2 Stars Movies

Riddick makes the most haphazard of movie franchises

When even the humblest movies are planned to allow for multiple sequels if at all financially feasible, the Riddick trilogy (and counting?) must be one of the most haphazard of movie franchises.

I doubt many would have expected any kind of sequel at all to 2000’s Pitch Black, and yet The Chronicles of Riddick appeared four years later to reinvent its surviving character as the hero of a grand sword & sandal epic in outer space. It’s not unlike the later John Carter of Mars, but less wasteful in terms of money spent, and with 100% more hovering Judi Dench.

Even more improbable still, with David Twohy’s Riddick, Vin Diesel is now officially the headliner of a trilogy. Having achieved the holy number of installments, now three movies can be packaged together in budget multi-dvd box sets in time for Black Friday shopping. Or should that be that Pitch Black Friday? Oh, please yourself.

Riddick has more in common with Pitch Black than Chronicles, but one thing they all share is surprisingly good art direction and set design. Chronicles, especially, went far above and beyond the call of duty. I’d argue that it draws more from Dune‘s visual imagination than the typically plundered art direction of Alien or Star Wars. Even Riddick has more believable alien landscapes than the volcano top conclusion to After Earth, which looked like it had been shot on the tiniest soundstage M. Night Shyamalan could book.

Katie Sackoff and Dave Bautista in Riddick
Katie Sackoff and Dave Bautista in Riddick

Riddick‘s plot is admirably simple (man trapped alone on a hostile planet, struggles to simply survive, then gain a foothold to escape), and the first 30 minutes or so are crackerjack. But then additional characters show up and so there has to be… shudder… dialog.

Sadly, everything falls apart at this point — and I mean everything, from the visuals to the script. What started out as an intriguing shipwreck story turned into something conventional and cheap. The bulk of what follows is set inside a single room, and not in a good way (like a good submarine movie, for instance), but in a bad way (like, they ran out of money and ideas).

Riddick is also unfortunately sexist. Battlestar Galactica fan favorite Katee Sackoff gets the coveted only-girl-in-the-movie role, and she dutifully works what her momma gave her. She’s sadly stuck with a retrograde character who exists mostly to concede to Riddick’s brutish flirtations. It’s unclear if her character is actually gay or simply allows her male colleagues to assume she is, but either way, it’s stomach turning when she acquiesces to Riddick’s crude propositions. Her utility exhausted, she simply vanishes from the film.

3 Stars Movies

Sass and Kick Ass: James Bond: Casino Royale

Paradoxically for one of the freshest James Bond films ever made, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) is actually the third adaptation of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. After a largely forgotten 1954 TV movie in which “Jimmy” Bond was awkwardly Americanized, the same premise was parodied in a 1967 farce bearing the same name, a expensive all-star disaster featuring good sports David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Meanwhile, the parallel and ongoing flood of proper Bond films abandoned the tainted Casino Royale, leaving it never satisfactorily presented on film. For most, Bond seemed born fully-formed as Sean Connery’s supremely suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruthless servant come from?

By 2006, the James Bond franchise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just counting the canonical installments), testament enough that it has been no stranger to innovation. The most recent overhaul was Goldeneye (1995), which introduced Pierce Brosnan alongside an incrementally more progressive attitude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dangerously sexy, but as adept with salty dialogue, grappling hooks, and AK-47s as the title character himself. Bond could no longer cheerfully ignore his stuffy bureaucratic boss M when played by the imperious Judy Dench, and Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) was no longer a frump longing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rocking the sexy secretary look. Significantly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond himself. The many women in his life may have gained greater leeway to sass and kick ass, but he himself was still the same old sexist dinosaur. In retrospect, the Brosnan films now look like just more of the same.

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale
Say hello to my little friend

Proper Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the franchise was very nearly rendered obsolete by two very different spy trilogies: Austin Powers (whose satire was wholly redundant after the 1967 Casino Royale) and Jason Bourne. Starting in 2002, the latter did Bond one better, permanently supercharging the secret-agent genre with visceral urgency, persistent action, moderately realistic psychology, and most crucially, granting the main character a capacity for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of conscience, wracked by crippling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capable of spectacular feats of killing, but resented the circumstances that forced him to use those skills in order to survive, or more importantly, to protect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manipulate women for intelligence and sexual gratification as Bond routinely would, but rather formed an emotional attachment with one in particular that would motivate his actions for an entire trilogy.

Once the definition of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defensive. The time was right in 2006 for its most radical reboot yet. The producers retired Brosnan (The Man With the Golden Parachute?) and underwent an extensive retooling of not just the series’ visual style but its core characters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?

The traditional pre-credit action sequence still exists, but Casino Royale discards candy-coated Technicolor for a grainy, stylized black-and-white noir style. Starting chronologically at the beginning, we see Bond execute his first two kills, fulfilling his final qualification for “double-oh” MI-6 status. Longtime Bond fans were also mollified by another grand tradition that immediate followed: a motion graphics title sequence featuring a bevy of semi-nude female silhouettes. This particular animation, with its stark red and black vector graphics, may have provided inspiration for the opening titles of the 2007 television series Mad Men. Unfortunately, Chris Cornell’s lame, tuneless song “You Know My Name” nearly ruins it.

Eva Green in Casino Royale
“You noticed…”

Further comforting continuity with the previous installations comes via ridiculous amounts of high-end product placement (cars, watches, sunglasses, etc.) and a globe-trotting series of locations (Uganda, Madagascar, Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, and Venice). Casino Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pudding in terms of its villain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asthmatic, with chronically irritated tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to signify evil in the old days that the baddie merely have metal teeth or a fluffy kitty cat.

But that’s where the concessions to Bond tradition end. To discuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond himself. No matter how much testosterone fan-favorite Sean Connery exuded, he could still be slightly effete, fussing over vanities and creature comforts like a well-prepared martini. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gorgeous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implausible at best. The suave Brosnan was born to play the classic version of Bond, but he wasn’t getting any younger as his films became as overblown and science-fictiony as the worst excesses of the Moore period. (I haven’t seen any of the Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby films, so I can’t comment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Connery remains fandom’s favorite, for good reason), but he is clearly the most brutish and masculine. Younger, furious, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilariously clever inversion of tradition, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female companions, especially in an instantly iconic shot of him striding out of the ocean just barely wearing a scanty swimsuit. This Bond is almost absurdly physically fit, a parkour expert, and gets painfully bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walking away from fisticuffs and fireballs with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.

Caterina Murino in Casino Royale
Wait… there was another Bond Girl besides Eva Green?

21st Century Bond Girls are smarter and more proactive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gorgeous and at least half the age of the current lead actor. In this blogger’s estimation, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd ought to go down in history as one of the greatest yet. She may not be as physically adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beautiful. Best of all, she’s enjoyably conceived by writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis as a true foil for the naughty double-entendres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impression on me, that when rewatching the film on DVD, I realized I had forgotten all about the other Bond Girl, Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios. Her character provides for a quick throwback to retro Bond; he flirts with her solely for information and then cruelly abandons her to certain death.

The thrilling film downshifts for a long poker sequence, with no mercy shown for anyone who doesn’t understand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a miscalibration however, during one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was double-bluffing an oblivious Bond.

Dench is the only returning player from the Brosnan era, but her character is now part ruthless boss and part tough-love mother figure. The one convention of the classic, sillier Bond stories that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his wonderful inventions. The highlight of every Connery, Moore, or Brosnan film for me was always the customary stroll through Q’s lab as his latest prototypes malfunction in amusingly lethal manners. I would cheerfully recite along with Q’s scolding catchphrase “Oh Bond, do pay attention.”

Whenever I see any Bond film, I’m always surprised at how enthusiastically he lives up to his “license to kill” reputation. The body count is always high, but Casino Royale is even more violent than most. What differentiates it is the time spent dwelling on the aftermath, including Bond having to hide bodies instead of simply strolling away from the carnage without repercussions. There’s also a fleeting dash of crude morality rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awkwardly comfort Vesper, traumatized by her culpability in one of Bond’s kills. And whereas old-school Bond villains would merely threaten bodily harm with laser beams and tarantulas, Bond must now must face ugly, raw torture (which is A-OK with the hypocritical MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, apparently – but that’s a rant for another time).

4 Stars Movies

Go behind the scenes of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” in Shakespeare in Love

This blogger is not ashamed to admit being in love with Shakespeare in Love, and not just for the generous displays of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovely young bubbies.

Full of American actors affecting English accents with varying degrees of outrageousness, it only partly qualifies as Europudding, and is in fact more in the vein of “let’s put on a show!” theater farces like Noises Off and Waiting for Guffman. Director John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love succeeds beautifully, but the formula is not ironclad; Becoming Jane obviously attempted the same stunt by warping the biographical details of Jane Austin’s life onto her novels, but rather failed to capture her dry wit and particular brand of practical passion.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love
Oi, get yer bubbies out!

Co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, already an expert at playing fast and loose with Shakespeare in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, lays more than a few easter eggs for English majors and other enthusiasts of Elizabethan drama. Bloody playwright John Webster cameos as a disturbed young lad. Many favorite Shakespeare cliches appear not just in the play-within-the-movie, but also in the body of the movie itself: ghosts, cross-cross-dressing, and a “bit with a dog.” But perhaps the movie’s biggest achievement is to humanize perhaps the most revered writer in the English language, and yet still illuminate the unmatched passion and achievement of his work. A Shakespeare beset with writer’s block struggles to find a hook for the unwritten Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter reminds us that he was probably no unearthly creature taking dictation from beyond, and that creating such art was, simply, hard work.

Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench in full Queen Bitch mode

Shakespeare in Love thankfully doesn’t let historical accuracy get in the way of a good gag. Will makes weekly visits to an apothecary practicing psychotherapy a few hundred years early. The contemporary theater world is shown more than once as a precursor to today’s movie biz. In order to bankroll the production of a new play, financier/kneecapper Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) suggests Globe Theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) pay actors with a portion of the profits, when of course there never are any. Brilliant! One wonders if Miramax honchos Harvey & Bob Weinstein perceived the irony.

But the movie is sometimes more accurate than one might think for something that is admittedly a slightly fluffy farce. For example, it is in fact plausible for Shakespeare to fear he may have been indirectly responsible for rival playwright Christopher Marlowe’s death. Marlowe died in 1593, which according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, was about the time Romeo and Juliet was written.

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