18 February 2010

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace Still Missing The Bond Mark
By Kristin Battestella

Even after having such a love hate relationship with Daniel Craig’s 2006 Bond debut Casino Royale, I was eager to give his second picture Quantum of Solace a due chance. Unfortunately, director Marc Forster once again strays too far from what makes Bond, well, Bond.

Picking up where Casino Royale left off, Quantum of Solace has MI6 Agent 007 James Bond (Daniel Craig) tracking Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, The Young Victoria) and another Quantum leader, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) to Bolivia and beyond. CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Bolivian Officer Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) aide Bond in infiltrating Greene’s environmental schemes, but Bond’s tactics are almost too reckless for MI6’s leader M (Judi Dench) to handle. How far will Bond go in stopping Greene and resolving his dead lover Vesper’s death?

I suppose I shall begin where a proper Bond picture begins and ends-with the ladies. Like Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace portrays women in very unBondlike ways. Craig’s Bond comes and goes with no partner, has a very brief night with Strawberry Fields (a wasted Gemma Arterton, RocknRolla) and skydives with Camille. Wow. Actually, we don’t even hear the full name of Agent Fields onscreen. Why even have a juicy, innuendo-filled name like Strawberry and not say it? Her hyped up and thus spoiled death by being drowned and covered in oil is weak in comparison to Jill Masterson’s fictitious death via goldpaint in Goldfinger. The scene is actually too dang brief, barely anything actually except a rip off thinly dressed as homage. Moreover, the complex, convoluted, heavy handed, and mish mashed plot gives us no reason to care. We spend more time harping on the late Vesper Lyn, inevitably tying Quantum of Solace as a direct sequel to Casino Royale. For this supposedly new, edgy, and rebooted Bond, he’s certainly spending a lot of time in the past, isn’t he? The drudgery doesn’t let the lovely Olga Kurylenko (Max Payne) shine, either. I’d like to see her return and get something more than all that woe. You can’t have both a depressing Bond and the tortured but beautiful leading lady. It’s almost too much of an emotional expectation for the audience. Are we looking for that much emotion in a Bond picture, anyway?

Of course, I can’t really say anything bad about Judi Dench (Notes on A Scandal, Nine, Mrs. Brown) and her continually strong portrayal as M. We get a lot of M again for this installment, and again, she’s not served well by returning writers Paul Haggis (Letters from Imo Jima, Crash, Million Dollar Baby) and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day). The logistics just don’t add up here. Bond has been rebooted, so we visually might assume M has not been, since it’s the same actress. How, then can she not trust Bond? It’s easy to forget the same M is with a new Bond. We think we can rely on the relationship, but then everything gets turned on the dime. Likewise, Giancarlo Giannini (Man on Fire) as Mathis and Jeffrey Wright (W, Angels in America) as Felix Leiter are wonderful, but underused and exited far too soon. Their scenes might be the best in the film! I dare say the next film’s course should be almost a buddy picture of Leiter and Bond with pieces from Fleming’s 007 in New York. This fine support is being wasted amid obvious and boring modern commentaries that do a lot less than letting a talented cast strut their stuff.

Now then, let’s talk about the man himself. I’ve never really liked a Bond because he’s been so hot and sexy or dreamy. However, in Quantum of Solace, 007 going psycho, flying by the seat of his pants and always getting beat up is not attractive or appealing. Perhaps I’ve been too harsh in saying I hate Daniel Craig and his portrayal of James Bond. I want to like him and his Bond, but he’s so dang heavy! There’s no Brit wit, dry humor, or spy subtleties. For the next film, add some of the old traditions-Bond, James Bond. Shaken, not stirred. Q. Moneypenny- and Bob’s your uncle Craig could be the best Bond ever. Unfortunately, all this action for action’s sake makes Craig’s brooding Bond depressing and unlikable-and unlikable, James Bond is not. You’re supposed to like 007 and root for him no matter what. That’s why we’ve put up with some very lean films over the past thirty years.

Nevertheless, I’m trying not to be mean, for I don’t think Craig is without talent. I’m making a point to watch his other films, in fact. In Tomb Raider, (which I love) he takes hot showers, struts around naked with strategically placed objects covering his tackle; and after an unfulfilling close encounter with Angelina Jolie, he proclaims, ‘Now I need a cold shower!’ I always scream at the television, ‘Why can he do that as Bond?’

Quantum of Solace does have several visual and action proud points. The lesser shown, not necessarily pretty sides of locales like Italy, Panama, and Chile are delightful. The chases are on the one hand, exceptional-but count ‘em by foot, car, boat, and plane! A lot of the action is just too dang much, too intricate and complex and without the triumphant Bond theme to tell us when it’s really cool. Likewise the main titles, theme song, and hi-tech MI6 interfaces are sweet-but I keep thinking of how dated this heavily focused upon technology will seem in a decade. Speaking of technology, the blu-ray is sharp, distinct and clear…. but sensitive and a real pain when it freezes. Quantum of Solace seems so long and loud and headache inducing despite its short 106 minutes.

The fine action in Quantum of Solace competes with itself and can’t hold the viewer amid the repeatedly obvious plot of oil corruption and environmentalism MacGuffins. The intriguing introduction of the Quantum organization is ala SPECTRE, yes, but the geeky yet villainous Greene is again too seriousness and politically uninteresting for me to care. There are also a few too many side villains here, and it’s tough to tell who is who. For everything that’s potentially good in Quantum of Solace- like the realistic usage of different languages worldwide- we get stupid seriousness and obvious symbolism and ridiculously over done deaths. Not only do we never strike the right blend on this brooding roller coaster ride, but the absence or askew use of traditional Bond anchors is just too much. You end with the gun barrel and don’t think it’s necessary for ‘Bond. James Bond’ to ever introduce himself? Come on!

However…I do have faith! Now that everyone has gotten this brooding Bond set out of his or her systems; for the next picture perhaps we can have a few familiar laughs and light-hearted innuendo, traditional Bond music, and lovable friends like Q and Moneypenny. I’ve said it before I know, but apparently, it bears repeating: coughQMoneypennycough. I’ve even thought of ways for the hat toss to make an appearance! Bond could be in uniform alone and pissy in M’s office, toss his cap, miss the rack, break something, and thus a quip from the newly entered Moneypenny. Craig could even give a fourth wall glance to the viewer, making a silent coincidence to Casino Royale’s ‘I’m the money…every penny of it.’ Yes, I have that kind of time!

Quantum of Solace [Blu-ray]Unfortunately, as the British would say, ‘the proof is in the pudding’. When I had the chance to pick up one of a dozen copies of Quantum of Solace for $3 at my local library’s sale, I passed. Sure, I took Casino Royale when it ended up being free with my library volunteer discount, but there’s just an overall sense of blandness, blah, and meh that seems to follow Quantum of Solace. Craig lovers and fans of this new Bond turn no doubt own and love Quantum of Solace, but the traditional Bond aficionado can certainly do better. Completist collectors can find the DVD or blu-ray editions affordably enough, but the casual 007 fan or layman action viewer can do without Quantum of Solace. Ironically, there’s not a iota of solitude in it.

12 February 2010

Designing Woman

Designing Woman A Fun Fifties Treat
By Kristin Battestella

I don’t like today’s romantic comedies one bit. They’re all the same aren’t they? Thankfully, the classics got it right- as exampled in 1957’s Designing Woman.

Sportswriter Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) and fashion designer Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall) meet on a blissful vacation. After a whirlwind romance, they marry and return to New York, expecting their very distinctly separate lives to merge just fine. But of course, the couple realize they have nothing in common- and former flames Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray) and Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore, Vertigo) put a wrench in the romance, too- along with crooked boxing bookie Martin Daylor (Edward Platt). Can the Hagens survive- or will the world of sports and fashion collide?

To the uneducated classic film novice, Designing Woman doesn’t seem like the big picture in either of its stars’ repertoires. However, director Vincent Minnelli (Gigi, An American in Paris) and Best Screenplay Oscar winner George Wells (Till The Clouds Roll By, Take Me Out to the Ball Game) craft a delightful battle of the sexes. Yes, it’s stereotypical- you couldn’t very well have a female sports reporter and a male designer back in the day- but there isn’t anything pissy here, no interfering sexual subtext or heavy handed statements about Mars and Venus. The narration between the characters may be unusual to the modern viewer, but the lighthearted inner monologues are also a treat. Today if we get a character’s thoughts, it’s usually depressing and moody. Designing Woman isn’t afraid to take the wink, wink to the audience, and it’s still refreshing fifty years on.

Who doesn’t like Gregory Peck, honestly? Surely classic viewers adore him, but there’s nothing modern audiences can’t enjoy, either. Designing Woman’s tongue-in-cheek style shows us some more wit and humor than we see in some of Peck’s more noble roles like To Kill A Mockingbird, The Gunfighter, or Gentleman’s Agreement. But of course, he is up to the challenge. His stoic style works great as an irritated husband, but his everyman style is still charming. There’s even a few great jokes and physical comedy fun from an actor whom we generally expect fine dramatic performance. Most of the other men in the picture are otherwise the usual stereotypes- the crazy editor Ned (Sam Levene, Crossfire) and the brain dead boxer Maxie (Mickey Shaughnessy, Jailhouse Rock, From Here to Eternity). However, Mike’s sardonic analysis of these players keeps Peck’s performance fresh and relatable. How could you not like Gregory Peck, honestly?

Designing WomanSadly, you would never know Lauren Bacall’s off screen tragedy by her performance here. Her professional air, sexy confidence, witty charm, and great zingers excellently hide any despair over husband Humphrey Bogart’s cancer. I dare say you could almost forget the famous Bogie and Bacall because Bacall (The Big Sleep, How to Marry A Millionaire, Key Largo) and Peck are so delightful. Bacall’s Marilla is at odds with the man’s man Peck, but they also have great fun and laughter together. Perhaps because the emphasis here is on the fashions, we don’t get many close ups of our leading lady. Bacall’s eyes are still enchanting, however, and that husky voice makes us believe that if anyone needed to whip Gregory Peck into shape, Lauren Bacall could do it.

Dolores Gray (Kismet) is sweet and capable as Mike’s prior flame Lori Shannon, but we might expect a bigger name as the song and dance femme fatale. Likewise, we might think of a better villain than Edward Platt (Rebel Without A Cause) as Martin Daylor. These players serve their parts just fine, but perhaps it is better that there’s no secondary folks stealing our star couple’s thunder. Though not a musical per se, there are a few standard numbers in a fun, film-within-a-film frame style. The breaking of the fourth wall is great, too. I’ve seen many old movies in my time, but recently I’ve been impressed with the wondrous powers of fifties Technicolor again. Today’s pictures can be so dark and depressing or digitally saturated and filled to the brim with computer imagery. It’s refreshing to see bright suits, colorful fashion, and brightly decorated mid century sets. Naturally, Designing Woman is about a fashion designer, so we get a peek at some sweet, timeless styles: Fedoras and pillbox hats, gloves, stoles, and those weird fifties cape coats that would look so dumb today, but look great here. It’s also nice to see sexy costumes that show off women’s hips and curvy bodies. And could we also take a moment to enjoy $5 being enough for a cab?

Outside of being the perfect time capsule of colorful mid-century New York hijinks, there’s nothing wrong with Designing Woman. Modern audiences who love the nostalgia and charm of old will delight here, and contemporary romantic comedy fans should take up a viewing to see how the genre’s supposed to be done. Those who’ve already fallen in love with Gregory Peck or Lauren Bacall can love with the great pairing and performances in Designing Woman today.

09 February 2010

Lonelyhearts (1958)

Lonelyhearts Heavy and Monty-riffic
By Kristin Battestella

Lonelyhearts [VHS]I’ve been making a point to upgrade my Montgomery Clift VHS collection to DVD, but alas, some of his movies-like 1958’s Lonelyhearts- are not available on DVD, much less blu-ray. For shame!

Adam White (Clift) is an idealistic young journalist looking for his big break at The Chronicle. Adam’s boss, a cynical and sour husband William Shrike (Robert Ryan) contests his protégé’s hopeful outlook by giving him the ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ column. Citizens write to Adam with their troubles-everything from the lovelorn to the ill, injured, or worse. Instead of laughing the letters off or answering with popular, witty advice, Adam grows very conflicted about the column and the people needing his help. Shrike’s unhappy wife Florence (Myrna Loy) hates to see the growing change in Adam, as does his waiting girlfriend Justy (Dolores Hart). When Adam decides to contact one of his letter writers, Fay Doyle (Maureen Stapleton), complications arise that could destroy the already distraught and emotionally fragile Adam.

Today, Lonelyhearts would probably be played as a romantic comedy or witty insight into relationships and love. Television director Vincent J. Donehue’s (Peter Pan) approach, however, is a little melancholy to say the least. The examination of adultery, sin, idealism and cynicism is somewhat heavy-handed, but also a little too close to home. We don’t like facing the loss of love, innocence, loyalty, and honor. Modern audiences will either love Lonelyhearts’ well-played drama and realism or just hate the melodrama and dismiss it as depressing drivel. The fifties stylings may also hamper this brooding flick. The action here is largely played like the stage-understandably as Lonelyhearts is based on the Broadway adaptation of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West. The women are very dated to the time as well. Even though the film examines the troubles of the displeased housewife, these women are meant to be content waiting for their husbands, and Justy is very happy when she’s promoted from ‘file clerk’ to ‘secretary’!

I’m getting the hang-ups out of the way because once you accept Lonelyhearts as the disillusionment that it is, you can see that it’s not a bad movie. The pacing and editing is a little uneven, and the lesser characters aren’t given much room to shine, but Montgomery Clift once again puts his tormented heart and soul into what seems like his perfect part. Though tough living and a deforming car accident hampered what could have been of Montgomery Clift and his filmmaking, he’s still pretty and dang talented enough to carry Lonelyhearts. His Adam is charming, loveable, an everyman trying to make his way in the industry. Unfortunately, we slowly see-just like Adam- that he can’t fight the system without destroying himself. Knowing what we know of the ‘mincemeated’ Monty, Lonelyhearts takes on a new examination of shattered dreams and conflicts. Where does the drunken and depressed Adam begin and the injured and pained Monty end? You never get the feeling Clift is merely playing himself-oh no. Where another actor of the day could bubble over and ham it up for such a role, Monty’s methodical talent wins out with one hundred percent believability.

I’m sure there were budgetary concerns, but I dare say Lonelyhearts is a black and white picture due to the inability to film graceful up close shots due to Clift’s facial damage. Some of his finest films-exceptional films in their own right, really, like From Here to Eternity and A Place in the Sun and Red River- are all black and white. Yes, we have to consider the accident, but even so, Monty doesn’t seem to belong in color pictures-he only made three anyway. Though tragic, he seems the last of the fifties old school gents before James Dean and Marlon Brando took his method style towards youth and the rebellious sixties. Montgomery Clift has been alluded to in songs and pop culture, but he’s still a little unloved by the movie laymen in comparison to later method actors. Audiences and viewers I implore you, rectify this error immediately!

Well, now that I’ve taken care of the Clift showcase, let’s talk about the rest of Lonelyhearts’ ensemble. Some of the newspaper office and boozing, bar hopping clientele are fairly stereotypical of 1950s dames and wise talkers, but it is kind of neat to see this time capsule of clickety clicking typewriters and cigarettes and stoles again. Robert Ryan (The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch) is a little too fast talking for modern young audiences who may not understand all the old school colloquialisms, but there’s a lot of truth in his cynicism. Cruel boss Shrike belittles everything from his wife to religion-but he sure can name all Ten Commandments, can’t he? Is he tough on Adam out of his own sorry outlook on life, or is he looking out for the unlearned youth in his own harsh but endearing way? Ryan’s antagonism fuels the onscreen spirals and train wrecks wonderfully.

Unfortunately, the lovely Myrna Loy (Best Years of Our Lives, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Thin Man) doesn’t have as much to do at the trapped Mrs. Shrike. Whatever complexity she could add is cut off by too little screen time. Likewise, Dolores Hart (King Creole) is a little mismatched as Montgomery Clift’s love interest. He seems older due to his injuries, but it’s also tough to discern Justy’s age as well-why is she always wearing drab housecoats and pinafores? She’s little more than a loving secretary who’s set her life aside to wait on her father and brothers and men in general it seems. Maureen Stapleton (Reds, Airport, Bye Bye Birdie) received a Supporting Actress nomination for her ambiguous Fay, but again, there’s only two or three critical scenes for her-not really enough to get to the meat of her desperate wifeness.

It’s a little too fifties and maybe Monty isn’t as pretty as he once was, but Lonelyhearts still packs a powerful punch in its examination of love and adultery. Folks looking for sex and abusive angst won’t find all that visually desensitizing glory here-but this is also one that probably can’t be appreciated or understood by the kiddies. Classic film fans can enjoy the old school filming style and the pushing the taboo envelope of what’s a relatively tame discussion today. Fans of Montgomery Clift certainly know and love his more famous pictures, but Lonelyhearts is not mere filler in a fine career that was cut all too short. Not only do we only have seventeen Clift movies to treasure, but again, this is another VHS to hang onto! Look for this one on television and pop in the blank tape or set up your DVRs. Study, pout, and watch Lonelyhearts whenever possible.

01 February 2010

I Think, Therefore I Review is in the Spotlight!

Hey there movie fans!

We're going into our third year of intelligent criticism on modern movies, classic film, timeless television, and even great books and music critiques. As we near 300 reviews for 2010, something amazing has happened! I Think, Therefore I Review has been feature in the British Magazine Total Film as part of its '600 Movie Blogs You Might Have Missed' expose series.

There we are on page 4 in nice red letters!


Very special Thanks to Total Film and the Large Association of Movie Blogs for establishing I Think, Therefore I Review in the movie blogging industry!