Monday, November 20, 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

My brother IM'd me to tell me what he didn't like about the new James Bond film, Casino Royale. Also the plot. Well, not so much the plot -- because who cares? it's a Bond film -- but things that happen. I could tell you the story about how he told me when Jessica Walter was about to stab Clint Eastwood in Play Misty for Me, a full minute before it happened, but that's for another time.

But in the inevitable comparison with so many films before in this lucrative franchise, let's see what we expect this Bond film to have:

* The guitar Bond theme lead-in. No. Disappointing, that. I suspect my brother hated the film right there and then.

* Inventive title sequence. Check. Intriguing.

* Good looking guy in a tuxedo. Check.

* Clever one-liners. Check. There are many here, but they're not the sardonic one-liners of the old Bond. They tell something, make you think a little about what Bond is all about. When we learn that Bond prefers his women married because they're less complicated, he has the following exchange with Vesper Lynd, a government accountant, when she wonders if she should lock her door. Vesper: Am I going to have a problem with you, Bond?
Bond: No, don't worry. You're not my type. Vesper: Smart? Bond: Single.

* Bond girls. Beautiful. Check. Only two Bond girls, but, yes, check.

* Lots of senseless sex that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Not really. Half a check. Heck, even the Chinese government is allowing Casino Royale to be shown. So, rate this film high on the violence and killing scale, but low on titillation.

* High-tech gadgets galore. A few, not a lot. The best high-tech thingie in this movie, oddly enough, is the cell phone. This is clearly modern day, and not the Ian Fleming Bond of the early '60's.

* A high-stakes gambling game. Check and double-check. Instead of the baccarat from the original Casino Royale novel, it's Texas Hold 'Em, in a nod to Las Vegas. It's hard to film an exciting poker game, but Casino Royale manages to do it.

* M, disdainful as always. Another huge check here. And Judi Dench is cashing this check for all it's worth.

This isn't the Bond of the past four decades. Oh, no. This is a younger, rough-around-the-edges Bond, whose British accent hints at a blue-collar Britain. And Daniel Craig, the guy they picked to fill those large tuxedo pumps, is an actor. This may not be the Bond you wanted, or think you wanted, but put your doubts away. If you can respond at all to those piercingly blue eyes of his and those pouty lips, you'll agree. Craig gives us everything we need to overcome those other portrayals.

We get plenty of action scenes, lots of chase scenes, that live up to the Bond hype. They're skillfully done, though, to show us the Bond who just got his Double-Zero. These scenes feed the plot and build the man for us. He's very physical but still smart enough to pick an easier way out. However, he's liable to leave a real mess behind, a mess for M and her diplomats to clean up later.

When Craig comes out of the Caribbean in one scene, we're reminded strongly of Ursula Andress' ascent out of the water in Dr. No-- striking, beautiful, narcissistic. It's terrific, and tells us at once that this is the body of a fighter reminiscent of the young Sean Connery (and certainly not Roger or Pierce). That one scene sets the tone.

The cast is interesting, not what you'd expect. Bond girl Caterina Murino, as the wife of one of Bond's adveraries, is head-turningly gorgeous, yes. But not so for Eva Green, the mainstay of the piece. But she grows on you. She doesn't have Venus-de-Milo type beauty, but there's something about her eyes. And the fact that she makes you care about her.

And it's always great to see the charming Giancarlo Giannini as Bond's helpmate. New villain Le Chiffre, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is something new, and rather frightening.

There are a couple of scenes that you wonder about, that stretch the realm of believability, especially in the Miami airport where both villain and Bond gain easy access to the tarmac. And some scenes seem to go nowhere and we're not sure why. But we all know that's not why we're here: we're not here to puzzle our way out of scenarios. We're here to enjoy this virtual-reality, E-ticket ride.

I hesitate to say this, but I will: this is the best Bond film yet. It isn't a true origin story, as we don't really know how he came to MI:5, but we really don't care. The story dives in, and we discover who Bond is. And how he changes into the Bond we came to know.

My brother didn't like the film because it's not familiar, it's not the same. After enduring the same thing for so many years, and being bored to death, I say hear, hear!

Thumb's up.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Let me be honest with you: I do not know how to write a movie review on this movie. I thought it would be helpful to go over some facts first, to figure out what we're dealing with here.

Warning, however. There are spoilers below. Meaning, knowledge of some of these facts may alter your enjoyment of the movie. Or in my case, give it license to live.

1. The title is reportedly 2nd on the longest movie title list, the first being Dr. Strangelove. That little item isn't crucial to the understanding of the movie, but it does set up the bullshit factor rather nicely.

2. British actor/writer Sacha Baron Cohen invented his character, Borat, on the 2000 show, Da Ali G show.

3. Cohen is reportedly Jewish, which doesn't explain several of the more gross scenes involving Jews.

4. In Borat's conversations with Azamat (played by Ken Davitian), they spoke an amalgam of Hebrew, Yiddish, and made-up Russian words.

5. Most of the people "interviewed" in the movie actually thought they were being interviewed. Some of them figured it out halfway through the process. Some never did. Some were actors. You figure it out.

6. I can only assume that Pamela Anderson knew what she was doing.

Okay, so, all that being said, let's talk about the plot. We first meet Borat, a fine upstanding citizen of Kazakhstan, in his native country. He introduces us to several of his family, friends and neighbors. He journeys to America with a documentary crew and interviews many people about what they do in America. Hilarity ensues.

The movie is extremely offensive to almost everyone, although a couple of "types" end up looking pretty good at the end. Fat prostitutes. Young black men hanging around. Almost all women are a slam dunk into the toilet. White men are revealed as stodgy, narrow-minded and elitist. Middle America took most of the blows, so I imagine the movie won't play well there. Or in Kazakhstan.

But I laughed during several scenes. Why? Because the movie found different ways of setting us up. When the punch-line dropped, I wasn't expecting it. For instance, when Borat goes upstairs in the home of the woman who's throwing the dinner party for him, we knew there was a toilet joke waiting for us. We just didn't know how he was going to do it. And it was damn funny. Another example: I really didn't care at all for the big, nude wrestling scene between Borat and Azamat -- it was lewd, stupid, everything you might think of such a scene. However, even in this scene, I found something really hilarious about it: they blacked out to an exaggerated degree Borat's penis. At one point, the blacked-out "tube" was longer than his leg!

You have to wonder about the filming method. If they really caught these folks unawares, and in some cases caught them with their verbal pants down around their ankles, you have to wonder about their I.Q.'s. And that *is funny.

They missed skewering a few groups. Do I smell a sequel? And you would think Pamela Anderson would have enough class to....oh, never mind.

Thumb's up, she said meekly, for the clever "interviewing," the way Cohen out-Wayans the Wayans in gross toilet humor....but only for those with strong stomachs. And those who won't take literally some of the stereotypical statements made by our tasteless hero.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Queen

Imagine a film where you get a slice of life of a family. Pretty boring, eh? Not in this case, not if the family is the royal one sitting in Buckingham Palace.

The Queen is an intimate portrayal of the entire British royal family during one week in 1997, the week after Diana died. The Royal Family does nothing. Throughout the week, as the crowds in front of the palace grow more acrimonious and Prime Minister Tony Blair makes more phone calls to the Queen, they still do nothing. Finally we see Blair and the Queen reach a compromise to the public's demand for some recognition of her death.

You have to remember throughout the movie that 90% of this film is someone's imagination as to what actually was happening behind closed doors. I mean, no one else would be in that bedchamber when Prince Philip wished his "cabbage" a good night. It's even kind of ludicrous that we would even guess. But we know how the queen felt about Diana -- she was not fond of her at all -- and we know that during much of the week that followed Diana's death, we saw no public acknowledgement from the royals. And we know that, finally, the Queen came out of the Palace and slowly looked at all the flowers leaning tentatively against the palace walls. And we know her final public statement. So, the filling-in-between seems logical and even, if I dare say, moving.

It goes without saying that Helen Mirren is this decade's miracle of an actress. She inhabits the role, which is all the more surprising because in this case it's the role of a living, breathing monarch. I had to remind myself when my seat mate whispered, "Isn't she magnificent?" that I was actually watching an actress play the role. And actor Michael Sheen has that same Cheshire smile as Tony Blair. He's quite good. James Cromwell is arresting as Philip, an American in a British role in an interesting bit of casting. I must admit I was taken aback by Alex Jennings as Charles. I grew up with Charles, and Charles-watched throughout my life. Jennings looks nothing like him, but he had it in the eyes and the smile in his portrayal as a weak man who knew the pull Diana had on the masses. And there's a bit of humor in the sodden portrayal of the Queen Mother (by Syliva Syms) who is about to have a cow that they're using her own approved funeral route.

But more than a depiction of one week in British history, it's a raw comparison between a royal family and an "ordinary" family, if you can call the prime minister's circumstances normal. We would get one scene in the palace, juxtapositioned against one in Blair's house, and get the sense of how far removed the royals really are from living a normal life, and, more essentially, what the public expects and demands from the royal class. It's fascinating to see that comparison and, because most of us live toward the Blair side, intriguing to wonder what goes on there. It's less, and still more, than you might think.

Thumb's up.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Matador

Take James Bond. Give him a god-awful haircut. Allow the gray to show from his 50-plus years. Add a brush mustache. A bit of a paunch. Put all that together and you've got Pierce Brosnan as Julian Noble in The Matador.

But there's more to this characterization. He has a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, a potty mouth in high definition. And you can see the frustration, the disgust, the burn-out on his face. You see, Julian is a hit man, has been for over 20 years. And he's tired. And all the margaritas and Thai girls in the world can't lift him out of it.

There are several marvelous scenes that show you just who Julian is. The first is when Julian strolls nonchalantly through the Mexico City hotel. The camera catches people staring in the lobby, and we finally realize that Julian is dressed in only a speedo and his boots, on his way to the hotel pool. He really doesn't care what they think, not one iota. It took some real guts for an actor, any actor, to do that scene.

A film that convinces you that Pierce Brosnan can really act, The Matador is really two acts about this hit man and how he got his one friend, a goody-goody salesman, Danny Wright, played in earnest by Greg Kinnear. Danny just landed a choice job and is celebrating when he meets Julian at the Mexico City bar. But Julian, as usual, says the wrong thing and puts him off. Julian keeps putting him off, but Danny is somehow attracted to this sad-sack, wondering what the hell he does for a living, and, once he learns, how someone can live like that.

I had to laugh out loud at the "Julianisms" in the film, like, "I'm as serious as an erection problem." And this piece of dialogue between Julian and Danny: "Come on! It'll be a good time!" Danny replies, "Oh, so now killing people is a good time?" Julian: "...Can be..."

Julian's "handler" gives him a little lecture when he sees him leering at the Mexican schoolgirls. The irony is not lost on us. But it is lost on Julian. This guy isn't sarcastic, or ironic. He simply is. What you see and hear is what you get. And Brosnan plays him perfectly.

You would think this would be more of an action film. It's rather an inaction film, and that may throw a few people off. And while there is a mystery or two left to solve at the end, there's no real mystery where we're headed. There's not even much to the killing part. It's actually kind of boring, and maybe that's the point. We don't even know who these people are, and neither does Julian. There's a fun scene where Julian shows Danny how he could set up someone at the bullfight to be murdered. "I'm a big fan of the 'Everybody's got to pee' theory of assassination," explains Julian, pointing to the men's toilet. It's funny, it's a bit tragic, but it's not terribly exciting.

Brosnan is a wonder, and Kinnear is more than just the optimistic American we first see. It's a shame the film can't take us in a different direction where one or more of the men changes or learns something about life, but it's good enough just to watch these two guys spar and somehow have a good time.

Thumb's up.