Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

Perhaps the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is that it bears the insignia of one David Leitch, a certifiable jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes numerous actor, producer and assistant director credits. His directorial experience unofficially includes a joint effort with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick and will soon include (officially) Deadpool 2. Leitch’s stunt work can be found in everything from BASEketball to Blade; Seabiscuit to The Matrix: Revolutions. But it is his reputation behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator that most directly informs his gleefully violent send-up of the spy genre.

Despite the main objective being to create something that breaks from the “stuffy atmosphere” typically associated with films of its ilk, Leitch’s directorial debut isn’t a true original. This is an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston with artwork by Sam Hart. With the fall of the Berlin Wall imminent, it imagines a fictional narrative involving a lethal MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton who is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a dossier containing the identities of suspected double-agents trying to get across the border into the West. While there she’s also to find the person responsible for the murder of a fellow agent. Even as a neutral third-party, Broughton soon discovers her trip to Germany won’t be simple when you can’t distinguish enemy from ally.

In a role that recalls her intensity and grit in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the enigmatic blonde, a survivor of many things unexplained at the start of the film. Her curvature emerges from a tomb of ice, battered and bruised to a degree that pretty much equates her to a modern superheroine. Hair matted to her neck and shoulders, eyes bloodshot, she swigs vodka to take the edge off. It’s an absorbing and moody opening that immediately draws us into the world of a hardened spy. Enquiring minds want to know: what chain of events have unfolded to get us here?

The gory details of a mission gone bad are recounted in a flashback structured through an interrogation taking place in the present day — a scene to which we frequently cut throughout. The technique underscores the rampant paranoia associated with the era. After all, who’s to say Broughton herself can really be trusted? Her handlers, an MI6 executive (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent who looks a lot like John Goodman, seem to humor her rather than accept as gospel what she says about her experience “working with” Berlin station chief David Percival (another great loose-cannon performance from James McAvoy). When some of that testimony proves potentially embarrassing, protocol requires the suits to bring out the broom as well as the rug.

The ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde may be steeped in familiar themes, but through sheer force of style Leitch manages to hack-and-slash his own path through the crowded genre of Cold War-set spy thrillers. It’s a breathless display of close-quarters combat in which sustained sequences of bone-crunching action are the movie and everything in between is just a bonus. The scene in the stairwell is unbelievable; something that would make Jet Li proud. Think John Wick turned espionage thriller: replace its lo-carb Neo with a female version of James Bond who makes Daniel Craig look like David Niven.

Proving a crucial component to the experience is a soundtrack rife with killer ’80s tunes, some original, others covered by contemporary artists. Everything from David Bowie collaborating with Queen (‘Under Pressure’ has particularly good timing) to Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin to German punk group AuSSchlag is sampled, with so many numbers contributing to the overall tone and pace of the film that it becomes sort of impractical to break it all down. (So here’s this as a reference — be wary of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Sure, Atomic Blonde has room for improvement. The direction is solid yet there’s still something nervous about it. There’s a slightly nagging pacing issue stemming from the way the chronicle is deliberately, almost self-consciously constructed. Occasionally the flashiness is a little too flashy. Other times it’s borderline pandering. Broughton’s whirlwind romance with an attractive but naïve French agent (Sofia Boutella) comes out of left field. At best the sudden blossoming of an intimate lesbian relationship identifies a certain joie de vivre in a film that otherwise lacks it. At worst, such tenderness strikes you as out of character. Very, very out of character. Still, I’m not sure what harm introducing a little warmth into a cold world, a cold movie really does, other than veer dangerously close to the very cliches its star proudly claims her latest role steers well clear of.

You don’t really come away with the impression that you’ve been educated as much as you feel like you’ve endured as many heavy blows and dodged as many bullets as the protagonist. This is a firecracker of an action thriller, though I’m left wondering if maybe the coupon would only be good for a one-time viewing. In fairness, Leitch cautions the viewer against taking things too seriously with an opening title card that suggests it might actually be better to view the movie as an “alternate reality” rather than something extracted from history.

The more I think about it, the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is just how much of a badass Charlize Theron is. She is a force of nature, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male contemporaries. Her strong work, combined with the stylistic vision of David Leitch, is the recipe for one of the most violent female-led action films I have ever seen and one of the most purely entertaining.

Recommendation: Gritty, violent, with a female touch. More like a female frikkin’ wallop. This film festival-pleasing, pulpy genre-tweaker is a strong contender for best female-starring vehicle in all of 2017. The specifics of the narrative don’t really matter when an actor is just so in control of their craft. One of my favorite performances from Charlize Theron. If you thought she was a cold-hearted killer in Fate of the Furious, wait until you get a load of the Atomic Blonde. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe!” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Fate of the Furious

Release: Friday, April 14, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Morgan

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Sometimes I find myself asking how we have managed to get to the point where women and children are being threatened by cyber terrorists in a franchise built around car racing. I find myself wondering if things have gotten a little too out-of-hand. Of course, with each passing installment it has become increasingly clear this isn’t car porn anymore. Sadly, the narrative can no longer concern itself with the thawing of a once bitter rivalry between a street racer and an undercover cop either.

Out of necessity The Fast and the Furious have had to evolve, and though they have definitely become less furious they haven’t become any less fun to watch as each new chapter has placed them in some situation more ridiculously physics-defying than the last. And The Fate of the Furious is absolutely the most far-fetched demonstration of their newfound collective purpose yet. I suppose how we have arrived here isn’t that much of a mystery. They say formulaic writing can only get you so far, but it actually has netted Universal at least eight films and well over $5 billion.

The — let’s call it natural, even though that’s stretching the term — evolution of the family and Dom Toretto in particular finds us wading into legitimately dramatic territory in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s first time behind the wheel steers the story in an altogether more somber direction, pitting the star with a type of gasoline as a last name against his loyal compadres after being manipulated by cunning cyber terrorist Cipher, played with true menace by Charlize Theron.

For better and for worse, Chris Morgan’s screenplay remains as knowingly outrageous (and clunky) as those he has penned before. That this ragtag bunch of car enthusiasts could be the difference between World War III happening or not happening is pushing it, even for this franchise. Though Dom’s relatively unique trajectory is going to generate most of the post-viewing discussion, the specifics of the plot are as reliant as ever upon his crew’s mutually beneficial relationship with Kurt Russell‘s government agent Mr. Nobody. (And on that note, can someone please enlighten me as to why we needed Scott Eastwood’s Little Nobody? Also: how someone born of Eastwood blood can be so bad at acting.)

Fate succeeds in cementing its familial themes by way of finding redemption for characters hitherto on the periphery. In the wake of Dom’s theft of an EMP device at the behest of Cipher, Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself having to set aside past differences with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as they work to take down a common enemy. After what happened to his brother, Deckard is eager to settle the score, even if that means working alongside a team who had once pooled their resources into eliminating him.

Gray’s film finds plenty of surprises along the way, like Dame Helen Mirren making a brief appearance as matriarch Magdalene Shaw, clad in leather jacket and brass knuckles (well, those are more or less implied). The character may be more plot device than person but Mirren’s quietly simmering intensity doesn’t allow her to be quite as dispensable as the script would like her to be. There’s also something vaguely amusing about seeing an actor of her stature in a film like this. (Ditto that the first time Kurt Russell appeared.)

With the integration of more Shaw’s into the narrative, you can think of Fate as one big, bullet-riddled family reunion. With nuclear submarines and Game of Thrones-sized enemies thrown in for good measure. Given the situation, you would think forgiveness would be a particularly high virtue to which these characters aspire, especially in a movie where the bonds of family are being “tested as never before.” It’s disappointing that that aspect is more convincingly framed through Hobbs’ and Deckard’s banter than it is through the evolution of Dom and Letty’s relationship.

While it’s heartwarming to see former enemies arrive at a place of mutual respect — after all, maturity is one of those tenets this multi-billion-dollar franchise has been built on — the lack of weight attached to the final, obligatorily dinner-table-set scene proves a major step backward for a film that otherwise was able to convince me that this was indeed the most serious situation our exonerated heroes have yet faced.

Recommendation: The Fate of the Furious offers more of the same. A lot more. Two-plus-hours more. In the absence of Paul Walker, it’s a testament to the comfort we have with the others that not much feels “different,” although certainly his absence is noted. Fate succeeds far more in elevating the action stakes than the emotional ones. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it’s neon orange. The International Space Station will see it coming.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The White Helmets

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016 

[Netflix]

Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel

Syria is a nation currently being torn apart at the seams as a multitude of political actors continue to wrestle control of its future away from one another. The better part of the last decade has been spent in bloodshed as coalitions of rebels, extremist groups and other armed entities not exactly sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have set their sights on total upheaval. What began in the capital city of Damascus as peaceful protests for democratic reform and the release of political prisoners escalated into a hostile and bitter conflict when al-Assad used brutal force to try to quash the potential uprising. These events, of course, have all contributed to the growing refugee crisis.

Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets offers a window into this struggle, providing viewers access to ground zero as they follow around a group of Syrian civilians who have taken it upon themselves to search for and recover bodies — dead or alive, friend or foe — from the carnage created by aerial attacks that have been decimating heavily populated cities like Aleppo and Idlib on a daily basis. The 41-minute film won the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject at the 89th Academy Awards, marking the first win for Einsiedel and his second nomination, following his previous feature-length documentary Virunga in 2014.

Incorporating footage compiled by the activists themselves, such as Khaled Khateeb (who was one of several prevented from attending this year’s Oscars by President Trump’s travel ban), into a rather straightforward procession of testimonies delivered directly to camera by a handful of volunteers, The White Helmets proves an unsurprisingly sobering watch. The footage captures the men working in conditions that are bad turning worse. In the wake of Russian intervention — a development since September 2015, one that has sparked humanitarian outcries across the globe on the assertion that their involvement has proven more destructive than the action taken by Syria’s own government and even ISIL — the White Helmets appear to be the last bastion of hope that people living in targeted areas truly have.

While the preservation of hope is what fundamentally galvanizes us to keep watching, if only through our hands, von Einsiedel is careful neither to exploit nor romanticize the role these first responders play. Even still, you should know that the footage is presented in a raw and unedited form, and is often graphic and upsetting. Not that that isn’t obvious, but it bears repeating as it is, to be brutally honest, what makes the film such an essential watch. The savagery that’s been going on for over six long years needs to be acknowledged.

The implications of the violence are also, somewhat sickeningly, more complex than they first appear. While the initial justification behind the bombings was to eliminate rebel and jihadist groups from Syria, over time Russia has become increasingly more involved in the state’s fight to reclaim territory, which has necessarily meant becoming more active in eliminating the opposition, all splinter cells and groups coming to their aid — groups like the Syrian Civil Defense, the White Helmets. It is explained how their presence has actually incentivized Russian and Syrian aircraft to carry out what are called “double-tap attacks” in which an initial strike is delivered, followed swiftly by a second, the goal being to specifically target the White Helmets. Such is the reality these men face each time they “go to work.”

Amidst the barbarity, from underneath piles of concrete and rebar ultimately emerges a powerful testament to real-life heroism, courage and sacrifice. In fact the film metamorphoses into a thing of beauty when it addresses the positive impacts the first responders are making and will continue to make for the foreseeable future. It’s not simply the lives that are being saved, but the relentless determination and indiscrimination of the search itself. The rescuing of a one-week-old infant who had been trapped under a collapsed ceiling for over 16 hours is a scene that defies description — in part due to the incomprehensible hatred that created such circumstances, but mostly because the service that the White Helmets provide couldn’t be any more dramatically expressed.

Of course it’s a film without much in the way of closure. The work of the White Helmets shall continue as long as there is conflict. And at least one in the film makes it clear that their commitment is lifelong. That’s really where the story lies. It’s not about the war and the suffering. It’s not about hatred or religious extremism. It’s actually about the exact opposite of what the bombings are trying to achieve. This is about ensuring that the cycle of life can and will continue, even when the future is this uncertain.

The White Helmets have been credited for saving over 70,000 from the fallout from airstrikes. It has been estimated that since the Russian bombings began in late ’15, over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives as well as nearly 3,000 innocent civilians.

Recommendation: Equally heartbreaking and life-affirming, these will be perhaps some of the toughest 40 minutes you’ll experience in some time. There’s no hiding from the devastation in Syria in The White Helmets, nor should there be. Because of the opportunity it provides us to get an understanding of the victims’ perspectives of the bombings, this becomes a short film that you simply have to watch. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 41 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.vox.com 

Hidden Figures

hidden-figures-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 6, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi; Allison Shroeder 

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

‘We go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

Former President John F. Kennedy’s speech became a staple of American history the moment those words were uttered. The pep talk was designed to reshape public perception of where the country was headed in terms of its relationship with the Soviets, who in October of 1957 became the first to successfully launch an un-manned satellite into orbit. The above excerpt, taken by itself, has accumulated such weight over the years we recall the event more for the ethos and sense of national pride his words evoked rather than the place in which they were uttered (Rice University football stadium in Houston, Texas, incidentally).

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures is nothing if not a potent reminder of the kinds of details that have been buried in the avalanche of time, how our understanding of history is often informed by supposition and omission, not necessarily what actually happened. Melfi’s historical drama tells of the accomplishments of three extraordinary African-American women who worked at Langley Research Center, a Virginia-based division of NASA, and how their gifted intellects and willingness to persevere helped galvanize a nation amidst the chaos of the Space Race.

Amazingly, their stories have never been shared — until now (okay, excluding the non-fiction book upon which this is based). Hidden Figures is set in 1961 and traces the trajectories of mathematicians Katherine Johnson (née Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), as well as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Each journey is an inspiration, whether it’s Johnson becoming the first African-American to work in the elite Space Task Group, Vaughan’s promotion to supervisor after taking significant strides in adapting to a rapidly changing technological environment, or Jackson’s acceptance into a traditionally all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.

What develops is a crowd-pleasing dramatization whose hagiographic tendencies are frequently pardoned because the whole thing is just so darn watchable, even when it’s hard to watch. The trio of actresses could not be more winning in their performances and hey, even that guy from The Big Bang Theory is pretty good as the archetypal petulant-child-as-immediate-superior. Kevin Costner tags along as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group whose neck the American government is breathing down as they work to stay competitive with the Russians.

Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s writing paces the events so that the story steadily absorbs and the environments feel real and lived-in. Hidden Figures is brought to life through an exquisite combination of costuming and production design. The actors look the part even though accents aren’t very smooth and the dialogue tends to be clunky. Even still, when the film begins we find ourselves immediately transported. We are in the ’60s, marching along with these pioneers ever closer to that famed Kennedy speech, a speech that takes on new significance as the movie concludes.

Hidden Figures never amounts to the kind of confronting hyper-realism recent years have almost conditioned us to expect out of race-related historical dramas. The film’s complaisant tone doesn’t necessarily help to distinguish the product, yet Melfi’s treatment is an appropriately dignified and emotional account of three pivotal figures in the history of the space program. While a few details are left to be nitpicked, the film’s convictions shall go uncontested.

kevin-costner-in-hidden-figures

4-0Recommendation: Tonally familiar but not offensively so. Loaded with charismatic and touching performances and bolstered by a fascinating and incredible true story, the emotional engine driving Hidden Figures to its expected conclusion ultimately makes this an easy (and strong) recommendation. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Decades Blogathon — Andrei Rublev (1966)

1966

 

Greetings one and all! I hope you’ve been enjoying the 2016 edition of the Decades Blogathon thus far. I know I certainly have. Just a little note to our contributors who are yet to be featured: me and Mark have decided that, given the considerable drop-off in viewership over the weekend, we shall suspend the Decades until Monday, that way we can be sure everyone doesn’t miss one of these excellent posts. In the meantime I will probably have a review up of Shane Black’s newest crime comedy, The Nice Guys. (Haha. What a great flick that was!)

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to present another quality piece from my good friend Stu from The Last Picture Blog. Stu’s a writer I really look up to and learn a lot from, so please be sure to check out his page if you haven’t yet. There’s a lot to digest over there. Here’s his thoughts on the 1966 epic Andrei Rublev:


For the uninitiated, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a historical epic from 1966 that dramatises the life of the titular Russian artist and monk, who worked primarily as an icon painter during the 15th Century. It examines the role of artists at that time, within its own version of Russian society, and details their desire to create works of beauty while also responding to the violence and destruction that surrounds them. The film clocks in at a bum-numbing 3 hours and 25 minutes, which is the length of the supposedly-definitive Criterion edition, though there are other shorter versions available, with censored material cut out. For me this is roughly the point at which watching a film begins to tip over from being an enjoyable activity (most of the time, anyway) into the realm of ordeal, though I’ve sat through longer on occasion. As a portrait of society in Russia at the time it’s extremely negative. It also offered thinly-veiled criticism of the Soviet regime during the 1960s – it’s no coincidence that an artist named Andrei was chosen as the filmmaker’s subject and protagonist – and it’s unsurprising that the film failed to see the light of day in its original state for many years. Eventually, of course, it made it to Cannes, and worldwide acclaim followed in the early 1970s. Tarkovsky – with this film in particular – influenced many directors whose work I am more (or slightly more) familiar with, and appreciate, from Lars von Trier to Terrence Malick, from Bela Tarr to Gus van Sant, from Alexei German to Nuri Bilge Ceylan. You’ll even find scenes from Andrei Rublev referenced in modern works as diverse as HBO’s Game Of Thrones and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. I’m mentioning all of this now because it’s potentially useful contextual information: I was acutely aware of the legacy of Tarkovsky as a filmmaker and the history of the film itself while watching Andrei Rublev; you feel it’s importance, you think about the way it echoes in the work of so many filmmakers on top of those mentioned above, and you’re also acutely aware of the irony that a film about artistic censorship and the battle between creativity and destruction should end up being butchered and banned itself for many years. All of this seems to hang in the air for every one of those 205 minutes.

AR 1

Little is known about the real Rublev (certainly when compared to other European artists of the period), so Tarkovsky decided to portray his protagonist as – per Jim Hoberman’s Criterion essay – ‘a world-historic figure’. In this film, and this version of Russia, the talented painter (played by Anatoly Solonitsyn) is well-known within certain artistic and religious circles, and his fame seems to increase as time progresses. Tarkovsky opts for an episodic structure, and there are eight separately-titled black-and-white segments in total, along with a prologue and a full-colour epilogue; each of the segments portrays different events during Rublev’s adult life, including a rural meeting with a jester-type figure, a strange encounter with a group of pagans, a brutal Tatar raid on a village and a story about the casting of a bell. The artist travels to a monastery to study, leaves, works on a church fresco, takes a mentally-ill girl under his wing, kills a man to save her and, eventually, withdraws into a vow of silence, only to be inspired once again at the end of the film. Together the episodes cover around 25 years, though the emphasis is on a dozen of those. Sometimes Rublev is the central figure, sometimes he’s an incidental character. Throughout we see various attacks on art, creativity, Christianity and free speech, usually by groups of soldiers or warriors, and carried out through the practice of censorship or via verbal and physical reproaches. Whenever something is created in the film then the creation in question – or something close by, or related – is wrecked soon after, save for the bell at the end, an optimistic symbol to ring in the changes as the country enters a new era. But, for the most part, Rublev and those around him struggle with exterior, uncontrollable forces – mobs, the petty jealousies of contemporaries, the whims of (largely-unseen) princes and masters – or bear witness to others enduring similar struggles and persecution.

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Inevitably one or two of the segments are less exciting or involving than others, though the film is packed with striking camerawork and memorable images that ensure looking at it is never dull, and they also imbue it with a sense of grandness; the sheer number of meticulously-arranged frames – sometimes featuring hundreds of extras – that stack up is as unexpected for the first-time viewer as it is impressive. The camera tracks characters as they move through or around buildings, usually during long takes. There are well-executed long shots that reveal the ebb and flow of the landscape as well as the size of entire towns and settlements. There are even some of these from high up in the air, breathtaking in their scope, with birds’ eye perspectives and, in one case, the view of a man who has temporarily managed to fly in a balloon. Such lofty views and filled frames – it’s all about the edges – contrast with stark, minimal close-ups on terra firma. How a film looks is – for me – more important as an individual element to the overall work than just about anything else, including the acting, the script or the plot, and Andrei Rublev is without doubt one of the best-looking films I’ve ever seen. (The cinematographer was Vadim Yusov, who also shot Tarkovsky’s Solaris and one of the director’s early featurettes.)

As you might expect, given the care and attention toward the film’s visual style and the extended running time, there are recurring motifs. Horses – a symbol of life – feature prominently, with one infamously filmed falling down some stairs during the Tatar raid sequence. Birds, particularly ducks and swans, are also regularly evident, while it’s a film that is intermittently besieged by heavy rain, the storms constantly adding to the pervading boggy, muddy, grimness of many of the sets and locations. The grittiness of Tarkovsky’s medieval Russia is furthered by the violence, which is brutal and bloody more often than not. Few people escape the clutches of the soldiers and warriors who rampage with impunity, and those who find themselves at the mercy of other men invariably end up beaten, burned, beheaded, cut down or – in one case – tied to a horse as it gallops away. Yet that’s not to say Andrei Rublev is merely a feast of medieval hacking and slashing; that’s the exciting stuff, for sure, but there are long passages in which conversations about art and religion take place that may test the patience of some. I found myself drifting in and out of two of these in particular, unable to sustain enough interest in the subject of the dialogue.

AR 3

It’s often difficult to know exactly where you are, or who the characters are, or what their significance is to Andrei. That alone will cause many people to dislike the film, or at the very least to find the experience of watching it a chore. In today’s age we’re lucky, in the sense that it’s possible to watch Tarkovsky’s film after reading a plot summary or a synopsis of the historical background, as I did, but even with that information I still struggled at times. I wonder how those who managed to see Andrei Rublev in the late 1960s or early 1970s fared; it can’t have been easy to follow, but in a way I wonder whether that even matters, given the obvious rewards that can be found from other aspects of the film. And I suppose that’s Tarkovsky’s second feature in a nutshell; it is difficult, and challenging, and unwieldy, for many reasons, but it’s also immensely rewarding all the same. I won’t deny that watching it felt like a slog at times (though, in truth, there were other periods during which the minutes flew by), and I agree with the writer David Thompson, who says ‘Tarkovsky’s epic stance reveals his single handicap: the lack of humour, and the way in which that slows his grinding pace’. This. Is. A. Film. That. Grinds. Really, though, such trifling is far outweighed by the wonders of this singular, incredible achievement. When the prologue finally arrives it’s a glorious epiphany: we see close-ups of some of Rublev’s surviving works, in all their glory. They are beautiful to look at, and despite the mud-inflected brutality of much of the action, so is Tarkovsky’s film.


Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The November Man

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Release: Wednesday, August 27, 2014

[Theater]

Careful with that trigger finger, Devereux.

The old adage ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’ is likely to surface in several forms here in my explanation as to why I think Pierce Brosnan doesn’t really owe us an explanation for the mess that is The November Man.

After nearly a decade removed from the spy game, the unapologetically good-looking Irishman may have added some gray whisks to his quaff of brown hair, but at the end of the day he’s still getting a job done that needs getting done. Duly aware that time is getting on, Pierce, also operating in a producer capacity, has turned up the intensity and bid adieu to romance in this considerably more aggressive role as Peter Devereux, a ruthless CIA agent who knows how to deliver physical punishment as well as a compelling reason to watch for his next move, even if everything else surrounding him doesn’t.

His latest escapade, based upon the novel There Are No Spies — the seventh book in a series titled The November Man — opens chaotically, as a botched mission in Montenegro leads to his brief retirement after his partner and agent-in-training, David Mason (Luke Bracey) disobeys direct orders and winds up killing an innocent bystander on the streets in a confrontation unnecessarily made public. Such unprofessionalism draws a divide in the ideals between the old-school agent and wide-eyed trainee eager to prove his skill set.

Following the debacle Devereux swears he’s done and takes off for Switzerland to enjoy a quiet life running a coffee shop. Sorry, but pristine Alpine peaks without any of the parleying is a pipe dream for you, pal.

Don’t forget, old habits die hard, especially when you’re this good at being typecast. Even better, when you know you are this good at being typecast. And Brosnan does. When former boss Peter Hanley (Bill Smitrovich) comes knocking, he hardly balks at the task of finding and protecting a fellow CIA operative whose safety becomes jeopardized after exposing secrets about Russian presidential candidate and former Army General Arkady Federov. When she loses her life in an ensuing sequence of conflicting orders that have Hanley ordering Devereux to protect her and CIA Station Chief Perry Weinstein (Will Patton) dispatching David to take her out, a stark idealogical divide forms between both trigger fingers.

Neither expecting the other at opposite ends of the barrel in the aftermath of this second botched op, they flee in opposite directions and the actual narrative, as it were, finally has a chance to get underway. Devereux’s ultimate assignment is to protect a third innocent from destruction at the hands of another vile man. This will be in the form of an Alice Fornier (Olga Kurylenko).

If, by chance, you have reached this point and find your head spinning, you’re likely not alone. There lies a complex web of characters and relationships to explain and not even the film’s up to the task. It can’t prioritize which relationship is more important. Ultimately, few of them are interesting on their own merits. They are helped by a relatively compelling and violent CIA agent coming into contact with them.

We dip in and out of sun-tinged locales often in exciting bursts of action. Roger Donaldson demonstrates his understanding of shooting chase sequences and tension occasionally rises to nearly unbearable levels owed to some interesting camera angles and quick, anxious cutaways. The film teases palm-sweating good fun but never outright offers it as it spends too much time setting up too many characters when it could have limited its periphery easily. A Russian assassin whose personal mission is to wipe out Alice is only one example. (No, you’re not getting another.)

Somewhere along the way Kurylenko becomes entangled in this convoluted scuffle between American and Russian government agencies via a thankless role as the aforementioned Alice, whose history renders her a very important character but whose personality suggests otherwise. The lovely Kurylenko does the best with what she’s given but the end result of seeing her in The November Man inspires only vague recollections of her involvement with Quantum of Solace.

So I’ll say it again: the more things change, the more Pierce stays the same. Despite his character sporting an attitude more befitting of an anti-hero on more than one occasion, at the core there’s still a palpable sense of the actor relishing what he does for a living. I won’t deny the power of his tougher outfit but I just wish there was a way to explain why the script could not be better here. And no, Devereux doesn’t need to offer up anything.

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3-0Recommendation: Not the best outing for my boy Brosnan by any means, but this doesn’t rank amongst his worst either. He is undoubtedly why this movie’s going to get rented out (if my screening was any indication, there certainly weren’t many keen on checking it out in theatrical form), and perhaps some may recognize the actor-director pairing from Dante’s Peak. That might be worth something as well, but suffice it to say if you’re expecting the script to improve or likewise the characters from that one to this, you’ll be left more shaken than stirred.

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Peter Devereux. You are one bleak motherfucker, you know that? You know what we used to call you? The November Man. Because after you passed through, nothing lived.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

A Most Wanted Man

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As all good things must, even A Most Wanted Man comes to an end.

And it’s going to take everything in my power to remain on the conservative side here, what with a possible capstone performance to mark the end of a career as towering as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Trust me when I say experiencing the final moments of this film is no easy task; that is, if you hold any empathy for the troubled man at all. That’s not to say we won’t be seeing him around in other things, of course. He’ll reprise his role for The Mockingjay: Part 1 this November, and he’s also turned up in the lesser-known 2014 drama God’s Pocket.

But in A Most Wanted Man, here’s where we are obliged to bid adieu to that more significant part of a once-in-a-generation performer. The celluloid here acts as a time capsule, in which Hoffman seems permanently encased. Selfish for us to try, sure, but it’s such a great performance there’s no way we can let this be over. Eventually we’ll have to.

In a somewhat befittingly stressful turn as Günter Bachmann, the leader of a secretive intelligence operation based out of Hamburg, Germany, Hoffman becomes involved in the (mis)handling of a young half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (an incredible Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s fleeing from torture and persecution in both his home countries. Bachmann’s methods are not attuned to those maintained by his peers, particularly the snaky Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and his office’s roughneck tactics, and Bachmann holds a particular disdain for the Americans given a situation in the recent past. Pale, disheveled and with a cigarette permanently glued to his lips, Günter is the perfect enigma for Hoffman to decipher.

That the film does not become a sideshow to the real-life tragedy involving one of its cast members is almost miraculous. This will be the last of Hoffman’s lead roles, and while proximate his death, his work still remains relatively unaffected. He does, however, look physically exhausted in a number of scenes. But rather than directly confronting us with his sickly appearance, the film uses it for context, making great use of Hoffman’s tired expressions and measured delivery to express an epic character. His physique immediately conjures a lifetime of struggles.

In Anton Corbijn’s film, perspective taints objective reality. We spend our time with this rag-tag group of German intelligence operatives (whose casting includes the likes of Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) but does this mean this is the right side of the tracks to be on? Who really ought to be dealing with this suspected terrorist? Is that precisely what Issa is, a terrorist? What could have become an overwhelmingly complex and dense narrative instead is surprisingly simplified without cutting out critical details — the scarring on Issa’s back is very telling of a dark history and helps cement his nightmarish reality.

Highly compelling material adapted from the novel by John le Carré is distributed evenly and effectively across the film’s myriad talented stars. Willem Dafoe steps in as Tommy Brue, the head of a German bank which may contain funds to be inherited by Issa from his father, a man he claims to have raped his mother in front of him when he was much younger, and when Mother was a mere 15 years old. (Again, despite the crowd-pleasing flavor of the thrill, one thing A Most Wanted Man can’t be accused of is glossing over pertinent stuff.) Robin Wright matches her intensity in House of Cards and continues to affirm her spot in the upper echelons of great thespians with a spectacular performance as CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, who comes to Günter’s assistance when he needs it least. Or so he has determined.

A Wanted Man is a fiercely accurate rendering of real-world events unfolding in a period as hectic as the last ten years have been, both in the Middle East and on a global scale. A fictitious account of one man’s journey through bureaucracy in a desperate investigation into what his real identity is — is he terrorist blood or an innocent civilian trying to escape oppression? — here’s a story that at least demands an open mind.

While we revere this strange German’s effectiveness at his duties, it is safe to say we revere the man behind the man more. If all good things have to come to an end, Hoffman’s story has come to a very good ending indeed. He is hands-down the reason to watch this film, and in a masterpiece such as this, that’s relatively high praise.

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4-0Recommendation: One of the very best films of the year, not just as a genre film or from a performance-standpoint, A Most Wanted Man is an excellent way to spend $10. For the Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (of which I believe there are at least one or two), for the Robin Wright fans, for fans of excellent adaptations of books (supposedly. . .I would now like to read this book). For anyone wanting relevance to the ongoing ideological struggles amongst the myriad countries ensnared in violent turmoil in the Middle East currently, and between them and a United States government that insists on making everything its business, you are compelled. . .nay, required to watch this film. It is that good.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We find them. When they’re ours, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: From Russia with Love (1964)

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Yes, the 2014 FIFA World Cup is going on. This much is true. Somewhere out there amongst the trees and suffocating humidity of Brazil some folks are kicking funny-colored balls around and trying to get them into little rectangular nets at opposing ends of a long, intensely well-groomed patch of grass. No, I like the sport of feet-ball, I really do. Or at least I appreciate it from a safe, respectable distance. I’m not so into it that I’ve gotten the scarf yet or painted my face into crazy distorted shapes that would have a good chance of scaring kids on Halloween but the quadrennial event effectively manages to capture my attention each time. (This time I guess the joke’s on Spain?) The ultimate joke, though, is really on me I think, for letting this classic slip through the cracks for so long. There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned romp throughout Russia with Sean Connery and a hot babe hanging off his arm. This was also quite the struggle as far as prioritizing between this or Daniel Craig’s turn as Bond. Good as Connery is in the role — appearance-wise, he suits it best — the stories around Connery, I’m finding, are just not quite as involving as the modern stories have become. There is, however, delicious nostalgic appeal to films like 

Today’s food for thought: From Russia with Love

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Status Active: May 27, 1964

[Netflix]

Mission Briefing: After killing one of Spectre’s top agents in the form of Dr. No, James Bond finds himself targeted by the global terrorist network as he partners up with Russian beauty Tatiana Romanova in order to retrieve a sensitive war device known mysteriously as ‘The Machine.’ A Russian decoding device, referred to as The Machine, represents heightening tensions between Soviet and American politics as the Cold War continues, with the British Secret Service attempting to intervene and prevent further incident. James Bond will have to overcome his weakness for women in order to recover the device and succeed in his mission.

Mission Support: 

  • Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) — supportive of anything 007 will ever do; approach with caution
  • Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) — holds critical information about Spectre and its members; a valuable although still more expendable resource
  • Rosa Klebb, a.k.a. ‘Number Three’ (Lotte Lenya) — hostile Soviet member of Spectre; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Kronsteen a.k.a. ‘Number Five’ (Vladek Sheybal) — master chess player who likes to use his skills for predicting Bond’s every next move; it is possible to stay one step ahead of his game, though, if careful
  • Grant (Robert Shaw) — Spectre’s hunk of muscle equally skilled in hand-to-hand combat who is sent to deal with any complications that arise in the theft of The Machine; approach with extreme prejudice
  • ‘Number One’ (Eric Pohlman, voice; Anthony Dawson, body) — one of the prime targets of MI6 is also very cat-friendly but his affection for death and destruction should not be ignored; perhaps one day 007 will get to meet the man face-to-face, but for now, maintain distance
  • Sylvia (Eunice Grayson) — additional eye candy. . .because, you know. Reasons.

Q Branch: Oh, ho-ho, boy-oh-boy do I have a treat for you, 007! This mission will require the use of this one very specific briefcase I have for you. But. . be careful not to open it the wrong way, old chap. Wouldn’t want you to be blown away by what you see, would we?

Performance Evaluation: Sean Connery’s second time around as England’s most dangerous/sexy spy courts even greater danger as his antics in Dr. No just two years prior have incurred the wrath of Spectre, a terrorist organization that will stop at nothing to eliminate this threat to the Soviet’s attempts to win the Cold War. From Russia with Love is the next logically progressive step for James Bond as he operates on Her Majesty’s wishes to keep crown and country above all else. Unfortunately this incredibly misogynistic production is lightyears away from being anything close to being a politically correct film. But I guess we don’t care about those kinds of things when we sign up for the new James Bond movie, do we?

In fairness, we’ve returned almost to the source of Ian Fleming’s rumination on the terrifying dominance of the Soviet Union in this day in age. The character of James Bond was a way of explaining a rational path through the fear and paranoia the world had been plunged into for years on end. It may be a stretch to imagine that Fleming’s apparent hatred and distrust of women (see any number of female leads in these early films getting slapped around as if they were Bond’s personal punching bags) was a simple manifestation of the author’s frustrations of the time into which he was born, but it wouldn’t be the craziest jump to conclusions one could make. There’s plenty verbal and physical mistreatment to be found here, as Bond finds himself unwittingly (but not reluctantly) in the arms of a beautiful Russian spy whose loyalty to her own country absolutely must be questioned.

Along with her shady motives, Bond must also be looking over his shoulder for the treacherous and physically stout Red Grant, Russia’s pride and joy and perhaps Bond’s equal in hand-to-hand combat. Amounting to little more than a thug sent by the sinister Klebb, Grant is on a collision course with Bond in a last-ditch effort by Spectre to eliminate Britain’s involvement in a gradually escalating crisis.

From Russia with Love sports acceptable action sequences, though its colorful imagery, exoticism and period detail has been slightly damaged in the constant comparisons to over 40 years’ worth of James Bond cinema. The novel’s sense of adventure and political tension is recovered, though. And there’s no doubt there are particularly heart-racing moments that nearly stand toe-to-toe to scenes of the modern versions. In the end, though, this particular entry shows its colors on a few too many occasions in terms of its position in mainstream Hollywood and by continuing to perpetuate the ideals of the 60s and 70s that it’s very much a man’s world out there. Guess we need to get used to that, though, for there’s far more of it to come.

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3-5Recommendation: For Bond fanatics, the second Bond film from Terence Young ought to be one of the first of the films viewed, especially if one is to get a sense of continuity and a real perspective on who this near-legendary secret agent is and how he operates. Barring clunky, horrendously cheesy dialogue (par for the course, I’m afraid), over-the-top sound effects and the abysmal attitude held about women in this period, From Russia with Love is a mostly successful action adventure. Connery also has the added benefit of being the first actor to take on the iconic role, and although opinions will always vary on who the best Hollywood fit really is, there can be very little arguing that this man did it with a degree of style unmatched by any other since. Now, if there was only something fans could do to shake an older Connery out of his slurred-speech phase. . .

Rated: PG (okay. . .this is really quite ridiculous, 1960s. . .I mean, the sexual innuendo alone. . .ah forget it)

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Goldeneye (1995)

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It’s a brand new month and once again time for a whole new way to dork out on Throwback Thursday. After taking the week off last week I am back and feeling refreshed after sifting through a month of Adam Sandler films. (Speculation is probably going to run high about whether I threw in the towel on that theme or if I just simply got lazy and didn’t do a fifth TBT for the month. . .either way, I ain’t tellin’!) But we’re back and better than ever, and it’s time to look back on some classic action films, and I wish now that this month had more Thursdays because pairing down the canon of James Bond films to just four is going to be some task. But I’m willing to do it, as long as you’re willing to trust me that I know what I’m doing (I don’t). I’m really just going to be making this up as I go along — because how can I honestly up and declare that these four that I select for the month are ‘the best?’ What I will do though, is call these four my favorites, and that they best represent the series based on the actor playing 007 at the time. So let the espionage, back-stabbery and misogyny commence!

Today’s food for thought: Goldeneye

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Status Activate: November 17, 1995

[VHS]

Mission Briefing: 007 is tasked with preventing a nuclear space weapon from firing on London. In order to do this he has no choice but to expose the identity of the terrorist, believed to be a former MI6 agent, confront him and stop him at all costs.

Mission Support: 

  • Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) — to be quite frank, purely emotional support
  • Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) — can be kind of flaky but will show support if necessary
  • Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) — not the kind of support any agent wants or needs; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker) — technical back-up
  • Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) — loyalty unquestioned, though a man with serious trust issues
  • General Arkady Grigorovich Ourumov (Gottfried John) — a man supportive of his own ambitions, and considered a traitor to his country; MI6’s top suspect in the attack on Severnaya; approach with extreme prejudice
  • Russian Defense Minister Dmitri Mishkin (Tchéky Karyo) — slightly ambiguous motives; approach with caution

Q Branch: Q (Desmond Llewelyn) strongly advocates the use of several small devices that might help you out of a tight spot, particularly if you have any interest in pursuing this slippery Ourumov fella. A quick rig of your belt buckle and a simple exploding pen should do the trick. Best of luck out there Bond.

Performance Evaluation: Rico Suave, a.k.a. Pierce Brosnan in his first outing gets betrayed by fellow agent — though apparently his inferior, based on his 006 status — Alec Trevelyan when a botched mission in an underground laboratory in Arkhangelsk, Russia leads to the two forming starkly different views on loyalty. . .to the mission, to the Crown, and ultimately to one another. Goldeneye is a rather emotionally charged action adventure that’s inarguably Brosnan’s finest hour in the tux.

Leaping from one ultra-classic action set piece to the next, Goldeneye tries not to slow down and almost forgets to breathe in its own gorgeous scenery though occasional slow moments are injected to ground the drama if only temporarily.

Characters are not only memorable but effective. Look no further than Jack Wade for some nice comic relief in addition to the requisite Q branch scenes, and at the heart of the drama lies the decay of a once sturdy friendship, which has gravity thanks to chemistry between Brosnan and Bean. Villains Ourumov and particularly Onatopp prove to be worthy opponents, and nerdy programmer Boris Grishinko provides yet another comedic thread, whose own fate may be the most suitable and uncanny of them all.

Perhaps it helps that the film was backed up by a quality (and classic, if you ask me) video game — Goldeneye is a serious magnet for nostalgia. Considering that Brosnan turned out to be not among the greatest portrayals, it’s an even more impressive feat that this turns out to leave quite the impression on the cinematic landscape. Ian Fleming would be proud of this one. And even though it’s not Martin Campbell’s best (such a distinction is reserved for his unforgettable Casino Royale), it gives his latest a serious run for it’s money in terms of being memorable.

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Sean Bean about to be set adrift on memory bliss . . .

4-0Recommendation: Anyone who is a fan of the franchise has a soft spot for this gem. Like the Walther PPK or Bond’s signature martini, it’s simply a classic, for lack of a better word. Swift, sexy and (un)subtle, this film is a great load of fun and a definitive staple of the 1990s.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “I AM INVINCIBLE!”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com