Spectre

Spectre Movie PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw

The end may be near for James Bond…at least the one that looks like Daniel Craig.  In a recent interview, Craig made it wildly clear that he is not into doing another Bond movie.  While that may change, it means that Spectre, the 24th official Bond film, may be one that passes the torch to a new Bond, a distinction that only five of the films really have (although it gets kind of messy with Lazenby and Connery).  Craig’s four Bond films have been received rather tremendously.  His unconventional approach and downplaying of Bond’s silly side has seemingly revitalized the franchise and brought an air of respect back to the character.  Still, Spectre makes nearly all of the same mistakes that caused me to knock Skyfall last time and Quantum of Solace before that.   Fool me once shame on you, fool me 24 times, shame on me.

****Warning, minor spoilers regarding Christoph Waltz follow.  Do not read any further if you do not want to know about his character.****

Like Skyfall, Spectre starts in classic Bond style with a strong, action-packed opening as 007 sleeks through Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival to track down and kill a man who plans to blow up a packed stadium on behalf of a mysterious organization.  These opening scenes are certainly the crown jewel in the Bond film formula and have been elevated to a new level in the Mendes/Craig era.  The rest of the film revolves around this mysterious organization, later revealed to be SPECTRE, and the hunting down of its leader, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  Unlike many previous Bond installments, the Craig films capping with Spectre are actually a much more woven series of sequels than their predecessors.  Director Sam Mendes, who made the two most recent Bond films, used Skyfall to introduce a thematic thread about chastising the egoism of youth and praising the wisdom of age. The film delved deeper into the inner workings of James Bond and by the end, casual throwbacks to earlier “older” Bond trappings were scattered throughout including vintage Aston Martins and the introduction of a Miss Eve Moneypenny.  Now with Spectre, even casual Bond fans are aware of what director Mendes and his screenwriters are doing here.  Fifty years of films are coming full circle as the supervillain that sought to destroy Sean Connery in From Russia with Love is rebooted and reloaded to strike again!

Rebooting and remaking is definitely the name of the game in entertainment lately and while some are hits, I am not excited about seeing James Bond go back to square one.  This is especially a grim turn for female characters.  Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) does her best to keep this film from being too shallow, but it still may be the most sexist film since San Andreas. Still, the thing that makes Bond tick is the brazen confidence in the face of unspeakable danger, and Spectre has a good dose of that.  The action scenes in this film deliver.  Does it have as much as Skyfall?  No.  Is it miles above other recent tent pole action films in its genre like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation?  No.  To me Spectre feels like a set-up film much like 2013’s Man of Steel felt like a set-up film.  Yes it’s another installment of something that’s been around a while.  Yes, all of the familiar things you expect to see are there, but at the end it feels stretched out, belabored, and even a little monotonous until the end where the hints at what’s to come make you wish you could skip this movie and go right to the next one.

Aside from its pacing, the other unfortunate letdown is Waltz as Blofeld.  What seemed like brilliantly ideal casting at first kind of fizzles out when implemented.  First of all, Waltz does not appear in the film for nearly an hour into the already overlong film.  Perhaps the original intent was to have Waltz’s casting and/or character be a surprise, but the marketing would have you believe otherwise.  Secondly, his introduction after the build-up is absurdly underwhelming, which is a shame when you ponder the potential of having Christoph Waltz play your hero/anti-hero supporting role…it’s kind of his thing!  Javier Bardem’s turn as Silva in Skyfall, while not perfect was far more satisfying than the missed opportunity that is Waltz in Spectre.

Spectre is in full nostalgia mode and not looking forward.  If this is a good thing, remains to be seen, but apparently everything old is new again in the world of Bond. C+

Spectre is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes.

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A Good Day to Die Hard

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I wasn’t going to review A Good Day to Die Hard. Then I thought some people might try and see it, and if I could have stopped them, I could never forgive myself as a critic.

I recently stated that Safe Haven is a lazy film. That may be true, but it is Beasts of the Southern Wild compared to this weak fifth entry to the Die Hard franchise. The wheels fall off of this film almost immediately, and the audience is asked a question worthy of Simon from the immensely superior, Die Hard With a Vengeance: “Do I ride this out to its predictable, inevitable, and unsatisfying conclusion or do I admit that I wasted $10, walk out, and get a sandwich?” Simon says, “Get the sandwich.”

A Good Day to Die Hard sends John McClane (Bruce Willis) on vacation and he chooses to spend it in Russia checking up on his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who has recently found himself in some major international trouble. Within five minutes, we’re in the middle of a sloppy car chase where it is revealed that Jack is an undercover CIA operative attempting to derail a major nuclear weapons heist. Thus, Jack and John must team up against a Russian gang…

So what went wrong? I will not admit that Die Hard is done; one bad film does not a franchise ruin. So let’s look at this constructively. First of all, no more catch phrases or cliches. “Yippee Ki-Yay” is grandfathered in, but now we’re reminded that John McClane is “old” and “on vacation” at least ten times. This repetition serves no purpose except to go for a cheap laugh, but you’ll never hear the laughter over most of the theater slapping their hands to their foreheads in disgust. Furthermore, this installment takes place in Russia. In one scene, John is handed a tour book by his daughter, Idiot’s Guide to Russia. Clearly, it was the same book Skip Woods used to write the screenplay because the film exposes Russia’s traffic issues, introduces characters named Viktor, Yuri, and Anton, and its climax seals the cliche deal by taking place at Chernobyl. Oh, did I mention Yuri is introduced playing chess, so we know he’s a smart Russian? Disappointing stuff.

Next, is the action. In a high profile action film, it is expected that the action scenes are first rate, exciting, and innovative. Watch the opening car chase in A Good Day to Die Hard; next, watch the masterful opening scene of Sam Mendes’s Skyfall. Every confusing, flawed, elemental choice that John Moore makes in A Good Day to Die Hard is exposed when comparing the two. More attention needs to be paid to making sure the action is not as over-produced, compartmentalized, and hilariously slowed down as it is. There is a scene in A Good Day to Die Hard where the characters walk into a ballroom with multiple chandeliers hanging in different stages of preparation for some event that will be happening that evening. Audiences are immediately forced to think, “Well, looks like we’ll be in this scene until all of these chandeliers are destroyed”, and of course, they’d be right. This type of blatant predictability serves no purpose except to immediately signal a good time to hit the restroom. Action confined in one setting for ten minutes with no real danger becomes dull in 30 seconds. The previous four films did not feel so confined to sound-stages as this one does (even though the first two had McClane trapped in a building and an airport respectively), and it ruins any tension or fun.

Finally, if one wants to make a sequel, then make a sequel. What happened to Bonnie Bedelia as McClane’s now ex-wife, Holly? Where’s good ole’ Reginald VelJohnson as Sgt. Powell? Why introduce all of those fun tech-geeks in Live Free or Die Hard only to strand them in that film? Screenwriters, listen up; these character actors will sign up if the story is there!

At one point, it appeared that we were in for a slightly uplifting February movie season heading into the Spring, but it turns out it is still a dumping ground. A Good Day to Die Hard made $30 million regardless of its being terrible, so the audience is still there, and this film could have been a game changer that could show studios that good movies can be released all year long. Guess we’ll have to wait for a better day, not just a “good” one. D-

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer? Damn Near Killed Her!

Oscar Predictions: Part 3 – Cinematographer?  Damn Near Killed Her!

Week three of The People’s Critic’s Oscar predictions begins the major film awards.  This week’s predictions will be for six very different categories: Documentary Feature, Animated Film, Foreign Language Film, Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay, and everybody’s favorite – Cinematography.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

13.  Best Documentary Feature:

Nominated films are 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, and Searching for Sugar Man

Generally, the winning documentary has more than spunk and spirit.  Many documentaries are made yearly since they are easy to produce and cheap to make.  The key is content, pacing, accuracy, and perspective.  The swift and breezy Searching for Sugar Man was an early favorite.  However, it will most likely collapse under the weight of provocative films like the charged up history of the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague or the bleak and honest The Gatekeepers, which shines never before seen light on the historic conflicts in Israel.  A dark horse candidate for Oscar is the creepy exposé The Invisible War about rape in the US military.    The Peoples Critic Selection: How to Survive a Plague

14.  Best Animated Feature Film:

Nominated Films are Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Wreck-It Ralph

If you’ve read The People’s Critic’s review on Brave, you may find this pick hypocritical.  First given in 2001, Best Animated Feature Film is the newest of all 24 categories in the modern Academy Awards.  During these eleven years, a Pixar Studio film has won this Oscar six times.  In fact, the studio has only lost once when one if its films was nominated (2006’s Cars lost out to Happy Feet)Cars is probably a better film than Brave, however much was made of Brave’s decision to finally feature a female lead and a more feminine story focus, something Cars obviously did not have going for it.  Therefore, while the nostalgic, personal, and enjoyable horror throwback Frankenweenie has the win in my heart, it won’t have the win in the votes. The People’s Critic Selection: Brave

15.  Best Foreign Language Film:

Nominated films are Amour (Austria), Kon-Tiki (Norway), No (Chile), A Royal Affair (Denmark), War Witch (Canada)

What, Norway, Chile, Denmark, and Canada?  You want to win?  Well you will lose to one of the biggest conundrums of the nomination process – those pesky well-made foreign films that worm their way into the Best Picture category.  This has only happened eight times, and only one has ever lost this category, go figure.  The People’s Critic Selection: Amour


16.  Best Original Screenplay:

Nominated films are Amour Written by Michael Haneke, Django Unchained Written by Quentin Tarantino. Flight Written by John Gatins, Moonrise Kingdom Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, and Zero Dark Thirty Written by Mark Boal

As a writer (or to put it more modestly, one who appreciates writing), the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay has a special significance.  Four of the five films nominated here are actually mentioned on The People’s Critic’s List of the Top Ten Films of 2012 (although one is listed for adverse reasons).  Nonetheless, the number one choice on that list earns its place because of its writing.  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur like none before him and Django Unchained will be recognized for its reverent and consummate writing.  The People’s Critic Selection: Django Unchained


17.  Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated films are Argo Screenplay by Chris Terrio, Beasts of the Southern Wild Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin, Life of Pi Screenplay by David Magee, Lincoln Screenplay by Tony Kushner, and Silver Linings Playbook Screenplay by David O. Russell

This is the award that combats the old adage, “the book was way better than the movie.”  Generally, these films are the rare few who challenge and overcome that too often reality.  A screenplay of note is certainly Kushner’s Lincoln.  Spielberg deserves far less credit than Kushner does for why this film is deserving of its accolades.  Often Shakespearean at times, the screenplay is adapted in such a way that the film is elevated to what earned it 12 nominations.  Kushner’s only real competition here is David O. Russell.  Silver Linings Playbook is enjoying a tremendous spike in momentum heading into Oscar weekend.  With it being the first film in 31 years to be nominated in all four acting categories, Russell’s screenplay cannot be ignored as unrelated to that achievement.  My gut tells me that just might be the tipping point.  The People’s Critic’s Selection: Silver Linings Playbook


18.   Best Cinematography:

Nominated Films are Anna Karenina, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Skyfall

If you’ve ever wanted to be scorned or looked at in utter disgust, then comment on the cinematography of a film in front of a group of people.  Eyebrows will raise, hair will stand on end, under-the-breath comments will abound. It’s the fastest way to claim your role as a “know-it-all,” and yet, it is so worth it.  Cinematographers are the directors of photography who oversee decisions on camera and lighting concerns.  To excel at this requires the talent of an artist and the technical knowledge of a director.  This year’s group makes for a tough category.  Deakins’s latest film, Skyfall marks his 10th nomination without a win.  This should certainly be a consideration in choosing a winner since repetitive nominations in this category are not easy to get, but well earned when they happen.  Tarantino’s go-to guy, Robert Richardson is nominated again, but he did win last year for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  However, resident know-it-all The People’s Critic is going to go in a different direction.  Ang Lee has the perspective to make great films, but the pure visual delight and majesty that was achieved by Life of Pi is equally a result of Claudio Miranda’s cinematography.  The People’s Critic Selection: Life of Pi


Oscar Predictions: Part 2 – Songs, Styles, and Sets!

Oscar Predictions: Part 2 – Songs, Styles, and Sets!

This week’s set of predictions rounds up the lower tier categories and begins the accent to the major ones. As stated last week, The People’s Critic has decided to unveil predictions on all 24 major categories over a four week period leading up the big day on February 24th. This week’s predictions will focus on the six categories that make up the atmosphere of a film: Original Song, Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, Makeup, and Film Editing. Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

7. Best Original Song:

Nominated songs are “Before My Time” from Chasing Ice, “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from Ted, “Pi’s Lullaby” from Life of Pi, “Skyfall” from Skyfall, and “Suddenly” from Les Misérables

This is an interesting category in that its number of nominees varies from year to year. Current prerequisites for a nomination require that the song is originally written for a film and that the song is completely original and not partially sampled from another source (as was the case with 1995’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” from Dangerous Minds). This year there is a full set of five nominees, but that is only a formality since there is a clear and overwhelmingly obvious frontrunner, and it’s not the one that came from a musical. It is also definitely not the one that was a gift to the host of the Oscars, Seth Macfarlane. Songs from Bond movies have a storied and often kitschy past, but this year Adele’s “Skyfall” will raise that bar. The Peoples Critic Selection: “Skyfall”


8. Best Original Score:

Nominated Films are Anna Karenina, Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Skyfall

John Williams (Lincoln) may have five Oscars, but he has been nominated 48 times suggesting that he is not an Academy favorite. Additionally, the five Oscars he has are for scores much more memorable and powerful than Lincoln’s. The film with the most substantial use of music is Life of Pi.The People’s Critic Selection: Life of Pi


9. Best Costume Design:

Nominated films are Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, Lincoln, Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman.

The key to this category is not to get too caught up in the film itself but rather focus on the creativity, authenticity, and accuracy of the costuming. Period pieces are favorites in this category and we have three of them along with two fairy tale films. This year the period pieces have the edge. Lincoln may seem like a strong contender, but designer Joanna Johnston is rarely recognized for her work, although she has designed costumes for some of the most iconic films of all time including Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. Thus, the toss up goes to the lavish Anna Karenina. This is Karenina’s Jacqueline Durran’s third nomination and she’s yet to win. The People’s Critic Selection: Anna Karenina

10. Best Production Design:

Nominated films are Anna Karenina, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, and Lincoln

The Oscar for Production Design goes to the art director who best accomplishes the appropriate mood for an audience’s experience through visuals, movement, and other varieties of art direction. This can be a complicated job, and an A.D.’s success relies on whether or not an audience is appropriately affected psychologically by a film. From a psychological standpoint, these films all offer wildly different ways of using style and motion to affect an audience. However, performances aside production design is the only other reason Les Misérables could possibly nominated for best picture. The People’s Critic Selection: Les Misérables

11. Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Nominated Films are Hitchcock, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and Les Misérables

In a year of impressive films, it’s hard to believe that only three of them included Oscar-worthy makeup and hair. Last year, this went to the team behind the subtle transformation of Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher for the film The Iron Lady; but typically this award goes to wildly imaginative, over-the-top makeups and hair. Two of the three previous Rings films won the Oscar for this award, and Peter King (nominated here for Hobbit) was part of the team that won for Return of the King. The People’s Critic Selection: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

12. Best Film Editing

Nominated films are Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty

This is an impressive award to win and the Academy does not treat that lightly. The winner for Best Film Editing has often been the film that wins Best Picture, and it is no surprise that all five films nominated here are also nominated for Best Picture. The editing of a film is nearly as important as the direction since it affects the story, the pace, and the tone. Often, great editing goes unnoticed by the viewer because of how seamless the story has been woven together. The major consideration here is that William Goldenberg is nominated for his work in both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo is the better of those two films especially given its genius and flawless balance of tones throughout the film. We also have an editing legend nominated in Michael Khan for Lincoln who has won three Oscars from seven nominations. Also not to be counted out, Jay Cassidy’s avant-garde style has mostly been seen in documentary films, and it is refreshing and interesting to see that style in a feature film like Silver Linings Playbook. This is a tough one and could add to the controversy of Affleck’s snub as Director for The People’s Critic’s Selection: Argo.

Skyfall

ImageSkyfall marks the Bond franchise’s 50th year and 23rd film in that time. For those familiar with the franchise, it is not rare to see the world of Bond tweaked, updated, modernized, and “freshened up.” Skyfall is a very different Bond film, in that regard. It seems director, Sam Mendes goes out of his way to saturate his film with thematic trappings that chastise the egoism of youth and praise the wisdom of age. This is an intriguing direction to take, but it does slightly miss the mark.

In Skyfall, Daniel Craig reprises the legendary role for his third time. After a tragic mishap in Turkey, Bond finds himself off the grid and at a crossroads. A surprise attack on MI 6 forces his hand to once again enter the fray of espionage where he is met with doubt and reservation both by M (Judi Dench) and newly appointed Chairman of Intelligence, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). It seems the world of espionage has become a digital one and the artistry of the field operative is becoming superfluous. Nonetheless, Bond is reassigned to active duty to track down an ex-operative and cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem), fueled by revenge against those in the British government whom he believes betrayed him.

The Bond films that rest on a revenge storyline are historically some of the weakest entries in the history of Bond, and this one fits nicely in that group as perhaps the best of the weak. The action starts strong in classic Bond style, as 007 chases down a terrorist with a hard drive that contains all of the identities of undercover agents throughout the world. Bond and M’s relationship is explored in Skyfall in much more depth than ever before, and this film does advance the mythology of Bond a bit more than some other previous entries. However, the film does hit a snag as Bond goes through the motions of tracking down leads throughout China. It is in China where Bond delivers his line, “Bond, James Bond,” and it is also where he drinks a Heineken (Heineken reportedly paid $45 million dollars to have Bond sip their brew in Skyfall). Furthermore, the climax, which does reveal the film’s namesake, also feels a bit clunky and hokey. While Bardem’s villain, Silva does provide some memorable scenes, he is simply a melodramatic excuse to allow Bond to remind us not to underestimate the power of some spit and elbow grease. Silva is, instead, a missed opportunity to chew the scenery along side some of the best Bond villains.

Skyfall is not a bad Bond movie, and it is certainly not a bad movie. Sam Mendes accomplishes his goal of creating a heavy-handed thematically driven exploration of Bond’s inner workings. This is by no means a bad idea. However, this deviation from expectations is not executed with precision and allows the film to flounder in parts. There are some sequences that are absolutely heart pounding and the film leaves us eager to see what’s next; just don’t expect to see your Heineken investment pay off just yet. B-