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Quantum of Solace (2008)
Great action thriller, lousy Bond movie
Sounds contradictory, I know, but Quantum of Solace is exactly that.
Bond is back and out for revenge. The first Bond movie to be more of a continuation than a sequel, Quantum starts with Bond trying to deliver Mr. White (shot in the last scene of Casino Royale) to M. Of course, he is being chased by men with machine guns. During the interrogation, Mr. White tells M, "The first thing you should know about us is... we have people everywhere." And he means everywhere, including MI-6.
The movie is non-stop action. There's very little drama, and almost no humor. Come to think of it, there's a lot missing from Quantum no vodka martini, no Q, no gun-barrel sequence, and Bond only got one kiss. And somehow, three writers couldn't figure out a way to include the line, "Bond, James Bond."
Yes, this was a great action movie, but it just wasn't a Bond movie.
Reign Over Me (2007)
Moving on after tragedy
The first and so far only fictional movie about 9/11, "Reign Over Me" is about a man who lost his entire family in the WTC attacks.
Dr. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a successful dentist, runs into his old friend Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), whom he hasn't seen in years. Although they were roommates in college and went to dental school together, Charlie doesn't recognize Alan. Charlie lost his entire family in a plane crash, and has become dissociative, shutting out the world and bottling up his feelings. His spends his days riding around Manhattan on his motor scooter, perpetually remodeling his kitchen, and drinking root beer. He spends his nights playing drums in a punk band and seeing Mel Brooks movie marathons.
Meanwhile, Alan's marriage to Jeneane (Jada Pickett Smith) is on the rocks. Although they still love each other, they can't seem to communicate with other. He tells his problems to Angela Oakhurst (Liv Tyler), a psychiatrist who works in his building, always starting with, "I have this friend..."
The references to 9/11 are subtle, and scattered throughout the movie, but it becomes obcious how Charlie's family perished. As Alan and Charlie rekindle their friendship, we learn that Charlie didn't lose his family in just any plane crash. They were on an early-morning flight from Boston to Los Angeles on a sunny Tuesday in September. As they begin to open up to each other, we see Charlie letting down his guard a bit. But he still can't seem to act appropriately.
Music plays an important roll in "Reign Over Me." Charlie shuts the world out by listening to Bruce Springsteen and the Who on his iPod. In one especially emotional scene, Charlie shuts out a trial by screaming the words to the title song.
The movie was shot almost completely at ground level, with few if any overhead shots, which gave me the feeling that I was in the film with the characters. Rounding out the superb cast is Donald Sutherland as the Judge, Saffron Burrows as Alan's patient who wants to give him oral sex, and Melinda Dillon and Robert Klein as Charlie's in-laws.
Sandler and Cheadle are both terrific in their roles, both of which were deep, complex characters. "Reign Over Me" is a powerful film about friendship, moving on, and communication.
I Am Legend (2007)
Will Smith carries the movie
In 2009, Dr. Krippen finds a cure for cancer by mutating a measles virus. Unfortunately, the virus, mutated to attack only cancerous cells, gains a life of its own. It spreads rapidly around the globe, and within three years, 90% of human life is wiped out.
Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a military scientist who is one of 12 million people who were naturally immune to KV. Dr. Neville is the sole survivor in the City of New York. So far as he knows, he and his dog Sam are all that is left of civilization. But he is not alone. The rest of the survivors became zombies, feeding off the healthy survivors.
To ease his loneliness, he sets up a few mannequins across the city so that he has someone to greet as he makes his daily rounds (like Tom Hanks and Wilson in "Cast Away"). He also turned his basement into a lab in which he experiments with rats, trying to find a cure for the virus.
One of the unique aspects of "I Am Legend," compared to other post-apocalypse movies, is the zombies had personalities. The Alpha Male is not only strong and tough, he is also very smart, able to set a trap for Neville and rally hundreds of zombies to fight with him. He was also smart enough to search all parts of Neville's townhouse.
The movie is not without its flaws, but it is much better than the Omega Man. There are some really good scares, and Will Smith was terrific in the lead.
Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
A look into fascism
It is rare to see a movie about how a police state immerses itself into the lives of its citizens, recording every detail of their existence. Many such films show a hero who takes on the establishment, or an villainous officer who moves up in the ranks by destroying people. But "The Lives of Others" tells a very human story from the viewpoint of a Staci officer.
Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is an East German playwright who is surprisingly loyal to the state. Yet his loyalty arouses the suspicion of two Stasi officers, and they accuse him of conspiracy and subversion. So the Stasi assigns Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) to spy on Dreyman and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). The Stasi bugged the apartments and tapped the phone lines of the couple and their friends, and tried to turn one of their friends against them. Wiesler preceded to listen to every conversation they had over the course of five months. Complicating matters is Cultural Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who wants to have Georg arrested so he can have Christa to himself.
But as he listens to the intricate details of the couple's life together, Weisler grows to envy, respect, even like Georg and Christa. His character evolves from a cold robotic bureaucrat to emotional human. Mühe's performance as the Stasi captain is nothing short of brilliant. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in his directorial debut, overlooks no detail as he puts his audience in 1984 GDR.
Far from nostalgic, "The Lives of Others" examines the power of the Stasi and its impact on the people of the GDR.
Arlington Road (1999)
Is your neighbor a terrorist?
"Arlington Road" is one of the scariest thrillers you'll ever see. There are no monsters, no masked chainsaw killers, no man-eating aliens, no children crawling out of TV sets. Just two men: a college professor and his neighbor whom he thinks is a terrorist.
Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a college professor who has devoted his career to studying terrorism. He is a widower; his wife was an FBI agent killed in the line of duty. One evening, he sees a boy staggering in the middle of the street with blood pouring from his arm. He rushes the kid to the hospital, and a few hours later meet the boy's parents, Cheryl and Oliver Lang (Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins).
Michael becomes friends with the family across the street, but soon he begins to suspect something's not right. As he begins to dig into Oliver's mysterious past for information, his suspicions grow into paranoia. But just because he's paranoid doesn't mean that the Langs aren't terrorists.
What is most frightening about "Arlington Road" is its sense of realism. The Langs truly believe they are at war with the Federal Government, and they believe that Michael should be as well. And if you think it can't happen, well, six years ago, I thought that no one could ever fly civilian aircraft into office towers.
Rating note: "Arlington Road"'s R rating is appropriate, but it is just about the mildest R I've ever seen.
Man of the Year (2006)
Stick to comedy
"Man of the Year" is about Letterman-Leno-style comic Tom Dobbs who, on a whim, decides to run for president. So with two months to go until election day, he enters the race as an independent. At first he takes it seriously, talking to audiences about money, education, special interest, and other important issues. Then his manager (Christopher Walken) told him the people expected him to be funny--that's how he got ratings, that's how he'll get votes. So during the debate, he transforms into Robin Williams, turning the election on its ear. His honesty and irreverence captivated the audience... and aggravated the moderator and other candidates. He wins the election.
Or did he? An employee at the company which made the computerized voting machines noticed a glitch in the programming. She talks to the company's executives with it, but they'd rather bury the problem than take a chance hurting the company's reputation. So when she talks about going public, the company begins a smear campaign to silence and/or discredit her.
What could have been a very funny satire about the American two-party electoral system and corporate greed instead it turns into a second rate thriller. It just killed the movie.
The Departed (2006)
"Cops and criminals... What's the difference?" I'm not sure Martin Scorcese knows the difference. I can't believe this trash won anything. It is racist, anti-gay, disgustingly violent, and ridiculously vulgar. But the worst offense: It wasn't even a good movie. I hated just about every single character. Apparently if your movie has enough blood and gore, plenty of bigotry, and has a few hundred different uses of the word "fuck," and still manages to avoid an NC17, you too can win best director and screenplay.
Since Scorcese and Monahan can't tell the difference between cops and criminals, when they need one, I hope they get the other. And since they think firefighters are just a bunch of homos, I hope they're victims of the next terror attack.
That, dear reader, is justice.
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
What journalism used to be
In 1954, television was still a new invention. Few Americans owned one, and those who did had only three or four channels to choose from. It was the time of the Red Scare, of Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, of Edward R. Murrow.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" is not your typical biopic or docudrama. It does not delve into Murrow's childhood or marriage. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his news producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) learn an obscure story of an Air Force Lieutenant who is discharged because his father might have been a Communist. With his commander ("24"'s Glenn Morshower) unwilling or unable to explain his dismissal (one of the contents of a top secret envelope), Murrow and his team take on the ring leader of the Pinko witch hunt, Sen. McCarthy. (And if you don't think it can happen now, visit a university campus or listen to talk radio, and take note of the venom spewed by so-called "experts" who think they have a monopoly on truth.)
Standing in the way is CBS news manager William Paley (Frank Langella), who has to balance his journalists' integrity and freedom with the desires of his sponsor Alcoa. Murrow convinces Paley to let him run his critique of the Senator, mostly by washing his (Paley's) hands of Murrow if it blows up. So on March 9, 1954, Murrow's show "See It Now" used McCarthy's own speeches to show inconsistencies between his words and actions.
A month later, McCarthy appeared on "See It Now," accusing Murrow of being affiliated with the Communist Party. Of course, he had no proof. "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," Murrow says. Viewers responded overwhelmingly against McCarthy. After that, politicians of all stripes openly criticized McCarthy, and McCarthy's career spiraled downward.
Filled with jazz and cigarette smoke and filmed in black & white, "Good Night and Good Luck" brings the viewer back to 1954. Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., and Ray Wise round out the supporting cast with terrific credibility. At only 93 minutes, the movie--which has no sex, no violence, and only one blasphemous swear word--is anything but boring, letting the drama of the time dictate the action.
"Good Night and Good Luck" is less a movie about McCarthyism than it is about courage and journalistic integrity. All journalists, especially those who tripped over themselves to cover OJ Simpson's trial and Anna Nicole Smith's death, and columnists who close their minds to the opinions of others, need to see this movie so they could learn what journalism really is.
V for Vendetta (2005)
Does fascism justify terrorism?
In the near future, after the United States collapses and England is plagued by a biological terror attack, a Christian fundamentalist (John Hurt) is elected chancellor, and immediately enforces Nazi-esquire restrictions and curfews. He creates a propaganda ministry which controls all media, and a secret police called the fingermen.
Evey (Natalie Portman) is an aspiring actress who works as an assistant at the state-run TV station. One night, she is accosted by three fingermen. Out of the shadows comes a mysterious man (Hugo Weaving) wearing a cape and a Guy Fawkes mask, and referring to himself only as V. He is trained in hand-to-hand fighting and speaks poetically and articulately.
The following morning, he attacks the TV station where Evey works. He forces them to play a DVD, in which he explains his admiration for Guy Fawkes, his grievances with the government, and his intention to do what Fawkes failed to accomplish 400 years ago: blow up Parliament. Feeling obligated to help the vigilante who saved her, she helps him escape when the police surround him.
As Evey and V become friends, we learn that her entire family fell victim to the government, as did V. He is not just fighting for the freedom of England, but for his own personal vendetta against those who made him the monster he knows he is.
Stephen Rea is well cast in support as Inspector Finch, assigned to find V and bring him to justice. Hugo Weaving creates a sympathetic vigilante, despite the fact that we never see his face. Natalie Portman is perfect as Evey, the character she famously shaved her head to play.
Many of the themes have been examined before, most obviously in George Orwell's masterpiece "1984," but also in the second "Star Wars" trilogy, in which politician uses a crisis to force himself into the position of a supreme leader. What is new is the dilemma of who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist.
"V for Vendetta" is intelligent and disturbing. The imagery is beautifully artistic, the characters complex and sympathetic, and the future frighteningly Orwellian. The final battle between V and the police is gratuitously violent and unrealistic, but it makes a point: Ideas cannot die and one man can make a difference.
Casino Royale (2006)
A new age, a new Bond
Daniel Craig may be blond, but he is the Bond that Ian Fleming wrote for. He is cold, tough, egotistical, and brutal. From the opening sequence, filmed in black-and-white, shows Bond's first two kills: drowning one after a fistfight in the men's room, shooting the other after emptying his pistol. He does so without mercy, emotion, and smart-ass one-liners.
Craig is the Bond who disregards M's direct orders, breaks into her home, and steals her MI6 passcodes. He shoots up an African embassy to capture a single bomb-maker. He turns down certain sex with a gorgeous Italian model for work. He uses his fists, his gun, and his wits to beat his enemies. No Bond-like gadgets and toys, as Q doesn't even appear, a first since "Dr. No." Even the opening credits show a tougher Bond. Gone are the tasteful silhouettes of nude women, replaced with an image of Bond punching and shooting animated baddies, who bleed clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades.
"Casino Royale" terrific Bond movie - perhaps not the best one, bit easily the best since "Live and Let Die" (1973), and Daniel Craig instantly replaces Pierce Brosnan as the #2 Bond.