“SPECTRE” (2015) Review

 

“SPECTRE” (2015) Review

Following the release of the 2012 movie, “SKYFALL”, my interest in the James Bond movie franchise had somewhat dropped. This was due to my negative reaction to the movie. In other words, I disliked it. When I learned that Sam Mendes, who had directed “SKYFALL”, would return to direct the franchise’s 24th movie, I did not receive the news very well and paid as little attention to the production of this new movie as possible. But . . . my family has never been able to resist the release of a new James Bond movie. So, we did not hesitate to rush to the theaters when “SPECTRE” hit the movie screens.

Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth; “SPECTRE” involved James Bond’s investigation of the global organization that had ties to the financial terrorist group Quantum, which Bond was pitted against in“CASINO ROYALE” and “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. Before the movie began, Bond had received a posthumous message from the previous “M” (Judi Dench) to The movie began with Bond shadowing a mysterious figure in Mexico City, during the city’s Day of the Dead celebration. He is there to kill an assassin named Marco Sciarra, who is plotting a terrorist attack with two other men. Although Bond manages to kill Sciarra and his two colleagues, he is suspended by the new “M” (Gareth Mallory) for conducting an unauthorized mission. Bond disobeys the latter’s order and continues his mission set by his former boss, by attending Sciarra’s funeral in Rome. There, he not only meets Sciarra’s widow, but also stumbles across a new organization called Spectre with ties to his former nemesis, Quantum; but also one Ernst Stravo Blofeld. While “M” finds himself engaged in a struggle against “C”, the head of the privately financed Joint Intelligence Service, which consists of the recently merged MI5 and MI6, who wants Britain join a global surveillance and intelligence co-operation initiative between nine countries called “Nine Eyes”. However, Bond discovers during his unauthorized investigation of Spectre that the latter might be the instigator of the “Nine Eyes” organization.

I read somewhere that “SPECTRE” was not as well received by filmgoers and some critics as “SKYFALL”. Especially in the United States. I had a few problems with “SPECTRE”. One, director Sam Mendes continued to shoot actor Daniel Craig as if the latter was a male model. I found this annoying in “SKYFALL” and continued to find it annoying in this film. The character Eve Moneypenny was criminally underused in the movie’s final action sequence set in London . . . especially since she was a former field agent. I was not that impressed by the Morocco locations chosen by the movie’s producers. I have seen desert locations in previous Bond movies that looked more attractive . . . including “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”, which was also filmed in that country. I had earlier pointed out Spectre’s ties to Quantum, the organization that Bond had battled against in both “CASINO ROYALE” and “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. However, the movie’s plot also suggested that the Raoul Silva character from “SKYFALL” also had connections to Spectre. Frankly, I found this somewhat of a stretch, considering that the 2012 movie never hinted any such connection to either Spectre or Quantum. In my review of “SKYFALL”, I had pointed out that I found its theme song unmemorable for me. I have to say the same about “Writing’s On the Wall”, this movie’s theme song, which was written and performed by Sam Smith. I would not be able to remember a tune from either movie . . . even if I tried. I have nothing against Léa Seydoux as an actress. But she and star Daniel Craig had very little screen chemistry. Worse, I found their romance rather contrived. There was no real hint of attraction between the two, until the last third of the film, when the pair arrived in Morocco.

Despite these flaws, I still managed to enjoy “SPECTRE” very much. First of all, this movie had a strong narrative with very little plot holes. I also enjoyed how the screenwriters tied the Quantum organization with Spectre. Quantum always seemed to focus more upon financing for warlords like Steven Obanno or military-political figures like General Medrano who needed cash to regain power in a country like Bolivia. It seemed very probable that it would serve as a branch for a terrorist organization like Spectre. In fact, the theme of this entire movie seemed to be about death and ghosts from the past – especially ghosts from Bond’s past interactions with Quantum/Spectre since “CASINO ROYALE” (in other words, Craig’s tenure). The movie’s pre-credit sequence opened with Bond in Mexico City, during the latter’s Day of the Dead celebration. The movie’s opening credits featured images from past villains, along with the late Vesper Lynd and former “M”. I may not have found it memorable, but I am glad to say that the movie’s theme song resonated strongly with the plot. Speaking of which, the screenplay also hinted a past connection between Bond and Spectre’s leader, Blofeld; which adheres rather well to Bond’s orphan past. But what I really enjoyed about “SPECTRE” was that Bond’s search for Marco Sciarra and discovery of the Spectre organization was due to a posthumous message from the former “M”. Apparently, the lady had decided to use Bond to finish what they had started back in “CASINO ROYALE”. How effective of her.

Another aspect of “SPECTRE” that impressed me was the movie’s style . . . especially its cinematography. I may have found the Morocco locations lacking in color, but I must admit that Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography did most of them justice. Well, there were two sequences in which the Morocco locations impressed me. One of them featured the arrival of Bond and leading lady Dr. Madeleine Swann’s arrival in the city of Tangier. I was also impressed by Van Hoytema’s sleek photography of Rome, which was mainly filmed at night. But the one sequence that truly blew my mind was the pre-titled one in Mexico City. Despite being shot with a slight Sepia, the Mexico City sequence was filled with color and real atmosphere. I must admit that Lee Smith’s editing, Thomas Newman’s exciting score and the mind-boggling action greatly added to Van Hoytem’s work. Frankly, I thought it was one of the best shot sequences in the entire Bond franchise.

“SPECTRE” proved to be Daniel Craig’s fourth turn in the role of James Bond. And as usual, he knocked it out of the ballpark. A relative of mine once hinted the suggestion that Craig might be the best actor of all those who have portrayed Bond for EON Productions. I will have to give her comment some thought. But I must admit that he has been consistently spot on in his portrayal of Bond. But in this movie, his penchant (or should I say Craig’s penchant) for dark humor seemed particularly sharp. I stand by my opinion that the chemistry between Craig and his leading lady, Léa Seydoux, did not strike me as particularly warm. But Seydoux was not the first actress in the franchise who lacked any real chemistry with the Bond actor in question. Her penchant for sullen expressions and pouting did not mesh well with Craig’s screen presence. However, I cannot deny that the actress gave a first-rate performance as the guarded Dr. Swann, who turned out to be the daughter of one of Bond’s former enemies – Mr. White from “CASINO ROYALE” and “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. It was nice that the screenwriters explored her character’s own personal demons regarding her father – especially in one scene in which she viewed a video clip of his death.

Of the four (or possibly five) actors who have portrayed Ernst Stravos Blofeld, Christoph Waltz’s interpretation struck me as the most subtle. He did an excellent job of conveying his character’s malice, intelligence and penchant for sadism; while projecting a mask of mild amusement. Ralph Fiennes had a most unusual task as the new “M” and I thought he handled it quite well. His character had already been introduced in “SKYFALL” as Gareth Mallory, head of the Intelligence and Security Committee. But in “SPECTRE”, he had to portray “M” as someone who is new at his job, which has become under threat by “C” of the Joint Intelligence Service and Bond’s penchant for disobeying orders.

Naomie Harris returned as Eve Moneypenny and I found her performance just as entertaining and first-rate as ever. More importantly, her chemistry with Daniel Craig was as strong as it was in the 2012 movie. Another returnee from“SKYFALL” was Ben Whishaw, who continued his entertaining and sardonic performance as MI-6’s Quartermaster, “Q”. Whishaw also had a chance to act out a mild adventure in the Austrian Alps in which “Q” is pursued by SPECTRE agents. Jesper Christensen returned for his third appearance in the movie franchise as Quantum agent, Mr. White. As much as I found his appearances in “CASINO ROYALE” and “QUANTUM OF SOLACE” rather interesting, I was very impressed by his more complex portrayal as the dying former operative, who was willing to cooperate with Bond for the safety of his daughter. It was a treat to see Dave Bautista again, who portrayed SPECTRE assassin, Mr. Hinx. I found his performance effectively menacing and really added a great deal to the movie’s fight scenes. But a part of me felt slightly disappointed that he had only a few lines in the movie, especially since I found his performance in 2014’s “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” so impressive. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Rory Kinnear, Monica Bellucci, Alessandro Cremona and Andrew Scott, who struck me as particularly creepy as the head of the Joint Intelligence Service, “C”.

What else can I say about “SPECTRE”? The movie restored my faith in the Bond movie franchise. Despite some flaws, I enjoyed it so much that I would probably rank it among my top ten Bond movies, thanks to director Sam Mendes, the movie’s screenwriters and a cast led by the always talented Daniel Craig.

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“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

I have never been a major fan of Wes Anderson’s films in the past. Well . . . I take that back. I have never been a fan of his films, with the exception of one – namely 2007’s “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. Perhaps my inability to appreciate most of Anderson’s films was due to my inability to understand his sense of humor . . . or cinematic style. Who knows? However, after viewing “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”, the number of Anderson films of which I became a fan, rose to two.

Written and directed by Anderson, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” is about the adventures of one Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 1930s; and his most trusted friend, a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa. Narrated from a much older Zero, the movie, which was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, begins in the present day in which a teenage girl stares at a monument inside a cemetery, who holds a memoir in her arms, written by a character known as “The Author”. The book narrates a tale in which “the Author” as a younger man visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 Zubrowka. There, he met the hotel’s elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, who eventually tells him how he took ownership of the hotel and why he is unwilling to close it down.

The story shifts to 1932, in which a much younger Zero was one of the hotel’s lobby boys, freshly arrived in Zubrowka as a war refugee. Zero becomes acquainted with Monsieur Gustave H., who is a celebrated concierge known for sexually pleasing some of the hotel’s wealthy guests – namely those who are elderly and romantically desperate. One of Gustave’s guests is the very wealthy Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis. Although Zubrowka is on the verge of war, Gustave becomes more concerned with news that “Madame D” has suddenly died. He and Zero travels across the country to attend her wake and the reading of her will. During the latter, Gustave learns that “Madame D” has bequeathed to him a very valuable painting called “Boy with Apple”. This enrages her family, all of whom hoped to inherit it. Not long after Gustave and Zero’s return to the Grand Budapest Hotel, the former is arrested and imprisoned for the murder of the elderly woman, who had died of strychnine poisoning. Gustave and Zero team up to help the former escape from prison and learn who had framed him for murder.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” not only proved to be very popular with critics, the film also earned four Golden Globe nominations and won one award – Best Film: Musical or Comedy. It also earned nine Academy Awards and won four. Not bad for a comedy about a mid-European concierge in the early 1930s. Did the movie deserved its accolades? In spades. It is the only other Wes Anderson movie I have ever developed a real love for. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. When I first heard about the movie, I did not want to see it. I did not even want to give it a chance. Thank God I did. The movie not only proved to be my favorite Anderson film, it also became one of my favorite 2014 flicks.

Is “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” perfect? For a while, I found myself hard pressed to think of anything about this movie that may have rubbed me the wrong way. I realized there was one thing with which I had a problem – namely the way this movie began. Was it really necessary to star the movie with a young girl staring at a statue of “the Author”, while holding his book? Was it really necessary to have “the Older Author” begin the movie’s narration, before he is replaced by his younger self and the older Zero Moustafa? I realized what Anderson was trying to say. He wanted to convey to movie audiences that M. Gustave and Zero’s story will continue on through the Author’s book and they will never be forgotten. But I cannot help but wonder if Anderson could have conveyed his message without this gimmicky prologue.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” may not be perfect. But I would certainly never describe it as a mediocre or even moderately good film. This movie deserved the Academy Award nominations and wins it earned . . . and many more. It was such a joy to watch it that not even its angst-filled moments could dampen my feelings. Anderson did a superb job of conveying his usual mixture of high comedy, pathos and quixotic touches in this film. Now, one might point out this is the director’s usual style, which makes it nothing new. I would agree, except . . . I believe that Anderson’s usual style perfectly blended with the movie’s 1930s Central European setting. For me, watching “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” seemed like watching an Ernst Lubitsch movie . . . only with profanity and a bit of sexual situations and nudity.

I have only watched a handful of Lubitsch’s movies and cannot recall any real violence or political situations featured in any of his plots. Wait . . . I take that back. His 1942 movie, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” featured strong hints of violence, war and a touch of infidelity. However, I believe Anderson went a little further in his own depictions of war, violence and sex. But this did not harm the movie one bit. After all, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” was released in the early 21st century. Sex and violence is nothing new in today’s films . . . even in highly acclaimed ones. Despite the presence of both in the film, Anderson still managed to infuse a great deal of wit and style into his plot. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Zero’s initial description of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel; and that marvelous sequence in which a fraternal order of Europe’s hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys helped Gustave and Zero evade the police and find the one person who can who can clear Gustave’s name and help him retrieve his legacy from “Madame D”. I especially enjoyed the last sequence. In my eyes, Lubitsch could not have done it any better.

There were other aspects of “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” that enhanced its setting. First of all, I have to give kudos to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for their work on the movie. Stockhausen, who also served as the production designer for the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, did a superb job of reflecting the movie’s two major time periods – Central Europe in the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Pinnock served as the film’s set decorator. Both Stockhausen and Pinnock shared the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Milena Canonero won an Oscar for the film’s costume designs. I have to admit that she deserved. I feel she deserved it, because she did an excellent job of creating costumes not only for the characters, but also their class positions and the movie’s settings. She did not simply resort to re-creating the fashion glamour of the 1930s for the sake of eye candy. Robert Yeoman’s photography for the movie really impressed me. I found it sharp and very atmospheric for the movie’s setting. I can see why he managed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

I was shocked when I learned that Ralph Fiennes failed to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance as M. Gustave. What on earth was the Academy thinking? I can think of at least two actor who were nominated for Best Actor for 2014, who could have been passed over. Gustave is Fiennes’ masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. I never realized he had such a spot-on talent for comedy. And although his Gustave is one of the funniest characters I have seen in recent years, I was also impressed by the touch of pathos he added to the role. Another actor, who I also believe deserved an Oscar nomination was Tony Revolori. Where on earth did Anderson find this kid? Oh yes . . . Southern California. Well . . . Revolori was also superb as the young Zero, who not only proved to be a very devoted employee and friend to M. Gustave, but also a very pragmatic young man. Like Fiennes, Revolori had both an excellent touch for both comedy and pathos. Also, both he and Fiennes proved to have great screen chemistry.

Revolori also shared a solid screen chemistry with actress Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Zero’s lady love, pastry chef Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance made it perfectly clear why Zero and even M. Gustave found Agatha’s sharp-tongue pragmatism very alluring. Another charming performance came from Tilda Swinton, who portrayed one of Gustave’s elderly lovers. It seemed a shamed that Swinton’s appearance was short-lived. I found her portrayal of the wealthy, yet insecure and desperate Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis rather interesting. Adrien Brody gave an interesting performance as Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, Madame Villeneuve’s son. I have never seen Brody portray a villain before. But I must say that I was impressed by the way he effectively portrayed Dmitri as a privileged thug. Willem Dafoe was equally interesting as Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin, J.G. Jopling. And Edward Norton struck me as both funny and scary as The movie also featured first-rate performances from Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and especially Bill Murray as Monsieur Ivan, Gustave’s main contact with the Society of the Crossed Keys. The movie had three narrators – Tom Wilkinson as the Older Author, Jude Law as the Younger Author and F. Murray Abraham as the Older Zero. All three did great jobs, but I noticed that Wilkinson’s time as narrator was very short-lived.

What else can I say about “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”? It is one of the few movies in which its setting truly blended with Wes Anderson’s off-kilter humorous style. The movie not only benefited from great artistry from the crew and superb performances from a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, but also from the creative pen and great direction from Wes Anderson. Now, I am inspired to try my luck with some of his other films again.

“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL” (2011) Review

 

“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL” (2011) Review

Looking back on the “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” franchise, I noticed that a movie seemed to appear every four to six years. There are a few things unique about the latest movie, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL”. One, Paula Wagner did not co-produce the movie with star Tom Cruise. J.J. Abrams, who directed the third film, did. And two, for once the villain’s goal turned out to be a lot different from those in the past three movies. 

Directed by Brad Bird (who was responsible for Disney animation classics, “THE INCREDIBLES” and “RATATOUILLE”),“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL” focused on the efforts of an IMF team led by Ethan Hunt to prevent a nuclear disaster. During a mission to procure the files of a terrorist named “Cobalt”, Ethan and his fellow agents are implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin. The IMF is shut down, causing Ethan’s team and an intelligence analyst named William Brandt to go rogue and clear the organization’s name. In order to do this, they have to find “Cobalt”, a Swedish-born nuclear strategist named Kurt Hendricks, and prevent him from using both a Russian nuclear launch-control device from the Kremlin and the activation codes stolen by an assassin hired by Hendricks to send a nuclear missile to U.S. soil.

“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL” was highly received by both critics and moviegoers after its release. And it is easy to see why. This is a well-written story filled with personal drama, intrigue and great action. In a way,“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL” reminds me of both the 1996 movie that introduced the franchise and the last act of the third film, 2006’s “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III”. In this movie, Ethan Hunt, his immediately colleagues and the entire IMF agency has been disavowed and only Hunt and his three colleagues are in any position to reverse the situation.

Personal drama is introduced in the opening scene that featured the murder of IMF agent Trevor Hathaway, who was romancing one of Ethan’s colleagues – Jane Carter. And the fate of Julia Hunt, Ethan’s bride from the previous film, turns out to have an emotional impact on Brandt, who is revealed to be a former field agent. Intrigue is revealed in scenes that feature the IMF team’s efforts to acquire the nuclear activation codes at a Dubai hotel from the assassin who had killed Hathaway, Brandt’s revelation as a former field agent, and Carter’s efforts to acquire satellite override codes from an Indian telecommunications mogul to prevent Hendricks from launching a nuclear missile.

But if there is one thing that many fans and critics seemed bowled over in “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL” are the actions sequences shot with great style by director Brad Bird. I could write an essay on the exciting sequences that filled the movie. But only two really impressed me. One involved a prolonged fight between Hunt and Hendricks over the launch-control device at an automobile processing plant in Mumbai. But the movie’s pièce de résistance involved the team’s efforts to acquire the nuclear device’s activation codes from the assassin that killed Hathaway. Not only was it filled with intrigue, it involved Hunt scaling the exterior of another high rise, two major fight scenes involving Hunt and Brandt against Hendricks’ men; and Carter against Hathaway’s killer, the assassin Sabine inside a Dubai hotel (filmed at the city’s highest building Burj Khalifa).

Tom Cruise returned for a fourth time as IMF agent, Ethan Hunt. I realize that the actor is not popular with many moviegoers. Personally, I guess I do not care. First of all, I have always believed he was a charismatic and first-rate actor. And his talents were definitely on display in his portrayal of the IMF agent. The cockiness of Cruise’s Hunt from the 1996 film hardly exists anymore. He is now older, wiser and a lot more subtle. Cruise’s Hunt has become a fine wine that has aged with grace.

Simon Pegg returned to portray IMF programmer Benjy Dunn, who has been promoted to field agent. I might as well confess. I found his Benjy slightly annoying in the third film. Pegg’s humor remained intact, but for some reason I found him a lot more funnier and not annoying at all. Paula Patton gave an excellent and passionate performance as IMF agent Jane Carter. Not only did Patton handled the action very well, she did a great job in conveying Jane’s efforts to rein in her desire for revenge against the assassin who murdered her lover and fellow agent. Once again, Jeremy Renner proved what a great actor he is in his portrayal of former IMF agent-turned-analyst William Brandt. I enjoyed how he conveyed Brandt’s fake inexperience in the field and his recollections of the assignment that went wrong – namely the protection of Ethan’s wife, Julia.

I also have to commend Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist’s subtle portrayal of the nuclear strategist, whose extremism led him to kick start a plot to rain a nuclear disaster upon U.S. shores. Unless he was using a stunt double, Nyqvist also impressive in the fight scene between Hunt and Hendricks in Mumbai. Josh Holloway of “LOST” made a brief appearance as the doomed IMF agent, Trevor Hathaway, who was murdered at the beginning of the movie. Holloway did a good job with what little he was given to do. But I must admit that I feel he is unsuited for the silver screen. If he hopes to become a bigger star, I would suggest he stick to television. His presence is more effective in the latter.

If I have one problem with “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL”, it was the villain’s goal – namely to send a nuclear missile to the U.S. According to the script penned by André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, Hendricks’ decision to fire a missile stemmed from a desire to start a nuclear war and initiate the next stage of human evolution. What the hell!This sounds like something from a James Bond movie. In fact, it reminds me of the 1977 movie, “THE SPY WHO LOVED ME”. What on earth made Cruise, Abrams, Bird, and the screenwriters to pursue this cartoonish plotline? I found it so illogical and unlike the goals of the previous villains, who only sought either money or political and career power. I just realized that I have another problem with the movie – namely Michael Giacchino’s handling of the franchise’s theme song, originally written by Lalo Schifrin. Quite frankly, it sucked. I found it just as unmemorable as the adaptations of Schifrin’s score in the past two movies. Only Danny Elfman’s version of the score in the first movie really impressed me.

Despite my misgivings about the villain’s goal in the story and Giacchino’s take on the famous theme song, I really enjoyed “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL”. I enjoyed it so much that it became one of my favorite films of the year. And I hope that the success of this film will lead Cruise and the others to do a fifth film.

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

”ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

When I had first learned that Ridley Scott planned to direct his own version of the Robin Hood legend, I merely responded with a shake of my head. The last thing I wanted to see was another take on the famous English outlaw. But since I was a fan of the director, I decided to give it a chance. 

For years, I had harbored the belief that the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, was the true story myth about the famous outlaw. Imagine my shook when I discovered I had been wrong. One of the featurettes from the movie’s DVD release revealed that there had been numerous versions of the Robin Hood folklore. With that in mind, I found it easy to prepare myself for any version that might appear in Scott’s new movie.

”ROBIN HOOD” opened in the year 1199. Robin Longstride is a common archer who had fought alongside King Richard the Lionheart of England during the Third Crusade. Following the death of Richard during a battle in which the English Army attempted to ransack a French castle; Robin and three other common soldiers – Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlett, and Little John – attempt to return to their homeland after ten years of fighting abroad. Along the way, they come across an ambush of the Royal guard by Sir Godfrey, an English knight with French lineage and allegiance. The King of France had ordered Sir Godfrey to assassinate Richard. Having discovered that the King was already dead, Sir Godfrey is chased off by the arrival of Robin and his companions. Aiming to return to England safely and richer in pocket than they left it, Robin and his men steal the armor of the slain Knights and head for the English ships on the coast under the guise of noblemen. Before leaving the scene of slaughter, Robin promises a dying Knight, Sir Robert Loxley, to return a sword to the man’s father in Nottingham.

Upon arriving in England, Robin (disguised as Loxley) informs the Royal family of the King’s death and witnesses the crowning of King John, Richard’s younger brother. Robin and his companions head to Nottingham, where Loxley’s father, Sir Walter, asks him to continue impersonating his son in order to prevent the family lands being taken by the Crown. Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion, is initially distrustful of Robin, but soon warms to him. But before long, Robin and his friends find themselves swept into England’s political intrigue between the English Northern barons and King John; along with a threat of invasion by the King of France.

I will not deny that ”ROBIN HOOD” has a few problems. If I must be honest, there were three aspects of the film that I either disliked or left me feeling puzzled. One, I did not care for the presence of Lady Marion’s presence on the battlefield between the French invaders and the English defenders. If this was an attempt to make Lady Marion’s character more action-oriented and politically correct, it did not work with me. She did not have any experience as a warrior. Nor did the movie ever made it clear that she had been trained to fight battles or handle weapons of war, like the Éowyn character in the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy. I had no problems with the scene of Marion killing the French officer who tried to rape her. But her presence on that battlefield beneath the White Cliffs of Dover struck me as utterly ridiculous.

I also found the sequence that led to Sir Walter’s revelation that Robin’s father, Thomas Longstride, had earlier led some civil rights movement against the Crown before his death rather irrelevant. Before this revelation, Sir Walter kept hinting that he knew something about Robin. I had suspected that he would reveal that Robin was his illegitimate son or something like that. Considering that Robin seemed determined to protect the Loxleys and take up their cause against King John, I found this revelation about Robin’s father somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. My last problem with”ROBIN HOOD” centered around the movie’s ending. Following the English army’s successful defense against the French, King John reneged on his promise to the English barons that he would sign the Charter of the Forest – a document for constitutional reforms. I had no problems with this turn of events, considering that John resisted signing the document until he added it as a supplement to the Magna Carta, some sixteen to seventeen years later. Unfortunately, in addition to refusing to sign the document, King John also declared Robin Longstride aka Sir Robert Loxley an outlaw. Why? How did the King know about Robin’s true identity in the first place? Who told him? Certainly not the main villain, Sir Godfrey, who died before he could inform John that the real Sir Robert was killed in France. Neither Sir Walter or Lady Marion would have told him. Who did? And why did the King name Robin as an outlaw? Did he decided to make this declaration upon learning that Robin was NOT Sir Robert Loxley? Even if someone could provide answers to my questions, the entire scenario regarding Robin’s status at the end of the film came off as rushed to me.

But despite these misgivings of ”ROBIN HOOD”, I ended up enjoying it very much. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland did a pretty damn good job in portraying the Robin Hood legend from a new and completely fresh point-of-view. Well, perhaps it was not completely fresh. After all, the movie is obviously an origins tale about how one Robin Longstride became “Robin Hood”. I have seen a similar origins tale in the 1991 Kevin Reynolds film, ”ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES”. However, Robin’s origin tale was merely rushed in that film’s first half hour. Scott and Helgeland decided to create a more in-depth story about the outlaw’s origin in this film. In fact, the movie only featured one scene in which Robin and his friends actually participated in an act of theft. It involved the return of grain confiscated by the Crown. I would not be surprised if many had complained about this, considering that it went against the traditional grain of what to expect in a movie about Robin Hood. However, I was too busy enjoying the movie to really care.

Another aspect of ”ROBIN HOOD” that I found very admirable was its complex portrayal of the English Royal Family. Most versions of the Robin Hood tale tend to have conflicting views of the two Royal brothers – Richard and John. John is usually portrayed as a sniveling and greedy prince who resented the reputation of his older brother. And Richard is usually portrayed as the older and noble brother – something of a “straight arrow” type. Scott and Helgeland somewhat skewered these portraits in the movie. Superficially, Richard is portrayed as noble, popular with his men and pure at heart. Yet, a closer look at the monarch revealed him to be avaricious, thin-skinned and somewhat petty. After all, the movie did start with him leading an attack against a French noble’s castle in an attempt to ransack it for riches to add to the Royal coffers. And when Robin Longstride revealed his true feelings about a vicious battle led by Richard in Jeruseleum upon the monarch’s urging, the archer and his friends found themselves locked in a wooden stock during Richard’s last battle. Prince (later King) John is portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man only concerned with his desires and ego. Yet, the second half of the movie also portrayed him as a man willing to fight alongside his men in the defense of England and willing to occasionally listen to good advice. Neither Richard nor John are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. Which I found very satisfying.

In fact, I would go as far to say that ”ROBIN HOOD” is a somewhat complex and tale about the effects of the Third Crusade upon the English Royal Family, its adversarial relationship with France, which ended up lasting for centuries, and the clash between the Crown and the country’s Northern citizens. Mind you, some of these plotlines have popped up in other Robin Hood movies. But Scott and Hegeland managed to weave all of these aspects into the movie’s story with surprising skill. Mind you, they did not achieve this with any perfection, but it turned out to be a lot better than most movies are capable of handling. And all of this culminated in a superbly directed sequence in which King John, Robin and many other Englishmen defended the country’s shores against the invading French. The only aspect that slightly spoiled this scene was the presence of Lady Marion in battle. Some critics have compared this movie unfavorable to the 1938, accusing it of being lifeless and grim. Hmm . . . perhaps they were thinking of another Ridley Scott film. Because ”ROBIN HOOD” struck me as the liveliest film that he has ever directed. It did have its dark moments. But I had no problem with that. Liveliness mixed with some darkness has always appealed to me. I have always had a problem with the lack of darkness in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. It prevented that movie from having an edge of darkness that I usually like to see in an adventure film.

The movie’s technical aspects were superb. I especially have to give kudos John Mathieson for his beautiful photography. I had feared that ”ROBIN HOOD” would end up with a slightly dark look, which could be found in the 1991 Robin Hood film and even in part of ”GLADIATOR”. Mind you, the France sequences did come off as slightly dark. But once Robin and his friends reached England . . . oh my God! The photography was just beautiful. I can think of three scenes that literally blew my mind – the journey up the Thames River to London, Lady Marion and the Loxley hands working in the fields with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing in the background, and the English Army’s journey to the South East coast near Dover. I also enjoyed Janty Yates’ costumes, as well. Were her costumes historically accurate? I have not the foggiest idea. That particular period in history has never been familiar to me.

The acting in ”ROBIN HOOD” was superb. I could say ”of course”, but I have come across movies with an exceptional cast that ended up featuring some pretty bad performances. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about this movie. Russell Crowe was superb as Robin Longstride. His performance was not as flashy as the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or even Patrick Bergin. But I am thankful that it was not, because such a performance would not suit him. His screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett sizzled. I found this surprising, considering that the two actors from Down Under never worked together. Or have they? Anyway, Blanchett was just as superb as Crowe and gave an interesting take on a Lady Marion who was older and more experienced in life than the previous takes on the character. Mark Strong portrayed the traitorous Sir Godfrey. He gave his usual competent performance, but I have to admit that I found nothing exceptional about his performance. One performance that did caught my attention belonged to Oscar Isaac, who gave a complex and interesting portrayal of the young King John.

I also enjoyed Eileen Atkins’ sardonic portrayal of John and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seemed a pity that her role was not that large. I am glad that Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle and especially Kevin Durand got a chance to strut their stuff. Their performances as Robin’s friends – Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle and Little John – really enlivened the film. It helped that Crowe had recruited Doyle for the film, due to the latter’s musical collaboration with the actor. And considering that Crowe, Doyle and Grimes are all musicians as well, I suspect they must have had a merry time with some of the film’s musical interludes. Another performance that enlivened the movie came from Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Lady Marion’s father in-law, Sir Walter Loxley. There seemed to be a constant twinkle in his eyes in most of his scenes that made his presence enjoyable. There was one performance that left me feeling unsatisfied and it belonged to Matthew McFayden’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I am not saying that McFayden gave a poor performance. I am merely saying that his presence was nothing more than a waste of time. McFayden appeared long enough to sneer and make a pass at Lady Marion, attempt to placate the invading French troops in a cowardly manner and express surprise and fear at the first note received from the new “Robin Hood” near the end of the film. Like I said . . . a waste of time.

Considering that ”ROBIN HOOD” did not utilize the usual myth found in other films about the English outlaw, I am not surprised that many would dismiss it as one of Ridley Scott’s lesser films. Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I had a few problems with the movie. But overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it very much . . . considering my initial assumptions about it. Once again, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe failed to disappoint me and delivered a very entertaining film.

 

”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

 

inglourious-basterds

Below is my review of ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, the latest movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantion:

 

”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

I have rather mixed feelings about director Quentin Tarantino’s work. I have not seen all of the movies that he has directed. And of the movies that I have seen, I can name only two or three I would consider favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be his latest – ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, a World War II comedy-melodrama (I do not know how else to describe the movie) about two attempts to assassinate Nazi leader Adolph Hitler during a movie premiere in occupied Paris.

Thinking about ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, it occurred to me that its premise struck a familiar note. It bears a strong resemblance to last year’s ”VALKYRIE”, a thriller about the last attempt to kill Hitler by a group of high-ranking German Army officers. But unlike Bryan Singer’s movie, ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” featured two separate plots to kill Hitler that ended with a particular twist.

In order to present a detailed account of these two accounts, Tarantino divided his story into five chapters. The first chapter introduced Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a notorious S.S. officer known for hunting and finding refugee Jews in Austria and occupied France. He appears at a French dairy farm in search of a missing Jewish family named Dreyfus. After threatening to punish the dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) hiding the family, Landa manages to have them all killed, except for the 18-19 year-old Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes due to Landa lacking bullets in his revolver. Chapter Two opens in early 1944 and introduces U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee hillbilly, who has recruited a group of Jewish-American soldiers to kill and mutilate as many Nazi soldiers they can get their hands on behind enemy lines in occupied France. By the time they have recruited Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a former German soldier set to be punished for killing 13 S.S. soldiers, the “Basterds” have created a reputation as butchers by the German high command.

Shosanna returns to the story in Chapter Three, as the owner of a Parisian movie theater. Her theater is chosen to host the premiere of ”A Nation’s Pride , one of Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) propaganda films about the exploits of a German war hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) . . . after Zoller meets and becomes attracted to Shosanna. The theater owner realizes that the movie premiere is the perfect place for her to get revenge for the deaths of her family and she plots with her lover and projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido) to burn down the theater with the moviegoers locked inside. In Chapter Four, British intelligence learns about the premiere from one of their agents – popular German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and her plans to have the German high command assassinated. They send one of their operatives to France – German speaking Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) – to meet up with the Basterds and von Hammersmark and go along with her assassination plans. Unfortunately, the meeting goes awry due to an encounter with some German soldiers and a Gestapo officer named Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl). Raines and von Hammersmark are forced to make some changes in their assassination plot. Chapter Five featured the movie’s finale as Shosanna’s movie theater, where the two plots to kill Hitler and the Nazi high command weave in a series of revelations, betrayals, death and sacrifice and end with a surprising plot twist.

”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, like some of Tarantino’s films, turned out to be a prime example of how several unconnected subplots merge into one major plot or goal. In the case of this particular movie, the goal to assassinate Hitler and the Nazi high command. I have noticed that in movies like ”PULP FICTION” and ”JACKIE BROWN”, Tarantino likes to use nonlinear storylines. This does not seemed to be the case in ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. In fact, he carefully introduced the characters and the story in a straight, linear fashion in Chapters One to Four. Once the finale unfolded in Chapter Five, Tarantino pulled the rug from under moviegoers with several surprising plot twists that left me reeling. And by the time the last scene ended, only two major characters and a supporting character were left standing. Another aspect about ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” that I found enjoyable was its mixture of humor, drama, suspense and action. Well, most of the action featured massive shootings, a major fire, stabbings, strangulation and mutilation. And the ironic thing is that the percentage of action featured in the film was minor in compare to the number of scenes dominated by dialogue. This should not be surprising, considering that many of Tarantino’s films seemed to feature more dialogue than action. Aside from one or two scenes, this did not bother me at all. I think it had something to do with the fact that I found many of the characters in ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” fascinating.

If there is one thing you can count on a Quentin Tarantino film, it is bound to feature a cast of some interesting characters and performances. I suspect that Lieutenant Aldo Raine will go down as one of my favorite characters portrayed by Brad Pitt. The movie never explained Raine’s dislike and hostility toward the Nazis. But his recruitment speech to his “Basterds” made it clear that he disliked them . . . intensely. He even makes sure that his men know that he expects each of them to take at least 100 Nazi scalps. And he literally means scalps. Also, Pitt did an excellent job of expressing not only Raine’s dislike of the Nazis, but also his ruthlessness, sadism and ornery streak. And as long as I remember this movie, I will always relish Pitt’s Tennessee accent and the way he says ”Nat-sees”. Another performance I will certainly remember is Christoph Waltz’s superb performance as the soft-spoken, yet sinister Waffen-SS-turned-SD officer Colonel Hans Landa. The Nazi officer, known for successfully hunting down refugee Jews, is clearly the movie’s main antagonist, yet watching Waltz portray this guy is a joy to behold. He does not resort to the usual clichés about Nazi characters. Instead, his Landa is a polite, humorous and yet, sadistic man who enjoys putting his victims through psychological torture. His interrogations of the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, Shosanna and even Raine are prime examples of this. Only with Raine, I think he may have met his match. It is not surprising that Waltz received the Best Actor Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, along with a Best Supporting Actor Award for both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

However, Pitt and Waltz are not the only ones who provided some memorable performances. I really enjoyed Mélanie Laurent’s performance as the intense and vengeful Shosanna Dreyfus. Not many critics seemed impressed by her performance, but then Shosanna is not exactly what one would call an in-your-face role. I could also say the same about Diane Kruger’s role as the German-born film star, Bridget von Hammersmark. Her role as the anti-Nazi spy for the British is not as colorful as some of the other roles in the film, but it is certainly more complex and interesting than her performances in the ”NATIONAL TREASURE” movies and ”TROY”. I heard a rumor that Kruger had fought for the role of von Hammersmark. Judging from the way she seemed to relish in her role that seem very obvious. Another low key, yet complex performance came from Daniel Brühl as the war hero-turned film actor Fredrick Zoller. He did an excellent job in conveying a genuine attraction to Shosanna, along with his frustration over her cold attitude toward him. He also seemed embarrassed and slightly ashamed of his heroics that led to the deaths of many American soldiers in Italy. Yet, he loves the celebrity that he has managed to acquire as due to his “war heroics”. I was also impressed by Michael Fassbender as the British intelligence officer, Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who was selected to assist von Hammersmark and the Basterds in the plot to kill Hitler. I enjoyed Fassbender’s sharp performance as the British officer as a suave “George Saunders” type, whose command of the German language is perfect, but not his knowledge of German regional accents. And Til Schweiger was perfect as Hugo Stiglitz, the psychotic German soldier whose dislike of the Nazi regime led him to murder 13 Gestapo officers before joining Raine’s group of “Basterds”. He was hilarious, yet frightening in the Chapter Four sequence that featured von Hammersmark’s rendezvous with his fellow Basterd Corporal Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard ) and Hicox. Schweiger’s struggle to keep his temper and murderous impulses in check during their encounter with Major Hellstrom was fascinating to watch. Apparently actor-writer-producer Eli Roth does not have a great reputation as an actor. Even I could see that he was no great shakes as an actor. Yet, the role of the violent and obnoxious Staff Sergeant Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz seemed to fit him like a glove. Roth did a pretty good job in conveying Donowitz’s funny, yet psychotic nature.

Before one would assume that I consider ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” as an example of cinematic perfection, I must admit there were a few aspects of the film that troubled me. There were moments when the pacing seemed a bit too slow for me. I thought that Tarantino had lingered on the conversation between Colonel Landa and Perrier LaPadite longer than necessary. I suspect that this scene was merely a showcase for Landa’s talents as an investigator and his penchant for psychological sadism. Unfortunately, I found myself longing for it to end before it actually did. Another scene that seemed to stretch longer than necessary featured Bridget von Hammersmark’s meeting with Hicox and two of the Basterds inside a tavern in Chapter Four. The scene began with the actress engaged in a guessing game with German soldiers celebrating the birth of one of their colleagues’ son. In fact, the actress is forced to play this same game with Major Hellstrom, Hicox and the Basterds when the Gestapo officer insists upon remaining at their table. Now, I realize that the presence of the German soldiers played a major role in Chapter Four. But honestly . . . I found the game a bore and thought it dragged the scene.

My last quibble centered around Lieutenant Raine’s men – the “Basterds”. Aside from Hugo Stiglitz and Donny Donowitz, we never really got a chance to really know the Basterds. Most of them were given brief spotlights, but not enough to really satisfy me. After all, the movie is named after their group. Of the other “Basterds” – Wilhelm Wicki, Smithson Utivich, Omar Ulmer, Gerold Hirschberg, Andy Kagan, Michael Zimmerman, and Simon Sakowitz – at least three of them were given brief spotlights. And Tarantino never revealed what happened to the rest of them. I also understand that Tarantino had attempted to recruit Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone to create the movie’s score. The composer rejected the offer, due to the film’s sped-up production schedule. Instead, Tarantino utilized some of Morricone’s tracks from previous films into the movie’s soundtrack. I only hope that Tarantino did this with the composer’s permission.

As for the technical aspects of ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, I believe that Tarantino did a solid job in consolidating the cinematography, production designs, costume designs, and special effects to create a first-rate movie. But I must admit that I found myself especially impressed by Tarantino’s own script that featured a straight, linear story that concluded in a very surprising manner. I was also very impressed by the visual effects supervised by Gregory D. Liegey and Viktor Muller . . . especially during the final sequence that featured the movie premiere.

I might as well say it . . . I really enjoyed ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. It is one of the very few movies I have really enjoyed in 2009.  It made the list for my ten favorite movies for that year.  It also featured an excellent story with some surprising twists and a superb international cast led by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent. And considering my mixed views on Tarantino’s body of work that has to be saying something. Hell, I have already seen it at least five or six times by now.