Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Queen / **** (PG-13)

HM Queen Elizabeth II: Helen Mirren
Tony Blair: Michael Sheen
Prince Philip: James Cromwell
HM The Queen Mother: Silvia Syms
Prince Charles: Alex Jennings
Robin Janvrin: Roger Allam
Cherie Blair: Helen McCrory

Miramax and Pathe Pictures present a film directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Peter Morgan. Running time: 97 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language).

Watching Stephen Frears’s Oscar nominated film “The Queen”, I couldn’t get two recent events out of my head. The first was the death of President Gerald Ford and the period of morning this country endured for him a few weeks back. Ford was never one of our more respected leaders. Indeed, right around the time of his death I coincidentally started revisiting on DVD the first season of “Saturday Night Live”, where Chevy Chase became famous ridiculing Ford’s dexterity and intelligence.

I was actually upset on the Monday after Ford’s death. While the rest of our country went back to work after the New Year holidays, all government agencies got another day off to memorialize our fallen President; meanwhile, I was waiting for Netflix to send me a few more episodes of “Alias”. Worse yet, I’d already had Mizzou’s bowl game interrupted Friday afternoon by Katie Curic’s decision regarding the newsworthiness of watching an empty parking lot for the arrival of the Ford family prior to the first of countless services.

This is pretty representative of how many Americans live such invested lives that taking time to respect tradition is a secondary function. Or maybe I’m just a jerk. These feelings are intensified because I actually had a personal experience with Ford. Once at an open-air symphonic concert in Vail, Colorado, I sat only about thirty yards away from the former President. Sure, the Secret Service was positioned in seats between us, but it was not a crowded audience and I was able to exchanges glances and nods with the man who once was the most powerful subject of ridicule in the free world. So I was saddened by his death. I had lost something personal and should have felt more forgiving of tradition.

But the powers of personal emotion and political tradition have always been at odds. Americans have had it a bit easier than the British in getting over such differences, and the popular phenomena that was Princess Diana was maybe the British Monarchy’s greatest test in dealing with this clash. When newly elected Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair declared Princess Di “the people’s princess” in the days following her tragic death, he was only articulating what the people of England knew from the day she entered public life and what the Royal Family never seemed to understand

Although the catalyst for the subject of this film is Princess Diana’s death, this film is not about the event itself, but the people affected by it. It is about the unbending tradition of the Royal Family. It is about the separation between the no longer governing British Royalty and the people it still calls its subjects. It is about modernist (or progressive) ideas versus the bygone ideals of conservative tradition. But it is also about how people are human no matter what title they hold, no matter how strong their belief in their divine righteousness.

Prime Minister Blair, as portrayed by Michael Sheen (“Kingdom of Heaven”), is not strictly a politician here, but is an intelligent political businessman and an eager commoner who wants to make good on his promises to affect change for the good of England. He is awkward in his new post. Notice the football jersey he wears as he places his first call to The Queen to discuss the Princess Diana situation. It is easy to see why the populace would have elected him in a landslide and slightly harder to see the world politician he has become.

Queen Elizabeth gives him a warning of what he will become in the film’s final scene, however, suggesting that he will one day be thrown to the same media wolves that she was in the week following Di’s death. She speculates the reason Blair was so willing to back her, when even members of his own office were ready to crucify her, is because he knew that one day he will fall out of favor. I only hope, for her own personal victory, that this conversation was a reality and not pure conjecture on screenwriter Peter Morgan’s part. Of course, the real life Blair has now chosen not to run for re-election, an option that doesn’t exist for the Royals.

The Queen’s own character is perfectly spelled out in the opening scene composed by Frears (“Mrs. Henderson Presents”) and writer Peter Morgan (“The Last King of Scotland”), and deftly portrayed by Oscar shoe-in Helen Mirren (“Gosford Park”). The complexity of The Queen’s character is revealed when she asks her portrait artist if he voted in the election for the new Labour Prime Minister. As she poses stiff and unsmiling for her portrait she declares how much she envies this artist -- her “subject” -- for his freedom of choice, his ability to take his own action in developing the future of his country… and hers.

The Queen Mother, marvelously portrayed by Silvia Syms (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), represents Blair’s opposite, the Monarchy from an age when it had the power it now merely pretends to represent. But no member of the Royal Family is without their humanity. They use their own flawed reasoning to justify their actions of unbending tradition that keep them willfully separated from the people. Despite his buffoonish treatment in the press, Prince Charles (Alex Jennings, “Babel”) is the most sympathetic family member. Although he does retain a touch of that perceived public persona, he is the only one who seems to realize the difference between public perception and personal reality. Only Blair’s wife Cherie can wholly complain about her characterization here, as Helen McCrory (“Casanova”) is given little to work with beyond a progressive automaton.

Even Prince Philip (James Cromwell, “I, Robot”), with his bullish behavior, is trying to protect his grandsons from having to deal with the loss of their mother. He takes the boys out on a hunting mission for a stag that has been wandering through the Royals’ country estate. The stag symbolizes the old ways of the Monarchy. While the Royals are hunting the poor, majestic animal and stalling any reaction to Diana’s death, they are only shooting themselves. In the end the animal wanders onto a neighboring estate and is killed by an investment banker from London; the Royals aren’t even in control of their own fate.

I admire how this film looks with such complexity at what may at first seem to be an obvious issue. It is not merely a modern biographical costume drama but a multifaceted character study of people who are too often defined by their positions and their public personas. It may seem in the end that the only thing Queen Elizabeth is master over is the pack of Corgis that follow her everywhere, but this is what brings me back to the second recent event I had mentioned earlier. When Queen Elizabeth celebrated her eightieth birthday just last year, the list of performers read like a who’s who of British rock stars. When The Queen of England invites Ozzy Osbourne to perform at her birthday party, it is hard to accuse her of not being modern. This suggests that the Queen does not share the dead stag’s fate in this film; instead, in the end, her fate is her own.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima / **** (R)

Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi: Ken Watanabe
Saigo: Kazunari Ninomiya
Baron Nishi: Tsuyoshi Ihara
Shimizu: Ryo Kase
Lieutenant Ito: Shido Nakamura

Warner Bros. and DreamWorks SKG present a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Iris Yamashita. Story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis. Inspired by the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido. Running time: 141 min. Rated R (for graphic war violence).

There is a sense of despair right from the opening passages of “Letters from Iwo Jima” that usually is reserved for the later chapters of a war film. There is little sense that the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima ever had any chance of coming out with their lives; indeed, most did not. Some 22,000 Imperial Japanese soldiers dug into the very rock of that sulfurous mass of land to face a full U.S. Marine and Naval attack of more than 70,000 soldiers. The Japanese had no support from their Naval forces and very little in terms of armaments on the island. Perhaps the historians who balk at the accuracy of the Japanese chances of victory depicted here are more focused on the surprisingly good defense they put up than their actual odds of coming out on top.

“Letters from Iwo Jima” is director Clint Eastwood’s second film about the Battle of Iwo Jima to be released within the last three months. The first was an adaptation of “Flags of Our Fathers”, Navy medic John Bradley’s memoir of his experience during World War II as written by his grandson James Bradley.

“Letters”, meanwhile, was inspired by a picture book of Japanese Army artifacts uncovered by archeologists. Eastwood used the book as a reference tool for the “Flags” production. Most of the artifacts in the book were preserved at the time of the war by Iwo Jima’s Commander in Chief, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Eastwood was so moved by what he discovered in his research of the Japanese strategies utilized on Iwo Jima, he decided to tell the story of the Japanese soldiers in much the same way he presented the story of America’s Iwo Jima soldiers in “Flags”.

Both films focus their attention on the relationship between the nationalistic ideals of each country and the individual ideals of its soldiers. The films are companion pieces, but act as individual stories with very different perspectives and approaches, allowing them to be viewed as separate films. The primary difference between the films’ outlooks lies within the fact that the U.S. won the war and Japan lost.

“Letters” follows the stories of several different characters through the battle tunnels dug into the rock of Iwo Jima and through flashbacks inspired by letters written to loved ones that will most likely never even leave the island.

Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai”) is an Army replacement for Iwo’s original commanding officer. His other officers do not appreciate the way Kuribayashi questions the Imperial Command in their distribution of support and information. His unconventional approach to the coming invasion, most notably digging into the caverns in lieu of traditional beach trench defenses, allow many of his commanding officers to accuse him of being an American sympathizer. We learn he spent some time in America in his early career and understands that, despite the lack of long standing tradition, U.S. pride will not allow the Japanese sneak attack tactics to go unpunished.

Another lower ranking officer, Lieutenant Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, “Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe”), is a former Olympian equestrian champion, who experienced world wide fame and befriended many Hollywood celebrities in his time in America. Nishi’s back story is the only one not told through letters he writes, but when he saves an injured American from the battlefield, it is a letter from that soldier’s mother read by Nishi to his own troops that expresses one of the clearest lessons of the film. After the letter is read, one Japanese soldier says it sounded just like his own mother’s words to him. The foot soldier is the same everywhere, operating under orders coming down from a line of command. A soldier fights because he feels he is on the “right” side and it is his duty. All a soldier wants in the end is to make it home alive.

That average soldier’s plight is told most directly through the story of Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya, “The Blue Light”), who was a simple baker before being drafted into the war, leaving behind a young wife and unborn child. Saigo’s struggle above all is for his own survival. The obstacles he faces are not just the American bullets, but the sword of unforgiving tradition stemming from his commanding officer’s pride. Assigned to the post of Mount Suribachi, which fell to the Americans in the first few days of the battle, Saigo endures one of the film’s most shocking scenes when the final surviving members of his post are commanded to commit suicide with their hand grenades.

Saigo escapes this death sentence with the help of Shimizu (Ryo Kase, “Strawberry Shortcakes”), whose own story shows the breadth of wastefulness in Imperial Japan’s nationalistic pride. Shimizu was a promising soldier with a position in the military police who was demoted after he refused the unnecessary command of an arrogant officer. Shimizu’s fate underlines the fact that there is good and bad no matter which side with which you align yourself.

As Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) and screenwriters Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) tell it, despite its strategic importance, Iwo Jima was a sacrificial lamb for Imperial Japan. The historians can fight about the truth of this depiction all they want, but Eastwood’s argument is that there must be a point at which being on the losing end of a conflict becomes an exercise in futility. By continuing to fight beyond that juncture, all issues of righteousness and nationalistic pride become moot and only self preservation and dignity remain. With “Flags of Our Fathers” he proves that just a spark of hope can make the difference in war. With “Letters from Iwo Jima” he asks if maybe enough is enough. This is a dilemma that haunts our own country today as it did Japan in 1945.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Best of 2006

In his book “Awake in the Dark”, Roger Ebert describes a phenomenon from the early decades of his movie critiquing career where he seems to have listed the best film of many of those years in the second spot of his top ten lists. In 1968, he gave the top spot to “The Battle of Algiers” rather than “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which was listed in the number two slot. His number two in 1974 was “Chinatown”. In ’76, it was “Taxi Driver”. In ’78, “Days of Heaven”. In 1980, he named “The Black Stallion” to his top spot; but when listing the best films of that decade, “Raging Bull” grabbed number one. It was number two on his list in 1980.

He goes on to describe how truly pointless top ten lists are, admitting he only provides one for each year because of the unwritten law that all critics must submit a top ten list of films for each year. Ebert did not submit a top ten list for the first time in his career this year because he was hospitalized in June due to surgical complications occurring after an operation to remove a tumor. The tumor was removed successfully but the complications put him out of commission for most of the year making it impossible for him to view a good deal of the year’s releases.

I was also laid up for the last two months of the year, and although that only allowed me to see more movies, I have decided to do away with my top ten list for the year. Instead I will simply list the films I feel should absolutely not be missed by film fans. There are more than ten of them, but since I usually offer a list of my next ten films anyway this will not lengthen this article. There are less than twenty (just barely).

I agree with Ebert that these lists are fairly arbitrary, often involving comparing films that are incomparable to each other. For instance, for much of the year I would have placed the small independent high school noir “Brick” as my number one. “United 93” is a better film, but there are two reasons I might chose the one above the other. “Brick” is one of the most original ideas I’ve seen in cinema in a while. And I -- and I’m doubt I’m alone on this one -- had a much more enjoyable viewing experience watching “Brick” than “United 93”, because the latter is still an incredibly painful memory for me, and I would imagine most people watching it. That does not mean you shouldn’t see it. You’ll just have more fun watching “Brick”.

Ultimately, however, I do have to admit that “United 93” was the best film of the year.

But I have still chosen to do away with the placement of the rest of this year’s films because it was such a strange bunch. I often claim that a certain year in film was better than it may have at first appeared, but this one saw some of the most innovative film concepts being accepted at mainstream levels in recent years, while simultaneously producing the greatest wastes of celluloid I’ve ever witnessed. Plus there were a lot of great ideas, such as “American Dreamz”, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” and “Lucky Number Slevin”; that just never really found their stride.

Up until sometime mid summer I was very concerned that this was going to be one of the worst years in film in a while. I am a critic who only reviews what I want to. I’m more inclined to point out to my readers what I think they should be watching rather than what they shouldn’t and until “Superman Returns” I had written more negative reviews in the course of 2006 than positive ones. Many think that “Superman” (or “Stupidman” as my brother prefers to refer to it) should not have swayed those figures, but I’ll tackle that one later.

Because of the great disparity in film this year, even between films I thought were wonderful, I am finding it difficult to say this film was better than that one. All the films on this list are great. Even those with which my readers may not agree with me -- Did I here someone say “Stupidman” again? -- deserve a second look.

Anyway, the true point of a Best of list, or top ten, or whatever you want to call it, is to give your readers some ideas of movies to check out that they may have missed, allow them to agree or disagree with you, or even re-consider a film they may have dismissed. So get ready to update your Netflix queue, or write down a list of titles to check out at your next trip to the rental store, or maybe one or two of these will even still be playing at a metroplex near you.

In alphabetical order:

Brick. This movie is built on the most ingenious notion of setting a classic film noir story in a modern day high school. It takes the noir concepts of the loner detective, the femme fatale, the subversion of authority, the dealing with the underworld; and utilizes the clique driven social climate of high school, the natural teenage aversion to authority, the temptation of adolescents to fall in with the unsavory elements of life, and hands it all a slang vernacular that is half way between a Philip Marlowe novel and whatever words teens are inventing to make text messaging easier. It mashes it all together into this potboiler murder mystery that grabs the audience from the very first frame of the film where we find the hero observing the corpse of a girl lying in a culvert.

I can imagine a cult of followers discussing the details of this film at length on the internet. Someone should be compiling a dictionary of the vocabulary of this film to land an easy publishing deal. This is the freshest movie I have seen in years. It creates a vitality all its own with the way these high school kids inhabit this world that has so many recognizable aspects of what makes up the life of the modern teenager, yet is so uniquely an environment that could only exist on film. This gargantuan concept and extravagant execution is securely delivered on the shoulders of its leading man played by the new king of independent film, “Third Rock from the Sun”’s Joseph Gordon Levitt. This is what film can be when approached as an art form as well as entertainment.

Casino Royale. “Bond is back!” in a light you may have never seen him before. Daniel Craig takes over as the double “O” super-spy James Bond, and the whole franchise has gone through a revamping not unlike what audiences saw last year with “Batman Begins”. Now Bond is grittier, based a little closer to reality, and more about character than the overproduced special effects extravaganzas audiences have been treated to with the last couple of installments in the series.

Like “Batman”, Bond is given a new beginning here as we get to see the agent for the first time before he has achieved his assassin status. He quickly proves he has the cold nerves deserving of the rank, an aspect that Craig brings to the character with calm poise and disarming -- if not typical -- good looks. There are still some franchise signatures, such as the cocky Bond attitude, beautiful women roles -- both good and bad, and groundbreaking action sequences. But the lack of many of the series’ false notes means the audience is allowed to be more engaged in the story, which could be described with untypical Bond adjectives like, fascinating and brutal.

The Departed. Martin Scorsese may finally be able to take home the big statue this year thanks to his deglamourized retelling of the Chinese action flick “Infernal Affairs”. Scorsese takes the thrilling premise from that film of an undercover police officer in the mob and a mob plant in the police department, who are each assigned by their respective organizations to uncover the other. Scorsese departs from the original material by focusing on the inner turmoil of the men created by their deceptive positions in the organizations they must pretend to be a part of while attempting to destroy; rather than the dichotomy shared by the two characters in the source material.

Fueled by powerful performances in the leads from Leonardo DiCaprio as the cop and Matt Damon as the mob plant, to shimmering supporting performances from Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, and Mark Whalberg, “The Departed” is an uncompromising look at lives based so heavily on deception that the characters can no longer discern even when they are deceiving themselves. With searing character portrayals and brief snatches of violence, “The Departed” remembers what a force Scorsese is when depicting the brutal nature of crime in America.

The Descent. Writer/director Neil Marshall is promising to be the next great mind in horror. With only his second film, he has created one of the few truly great horror masterpieces. “The Descent” joins the small ranks of horror flicks that take the time to build upon the audiences fears before exploiting them, enhancing the horror experience ten fold.

Following a group of six female spelunkers into the dark caverns of an unexplored cave, Marshall skillfully pulls his audience in with a story focused on the characterization of its heroines/victims, allowing the viewer to search for the threat themselves for the greater part of the movie before pummeling the screen with a series of brutal violent images that will scare even the most stalwart of horror fans. “The Descent” is a film that has the potential to be looked back upon as a classic of its genre, and currently is the scariest flick to be found in the “New and Recent Releases” section of your local video store.

Flags of Our Fathers. James Bradley’s memoir of his grandfather’s involvement in the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima and the subsequent media storm that followed that famous photo of the event acted as a subtle reminder to our great nation what sacrifices were made by the men who served our country on foreign shores and at home during that war. Director Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of that book captures a like subtly without shying away from the horrors of the battlefield and how those days continue to haunt the men involved even as they are praised as heroes for the mere accident of appearing in the photo.

Eastwood intercuts grand war scenes on the scale of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (“Flags of Our Fathers” was produced by Spielberg), with scenes of three of Iwo Jima’s heroes back stateside on a PR tour of the country for the desperately needed 7th U.S. Bonds War Drive for funds to keep America in the war. The tour has a sad tone as one soldier uses it as a platform to turn himself into a hero he never was, another despises himself for being seen as a hero while his buddies continue to fight oversees. Eastwood balances the character tragedies and triumphs with the politics of war time nationalism and the necessities and drawbacks of each.

Hard Candy. There is cleanliness to this film that makes its subject seem all the more shocking. It is basically a two person drama between a photographer and a fifteen year-old girl whom he seduces online. She seems more eager to be with him than he with her, although that seems to be his strategy. But the whole thing is a set up by the girl, who turns out to be a much more dangerous predator than he could dream of being.

“Hard Candy” does to its pedophile what we would all like to have done to such opportunistic predators. Using deception and cunning Ellen Page’s would be victim turns the tables, and in one scene appears to do the unthinkable. The filmmakers never allow either character to lose the smarts that are necessary to place them into this game with each other, and it is those brains that allow this revenge story to remain a thriller from start to finish. You actually may feel sympathy for the pedophile before everything is concluded.

The Hidden Blade. There was a time when the Western was the most popular of American cinema genres. The same can be said of the Samurai picture in Japan. Few Westerns or Samurai pictures are made these days, as both seem to be slowly becoming forgotten genres, bred from the same dying lineage. There is one director still plugging away at Samurai films in Japan, and like Clint Eastwood has with the western, Yoji Yamada ages along with the genre, bringing it a graceful mature treatment in its twilight years.

“The Hidden Blade” tells the story of Munezo (Masatoshi Nagase), a samurai who has trouble adjusting to the modern western fighting technique of the late 19th century. He loves a woman who is below his caste, but saves her from her merchant husband’s abuse at the cost of his own standing in the community. When an old friend goes rogue, Munezo is asked to bring him in or kill him to prove his worth. Yamada seems to have a simple approach to this story and non-stylized direction, but what he ultimately produces is cinematic poetry.

An Inconvenient Truth. Davis Guggenheim’s documentary following former Vice President Al Gore on his ongoing lecture tour to increase public awareness of the issues surrounding global warming is one of the most urgent films of the year. It tackles its subject of the growing problem of global warming in a very matter-of-fact manner. Made up almost entirely of lecture footage of Gore explaining the problem and offering small but effective solutions, the film is surprisingly compelling, perhaps due to the seriousness of the problem.

Also surprising is the commanding and human presence of Gore himself as the harbinger of bad news in what is essentially a science lesson. Gore in this film does not resemble the rather dull prospect he seemed to represent as what he jokingly refers to as the man who “used to be the next President of the United States.” Gore turns a lot of scientific terminology and thought processes here into riveting layman’s terms, and is not afraid to poke fun at his own persona or add levity to what is in truth a very grave situation. The industrialization we have created is hurtling this planet quickly toward inhospitality, this film offers a step or two that can be taken by all to halt this process.

Letters from Iwo Jima. Director Clint Eastwood’s second take on the Battle of Iwo Jima shows the Japanese point of view. This film offers a very different perspective of war from his first Iwo Jima film “Flags of Our Fathers”. While that film looked at the national need for some hope of victory, which was delivered with the famous photo of the Marines raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi; “Letters” shows soldiers operating upon little hope and a national outlook that has deceived and failed them through its dependence on blind tradition.

What “Letters” makes clearest is that on the level of the combat soldier, every war is the same no matter which side you are on. The soldier fights out of duty for country and believes that he is on the right side. Not every soldier is necessarily good, but is driven by intentions he believes are good. The Japanese soldiers of Iwo Jima never had much of a chance, but Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) makes his best effort to ensure they do not die for no good reason when it is obvious they are considered to be a sacrifice in the face of imminent defeat by the Japanese Empire.

Little Miss Sunshine. All too often it is easy to dismiss comedy as a lesser approach to storytelling than drama. It would be easy to pass “Little Miss Sunshine” off as “cute,” when in actuality it is a very dear yet unsentimental look at what family is about. Consider what is done with the grandfather, if you want to try to confuse the term lighthearted with sentimental.

This observant film is about an overly dysfunctional family, that somehow overcome their differences to travel cross-country in a VW bus so the youngest of them can compete in a beauty contest she hasn’t a chance of winning. It boasts an all-star cast in surprisingly inauspicious roles, including a self-help guru father who can’t seem to help himself, a heroine-addicted grandfather, a troubled teenage boy who has taken a vow of silence, a gay suicidal uncle who is the number one Proust expert in the country, and a mother trying to hold the whole thing together. It sounds like a typical situation comedy, but offers a fresh take on the idea of families having to live with who they all are together.

Miami Vice. Michael Mann’s gritty retake on the ‘80s crime drama “Miami Vice” captures that series’ sense of glamour, open air of the Florida peninsula and sacrifice of the undercover cops of one of the nation’s most active port cities for drug trafficking. But in updating that once posh television show, Mann (“Heat”, “Collateral”) has invoked a city that has become nastier, more infested and more violent since the ‘80s.

Once again following the adventures of vice cops Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), little beyond the names resemble the television show, as Crockett and Tubbs go deep undercover to expose a major drug and weapons trafficker. Mann shows the unrelenting lives lived by the men and women of vice and how it’s impossible not to mix the business with the personal when you are in so deep. Audiences may have been disappointed with the film’s unresolved ending, which unfortunately reflects the never ending battle these police men and women face in their grueling daily careers.

A Prairie Home Companion. Great American film director Robert Altman’s final film is a warm and lighthearted look at death through the eyes of a company of live radio performers on the eve of their final broadcast. “A Prairie Home Companion” is a fictional story based upon the real radio program of the same name, syndicated nationally by the NPR networks, written by its host and primary storyteller Garrison Kellior.

Despite the story’s fictitious nature, the film plays like a slice of life of backstage and onstage life on the show, with Kellior playing the same MC role he carries on the actual program. It is filled with music both funny and serious from a by gone era when the primary form of entertainment for America was through radio programs much like this one. It is a wonderful example of Altman’s typical ensemble structure, which produces one of the best ensemble performances of the year, with big name stars and performers from the real “Prairie Home Companion” joining together in an evening of music and stories that will make you want to turn off your television and tune in to the very next episode of “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio.

The Proposition. The western may be a dying breed, but it ain’t dead yet, although the characters in this one might just kill it as willingly as they kill themselves. Displacing the western to the Outback of Australia, screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat have made the best western since Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, and even possibly since Eastwood’s collaboration with Italian director Sergio Leone in the “Man with No Name” trilogy.

Never have I felt so physically affected by a film’s location than here with this western’s setting in the desert Outback. Its dusty plains, relentless sun, and land that is as cracked and cragged as the characters that inhabit it will have you grasping for a glass of water, like a man lost in that same desert.

The story involves a clan of vicious criminal brothers. The sheriff of a collection of hovels in the middle of nowhere enlists the middle brother of the clan to hunt down and kill his older brother and keeps his kid brother locked up to be executed if he refuses the mission. These men are bad, but the town’s people are no better, demanding blood without justice. What can you expect from a British colony initially established as a place to send England’s worst criminals? These people deserve everything they get and they are quite aware they have been condemned to hell.

A Scanner Darkly. Richard Linklater (“Slacker”, “Dazed and Confused”, “School of Rock”) adapts the Philip K. Dick sci-fi noir to the screen in this highly overlooked animated feature. Utilizing the digital rotoscoping technique he developed for his 2001 film “Waking Life”, which is probably more popularly recognized from a series of commercials where upper middle classers are griping about their mutual funds, Linklater takes Dick’s convoluted undercover story of a cop who is assigned to take his own cover personality down for trafficking illegal substances, and turns it into a philosophical discussion of the transformative nature of drugs and the narcotics officers who must transform themselves to effectively police them.

Linklater does the best job I’ve seen him do of combining his talk heavy philosophical musings with an actual plot based storyline that has the proper amount of twists and turns to keep his characters thinking enough to warrant their tortured ramblings. The animation adds the right amount of fantasy and time-out-of-joint feeling to the material and provides him with a broad canvas on which his drug influenced characters can hallucinate and fantasize. This movie is the definitive mind-blowing trip.

Superman Returns. During any given year I award four-star reviews that in retrospect I wonder whether I’ve given the filmmakers too much credit. As I began to gather opinion on the latest Superman from many people I respect, I began to wonder whether this was the case with a movie many were calling boring. After a chance to view “Superman Returns” a second time over, I have to stand by my original review. In fact, I found even more reason to appreciate and enjoy this non-standard comic book action hero flick the second time around.

Not only does “Superman Returns” do a wonderful job of what it is trying to do by honoring, imitating and improving upon the themes of the comic book and even more so the 1978 “Superman: The Movie” and it immediate sequel “Superman II”; but it transcends Superman’s personal issues with being an alien on Earth and a God among men. “Superman Returns” is practically a religious film, which may be better titled “The Passion of Superman”. Sure Lex Luthor’s plan to take over the world may be flawed, but the man is clearly insane as played by Kevin Spacey. But “SR” is deeper than the action that takes place within it. It is an exploration of the self and the soul and the place one must take in the world.

United 93. Director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) tackles the toughest film of the year in this depiction of the events which transpired on and around United Airlines flight 93 on the morning of September 11, 2001. The first half of the film focuses primarily on Air Traffic Control and NORAD control centers as they discover planes altering their courses and flying into buildings in New York and Washington. The second half of the film shows us what may have happened on the fourth hijacked plane that day before it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

What Greengrass accomplishes with this film is audacious in its realism and horrific in the way it presents such catastrophe in an almost documentary type of context. Never once does this film seem like a staged recreation. Nor does Greengrass, who also wrote the screenplay, seem to ever take sides in his presentation of that day’s sequence of events. There seems to be no judgment of the terrorist hijackers except by the civilian passengers who decide to take action against the captors with only the dimmest sense of hope to better the outcome of events.

“United 93” will be one of the harshest viewing experiences of your lifetime, as it is doubtful no one will ever forget the visceral emotional response of that day. This film is tribute to both the heroes in the air that day and those on the ground who did the best they could in an unprecedented situation.

V for Vendetta. At a time when world politics seem to be spinning beyond anyone’s control, and the seats of power are being held by people you wouldn’t even trust to send on a beer run, perhaps it is necessary to have a message picture as blatant and in your face as “V for Vendetta”. Based on a comic book that was a reaction against Thatcherian rule in England during the seventies and early eighties, the makers of “The Matrix” have transported that story’s aggression to apply to our current state of affairs with this not-to-distant-future dystopian society flick.

Taking place in England after the American government has escalated the world sense of terror with a war in Iraq; the British government has assumed a more totalitarian rule with a Big Brother-type leader and branches of the government dispatched exclusively to keep watch on its citizens. V (Hugo Weaving) is a masked vigilante who begins his own crusade to oust the powers that be by bombing prominent government buildings. Evey (Natalie Portman) seemingly is an innocent who inadvertently gets wrapped up in V’s plans to blow up the Parliament building. But in the end she is an example of how it is everyone’s duty to stand up and question authority so such a society can never come into existence.

World Trade Center. The second 9/11 film of the year is as shocking as the first. Not because of its content, however, but for the fairly conventional storytelling approach taken by its usually controversial director Oliver Stone. In a year where the best films were risky and unconventional, Stone gave up his usual photographic and editorial trickery to tell a straightforward tale of the survival of two Port Authority officers who were caught in the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings.

Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) were a few of the last survivors to be pulled from the Towers wreckage and Stone tells the story of how they kept each other alive during the nearly 48 hr. period they were trapped. As much a story of survival was the ordeal their wives, Donna (Maria Bello) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), went through in wondering whether their husbands were alive or not. Stone avoids depicting much of the actual collapse of the towers themselves, and the film remains fairly free of any special effects shots, which allows the audience to concentrate on what is a very basic human story of emotion and ultimately survival.

I also enjoyed: “Akeelah and the Bee”, “Cars”, “Clerks II”, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”, “The Devil Wears Prada”, “Factotum”, “Flushed Away”, “Friends with Money”, “High Tension”, “Inside Man”, “Joyeux Noel”, “Kinky Boots”, “Lady in the Water”, “Lady Vengeance”, “L’Enfant”, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”, “Mission: Impossible III”, “Monster House”, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”, “Night Watch”, “The Omen”, “Slither”, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, “U2//Vertigo ’05: Live in Milan”, “Winter Passing”, and “X-Men: The Last Stand”.

As I do every year. I have also included best of lists of my favorite performances, directors, songs, and various credit efforts of many different categories. Some of them are the ones you’ll see in all the awards shows, some are a little more obscure subjects which I have made up on my own. Some categories will include pictures that did not make my Best of movies list and are an insight as to where else to look for great performances and the such. Enjoy.

Best Director: Paul Greengrass, “United 93”.
Honorable mention: Martin Scorsese, “The Departed”; Clint Eastwood, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”; Oliver Stone, “World Trade Center”; Yoji Yamada, “The Hidden Blade”; Chanwook Park, “Lady Vengeance”; Michael Mann, “Miami Vice”.

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan in “The Departed”.
Honorable mention: Nicolas Cage as Sgt. John McLoughlin in “World Trade Center”; Masatoshi Nagase as Munezo in “The Hidden Blade”; Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep in “Lady in the Water”; Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ian Carter in “Tsunami, the Aftermath” and as Lola in “Kinky Boots”; Matt Dillon as Henry Chinaski in “Factotum”; Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello in “The Departed”; Adam Beach as Ira Hayes in “Flags of Our Fathers”; Alec Baldwin as Ellery in “The Departed”; Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley in “The Proposition” and as Mr. French in “The Departed”.

Best Actress: Maggie Gyllenhaal as Allison Jimeno in “World Trade Center”.
Honorable mention: Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” and as Yolanda Johnson in “A Prairie Home Companion”; Ellen Page as Hayley Stark in “Hard Candy”; Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin in “World Trade Center”; Yeong-ae Lee as Guem-ja Lee in “Lady Vengeance”; Frances McDormand as Jane in “Friends with Money”; Jessica Lange as Doreen in “Don’t Come Knocking”; Sophie Okonedo as Susie Carter in “Tsunami, the Aftermath”; Toni Collette as Kathy Graham in “Tsunami, the Aftermath” and as Sheryl in “Little Miss Sunshine”; Emily Blunt as Emily in “The Devil Wears Prada”.

Best Ensemble: “United 93”.
Honorable mention: “Lady in the Water”, “The Departed”, “The Proposition”, “A Prairie Home Companion”, “Little Miss Sunshine”.

Breakthrough performance: Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman in “Superman Returns”.
Honorable mention: Abigail Breslin as Olive in “Little Miss Sunshine”.

Best Screenplay: Nick Cave, “The Proposition”.
Honorable mention: Rian Johnson, “Brick”; Brian Nelson, “Hard Candy”; Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “L’Enfant”; M. Night Shyamalan, “Lady in the Water”; Michael Arndt, “Little Miss Sunshine”.

Best Adaptation: Richard Linklater, “A Scanner Darkly” from the novel by Philip K. Dick.
Honorable mention: William Monahan, “The Departed” from the screenplay “Wu jian dao (Infernal Affairs)” by Alan Mak and Felix Chong; William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, “Flags of Our Fathers” from the novel by James Bradley and Ron Powers; Yoshitaka Asama, “The Hidden Blade” from the novel by Shuuhei Fujisawa; Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, “Casino Royale” from the novel by Ian Fleming; Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, “Letters from Iwo Jima” from the book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido.

Best Animated feature: “A Scanner Darkly”.
Honorable mention: “Cars”, “Monster House”, “Flushed Away”.

Best Voice-over performance: Larry the Cable Guy as Mater in “Cars”.
Honorable mention: William Shatner as Ozzie the possum in “Over the Hedge”, Ian McKellen as The Toad in “Flushed Away”.

Best performance in a mask since Edward Norton as King Baldwin in “Kingdom of Heaven”: Hugo Weaving as V in “V for Vendetta”.

Best Score: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, “The Proposition”.
Honorable mention: Mychael Danna and DeVotchKa, “Little Miss Sunshine”; Hans Zimmer, “The Da Vinci Code”; T-Bone Burnett, “Don’t Come Knocking”; James Newton Howard, “Lady in the Water”; John Ottman and John Williams, “Superman Returns”.

Best Song: Nick Cave, “The Rider Song” from “The Proposition”.
Honorable mention: Thom Yorke, “Black Swan” from “A Scanner Darkly”; DeVotchKa, “You Love Me (remix)” from “Little Miss Sunshine”.

Best Cinematography: Benoit Delhomme, “The Proposition”.
Honorable mention: Dion Beebe, “Miami Vice”; Tom Stern, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”; Franz Lustig, “Don’t Come Knocking”; Joe Willems, “Hard Candy”; Jeong-hun Jeong, “Lady Vengeance”.

Best Editing: Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse, “United 93”.
Honorable mention: William Goldenberg and Paul Rubell, “Miami Vice”; Thelma Schoonmaker, “The Departed”; Baxter and Sophie Vermersch, “High Tension”; Jae-beom Kim and Sang-beom Kim, “Lady Vengeance”, Dmitri Kiselev, “Night Watch”.

Best Title credits: “Superman Returns”

Best Poster: “The Descent”.
Honorable mention: “V for Vendetta”, “World Trade Center”, "The Good German", "An Inconvenient Truth", "The Proposition" .

Best DVD: “Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut”.
Honorable mention: “Saturday Night Live 1975-1976: The Complete First Season”.

Worst picture: “Bloodrayne”.
Dishonorable mention: “Ultraviolet”, “Grandma’s Boy”, “Underworld: Evolution”, “Ultimate Avengers: The Movie”, “Poseidon”, “Date Movie”, “Idlewild”, “The Who: Live at Lyon”.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Descent / **** (UR)

Sarah: Shauna Macdonald
Juno: Natalie Mendoza
Beth: Alex Reid
Rebecca: Saskia Mulder
Sam: MyAnna Buring
Holly: Nora-Jane Noone

Lionsgate presents a film written and directed by Neil Marshall. Running time: 99 min. The version screened for this review is the original UK cut and is unrated by the MPAA. The film contains strong violence/gore and language.

Critics have been calling Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” “the best pure horror movie this year.” I’ve seen this phrase used by more than one writer in their praise of the film. I would take it a step further; it’s actually the best pure horror movie in many years. “The Descent” succeeds where so many Hollywood horror flicks of the week fail by providing genuinely frightening moments of terror. It tells a story that pulls you in from the opening moments with a startling shock and then proceeds to scare the dickens out of you by building tension up slowly throughout the film, then releasing it with sudden outbursts of violence.

Like many a horror flick, “The Descent” begins with personal tragedy for its heroine, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, BBC’s “MI-6”). On the way home from a rafting trip with her best friends, her husband and daughter are killed in a car accident. Her friend Beth (Alex Reid, “Last Orders”) stays to comfort her, but Juno (Natalie Mendoza, “The Great Raid”) leaves. Writer/director Neil Marshall (“Dog Soldiers”) subtly suggests that there may have been an affair between Juno and Sarah’s husband.

A year later, Juno organizes a cave exploration trip for Sarah and Beth along with three other extreme sports women. The group is rounded out by two sisters, Rebecca (Saskia Mulder, “The Beach”), the responsible one, and Sam (MyAnna Buring, BBC’s new “Doctor Who” series) a young med student; and the reckless Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, “The Magdalene Sisters”). They are all fairly experienced spelunkers, and are under the impression that they are headed into a fairly innocuous cave. Not only is the cave of a much higher caliber of difficulty than the women expect, but once they have descended into it bowels, they discover they are far from alone down there.

Marshall does a wonderful job taking his time with the material, an art that has all but been lost in modern horror fare. After the car accident, there are no major violent events prior to the two-thirds mark of the film; but Marshall fills all that time developing the characterizations of these women, who start out as friends, but slowly begin to lose their trust in each other because of little deceptions and minor setbacks.

Marshall is well aware that his audience has come to the theater to see a horror movie, and he utilizes our expectations of shock and surprise to mesmerizing effect. As the women make their way through the cave, we are constantly checking the background for signs of something out of the ordinary. Sarah has clearly not recovered from the trauma of losing her daughter and hallucinates about her, leaving both the audience and her companions to doubt the validity of her suspicions when she begins to fear they are not alone.

Even the scenes with no apparent invasions from unseen threats are filled with tension and suspense. When the climbers come across an underground ravine and one of them tosses a rock over the ledge, Rebecca says, “Great. Now I know how far down it is,” as she proceeds to grapple across the cavern’s ceiling, running a line for the others.

When the threat of some sort of cave dweller finally becomes more than just a possibility, Marshall tactfully amps up the tension by inter-cutting the first full on sighting of a creature with a medical emergency suffered by another of the women. Bone protrusion may generally be a cheap trick to make an audience squirm, but when Marshall juxtaposes the woman screaming in pain and the general panic surrounding her against the quite solitary horror of Sarah’s first up-close glimpse of a creature, that uncomfortable squirming becomes an almost Pavlovian reaction the audience experiences every time we glimpse a creature from that point forth. And you better hope to have a good grip on your seat when the creatures do finally start to interact with the climbers, or you will find yourself somehow out of your seat with fright.

“The Descent” is not merely a good scream-inducing movie; like all great films it can be read on several different levels. Its title even has a double meaning that can be better observed in the alternate ending of the UK cut that wasn’t seen in the film’s American theatrical release. Years from now film historians will probably discuss how it is a classic because its themes parallel the sacrifices of women for their acceptance in the corporate work force or some such thing. But what reflections this film might have on society as a whole are irrelevant to the average viewer. “The Descent” will scare the hell out of you, and little else is important when a horror flick does that as well as this one.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Idlewild / * (R)

Percival: Andre Benjamin
Rooster: Antwan A. Patton
Angela Davenport: Paula Patton
Trumpy: Terrence Howard
Zora: Malinda Williams
Sunshine Ace: Faizon Love
Rose: Paula Jai Parker
Spats: Ving Rhames
Percy Senior: Ben Vereen

Universal Pictures and HBO Films present a film written and directed by Bryan Barber. Running time: 121 min. Rated R (for violence, sexuality, nudity and language).

Rarely does the failure of a film come so clearly from one single aspect of the filmmaking process. “Idlewild”, the period musical from hip-hop group OutKast and their frequent video director Bryan Barber, should be a boisterous, vibrant, celebration of music, movement and visuals; instead it sputters, spits and coughs like a dying vehicle in desperate need of an oil change. The film is stylish in its visual approach, utilizing animations witnessed by the main characters and still picture movement that brings a unique imagination to the presentation of the images, but it is all brought to a grinding halt due to a clunky storyline and the worst understanding of character and story development I’ve seen in such an ambitious project in some time.

Set in the Deep South during the Prohibition, the premise of the story is nothing we haven’t seen before. Percival and Rooster (OutKast’s Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) were childhood friends from different sides of the track. Percival was trained as a mortician in his father’s funeral parlor, while Rooster was good with numbers and running liquor. The two learned to survive with each other’s help and grew up to share a passion for music, which they parlayed into some minor success at a local club known as The Church.

When Spats (Ving Rhames, “Pulp Fiction”), the gangster who runs The Church, decides it is time to retire, he offers to either allow the current manager, Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love, “Torque”), to purchase the joint from him for $25,000, or let Rooster take over management while he remains on as a “stock holder”. He would clearly prefer Rooster take over, but Rooster’s interests are spread thin due a disapproving wife and an affair with Ace’s woman, Rose (Paula Jai Parker, “Hustle & Flow”). Spats’s muscle, Trumpy (Terrence Howard, “Crash”), lives up to his name with plans of his own to take over the club and the rest of his boss’s enterprises.

The story is so filled with gangster and stage show clichés, that it’s obvious writer/director Bryan Barber has seen many of these types of movies. What is also obvious is that he has no understanding of how to tell such a story intelligently. Very few of his character’s actions are justified by anything other than the way in which Barber wants the plot to go. Each character acts with complete stupidity in order for others to get an upper hand. Spats hands the business over to Ace only because this is the last person any of the employees wish to work for, even though Rooster is clearly the wiser choice. Spats does not deal with Trumpy, as an experienced gangster would, allowing Trumpy the chance to change his deal with Ace.

It is suggested at one point that Trumpy is not the brightest bulb in the circuit, which would be a great reason for Spats not to turn over his operations to this man, but Trumpy’s intellectual capacity to lead is never addressed by Spats or anyone else throughout the film. In a late scene of the film, someone finally accuses Trumpy of being stupid, but his reaction to this attack is uncharacteristically reasonable, controlled, and even intelligent.

Rooster himself is on guard whenever there is no threat to be found, but when there is, he shows no concern for his own safety and even blindly walks into a situation that obviously demands caution. There are angels (an old woman in a car) and devils (the flask from which Rooster gets his nickname and occasionally has conversations with) that don’t seem to realize what their purpose is, which makes me wonder if even the filmmakers recognize them. Nor is his storyline ever connected with Percival’s beyond the fact that he runs his liquor in Percival’s hearse and they both perform (separately) at The Church. The liquor runs could easily tie their stories together, but is never used.

Percival’s story runs the gamut of romance clichés as the club’s new singer, Angel Davenport (Paula Patton, “Déjà vu”), is apparently the only woman he has ever shown interest in or has ever expressed interest in him. Of course, Angel is not what she seems to be and when she realizes that Percival has known her secret from the moment she walked into the nightclub, the audience bears witness to one of the film’s greatest writing atrocities.

It’s a well-known cliché that when parties in love are revealed to have falsified even the slightest bit of information about themselves, one or both must run away from the other in anger and betrayal. And this is exactly what Angel does. Not only would both characters be more interesting and enlightening if she just demanded an explanation from Percival for not exposing her, but when we next see the characters they have already made up and explained themselves to each other. What is the point of having Angel run away if the filmmakers aren’t even going to make them earn each other back?

Even the atmosphere of the film is all wrong. While the whole thing is wonderfully photographed and contains unique technical ideas, such as the talking rooster flask, the writing never bothers to justify the fact that this is a musical. Sometimes the music is presented in the stage show of The Church, but several numbers exist in a pure musical context and require the characters to break into song in their everyday activity. No effort is made by Barber to develop a fantasy context for these outbursts of song (save for the opening of the song “Chronomentrophobia”, which involves a wall covered in cuckoo clocks).

The rest of the film is clearly based in a realistic universe, although it is unlikely that a black community in the south during Prohibition would have been allowed the freedom and riches seen here. Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” comes to mind in the way it also mixes modern ideas with a past setting, but although that film suggests a Bohemian existence in late 19th Century Paris, it obviously takes place in a version of Paris that never actually existed.

The hip-hop songs of this production never quite seem to fit in with the period setting. Composer John Debney (“Chicken Little”) does a wonderful job evoking the jazz tones of the period with his score over the opening credits, but when the music of OutKast finds its way into the production, there is little to suggest any sort of jazz influence and no effort made to tone down a modern hip-hop delivery of lyrics with a more stylized approach to arrangements.

The choice of “When I Look in Your Eyes” as Percival’s breakthrough to the big time is about the worst they could have made. The song reflects none of Percival’s own personal depth or his journey up to that point in the story. Plus it is probably the worst song in the entire soundtrack, suggesting an image-obsessed party man, which is everything Percival is not. There are several songs that are more appealing and more accurately project Percival’s character.

The most disappointing element of this film is the fact that Percival is the only character of depth to be found in the entire program. Every other character is a representation of the worst caricatures of black people to be found throughout film history. Ace is the grossest example, and is not helped by Faizon Love’s ridiculous portrayal. He is a bully, exclusively for the sake of being a bully. He is a womanizer, a shady dealer, is given rewards without earning them, and even utilizes racial euphemisms, such as referring to his girlfriend as tasting “like chicken.” Sure, black filmmakers have as much right as white filmmakers to make bad movies and black characters can be flawed, but Ace is merely one in a film entirely populated by them. I can imagine Spike Lee taking the filmmakers aside and asking them give him a break by never again doing what they did here to destroy the respect for black filmmaking he has helped to build over the past twenty years.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Casino Royale / **** (PG-13)

James Bond: Daniel Craig
Vesper Lynd: Eva Green
Le Chiffre: Mads Mikkelsen
Mathis: Giancarlo Giannini
M: Judi Dench
Felix Leiter: Jeffrey Wright

MGM presents a film directed by Martin Campbell. Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Running time: 144 min. Rated PG-13 (for scenes of intense action violence, a scene of torture, sexual content and nudity).

“Bond is back!”

Those three words form one of the most frequently used taglines in movie history. Not many other characters have been able to endure a franchise with entries well into double digits. At 21 and counting (plus a couple of non-franchise entries), it is hard to believe any one movie hero will ever surpass the success of everyone’s favorite British spy, James Bond. Perhaps this is due to the ever changing face of Bond himself.

Whenever the producers, the Broccoli family, feel the character is beginning to lose validity with audiences, they recast the role -- usually in a different direction. Original producer Albert Broccoli had to fight the studio to cast virtually unknown Scotsman Sean Connery as the super spy, but Connery’s cool delivery and suave charm grabbed audiences from the get go. The franchise gained more camp as it went along and after George Lazenby decided he didn’t want the fame after “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, Broccoli decided to capitalize on the one-liners with the casting of Roger Moore, star of TV’s “The Saint”, as Bond. When Moore had grown a little too long in the tooth, Broccoli tried to cast an actor who was all charm for the role, Pierce Brosnan. Conflicting contract obligations, however, meant Brosnan would have to wait for the next casting change. Instead Timothy Dalton was tapped for the task of toughening the character up, but the well-established camp of the series counteracted that attempt.

Now, we get Daniel Craig (“Layer Cake”) in his first appearance as Bond. And along with him comes a second attempt to toughen the character up and to evoke more of what can be found in Ian Fleming’s novels: a pained and dangerous man who kills people for a living. This time the tough approach takes. Even the film stock seems grainy in this update of Fleming’s seminal 007 novel. Gone are the one-liners, gadgets and super villains bent on world domination. This Bond is not always suave; he makes mistakes, and he’s a bit of a jerk. But it all boils down to the most intriguing portrayal of the super spy to reach the screen.

Of the Bond films up to now, “From Russia with Love” has always been my favorite; it’s also the previous Bond film “Casino Royale” comes closest to resembling. “From Russia with Love” was only the second in the series, and the producers had yet to come up with many of the franchise’s more obligatory signatures. The tech department wiz Q was first introduced in that film, but the gadgets were fairly simple and even practical. With this new film there are a couple of gadgets, but little is made of them beyond their practical use in the storyline and Q is never mentioned.

“Russia” was also the least campy film up until now. There are still a couple of jokes and innuendo dropped in here and there, but Craig is so serious it would be easy to miss his one-liners, which seem to be made in half seriousness anyway. Craig plays a severe Bond, who does lighten up a little as the film goes on thanks to the growing relationship he has with his colleague, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, “Kingdom of Heaven”). They start out very catty, but their relationship matures in a way almost unfitting to the James Bond world. The direction of the characters might seem to get a little sappy if it weren’t for the harsh surroundings from which their relationship buds.

Of course, little is what it seems at first in James Bond’s world. Bond himself strikes his MI6 superior M (Judi Dench, the only returning cast member from previous Bonds) as a reckless rogue agent until it becomes apparent he truly is trying to do his job. There are role reversals of characters who seem to be friends but turn out to be enemies and enemies who help Bond to further their own agendas. Bond’s CIA counterpart Felix Leiter is also introduced. I say “introduced” in hopes that the CIA will play a larger role in the next Bond film, since the wonderful actor Jeffrey Wright (“Lady in the Water”) is underutilized in the role here.

Another similarity to “From Russia with Love” lies in the villain of “Casino Royale”. In “Russia” Bond’s biggest obstacle was an assassin played by Robert Shaw. The assassin was employed by a larger group known as SPECTRE, but that organization did not make much of an appearance in the story. Here, the primary villain is again merely a small fish who Bond’s people are interested in only for the information he can provide on a larger criminal organization. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, “King Arthur”) is a banker who holds money for terrorist organizations and guerrilla fighters. He is sponsored by an unnamed organization represented here by Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, “The Interpreter”), but it is Le Chiffre who is MI6 and the CIA’s main quarry.

The majority of the plot centers around not some train robbery of a nuclear warhead or conflict diamonds to build a giant superconducting ray gun but a high stakes game of poker where Le Chiffre is trying to win back terrorist money he lost in a stock scam Bond foiled. The film’s suspense is approached in much the same way as a gambling flick like “The Cincinnati Kid” or “The Hustler”. But it is well handled by veteran Bond director Martin Campbell (“Goldeneye”) and effective even after some spectacular action sequences that open the picture.

“Casino Royale” is not really a far cry from what audiences have come to expect from a James Bond picture, although there are times when it may seem as if it comes from different source material. Campbell has traded in garish visual effects-based action sequences for rough and tumble hand-to-hand combat, but retains the series’ criterion for innovation with its action. And it is sexy as hell. Craig may not have the debonair looks of Brosnan, but a quick homage to the first Bond film, “Dr. No”, finds him in a swimsuit that will make the ladies squirm in their seats. And, like his predecessors, he does clean up quite nicely in a tux.