“Skyfall” Review: Striking the perfect balance

In some ways, it would be difficult to screw up a movie like “Skyfall.” In the year of the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, anticipation is at a high, and the team-up of Daniel Craig’s Bond and Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes sounded like a safe bet from the very beginning. But, a disappointing 22nd entry and a long hiatus cast doubt on the project. Thankfully, the filmmakers have done so much more than not screw up: they’ve created one of the best Bond films in the franchise’s storied history.

One of the most impressive things about “Skyfall” is how comprehensible the plot is. It may sound like an odd thing to compliment, but, after one too many plot twists in “Casino Royale” and the utter incomprehensibility of “Quantum of Solace,” the fact that this film maintains an interesting plot throughout is no small feat.

An insider has infiltrated MI6’s security system and is now killing off and revealing the name of secret agents. Bond, naturally, is tasked with tracking down the killer and dispensing him with his signature brand of stylish justice. In the meantime, MI6 is forced to defend itself from the British government, which accuses the program of irrelevancy. The film is much more focused on both Bond’s motivations and M’s (Judi Dench) back story. Rather than a demanding mother, M is finally presented as a well-rounded character with complex motivations and history. Dench has fully embodied the role, and has never been better.

Speaking of interesting characters and top-of-the-game acting, Javier Bardem’s Silva easily qualifies as one of the best baddies in Bond history, up there with Dr. No and Goldfinger. Silva embodies all that makes a good Bond villain: complex motivations, interesting banter and all-around viciousness. If his garish blonde hairpiece is any indication, Bardem’s performance is every bit as good as his Oscar-winning performance in “No Country for Old Men,” (which, famously, featured an equally-bad wig). Don’t be surprised if Bardem’s name is mentioned around Oscar season again (although, a Bond movie may be too “mainstream” to receive that kind of attention, which is a shame).

One area the film should have no hesitation in picking up a nomination for is the cinematography. “Skyfall” is one of the best-looking films of all time, bar none. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference effective lighting makes. From the opening shot of Bond as a shadowy stick figure to an absolutely stunning fist fight in a brightly-lit Shanghai skyscraper, veteran Director of Photography Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo,”) interplay of light and shadow is a constant visual delight.

As the plot progresses and the audience becomes wrapped up in the characters, one thing is abundantly clear: “Skyfall” really feels like a Bond movie. As good as Craig’s previous outings were, they still felt like experiments in search of the Bond “formula.” Here, Mendes and crew have found it. Part of that has to do with Craig, who fully embodies the unlikely role of an aging Bond facing irrelevancy (a refreshing twist on the character). Beyond that, all the references, from the classic Bond theme to the various gadgets (courtesy of a great new Q, played by Ben Whishaw), reveal the filmmakers’ desire to allude to Bond’s past while still paving the way for the franchise’s future.

After just two movies, Craig’s Bond was starting to feel a bit stale. I didn’t think it was possible, but “Skyfall” reinvigorates the franchise. It’s intense, funny, gorgeous to look at, and a complete blast from start to finish. In a season of dreary Oscar-bait, it’s a jolt to the senses that you’ll want to see again as soon as it’s over. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 50 years of Bond, and I can’t imagine anyone, Bond savant or not, walking away disappointed.

“Wreck-it Ralph” Review

I am just old enough to remember a day when video game arcades were still relevant. Arcades like the Capcom-owned Nickel City, where I spent so many nickels for a good day’s entertainment, quickly fell by the wayside with the advent of the internet and high-definition gaming. Yes, we may have fancier graphics and more sophisticated mechanics, but there is still a hole left by true arcade gaming outside of amusement parks that nothing may ever truly fill.

“Wreck-it Ralph,” the latest from Disney animation studios, is nothing less than a love letter to the days when arcades ruled children’s lives. The arcade where the movie’s action takes place may very well make the film a period piece. It’s the kind of place where kids line up outside the door, full of sugar pockets full of quarters, waiting for the arcade to open.

In that arcade resides “Fix it Felix, Jr.,” a classic video game celebrating its 30th anniversary. In that game lives Wreck-it Ralph (John C. Reilly), a prototypical “bad guy” whose sole job is to wreck the same building, day after day. Felix fixes it, becoming a hero to the residents, while Ralph is cast out and forced to spend his nights sleeping in a garbage dump.

In an ingenious plot device, when the arcade closes, the video game characters finish their “day jobs” of acting out their games and proceed with their lives. The arcade cabinets are connected by Game Central Station, where all characters from different games can mill about and visit different game worlds.

After 30 years, Ralph has had enough of being the reviled villain, and decides he wants to try being a hero. So, he sets out for “Hero’s Duty,” a hardcore sci-fi action game, in hopes of winning a medal so that everyone back in his game will like him.

After Ralph wins the medal, things go horribly awry, and he finds himself in “Sugar Rush,” a candy-themed racing game, where he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who is determined to become a big racer in that game’s world. As his heart softens, Ralph decides he wants to help Penelope, in hopes that he will win his medal, which has been taken by King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the ruler of “Sugar Rush,” back.

If the names aren’t any indication, the film is replete with classic video game references, and the movie’s major joy comes from the resplendent visuals and the detailed backgrounds. Very few scenes do not feature a classic video game reference of some sort; everything from Pac-Man to Pong to Sonic the Hedgehog to Street Fighter. Even more obscure games like Tapper make appearances. The visuals are presented in stark contrast, as the worlds change from the gritty harshness or “Hero’s Duty” to the sumptuous brightness on display in “Sugar Rush.”

Most of the film’s humor will fly over kids’ heads, but they will enjoy the bright visuals; most of the film’s jokes are aimed squarely at the gaming faithful. Every once in a while, a movie comes along to cater to exactly the kind of geeky audience that eats stuff like this up. It’s by far the most overtly geeky movie since “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and will probably be looked upon with similar reverence by fanboys, although the mass-market appeal of “Ralph” should ensure it a much better fate at the box office.

As Ralph’s game hopping reveals a danger that threatens to overtake the entire arcade, an incredibly unique thrill ride is born. There’s just so much going on in “Wreck-it Ralph,” all of it entertaining and often quite funny, but it would be very easy for the filmmakers to lose track in the visuals and action and forget to create a compelling story at the center. Thankfully, the film has a surprising heart. Ralph is likable from the get-go, and his character growth seems natural and satisfying. His relationship with Penelope is one of the sweetest in recent memory, and even his interactions with Felix and the fellow characters in his game world never seem anything less that genuine. Reilly brings a surprising tenderness to the role, recalling some of his better roles in films like “Chicago” and “Gangs of New York.” The voice cast, which also includes Jane Lynch and Ed O’Neil, is excellent all around.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that the film felt the need to shoehorn in a traditional villain in order to have an epic climax. I was perfectly happy following along on Ralph’s journey to prove himself. Even worse, having a villain goes against the “bad guys are not really bad guys” theme that the movie tries so hard to get across.

But, that’s really a minor flaw in a film that exceeds expectations on every level. Some traditional Disney tropes are present and accounted for, but the unique characters, setting and dialogue give it more of the freshness of a golden-era Pixar film. If the classic arcade of yore is truly dying, “Wreck-it Ralph” is set to assure that it goes out in a blaze of glory. Even better, it’s a perfect opportunity for parents to introduce to their kids the games that defined their childhood.

Side note: There is a surprisingly excellent animated short titled “Paperman” that plays before the movie. As excellent as “Wreck-it Ralph” is, the short was still a highlight. It’s very likely a shoo-in for a ‘best animated short’ Oscar nomination. 

And So it Begins…


Wordle: Fall/Winter Movie Insanity

Are you ready? I sure hope you are. Hollywood has opened the floodgates. Look at all those movies. Just look at them. Are you done looking yet? Okay, I’ll wait….Yes, I made it. And it’s tiny. Ready to move on now?

Anyway, this weekend is just the beginning of the cinematic maelstrom that is the remainder of 2012. It’s the triple threat of “Wreck-it Ralph,” “Flight” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” Between Robert Zemeckis’ return to non-animated glory, Disney’s return to animated glory, and pure, ridiculous kung-fu fun, theatergoers will have a tough time choosing one movie (I wouldn’t normally advocate theater hopping, but I might be willing to make an exception this once).

And this weekend isn’t even close to the end of it. Next weekend brings two of the year’s most highly anticipated movies: 007’s return in “Skyfall” and Steven Spielberg’s Oscar bait “Lincoln.”

With your wallet empty and your eyeballs filled with stunning imagery, the likes of which have previously never been witnessed by mankind,Hollywood is content to finish you off with “Anna Karenina,” “Life of Pi,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Rise of the Guardians” and “Hitchcock” all set to release during November.

After that, you can enjoy your holiday season with your family in peace, not having to trouble yourself with the likes of “Les Miserables,” “The Hobbit” and “Django Unchained” releasing in December. Yeah, nobody wants to see any of those movies. At all.

Anyway, after grumbling how much Hollywood hates you for releasing garbage in the Summer and then bombarding you with awesomeness now, you’ll eventually need to resign yourself to the fact that you have to see most of these in theaters. So, however you plan to spend your movie going moments this Fall/Winter, I hope you’ll have a good time, and reflect upon the fact that we may be facing another “golden age” of film-making  Any way you slice it, it’s a great time to be a fan of the movies.