Thursday, November 8, 2012

Skyfall Review

Sam Mendes' Skyfall is not only one of the best films of the year, but it is also the best James Bond film of the franchise's 50 long years.  The film is a masterwork of action, drama, and emotion that simmers over the nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time, to a crescendo that is simply stunning.  Skyfall manages to pay homage to the franchise's long history with winks and nods while moving it forward, all while bringing Daniel Craig's Bond more into line with the Bonds of old.

That may come across as a bit confusing, but it is wholly true.  Skyfall is as much a commentary on the actions of M and MI6 as it is the Bond franchise as a whole:  does today's world need mega-intelligence organizations with actual boots on the ground when everything is easily tracked digitally?  The roots of the franchise are embedded deep into the Cold War and the espionage that was so prevalent at the time.  Does today's world still want/need films that revolve around spies?  The answer to both questions is yes.  The new Q (Ben Whishaw) and Bond have a similar conversation during their first meeting.  Q posits that he can do more in his pajamas in a week than Bond can do in a year.  Its this theme of irrelevance and outdated-ness that permeates Skyfall to its core.

The films villain, Silva (played masterfully by Javier Bardem) is out to show MI6 and M herself that her methods and means are outdated - rather than work for a government or agency, Silva would rather choose his own targets and missions.  His ultimate goal is to shake MI6, M, and Bond to their core.  He is essentially the perfect antagonist;  Silva attacks our heroes both physically and mentally and is quite successful.  His overall plan is to slowly chip away at the symbols and ideas of MI6 and Bond; as Q puts it, it's "less a random killing machine and more of a personal statement."  That comment pertains to Bond's new Walther PPK but it applies brilliantly to Silva as well.

It is with regards to Silva's methods and goals that I compare Skyfall to The Dark Knight.  It was no secret that the screenwriters looked to Christopher Nolan's masterpiece for inspiration - in many ways Silva is an adaptation of The Joker.  He's going after the legacy, the ideas behind MI6 and the way it operates in today's world.  There are many themes at play that are reminiscent of TDK and even Batman Begins.  Hey, if you're going to borrow from someone, borrow from the best?  Amiright?  I just cannot convey how amazing of a villain Silva really is.  He is incredibly intelligent, resourceful, diabolical, and very deliberate.  He has a plan and he executes it brilliantly.

The film, on the whole, just works on so many levels.  As a result I have only one gripe - nothing in the story really surprised me all that much.  I suppose this is my fault alone; by watching the multiple trailers and digging for details online I didn't necessarily spoil the film, but I was definitely able to see where things were going and what set-pieces were coming up.  That said, there were still plenty of moments where I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen; with the stakes so high, and with an antagonist as villainous as Silva, nothing was certain.

Without spoiling anything, Skyfall harkens back to the Bond films of old, both subtly and blatantly.  When the traditional Bond theme kicks in I got chills up my spine.  There are plenty of winks and nods that longtime fans will pick up on and appreciate.  This is, after all, the 50th anniversary of the release of the first film, Dr. No.  It's this long legacy that Skyfall both moves away from and catches up to.  That's really all I can say.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.  It just works on so many levels: the acting it fantastic (Craig is steely and tough as ever as the titular hero), the music blends the original theme and Adele's throaty "Skyfall" beautifully, and the visuals are just eye-poppingly gorgeous.  I saw the film projected digitally in IMAX and I honestly couldn't imagine seeing it any other way.  Action sequences and beautiful location shots just pop off the screen with a resounding vibrancy of their colors.  Please, just go see it.  You know you will.

Skyfall beautifully moves Bond forward while calling back to its roots, all while managing to be the franchise's best.

The Bearded Bullet 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Trick r Treat Retro Review

I unabashedly love Trick r Treat.  I was first introduced to this fantastic film back in 2010.  I and some friends watched it as part of a Halloween movie marathon that year.  We’ve since done two more marathons (for each subsequent Halloween) – the only film that has stayed consistent is Trick r Treat (Red State, The Evil Dead, Drag me to Hell have been amongst the rotating cast).  It is a fantastic blend of horror and comedy that brilliantly weaves together four separate storylines into one helluva anthology film.

The four storylines could, on their own, act as short films.  Each is wildly different and manages to buck horror-film tropes in their own special ways.  The main through-line of the separate stories is the idea of respecting Halloween (or Samhain) and what it stands for.  This concept is represented physically by a character I’ve come to call “sack boy” (Sam).  Not the cute, cuddly Sack Boy from the LittleBigPlanet series of PlayStation games; this sack boy wears orange pajamas and covers its head in burlap.  He’s an example of what you can’t see being more frightening than what you can see.  Late in the film you find out what’s under that sack, and while it may not be as terrifying as the faceless burlap, it is just as disconcerting and unsettling.

There are some fantastic performances peppered throughout the film.  Dylan Baker is absolutely perfect as the twisted school principal Steven.  Brian Cox is nearly unrecognizable as the crotchety old Mr. Kreeg, Steven’s neighbor.  Anna Paquin is wonderfully cast as a shy virgin with some pretty wicked secrets.  Leslie Bibb and Battlestar Galactica alum Tahmoh Penikett have very small but entertaining roles.  The entire cast overall is just superb; everyone is just so well cast.

I don’t want to get into the actual storylines themselves because part of the joy of watching TrT for the first time is watching the mini mysteries unfold before your eyes and how they all blend together.  The one thing that bugs me just slightly is sack boy himself.  We have no idea where he/it came from and if this is the first time he’s shown up.  I’d like to believe that he sort of travels from place to place, making sure that All Hallow’s Eve is properly respected; if the amount of deaths that occur in this one night occur annually I am quite certain that the parade/celebration depicted on screen would be shut down immediately.  At the same time I just absolutely love the concept and character design of sack boy that I wholly embrace the mystery surrounding his character.

I just cannot recommend Trick r Treat highly enough.  It is quite a shame that this film was never released theatrically; having Bryan Singer attached as a producer wasn’t enough to bump it from direct-to-dvd status.  If you like Halloween themed films or just horror in general I suggest you pick it up immediately.  Here’s to hoping for a sequel (that will most likely never happen)!

Trick r Treat is a fantastic Halloween-themed anthology films that just works on every level.

The Bearded Bullet

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Flight Review

Flight is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year and features two of the best performances of the year…and is a veritable return to form for Robert Zemeckis.  I say “return” because I wasn’t the biggest fan of his motion-capture series of films (although I am quite the fan of Beowulf).  With this release, it’s as if he’s throwing down a gauntlet that says “I’m back 100%.”  In fact, Flight is almost the polar (see what I did there?) opposite of his animated films – it is a very mature, adult story that deals with alcoholism, drug addiction, and death.  And nudity.

Indeed, the first scene of the film features full-frontal female nudity.  I have no problem with this, but it was quite a shock to see Zemeckis throw that in right out of the gate.  The nudity and the scene in general serve a dual purpose: to show us that he can still tell adult stories and that our pro/antagonist, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is a very messed up individual.  Whip is an airline pilot who has a penchant for alcohol, drugs and a very attractive flight attendant.  It is within this very first scene that we’re introduced to all three of these elements that will shape and impact the rest of the film.

See, Whip didn’t sleep at all the night before we’re introduced to him.  He then goes on a 9am flight, still drunk/high from the night before and flies his plane.  Mid-flight, while Whip was napping, the plane begins malfunctioning, resulting in one of the most gripping and intense plane-crash sequences I’ve ever seen, rivaling LOST, The Grey, and Zemeckis’ own Cast Away.   Whip decides to invert the plane.  Yeah, his idea is so crazy that the flight control operates asks him to repeat his statement.  Inverting the plane allows it to stabilize and glide to an empty field where they can land.  Whip successfully lands the plane, losing only six lives of the 100+ passengers and crew, including the flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) he was romantically involved with.

What follows is a fantastic film revolving around the fallout of the crash, including the discovery of alcohol and cocaine in Whip’s blood after a post-crash toxicology screening and the eventual NTSB investigation.  Whip falls for a recovering drug/alcohol addict (Kelly Reilly), who tries to get him clean (he is almost continuously inebriated during the course of the entire film.  It’s this behavior that almost turns Whip into an antagonist; while I was rooting for him the whole way, his alcoholic tendencies had me questioning my support of him.  No, his abuse issues didn’t cause the plane to crash, but the mere fact that he would fly a plane while drunk/high makes us question his moral code.

Denzel Washington puts in one helluva performance as Whip.  His charisma and charm just flow off the screen.  Whip experiences the gamut of emotions over the course of the film, and Denzel’s performance makes us feel them too.   Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, and Don Cheadle are perfectly cast and complement Denzel’s performance beautifully.  The other real standout is John Goodman’s Harling Mays.  He’s an old friend of Whip’s who happens to be his drug dealer.  He has a relatively small amount of screen time (in just a handful of scenes), but when he shows up in the third act the shenanigans that follow make for one of the most memorable moments in any film this year.  I was literally on my feet with shock (don’t worry, it was just me and a friend in the theater).  Goodman’s had quite the run in the last year, putting in stellar turns in Red State, The Artist, Argo, and now Flight.  Here’s to hoping that this great streak continues in the years to come!

I just really cannot praise this film enough.  From beginning to end I was engaged and entertained.  There really isn’t much more than I can ask from a film.  Welcome back to live action, Mr.  Zemeckis.  If Flight is any indication of what we can expect from his future projects, to say that I am excited would be an understatement.  Please just go see it.

Flight is a brilliant return to live-action for Robert Zemeckis, featuring one of the best performances of the year.

The Bearded Bullet

The Man with the Iron Fists Review

If The RZA set out to make a fairly cheesy, campy, over-the-top kung-fu action film with some cringe-worthy performances and dialogue, then he succeeded in droves.  And I’m fairly certain that that is the point of The Man with the Iron Fists.  For the most part that vision shone through, with some incredibly well-executed fight set-pieces featuring copious amounts of blood.  There are two issues with Iron Fists that keep it from becoming something special (a la Black Dynamite): an uneven tone and a story that is just all over the place.

I have no problem with films that are intentionally bad; the aforementioned Black Dynamite is a personal favorite – it knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to do and embraces it wholeheartedly.  The issue with Iron Fists is that some of the time the film’s self-awaredness shines through during insanely terrible dialogue and acting.  Then, halfway through the film, it gets very serious during a flashback to the Blacksmith’s (The RZA) past as a slave in America.  The flashback is actually very cool; it’s shot in black and white with splashes of color here and there.  The problem is that the film grinds to a complete halt during this sequence.  The pacing and editing was pretty fast-paced during the first half when the focus wasn’t on the Blacksmith.  After the focus shifts back from the Blacksmith to other events, the film picks up its pace again.  This sequence is one of the more “serious” moments in the film; the rest is relatively light-hearted and fun.  I take no umbrage with introducing serious elements, but when it’s the only part of the larger film…well then it just feels out of place.

The story itself is just all over the place.  One would assume that a film called The Man with the Iron Fists would be, in fact, about a man with iron fists, and that he would be the main protagonist.  In reality, there really isn’t a main protagonist.  There’s more a collection of good guys that we’re rooting for.  We aren’t really introduced to the Blacksmith until that flashback sequence.  Before that he was just a character that we saw make some weapons.  The real focus of the narrative revolves around a shipment of gold being transported to northern China.  Several factions want the gold, with the Blacksmith getting caught in the middle.  The veritable iron fists don’t show up until the last 30 minutes of the film, and even then they aren’t the main focus.  Yes, they’re featured in a cool fight against Brass Body (Dave Bautista) in the finale, but I honestly cared more about the gold and Russell Crowe’s Jack Knife than the Blacksmith and his mission of revenge.

The film really should’ve been called Jack Knife, because Crowe’s character is the most interesting and intriguing character in the film.  And he carries a ridiculous spinning knife/gun thing.  He’s a lone gunman who just shows up and eviscerates a dude to free up a prostitute.  We don’t really know who he is and why he’s there until the third act, and even then he was still the best character in the film.  There should’ve either been an entire film devoted to his character OR the Blacksmith’s, not an amalgamation of several storylines that just get jumbled together.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast with Iron Fists.  It’s cheesy and over the top in all the best ways; Crowe just chews scenery as Jack Knife.  The kung fu set pieces are akin to something like Kill Bill; heads are uppercutted off of their torsos, chest cavities ruptured, and arteries severed ad naseum.  Rick Yune’s Zen Yi wears a badass black suit of armor that has retractable spikes on almost every surface.  Lucy Liu gets in on the action, decapitating bad guys with a spinning blade-tipped fan.  There is just so much fun to be had with this movie if you don’t take any of it seriously (except the parts where they want you to take it seriously).

If you’ve seen any of the trailers then you know pretty much what you’re getting into here.  Despite some major hang-ups with its jumbled story and iffy acting, Iron Fists is just plain, gory fun.  Check your higher brain functions at the door and just sit back and enjoy.

The Man with the Iron Fists is a flawed but incredibly fun kung-fu action film.

The Bearded Bullet