196-200: Dr.No, From Russia, Goldfinger, Thunderball, Live Twice

James Bond has never been my so-called thing, but I remember really liking some of these movies as a kid. So with the release of Skyfall, which I did not very much like, I decided to watch all the James Bond movies in chronological order, because also there still are some blank spots in the world’s most favorite secret agent. By now I have watched the first five installments. Here’s in a nutshell what I thought about them.

196: Dr. No

dr-noI had never really finished watching Dr. No. I just didn’t find it all that interesting. And that sentiment didn’t exactly change when I watched it this time. I found it all to be incredibly silly with James Bond being more misogynist than I remembered from earlier viewings. The whole concept of Dr. No sitting on this “cursed” island waiting to exact his punishment on the American space program, all the while being protected by an armored tank disguised as a fire spewing dragon was a little bit too much for me. I have never read any of the Fleming books and I expect them to be just as silly.

197: From Russia with Love

from-russia-with-loveThis is where the real spy series takes off in my opinion. As a direct sequel to Dr. No it handles with the aftermath of everything that transpired in that far off island in the Caribbean. This time the Russians are brought into the mix with some honest to God spying going on. Plus we get trained assassins, great fights and nice gadgets. And we see Bond’s womanizing ways being used against him for the first time. I found From Russia with Love to be a much more mature movie than Dr. No with less silliness and more spy fun.

198: Goldfinger

goldfingerWith Goldfinger the series departs the SPECTRE storyline for a while (because Thunderball was still mired in legal troubles) to pursue Auric Goldfinger and his outlandish henchman Oddjob. Bond has to prevent Goldfinger from robbing Fort Knox in a strange but exhilarating raid on the highly defended facility in Kentucky. There is a lot about Goldfinger that is just as implausible as anything seen in Dr. No, but it bothered me a lot less here. For example, why would Goldfinger keep his most annoying adversary so close while planning the largest robbery in history? Well, probably to be able to utter the iconic line “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!” I had not seen Goldfinger before (except for some of the iconic imagery) and I must say I enjoyed it quite a bit.

199: Thunderball

thunderballWith the success of the first installments it is clear that with Thunderball the production got a little bit out of hand. It starts with Bond’s use of a jetpack to escape a castle to drive off in his trusted Aston Martin. Than a surgically altered pilot hijacks a British airplane with two nuclear bombs on board, crashes it into the ocean where divers remove the bombs and camouflage the airplane. After a run-in with the beautiful Domino Bond is captured and he escapes again. He finds the downed airplane and he discovers a plan to destroys Miami Beach. A huge underwater battle ensues, Bond kills the bad guy and escapes with the girl. Sounds pretty conventional for a Bond movie, right? Yes, if only it didn’t take to looooooooong to get where it is going. I believe the director Terence Young had something to prove after not having directed Goldfinger. The result is a movie that is surely about thirty minutes too long. Also Sean Connery is noticeably getting tired of playing this popular character, which is understandable because he had been churning one of these movie out every year at this point. I found Thunderball anything but a pleasure to watch.

200: You Only Live Twice

you-only-live-twiceWhen I was about ten years old I remember going to a friend’s birthday party where they had rented You Only Live Twice for us to watch. I was hooked from the first frame to the last frame. Rewatching this fifth installment I can certainly see why my ten-year-old self would fall in love with this movie. Space battles, vicious ninja, a volcano lair, a faked death, huge rockets and Little Nellie. What’s not to love? Well, as an adult I didn’t exactly take to You Only Live Twice as I once did. The production is still lavish and inviting, but the story is so full of holes and (even by Bond’s standards) stupidity that it sucked the fun out of it for me. Add to that the ridiculous transformation Bond goes through to become “Japanese” and I was done with You Only Live Twice. I’m sure my kid will live it eventually.

189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead

in-bruges

189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.

cliffhanger

190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.

trouble-with-the-curve

191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.

chernobyl-diaries

192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.

you-instead

193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.

171-173: ParaNorman, Cosmopolis, Skyfall

171: ParaNorman

With ParaNorman, animation company Laika has made themselves a force to be reckoned with. After the flawed, but charming Corpse Bride and the downright awesome Coraline they have shown that they can tackle grown-up while simultaneously entertaining young and old alike. ParaNorman fits perfectly within that description. This story about a young boy who can see the dead wandering around is a touching story about being different and embracing that ways that make us unique and interesting. It goes to places where you never thought it could go. It plays with your expectations and several times gives the audience something to think about. All the while we are treated to beautiful animation, perfect pacing and hilarious comedy. The pacing comes to the for when we are treated to quiet character moments followed by raucous action fun and never do the transitions feel jarring. The comedy is everywhere. From tiny moments between Norman and the ghosts to the zombie invasion in the village that suddenly takes a turn for the unexpected. I loved ParaNorman from start to finish. In fact, I felt this would be a special movie when I watched the first trailer. Highly recommended and a certain contender for my top ten for 2012.

172: Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg is more and more removing himself from the type of movies we have come to know him for. No more body horror for him, but something that resembles psychological horror. Earlier this year I watched A Dangerous Method, which was not a movie I could get behind (for whatever reason). Now it is Cosmopolis, a movie that I want to like so bad, but am having a hard time doing so. Cosmopolis, based on a novel by Don DeLillo, is about a young man who wants nothing more than a haircut. The problem is that his regular barber shop is on the other side of Manhattan and the streets are about to be overrun by protesters who want nothing more than to lynch our hero. This is because he is a very wealthy and successful investment banker and that makes him a prime target for them. On top of all that he sees his empire crumble in front of his eyes during the day. It is a strange journey on which he almost never leaves his limo and meets several people he has conversations with.

I stress this last bit, because most of Cosmopolis consists of conversations of the highest sort. Like A Dangerous Method, you really have to keep your attention with the film or else you will lose chunks of relevant (and sometimes not so relevant) dialogue. I like these kinds of movies where dialogue plays a big part, but it usually takes me a couple of viewings to grasp the whole picture. Can I recommend Cosmopolis? That’s a difficult question. It all depends on your willingness to have your ears do more of the work than your eyes. For the most past I like the direction Cronenberg has been going in the last few years (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are brilliant movies), but I also wish he would once in a while go back to the more outlandish subjects he tackled in movies like The Fly and eXistenZ. Who doesn’t love some freakish body horror every so often?

173: Skyfall

James Bond has never been a slam dunk for me. I can appreciate the action sequences and the strange situations Bond finds himself in on a regular basis. But there always is a nagging resistance in the back of my mind that prevents me from loving these movies the way a lot of other people do. This new incarnation has been up and down for me. I liked Casino Royale, but that was more due to the bold turn the series took. I was stunned that I was incredibly bored by Quantum of Solace. Now we have the third Daniel Craig James Bond movie, titled Skyfall, and it falls somewhere in between these two earlier installments. I liked Skyfall, I truly did, but I constantly got the feeling that we have seen it all before. How many times have we seen a list of secret agents get into the wrong hands? How many times have we seen people hacking into computers to get their way? How many times have we seen the bad guy be captured (willing or not) to hedge some nefarious scheme? It has all been done before. Maybe this is because Bond has been around for fifty years by now and the stories run a little thin after all that time. As a spy thriller there is a lot to like about Skyfall. It is fast paced, funny at times, and full of drama that doesn’t actually involve Bond. As an entry in the Bond continuum I must this is one of the better entries, but as a movie in the free world among other movies I don’t count this as a great movie.

169-170: Tropic Thunder, Lawless

169: Tropic Thunder

Anyone who loves Vietnam war movies (or movies in general) owes it to themselves to watch Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s hilarious spoof. Nothing is safe when Stiller gets his hands on it, it seems. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, the entire movie industry, everything gets its fair share of Stiller’s wrath. Because that’s primarily what Tropic Thunder is about: Stiller venting some cropped up frustration. His frustration with agents (Matthew McConaughey), producers (hilariously despicable Tom Cruise), directors (ever funny Steve Coogan) and most definitely the stars. He doesn’t shield himself from his own wrath. His character is a stupid action star, who decided he wanted an Oscar and played a retarded man in a misguided movie called Simple Jack, for which he is admonished by multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (an obvious jab at Russell Crowe), who himself decided to turn himself into a black man to get ready for his next role. I have watched Tropic Thunder several times now and it doesn’t cease to entertain me. There is so much to love here. So many great lines to quote (“I’m a lead farmer, motherfucker!”). I also recommend everybody to watch the brilliant making of documentary Rain of Madness, a parody of Hearts of Darkness, the fabulous documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. Tropic Thunder is one of those rare comedies that work on many levels: it is incredibly funny, painfully insightful and even surprisingly dramatic at times. I urge everybody to see it.

170: Lawless

John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, was one of my favorite movies from 2009. It showed me that this director was capable of creating a world that is terrifyingly real and menacing. Next he would go on to direct an extraordinary project: a short film based on the video game Red Dead Redemption, coincidentally one of the best video game experiences I have ever had. It is therefore not surprising that I was very anxious to see what Hillcoat would do next. It turned out it would be Lawless, a movie about the infamous Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke), a notorious gang of bootleggers who ran their operation in the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia during the Prohibition. That is, until Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) turned up to clean the area. Supposedly Lawless is based on a true story about these three brothers who used the Prohibition to carve out a niche for themselves. This sounds noble, but in reality they were of course ruthless criminals when push came to shove. So were the law enforcement officials, who didn’t hesitate to crack some skulls to get their point across. Hillcoat doesn’t shy away from the violence these people have to perpetrate and endure and Lawless is because of that not stuff for viewers with a weak stomach. It is all framed beautifully and undeniably the work of a visionary director. There are, however, some holes in the story, but those didn’t really bother me that much. What compelled me were the excellent performances by just about the entire cast. This is by no means Hillcoat’s best movie (I have not yet seen The Proposition), but it is also not the worst movie of the year.

> IMDb

149: God Bless America

Bobcat Goldthwait does not like the current state of American society. And that is an understatement. In Gob Bless America he takes on anything he deems worthy of his ire and, frankly, rightfully so. The world is getting more cynical by the minute, celebrity has become almost an entitlement and something needs to be done about it, maybe not in the way Goldthwait presents his solution, but some form of rebellion against stupidity would be welcome.

Goldthwait tells his story through his hero Frank (Joel Murray), a hardworking honest man who wants nothing more than some peace and quiet. He lives in a small apartment adjacent to a young couple with a newborn child. The baby cries a lot, but that is not the problem. The problem are the parents. When Frank asks them nicely to move their car, because he boxed Frank in, the answer is “Well, you shouldn’t have parked it so close to the other car.” If that doesn’t get your blood boiling after a sleepless night, I don’t know what will.

That is exactly what happens to Frank. When he hears he terminally ill, he decides to take measures into his own hand and teach the world a lesson. This starts with the neighbors, then he goes after some girl from a real-life soap and ultimately to one of those incredibly tedious talent shows. It’s not pretty, but somebody has to do it, right? Along the way he gets help from Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), a teenage girl, who has had enough of her entitled peers. They strike up a friendship based on their mutual hatred for the world. The world needs to know that this type of behavior and entertainment is unacceptable and that we should hold everyone to a higher standard. I agree with this… to a certain agree.

While I can’t condone the types of action Frank takes, I can certainly sympathize. Sometimes you just want to grab hold of some of those people and shake some sense into them. That is the part God Bless America I have no problem with. The problem I have with Goldthwait’s movie is the way he tells his story. There is not enough going on here to keep the vicious tone of the message alive. The plot is very thin and I often got the feeling that Goldthwait is more interested in preaching to the choir than telling a compelling story. Had the movie itself been held to a higher standard the message would have been even more scathing.

> IMDb

140: Mystery Train

Jim Jarmusch #4

The fourth movie in my Jim Jarmusch series is Mystery Train. A step in a different direction for Jarmusch. This time he abandons his black-and-white signature look for a more colorful movie. And colorful doesn’t just apply to the filmstock Jarmusch used, his cast of characters in Mystery Train is also a lot more exuberant than in his previous movies.

In the first part of Mystery Train, called Far From Yokohama, we are introduced to a Japanese couple on holiday in the United States. They are on a train bound for Memphis to walk in the footsteps of Elvis Presley. They visit the famous Sun Studio, home of Stax Records, in a hilarious scene in which the tour guide rattles off her spiel with such conviction that you can’t help but be mesmerized. The look on the faces of the Japanese kids is priceless. This is the hallowed ground they wanted to visit so bad and now they don’t understand a thing that is being said. Now you know how me and my wife felt on holiday in Japan.

Mystery Train consists of two more parts, called A Ghost and Lost in Space, deal with more loss, love, loneliness and to a certain extent crime. Jarmusch paints a picture that takes you on a journey with these people. Like most of Jarmusch’ characters they aren’t here to be judged for their actions. We observe together with Jarmusch and that means the movie isn’t always going to be fast on its feet. Be prepared for this when you watch Mystery Train or any of Jarmusch’ movies, for that matter.

Memphis doesn’t strike me as one of the most bustling cities in the United States, maybe one day it was, but not so much these days. Jarmusch seems to relish the dichotomy of Memphis. On the one hand it is rundown and slightly forgotten, but on the other hand it is still that city that produced such brilliant music throughout the years. It’s the juxtaposition of dream and reality that is at the center of Mystery Train. The streets are moody and dirty as we see so often in Jarmusch’ movies. But once we step into a building we are transported to a more magical, more hopeful surrounding. The clean Sun Studio where dreams were created, the train station that functions as a portal to other worlds, the hotel lobby with its two extraordinary characters which leads to the rooms where dreams are often crushed, but sometimes nourished as well.

The more I think about Mystery Train, the more I want to go back and experience it again. It is not so much about the plot, but more about the journey these characters make to take to get where they are going. It sounds like a cliché as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler used to sing it “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” Well, that is Mystery Train right there. It doesn’t really matter how intricately plotted the movie is, it is very much a Pulp Fiction avant-la-lettre, as long as we get to follow them on they exploits. Maybe on subsequent viewings I will be more engrossed by the story itself, but for now the style is enough for me to recommend this movie to anyone who likes a movie that doesn’t concern itself with hurrying to the next plot point and is more concerned about immersing you in a dreamlike world of Rock ‘n Roll goodness.

> IMDb

124: The Raid: Redemption

I play videogames. I like the pure visceral experience of being in a perilous environment and having to fight your way out of it… all in the comfort of my living room. The most recent game I played was Max Payne 3. An unrelenting orgy of violence, drugs and more violence. It was a great experience, playing this guy who apparently can take everything that is thrown at him and come out of it a hero. The hero being me. I liked it and watching The Raid: Redemption reminded me a lot of playing that game. But is that necessarily a good thing?

The plot for The Raid: Redemption is really, really simple. A squad of police officers (including some rookies) are sent into a building to catch the head of a dangerous criminal organization. The problem, however, is that the entire building is filled with minions of said boss. The officers have to literally fight their way to the top floor by floor encountering numerous enemies along the way. There you have it. Oh, and there is this subplot about corruption and stuff like that, but that is of no consequence. The Redemption part of the title is also not very important and serves only the producers to create more of these movies in the future. Anything that has to do with the plot is to be forgotten. On to the good part of The Raid.

The real star of the show is the insane choreography that is on display here, choreographed by Yayan Ruhian, who plays the evil Mad Dog and Iko Uwais, who plays the hero of The Raid. There are some amazing pieces of martial arts fighting to be found in The Raid: Redemption. From guys ripping each other apart with machetes in a narrow hallway to grandiose fighting in a drug laboratory, everything is thought out so meticulously and shot with such precision that is almost hurts your brain keeping up with it. The choreographers and director Gareth Evans, who is actually from Wales, is so inventive at times that it will take your breath away. For example, when our hero needs to off one of his enemies by the neck, pushes against the wall and makes his adversary land with his neck exposed onto the splinters of a freshly broken door. Astonishing in every single way. There are lots more of these highly imaginative fight moves, all of them shot perfectly to get the most impact. It is obvious that Evans and his cinematographer Matt Flannery know each other very well and it shows. Oh, and the body count is estimated to be around 120 deaths. This total isn’t from me, I was too busy following all the action.

Back to the videogame influence. In videogames, often the lack of plot is excused because of the intense experience people have playing that game. In movies it doesn’t really work that way. I am not the one deciding what happens in The Raid: Redemption with my controller. I am not the one dishing out the punishment on these guys. It is Evans who does that and that makes me a passive spectator. As a spectator I am a lot more demanding of plot than when I am the one kicking butt. There has to be a way to get me involved with these people. Give me a reason why I should care about these guys while they are getting the shit kicked out of them for ninety minutes or more. That’s where I drew the line in The Raid: Redemption. After about forty minutes all the fighting started to blend together and I just didn’t really care anymore. It was only occasionally that my curiosity got the better of me and I really started paying attention again, before losing it again. It was just too much.

Level after level these guys were slaughtered and actually the only thing I could think of were the families of all these evil minions. Of course, that is not at all an issue here, but these guys went into it with such abandon for human life that it only made me sad. I much admit that I don’t watch fighting on television, or go to those fighting events, like MMA. I just don’t enjoy seeing people beating each other up for no apparent reason. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like The Raid: Redemption as much as other people seemed to be doing. I need a good side dish of human interest with my fighting, like in Raging Bull or Rocky. Give me a purpose and I am sure I’ll be liking these movies more. Spectacular, but ultimately hollow and disappointing.

> IMDb