Watching the ‘Skyfall’

A dead body slumped in a chair. A car windshield smashed in. A motorcycle chase on the rooftops of a grand bazaar. Gunshots. Car crashes. A bulldozer flattens cars like ants. Two men fight on top of a moving train. A man falls.

And that non-stop action is all within the first 10 minutes of the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall.” Following Bond’s “death” — when Agent Eve (Naomie Harris) accidently shoots Bond after M (Judi Dench) orders her to shoot a moving target on top of a train, Bond (Daniel Craig) returns when a new threat hacks into the MI6 headquarters: Silva (Javier Bardem) is a former MI6 agent seeking vengeance from M for her failure to rescue him from captivity.

Airing 50 years after the first Bond film, “Dr. No,” “Skyfall” is the 23rd Bond film and the third to star Daniel Craig as James Bond. While like the previous Bond films, “Skyfall” also features beautiful women, elaborate stunts, and fancy cars and new gadgets, “Skyfall” also deals with Bond’s mortality.

As the movie begins, Bond is bleeding with his white collared shirt drenched in blood from a growing bullet wound on his upper torso. After Bond returns from death, we see him sweating as he is performing pulls ups. We see him gasping for breath after swimming laps in a pool in Shanghai. And we realize that James Bond is an old dinosaur — with a grayish-white stubble on his chin.

Meanwhile the new MI6 headquarters for the newest spies resemble an Apple store — a brightly lit room with tables lined with computers.

If physical appearance wasn’t enough to contrast the different generations, screenplay writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan make sure to emphasize this point with dialogue. “It’s a young man’s game,” Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) reminds Bond.

“A great old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think?” a young technology-savvy Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) tells Bond.

Whereas the Quartermaster claims he can “do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field,” cyber warfare doesn’t look as epic as exploding houses or narrow escapes from death. As someone criticizes M and her MI6 agents, “It’s as if you insist on pretending we still live in a golden age of espionage.”

The writers and producers would do well to heed the words of their own script. While director Sam Mendes’ James Bond film resembles the action-spy films of the past, it’s only a matter of time before the audience will grow bored of exploding pens or transmitter radios. Although the film does lay out dynamite like a game of dominos — and it is entertaining to watch the spectacular explosions — the fireworks fizzle out with time and you find that you’re still unsatisfied and sitting in the dark.

“Skyfall” was directed by Sam Mendes and written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, based on Ian Fleming’s books.   

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‘Les Miserables’ Lives On

For an audience used to seeing “Les Miserables” on stage for the past 25-plus years, Tom Hooper’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography may seem strange.

Their film adaption of the musical, based on the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, is about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a French convict who served 19 years in jail over stealing a loaf of bread. After Valjean is released on parole, he is caught stealing silver from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who gave him shelter. Instead of accusing Valjean, the bishop says he gave Valjean the silver. Valjean repays the bishop’s kindness by trying to protect Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother passes away. Meanwhile, his parole officer Javert (Russell Crowe) hunts Valjean for not returning from parole.

While the story of “Les Miserables” has already been adapted in book, stage, radio and film form, Hooper and Cohen’s film brings the musical closer than ever before. Cohen’s camera zooms into Jean Valjean’s face as he is singing. The camera is shaky, as if Cohen is shooting on monkey cam, with the camera slung over his shoulder, rather than on tripod.

Meanwhile, Jackman is breaking the fourth wall of the boxed proscenium stage, staring directly at the camera while backlit by the sky or the bright, ornate church décor. It’s a bold choice — and it’s unsettling to see an actor’s face blown up — with their eyes piercing into your soul — on the silver screen while they sing their soliloquy. But although Cohen consistently zooms into an actor’s face so they are staring at the camera and confronting the viewer, this filming technique is both a hit and a miss throughout different segments of the film.

The most effective use of this technique is when Hooper is telling Fantine’s story. The subjective camera captures Hathaway’s pain as she pleas for money for her daughter. The close-up shots show Hathaway’s vulnerability, nakedness and despair when she loses her job at the factory, her hair when she’s begging for money, and her virginity when she is raped as a prostitute. The closeness and immediacy of the camera enhances Hathaway’s performance.

Meanwhile, Hathaway’s high piercing voice conveys a range of emotion as she sings the renowned title song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” through a stream of tears. At times it’s frail as she whispers her words. At other times, her voice is laced with venom and rage for the overwhelming unfairness of her situation. From pleas and gasps to fire and anger, Hathaway’s performance changes how you hear “I Dreamed a Dream” — and for the first time, you begin to understand what the song really means.

The closeness of the camera also forces the viewer to confront filth and poverty. After all, how can you refuse poverty when they stare you in the face and beg you to listen? The film shows the fingers of the poor and homeless reaching out for you as the undercurrent of rebellion and the French Revolution boils. Meanwhile, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) is singing, “Think you’re poor? Think you’re free? Follow me! Follow me!” Watching the French resistance of the 19th century, you can’t help but think of the residue of fire in the Occupy movement who crowded the parks of New York City just a year ago.

On the other end of the spectrum, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen shine as the gaudy carpetbaggers, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the greedy innkeepers who keep Cosette until her mother Fantine can settle her debt. Both Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are known for their over-the-top roles with Bonham Carter playing slightly mad characters such as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” films, and Baron Cohen playing absurd and comical characters such as Borat and Bruno. Although both actors may be typecast as the Thenardiers, the two work well together. While Bonham Carter is making out with guests in their number “Master of the House,” Baron Cohen is patting down guests while pick-pocketing them. Combined with lunacy and ridiculousness, the two are perfect for the role.

Yet while the Thenardiers are supposed to be ridiculous and over-the-top, the camera work and editing is ridiculous, making the audience very aware that this is a film and not a play. Even though the actors may hear the orchestra in their ears while singing live during each take, the dizzying aerial shots and the extreme close ups of the actors sometimes overshadow the actors’ talent. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, Cosette’s love interest, appears as a lovesick Romeo whose talent is being pretty for a majority of the film. However, after Marius is wounded and Redmayne is singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Redmayne releases more genuine waterworks. For such a morose scene, it would be fitting to tell the story with longer and slower shots. However, the nice profile shot of Redmayne is quickly replaced by a shot of Redmayne crying at the camera, staring directly at you. Then you see a shot of Redmayne singing in an empty room with empty chairs and empty tables. While Redmayne is bearing his heart and mourning the death of his friends, the editing makes Redmayne’s distress look cheap rather than subtle. Instead you are bludgeoned with multiple shots and camera angles that seem too intrusive on his pain, when all you want to see is Redmayne’s still profile as he is quietly mourning. The scene seems even cheaper and even more out of place when Amanda Seyfried suddenly appears and the two get married. The drastic shift between sadness and happiness causes vertigo, just as the shaky camera movements and badly framed shots showing actors with their foreheads cut off, bring you out of the story.

But in the end, the camera work doesn’t matter. You may be upset about why Jackman is back lit as he is pacing or how Cosette’s appearance seems to stifle Redmayne’s grief, but in the end, you can’t help being swept away by the music, which washes over you like a familiar wave. You can’t help but feel the solidarity as all the actors return to sing, “Do You Hear the People Sing.” You only wish the actors would run and return on the stage to sing an encore.

After all, isn’t the music all that matters? The Broadway musical hasn’t been translated into 21 languages and played more than 47,000 times to audiences of more than 60 million people worldwide for nothing.

All almost aboard the ‘Rise of the Guardians’

Once you pick up your suspension of disbelief along with your 3D glasses as you walk into the theater, “Rise of the Guardians” becomes quite an enjoyable film.

Based on William Joyce’s “Childhood of Guardians” series, the film centers around Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the Sandman — five guardians appointed by the Man in the Moon to protect children’s belief in magic against the forces of the Bogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law).

With an estimated $145 million budget, Dreamworks Animation’s “Rise of the Guardians” looks beautiful. Jack Frost, with his youthful face, big blue eyes and playful and carefree grin, is eye candy — cute as the Zac Efrons, Justin Beibers or Josh Hutchersons of the world — as he lures kids into snowball fights and guarantees snow days. (After all, who doesn’t love a guy who’s good with kids?) Meanwhile, the film’s animation is delightful, featuring a potpourri of colors and wonders. Easter eggs walk into rivers of pink dye while dreams float out of your head and prance around. Yetis assemble and paint Christmas toys in the North Pole while tiny tooth fairies, which resemble hummingbirds, flutter under pillows to collect teeth.

Although Pine may be as good looking as his animated counterpart, Jack, the 32-year-old actor’s voice is too deep to match the face of his character — who looks half his age. Pine’s voice, who commands the Starship Enterprise in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, is too suave, smooth and confident for a character who’s young and lost — trying to discover who he is and why he died. Closer to teenaged heartthrobs, like Efron or Hutcherson, would have been better suited for the role.

Meanwhile, Pine’s co-stars shine with their mastery at accents. Although we know Jackman can sing and voice a pretty good American accent, it’s refreshing to hear Jackman’s native Australian accent as he voices a large bunny that resembles a kangaroo. Meanwhile, Baldwin’s Russian accent completes the unconventional Santa Claus character, which also has “naughty” and “nice” tatooed on his arms. And Law, with his English accent, always sounds sexy — even when he’s voicing a misguided, black-haired villain that resembles Loki from “The Avengers.”

“Rise of the Guardians” takes us on a journey on the Polar Express — proving that you’re never too old to believe in magic. All you have to do is open your heart and believe.

“Rise of the Guardians” was directed by Peter Ramsey. The screenplay was written by David Lindsay-Abaire.

‘Life of Pi’: A lesson in piety

“Life of Pi” labels itself as one thing: a story that will make you believe in God.

Imagine getting stranded on a boat with this fellow?

Imagine getting stranded on a boat with this fellow?

Based on Yann Martel’s award-winning novel, “Life of Pi,” the film tells the story of Piscine (sounds like “pissing”) Molitor Patel, also known as Pi — a religious Indian boy who has to move to Canada after his family encounters financial troubles. Pi encounters a minor setback though: when sailing to Canada on a Japanese ship, the ship is caught in a storm. Stranded on a lifeboat as the sole survivor of the storm, Pi is saddled with Richard Parker, the feral Bengal tiger his family kept in their zoo.

Directed by Ang Lee, known for his work in films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi” is a visually stunning, cinema-graphic smorgasbord— featuring people swimming among the clouds, fire and lights floating on water, galaxies of stars, and many, many sunsets. However, for a film rooted in a book about faith, its message comes across a little hollow, echoing this line from the film: “Faith is a house with many rooms, and each room and floor is filled with doubt.”

Like faith, “Life of Pi” is frustrating. Albert Camus’s book “The Stranger,” known for its theory of the absurd, even makes a cameo in the film. While “Life of Pi” is supposed to be a very intellectual film, the philosophy is lost in the absurd, trippy, and surrealist images. At times, the film resembles a Salvador Dali painting — only instead of melting clocks, the film features a boy on a boat floating in the middle of clouds. If the 3D open water sequences haven’t made you seasick yet, the beautiful but abstract images will make your head hurt as you try to separate reality from a starved boy’s delusions.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma, who plays teenaged Pi in his first feature-length film, does bring honesty and likability to the otherwise flat 3D film. Sharma dances in the rain with such happiness that the viewer may want to join him. Meanwhile, in one of the highlights of the film, Sharma mourns the loss of his family; the emotion laced underneath his words allow the viewer to feel his pain — which makes his story more believable. After watching Sharma’s performance, the viewer realizes that he or she is invested in the story and character of Pi — even though Pi may prove to be an unreliable narrator.

“Life of Pi” thrives in the living oxymoron, taking you through a safari of the exotic — a tiger named Richard Parker and a hunter named Thirsty, an Indian French-Canadian who believes and practices Hindu, Christianity and Islam. As Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) tells him, “Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing in anything at all.”

After watching Ang Lee’s adaption of Yann Martel’s book, you’re not sure what to believe, or if you believe in anything at all. But perhaps, like God and religion, “Life of Pi” is not supposed to make sense.

“Life of Pi” was directed by Ang Lee. The screenplay, based off of the novel by Yann Martel, was written by David Magee.

‘Cloud Atlas’ reaches for the moon

Squeezing six different narratives from different years, places and times into a two-hour-and-44-minute movie may sound like a disaster waiting to happen; however, directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski seamlessly adapt David Mitchell’s 528-page science-fiction novel, “Cloud Atlas,” from the page to the silver screen.

The movie weaves together the stories of lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) who is traveling from the Pacific Islands in 1849, gay lovers Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) and Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) in Cambridge in 1936, journalist Luisa Ray (Halle Berry) in San Francisco in 1973, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in London in 2012, Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) in Neo-Seoul in 2144, and Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) in 106 years after ‘The Fall.’

“Cloud Atlas” reinforces the talent and versatility of the cast of actors, costume and make-up artists. Their combined talents render actors unrecognizable as they act as supporting characters in different narratives. Actors balance playing three to seven different characters that are vastly different from lives to looks to motives. Berry and Hanks frequently switch between distinct accents as they embody people who lived in the past and present versus Zachry and Meronym from the far off distant future. Meanwhile, Broadbent stars at playing an old cranky, manipulative and domineering composer in 1936 and a comical, hair-brained publisher in 2012; the characters are polar opposites, and the nuances Broadbent brings to each character renders them completely different.

Although almost three hours is a long time to sit for a movie, the pacing of the film is excellent. While it may be confusing to watch the short sequences switch in the beginning of the movie, the scenes are engrossing. Once audience members become acquainted with the different stories and plotlines, the editing and screenplay highlights how these different stories and universes relate to each other. Like their previous canon, which includes films such as “The Matrix” trilogy and “V for Vendetta,” the Wachowski siblings force the viewer to think and question reality.

While the production of “Cloud Altas” may seem like a lofty and ambitious goal, the adage is to always reach for the stars… After all, if you miss, you’ll land among the clouds. Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings did more than land among the clouds; their cinematic achievement surpasses new heights and is certainly deserving of a star — if not the moon.

“Cloud Atlas” was written and directed by Tom Tykwer, and Andy and Lana Wachowski — based off of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel.

Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’ reborn in 3D

Tim Burton has directed countless movies, many of them featuring characters with big eyes and dark, gothic eye shadow. However, his latest film, “Frankenweenie,” a 3D black-and-white, stop-motion animation remake of his 1984 short, has its own special, childlike charm.

“Frankenweenie,” loosely based on Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein,” follows the relationship between Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his dog and best friend, Sparky (Frank Welker). When a driver accidentally runs over Sparky, Victor is devastated until he gets the crazy idea to try to bring his dog back to life.

Unlike Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, Burton’s is younger and more innocent. The film carries threads of past Burton films; for example, “Corpse Bride” also featured the dead coming back to life, while “Edward Scissorhands” featured a budding inventor and his creations. Despite how “Frankenweenie” mirrors themes of older Burton films, the modern retelling of the classic “Frankenstein” never gets old.

Compared to Burton’s 1984 short, which starred Barret Oliver as Victor, the 2012 animated remake of “Frankenweenie” shares similar and nearly identical scenes. However, compared to the half-hour short, Burton adds an hour worth of exposition as well as crams more memorable, creepy and disturbing characters into the remake. Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), a kid in Victor’s class who wasn’t in the original version of the film, trails Victor and blackmails him to show him how he revived his dog. A weird girl (Catherine O’Hara) always carrying a white cat named Whiskers resembles J.K. Rowling’s character Luna Lovegood in “Harry Potter,” giving spacey and elusive omens to the protagonist.

The newer version of “Frankenweenie” illustrates the lengths to which some middle school kids will go to to place first at a school science fair: One boy jumps off a building and breaks his arm to test his experiment. These plot points seems to gear the film from kids to an older and more mature audience, which would understand troubling issues such as death and competition.

The film’s introduction, featuring Victor screening a short movie of his dog, Sparky, to his parents, is a clever way to showcase the overuse of 3-D technology. “Do we really need these 3-D glasses?” Victor’s mom (Catherine O’Hara) says. Though the film’s own 3-D feature offers the occasional scare when animals or baseballs pop out of the screen, it was neither dazzling nor necessary. The real star of the film was the stop-motion animation. Sparky pants, sniffs, barks and wags his tail just like a real dog would; unlike Dug, the dog from Pixar’s “Up,” or the cast of animated dogs in Disney’s “Oliver & Company,” Sparky doesn’t sing or speak English. Meanwhile, Welker’s voice, known as the voice of Scooby Doo, lends itself to bringing the character of Sparky to life.

Though “Frankenweenie” may not live up to previous Halloween-themed Burton classics like “The Nightmare before Christmas,” “Frankenweenie” illustrates that despite all these years, the tale of Shelley’s “Frankenstein” still stands the test of time.

“Frankenweenie” was written and directed by Tim Burton. The screenplay was written by Leonard Ripps and John August.

To read this review in The Ithacan, click here.

Sandler and Samberg reunite in ‘Hotel Transylvania’

Just four months after Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg co-starred as father and son in the movie “That’s My Boy,” the duo is working together again in director Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated film, “Hotel Transylvania.”

The film follows Count Dracula (Sandler), an overprotective vampire who attempts to throw the best 118th birthday party ever for his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). While Mavis wants to travel and see the world, Dracula wants to keep her safe from sunlight and even worse, humans. However, when Jonathan (Samberg), a human traveler, stumbles upon Dracula’s mansion, Hotel Transylvania, and falls in love with Mavis, the monsters living there learn that maybe humans aren’t that frightening after all.

The premise of “Hotel Transylvania” is delightfully funny, featuring Sandler and his goofy, over-the-top, ‘Count Dracula’ accent. Not only does the film feature Sandler’s silliness, but the film also pokes fun at monsters and the “Twilight” franchise. In one scene, when Jonathan is watching a scene with Edward and Bella from “Twilight,” Dracula comments, “I can’t believe this is how we’re represented.”

“Hotel Transylvania” also makes use of the cast’s many talents. Samberg, known for his digital shorts on “Saturday Night Live” and for being of the three members of the musical group The Lonely Island, showcases his rapping talent in the movie, while Gomez and Sandler sing. Although Samberg’s lines aren’t as memorable as The Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat” lyrics, Samberg does get to rap about “Nala and Simba in the Lion King.”

The touching scenes between Sandler and Samberg’s characters also add heart to the film. Dracula saves Jonathan’s life on more than one occasion, though he repeatedly says he doesn’t want Jonathan to have anything to do with his daughter. In another scene, Dracula risks flying in the sun in order to fetch Jonathan.

The film also features Frankenstein (Kevin James), who is afraid of fire. Griffin (David Spade), also known as the invisible man, has red hair. Werewolves Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon) have more than a dozen kids who love to play pranks. These quirks humanize the monsters and make them fun to watch. Though this is a movie about monsters, these comical elements make the movie less scary, more ridiculous and a real treat.

“Hotel Transylvania” was written by Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel and directed by Genndy Tartakovsky.

To see this review in The Ithacan, click here.