guppy's film reviews

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

Year: 2006
Director: Martin Campbell
Notable Actors: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench
Score: B
Summary: Kind of formulaic, but a damn sight better than the last three Bond flicks.

If you haven't heard, Casino Royale is the newest installment -- number twenty-one -- in the James Bond series, the last since Die Another Day four years ago. It's a complete series reboot -- James has just been promoted to 00 agent status and nothing in any of the other movies has happened. It's also set in the modern day, which makes for an unusual starting point for Bond.

Casino Royale also brings us a new Bond, with Daniel Craig replacing four-movie veteran Pierce Brosnan. To my mind this is a good thing; while Brosnan made a good Bond at first in Goldeneye, he seemed less happy in the role with each passing movie. Of course, that leaves the question of whether Craig is a solid replacement. I'm happy to report that he fills the role admirably and with much more charisma than I expected. My only complaint with him is that once or twice I had a hard time hearing what he was saying. Well, that and he looks like an idiot when he's running.

After a brief introduction, we're greeted with an old-style Bond montage opening. Historically, I haven't liked those, but I quite enjoyed this one. A word of caution, however: this is the first Bond movie I caught in a proper theater, so it's possible that I'd have liked the others more if I'd done the same with them.

The movie's plot is slightly convoluted. The first large chunk of the movie is only tangentially relevant, though it does feature a pretty impressive parkour scene. From there we move on to a quick bomb plot at an airport, and then there's a banker or something but I couldn't be much bothered to remember the details since it was totally unimportant.

All of this nonsense is a leadup to a poker game. That's right, a poker game. See, all this stuff about bombs sets the stage for terrorism, that being the watchword, and at the end of the day somebody has to finance all that stuff. In this case, that someone is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant if deranged financier. Whose, uh, eye weeps blood occasionally, not that it matters. He's lost a lot of money as a direct result of the airport business in the early segments, and as a result he is setting up a high-stakes poker game so that he can win the money back. Bond's government arranges his participation due to their obvious interest in Le Chiffre's financing of terrorism. The catch? It's a $10 million buy-in, winner take all, and Bond is playing with British money, which means that if he loses, MI6 has handed a huge terrorist bloc a great deal of money.

Bond is joined by new Bond girl Vesper Lynd (Green) and local contact Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). Lynd is a solid choice as a Bond girl, much better than the past several choices; she is attractive and intelligent, and has some depth, whereas other recent picks have usually maxed out at two of those traits. Green handles her well. I'd also like to recognize Judi Dench's excellent work as M, a role she has filled for the last several movies.

I have to say that Casino Royale is a substantial improvement over the last few Bond films, which ranged from dull to outlandish to downright stupid. No one would be happy with a Bond film that wasn't at least a bit over the top, and we get that here, but the film avoids the almost cartoonish action sequences of the last three. While we do have some of the requisite explosions and all that, they aren't overused as they have been in some other films. The script -- and Craig himself -- make for a grittier Bond experience than we've seen lately. However, it is a bit predictable. I saw several of the major plot devices coming long before they actually occurred, and I expect others will as well, so don't expect any mindboggling twists. The script also suffers from mild schizophrenia, as the movie has a number of segments just barely held together with the main plot, and it likes to jump back and forth between them.

All in all, Casino Royale is a solid update to the Bond franchise and an auspicious start for Craig. It rescues the series from the downward spiral in which it's found itself for the last ten years or so and sends it off in interesting directions, but it is unlikely to replace series fans' favorite films.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Year: 2006
Director: Marc Forster
Notable Actors: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhall
Score: A-
Summary: Easily the most charming film Will Ferrell has ever made. Quirky and very enjoyable; much better than expected.

I've been saying for some time that I'm not really a Will Ferrell fan. Stranger Than Fiction is forcing me to reevaluate that position.

The premise is this: Will Ferrell is Harold Crick, extraordinarily boring IRS auditor. He does everything by the numbers -- literally, as he pretty much counts everything, including number of times he brushes his teeth and the number of steps to his bus stop. His by-the-numbers world is shaken up, however, when he meets -- well, audits -- Ana Pascal (Gyllenhall), a quasi-revolutionary baker.

Here's the twist: Harold is the protagonist in an author's story, and the author plans to kill Harold off. Here's the twist on the twist: Harold is also a real person. (This literary twist forces Harold to consult a literary theory professor for advice.)

This sorta-kinda frame story is where most of the comedy comes in. Crick can hear the narrating voice of the author, although no one else can. Thus, Harold knows that his death is imminent.

That said, the film is really a love story first and a comedy second. Not that the movie isn't funny -- I was laughing throughout the movie. But more often I was smiling at the plot and the characters. Pascal exudes charisma; Crick is... well, okay, he's an incredibly dull person, but it's hard not to like him anyway.

If all this sounds like a strange setup for a movie, you're right. It's very strange. Especially since there's never really an explanation for the writing-about-a-real-person premise. Frankly, though, I prefer the lack of explanation to the hokey, fantastical story that writer Zach Helm would have had to come up with otherwise.

The film isn't the kind of thing I've come to expect from Ferrell, which may explain why I liked it so much. Gone are the deliberately hammy, overly loud phrases that I've associated with Ferrell in the past. He plays the role perfectly with wonderful understatement. The film needs that in order to have a strong anchor and not become another ridiculous comedy.

Stranger Than Fiction probably isn't going to make a showing at the Oscars this year. (Then again, how often do worthwhile films do that?) But it's a very charming film that I think is worth seeing and that I'll probably pick up on DVD when it comes out, and I recommend people go see it.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Year: 2006
Director: Larry Charles
Notable Actors: Sacha Baron Cohen
Score: B+
Summary: Very over the top and sometimes cringe-inducing, but pretty funny.

If you've been living under a rock for the past few weeks, some background: Borat is a personality created by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat Sagdiyev originally appeared as a segment on Cohen's "Da Ali G Show"; he is a fictional TV personality from Kazakhstan, coming to the US to film a documentary on the customs of the country along with producer Azamat Bagatov. However, he gets sidetracked when he sees an episode of Baywatch on his hotel TV and falls in love with Pamela Anderson. The result is a cross-country trip to meet and wed Pamela.

Kazakhstan -- the real one -- was horrified at Cohen's portrayal of their country, and it's easy to see why, as the picture painted is pretty abhorrent. They launched a massive PR campaign to keep people from being frightened off, which is why you've been seeing TV spots about how great Kazakhstan is lately. They felt the need to counteract Cohen's depiction of their customs.

The thing about Borat is that it's filmed as a documentary. Most of the "actors" in Borat have no idea that they're acting. Cohen went completely in-character for the movie, which means that most of the others really thought he was a visiting Kazakhstani filmmaker. That act got him access to a number of places he probably wouldn't have been able to get into otherwise, from a TV studio to an Alabama dinner party.

I only have one real complaint about it. Like the original Borat segments, some of the same jokes tend to resurface. On the whole, though, it stays pretty fresh.

I don't want to go into much detail as the spontaneity is what makes the movie enjoyable; that's going to make for a short review, but I think that's preferable to spoiling chunks of the movie. So all I'll say is this: Borat is pretty good. It's not the best movie I've seen, but I was laughing pretty consistently through most of it.

One other thing I should note: I'm not really a fan of Da Ali G Show. When it's on target, I think it's very funny; it's a too inconsistent to make my A-list, though, including the Borat segments. In contrast, I found Borat consistently entertaining, so if you're not a big Ali G fan, don't let it scare you off from Borat.