Review: Spectre

Synopsis: A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE.

“Spectre” opens today and while it doesn’t top Daniel Craig’s previous entries it does fine-tune the rebooted story that began in 2006. My first reaction leaving the theater was, “They better get Daniel Craig to come back for ONE MORE movie.”

For a Bond picture, “Spectre” is surprisingly light on action and what action they do feature feels a tad forced.

The opening fight within a helicopter looks more irresponsible than thrilling. Later the car chase through Rome has some beautiful scenery but doesn’t get your adrenaline going. Bond eventually chases a convoy with an airplane and then continues the chase in the fuselage after crashing the plane. Honestly that part felt more like a scene out of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando” than anything else.

Not that I have any ill will toward “Commando.”

Still “Spectre” gets right what “Quantum Of Solace” got wrong. “Quantum” had an action piece every other scene, trying way too hard to mimic the Bourne formula. “Spectre” keeps to a few big action scenes and is surprisingly more dialogue-heavy.

The lack of action actually grew on me after a few days. One of my favorite James Bond moments is from “Dr. No” where Sean Connery is looking over his hotel room for evidence that it had been broken into. He’s being an investigator instead of a pure action icon.

There are two scenes in “Spectre” where Craig had to do the same thing while chasing after Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White. To me, that packed more of a punch than outrageous high-flying adventurism.

Craig is great and gets to use a little more swagger this time. In many ways this is his first normal Bond film, the famous gun-barrel sequence opens the film instead of being retooled or placed at the end. He’s allowed to make more wisecracks (in one case showing contempt for a Frank Sinatra tune…not cool) and shows off his knowledge of classic British cars.

I’d rank Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann as the second-best Bond Girl of the Craig movies, just a hair behind Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Yeah, there’s a big age difference between her and Craig. Yeah, at times she can be a damsel in distress. And yeah, we all thought Monica Bellucci would get just as much screen time instead of a mere cameo…I’m still sore about that.

Seydoux

But throughout the film you get hints that Swann is perfectly capable of defending herself, she even saves Bond’s life at one point. She does a damn good job of projecting some inner turmoil, almost as if she had to kill someone in the past and never got over it. Her character is a doctor who’d rather save lives than take them.

There’s more I can say about her character but it’s spoilery and speculative so I’ll save it for another day.

I should admit that going into this movie I was predisposed to like Christoph Waltz as the main villain. Totally standing by that.

Again, like “Dr. No” at first the bad guy is hidden in the shadows but still heard from. I love that imagery.

Waltz’s character, named Oberhauser, does share a connection to Bond’s past which did worry me a bit. Luckily they pull it off, not being sappy about their shared history or overplaying the personal stuff. I could say more but don’t want to ruin the surprise reveal.

[Fun piece of trivia, Waltz and Seydoux shared a scene in “Ingourious Basterds” when she played one of the farm girls in the opening scene]

spectre

Also, if you’re afraid of drills you will squint a bit during one of the scenes between Bond and Oberhauser.

Moving on to the supporting cast…

Even though she’s underutilized, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny does well and the banter between her and Bond is better than it was in “Skyfall.” Same goes for Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx, the main SPECTRE henchman. He gets a great introduction and proves he can beat the living crap out of Bond…but he only gets one friggin’ line of dialogue!

After picking Bautista as my favorite character in “Guardians of the Galaxy” I had hoped he’d get to philosophize more in “Spectre.”

The rest of the supporting cast, especially Ralph Fiennes’ M, have time to shine. I love how his M is a true jack-of-all-trades, fitting in naturally at government functions and yet excelling in the field, as well.

Andrew Scott, of “Sherlock” fame, plays an intelligence chief trying to dismantle the traditional spy program in favor of more drones and satellites and triumphs at playing a real tool.

“Spectre” also finds a way to reference previous characters that we miss, at one point name-dropping Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter who I wish would come back again. Judi Dench’s M also makes a quick reappearance.

The theme by Sam Smith, titled “The Writing is on the Wall,” improves after listening to it multiple times but isn’t as catchy as the last three themes. The opening credit number also looks weird with the octopus imagery and borders on qualifying as tentacle porn.

One shot of a tentacle next to a woman even looks like concept art for Neil Blomkamp’s Alien movie.

If I could sneak in one final criticism, it’s that “Spectre” does suffer from an “Avengers: Age of Ultron” problem where the plot points feel a little too similar to the previous film. Bond follows up on a lead, goes somewhere else for a lead, confronts the bad guy at his lair and then has a final confrontation on Bond’s home turf (in this case London).

Not a perfect comparison, but it does feel like there’s a hint of “Skyfall” to this script.

From the box office perspective, “Spectre” has broken a few records in the UK (beating the average per screen take set by “The Dark Knight” and the best weekly take set by “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) and is expected to open number one here in the states.

The only concern is that with such a huge price tag for the film (upwards of $300 million) that it could pull an “Amazing Spider-Man 2” and just be too expensive to make a solid profit. Both films were distributed by Sony.

Coming to a close, “Spectre” is a nice fit among the Craig films, showing off Bond’s spycraft instead of his destructive habits and leaves the door open for a cool take on the franchise.

If I had to give it a grade: B-

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Review: Jurassic World

Let me admit my bias from the get go.  For 12 years “Jurassic Park” held the top spot among movies I had seen in theaters the most.

So when a new film comes along to redeem the franchise after that one big pile of shit that was “Jurassic Park III” (yes, I’m referencing Jeff Goldblum’s line from the first film there) it’s a big deal.Jurassic World

I kept my expectations measured in the weeks leading up to “Jurassic World,” the latest dino-disaster film.  I read as few reviews as possible, skipped watching the final trailer and avoided the TV spots.

Cutting to the chase, a bad idea if I actually wanted you to read the whole review, when the credits rolled I was ready to watch the film again.

I had fun, didn’t have any major lingering issues with the plot and had actually been brought to the brink of tears during two scenes.  The first time was more of a sad tears situation the second tears were of pure happiness.

“Jurassic World” sticks to the keep it simple rule of blockbuster movie making.  We have a fully operational Jurassic Park, they engineer a mysterious new dinosaur to boost attendance, it escapes and a deadly chase ensues.

There you have it.

As much as we need captivating heist films like Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and ensemble adventure flicks like Marvel’s “The Avengers,” audiences also need to decompress.

This was also a virtue upheld to the max in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (sorry, couldn’t help use that line).  Both “Fury Road” and “Jurassic World” bust out the big action sets and serve, not to reboot, but the refuel old franchises.  They do this while keeping the sub-plots to a minimum.

A quick rundown of the characters.  Chris Pratt plays Owen, someone who is a bit of a composite between Muldoon (the “clever girl” guy), Pete Postlethwaite’s hunter from “The Lost World” with a hint of Chris Pratt tossed in.  Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, the executive in charge of the park who gets to one-up Owen on several occasions while running in heels.

Vincent D’Onofrio, Omar Sy, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Judy Greer, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus and the velociraptors round out the supporting cast.

Yes, I listed to velociraptors as cast members.  You’ll understand once you watch the movie.

Now if I had to pick one complaint about “Jurassic World” it would be the depiction of Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan).  Masrani is said to be the ninth richest man in the world who swore to John Hammond that he would restore his dream of a dinosaur theme park.  Very solid motive and I wish they did more with that.

Masrani is treated like a guy just trying to do the right thing throughout the movie even though, like Hammond in the original, he doesn’t fully think about the consequences.  He gets my pick for most underutilized character, needing more moments to show his authority instead of being thrown in as a token millionaire boss.

There are many worthwhile references/easter eggs from “Jurassic Park” but only once actor making a return appearance.  Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) is back as the man who once again is responsible for engineering the dinosaurs and eventually creating the new Indominous Rex, our main dino-villain.

Treading carefully to avoid spoilers, a handful of reviews have said Dr. Wu’s motives were unfair to the character.  If you rewatch the first movie, though, Wu sort of played the foil to Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) when it came to whether the Jurassic Park system was foolproof.  He’s always been a believer in the system.  That in itself gives enough room to take the character in the direction they did.

Wu and Masrani also share a heavy scene where they clash over the genetic make-up of the Indominous Rex, with Wu delivering one of the best lines of the film.

Finally, the question of whether there is too much CGI in “Jurassic World.”  Maybe.  But it didn’t ruin the film for me … might have to elaborate on that later.

Bottom line: This is an adventure 22 years in the making as we finally revisit the island from “Jurassic Park.”

 

Leftover notes:

-The much debated riding a motorcycle alongside raptors scene was treated with the kind of skepticism you’d expect and wasn’t just tossed in as an action shot.  It was handled well in the movie and if that was a point of concern for you don’t worry about.

-Two cool voice cameos from Brad Bird and director Colin Trevorrow, but why is Jimmy Fallon in this movie?  Considering the scene Fallon was placed in couldn’t they have called Bill Nye the Science Guy instead?

-They also toss in a line about why the dinosaurs in the park look different from the modern thinking on their appearance, which states that dinosaurs were more feathered.  Good line!  Kind of gives you some hope that Dr. Grant and Sattler aren’t out of a job (extinct?) in the sequel.

New “Ant-Man” trailer surprisingly good

I might have to eat crow when it comes to the “Ant-Man” movie.  Time will tell, I’m still reserving my right to go “meh” when the credits roll.

After a crummy teaser earlier this year the new trailer was released Sunday and, to my pleasant surprise, looked pretty swell.

What bothered me about our first look at the film was how predictable it was.  Dramatic speech by Michael Douglas?  I bet it’ll end with Paul Rudd going, “Huh” or something.  Toss in some action shots?  I’m looking at my watch to see how long it’ll be before the mandatory joke about the name Ant-Man.  Oh there it is.

Now I’m ready to shake that off, here’s why:

Return to the Phase One feel

I’ve only been down on Marvel movies since the so-called Phase Two stage kicked-off after “Avengers.”  In 2013, it felt like the studio was just spiking the football and patting itself on the back after making a mountain of cash the year before.  Things got better in 2014, though.

“Ant-Man” feels different.  It looks like comic book heist film first as opposed to another team-up or generic save the world movie.  Best case scenario, it has the same Phase One DNA as 2008’s “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk,” which I’ll always consider a heavily underrated film.  Have a fair amount of origin story with the only stakes being to take out the bad guy.

They shrank the damn Marvel logo!

Tiny logo

The new studio intro logo, which I want to say debuted with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” was bigger, longer and oh so showy.  It also might end up causing more seizures than 90’s-era anime.  Seeing it cut down to size brings warm, coffee-like feelings to my heart.

Corey Stoll is awesome

Not much elaboration required here.  This guy is one helluva an actor, just watch season one of “House of Cards.”  Can’t wait to see him on screen as the villain Yellowjacket.

Iron Man’s weapon proliferation fears revised

This kinda relates to the Phase One point.  What I liked about “Iron Man” was how Tony Stark said his mission was to combat illegal weapon sales.  It was an excellent motivation that fell off the radar in the sequels.  Damn shame since to me Robert Downey Jr.’s best moment was his, “There is the next mission and nothing else” scene from the first movie.

“Ant-Man” picks up that baton by making this a conflict over stealing back the super shrinking technology so it can’t be militarized.  Right on!  Wish this plot was used years ago.

Vacation from the East Coast

Way too many superheroes work in New York City or a New York City substitute.  I mean, it’s considered the safest major city in the world how many heroes do you need?  “Ant-Man” is going to take place on the West Coast and bully for that.  San Francisco is lovely in the summer.

And finally, Thomas the Tank Engine!

Well done!  Marvel might toss in far too many witticisms but visual gags like having Thomas the Tank Engine smash the bad guy is pure gold.

“Ant-Man” will be released in theater July 17.

Hillary’s 2016 logo looks a little too familiar…

Presidential campaign season is upon us so it’s time to once again kick myself in the gonads for not blogging. Anywho …

As a long-time campaign button collector, the first thing that came to mind after watching Hillary Clinton’s announcement video was, naturally, a feeling that her logo wasn’t quite that original.

So I walked over to my 300 strong button collection and pulled this pin from Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, which Hillary volunteered for back in the day:

Clinton logo

Not an exact match, mind you, but the spirit of ’64 is still there. It’s also worth noting that in an interview with the Washington Post four years before his death Goldwater said of Bill Clinton, “If he’d let his wife run business, I think he’d be better off. … I just like the way she acts.”

It wasn’t a completely glowing endorsement since Barry went on to bash the Clinton health care proposal.

Now I’m not implying that Hillary micro-managed her campaign roll out to the point of wanting to reference her days as a “Goldwater Girl.” I will say that if you look at enough buttons every once in a while a particular design comes full circle.

For a more detailed brief on Hillary Clinton’s volunteer work for Goldwater and subsequent left turn check out this FactCheck.org page here.

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is a well acted movie with splendid special effects but suffers from the same problem that haunted other two part conclusions.

Namely, you’ll walk out of the theater not attached to this film but ready for everything to explode in the finale.  “Mockingjay” is heavy on dialogue, which given the cast isn’t a bad thing, but does feel repetitive at the halfway point.

This is the part where I mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I haven’t read the Hunger Games books.  So I really had no idea what to expect.  Womp womp.

Anywho…Mockingjay

Quick summary of the plot:  In the wake of the second film, popular Hunger Games champion Katniss Everdeen (the bodacious Jennifer Lawrence) is exploring the hidden District 13 compound and must decide if she wants to become the face of a rebellion against the rich Capitol (wouldn’t it have been ironic if they spelled it “Capital” instead? Huh? Huh?).  Complicating matters is that the man she loves, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is trapped in the Capitol.

If you’ve watched the trailer to “Mockingjay” you’ve seen the only real action set in the movie.  However, it mostly makes up for it with a tense raiding scene at the end (partially told via cameras on the troops, very “Aliens,” very cool).

To its credit, “Mockingjay” does go out of its way to show the horrors or air wars, more so than you’d expect from a PG-13 movie.  The scene where Katniss visits her decimated home is one of the two most memorable moments in the picture (the other one being the second to last scene in the movie).

SIDE NOTE:  On the topic of air warfare, if you haven’t checked out this article on the lost photos of the Gulf War, please do.  Very telling account of military and media relations during wartime.

But after a well-paced start the film drags on in the middle.  It becomes a contest to see which side can produce the best propaganda videos (called “propos”) to win over public opinion.

Call me a Hunger Games novice, but is the run up to a big battle really exchanging TV commercials?  As someone who studied politics I find that whole airwave approach … a little too civil for a rebellion picture.

It would have helped to show other districts reacting to the TV battle as it progressed.  In the beginning, we see people view the address from President Snow (Donald Sutherland, badass villain with a white rosy attitude) but after that just see how the two rival governments respond.

The same thing plagued “Thor.”  Fine movie, but characters keep saying they’re “on the brink of war” and we need to ensure people know someone is in charge.  But we never see the civilian population ready themselves for bloodshed or worried about their monarchy, just palace intrigue.

Nevertheless, “Mockingjay” is worth your time even if you haven’t read the books.  This one comes recommended.

Finally, classy move to dedicate the film to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee).  Tip of the hat to director Francis Lawrence for not using CGI or other tricks to finish some of Hoffman’s incomplete scenes but letting his performance stand on its own.

BOTTOM LINE:  It’s the calm before the storm that could’ve used more lightning.

Review: Interstellar

It’s impossible for humans to travel back in time.  Unless they’re in a movie theater.

This review of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” will go out of its way not to spoil anything.  This will be light on plot and more focused on the experience.

It might even be better to call it a primer on “Interstellar” rather than a review.

Let start by getting the basic story and my reaction out of the way.

Going through a global dust bowl, Earth is dying and NASA embarks on a long shot mission to prevent mankind’s extinction.  It’s a film that made me want to nominate Nolan for sainthood, continues his streak of not making a bad film and makes allusions to all the sci-fi films we loved as kids.

You will hear complaints about the final act.  My response is this is still a science fiction film.  Deal with it.

There you go!  Short and sweet.Interstellar

Not so short is the runtime, which counting previews is about three hours.  While I’d *always* recommend a nice, refreshing Coca-Cola to enlighten your trip to the theater, save that for next time.  It’s imperative that your bladder be empty for “Interstellar.”

Still, that’s no excuse to skip out on a popcorn and a pack of Junior Mints.

It’s also unique that Nolan gave “Interstellar” an early release on 35mm film/70mm IMAX three days before the general release.  Since early in the last decade (starting with “Star Wars: Episode III” if I remember correctly) movies have gradually been shown on DLP digital projectors.

In fact, it was a real struggle (reel?) to explain to moviegoers what exactly 35mm film is.

You start by saying 35mm is actual film as opposed to a digital file.  Then they squint and reply, “Is that 1080p?”

After that, you try comparing it to a VHS vs. streaming a movie on Netflix until they ask, “What’s a VHS?”  Then you wonder if you should follow up “Interstellar” by watching “Idiocracy.”

I finally cracked, in a nice way, and said to one college-age person, “My friend, if you watched movies as a kid you’ll remember what film looks like.”

Moving on to the sainthood for Nolan part.  What makes me such a staunch Nolan fan is that more than any current filmmaker he knows how to make movies feel big again.

Watching “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” at the IMAX and just having to tilt my neck up to see the whole picture had a big impact.  For two and a half hours I was care-free, just like when I’d sit on the very front row of the theater to escape into a movie way back in elementary school.

I didn’t mind the scratch marks that came with film, for a long time that was just all we knew.  As much as I love how clear DLP is, films broken in by projectors are just as vital.

Nolan films also feel big in how he packages them.  Plot details are kept under tight security.  The trailers, for the most part, don’t give away much of the story.  Models and practical effects are used as often as possible, harkening back to what I would call the peak of balanced, grounded movie effects (basically that time from 1982’s “The Thing” to “Jurassic Park”).

Too often people sabotage a movie by leaking scripts, stalking film crews/sets with cameras and robbing audiences of the chance to be  truly surprised.

Watching on film also makes sense in the context of the story.  The future in “Interstellar” looks a lot like our present.  This is because we’ve stopped focusing on new inventions and become a “caretaker” generation dedicated to growing food.  You know, survival.

There are a few clear advancements, namely robots with artificial intelligence.  But reverting from digital to film to see a movie about humanity reverting from a tech culture to an agrarian culture is a little extra fun.

I wonder how much just the idea of no new cell phones every year will frighten today’s movie-going teens.  A lot, I hope.

Not the leave the actors out, this film is carried by fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey as Cooper,  God bless him.  With Nolan crediting 1983’s “The Right Stuff” for influencing this film I bet naming the main character Cooper was a nod to Mercury astronaut “Gordo” Cooper (who was played by Dennis Quaid, another Texan, in that movie).

Equally worthy of praise are Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy as Cooper’s daughter Murph.  Oh, and if you don’t like Anne Hathaway in this movie I don’t like you.  Finally, tip of the hat to David Gyasi as Romilly and Michael Caine remains Nolan’s good luck charm.

There are other actors who pop up in “Interstellar” but I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun.

BOTTOM LINE: “Interstellar” made me feel like a kid again.  The less you know about the plot the better.

 

LEFTOVER THOUGHTS:

-As someone who loves “2001: A Space Odyssey” I’m tremendously glad another movie has come around to remind us that when a spaceship rotates it will have gravity on board.  Finally a rotating ship!  None of that “artificial gravity” malarkey.

-John Lithgow also has a supporting part and his character talks about how you can’t have a baseball game without a hot dog.  This marks the second time he’s played someone who prioritizes hot dogs, having a similar conversation with Roy Scheider in “2010.”

-Someway, somehow with the world ending McConaughey manages to always have a beer handy.  In the future facing extinction we will still find the resources to make our adult beverages.

Settling my Election Day bets

First things first, time to settle those Election Day bets I made.  I’ll assume each prediction was worth five dollars.

On the plus side, I said no new independents would join the U.S. Senate (i.e. Greg Orman and Larry Pressler) and that here in Austin light rail would fail (though it failed more spectacularly than I expected).

Meanwhile, Leticia Van de Putte did not get more votes than Wendy Davis and Scott Brown did not have an upset victory.

I was right that Republicans would, “pick up seven Senate seats tonight.”  However that’s me spinning the details (political science grads do that) as Alaska and Virginia are still not called and Louisiana is headed to a run-off.

The jury is still out on whether Angus King (I-ME) will eventually switch parties.  So remarkably, the GOP could end up with 55 Senate seats (maybe 56 if they get really really really lucky in Virginia), the most they’ve had since the 2004 election.

Last night I remembered one bet I didn’t blog about, that Austin would have a mayoral run-off between Steve Adler and Mike Martinez.  Missed opportunity!

So I’ll end Election 2014 up 3-2 and win five bucks.  I shall remember to pay it to myself.*

Coming up next, why this campaign was more of a return to normalcy than a blowout for Republicans.

 

*I hope you recognize that as a “Casablanca” reference.

 

UPDATE: At a press conference today, Angus King announced he’ll continue to caucus with the Democrats.