Category Archives: Daniel Craig

Movie Review: Skyfall

Now, this was the James Bond I’ve been waiting for. Or, more accurately, I didn’t know there would be a James Bond quite like this.

After 2006′s masterful “Casino Royale” redefined the series, 2008′s mediocre “Quantum of Solace” set it back another few years. 007 makes a major comeback yet again with “Skyfall.” When James Bond was rebooted, the intention was to radically start England’s greatest secret agent over from scratch. Now, everyone seems comfortable enough with Craig in the role to bring back some classic Bond tropes. I didn’t realize how much I even missed them until “Skyfall.”

“Skyfall” might be the first time since “You Only Live Twice” that Bond has “died” before the opening credits. A failed mission to get a hard drive containing a very secret list of names sends Bond hurdling off a train and into a river, leaving M (Judi Dench) to write Bond’s obituary. Before the train chase there is a motorcycle rooftop chase that is both implausible and impossible not to be thrilled by. The very best Bond moments make the implausible so much fun.

Shaken, not stirred.

After a fantastic opening credit sequence, Bond is found hiding on a tropical island. Craig’s Bond might be the most reckless Bond yet, so much so that he’ll even play drinking games with a scorpion. Unlike most exiled heroes, Bond doesn’t seem to miss his job. That is, until he sees a news report about a terrorist attack at M16 headquarters that effects him personally, despite being out of the job. The revisionist James Bond of the 21st century is not motivated merely by a duty to defeat the bad guys; this Bond also has a strong emotional compass.

Once we know that the actor is good, there is always the expectation that the character of James Bond will be awesome. However, it is rare that a Bond film produces a truly memorable villain. That is until they cast Javier Bardem as hacker terrorist Silva. Bardem has pretty much cornered the market on creepy villains in modern film. While Le Chiffre of “Casino Royale” was dark and frightening in a realistic way, Silva is cheesy in the best sense of the word. He is entertaining to watch because he is so unpredictable. We might know where he will go, but how he will get there is impossible to know. Bardem plays him with the exaggerated movements of a Broadway dancer. Here is a villain who is as interested in causing anarchy as he is in putting on a show. In that aspect, he is a perfect movie villain.

“Skyfall” might be the first time that a “Bond Girl” didn’t have significant screen time. I would argue that M is the Bond Girl of “Skyfall.” It makes sense, as the plot becomes largely about protecting her. It is also interesting to see a Bond film that is more about the development of a friendship than about the development of a romance. Bond and M have a very complicated relationship, as M is not above sacrificing an agent in order to complete a mission. It is this kind of character work that has made the past few Bond entries some of the strongest in the 50 year history of the series.

That dog.

“Skyfall” is brought to life by director Sam Mendes. Mendes has directed some smaller scale action flicks (“Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), but never anything on this scale. Mendes has done with James Bond what Christopher Nolan has done with Batman. Mendes brings a lot of his artistic sensibility to the table and makes the cities more than just giant action set pieces: they are living, breathing, and stunning places. The opening throws us relentlessly into the center of a bazaar. Bond has never stared so pensively at the London skyline. Shanghai is brought to life with beautiful colors and then becomes the stage for an amazing fight consisting only of silhouettes. I have yet to go to Shanghai*, but it looks something like the way “Blade Runner” imagined Los Angeles to look like in 2019.

While “Skyfall” may be the funniest Bond yet, there is a constant, dark shadow of death that hangs over it from the very beginning. It is as if Bond’s whole way of life is in more danger than ever before. “Skyfall” may be the most thematically rich Bond film ever made. It truly questions the place of a spy made for the Cold War in the modern age when anyone can get a computer and become a hero or a terrorist. This is probably the most self-aware Bond as well. It is an eloquent and deep territory to explore, but it is almost ruined at several times by overstatement.

As a director, Mendes’ Achilles’ Heel  has always been subtlety. He seems afraid to let a theme come across organically, so he feels a need to hammer the audience over the head with it. They ask, “are we still relevant with technology?” so many times that by the end, it almost loses all value. However, the surprising amount of innovation in this theme saves “Skyfall” in the end.

Anyone upset about the lack of technology in “Skyfall” clearly hasn’t seen Daniel Craig with a shotgun.

“Skyfall” is both a throwback to James Bond of the past and a radically new Bond as well. It includes a few surprises that will be most meaningful to die hard fans. It also peppers in some backstory that makes the Bond legend so much stronger. But overall, this is just the best action movie I have seen in ages. For every plant there is a payoff and for every explosion there is a reason. “Skyfall” shows how smart Bond and the other agents are. Getting Bond as far away from technology at the end was a pretty ingenious move on the writers’ part. Modern blockbusters never forget the eye candy, but they often neglect to make their heroes actually seem intelligent. I believe a Bond without jetpacks or invisible cars is the best Bond there is.

The question of whether Bond is still relevant is actually pretty meta, and questions whether after 50 years, Bond films are still necessary. I think the answer is yes. James Bond has become something of a constant to me, and no Thanksgiving ever feels as awesome when there is no new Bond film to look forward to. It’s also great to think that whatever existential fear is currently haunting the collective subconscious (nuclear war, terrorism, cyber attacks), James Bond will always be there with his Walther PPK to stop it.

*Between “Looper” and “Skyfall,” Shanghai has gotten a glorious portrayal this year in film.

Top 5: James Bond Movies

The jetpack from “Thunderball”: the peak of bad special effects humor.

This weekend, “Skyfall” opens in theaters. “Skyfall” marks a remarkable 50 years of the existence of James Bond onscreen. Directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”), “Skyfall” has already been receiving early raves.

No matter how repetitive or ridiculous it gets, I will have a strong fondness for the Bond series. Thanksgivings of my childhood were usually marked by watching the Bond marathons on AMC or TNT (or whatever other network showed them) with my dad and brother. From my years of watching, I compiled a list of my favorite Bond films, building up to number one. Here are my five favorite Bond films:

5. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

It’s hard to fill the shoes of Sean Connery, but I believe Roger Moore did as good a job at it as anyone could. This is my favorite Moore installment, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from the Cold War inspired madness of the time. While the villain’s objective of creating a new civilization under the ocean should be completely ludicrous, it doesn’t feel as unrealistic in light of climate change. Plus it’s got a hot Bond girl, and Jaws, one of the few villains in the Bond series who got to come back for another film. If only Oddjob didn’t meet his end in “Goldfinger,” him and Jaws would have made a great team of villains.

4. Dr. No (1962)

This is where it all began. Bond had much less weapons to use, so he mainly relied on his own cunning. And while ejecting car seats are cool, it’s even cooler to see Bond having to use his own wits, like watching “Spider-Man” try and scale the city when his web blasters run out. And speaking of spiders, there’s a great scene where Bond battles a tarantula, which has the kind of slow-burning suspense rarely seen in movies anymore. I had the distinct pleasure to go to a beach screening of “Dr. No” while at Cannes this summer. To say that “Dr. No” has aged is an understatement. To say that because of that “Dr. No” is no longer funny or exciting to watch would be a lie.

See my Top 3 after the jump:

3. You Only Live Twice (1967)

“You Only Live Twice” might be one of the most insane Bond films, yet it still manages to keep its cool. It’s hard to disagree with an intoxicating theme song by Nancy Sinatra. This one has a space ship that steals other spaceships, a secret volcano lair, and Bond pretending to be Japanese. It is also the first glimpse we got of bald, kitty-loving bad guy Blofeld. “You Only Live Twice” was one of the Bond films I would always watch the whole way through every time there was a Thanksgiving marathon. But it is hard to deny, without “You Only Live Twice,” there might not have been “Austin Powers.”

2. Casino Royale (2006)

In 2006, “Casino Royale” both brought Bond back to his roots and reinvented the Cold War spy for the modern age. Many balked at the idea of a blonde Bond, but Daniel Craig effortlessly fit into the role. This was a much grittier Bond film, and the first time our hero actually seemed like a vulnerable human being. Plus, the gravity-defying opening chase is absolutely magnificent. Not to mention, the action replaces implausible death rays and such with the simplicity of guns and knives. Its greatest achievement, however, is turning a poker tournament into a breathless life or death situation. “Quantum of Solace” couldn’t quite follow in its footsteps, but I have a good feeling that “Skyfall” will bring back the Bond promised to us by “Casino Royale.”

1. Goldfinger (1964)

This seems too obvious but the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to put any other Bond film first. This was the first time Bond went high tech, but there is more to it than just that. It has one of the most simply sadistic villains in the entire series (he kills people by painting them gold!). It also had the audacity to (SPOILER) kill off the girl early on and replace her with another one. If anyone needs a perfect example of the witty intelligence of James Bond and the awesomeness of Sean Connery, look no further than “Goldfinger.”

Most Underrated: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

George Lazenby was the first Bond after Connery and he only got one shot at 007. He’s definitely not on top in the Bond caliber, because “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is actually a classic. It has a famous ski chase in which no one can remember which Bond film its actually from. Most notable about “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is that it is the most self-aware Bond has ever been. At the beginning  after the girl gets away, he turns to the camera and says, “this never happened to the other fellow.”

Worst: Die Another Day (2002)

I was close to choosing “Moonraker,” both for its “it’s like “The Spy Who Loved Me” in space” premise and the fact that it gave Jaws a love story. Yet, “Moonraker” is campy fun. “Die Another Day” represented the breaking point of Bond. The series had gone too ove-the-top for its own good. The need to see shiny lasers totally overshadows the plot. The only things I could pick up were a beam that harnessed the power of the sun, a hotel made of ice, and a Korean dude who was reincarnated as a white dude. Sure, it tried to be relevant by making the bad guys North Korean. Yet, it didn’t tap into any plausible fears like the Bond of the Soviet Era. Pierce Brosnan, who actually fit the Bond label very well, deserved better than this. And we ended up getting better. Four years after the mess of “Die Another Day,” Bond arose from the ashes in the form of “Casino Royale.”

Eight Nights of Hanukkah, Eight Nights of Movies: Night #7


Spielberg had to appear on this list one of these nights. So why didn’t I include “Schindler’s List,” cinema’s most thoughtful portrayal of the Holocaust, or “Saving Private Ryan” which I learned in Hebrew school has something to do with Jewish values? It wouldn’t take a post from me to get you to watch either of those. However, six years after being released, no one seems to want to watch “Munich.” It’s a depressing subject for sure, but it its also as captivating a political allegory as it is a thrilling and suspenseful film.

“Munich” is based on the tragic events surrounding the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which members of the Israeli Olympic team were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Spielberg recaptures the terrifying image of a hooded kidnapper standing on a terrace, and the chilling line said by a news anchor, “they’re all gone.” In response, the Israeli government assembles a team of Mossad agents to target and kill the terrorists. The team includes Eric Bana as the conscience-ridden Avner, as well as Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds.

When “Munich” was first released, it was greeted with much controversy. Many claimed the film, a work of historical fiction, to be anti-Israel. To believe that such a devoted, charitable Jew as Spielberg would ever make a film against his spiritual homeland is as ridiculous as the alien spaceship emerging out of the ground at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

While “Munich” does suggest that perhaps some of the people killed might not have been involved in the kidnapping, and at one point it does allow one of the terrorists to speak, this is not saying that Israel should not exist. It is rather a universal statement as old as time about the dangerous tole that revenge takes on the individual and that in the terrible Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides forget that we both bleed the same blood. In today’s polarized political environment, saying that both sides could be at fault is a small miracle.

Politics aside, “Munich” is something that few acknowledge it to be: an extremely well-made thriller based on the principles of film in the era that Spielberg first began working in (1970s) and the filmmakers of the past that inspired him (Hitchcock). One scene involving a phone, a bomb, and a little girl, will have you at the edge of your seat, begging you to wonder how it could possibly end.

One of Spielberg’s greatest pitfalls throughout his career is how easily he can fall into the trap of sentimentality. “Munich” is another one of his film’s about the importance of family, but it never falls into the trap of sentimentality. The ending is hardened, but also very thoughtful. “Munich” will evoke an intense political and theological discussion on this seventh night of Hanukkah but above all, everyone will enjoy the fact that for once, the Jews are the ones who are doing the ass kicking.

Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Most filmmakers forget the importance of opening credits. They usually serve to say who made the movie, but they never tell a story of their own. David Fincher never fails to make mind blowing openings. Think of the neurons and brain passages at the beginning of “Fight Club.” When the opening credits for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” finish rolling, you’ll have learned everything you need to know about Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) without even knowing it. It is the intersection of a brilliant filmmaker with a brilliant technological mind, just as Lisbeth is the intersection of a brilliant investigator with a brilliant hacker mind. Welcome to a Sweden without rules.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a thriller that utilizes everything a movie has at its disposal (camera, lighting, music, etc.) to the fullest extent, and thus pulls off the year’s most fully realized motion picture. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a triumph of everything. Like its incredibly complex narrative, one piece of the production would not fit in without another.

To outline the entire mystery would take up too much time. To simplify it all would be too hard. However, I’ll do my best to sum it all up. The movie begins after Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist from Stockholm, is convicted for ethics violations based on his story on banker Wennerstrom (Ulf Frieberg, who looks eerily similar to Julian Assange). The trial costs him both his reputation and his life savings. Escape comes in the form of wealthy patriarch Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants to hire Mikael to investigate his own family.

Vanger brings Mikael to his home, which is chillier and more isolated than even The Overlook Hotel. Vanger asks Mikael to find his missing niece Harriet, whom he believes was murdered 40 years prior. In his long, tedious investigation, Mikael finds a family that is even more deranged than the average dysfunctional family. Neo-Nazis may be the least of his problems.

Mikael has a great researcher’s mind, but there is something about him, he is submissive and subdued; he can find pieces of the puzzle but he can’t fit them all together. That’s where Lisbeth comes in. Lisbeth is the wunderkind hacker who performed Mikael’s background check for Henrik, and she is hired again to aid in the case. While Lisbeth has a brilliant mind, she is deemed a sociopath by society. While she is an outsider, like God’s lonely woman, she can find out any bit of information on any person by simply clicking a button on her computer. If all of a director’s movies and characters are supposed to exist in the same universe, then she would single handily destroy Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network” in a hacking contest, and then probably try and kill him for that comment about comparing women to farm animals.

There is something about being considered the lowest common denominator in society that makes someone able to get away with anything, which is what makes Lisbeth such an effective detective. Thanks to all of her piercings, her distinctive hairstyle, and the tattoo on her back that gives the movie its title, Lisbeth Salander is the year’s most unforgettable movie character.

Mikael and Lisbeth make a great team, as they both serve as each other’s foils. Mikael is a very safe and journalistic detective, while Lisbeth, who already lives above the law, is not afraid to break the rules in order to crack a case. She is the Jake Gittes to his Bob Woodward. As an abused woman herself, and through her actions, Lisbeth serves almost as both a protector and a crusader of the independence of all women. It is no wonder this case takes on special interest to her, as it involves catching a killer of women.

Craig delivers a stone-faced performance as Mikael Blomkvist. However, he is not quite an action hero here, he is more of a civilian, and his fear in the face of danger is not like the Bond we’ve seen him as. While I sometimes had trouble believing that he was Swedish, his timing in certain situations makes me believe that he would make a great comedic actor.

Mara, meanwhile, delivers a flawless performance that will merit her an Oscar nomination, if not a win. It is a stunning transformation from her role as sweet Erica Albright in “The Social Network.” Here, she creates an indelible performance using silence and actions over words. For what she goes through at the beginning of the film and everything she must bare, this is a brave performance. The way she responds to her rapes is that of someone who is both hardened and incredibly emotionally scarred. Mara brings out both features in the character throughout, making Lisbeth feel more heroic than sociopathic to me.

The movie’s final shot, showing her riding off on her motorcycle alone while everyone else around her is warm in the Swedish winter with company, evoked the endings of so many great westerns to me. In this day and age, the hacker is America’s new outlaw, and she is the queen of the new age isolated cowboy. The ending is not so much a plot cliffhanger as a character one. I cannot wait to see the next movie not just because of the story, but because I will get to see more of these characters, learn more about them, and spend more time a part of their lives.

It is hard to take a novel that is already so popular on its own and make it a unique movie. I admit I have yet to read any of Stieg Larson’s Millenium Trilogy, but I plan to pick up the novel version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as soon as possible. Fincher shows that there was a reason to adapt this novel to the screen. It is not just some regurgitation. While the movie perhaps moves a little too fast towards the end, it is only for the reason of fitting in as much of Larson’s original story into the first movie as possible.

The atmosphere created by the film is a master class example of how to turn setting into a character, and how to use it to build suspense that holds for over two and a half hours. The snowy landscapes, combined with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s mood building score, which begins with Karen O’s shrieking cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” will leave you a state of panic and thrill for the entire running time. Hitchcock would have been proud.

The team behind this movie, Fincher, Reznor, Ross, writer Steve Zallian, and producer Scott Rudin, is the best new team of mainstream movies in Hollywood. All of their efforts makes “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” come together so spectacularly. It is always a great team, and not just one mind, that can make a truly great movie complete. And the series can only get better from here. Few movies nowadays have the ability to be shocking and controversial. However, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” steps it up another level, and earns its R-rating. And it wears that badge with pride.

If you liked this movie, you’ll also like: Fight Club, The Ghost Writer, Se7en, The Searchers, The Social Network, Chinatown, Memento, No Country for Old Men, Casino Royale, The Shining, Vertigo, Any Ingmar Bergman movie about sad Swedish people in the snow 

Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens

A lot of unusual things happen to the unassuming western folk of “Cowboys & Aliens.” Mainly, aliens land on earth. Yet, nobody seems to react to it. In fact, these people don’t react to anything at all. Is this a movie, or an assembly of cardboard cutouts?

“Cowboys & Aliens” has a cast of cutouts that includes some of Hollywood’s best action stars being reduced of their charms and talents. Daniel Craig plays a cutout named Jake Lonergan, a wanted man who wakes up one morning with a mysterious metal band around his arm and blurry memories that might involve aliens.
As he tries to piece this puzzle together, he wanders into town and captures the attention of the townspeople by standing up to the local rough-and-tumble outlaw, Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who thinks he owns everything. Among the other people in town include the timid doctor (Sam Rockwell), and the token hot lady (Olivia Wilde). After Percy’s father Woodrow (Harrison Ford) rides into town, a series of “flying machines” begin attacking and what is deemed by the priest as “demons” is most certainly an extraterrestrial attack. Now, everyone must unite and fight for the future of humanity.
Where exactly did “Cowboys & Aliens” go wrong? In too many places to even keep count. With Jon Favreau at the helm, his direction feels more like it did in the second “Iron Man” as opposed to the original. That is, it feels like he started directing an action sequence and then halfway through it, gave up. As a director, Favreau hasn’t yet gotten to the stage where he can phone it in, and still pull it off. No, that takes many more years of experience.
“Cowboys & Aliens” was penned by “Lost”co-creator Damon Lindelof. It contains all of the intrigue of “Lost” without an of the wonder. If you are trying to put us into a time where the idea of life outside of earth is as foreign as the idea of cell phones, you must also put the audience into that sense of wonderment. Instead, all anyone can feel the whole time is, oh they are being attacked by evil aliens from space. Where is the film’s extra hook to really surprise us; where is the film’s polar bear in the jungle? How can we expect to take an alien species seriously when their spaceship looks like Squidward’s house?
The cutouts of “Cowboys & Aliens” consist mainly of a series of western archetypes. There is the young outlaw who’s seen too little, the old outlaw who’s seen too much, the knowledgeable doctor who can’t defend himself, the old coot with no teeth, and the guy who has to march down the town’s streets and yell about how he gets free drinks because he owns this town. None of the characters turn into anything above those stereotypes. I don’t blame this on the actors as much as I do on the writers.
The actors do the best they can, which is really all an actor can do with weak material. Craig, who has deservedly become the new face of James Bond, seems to struggle with his American accent. It doesn’t even come close to sounding like a grisled outlaw, it sounds more like an English guy trying to sound American. Besides the Bond movies, he should just stick to playing badass Jews from now on.
Harrison Ford, meanwhile, was the person I was most excited to see and yet, he doesn’t bring any of the typical Ford charm to his performance. Ford has played Cowboys before, in varying forms (Han Solo; Indiana Jones), yet Woodrow carries no outlaw spirit. He seems less angry about the aliens he has to fight and more angry that he is involved in this movie. He never even seems too concerned about the missing son that he is fighting the whole movie to get back. Shocking, as Ford is usually a master at yelling about missing family members.
I will say this, though: the closest the film ever comes to an actual human interaction is the scene in which Ford gives a young boy his knife. It is never very well explained, but these two characters are the only ones in the film that ever seem to have any chemistry. The fact that nothing is ever done with this represents all of the film’s underutilized potential.
“Cowboys & Aliens” strives to combine two genres that have been combined many times over, with much better results. In fact, the sci-fi western has been considered a genre for decades already, ever since “Star Wars” first came out in 1977. “Cowboys & Aliens” tries to fall under this genre, but it never makes these two very different genres seamlessly blend. The point of “Star Wars” was that if it took place in the Old West, it basically could have been “The Searchers.” I don’t even know what “Cowboys & Aliens” could have been. All I know is that it really made me want to keep watching “Firefly,” the TV series that did exactly what “Cowboys & Aliens” wanted to do, but in a much more exciting and coherent fashion.
The worst part of “Cowboys & Aliens” is that it isn’t very fun. I appreciate that Favreau wanted to tackle this story in a serious manner, but he takes the idea of straight-faced a step too far. Even Leone’s great western opuses had a sense of humor about themselves.
As for the sci-fi part of the film, the aliens feel less like an enemy, and more like a plot device. The aliens in the film look like those from “District 9,” but with way less personality. The reason why the aliens are here at this very moment remains totally unexplained. Even though “Super 8″ somewhat failed in that respect, at least they tried to make us understand its creature.
Amongst the seriousness, the makers of “Cowboys & Aliens” forgot that this is a summer blockbuster, and blockbusters can be both smart and serious while providing entertainment. This isn’t entertainment, this starring blankly at a bunch of preposterous characters and situations. Westerns are supposed to be slow, not boring.