Tag Archives: Daniel Craig

“KNIVES OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Lionsgate

Sharp in more ways than one. 

When Knives Out begins, we’re provided with the typical murder-mystery setup: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famed mystery writer whose popularity is probably equal only to Stephen King, is found dead inside his mansion. His throat is slit, the blood flowed out onto the floor uninterrupted, and there were no signs of intrusion or trespass into his study. The detective working the case, Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) thinks this was just a simple suicide and considers the case closed. Meanwhile, private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects something more sinister had a role in Harlan Thrombey’s death: foul play.

The suspects mostly consist of Harlan’s privileged and wildly dysfunctional family. There’s Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their smug and self-centered son Ransom (Chris Evans). There’s Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) who manages Harlan’s estate and his son, an alt-right online troll named Jacob (Jaeden Martell). There’s Harlan’s spoiled and greedy daughter Joni (Toni Collette) and her posh liberal arts daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). And then there’s Marta Cabrera (Ana De Armas), Harlan’s personal nurse who tended to his every need prior to his passing. All of these people were a part of Harlan’s life and loved him in one way or another. And, one of them supposedly murdered him. Blanc has eliminated no suspects, but as far as he’s concerned, all of them have something to gain from Harlan’s death.

Writing about movies like Knives Out is particularly challenging, not because there’s isn’t enough to talk about, but rather because there’s too much to talk about. Knives Out is a clever, ingenious, meticulous, observant, and deliciously deceptive movie, but it’s one where the audience benefits most from knowing as little as possible about it. I would argue that even the trailers give too much away for a movie like this. Since this is the case, I’m walking on very thin glass here and I don’t want to give away the enjoyment of the film before you can experience Knives Out for yourself.

I will say this: writer-director Rian Johnson is a mastermind behind this murder-mystery. Manipulating his characters like how a maestro conducts his orchestra or how a puppeteer commands their puppets, Johnson puts his characters through one puzzling scenario after another and giggles mischievously as he waits to spill the next big secret on his unsuspecting audience. I went in expecting Knives Out to go in a certain direction, then 15 minutes in Johnson spins my expectations directly on my head and does almost a complete 180. Then he plays with my mind and emotions for the next two hours until he drops one bombshell reveal on top of another, and then another, and then another, and then another.

Films like Knives Out are truly in rare quantity these days. Johnson put a lot of thought into this screenplay, into its characters and their actions, quirks, personalities, conflicts, wants, desires, disagreements, frustrations, and insecurities and then toys with them like he’s playing with silly putty. In many ways, Knives Out is very similar to his most recent film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which as you may remember divided the Star Wars fan base more sharply than the 2016 Presidential elections divided the nation. Both films pull you in with a sense of anticipation and expectation, then it goes in a completely different direction and just leaves you with a stunned feeling of “what just happened?”

The difference is that Star Wars is an iconic blockbuster franchise, and fans are very passionate when drastic changes are made to characters they deeply care about. Knives Out is more primed for this sort of treatment because A) It is not part of an established franchise, B) The setup is original, and C) There’s much more freedom for Johnson to do whatever he wants with this premise. Part of the joy of this movie is that you have no idea which direction it’s going to go, and figuring it out along the way is just one of its many surprises.

The cast in this film is exceptional. Nobody is wasted in their role, nobody phones it in, and everybody plays their part exactly the way they need to. Granted, with this large of an ensemble cast, that inevitably means some characters will get shelved while others will get more screen time. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to put any of these actor’s names forward for awards season. They all played their parts to the letter, and I would argue their efforts even deserve the Outstanding Cast accolade at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. And no, I’m not talking about a nomination: I’m talking about a win.

I don’t want to talk much about the cast because again, this movie benefits most from you knowing as little about them as possible. Two names I will bring up as being among the most entertaining performances are Daniel Craig’s and Chris Evans. These guys were hilarious, quirky, sardonic, and gleefully cunning in their own unique way. Craig’s talents as an actor don’t need much elaboration, as he can flip on a dime from being a slick spy action hero in Casino Royale and Skyfall to a mentally unhinged murderer in Infamous. Here he’s playing an old-fashioned Kentucky-fried fellow that would have Foghorn Leghorn laughing his feathers off at his accent. Chris Evans is especially surprising. For a guy who is known for playing such a genuine and good-hearted spirit as Captain America in the most recent Avengers movies, here he comes off as egotistical, condescending, and very full of himself. It’s hilarious watching him tell his entire family off in a pointed, matter-of-fact fashion, especially when you’re so not used to him playing the asshole in a movie.

I can’t sing enough praise about Knives Out. Go and see it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime movie that is rarely done with this much thought, care, and attention to detail paid to it. If he wanted to, Rian Johnson could have taken the pages of his screenplay and turned them into his own mystery novel. Harlan Thrombey would be proud.

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“SPECTRE” Review (✫✫✫)

Back to Bond, baby.

The opening tracking shot in Spectre is masterfully filmed and beautifully consistent, following our subjects smoothly through the chaos of a celebratory crowd like an artist’s hand running down his sculpture. What follows after that is a film less consistent, less smooth, and less artistic, but to hell with being artistic. This is a fun movie.

Following up a few months after Skyfall, Spectre places our hero, James Bond, a.k.a. 007 (Once again portrayed by Daniel Craig) in the middle of a hidden conspiracy of overthrowing the world government and taking over the planet. We can’t go a few decades without Bond dealing with one of those every once in a while, now can’t we?

This time, Bond is after the villainous organization called S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which we’re never told what it stands for in the film (Although in Dr. No, it stood for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). At first, Bond doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, only having a clue by the deceased M (Judi Dench) to go by. But as he continues to investigate the organization further and further, he finds deeper connections to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in his enemies from the past, until finally, he finds the deepest connection to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of all: himself.

What do you think of when you think of James Bond? When I think of Bond, I think of a movie icon who is the penultimate vision of masculinity. He’s physically astute and sexually appealing. He’s smooth, suave, and has a way with words that is both comforting and edgy. He drinks a lot, but he can hold his liquor. He can fire a gun better than any marksman, a punch better than most fighters. He dresses up in nice suits and bow ties, although he does a great job at mucking them up on missions. When I think of Bond, I think of a character that men secretly idolize and women not-so-secretly desire. If he were any more larger than life, he would be a superhero.

Spectre continues the trend of Bond being a stylish action hero, and it continues the trend well. I mentioned in my lead that the film isn’t very artistic. That’s because it doesn’t need to be. After the impressive tracking shot at the beginning, Bond gets into a firefight, dodges a falling building, chases a suspect through the streets, gets into a fist fight, then highjacks a helicopter after it flips over on its axis in the air. And it’s not even the first 15 minutes.

This is something I’m impressed by in a lot of Bond movies, which is the action sequences. Minus the mediocrity of Quantum of Solace, the most recent Bond films have always found new ways to make old conventions interesting. For instance, how many times have you seen Bond take a sip of a martini? How many times have we seen him charm a young woman into the bedroom? How many times have we seen him get into chase, fighting, and action sequences involving all sorts of weaponry and vehicular manslaughter? You think we’d get sick of it by now, and yet, the series has lasted past 24 films. The series is doing something right.

I think part of it is because of how well Craig inherits the role of of James Bond. Sean Connery is always going to be regarded as the most significant Bond actor, because he was the first to take on the role and the one to exemplify most of Bond’s characteristics. Yet, Craig is nearly equal in iconic status because he too portrays Bond with multiple layers, and he does all of those layers well. He’s charming and sincere when he needs to be, manipulative and deceptive when otherwise.

Most impressive to me is that, even in the action sequences, the biggest thing I notice is Craig’s mannerisms. Not the explosions. Not the gunfire. Not the people he’s punching in the face. I’m noticing Craig. Why? Because I’m buying him as a character, not as an actor. I see the anger in his face when someone hits him and he’s getting ready to hit back. I see the cold calculation in his eyes as he’s deciding which targets to shoot first. I’m noticing the surprise on his face as his eyes widen, the panic that sets in when he’s discovered, and the fear piercing through his body when someone he loves is in danger. It’s hard to notice someone’s performance in the middle of an action sequence. Craig makes it seem like a cakewalk.

Of course, director Sam Mendes is also credited for the style of the film as well, with the action and the incredible set pieces making up for most of the excitement of the film. Yet, I’m a little disappointed that, after making one of the most definitive Bond films ever in Skyfall, Mendes reverted to a few conventions of the franchise that worked against it.

Take the characters as a primary example. Who do we have here? A secretive baddie hiding in the shadows, a big, burly baddie that walks and fights like a tank, a mentor figure of Bond’s that ushers him a profound warning, and the Bond girl, who is as beautiful and visually striking as ever. Their actors deliver just what is expected of them and what has been delivered before. The secretive baddie hides in the shadows, the big, burly baddie beats up Bond before he is killed, the mentor dies, and the girl hooks up with Bond. Not very original, now is it?

And this isn’t a criticism so much as it is a notice. Casino Royale and Skyfall were significant entries to the series because they saw Bond not as an action hero, but as a human being, dealing with his own hurts and pains by taking it out on the mission and his enemies. Here, Bond goes back to hero mode while we just tag along for the ride. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re used to seeing one thing, it’s a little bit of a let down to see the franchise take a step back on itself.

In the end, Spectre is like Bond’s rebuilt Ashton Martin after it blew up in Skyfall. It may have the same frame, but it doesn’t have the same ride.

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“SKYFALL” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Old dog: new tricks.  

You’re not gonna see this one coming.  No matter what you expect to get from Skyfall, I promise you it isn’t what you expect it to be.  Yeah, its a high-adrenaline action film featuring Daniel Craig, yet again, as the double-daring, martini-sipping secret agent known as James Bond. I think we all pretty much understood that from the film’s trailer.  But oh, is the experience much more than just being a simple action film.  Much more.

Skyfall takes place a few years after the events of Quantum of Solace.  After a bomb threat has been declared on the headquarters of MI6, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is ordered by M (Judi Dench) to find and apprehend the ex-MI6 operative known as Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a cyberterrorist who has some deepening grudges with Bond’s superior officer.  As Bond begins to follow the trail and find out who Silva really is, he uncovers a secret in his past so haunting that it will impact the entire nation of Britain and shake the foundations of MI6 forever.

Here is a Bond movie lived to the fullest potential, an action movie that begins with a sensational chase sequence and refuses to let up on the excitement as the movie progresses.  Written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) and directed by Sam Mendes (Jarhead, 1999 best picture winner American Beauty), Skyfall is a full-blooded action film, a spy movie that completely embodies everything great about Bond, from the lively, exotic locations to the pulse-pounding action that overflows you by the minute.

But this film doesn’t just succeed as another action movie: it also brilliantly serves its purpose as a drama piece.  Being one of the more personal and more deeper Bond films to date, Skyfall is a profoundly mature film that has a deeper introspective into Bond than what we were expecting.  Unlike other Bond movies (including the dreary Quantam Of Solace), where Bond is just an emotionless action hero that goes through the motions, Bond actually has an arc in this movie when compared to other ones.  In the film, Bond struggles with both his morality and past, and both of these conflicts come into full circle in ways nobody expects nearing the end of the film.

The film remembers something important that Quantum Of Solace has forgotten: that James Bond isn’t just an action hero.  He’s a movie character that holds a popularity entirely in his own bracket, a character who holds an iconic presence similar to how Indiana Jones does in his own series.  Daniel Craig inhabits the role well in Skyfall, and shows us the truth about James Bond: that he’s at a level of character fascination entirely in his own caliber.

At the same time though, it isn’t just the hero that makes the film what it is: the villain must be equally as motivated, and interesting, as the main character is.

Enter Javier Bardem as Silva, a villain who is as imposing and daunting as the action itself is.  Bardem is brilliant and chilling as Silva, a man whose past and pains haunt him, M, and Bond through the history that he remembers.  This shouldn’t come as a big surprise.  He did, after all, portray Felix in 2002’s Collateral and Anton Chigurh in his Oscar-winning performance for No Country For Old Men.  Here, he’s just as chilling as ever as a villain who is as deceitful, conniving, and crafty as Silva.  He’s one of the more memorable Bond villains to date, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in the top five for IGN’s top 25 Bond Villains list.

This is a great movie.  The cast is great, the plot is fresh, the action is refined and thrilling, and the story is told through the lens of cinema master Roger Deakins as he flows from one beautiful shot to another.  There is much to love about this movie.

The only weakness, if there is one, is that the film doesn’t go deep enough.  The idea of Skyfall is great, the idea being that Bond is mortal and vulnerable and, like all of the other characters and villains in the Bond series, has a history where his issues have not been resolved.  Writer John Logan was brilliant for making this idea, and Mendes was smart in heading into this great direction.

The problem is that he doesn’t go deep enough.  The film dominates as an action movie, and granted, its a great action movie.  Still though.  Hasn’t there been other action movies that have been as deep and profound as they were exciting and fun?  Inception, for instance.  The Dark Knight.  The Terminator.  The Bourne Identity.  Movies like these succeed not only as action movies, but as compelling dramas.  Skyfall has a tint of that “drama” category, but it could have gone deeper.  It might seem like a small thing, but that’s all it takes.  One small thing would have turned Skyfall from just another great action movie into an instant classic.

This is a weakness on the film’s part, but am I really going to hold it against Bond?  No.  I am not.  Despite the supposed weaknesses, Skyfall is a fantastic thriller.  It revives Bond in ways similar to how Batman was revived in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, and it assures us that not only will Bond survive throughout the years as cinema progresses: it will also thrive on its success and its legacy.

P.S.: You will never guess what Skyfall actually is in the movie.  Seriously.  You will never guess.

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