for), some brilliant action sequences (the opening sequence and the car chase being highlights), more strong acting from mostly the same cast we've seen before; brilliant cinematography, and a very satisfying ending. 

Spectre received mixed reviews, but I feel like it completed its purpose quite well, being Sam Mendes' darker and grittier Bond film and one that can close the series on a high note and tie the loose ends together if this is indeed the last Bond film with Craig. When it's all said and done, Spectre   definitely is a better movie than it gets credit for, and if you enjoyed the previous Bond films (Quantum of Solace not included), then it is definitely a must-watch. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Skyfall


RATING: A-

It's not hard to see why we went four years in between Quantum of Solace and the third Daniel Craig James Bond film. Seeing as Quantum took what could've been a decent film and screwed it up with horrible direction and camera work, they were probably taking extra time to make sure they got it right next time. 

Interestingly enough, they did that by not continuing the story arc that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace began; instead, they saved that for Spectre, the most recent release. Skyfall takes a completely different direction, with a whole new narrative, some extra characters, an interesting villain (finally)--which proves to all work out for their benefit.

Skyfall begins with a bang (a bit literally) as Bond chases after a mercenary who has stolen a hard drive containing a list of undercover MI6 agents. Desperation on M's part causes one thing to lead to another, and a shot intended for the minion takes out Bond instead. (This is all in the first 5-10 minutes.) While Bond is presumed dead, MI6 comes under attack from cyberterrorism from a villain named Silva who's after M and the SIS Building in London is blown up. Just below 20 minutes in the film after he's supposedly killed, Bond shows up alive, ready for duty. (Well, sort of.) 

The ensuing conflict with Silva ends up being a lot more interesting and much less convoluted than anything in the previous two films. (Seriously, I'm not sure I can even remember any of the names of the villains from the last two films.) We are ultimately given a pretty riveting action film that actually stands out just a little more than Casino Royale did. It helps that we're given some extra actual characters besides just Bond and M and the random Bond girl; we're introduced to the amusing nerdy Q (an apparent longtime Bond appearer), and Gareth Mallory, a high-ranking official who, though he has limited screen time, actually seems to have more character than the others of his caliber we've seen thus far, and he becomes a lot more important by the end of the film. 

Besides the new narrative and characters, the film is loaded with several exciting action sequences (the opening chase being a definite highlight, as well as the final standoff). The casting is also strong; besides Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, we have Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney; Javier Bardem also does well as the clearly-insane Silva. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film (besides a couple of "infiltration" scenes that are rather slow) is the whole "Bond faking his death" thing. For one, we *never* find out how he survived against all odds. And ultimately, it seems rather pointless; it doesn't come back in the film again except for a couple isolated lines, and nothing really would've changed had it not happened. There's no element of surprise either, since everyone knew he would live (both because he's the main character and because the trailers said so). 

Despite that somewhat clunky plot point early on, Skyfall manages to showcase the best of Daniel Craig as James Bond thus far; with him at his most vulnerable, and Sam Mendes (who did a good job directing) puts together a film that actually mostly makes complete sense. Perhaps the best thing about Skyfall is that you don't have to watch either of the two previous films to understand it (though I would still recommend Casino Royale); for now, we can skip the dud that was Quantum of Solace and just enjoy the well-made action/adventure film that is Skyfall on its own merits. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Tomorrowland


RATING: C+

Sometimes movies can be a little bit frustrating. Namely when it feels like they are so close to reaching greatness, but somehow just fall short. Tomorrowland is definitely one of those movies--a movie with striking ambition and a very clever idea behind it--but it just can't seem to live up to said ambition. 

Tomorrowland is a somewhat weird sci-fi film about an alternate dimension of some sort, and a very ambiguous one at that--one where anything is possible, and yet where little makes sense. A genius teenager named Casey is transported there briefly via a mysterious pin, and immediately becomes obsessed with getting there; she is assisted by disgruntled also-genius Frank Walker (George Clooney) and the mysterious Athena. 

Things end up getting head-scratching fairly quick; we know Tomorrowland is another dimension of sorts, but it's also one where seeing different events in time comes into play (without giving too much away) via some science tech... or something. The climax itself--or at least the cause of it, anyway--is basically a bunch of science mumbo jumbo with the end result, "Let's blow something up and everything will be resolved," leaving our eyes pleased but our brains confused. 

The film actually is somewhat clever; the idea of such a dimension like Tomorrowland is interesting enough, and it reaches for the sky with its ambition. The results are mixed; we are given sporadic moments of cleverness, excitement and greatness; as well as moments that just feel underwhelming or forced. Eventually the movie sort of settles into a "change the world" message/mantra that is made to feel a lot simpler than it really is. These aren't exactly the only problems with the movie, though; finding likable characters besides George Clooney's is near impossible. 

Tomorrowland is a pretty good example of "what could've been, but wasn't quite there." If it had focused more on the parts that made it better (like the occasional political/social commentary) and less on the confusing stuff and borderline-sappy final message, it could've been a lot better. And considering its director, Brad Bird, I would've expected him to be able to come up with a film that felt more focused in general than this one. It's a good effort, but the result isn't enough to write home about. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sicario (2015)


RATING: C

I don't tend to typically look into relatively underground films like this one that much, but I ended up randomly watching it. Sicario comes in with a resume of having Emily Blunt as its lead star, and strong critical reception. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect going into the movie, but somehow I managed to come out of it initially even less sure of what the heck I just watched.

Emily Blunt plays a FBI agent named Kate Macer who busts a hideout filled with a bunch of corpses--and then two officers are killed by a massive explosion. She is offered the chance to defeat those responsible--the drug cartel--by joining a team assembled in part by the CIA. She joins up with with Alejandro, an apparent Mexican partner of the CIA. She quickly finds that utterly nothing is what it seems as she deals with a complex plot involving the takedown of a Mexican drug cartel. 

Honestly, "complex" pretty accurately describes this film. You have to be paying quite close attention to understand what is going on, and even then you might have a hard time getting the full picture. It's paced rather slowly at times; it gets off to an interesting start, then it feels like a lot of nothing happens for a while, and then it gets good again near the end; but not decent enough to completely save it. 

That said, it is a pretty well made film. There is a lot of pretty scenery and nice set pieces and strong camera work (namely an underground scene with night-vision goggles), and the acting performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro are strong, and the soundtrack is decent. 

Sicario's not *that* bad, really. What it lacks the most is a sense of appeal; who is this movie for? Who is it trying to reach out to? There is perhaps a moral--that there are no good guys in this situation--but that feels like a given, something that I wouldn't need to watch more than 20-30 minutes of this movie (if at all) to figure that out. But is that it? Is that all there is to it? Even though it's a well-made film, I am hard-pressed to figure out who to recommend it to because I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience is. Fans of more realistic dramas and strong acting might come away pleased, I suppose, but otherwise I find it hard for this film to impress. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Man of Steel


RATING: A-

I am not particularly a huge fan of Superman in general. I find it somewhat hard to find appeal in a guy who's literally invincible to everything (except Kryptonite) and thus can win every battle practically just by blinking. He's all *too* good, all *too* perfect. So much that he really comes off as boring. 

It seems, though, that Zack Snyder has been able to put together quite the entertaining film where Superman is actually challenged; where his backstory has more depth beyond the "I'm an alien from outer space" thing; and where the character himself is reinvented somewhat to give him a little more depth in general. 

In Man of Steel, we're given the usual backstory of Clark Kent/Kal-El crash-landing onto Earth, being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, and growing up to eventually become Superman. His first enemy is none other than General Zod, a former Kryptonian who just happened to be in the "Phantom Zone" with his cronies when Krypton exploded. Thus, he has come to terraform Earth and create a whole new Krypton. 

The film is pretty doggone well-done in most respects. The pacing, for a 140-minute movie, is brisk enough; the dialogue is surprisingly good and thought-provoking at times; the visuals are excellent; and the action sequences are brilliant, with the final battle between Superman and Zod being one of the better climactic battles of the last few years. Although Henry Cavill could've been better in the titular role, most of the rest of the cast (though some of the more talented ones have limited roles) is quite good; with names like Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, and Russell Crowe on the list. Michael Shannon does well as General Zod too; even Amy Adams (whom normally annoys me to no end) does alright as Lois Lane. 

Of course, there are some things about this film that are head-scratchers. Even though Superman is actually fighting an enemy who is a match for him, he still has to fight against the Kryptonian atmosphere when dealing with the terraforming machines; and for some reason, even then he can escape if he just concentrates hard enough. Or something. And it's somewhat odd that Jonathan Kent would actually consider allowing a bus of children to die in order to keep Clark's secret; seems out of character for him (based on what I know about him, anyway). 

Man of Steel is still arguably the film that DC desperately needed to jumpstart itself, seeing as all it had going for it lately was Batman. Time will tell whether they will ever be able to reach the heights of Marvel again, but Man of Steel is a pretty doggone good start to the "DC Extended Universe" and has made Superman interesting again... at least for one movie, anyway.