Tag: daniel craig

Knives Out


Knives Out (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The funny thing is, for a whodunit picture, it is not difficult to figure out the person, or persons, responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist who has so much wealth, his grown children cannot help but to act like vultures even before his barely cold body is in the ground. Needless to say, it is also not at all a challenge to determine the motive for the murder. The joy, however, is embedded in the question of how. The answers are so specific and executed with so much vitality that when they are revealed eventually, they kind of just take your breath away. This is the writer-director Rian Johnson that I know, the mind behind inspired works like “Brick” and “Looper.” He is in top form here.

Funnier still is that the more I tried to answer the questions using only my brain, substantive solutions prove to become more elusive. Therein lies its source of enjoyment: Because Johnson is aware that we will approach the puzzle in this manner, he must create enough kinks in the screenplay that upends our expectations. It seems we are dealing with an ordinary mystery—and in plenty of ways it is—but it is far more self-aware than it purports itself to be. Even those most experienced with mystery stories are likely to have a ball with this.

We are introduced to a slew of colorful characters with abrasive personalities—every one of them suspicious. There is, of course, Harlan’s children: eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who found success in the real estate business and youngest Walt (Michael Shannon) who functions as the acting CEO of his father’s publishing company. The middle child, Neil, passed away years prior, but his spouse Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru, remains highly connected to the family. The expertly paced initial interview shows us three facts: 1) their relationship with the deceased is strained but complex, 2) they are capable of lying—even though they may not be very good at it, and 3) they are hardwired to protect the family legacy. Putting on a successful front is an absolute must; when it is threatened, they react as though it is a national calamity. Clearly, these people, including their offsprings (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), are born and bred in privilege. It is the only lifestyle they know.

The investigation is led by Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and he is supported by private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). I wished the former had more of the central role in the case despite the latter’s sterling reputation as an investigator. I did not get a definitive impression of how Elliot thinks, specifically his style of deduction. It would have been preferred to show the duo working together, even clashing on occasion. Blanc, on the other hand, is full of personality. He is attentive, quick-witted, and amusing in the way he underplays his dry sense of humor. When he speaks, it is often to make a point. And when he is silent, well, he remains a presence. He is the type of person with whom you wish to know his take. Craig plays Blanc with gusto, charm, and urgency. It is one of his more memorable roles in a while.

Another crucial piece of the mystery involves Harlan’s nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas). From a Latin immigrant family, she is our conduit to the Thrombey’s posh bubble. The script is peppered with timely social commentary in regards to how white folks of privilege tend to look down on ethnic minority groups by way of kind words and actions. “You’re almost like a part of this family.” We are meant to cringe and feel uncomfortable. And laugh, too, at its honesty.

The intelligently written and thoroughly entertaining “Knives Out” never betrays the audience despite numerous high-stake left turns. It invites the viewers to look closely, to recognize possible red herrings, to understand how characters think and predict how they might respond. We hang onto every line because a clue may be lodged in there.

Spectre


Spectre (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

After an unsanctioned mission in Mexico which resulted in a catastrophe during a crowded national holiday celebration, M (Ralph Fiennes) orders Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) from participating in any future assignments—active indefinitely. Unbeknownst to his superior, however, Bond is partaking on a different mission altogether—a more personal mission—out of respect for his former handler (Judi Dench) which involves an international organization believed to be involved in recent targeted terror attacks.

“Spectre,” directed by Sam Mendes, is a less polished Bond picture, certainly less emotionally involving, and more interested in tying together the three films that came before it. Thus, at times it comes across as though it is suffering from an identity crisis. And yet despite this shortcoming, it remains a solid action picture since it commands highly watchable, thrilling, and occasionally creative sequences.

The pre-opening credits sequence is an obvious standout. Notice the control from behind the camera as it sashays between celebratory crowds while remaining focus on Bond and his partner, through a posh hotel, up a lift, and along the rooftop. Tension is slowly generated as we wait for the movement to stop. Even though we have little idea in regards to Bond’s mission, the entire sequence demands full attention. The tight editing ensures that we blink—and flinch—as few times as possible.

Equally strong is the night car chase in the streets of Rome. This chase serves as the catharsis after a mysterious business meeting that concludes in a brutal murder. Complaints are surely going to be made because the expensive and stunning cars appear to not go very fast. But the suspense and thrills do not go hand-in-hand with speed. Instead, these are correlated with the sudden turns and the unexpected hindrances along the way. It shows our protagonist’s ability to think quickly—and the sheer luck critical to propel him forward.

One feels the heft of the film’s one hundred fifty minutes. Part of the issue is the dialogue. There is often a lack of complexity in the exchanges. We already know that the characters are highly intelligent and yet there are a handful of scenes, particularly those that involve Bond and Dr. Swann (Léa Seydoux), that sound too expository. Problematic, too, are the exchanges between Bond and the leader of the Spectre organization (Christoph Waltz). We expect every look and every word given to one another to be incendiary given the supposedly profound history that ties them together. I found the charade to be pedestrian.

Slightly better are the exchanges between M and C (Andrew Scott), the latter working to close down the MI6’s 00 program. The seething anger and annoyance between the two men of power is quite entertaining. It is a small but welcome surprise that there are a number of moments where office politics outshine what goes on in the field. However, although they are given their moments, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), M’s secretary and the head of MI6’s research and development, respectively, are not used enough. Harris and Whishaw are so charming but the screenplay fails to make the audience love their characters even more.

Unspectacular but still solid, there are a handful of sequences to recommend in “Spectre.” The mano a mano aboard a moving train quickly comes to mind. If the screenplay had undergone more alterations such as eliminating the expository chunks in the middle (and one or two monologues) or changing them in order to amp up the intrigue—especially when it comes to the shadowy organization of interest—it would have been a level above more satisfying.

Dream House


Dream House (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) resigned from his job as a book editor to live in New Ashford with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and children (Taylor Geare, Claire Geare). Libby is confident that they will be happy in their new home because Will can begin writing his novel and spend more time with his daughters. Unbeknownst to Will and Libby, the house has a history. Just five years ago, the previous occupants were murdered and the community still fears that the killer will return. Not one of them dares to tell or warn either the husband or wife about what they know.

The most frustrating decision that “Dream House,” directed by Jim Sheridan, commits is pulling the rug from under our feet halfway through. But since the peripheral details are brainless, slow, and nonsensical, one gets the feeling that the twist is applied not to progress the plot but to trick us into believing that the screenplay is smart all along.

The revelation is thrown onto our laps too late. The sheer exhaustion of having to endure the characters consistently behaving as if they were stuck in an badly written and directed horror movie, despite what could have been an effective twist, has permeated through our minds and bodies. It is beyond redemption. For example, when Libby sees a person hiding behind a tree from their well-lit kitchen, Will has to run outside to confront the man without any weapon. Libby, meanwhile, runs after her husband after she struggles to put her boots on. The only payoff involves Will stepping on loose ice next to a stream. He yells out in frustration. It is supposed to be suspenseful but I found myself laughing at the ridiculousness of the scene.

Over time, I began to feel like the picture was simply allowing the minutes to trickle away. Will investigates the small town’s secret by talking to Ann (Naomi Watts), the divorced woman across the street with a very angry—not to mention very broke—ex-husband (Marton Csokas) and visiting psychiatric safe houses while sporting a nice coat. I wondered why Will does not choose to save time and energy by logging on the internet and researching what happened in their new residence. The lack of common sense is astounding.

Perhaps it might have been more forgivable if the screenplay had been clear about when the story is taking place. There is one scene where Libby notices a height tally with dates next to them but it could’ve been from people who owned the house prior to the murdered family. As we supposed to assume that the previous family were the only occupants that ever lived in that house? Is this movie made for people who cannot think outside the box?

As the film becomes more vague and repetitive, Will coming and going to and from the house with each of his visit looking more confused than before, I just stopped caring. If the filmmakers actually cared or wanted us to care, they would have put more energy in the way big and small revelations played out. Based on the screenplay David Loucka, “Dream House” is like watching a dream you can’t wake up from. The first thing I thought about the second it ended was how great Craig looked in sweat pants.

Skyfall


Skyfall (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two MI6 agents lie dead on the floor while the third sits on a chair as he bleeds to death. The item of interest, a hard drive which contains the identities of NATO agents currently immersed in undercover work among terrorist organizations, is taken from a laptop just minutes before. M (Judi Dench) insists that James Bond (Daniel Craig) retrieve the item at all costs. A failure in Turkey means putting lives at risk as well as a justified questioning of the effectiveness of MI6’s current leadership.

“Skyfall,” written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, is a concerto of thrills and suspense in which the highly destructive action sequences balances with nuanced, smart, and playful dialogue. The film has a flair for presentation which makes its individual scenes both a sight to behold and an enveloping experience. It understands the value of range and how to utilize its techniques with efficiency.

Take the scenes set in Shanghai in which the visuals point to excess. The skyscrapers are majestic under the heavy shade of night with their lights so bright and hypnotic, it is like being dropped in the middle of downtown Las Vegas on acid, so much to see and digest while the camera teases, only giving us glimpses of its beauty. On the other hand, scenes set in a casino in Macau provide us a smaller scope without sacrificing the elegance and grandeur of the place. As it should be, each destination that 007 visits has something special and memorable for its audience so we feel excited at the thought of what it might offer in the following exotic locale.

Despite the glitz and glamour, the goals that need to be fulfilled are always clear. Once the assignment is met with success or failure, it is onto the next scene, unpredictable at times in whether the screenplay is going to increase the ante by introducing yet another drop of complexity or giving us two seconds to release the tension that has accumulated in our bodies via a well-placed joke or banter. Bond’s interactions with the brainy Q (Ben Whishaw), effeminate but dangerous Silva (Javier Bardem), and inexperienced but determined Eve (Naomie Harris) are so enjoyable, I wished their conversations are longer. By playing with our expectations, not simply focusing on making the action scenes bigger and louder, the picture jolts our brains from going on autopilot, just waiting to be entertained.

Notice that there is not one completely original action sequence and yet all of them work because it is able to draw inspiration from the game-changers and construct the stunts in a such a way that it feels fresh to this universe, from an appropriate number of beats between uncomfortable silence and utter chaos to specific shots cheeky enough to remind us that Bond remains a legend and an inspiration because he is the epitome of a debonair man in a timeless suit.

Perhaps most importantly, Sam Mendes, the director, plays upon his strengths as a filmmaker whose work is mostly rooted in intimate drama. Most interesting being that as the film slinks toward its third act, it has a feeling of something personal at stake for Bond. While he remains a cool-headed professional, the difficult, almost inescapably desperate, circumstances remind us that even though he is trained to be as tough as steel, as calculating as an apex predator, and as cold-hearted as a bullet set on a specific trajectory, there remains a humanity in him. While Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” gave us a Bond with emotional fragility, Mendes’ “Skyfall” is a fitting complement because it gives us a Bond with depth and physical vulnerability.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist for the “Millennium” magazine, had just been ordered by the courts to pay Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) of an amount that would almost render him bankrupt as remuneration for libel. Meanwhile, Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), one of the most successful businessmen in the country, received yet another picture of a flower from his niece’s killer. Aware of Mikael’s financial situation and public embarrassment, Henrick contacted the journalist for a job involving a bit of investigating and hopefully solving a crime that happened forty years ago. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, the cold detachment of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” seeped through the pores of every frame yet the screenplay by Steven Zaillian found a way for us to care about Mikael and his eventual partner in solving the mystery, the magnetic and enigmatic Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). There was something great at stake for the both of them. Henrick claimed that, by the end of the investigation, he would give Mikael hard evidence that would lead to his exoneration while Lisbeth was driven by her need to catch a man who had gotten away with sexually molesting and killing women in cold blood. As they became closer to the identity of the killer, the film’s mood felt more portentous and menacing, reflected by more intense winter storms and increasingly sparse score. I was most fascinated with the scenes dedicated to Mikael asking the Vanger family (Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Geraldine Jame) all sorts of questions about what happened or what they thought happened to Harriet. Despite the picture not having a lot of obvious chase scenes, there was an adrenaline rush because the chase took place in our minds. We looked at the suspects and ascertained the discrepancies among the pictures provided by Henrick, what the family members had to say about the matter, and how they reacted when certain questions moved toward a more sensitive subject. Watching Mikael inch toward a conclusion was like observing a doctor touching his patient ever so carefully and finding his way to the parts that hurt. We also had a chance to see why Lisbeth was the perfect partner for Mikael. She had her share of difficulties like having to report to an unethical guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), using our heroine for sexual favors every time she needed money. Despite being declared as incompetent to live on her own by the state, Lisbeth was very smart and calculating. She was more than capable of extricating herself from a man who thought he could get away with illicit and immoral activities because he was in a position of power. With Craig’s world-weary, humiliated gaze and Mara’s unpredictable bursts of intense anger, the picture was effective as a procedural and a character-driven work. But what I admired most about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher, was its courage in taking the liberty to slightly deviate from the original film for the sake of being a better movie. For instance, compared to “Män som hatar kvinnor,” directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the ending that this version offered provided more insight on how tough and lonely it was to be in Lisbeth’s leather jacket while luring us to wonder what would happen next.

The Adventures of Tintin


The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), a journalist with an appetite for adventure, recently purchased a model of The Unicorn, an ill-destined 17th century ship built during the reign of Charles II, for a meager price. It was believed to have been carrying a secret cargo when the ship, led by Sir Francis Haddock, was ambushed by greedy pirates. Unaware that there was a scroll hidden in its mast, Tintin left the model unattended and was purloined by the henchmen of Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a mysterious gentleman convinced that the piece of paper held a clue to the location of great treasures. Based on the comic books by Hergé, the film embraced a high-octane energy similar to the “Indiana Jones” series. The way one action sequence led up to another, guided by John Williams’ uplifting and suspenseful score, felt natural and I was impressed to have been lured each time. I was particularly drawn to the Wire Fox Terrier, Tintin’s best companion named Snowy, and the way the camera glided with him when he was compelled to rescue his master from dangerous situations. The comedy entered the equation when, like most dogs, Snowy was tempted by food instead of focusing on the mission at hand. The style of animation was quite astonishing. Battles occurred on land, air, and sea and each offered something unique relative to the challenges presented depending on the environment, our protagonists’ level of fatigue, and the bad guys’ aptitude for violence. Moreover, it was surprisingly confident in presenting certain realities. At one point, a man who knocked on Tintin’s door to warn him of the danger he was about to be thrusted into was bombarded by about a dozen bullets. For an animated film targeted for kids, I felt somewhat uneasy when it showed the man’s ravaged body hitting the floor, leaving clues using his blood, and gasping for his last breath. I admired that the screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish made room for some darkness. It elevated the material from what could have been a silly treasure hunt to something with history and gravity. But unlike the “Indiana Jones” series, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, did not have great emotional payoffs. While there were emotional peaks like when Tintin and Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the last descendant of The Unicorn’s captain, struggled to find a way to survive a plane crash, the treasure was exactly as we envisioned. It was too literal and bereft of implications, uncharacteristic of Spielberg’s work. I wanted to be more surprised about the content of the treasure and what it meant not only to acquire it but to keep it. Perchance there was a reason why it remained hidden for so long. After it was revealed, I didn’t feel as though evading bullets, being lost at sea, and almost getting decapitated was worth it. The final scene “The Adventures of Tintin” left more to be desired in a negative way. The journey didn’t feel complete due to a lack of closure. I felt as though the screenwriters wanted to end the story, but they couldn’t find a way to capture the essence in turning the last page of a great adventure.

Cowboys & Aliens


Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) woke up in the middle of the desert unable to remember anything prior to his collapse, not even his name. In a state of confusion, he looked at his left arm and there was a bulky bracelet around it. Despite its imposing appearance, it seemed harmless enough. So, he made his way to Absolution, a mining town, its economy depended on Woodrow Dolarhyde’s cattle business (Harrison Ford). The residents feared him greatly so they allowed his son, Percy (Paul Dano), to act like a fool and bully others. But not Jake. When Percy pulled a gun on the amnesiac, the young man was greeted with a knee in the groin. Later, when Jake and Woodrow met to settle an old score, spaceships flew over Absolution, fired destructive laser beams, and kidnapped select citizens. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, “Cowboys & Aliens,” was a somnolent lullaby despite the staccato of horses’ hooves, swooshing Indian arrows, and thundering explosions followed by beautiful hovering dust. When certain characters met their demise, usually induced by the aliens’ sharp claws, I felt no emotion toward the person struggling for his last breath. This was because the characters were not given enough depth. More time was dedicated to the characters riding horses, squinting at something from a distance, and arguing which was the best course of action in order to track down the extraterrestrial base. The script didn’t help the otherwise good actors who were very capable of embodying heroes we could root for despite forcefully convenient plot devices. Jake and Woodrow were motivated by very different things which was appropriate considering that each figure symbolized a different type of hero in the American Old West. The former wanted to know the truth about who he was while the latter hoped to rescue his only son, internal and external motivations. Yet when the two interacted, the dialogue was so egregious, it sounded like Jake and Woodrow were not really speaking to each other but through one another. Jake’s stoicism and Woodrow’s irascibility became exasperating. I wondered what else the material had to offer, if any, and when, or if, the sluggish pacing would eventually pick up and get the adventure going (or started). Furthermore, the aliens were not very interesting villains. They landed on Earth to look for gold and extract them. Did they need the metal for food, as fertilizer to sustain their dying planet, or was it some kind of a panacea for their diseased or dying comrades? We weren’t given the exact details. But why not? I don’t know if the original material offered a reason, but even if it did not, that was no excuse. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Jake began to have feelings for Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman who seemed to know Jake’s history. Their feelings for each other poisoned the movie. Not only did their relationship not make any sense, their scenes together took away time from possible explanations about the aliens. This was another example of using romance to band-aid holes in the story that ought to be dealt with directly and astutely. “Cowboys and Aliens,” directed by Jon Favreau, was a failed mash-up of the western and science-fiction genres. It offered no magic nor a sense of adventure.

Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

Directed by Sam Mendes, “Road to Perdition” was about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin) who had to go on a run from a mobster (Paul Newman) after the mobster’s son (Daniel Craig) murdered the wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the younger brother (Liam Aiken) out of jealousy. I saw this movie back in 2002 but I don’t remember much of it. Watching it again eight years later, I thought I was in for a hardcore action picture that involved gun-wielding gangsters but it turned out to be much more than that. Hanks completely blew me away because even though he was a hit man and had to be tough (the members of his family always kept a distance), there were moments of real sensitivity to his character, especially the interactions with his son when they were on the road. While it did have intense action scenes which involved Jude Law (also a hit man who happened to photograph dead people for a living) and Hanks in the diner and the hotel room, the movie was more about the slowly strengthening bond between a father and a son. Equally, it was about the father’s moral conflict between his family and the person he worked for as well as his own hopes of his son not turning out like him. All of the elements came together and created real tension so I was glued to the screen. While the picture had an ominous feel to it, it also had a great sense of humor such as when Hanks would rob banks specifically from the mobster’s accounts. The way Hanks delivered his lines to the bank managers made me feel like he was really having fun with his character. I thought “Road to Perdition” was a well-rounded film in terms of script, tension and unpredictability. However, it excelled in terms of acting and not playing on the obvious. Newman was not an ordinary mobster boss because he was gentle with children and the people he liked. But at the same time, his patience was short when it came to certain people, especially his son, and we really got to see how of much of a monster he could become. As for Law, as usual, he was very charming as he was lethal. He provided a nice contrast to Hanks’ dominating presence because Law didn’t seem dangerous at first glance. If I were to nitpick for a weakness, I would say that Hoechlin’s character could have been explored more. I argue that he was the main character (instead of Hanks) because he was narrator right from the opening scene. While he did go through some kind of evolution, he wasn’t as multidimensional as the other characters mentioned prior. Nevertheless, “Road to Perdition” is a strong film because of the organic manner it unfolded aided by very exemplary performances.

Defiance


Defiance (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay star in “Defiance,” directed by Edward Zwick, as four Jewish brothers who escape from the place where they used to live due to the implementation of the Final Solution. The four seek refuge in the forest as they welcome (though at times reluctantly) other Jewish people. Soon, they become a community; and as with all new communities, problems ensue such as rationing of food, who deserves what, what is allowed and what is not, who the leader should be and so on. Although the audiences get a lot of scenes when the Germans attack the Jews and vice-versa, I really could care less about those scenes. I was actually more interested in the dynamics within the small community such as the differing ways of leadership between Craig and Schreiber. While I found it difficult to align myself with one or the other, I thought it was great because I was engaged with what was going on as well as surprised when they would suddenly change their stance regarding a particular issue. I also liked the scenes when everyone would starve and get diseases in the dead of winter. It’s not that I like watching people suffer but it’s more about being concerned and wondering who will make it in the end and who wouldn’t. Although this was inspired by a true story, admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Bielski brothers so I didn’t know how it would end. What prevents me from giving this film a recommendation is that it all too often becomes generic. With such a unique subject matter, I feel like it took the safer route in order to appeal to wider audiences. It also had too many fighting scenes when it really didn’t need to because it already has a poignant story to tell. Still, there’s some scenes worth seeing here such as when Zwick showed that people are people–that is, monstrosity can be committed by both the Germans and the Jews. I wish this had been a much stronger film because it really is important to recognize what the Bielski brothers have done for the Jewish community. But perhaps the gesture is enough.

The Man with the Golden Gun


The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
★★ / ★★★★

It’s a shame that this film is just barely mediocre because it started off really well. It managed to introduce the three-nippled main villain named Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) and establish how dangerous he is within the first three minutes in a convincing manner. It got me really excited because I wanted to see him face off with James Bond (Roger Moore). If I were to make cuts and edits to this Bond installment, only about forty minutes will make it to the final product. The rest of the movie is junk and I find it unforgivable, especially when the movie takes place in exotic places like China and Thailand. Instead of taking advantage of the beautiful locales by telling an exciting and astute story, the filmmakers injected lackadaisical chase scenes one after another. Not to mention the fact that they brought back an incredibly useless and annoying redneck character from “Live and Let Die.” Rooger Moore is not my favorite 007 because he’s just so dull to look at and I just want to fall asleep when he speaks. He has no authority like Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. His charisma doesn’t do it for me either. The only stand-out scenes that saved this film are found in the last twenty minutes. Lee and Moore’s interactions are interesting not only because they constantly measure each other up, they also make the film spicy because their characters reach some sort of admiration and understanding for each other. I wish they met somewhere near the beginning of the picture and made them chase each other until the final scene. Instead, Bond gets into all kinds of side-quests that have absolutely nothing to do with the big picture. Unless you’re a die-hard Bond fan, skip this one because it has nothing special to offer.