December 31, 2006

2006: Best Of

The Best Of 2006: Casino Royale, Children of Men, The Departed, Pan's Labyrinth, and The Prestige.

December 28, 2006

The Good German

goodgermanThe ladies were gathered to see Dreamgirls. I was almost convinced to see this Broadway-adapted Motown-esque pseudo-Supremes musical, but Wesley Morris's two-star review knocked me off the fence at the last second. I would have gone to see The Good Shepherd instead, but it was only playing at 6 (too early) and 9:30 (too late). As a result, Brenda Morris, her in utero twins, and I went to see The Good German while Emily, Eve, Laura, and Ananda saw Dreamgirls.

More of a style exercise than an actual movie, The Good German is Steven Soderbergh's pet project: shot with vintage cameras, lenses, and lights, and mostly confirming to the style of 1940s film noir. The Good German is a hybrid of The Third Man and Casablanca: imagine if Joseph Cotten were trying to uncover the truth about an old lover (Ingrid Bergman) instead of an old friend (Orson Welles). Clooney is Jake Geismer, a war correspondent sent to Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference in 1945. He gets tangled up in intrigue involving an old lover Lena (Cate Blanchett in full 'haunted femme fatale' mode) and her possibly dead husband, a SS officer who the Americans want and the Russians want to keep from the Americans. In true movie detective fashion, he doggedly uncovers truths which the Powers That Be want buried, friends keep warning him that he'll be the next guy who ends up dead if he doesn't watch himself, he gets beat up repeatedly, even earning a conspicuous bandage like Jake Gittes in Chinatown.

Brenda pointed out that Clooney is very well-suited for this kind of movie. I have started to notice that Clooney has a couple of acting tricks which must have worked great on TV, but are starting to wear a little thin. Whenever he needs to look vulnerable, or melancholy, he has one special face he makes, but he only has one, so it's a little old. Blanchett, in her black hair, moany accent, and dark lipstick, is flat and emotion-free. She spends the whole movie slowly walking from room to room, lying about everything. Where's the flashback which demonstrates why Geismer fell for her in the first place? Tobey Maguire, in a important role which ends early in the movie, plays a overly cocky, overly young, hotheaded corporal who gets in over his head.

The plot was appropriately overly convoluted, but then again, does anyone understand the plot of The Big Sleep or Chinatown? In a fatal error of editing, the pacing slowed in the last third of the movie, just when it should have been picking up speed. Maybe Soderbergh is spreading himself a little thin? he directed, produced, shot, and edited this movie, under his own name and two pseudonyms. (AMC Church Street, Harvard Square)

NOTE: Clooney has now acted in six Soderbergh movies: Out Of Sight, Ocean's 11, Solaris, Ocean's 12, The Good German, and Ocean's 13. (Soderbergh and Clooney have worked together, in other capacities, in countless other projects as well.)

December 2, 2006

Casino Royale: Guys Movie Night

A great reboot of the James Bond franchise. I would not have thought that the producers of the 007 movies would take a chance with a major renovation of the cash cow; the four Pierce Brosnan movies have been extremely successful in the US, UK, and especially worldwide. Maybe they noticed that Brosnan was getting old (he's 53 this year) and his four Bond films were getting bigger and more outrageous. It's not clear that Casino Royale's budget was less than Die Another Day, and it was not guaranteed that audiences would come out to see Daniel Craig as James Bond, so could the producers have made the change...for aesthetic reasons? What a bold move!
Casino Royale is a origin story/franchise reboot in the mold of Batman Begins; leaner, darker, younger, and with fewer gimmicks and gadgets. Daniel Craig is the freshly promoted 'double-o' agent James Bond. At the beginning of the movie, he is not the secret agent we know so well from the novels and movies. At first, he makes mistakes. He's not charming or dispassionate. He's not unemotional. He becomes that man over the course of the plot: closely based on Ian Fleming's 1953 novel, banker-to-terrorists Le Chiffre (The Cipher) risks death when his clients find out he has lost their massive cash investment. Out of desperation, Le Chiffre must win a $150 million poker tournament, or he'll be forced to surrender to MI-6 to avoid certain death. Bond must ensure that Le Chiffre doesn't win the tournament.
Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) is cold, calculating, and murderous, but he is not an archenemy like the characters which Doctor Evil parodied so effectively. No secret lair, no alligators or sharks, no world domination, just an evil criminal who stops at nothing to make his money.
One slightly over-familiar trope of the movie is Bond's relationships with his women. There are two Bond girls in this movie: one ends up dead, and the other has a dark secret. Neither is that surprising. French actress Eva Green is excellent as Treasury officer Vesper Lynd (soon to be seen as Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass). Italian actress Caterina Murino is smokin' hot in that red dress! yowza...
The first half of the movie features several top-notch action sequences- a thrilling footchase across a construction site and two cranes, and later, a fight aboard a truck similar to the fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike other Bond movies, Craig plays his fights very effectively. The fights seem real not only because he looks tough enough to dish out the punishment, but he looks like he can take the beatings he receives. The final action sequence, a gun battle in a collapsing Venice manse is way too oversized. It feels like a leftover idea from an old Bond movie.
What's next for James Bond? Why not remake another Fleming novel, perhaps one of the Fleming novels which was made into a forgettable and unpopular Bond movie? By the final shot of the film, Craig is the James Bond we're all eager to see again and again. Here's to hoping that the magic of Casino Royale carries over to the next Bond adventure. (November 18 and December 2, Regal Cinemas Fenway)