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James Bond returns to redeem a problematic franchise

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Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012 7:28 am

Happy holidays to one and all! It’s getting to be the most wonderful time of the year, and one of the most wonderful things about it is the bevy of movie options that typically grace us during the last couple months of the year.

We’re not exactly facing an avalanche of awesome flicks (and lest we forget that we’ve got the final entry in the putrid “Twilight” saga to contend with), but between “Flight,” “The Man with the Iron Fists,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Cloud Atlas” and “Lincoln,” we could be doing a lot worse. And of course there’s Ben Affleck’s tremendously effective Iranian hostage crisis thriller “Argo,” still playing wide and very much worth your time.

Things are going to slow down for the next couple weeks, with Ang Lee’s “The Life of Pie” being only truly exciting wide release coming our way for a while. But then we get the one-two-three punch of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Django Unchained” and “Les Miserables” to give us a very merry Christmas indeed. Check back in the coming weeks for reviews. In the meantime we’ll have a quick look at “Skyfall,” the latest 007 adventure, and I also have a few belated thoughts on all this “Star Wars” business that has captured the hearts and minds of obsessive geeks everywhere.

One could argue that the James Bond franchise should have been put out to pasture long ago — decades, even. One of the most notoriously uneven movie series of all time, the 007 films have been floundering since the mid-’70s, when Roger Moore and company decided to move the series away from cheeky spy games and into the realm of unintentional self-parody. The seemingly invincible superspy never really recovered from this lapse in judgment, and with the exception of a couple solid entries over the years (“The Living Daylights,” “GoldenEye”), for a long time Bond was more trouble than he was worth.

But then MGM decided to hop aboard the reboot train, and in 2006, with “Casino Royale,” Bond (now played by Daniel Craig) was reborn as a thoroughly modern big-screen hero — rugged, troubled, conflicted, always ready to dispense a vicious beating, or take one — but still imbued with a sense of old-school swagger and charm. But could it last? After the follow-up, “Quantum of Solace” (under-rated, in my estimation), many claimed that this “rebirth” was a ruse, and “Casino Royale” a mere fluke.

But rest assured: Bond latest outing, “Skyfall,” is indisputably a great Bond film, and the overwhelmingly positive response from critics and audiences alike will hopefully ensure that MGM sticks to this template from now on: rousing action, carefully parsed out to avoid overkill; subtle, gentle humor that pokes light fun at the series’ past without ever becoming obnoxious or self-conscious; capable, award-winning actors who realize that, at this point in the series, effective characterizations are even more important than chases and fight scenes; and an actual filmmaker — not a random studio stooge — who knows how to drive a narrative and set up a great shot.

“Skyfall” was helmed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Jarhead” and the regrettable “Revolutionary Road”), and throughout the movie it is obvious that an actual film artist was in the director’s chair. This is a gorgeous movie, one of the most visually striking I’ve seen all year, and even without all the espionage and action, I could have just sat back for two hours and appreciated the cinematography. As a bonus, though, the espionage and action are top-notch, and the film as a whole benefits from the considerable efforts of the star-studded cast. New players Naomie Harris, as Bond girl and co-operative Eve, and Ralph Fiennes, as a presumably insufferable M16 bureaucrat, are quite effective in their roles, which by the end turn out to be more relevant than you might assume.

But in the end the show belongs to Javier Bardem, whose delightfully over-the-top (but never quite scenery-chewing) Bond villain lends a great deal of creepy menace to the proceedings. He doesn’t show up until past the film’s halfway point, when he emerges as the central villain in an elaborate revenge plot to assassinate Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench). But once he peeks his head out from the shadows, “Skyfall” kicks into high gear and culminates in perhaps the most satisfying climax I’ve ever seen in a 007 movie (think “Straw Dogs,” only with automatic weapons). All in all, great fun.

Commentary

I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I would be remiss not to offer some comments on the big news regarding Disney’s acquisition of the Lucasfilm empire — which, of course, includes all rights to the “Star Wars” universe. According to studio officials, they plan to make use of this purchase as quickly and as often as humanly possible, and we’ll be seeing “Episode VII” in theaters within a few short years.

“Star Wars” fans, usually noted for their irritable nature, seem pleased with the idea of real sequels to their beloved original trilogy, especially after George Lucas himself lowered the bar about as far as it could go with his ill-conceived prequels. Adding fuel to the already raging geek fire is the possibility that the three primary cast members — Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher — may return to reprise their roles. (Something tells me Billy Dee Williams isn’t booked solid either, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.) I don’t self-identify as a “Star Wars” nerd (more of an Indy guy myself), but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this is something I’ve been dreaming about for more than 20 years.

So the big question is: With Lucas only on board as a creative consultant, who’s the right pick to direct these bad boys? Names have been swirling around the rumor mill, most notably Matthew Vaughn (those rumors quickly dissipated), J. J. Abrams, Joss Whedon and Brad Bird. Since Abrams is a borderline-hack who already has control of the “Star Trek” franchise, and since Whedon is a far better writer than filmmaker, I’m placing my bets on Brad Bird. “The Iron Giant” and “The Incredibles” demonstrated his ability to tell a well-paced, character-driven story, and the recent success of “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” showed us that, even in the realm of live action, he operates like a seasoned pro. Bird would be a very rational, very safe choice to continue the series.

But he wouldn’t be the best choice, and even if he does end up landing a trilogy, who says things have to stop there? Provided the movies are made by real, proven filmmakers with a clear, original vision, who says we couldn’t have five more trilogies? Or even 10? “Star Wars” embodies an entire universe, and the possibilities for exploration are endless.

But, even if they’re certified geniuses, some directors simply aren’t suited to the material. (As much as I love Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson and Lars von Trier, I have a hard time envisioning what their take on “Star Wars” would look like.) It’s all about finding that perfect balance of storytelling ability and visual appeal, of action and pathos. With that in mind, here are my top 10 choices, in no particular order: David Fincher, Duncan Jones, Alfonso Cuaron, Ben Affleck, Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, Wong Kar-Wai, Darren Aronofsky, Nicolas Winding-Refn and Kathryn Bigelow. Make me proud one time, Hollywood. One time.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jackjackgittes@gmail.com.

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