Hollywood, in this successful fall and winter of 2012, is enjoying an unusually rewarding and positive season in terms of achieving a continuing level of excellence in quality in regards to visiting familiar territory--quite familiar territory, actually, in terms of basing films around exceedingly well-known, popular, and enduring characters, stories, sources, themes and subject matter. Usually, in any season, the opposite is true—Hollywood’s downfall is its tiring, often-desperate over-reliance on visiting, re-visiting and then re-visiting yet again the overly-familiar to the point of nausea—and resulting in widespread critical and commercial failure after the familiarity tendencies jump not only a shark, but a Sea World-full of sharks. However, again, that’s not the case this season, and the point deserves to be repeated: Hollywood is succeeding in the latter quarter of 2012 by producing films with familiar characters and stories when that very tactic has nearly overstayed and bankrupted its welcome in the recent past.

The sleeper, surprise hit “Looper” re-visited time travel stories—a theme nearly done to death in film and television and books--but the film succeeded on all levels to result in an entertaining, smart, deep and original time travel film. “Skyfall,” of course, is the 23rd film in the Broccoli-family-produced series of James Bond espionage-spy-action-adventure films that stretches back half a century—but its own depth in characterization, skillful blend of drama and action and thrills, and carefully-handled explorations of several adult themes without forgoing the requisite action, adventures, thrills and humor, resulted in simply one of the best Bond films in years and a thoroughly entertaining, fun and thoughtful film. “Les Miserable”—full review coming on Dec. 19—re-visits nothing less than one of the most successful stage musicals and stage plays in the history of theater, and re-visits songs and characters that have literally been viewed and sung and enjoyed around the world by tens of millions of people, but, in this first film version of the stage musical, “Les Miserables” ends up being literally one of the great film musicals, one of the best films of the year, the best film musical since “Chicago” and a thoroughly entertaining, instant classic. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” re-visited nothing less than Abraham Lincoln—the subject of hundreds of films, television shows and documentaries; the subject of hundreds and hundreds of books; and simply one of the most well-known presidents and political figures in the history of the United States—and Spielberg, cast and crew ended up producing, also, one of the best films of the year, one of the best films on Lincoln, a brilliantly-acted film, and a film about Abraham Lincoln that focused on a little-known political story, on the personal aspects of Lincoln’s wide-ranging personality and political skills, and on Lincoln’s heartwarming, heartfelt and painful family life amid the daily challenges of leading a country, a government—and a family--torn apart by a bloody, seemingly senseless Civil War.

And, now, we have, yes, indeed, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” to be released on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, the latest adaptation of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien by producer-writer-director Peter Jackson, producer-writer Fran Walsh, and their talented, faithful, hard-working—and brilliant—extensive cast and crew of hundreds and hundreds. What to make, then, of another full-length, live-action, over-two-hours-long, fantasy-action-adventure film that dares to re-visit the fantastical, yet popular, yet enduring, world of Tolkien’s colorful array of hobbits, wizards, elves, dwarves, sorcerers, trolls, goblins, and all manners of strange and wonderful things that go bump in the day and bump in the night? What to make, then, of re-visiting this world after the wildly crazy worldwide critical and commercial success of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy—“The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), “The Two Towers” (2002) and “The Return of the King” (2003)??!! Those three films not only made film history on many levels, made literally billions of dollars, but they universally collected rave reviews—quite rare for three fantasy films—from fans, followers, devoted Tolkien fans (a diehard bunch if there ever was one), fantasy fans, science fiction and horror fans, and, yes, many untold legions of non-fantasy-oriented people who normally would never have paid a cent to see a fantasy, sci-fi, horror or narrow-genre type of film. The three “Rings” films were literally a worldwide phenomena—three of the most popular films of all time, three of the best fantasy films of all time, and among the best films, point blank, of the last 15 years.

So who, exactly, in terms of cast and crew, would dare to re-visit this imposing world of everything Tolkien once again? And what, dare we ask the question, would the results be this time around—nine years after the release of the last film in the original trilogy, and, believe it or not, 75 years after the original 1937 release of the source material for the new film, Tolkien’s “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again?”

Fortunately, for all of us, for the devoted fans, for the general non-fantasy populace, for Jackson and Walsh and their co-producers, for New Line Cinema and MGM and Warner Brothers, and for the cast and crew, it is most satisfying and most enjoyable to report honestly that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an excellent film, a success, and an achievement on par with the likes of the first three Tolkien films. “The Hobbit” succeeds on all of the artistic, literary, acting and technical filmic levels that made the original trilogy succeed—and there are many levels. But first and foremost, as with any film, “Hobbit” succeeds in terms of production, direction, writing and acting. The lavish, unsparing, beautifully-designed and breathtaking-to-behold production design, art direction, set design and fantasy-world detail takes the viewer away and easily places he and she into a faraway, fantastical world that is literally unlike our boring real world—you feel, experience, see, and live inside Middle-earth and all its bizarre mini-worlds and regions. An assured and confident direction keeps the film moving, exciting and suspenseful through more than two hours, with just the right mix of expertly-melded exposition, action, adventure and fantasy that includes many harrowing, tension-filled battles and action sequences, along with comic-relief scenes and scenes of deep emotion as characters slowly start to realize they are fighting to literally save their entire world. The writing throughout the film freely embraces, as it should, its source material, thus ensuring that the dialogue is exceptionally intelligent, probing, deep and eloquent, as all of Tolkien’s works were. And the acting—well, there’s acting in Jackson’s films that effortlessly rises above the acting in most fantasy and genre films simply because there exists in these films some of the best actors working on the planet. The actors charge ahead in their difficult, conflicted characters at full-force, at all times, portraying the basic elements of unique characterization, character development, conflicting emotions and equal proponents of wonder, joy, fear, courage, retribution, guts, glory, heartbreak—and exploration and discovery.

That’s what filmmaking is all about, Charlie Brown, as Linus might say, if he were discussing film instead of explaining Christmas.

And those quite basic, elemental foundations of filmmaking are important to note straight off in this particular instance, because, let’s face it, the odds are always somewhat stacked against you when you re-visit such imposing source films and books—and such imposing films and books that were so popular as the “Rings” films and books. Add on the additional burden of nine years away from the Shire and Middle-earth, and questions about who was in and out, and questions about what was in or out, and that ever-demanding fan base, and, well, as a filmmaker, you’re facing some formidable obstacles. So it’s great to see Jackson, Walsh and crew do exactly what they should have done: pay attention to the many details that made the “Rings” films work, stick to those principles, bring in a new story that, yes, is somewhat similar to the original story—but, hey, it’s all the same story, and even Tolkien knew that—and, yes, bring back not only much of the original cast, but most of the original production, artistic and technical crews. And, that, Tolkienistas and everyone else, is where the praise can start for “The Hobbit.”

Besides including themselves—and there were questions a couple of years ago about just whether Jackson would direct again—Jackson and Walsh stuck with what they knew in terms of cast and crew. In a big way. The entire top tier of the production crew is composed of veterans of the “Rings” trilogy, and what a talented crew they are: director of photography Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hannah, musical composer Howard Shore, make-up and hair designer Peter Swords King, make-up, creature, swords and armor master Richard Taylor, and visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. All of them worked on the “Rings” trilogy, they all won deserved awards—and they’re all back again. That’s just smart, intelligent filmmaking. That not only ensures continued quality, but as Jackson as noted, that contributes to a very real, very productive and very positive family atmosphere on the set. That, in turn, leads to a quality production. It’s the same idea behind the Broccoli family and their familiar cast and crew for the Bond films—when you build a congenial, comfortable and familiar atmosphere on the set, you’re more than likely to end up with a quality film as a result.

But it’s not just the people involved, of course, but what they produce up on the screen. In “The Hobbit,” the production values, as noted, are breathtaking throughout the film. From the homey, comfortable and peaceful home of Bilbo Baggins at the start of the film—you immediately feel like you either want to visit this lovable, green-filled Shire place or even live there—through the dozens of locales and landscapes throughout the film, every scene is lushly, extravagantly photographed, with elaborate lighting and shades of colors that convey different places and different emotions. The Shire is all green and bright, the forests are dark and deep and foreboding, abandoned fortresses are gray and dark and evil, oasis-like elvin valleys are, again, breathtakingly beautiful, full of wispy waterfalls, strange plant life, marble- and granite-like gazebos and palaces, and scary subterranean kingdoms for all those ugly creatures are full of fire, darkness, wobbly wooden footbridges, tall cliffs, and dark, cold stones and walls. You cannot escape the magic and wonder that the hundreds of artists, carpenters, computer technicians, builders and set designers created in varied scenes in “The Hobbit”—every different creature, including, yes, the slithering, slimy, pathetic Gollum, gets their own strange wonderland, or wasteland, as the case may be. The production designers took great care to create many different worlds for many different beings, and all of their work is beautifully displayed, up on the screen. One scene and vista and landscape are as awe-inspiring as the next. The filming took place inNew Zealand, as did the “Rings” films, and at the now-sprawling workshops of Jackson’s Weta Workshop, which oversees artistic endeavors such as the creatures, make-up, costumes, armor, weapons and swords, and Weta Digital, which oversees the expressive, extensive visual effects.

And Howard Shore’s beautiful musical score, which introduced an instantly-memorable “Rings” main theme and subsequent minor themes, is equally memorable again. His soaring, at times classically-based orchestrations, coupled with more homespun, down-home, Old World folk-inspired songs, themes and ditties, provide just the right balance for the film’s balance of action, adventure, suspense and comic relief. Shore knows when to lay it on heavy, and when to keep it light—just as the film does in its storytelling and direction.

Speaking of direction, Jackson returns with “The Hobbit” at the same confident, assured and intelligent level that he achieved with the first three films, but he did have a new injection of outside help this time around. For those who have followed Guillermo del Toro’s work (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” “Hellboy: The Golden Army”), you can see the influence of del Toro’s imagination with some of the creatures and tonal elements of “The Hobbit.” Del Toro is fascinated with dark, evil, scary creatures and he loves to present them in clarity, up-front, all over the big screen. So that’s what you get in “The Hobbit”—scores of scary, evil, slobbering, blood- and spit- and vile-spewing vile creatures. They are fascinating, scary, terrifying and train-wreck-fascinating to watch, all at the same time. Goblins, Trolls, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs—whether they’re good or bad, they definitely take you away to another world.

Jackson started off right by gathering his old crew, but he also started off by focusing on a new story, a prequel, yes, that does introduce some new—and highly-likeable and endearing—characters. And, as mentioned, he balances the endearing characters with the evil and scary characters, focuses on a strong prequel story, and manages to include several old, familiar faces from the “Rings” trilogy. It’s like returning to a great party years after the first party ended, but finding everything the same, but a little different, with welcome, surprising little twists.

The Hobbit” takes place 60 years before the action of the “Rings” trilogy, with central character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who fits the character like a hobbit-vest) living a quite comfortable life in the region known as the Shire in the lands known in Tolkien’s world as Middle-earth. Baggins, a laid-back, easy-as-it-goes sort, lives a contented, simple life in the Shire, as all hobbits do—enjoying his home in a hole in the ground, tending his garden, reading his books, and smoking his pipe on a nice chair in front of his nice house. It’s a nice life, but Gandalf the Grey, the great wizard once again so expertly, humanly and humanely portrayed by the great Ian McKellen, pays a visit to Baggins—just like he does years later to Baggins’ nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, who appears in one, quick early scene). Gandalf has yet another pitch for Baggins’ help in a quest that has greater worldwide consequences than is initially seen by all involved. Gandalf simply asks Baggins to accompany a troop of colorful, lively and likeable dwarves to their lost homeland, and to help them regain the land, castle, kingdom and life they once knew. The dwarves’ land was taken from them by the terrifying dragon Smaug, and Gandalf believes there is a way for the dwarves to regain their land. It’s a noble quest, but Baggins is befuddled as to why he is asked and chosen to accompany 13 seemingly odd and eccentric strangers on this quest. Gandalf sees something in the Baggins hobbits—a perhaps mystical, all-powerful quality—that transcends, overpowers and overcomes even the darkest forces in the world. That is the brilliance of the story—the simple and good overcoming the horrible and bad—and Gandalf understands this power. That is why he enlists the Baggins on these quests.

Of course, the new characters that viewers get to enjoy in “The Hobbit” are these 13 colorful, lively and, at times, goofy dwarves, all with their own distinct looks and personalities. They’re more crude and base and roughshod than hobbits, but they’re all lovable and likeable in their own unique ways. Gandalf gets the dwarves to gather at Bilbo Baggins’ home in the Shire, and from there, they must map out a plan to take back their homeland from the dragon Smaug, which took over the dwarves’ kingdom years before, killing their leaders in the process. The early scenes that introduce the dwarves are lively and funny, and there’s even time for a beautifully-sung, folkish song, sung in the comfort of Baggins home as the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf relax by the fire after a feast. It’s a nice scene, and it immediately creates sympathy for the homeless dwarves. Baggins, moved by the dwarves’ plight, and realizing how lucky he is to have a nice home while these desolate creatures have no place to call their home, eventually takes Gandalf’s request and joins the dwarves on their journey.

That journey takes the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf through a series of battles in various parts of Middle-earth with those aforementioned array of ugly creatures—trolls who literally want to eat the dwarves; terrifying orcs and beasts who literally want to tear them apart; reluctant elves who would rather not get involved with their battle; a reluctant wizard who argues with Gandalf about not only the dwarves’ quest but the very future of Middle-earth, and, yes, the bizarrely pathetic Gollum, who Bilbo encounters for the first time in a dark cave of rotting bones and carcasses. And it is here, in the cave with Gollum, that Bilbo’s “Hobbit” story connects with the “Rings” story.

Along the way, there are great battles, narrow escapes, colorful characters, those wildly exotic locales, and exposition that widens the story from simply the dwarves’ quest to various events and issues and omens that indicate something stronger, something more threatening, something more evil, is occurring, and it all connects to the dragon Smaug, the dwarves’ quest, and what Gandalf and co-wizards Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) and Radagast the Brown (one of the Dr. Whos, Sylvester McCoy, a Marlin Perkins of the Wizard World) are seeing and feeling in Middle-earth. The dwarves are led by Thorin (the tough, brooding Richard Armitage), a king-like, macho dwarf that is the rightful descendant and leader of the homeland taken away from his people by Smaug. Yes, Armitage’s Thorin will remind you of the “Rings’” Viggo Mortensen and Mortensen’s character Aragorn. That’s because they’re similar souls on similar quests. And where Aragorn dealt with hobbits and elves and others, Armitage deals with a colorful band of dwarves. The circumstances are similar, but they still feel fresh and new.

Although “The Hobbit” has plenty of action and battle and fight scenes, one scene stands out, if only for the collection of actors portraying unique characters in a unique dialogue scene. At a pivotal moment in the group’s quest, Gandalf and Saruman meet at the elves' beautiful homeland with the Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, looking beautiful). Each character has their own views, motives and agendas, with Lee’s quietly, darkly scheming Saruman the most diabolical. But while they meet, the viewer can just sit back and enjoy the talents and pleasures of watching four masters at work—McKellen, Lee, Blanchett and Weaving. It would have been worth a day’s drive to have been on the set the days they filmed these scenes, as the back-and-forth between the actors, and the varying expressions they convey as each maps out their own plans, is priceless.

And there, in that scene, and in just about every other scene, lies yet another secret—or not-so-secret—key to the success of “The Hobbit:” Ian McKellen. If anyone completely owns this film, it’s Ian McKellen. His proud, insightful, mysterious, dominating and all-powerful Gandalf, even more so than Bilbo Baggins and even more so than Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, is present, prominent and leading the proceedings in most scenes in the film. “The Hobbit’s” real center, rock and foundation is Gandalf, and Gandalf’s portrayal by Ian McKellen. With just a wink or a nod of that expressive face, with just a sweep of his arms, and with just a few lines of impeccably-spoken, formally-stage-trained, Shakespearean diction, you are always under the sway and control and leadership of Gandalf and McKellen. There really is no “Hobbit” without McKellen, and without McKellen’s Gandalf. In fact, and it’s not a stretch, Ian McKellen should be nominated for best actor, right up there with Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln and Hugh Jackman’s Valjean. Some may laugh at that notion, but it’s not a laughable notion at all. McKellen is a great actor, and when you cast great actors in fantasy roles such as Gandalf, sometimes viewers tend to forget just how much that acting makes that character. The same could be said for Patrick Stewart’s similar portrayals of Jean-Luc Picard and Professor X. McKellen wonderfully, proudly and expertly steals the show in “The Hobbit,’ and that’s just one of many unexpected journeys in this fun, entertaining film.

One final note: Some nattering naysayers have been blathering and blithering and ranting and raving on about some technical gobbledegook regarding Jackson’s decision to shoot the film in some type of technique that involves shooting at 48 frames per second. Believe me, this does not ruin the film, does not distract from the film in any way, and does not affect the film in a negative manner. The basic, core elements of film—among them first and foremost, production, direction, writing and acting—are so strong, formidable and excellent in “The Hobbit,” any talk about technical this or that becomes moot. I’m going to wisely bet that most filmgoers don’t even know what the heck 48 frames per second is, and most likely and realistically, they could care less if the film was shot in 48 frames per second, 1,048 frames per second or 1 million gigawatts per second. Who on earth cares? Also, if you asked most people on the planet, likely nine out of ten could not explain what on earth 48 frames per second is, how its’ done, or if they even care one one iota about frames per second in the first place. In regards to “The Hobbit,” it doesn’t matter. And, that little 3-D gimmick doesn’t matter, either—there’s no real reason you have to watch this film in the tired, hackneyed 3-D. 3-D is a lame gimmick whose time has come and gone—if a film is good enough, you just don’t need little technological gimmicks like 48 frames per second or 3D.

In real filmmaking, the core, basic filmic foundations of moviemaking still apply today, as they did 20, 30, 50 or 100 years ago—good, strong, solid production, direction, writing and acting. Fortunately, all are present in excellent form in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

And, if you like this film, two more are coming: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” to be released in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

For this particular fan, I can’t wait to re-visit Middle-earth.

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LIFE OF PI
Director: Ang Lee
Writer: David Magee (screenplay); Yann Martel (novel)
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Ayush Tandon

Nobody reading Yann Martel would have imagined that his Booker winning allegory of a starving tiger and a starving boy at sea would turn out to be such a feast for the eyes. Production designer David Gropman and cinematographer Claudio Miranda conjure up indelible scenes – a sinking, lit-up shipwreck, a live menagerie hurtling many fathoms down, a roiling typhoon, a humpback whale lobtailing on waves, marine bioluminescence, flying fish, a lone boy on a raft on a membrane of serene liquid glass, multiples of meerkats on an iridescent flesh-eating island.

The serene mysteries of the blue briny deep, or nature, red in tooth and claw – no matter what the lens captures, eyes will pop, jaws will drop, souls will be stirred in a way that no CGI or 3D has any business stirring. The dangers of a vegetarian teenager sharing a tiny 27-foot lifeboat with a 450 pound royal Bengal tiger, a bereaved orangutan mother, a wounded zebra, and a savage hyena at such gnawingly close (hind) quarters are full of teeth-gnashing realism and nail-biting suspense. This carnivorous carnival of Nat Geo-rivaling verisimilitude makes it hard to guess that the “sea” is actually a mammoth water tank in an airport in Taiwan, that only 23 actual tiger shots have been used in filming, and the rest is all high-tech magic and Ang Lee’s coaxing direction. In the mesmerizing heart of the film, a boy called Pi (short for Piscine, “Pissing” to mean school kids), a tiger called Richard Parker (so named due to a bureaucratic mix-up), god and the Pacific are the only characters left for miles and months on end.

Nature without mercy, an ocean without measure, and images without words nudge us to contemplate the infinite. The film, not content with gentle nudging, pushes for a more overt spirituality – the fluttery frame is provided by a writer (Rafe Spall, who replaced Tobey Maguire) getting an older Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) in Canada to tell a “story that will bring me closer to god”. Are we 3.14159265359 times likely to be exalted for having heard the grown-up Pi’s metaphysical musings at the end? Not really.

That Pi is a transcendental number must surely count for something in this film rife with symbolism and symmetries. For example, the sign by a teenage dancer’s (Sravanthi Sainath) of a lotus in the forest, inexplicable to Pi as a teenager, foreshadows the flower with the tooth inside in the lush, flesh-eating island he visits later. Against the wishes of Pi’s religious mother (Tabu), Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) makes Pi watch a zoo tiger eat a helpless goat to teach him respect for nature, a lesson that comes in useful later on in his life-and-death dealings on the boat. Pi’s embrace of three religions (Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) at age 12, defying his father’s love for science, surfaces in the lessons of pantheism drawn from his seafaring struggles. Pi’s double major in zoology and religious studies in Yann Martel’s original book sets the poetico-philosophic tone, a little uneasily reflected in the film.

Luckily, the younger Pi’s story is more potent – his childhood (played by Ayush Tandon) with his family zoo and his school mates in the French coastal outpost of Pondicherry in India, a teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) setting sail for Canada with his family and animals in a cargo ship with a vicious cook (Gerard Depardieu), getting marooned on a boat in the South Pacific, fleeing from an enchanted island, washing up ashore in Mexico, beginning a new life in Canada. The wonderful thing about a film by a Taiwanese-born, New York-settled director, based on a book written by a Spanish-born Canadian is that the setting doesn’t really matter.

The film is mostly anchored in Lee’s stunningly rendered picaresque. Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) falls back on a survival manual, provisions, faith and pluck. The shaggy dog tale is made believable through animal trivia, brutal food chain reality checks, and survival strategies. Choices are stark. Sink or swim, kill or be killed - or in Pi’s case, eat and be eaten (if he feeds himself and lets the tiger starve, he will be the tiger’s next meal). It is interspecies bonding at its most humane, storytelling at its most natural. How does 16 year old Pi keep his sanity on his 227 day odyssey? When do rations run out? Which is worse – being pounced on by a tiger, or peed on? Pummeled by storms, or parched by the sun?

This central narrative, whose basic questions are so visceral, stays afloat far better than the adult Pi’s deconstruction of the shipwreck to the Japanese shipping company investigators, and his disappointing alternative version at the end. We are cast adrift whenever Lee moves away from present spectacle to pious treacle – slightly gawky, grown-up New Age-y god vs man, truth vs fiction discussions. The luminous seascape scenes without speech say much more about the struggle between all that is base and all that is pure within us, the love that can grow between man and beast, and the beauty and horror contained in the universe.

Life of Pi is also a leap of faith for flirting with filming no-nos - oceans, animals, and unknown underage actors. (A Subway sandwich was all it took for Suraj Sharma to join his older actor brother for his audition – the teenaged, untried non-actor came for his sandwich, and walked off with the role.) With its $100 million budget and easy PG-13 rating already pushing the film towards box office and Oscar success, it is easy to forget that it passed through many famous hands - Alfonso Cuaron, M. Night Shyamalan, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet – before Ang Lee stepped up to save the day. With Life of Pi, Lee treads deep, unfamiliar waters, but then he has always pulled off varying subjects - a lady-like romance full of Sense And Sensibility in Kent here, a student uprising full of Lust and Caution in Shanghai there, a Taiwanese closet gay here, a broken-hearted gay cowboy by Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain there. Lee’s Hidden Dragon of aerial martial arts fame may be absent this time around, but the fierce 450 pound crouching tiger here effectively lunges, roars, splashes, strides into an island forest without a backward look. And in an unforgettable drowning scene close-up, it mutely beseeches us with desperate eyes - substantiating (beyond any rational doubt Pi’s father could express) the ancient Hindu belief that animals do indeed possess souls.

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james_bond_skyfall
"Skyfall," the 23rd film in the Broccoli-family-produced James Bond series, is an intelligent, entertaining, suspenseful, dramatic and, overall, excellent return to form for the enduring 50-year-old series (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, 2012), as Daniel Craig seems to have strongly settled into the role, director Sam Mendes and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have agreed to get back to several of the series' much-loved core basics and foundations, the direction is strong, assured and confident and wisely pays homage to the Bond legacy, the production, set design and art direction are appropriately elaborate, stylish, beautiful and exotic, and it's also--this is a positive and this aspect lifts the film up rather than drags it down--one of the more maturely dramatic and smartly-written Bond films in ages.

SKYFALL

Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris, Ben Wishaw, Rory Kinnear Directed by Sam Mendes

Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan

Based on characters created by Ian Fleming

Music by Thomas Newman

Cinematography, Roger Deakins

"Skyfall" is intelligent, insightful, emotional--again, in a good way--and introspective in an adult manner that lends a deeper, more heartfelt and moving human element to all of the proceedings. These mature, adult aspects would seem at first read to suggest alarms, red flags and concerns that the film is talky, boring and too dramatic, but that simply is not the case--not at all! Sam Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan--give them plenty of credit and kudos also, for a smart script, as there is plenty of kudos to go around this time around in the Bond world--have produced what some previous dramatic-oriented spy capers have achieved, but only rarely through the years: the unique accomplishment of combing real adult drama and emotion with plenty of action, adventure, suspense, humor, romance and, of course, heart-stopping stunts, chases and fights! This is not an easy filmic feat, and few films have really achieved it. You may say, "What about all the other Bond films?" Well, most of the other Bond films either focused squarely on the action and adventure--without leaning too heavily on real drama--or tried to "gritty" things up and focus on drama--but, ultimately, at the expense of real fun and entertainment. The successful combination of drama and action never really clicked--as real drama took a back seat to the fun, or the drama tended to overwhelm the enjoyment of the proceedings, which occurred in the last two mediocre Bond films. A real adult, mature mix of real, actual drama, along with enjoyable action and adventure, has actually rarely been achieved on a grand scale in the Bond films--or most other spy, espionage and action-and-adventure films, for that matter. That's not a negative, or a criticism, just an observation. It should be noted that I am a huge, loyal and faithful fan of all the Bond films--even the mediocre ones. Most Bond films, of course, are just plain the epitome of an over-sized, thoroughly enjoyable, grand movie experience. However, that difficulty of successfully combining real drama with action and adventure is changed for the better with "Skyfall." The film's unique, delicate balance of drama and action--bringing to mind the better, more introspective spy dramas of the Cold Ward-era and Cold War-inspired 1970s, such as "Three Days of the Condor," "The Mackintosh Man," "The Day of the Jackal" and "Marathon Man"--increases the style, class and eloquence quotient of the Bond franchise to another level. The Bond films, of course, have always been classy and eloquent--the production design, set design and art direction, of course, are always of the highest quality, and they are again in "Skyfall"--but when you add a deep, probing, psychological story, backstory and story arch, well, you've just jet-packed yourself to a higher level. There is nothing quite like watching a suspenseful, gripping and rollicking action-adventure story while being additionally thrilled all the while by an equally thrilling and thought-provoking psychological story that invades your brain and your heart. To "Skyfall's" credit, this is exactly what occurs: You're having fun with the action, but you're also concurrently having your heartstrings tugged in various directions. You can easily guess where the drama begins, as hints of the deeper, more psychological, mother-son underpinnings of the relationship between M--once again, elegantly and classily played by Judi Dench--and Bond (Daniel Craig, back as Bond for the third time, following 2006's ambitious but somewhat disappointing "Casino Royale" and 2008's flatly mediocre and overly-grim "Quantum of Solace") have been fluttering around Bond story lines as far back as the four Pierce Brosnan Bond films. The producers and writers, as far back as 1995's "GoldenEye," obviously wanted to add a deeper layer to the M-Bond relationship to give the films some backstory, which is great. And this touching backstory has only increased through the years, through all four Brosnan films and into the first two Craig films. But the relationship has never been examined as thoroughly, smartly--and, once again--so movingly as in "Skyfall." Judi Dench's strong-willed, bull-headed, tough-as-bullets and independent M has always been a substitute mother figure for Bond, who lost his parents at an early age, and here, in "Skyfall," we see the relationship in full bloom, as M and Bond face a host of life challenges together on multiple fronts: age, aging, the downfalls of aging, subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions of retirement or getting out of the field and working behind a desk (every field agent's ultimate career fear), the pitfalls of staying around the espionage party too long, the inevitable battles with bureaucracy and suits and unsympathetic higher-ups who keep looking for the next new, fresh-faced spy or spymaster--and the hazards of time, aging, encroaching middle age--and just-plain growing older. So "Skyfall" takes these most realistic and relatable life experiences--aspects of life that affects every one of us--and expertly weaves them through, as noted, your standard fast-moving, suspenseful action-adventure espionage film that includes all the standard field-kit Bond-film gear: a mysterious and suspenseful cat-and-mouse spy story; a scary, horrible psychotic villain with his own twisted, insane backstory; an internal political governmental battle (battles that the rebellious, authority-taunting and rule-breaking Bond has always fought); a bevy of beautiful women, of course; breathtaking and unique exotic locales that appear to be real and not green-screened or computer-generated; well-staged, well-paced and original action sequences; high-technology gadgetry; twists and turns that extend the story beyond the obvious, providing for some pleasing surprises, mystery and suspense; and deep-rooted espionage, intelligence, field-operative-oriented and mission-oriented spy games that bring you into the weird, wild world of intelligence work. Plus, some very welcome, much-loved, recognizable and traditional Bond elements that you will most pleasingly recognize from various Bond films during the last 50 years. You can see the brilliance of Sam Mendes' direction in various scenes, as the production design, sets and artistic elements are displayed stylishly and elaborately: Colorful, mysterious Asian dragons welcome Bond on a boat as he dramatically enters a dock; scary kimono dragons dangerously pace the pit of an otherwise-stylish high-end casino where everyone wears a tux and evening gown, of course; the crazed villain, Hannibal Lector-like, is kept in a scary prisoner cell; high-tech underground offices are filled with the latest big-screen dazzling computer diagrams; underground tunnels snake under above-ground infrastructures; and underground offices act as intelligence offices, lending an air of secrecy and mystery. Actors are kept in check and no one overdoes their lines or scenes; emotions are normal and mannered and realistic; and touches of humor and romance appear at just the right moments, to balance the action, exposition and drama. That's real directing, and Mendes clearly takes charge here, through and through. "Skyfall's layered, multi-faceted story starts with Bond pursuing a somewhat-mysterious villain who has killed several field agents and stolen a valuable and secretive computer disc that dangerously contains a list of clandestine field agents, their aliases, and their locations. Bond's pursuit of the villain becomes an exciting, breathtaking chase involving motorcycles, trains, cars, gunfights, fist fights and high-technology surveillance that becomes the latest great Bond film opening sequence--a 12-minute series of elaborate and well-coordinated stunts that opens the film in high fashion. And, yes, that subsequent underlying drama makes its entrance during this sequence, too. So you have, again, an opening sequence that is all action-adventure, but also includes the introduction of dramatic elements that will carry the story through the rest of the film. So the opening sequence is not just gratuitous stunt work, but the opening chapter of the story, too. Smart writing, plain and simple. As Bond fights with the villain atop a moving train--yes, we've seen this multiple times through the years, in many films, including at least once before in the Bond series in "Octopussy" (Roger Moore as Bond, 1983) and in the memorable opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989)--fellow field agent Eve (the beautiful and steady Naomie Harris), who has been backing up Bond during Bond's pursuit of the villain, is ordered by M, back at MI6 Headquarters in London, to take a shot, even though it's not clear. M takes a risky chance, balancing the chances of hitting Bond or missing a chance to take out the villain, and thus recover the disc and save the lives of multiple secretive field agents. Eve takes the shot--and the results of M's decision sets in motion the actions and plot devices that forcibly drive the rest of the exciting film. Bond disappears, resurfaces and vows to find the villain, figure out who he's working for, what the motives of the enemy are, recover the disc, and destroy the enemy, at all cost. As Bond undertakes that mission, Dench is suddenly fighting her own office-politics, government-bureaucracy battles back home. As often happens in business, politics and government--and the entertainment industry, alas--newly-installed cubicle-minded intelligence paper-pusher Gareth Mallory (the Liam Neeson-like Ralph Fiennes, always reliable and classy, but with a tough undercurrent) wants M to retire. The disc is gone, agents are dying in the field, Bond is at first gone, and MI6 is under attack, terrorist-style. The strong-willed M is even forced to undergo that most horrible, moronic governmental ritual---to appear before a government oversight hearing to answer stupid questions by people who have no idea what on earth she or her operatives do for a living! It's all a bit too much for M, and she definitely tells Mallory that she will not go quietly, or soon, and she intends to stay in office until the current mess is cleared up and wiped out. Thus Bond, injured and struggling with once-easy physical tests, joins forces with a defiant M being pushed out of office to fight a scary, mysterious enemy that is literally striking at their heart of their operation----conducting terrorist attacks on the mighty MI6, its structures, and its agents. It's a battle royal, and to watch Craig and Dench and Harris, along with the reliable, faithful and likeable Tanner (Rory Kinnear), M's right-hand man, is uplifting and encouraging--and enjoyable. As Dench and Craig expose more emotion, become more human--and are thus more sympathetic and likeable here--you feel for them, you root for them, and you want them to succeed. M and Bond work together in "Skyfall" like never before, and the results are satisfying. They continue to fight the good fight, enduring to smoke out the villain, his boss, and to eliminate the enemy's operations. Along the way, Javier Bardem, bringing to mind his equally-psychotic villain from the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," extravagantly, crazily, and quite insanely, appears as the main villain, Raoul Silva. Again, Silva is not just simply some crazed lunatic hell-bent on taking over the world, causing destruction and gaining power--although he's working on all three. He, too, has his own psychologically-layered background, and that backstory connects directly to the main story. How his story and backstory connect to M and Bond is another sign of clever writing and story construction. And Bardem leaps, dives, jumps full-force into his portrayal of the complex Silva, evoking equal parts insanity, terror, danger, humor--and pathos. Loads and loads of pathos. And other emotional elements, too, adding to the many layers. This, too, is a bravura acting portrayal, elevating what could have been yet another stock villain into something else--a conflicted, angered and tortured human being. The mission takes Bond, Eve, M and other operatives through England, Scotland, Turkey and Shanghai, bringing them to some breathtakingly exotic locales. Perhaps none are as naturally breathtaking as the wide-open, misty and forlorn highlands, or lowlands, of Scotland, all green and brown and country and nature, unspoiled, barren and open. It is here, in Scotland, that the film's various layers, elements, story arches and emotional levels come together. It is here, in the country, where Bond grew up, that everything comes together, for everyone, including Bond's longtime caretaker, Kincade, played subtly and sympathetically by Albert Finney. Here, the ravages of time and age and life are examined, exposed and fought, valiantly, heroically and proudly. As Bond, M, Kincade and Silva battle it out in the final act in the moors of beautiful Scotland, the viewer is reminded of two previous, ominous exchanges--and two examples of the film's consistent, smart, insightful writing. "Age is no guarantee of efficiency," the new Q (Brad Wishaw) suggests to Bond during a spirited exchange at MI6 Headquarters. "And youth is no guarantee of innovation," Bond smartly responds. And during one of those awful, tortuous, political oversight hearings in London, M is equally smartly moved to quote Tennyson's "Ulysses." The introspective, poetic words adequately sum up the themes and messages of this film, "Skyfall," of the Bond series' continuing successful endurance through half a century, and of the spirit of James Bond, and his creator Ian Fleming, to always live and fight another day: Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are... One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. James Bond will return. To live and fight another day.
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In my not-so-humble opinion—don’t even waste your time going to see the muddled, befuddled, confusing, disjointed, at times embarrassingly bad “Cloud Atlas,” an ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful and disappointing, $100 million flop from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. An array of elaborate visual effects and make-up effects—and acting gimmicks--cannot save this story, which tries too hard, takes on too much, and ends up sinking fast from its horribly disconnected, jumpy and wayward storytelling. Although the film tries to tell several generation-jumping stories at the same time, and tries to weave them all together, and tries

CLOUD ATLAS

Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant Directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski

Produced by Grant Hill, Stefan Amdt, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski

Written by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowsk, based on the book of the same name by David Mitchell

to make some mysterious, but unclear, point about reincarnation and rebirth---it’s just not successful on a smart, consistent storytelling level. The stories do not seamlessly connect, the messages and themes are buried under the weight of the project’s lofty goals, and several underlying ugliness, meanness, violent and depressing aspects just sink the entire thing to a below-average level.  I just can’t recommend this film on any level.  I can’t recommend it to science-fiction, fantasy or supernatural fans—because it ends up being unappealing and unsatisfying on all of those levels.To the many people who said David Mitchell’s 2004 book was “unfilmable”----they were right. That said, it’s interesting to note that some folks have ranted and raved about this film, but, guess what?  Good and bad reviews occur with just about every film, even some films considered by most film observers to be classics and standards. It’s part of the process. That obvious bit of film criticism history is only noted in regards to “Cloud Atlas” because this film is one of those confusing, overly-ambitious films that’s going to hoodwink, scam and fool some misguided souls into thinking that it is a good film because of its scope, ambition, broad and complex storytelling, array of actors in different roles (this is not the first time in the history of film that several actors have played several roles in a movie!), length, effects and determination to proceed despite everything stacked against it. It’s that time of film—battle lines will be drawn as to whether it succeeds or not—but in this corner, from this respective perspective, this film is one huge, gigantic, meandering and misguided flop. The problems mainly rest with the disjointed and jumbled storytelling. The Wachowskis and Tykwer—all three produced, directed and wrote the film—try very hard to tell a collection of individual stories and try very hard to connect these stories, and try very hard to make some type of point with all of the stories. However, the stories drag on, several just aren’t that interesting, there’s no depth there—yes, everyone will argue that there’s nothing but depth and it’s about all these things, blah, blah, and, most importantly and most glaringly, the stories simply do not connect and make their attempted points in a clever, interesting, unique, original and intelligent manner. They just don’t. What you do get is a jumpy, jangled, entangled and just messy barrage and bombardment of little individual tales that stretch from the 1930s to the future, that don’t connect, as noted, and generally ramble on far too long. And, in a seemingly desperate attempt to wrap everything up near the end before the next millennium begins, a frenzied attack of jumpy editing, rushed exposition, decreased expectations and long-windedness occurs to finish the stories and get to the end credits so the film could finally end. At about 165 minutes, the film does not justify its length, and the film rambles on far too long. The argument raised by some that if you have not read the book, the film won’t make sense just simply does not cut it—here or for any film in film history. That lame debate is just a sorry, juvenile excuse, is amateurish, and is an offense to the art of film. A film—any film---should stand on its own. A film viewer should not have had to read a source book before viewing a film. The film should stand on its own—point-blank. Anyone who makes any argument to the contrary completely misunderstands the very essences of the book and film mediums. They are different mediums. Sometimes, a book is just a book, and a film is just a film. “Cloud Atlas” has stalwart troupers Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant—good actors all, but not always during all of the scenes of this film—trying their best to earnestly make sense of the various comings and goings. They all turn in what some could or would consider a high-level acting exercise—playing various characters in various time periods with various make-up and costumes and accents.  That’s difficult and ambitious under any circumstances—granted.  It’s a taxing exercise, and not everyone can pull it off—granted. And it takes a foundation of acting experience and knowledge to pull off this trick.  However—and it’s a big however—no matter how many different characters, time periods, rubber and latex and other make-up materials, costumes and accents these actors deliver in “Cloud Atlas,” at times it seems the entire project weighed them down, and their energy seems to deflate about two-thirds of the way through the film. And some of the make-up affects don’t register as anything other than a gimmick. And some of the accents—Hanks’ country-bumpkin, distant-Gump-relative shepherd country accent especially and some of the more absurd future-settings accents—simply don’t succeed at all. Some of the acting seems forced, some of the characterizations fail to register on a big level, and some of the scenes are so poorly-written and campily staged and blocked, the whole thing just falls apart. The story attempts to weave together a collage mish-mash of tales involving characters from the 1930s, the 1970s and the present day—those were directed by Tykwer—and more characters from the 1800s and two periods set in the future—those were directed by the Wachowskis. Although one of the basic points and premises is that the actions of one person could impact the actions of many other people, in small and big ways, and in good and bad ways, and that perhaps there is a touch of reincarnation and spiritual rebirth among people through the ages, the story, again, just is not clever enough to connect everything in a consistently clever, intelligent, interesting or entertaining manner. It doesn’t help that for two hours and 40 minutes, the film constantly jumps back and forth from period to period, character to character, story to story.  The result is a disconnected array of stories that seem to perhaps connect, but perhaps don’t connect.  It’s all too muddled and confusing to seamlessly connect in a satisfying manner.  And, unfortunately, some of the futuristic stories and scenes just come across as campy—but without the intended humor or sarcasm that saves some camp. It’s not presented for laughs, yet some of the futuristic scenes are just laughable, as the acting, costuming and stories themselves fall flat. The problems with “Cloud Atlas” could have been solved easily—the film would have worked better told in a chronological order, with each individual story greatly condensed and shortened, and with less hectic, frenetic and violent editing. A smoother, cleaner, less gritty and more stylishly presented chronological story that started with the earliest period, and then steadily continued through the following periods, ending in the future, would have worked much better. And a two-hour running time would have also worked better. Many of the scenes just simply could have been cut completely, with no loss to the story or the storytelling.  There are those who would argue this, of course—but a story told in a non-complicated, straightforward manner--and chronologically--generally wins out over a tiring back-and-forth, back-and-forth. It’s interesting to note that “Cloud Atlas” is being released soon after the far-better—and successful—“Looper,” which managed to also present a storyline that overlapped different time periods and also included characters that exist in different time periods.  But “Looper” had a very clever story and backstory, and was directed with a steady, suspenseful pace, was interesting, and managed to contemplate similar themes of people during one time affecting people during another time with standard, time-tested and clever science-fiction tenets.  “Looper,” then, works on every level where “Cloud Atlas” fails. The Wachowski siblings (Larry had a sex-change operation, is considered transgender, and now goes by the name Lana) are riding a tricky sliding slope of mediocrity or sub-mediocrity, with the failures of the second and third “Matrix” films (both unnecessary), “V for Vendetta,” “Speed Racer” and now “Cloud Atlas.”   They bring to mind the equally slope-sliding M. Night Shyamalan, who, similarly, started off strong with his first film and then proceeded to spew out some mediocre or below-average fare.  All of them need to take a few steps back from everything, take a few deep breaths—and find a script that tells a real story, in real time, with real people that real people will care about.  Perhaps their next films should be small, low-budgeted, non-fantasy/horror/science-fiction/supernatural, and involve down-to-earth, grounded, normal folks.  The same advice equally applies to Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and J. J. Abrams. The kid-in-a-candy-store approach to moviemaking eventually wears thin, is noticeably juvenile and amateurish, and eventually turns away filmgoers. To paraphrase Casey Kasem, it’s okay to reach for the stars--and the clouds--but it’s also good to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.
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People--fans and filmmakers and writers alike--never tire of time-travel stories--and it's not too difficult to understand this particular area of interest. With seemingly infinite stories to tell and a continually fascinating basic premise at the core of basic time travel stories--just what if you could travel to the future or to the past, and what would the consequences be

LOOPER

Starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano Directed and Written by Rian Johnson

Produced by Ram Bergman and James Stern

from such travel?--the possibilities for new and intriguing stories seems constantly, endlessly fresh, fun, and fascinating. However, as with any genre, time itself--and Hollywood's built-in tendency to over-saturate and over-do everything to the point of nausea and negative backlash--has caused even this entertaining genre to become tired and cliched and overdone through the years--along with every other genre in existence.The key to remaining fresh in any genre is to find new, original and fresh ways to tell the same old stories. That's not easy to do, of course, and that is why, simply, with too many films being produced and too many mediocre and terrible films being produced, most films in every genre today barely rise out of the ordinary--or the sub-ordinary. This isn't new, of course, and this has been the case throughout the history of film. But it bears repeating--often, really--because when a film in a narrow-niche genre--such as time travel science fiction films--actually breaks free of the old mold and suggests something inventive, new and original, it's cause for some level of celebration. This achievement of actual quality occurs all the time in wider-margin genres and categories, of course, but, again, when a quality film rises out of the ordinary and gains some attention in a smaller genre within a genre, attention must be paid. That's the case, fortunately, with "Looper," an entertaining and inventive take on the time-tested (bad puns intended, so brace yourself) and time-worn time travel genre, which rests amid the broader science fiction genre, as it should, since, as far as anyone knows, we simply do not possess in this time and place the actual scientific ability to travel through time. Face it, we all wish we could travel through time, and we all dream about traveling through time--it's a constant wish-fulfillment fantasy that occupies the zeitgeist and the popular culture landscape and our dreams and nightmares all the time. "Looper," to its credit, though, travels far from focusing just solely on such basic,, simple wish-fulfillment dreams, and instead broadens its outlook and creates a hugely-original story and backstory that, yes, plays off the often-dire and confusingly layered consequences of time travel, but also presents an entirely new look at the ways and means that time travel could be used, in the present and in the future. Among "Looper's" several positive advantages is this basic inventive story and backstory, and how the film ultimately plays with this premise and delves into its consequences. Add in some top-notch acting from a top-notch cast of actors all performing at their best amid a dazzling hot streak of recent success, some arresting special and visual effects, a consistently suspenseful tone that keeps you riveted, a wise and thoughtful script that keeps you wondering and thinking about a realm of what-ifs--always a mark of quality science fiction--and, also, at the same time, a well-thought-out and carefully-crafted script that tries to address the various problems associated with time travel from multiple angles, as well as a successful overall combination of science fiction, action, crime, morality and suspense elements, and you have a genre film that breaks free from the cliche pack and runs strongly on its own legs. "Looper," then, is indeed an original take on the time travel genre, and thus a truly original science fiction film at the same time. We simply do not see enough of these today. We see some, of course, but not enough. The original story and backstory that instantly draws the viewer into the world of "Looper" is this: In 2044, time travel has not yet been invented yet, but 30 years past this time, time travel exists. And organized crime bosses--leave it to organized crime bosses--have found a unique, tidy and thoroughly unsettling way to use time travel to their advantage. The mob bosses of the future--as ruthless and cold-hearted and cold-blooded as ever--decide that a great method of disposing of those they wish to dispose of, for whatever reason, is to send these poor souls back in time 30 years, their heads sadly covered in a sackcloth-like hood, and with bars of silver taped to their backs. In the past, in 2044, so-called "loopers," who have been alerted, wait for these victims and, as soon as they appear in 2044--promptly, abruptly, and quickly kill them. The loopers then take the bodies, burn them, and--presto--they've vanished like a dime in a coin trick. There is no trace of the victims, and the mob is satisfied, the loopers get rich with their payments of silver, and everyone's happy--in a criminal, unethical, immoral, time-travel-teasing mob way, of course. The rules for the loopers are simple: instantly kill the victims from the future, do not ever let them go free, and by all means do not anger the mob bosses of the present or the future in any way. Jeff Daniels--a corrupt bad-guy, rough and gruff and unpleasant Jeff Daniels--plays Abe, a present-day mob boss who wearily oversees the loopers and, in a somewhat apocalyptic manner, also oversees everyone and everything in a depressingly run-down and corrupt Kansas City. If you do not follow the few rules set by the mob--yes, you pay a hefty, quite nasty price. And there is one more thing that the loopers simply must do: If and when the future mob sends back a victim--and that victim turns out to the future version of that looper--as bizarre as it may seem, the present-day looper must kill, well, himself, the future version of himself. That is called closing the loop. And the consequences of refusing to close the loop are dire--for everyone. That's intriguing enough, and just watching the set-up first-act scenes, which establish this basic premise, your mind should be rolling forward and backward in a dizzying manner, trying to figure out the myriad consequences of what all of this means for the past, present and future. However, a major glitch in the mob's looper system occurs, and this glitch is what sets the main story in motion: Successful looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). who's about 25 years old, handsome, popular, drives the hottest car around, gets the pretty girls (including ultra-sexy strippers at the best clubs), is a high-life junkie (of some futuristic oddball drug that's consumed in the eyes via eyedroppers, if you can stomach that), and is in relatively good standing with Abe, one day suddenly is face to face with his latest intended victim---the actual older version of himself. Grizzled, rough and macho "old" Joe, steadily and confidently and sturdily portrayed with great gusto by a continually chiseled and barrel-chested Bruce Willis, arrives to escape his handlers from the future. He arrives ready to deal with whatever looper awaits him, and he subsequently overcomes young Joe and escapes into the present day. Young Joe must find and kill old Joe, and the mob, upset with young Joe and desperate to kill old Joe, starts chasing young and old Joe. Meanwhile, young and old Joe and an isolated farm woman who enters their lives, played with equal gusto and grittiness by a striking and buff Emily Blunt, must learn to deal with each other, the mob--and the myriad consequences of their dual existence, their continued existence in general, and what their time travel means to literally everyone on the planet in the present and the future. And giving that basic premise away does absolutely nothing to dilute the fun of the film--the set-up and the back-story foundation are all built up in entertaining methods, and the creation of these dual futuristic worlds--the world of 2044 and of 30 years into the future--are believable and watchable. And the real fun starts when young and old Joe confront each other and embark on a chase against each other and the future. That story, and additional narrative back-story that has to do with how the Joes affect the future, prompt a continually suspenseful and intense tale that moves along at a fast pace for most of the film. Fast, but not too fast, as you have enough time to sit and ponder those ever-present questions about how everything is affected by the time travel. The story makes you constantly question what will happen next, why it will happen, and what that will mean for all of the tangled and confused time-travel storylines. What if they did this? What if they did that? What would change now? What would change in the future? Those eternal time travel questions are posed, again and again, but in ever-original ways in "Looper." As young Joe and old Joe chase each other across the dusty, arid, dry and depressing 2044 Kansas landscape--which suggests a dire, downer and desperate future for everyone--even successful loopers and rich mob bosses--Emily Blunt's Sara, alone and isolated on a farm situated literally smack in the middle of nowhere miles outside of the grittier urban Kansas City, struggles to protect herself, her farm and her young son from the two Joes. Her presence turns out to be pivotal in the story, but that aspect of the tale is better left untold here. And the subsequent interactions between a shotgun-holding Sara, an injured and confused young Joe and a world-weary, wizened and unrelenting old Joe--no matter how confusing the interactions may be at times--are intense in the best ways: three people dealing with the dour consequences of unforgivable time travel, and each of them seeming to not have a chance to fight the changes and cards that each of them has been dealt. Time has been kind to Bruce Willis, and we've now come to expect solid, grounded and experienced performances from this trouper, and his still-youthful presence, patented smirks and macho posturing remain truthful, real and believable--he's not a parody of his younger self, and he remains entirely believable in action sequences. Willis has also achieved, to perfection, that rare quality of maintaining action-star presence, serious-actor chops, humor, a touch of self-parody humor, compassion and even longing, loss, sadness and loneliness--and, really, few actors can really project this odd combination regularly in screen stories. Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Viggo Mortensen and Hugh Jackman are a few contemporaries who manage this, but more actors fail to achieve all these qualities in one singular film. Willis has it down to perfection, and he remains fascinating to watch. Another good example of Willis achieving this type of grand slam was the even more lonely, cast-aside and world-weary John McClane in the excellent and hilarious and action-packed "Live Free or Die Hard," from just five years ago, in 2007. With Old Joe, as with John McClane, Willis takes an action-oriented character and makes him likeable, sympathetic and caring. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of course, has to be riding one of the better hot streaks this year, as he is coming off an excellent performance in the equally-excellent "The Dark Knight Rises," from the summer of 2012, and now he's center stage in "Looper." While to some folks, his acting chops are not as evident, say, as a more experienced Willis or Jeff Daniels, but they are there--his emotions are bottled up deeper and lower, and you have to scan that young face for subtle, quieter tics and emotions. That's the bane of the young, sometimes--those young faces simply can't match the world-weariness in a Willis or Daniels face, but given some time and some good scripts and good stories, those emotions can come out. Gordon-Levitt is given a good story and a good script here, and he lets his character evolve from a young, cocky up-start who seems to rule the world to someone who must deal with increasingly deeper, serious and tragic consequences of his very own actions. This insightful character development--watching young Joe change his outlook, his morals and his very approach to life--adds yet another introspective layer to "Looper." Some might argue that the timing and pacing--and perhaps the story--slow down a bit too much in the drawn-out third act of "Looper," and, to a degree, the timing and pacing actually do start to slow down, but director and writer Rian Johnson ("The Brothers Bloom") seemed to realize that he better do something with the script--and then he does just that. It's this type of assured, self-aware direction, coupled with a conviction that takes the time-travel elements seriously enough to keep the viewer involved and interested, that keeps "Looper" intelligent and smart, and since Johnson wrote the film, you have to give him credit for assured writing as well as confident direction. Although the list of time-travel stories in film, television, books, magazines, short stories and comic books is long and involved, of course, it is possible to just pick a few that "Looper" recalls--and to recall these films are only compliments: Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys," the first three "Terminator" films (in terms of raising questions about the overall consequences of time travel), and, to a degree, Nicholas Meyer's hugely-entertaining "Time After Time" (1979). "12 Monkeys," the Terminator films and "Time After Time," like "Looper," attached highly-original stories and back-stories to their core time travel stories. They all remain above-average time travel science fiction films. And another recollection needs to be added for quality measure: one of the best hours of science fiction in all of television history, Harlan Ellison's superb "The City on the Edge of Forever," an episode from the original "Star Trek" television show that aired in 1967. All of these presented highly-original takes on time travel stories. One pertinent element of any quality time travel story is the moral and ethical questions that arise due to the inherent consequences of the time traveling itself. What are we doing? How will this affect time and history? How will this affect us? What are the ultimate consequences of all of this time and space continuum traveling and altering? What, exactly, or not exactly, will happen to the past, the present and the future because of this tinkering with time and space? These difficult and troubling questions, and the answers, could be literally endless--and they could result in dire consequences for everyone. The characters in "Looper" know this, and they confront this and they fight this--and that does indeed add to the continuing suspense of the film, to its credit. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," the American philosopher George Santayana once said. For anyone in a time travel story, for any of the characters in "Looper," and for anyone considering time travel, those are wise words, indeed, to remember.
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SAVAGES

Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Don Winslow, Shane Salerno, Oliver Stone
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro

Savages, based on Don Winslow’s savvy potboiler on pot-peddling turf wars, revives the old cojones-busting Oliver Stone somewhat. Macho-with-machete violence overkill. Smarty-pants dialogue. Heavy-duty pants-off banging and bonging worthy of a revised Natural Porn Killers tag. In fact, Savages is so happily over-the-top, we get not one drama-in-the-desert finale, but two. Enabling Stone’s stoner excesses are cinematographer Don Mindel’s lovely supersaturated colors and hyperkinetic visuals, and bravura turns by Salma Hayek, John Travolta and Benicio del Toro.

Shane Salerno’s show-offy script mostly succeeds, except for an epic-fail voiceover with a bad case of the cutes. It’s a relief to see Stone step back from his recent clunkers like Wall Street (Money Never Sleeps) and George Bush (W), and return, if not to his Vietnam classics, then at least to the campy mayhem that entertained his fans in the ’80s and ’90s.  Stone gave up cocaine during his cathartic Scarface screen-writing phase, but tales of addiction have defined him on and off camera. The gangster vs gringo/drug angle in Savages has already been explored less exploitatively in films like City Of God, Maria Full of Grace, Amores Perros, and Sin Nombre. Well, we can’t expect moving stories of helpless, humble folk from Stone, or even Pineapple Express’s comedy on hash-rich hedonism, or the docudrama feel of Traffic (Soderberg shares Stone’s anti-narc stance, less controversial than Stone’s pro-FARC one).

What we can expect is larger than life pulp noir that works hard for its R rating. And it does. Think Tarantino without the snark. From their Laguna Beach home nursery, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) grow specialty marijuana and sell the world’s most high-end high. They share pretty blonde Ophelia (Blake Lively) with a bromantic lack of jealousy that is enviable. Ophelia doesn’t care for her Shakespeare’s “bipolar basket case” original, and calls herself O instead. The lissome threesome bliss out on Laguna Bay on sweet afghan kush and toned, tanned tush.

Ben grows his pot strong and his hair long. He “goes all Bono” by using some of his profits to save the Third World. If “Buddhist” Ben is the bleeding heart, “baddist” Chon provides the muscle to their empire. A war-scorched Navy SEAL, he has come back from Afghanistan with no soul, but lots of cash and cannabis seeds. Dennis (John Travolta) is their toke cop on the take. O with her orgasms, Ben with his peace pipe dreams, and Chon with his “wargasms” (one of the film’s many stupid puns) have a good thing going.

Harshing their mellow, to use urban slang (to go with all that prime Pacific-facing real estate, and primed camera-facing male butt), are some Mexican Baja baddies wanting a cut on their “joint venture” (groany pun theirs). The expansionist drug cartel sends a threatening video with Lado (Benicio del Toro) “going all Henry VIII” with mass decapitations, and his colleague (Demian Bichir) refereeing their reefer request in person. Chon finds this too much of “a drag” (double groan), and says, "You want us to eat your shit and call it caviar". The drug boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), watching them on secret camera from Mexico, returns that insult by getting Lado to kidnap O. Ben and Chon choose revenge over ransom, take the help of their computer hacking, money laundering whiz (Emile Hirsch), and a crooked DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta), who plays both sides. What follows is an interesting game of negotiations, fund transfers, consignment blow-ups, torture and counter-kidnappings in a bid to get O back. People are turned against each other.

The seasoned actors do very well here. A thick, balding John Travolta wheedles, bullies, double deals, and still manages to get some sympathy for his two daughters and a wife on chemo. With the Mexican lot, it’s all torture, cheesy hairdos and histrionics. The ruthless black wig-wearing Salma Hayek - now icy, now melodramatic - is perfect as the imperious black widow, Elena, who sometimes has maternal stirrings for O when her own daughter ignores her. With his ridiculous moustachio and pompadour, Benicio del Toro looks the part of Lado, an unhinged sadist that Elena is no longer sure whether to trust. When O protests at prison food, Lado feeds her steak piece by piece with a menacing knife. When O spits at him, he eats it with finger licking relish, and rubs his face all over her hair in a scene that is uncomfortably intimate.

The milksop Californian lead trio are a letdown. Jennifer Lawrence, who showed such intensity in Winter’s Bone, was first cast as O, but had to leave for Hunger Games. Pity. Her replacement, the far from lively Blake Lively, with her lightweight Gossip Girl vibe, makes us wonder if a spoiled girl like O could ever have two lovers. And if she did, if they would go to such lengths to get such a vapid victim back.

Aaron Johnson’s dreamy eyes and dreads are made to fill in for Ben’s peacenik ways. Taylor Kitsch’s hunky body is meant to indicate his battle weary past and his latent aggression. When we think of how convincing Tommy Lee Jones was as a war-singed soldier in Stones’ far more powerful Heaven and Earth, we can only shake our heads.

There is a lot of head-chopping, eye-melting, finger-impaling, kneecap-busting, and brain-splattering in the kitchen, cell, desert and seaside. In keeping with the general violence, the mommy role that Uma Thurman was supposed to have had is now only exists on their cutting floor. In one searing scene, Ben, a pacifist, is forced to set on fire a man he barely knows (Demian Bichir), and his trapped girl friend, O, is made to watch him live from her cell. For all that, Savages isn’t as hypnotic or hard-hitting as recently acclaimed films with similar themes and body counts, like Animal Kingdom (Australia) and Gomorrah (Italy).

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THE DEBT

Director: John Madden

This film was produced in 2010, and although seen at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, is now to be released August 31, 2011. This spy thriller, set in the late 1990s, is the story of three retired Mossad agents who are forced to revisit their 1966 experience of arresting “the Surgeon of Birkenau,” and to bring him to trial. (The surgeon is seemingly based on “The Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele, who had carried out horrible medical experimentation, and as a gynecologist he experimented primarily on women and children—blinding children to change their eye color, for example).

The Debt was directed by John Madden and the three Israeli agents were played by Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer, Ciaran Hinds as David, and Tom Wilkinson as Stefan Gold. Jesper Christensen played Dieter Vogel, the Nazi doctor. Flashbacks play an essential role in this film with Jessica Chastain playing the young Rachel Singer, Marton Csokas as Stefan and Sam Worthington as the young David. (If this is confusing, it was also confusing in the film.) Only Jessica Chastain believably foreshadowed and blended with the older woman played by Mirren.

A week or so ago, one of my daughters asked me if I remembered when the Berlin Wall was erected. I told her I remembered when it was built and when it was torn down. My Father was an Army doctor in Europe in WWII and as a young child, I followed every scrap of news and every newsreel. I added that I had once dated a pilot who flew the Berlin airlift. It was an odd moment for both of us. Later I came to know a number of people who had been in concentration camps or who fled the Nazis.

My point is, I knew these times and such people and they were all marked by their experiences to such an extent that though brave, they never recovered and continually fought darkness, cynicism, and a sense of inevitable tragedy. And despite the inherent drama of this film and the strength of an outstanding brilliant director, and the presence of very talented actors, including the incomparable Helen Mirren, the film was more focused on the twists and turns of plot than conveying a sense of the times or its particular horrors. This is more a story of the impact of one bad decision than that of the impossibility of living their lives intact. There were shocking scenes as when the young woman agent visits the doctor as a patient.

The characters, however, did not carry the sense of extinguished lives that I found so characteristic of the times. And the crisis that they face presents a crisis, but one that paled compared to the challenges this trio had faced down. Protecting the innocent from the irreconcilable horrors and truth of the past seems a luxury. Only Mirren as Rachel conveyed the continual sense of danger and anxiety that might be expected from her history. One man seemed disturbed throughout and eventually ran away and then returned to a tragic end while the other sought to protect his reputation and his career. Almost from the first moment there were scenes and choices that puzzled me. Rachel Singer is first seen listening to her daughter talk about the book she has written about her mother’s service as a Mossad agent. We see clearly the mother’s face bears a square scar and one inevitably watches during the film to see how her face was injured. The scar was too visible, there were excellent plastic surgeons then and surely such a woman would have sought treatment for it. There is a saying that if there is “too much blood” the play or movie loses a tragic sense. This one had “too dramatic a scar.”

On the plus side, the music by Thomas Newman beautifully supported and amplified the story of the film. The last act of the film has its own chilling moments with an outstanding performance by Helen Mirren. The Debt, as it is measured in the film, is paid, but the ending is almost too simple. If you compare this film against the extraordinary 2006 Florian Henchel von Donnersmarck film, “The Lives of Others,” set in the same era, The Debt appears strangely lacking in depth and emotional impact.

 

 

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MAMA

Film Review: MAMA

January 19, 2013 | 0 Comments

[email_link] / Views / MAMADirected by Andy MuschiettiProduced by J. Miles Dale and Barbara MuschiettiExecutive Producer, Guillermo Del ToroWritten by Neil Cross, Andy Muschietti and Barbara MuschiettiStarring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel...

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CINEMA AUDIENCE

Film Review: LES MISÉRABLES

December 19, 2012 | 0 Comments

LES MISÉRABLES Views Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone Adapted from the original stage musical...

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THE HOBBIT

Film Review: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

December 14, 2012 | 0 Comments

Views THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Director: Peter Jackson Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Ken Scott Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa...

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Film Review: LIFE OF PI

November 28, 2012 | 0 Comments

LIFE OF PI Director: Ang Lee Writer: David Magee (screenplay); Yann Martel (novel) Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Ayush Tandon Nobody reading Yann Martel would have imagined that his Booker...

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Film Review: SKYFALL

November 9, 2012 | 0 Comments

[email_link] “Skyfall,” the 23rd film in the Broccoli-family-produced James Bond series, is an intelligent, entertaining, suspenseful, dramatic and, overall, excellent return to form for the enduring 50-year-old series (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, 2012),...

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Film Review: CLOUD ATLAS

October 26, 2012 | 0 Comments

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Film Review: LOOPER

October 5, 2012 | 0 Comments

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Savages

Film Review: SAVAGES

June 6, 2012 | 0 Comments

SAVAGES Director: Oliver StoneWriters: Don Winslow, Shane Salerno, Oliver StoneCast: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro Savages, based on Don Winslow’s savvy potboiler on pot-peddling turf wars, revives...

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THE DEBT

Film Review: THE DEBT

August 31, 2011 | 0 Comments

THE DEBT Director: John Madden This film was produced in 2010, and although seen at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, is now to be released August 31, 2011....

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