Archive for the ‘Spy Film’ Category

Quantum of Solace

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

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Like The Phantom Menace, Quantum of Solace is a strangely titled cinematic addition to a popular franchise. Unlike Phantom Menace, however, the title makes perfect sense after viewing the film. I mention this at the beginning of the review because it’s sort of an unusual title, and I wanted to mention it so I could get it out of the way and dive in to what I actually thought of this film. (By the way, this is not, in my opinion, a bad Bond title. The worst Bond title, by far, is Octopussy. Lame, lame, lame name for a Bond movie.)

This film picks up pretty much where the terrific Bond film Casino Royale left off (ok, I’d say about twenty or twenty five minutes afterward). Bond (Daniel Craig) is shaken and stirred over the death of his beloved from that film, and Quantum of Solace follows Bond as he tries to figure out what this evil, ubiquitous organization that’s pulling all of the strings is, and what it’s up to. Oooh, mysterious.

The film is a sequel of sorts to Casino Royale, and if you haven’t seen that one yet, I’d suggest watching it before you see Quantum of Solace, or you might be kind of lost. There are many characters, references and lines that might not make much since if you haven’t seen Casino Royale (you should see it anyway, really).

I have no idea if Daniel Craig is the best Bond, or if he’s better than Sean Connery or Roger Moore or whoever. I think all of the Bonds have their strong points (yes, even Lazenby). I do think, however, that Daniel Craig is the closest to the James Bond of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. James Bond, as depicted in Fleming’s books, is a loner, a bitter, angry type who is good with a gun and quick on his toes. He’s good with the ladies, sure, but he’s not a smooth, suave playboy type as the character is sometimes portrayed in films.

Craig humanizes Bond, makes him real in a way few other Bonds have. As he did in Casino Royale, Craig breathes new life to a character who is over forty five years old. That’s some kind of feat.

I don’t think that Quantum of Solace is a superior Bond film, but it has splendid action sequences, and it fleshes out the relationship between Bond and M (played by Judi Dench). I thought that the Bond and M dynamic was one of the strongest aspects to the film. Marc Forster, the director, also creates some terrific sequences that bring a new aspect to the standard Bond film. One in particular has Bond spying on several members of the evil organization at an opera. It’s theatrical, tense and funny.

Mathieu Amalric (who starred in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays the evil Dominic Greene, and he brings a slick, scummy charm to the role. Looking eerily similar to Roman Polanski, Amalric is a fascinating actor to watch, thanks in large part to his incredibly expressive eyes (do they give honorary Oscars to eyeballs?)

Jeffrey Wright is back as Bond’s ally Felix Leiter, furthering my belief that Wright is in just about every other made in the last twelve years. David Harbour as CIA operative Gregg Beam plays the part of boorish jackass just right, and he also has one of my favorite lines in the picture. Giancarlo Giannini is back as Bond’s ally Mathis, and Jesper Christensen returns as the mysterious Mr. White. The Bond girls in this film, Olga Kurylenko as Camille and Gemma Arterton as Agent Strawberry Fields, are both stunning without really having much to do in the film.

Quantum of Solace is a solid installment in the Bond franchise.

Body of Lies

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

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Body of Lies is a solid action film, with strong performances and directed by a master filmmaker (Ridley Scott), but the film left me feeling cold, uninvolved. I appreciate it from an aesthetic standpoint, as a competently made thriller about the Middle East, but it never really captivated me. I recommend it if you really like spy films, but I don’t recommend it that enthusiastically.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a secret agent stationed in the Middle East, who is really, really devoted to his job. Leo plays Ferris as bitter, obsessed and very prickly (and prickish); in fact, shades of Leo’s character from The Departed can be found in his work here. Anyway, the plot involves Leo tracking down the suspected terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (played by Alon Abutbul), and playing just about every side to do so. This includes his handler back in Washington, Ed Hoffman (played by Russell Crowe), and Hani (Mark Strong), who heads up the Jordanian security.

Of course, every action film nowadays needs a love interest, and the plot provides one in the form of Aisha (played by Golshifteh Farahani), a nurse at a hospital where Roger goes after a nasty confrontation with some angry doggies. Roger and Aisha have some nice scenes together, but the subplot doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. (that being said, the scene where Roger goes to Aisha’s home to meet her sister and her two nephews is brilliantly done).

Leonardo DiCaprio is a trooper in this film (his character is bruised and battered physically, emotionally and mentally throughout the film), but, as I said elsewhere, his work here seems in parts a retread of some of his other past, better performances. Russell Crowe’s supporting turn as Ed, the overbearing, overweight handler is terrific; Crowe creates a ruthless, boorish character who serves as comic relief in several scenes. Throughout the film, Ed eats like a pig and pushes Roger to the breaking point, but he’s also depicted as a loving father (notice the way he helps his young son use the bathroom in an early scene).

A key supporting role is the performance by Mark Strong, as Hani, the head of the Jordanian security, who helps Roger with information. Hani is a man of honor, sure, but he’s also devious, cunning and seems to always be thinking two steps ahead. Strong plays him smooth, quiet but with a vicious, violent strike that erupt at any moment. I also liked the supporting performances by Simon McBurney as Garland, the computer expert who becomes Leo’s ally, and Lubna Azabal as Aisha’s disapproving sister.

Body of Lies is well-made and provides a good entertainment, but it doesn’t really resonate with the viewer afterwards, and pales next to many other recent movies about the Middle East.

Burn After Reading

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

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For me, the release of a new Coen Brothers’ film is a big deal. Not only do I believe that they’ve never made a bad film (every one of their films is worth watching at least four times), but I am convinced that they are two of the most talented American filmmakers in the last thirty years. Each of their films offers a twist on a Hollywood genre or sub-genre: Fargo was the police procedural thriller, Miller’s Crossing was their gangster film and No Country for Old Men was their version of a slasher film, with Javier Bardem’s terrifying portrayal of Anton Chigurh, who is every bit as frightening, omnipresent and unstoppable as Jason Vorhees.

Now comes their take on the spy genre, a brutally violent and very funny take on espionage, that centers on an extended circle of self-centered, nasty people. Only, they’re mostly all very rich and most of them are secret agents, or at least involved in the upper levels of important government agencies. The film could have been called “Spies Behaving Badly,” and it would have been completely accurate. The film stars George Clooney, who also starred in the Coen Brothers’ films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, and costars Coen Muse (and Joel’s real-life wife) Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins.

The plot is multi-layered, and the details of the story pile on top of each other, but, very simply, it’s about a recently fired CIA agent by the name of Osborne Cox (played by Malkovich), and the memoir he plans to write on his years in the Agency (Malkovich’s pronunciation of the word ‘memoir’ is one of the film’s many delights.) The twisty plot also involves Cox’s cheating wife (Swinton), her lover, a paranoid, philandering government employee (Clooney), a ambitious health club employee obsessed with her body image (McDormand), her dull-witted friend (Pitt, who sports a hilariously hideous hairstyle) and her boss, played by the great Richard Jenkins.

The film is dark and bloody, but it’s also a satire, and the characters, though all unlikable idiots, are engaging and well performed by a pitch-perfect ensemble. The tone of the film is set by an early scene in which Malkovich is fired, and his enunciation of each word (including some well place ‘F-bombs’) and his over-the-top hand and arm movements help introduce the excessive, ridiculous world we have just entered. Although the whole cast was great, I especially liked Malkovich, McDormand and Pitt’s work, as well as David Rasche as Malkovich’s CIA superior, and J.K. Simmons’ as Rasche’s CIA superior.

Burn After Reading is a hilarious, compulsively watchable film about a group of very nasty, but very entertaining, people.

Get Smart

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

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I walked into this film fully expecting it to be terrible, so imagine my surprise when I found myself laughing, pretty damn hard, throughout the 110 minute running time. Sure, it’s goofy, silly and ridiculous, but those don’t necessarily have to be bad things. Get Smart proudly wears its ridiculousness on its sleeve, and it’s all the better for it.

The reason this film works, though, is thanks to the game cast, lead by Steve Carell as the unflappable Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway as the stunning super spy Agent 99. It doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast includes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Agent 23, the rock star of spies, Alan Arkin as the cranky Chief, Terence Stamp as the cantankerous villain Siegfried and Ken Davitian as Siegfried’s right-hand man. David Koechner and Terry Crews are also on hand as fellow CONTROL agents, and there are several hilarious cameos that were surprises to me (and I’ll leave them to be surprises to you.) If you’re familiar with the original TV show “Get Smart,” you’ll probably also recognize a few actors from the original, but I’ll be honest, I had no clue who they were.

Get Smart is definitely not a great film, but it’s funnier than it probably has a right to be. Again, much of the thanks should go to Carell, who plays Smart not so much as an idiot but as a man so confident and focused that he ignores every incredibly obvious fact staring him in the face. There were two moments that almost made me convulse with laughter. One is when Carell is struggling in vain to use a eye scanner to open a cell door, and the other is a line that Arkin delivers while he and Carell are involved in a car chase. Alan Arkin is the film’s secret weapon, in fact.

I notice that this is only the start of the fourth paragraph, and I’ve already ran out of things to say. I think that’s because some movies, although entertaining, just don’t have a lot to them. I mean that as a compliment, not an insult. Get Smart is a funny, silly movie without any desire to be anything of any greater substance and, hey, I’m okay with that.