Two of Hollywood's most enduring franchisesJames Bond and Steven Spielbergreturn to theaters this week with stellar examples of their particular brands.
Bondthe super-cool, super-sexy British spy known as 007is celebrating 50 years of turning on movie audiences with Skyfall, the long-overdue latest edition to the series. As for Spielberg, the crowd-pleasing, most financially successful filmmaker of all time and the accidental inventor of the summer blockbuster is returning with the epic Lincoln. Skyfall offers the unadulterated diversions of a great spy thriller while Lincoln makes history entertaining on a grand scale. This is a rare case of a win-win for audiences who will be rewarded by taking in both filmscommerce and art both triumphing for once.
Like a child, I can't wait to get to the guilty pleasures inherent in Skyfall, which include the often shirtless, hunky Daniel Craig (hands down, the sexiest Bond); Judi Dench as his peppery boss, M, who has more screen time here than in previous outings; the usual assortment of eye-popping locations for the complicated and thrilling set pieces; and a swarthy new villain embodied by sloe-eyed Javier Bardemnot to mention a heavy whiff of bisexuality present in our dazzling hero and his nemesis (more on that later). After the traditional kick-ass opening sequence that finds Bond in pursuit of the usual baddie, skittering across the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and atop a speeding train in the surrounding countryside, we get another memorable title song (by Adele) over the title credits.
The stripped-down-to-the-marrow story (by openly gay writer John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) has an undercurrent that will resonate with longtime fans of the series: Bond and M are aging, relics of a time when spying included sports cars with ejector seats (the silver Aston Martin makes a nice cameo) and other out-of-date stealth gadgetry. Both have fumbled the ball when a zip drive containing the true identities of covert British intelligence agents embedded in terrorist organizations worldwide is stolen from M and slips out of Bond's fingers. Is it time for M to retire? Does Bond have the fortitude to keep up with the insanely tough demands of the job (not to mention the stamina to continue bedding the usual array of gorgeous beauties)?
The script pursues these questions as Bonds zeroes in on the thiefan elegant cyberterrorist with blonde highlights named Silva (Bardem) who wants revenge against M for past transgressions. When Silva first snares Bond in his web he flagrantly banters with him sexually … and Sir James teases right back, suggesting that he is no stranger to man-on-man encounters. But that tantalizing idea is set aside as the revenge plot kicks back in, leading to the climactic section taking place at Bond's boyhood country estate.
Director Sam Mendes, newly invigorating the series after the less-than-satisfying Quantum of Silence, keeps the action hopping, greatly aided by the sumptuous cinematography of Roger Deakins (the exotic locales glisten through his lens), Stuart and Katie Baird's razor-sharp editing and Thomas Newman's elegant, John Barry-inspired score.
Best, of course are the performances. In addition to the assured acting of Craig, who brings an emotional intensity to his succulent physicality and sophisticated demeanor, there's the delightful crack timing of Dench ("Don't cock it up!" she warns Bond) and M's moody introspection as well as some welcome new characters: Ben Whishaw as the fey (and I use the term affectionately) little tech geek Q, Ralph Fiennes as Dench's boss and, of course Bardem, having a hammy good time as Silva. Given all this, it's not surprising that Skyfall's 143-minute running time doesn't seem a bit extended. Rather, one sits there taking in this 23rd Bond adventure, wishing to be shaken and stirred indefinitely.
In a way, the same holds true for Spielberg's Lincoln. Based on an exceedingly literate script by gay writer Tony Kushner (who first collaborated with the director on 2005's Munich), this is hardly the dry history lesson or by-the-numbers biopic that one might expect. It expertly draws its audience in from the first iconic shot of Daniel Day-Lewis, in yet another jaw-dropping performance, as our 16th president. However, that is to be expected with Spielbergthe man who made the Holocaust riveting in Schindler's List, rewrote the book on glamorizing war in the savage first section of Saving Private Ryan and directed several other immersive historical dramas (Amistad, etc.)at the helm.
Kushner's script, winnowed down from 500 pages (!), ends up focusing on the last four months of Lincoln's lifemost specifically, the president's determination to pass the Thirteenth Amendment (the abolition of slavery) before the end of the bloody Civil War. A master tactician, Lincoln sets his staff to work on getting Congress to pass the amendmentsomething his cabinet warns him is nigh on impossible. Kushner's screenplay, which Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling Team of Rivals inspired, has tremendous theatrical flair (no surprise there from the playwright who brought us Angels in America) and the Congressional battles are tremendously engagingit's big fun to watch the characters squabble, fuss and really go at it.
The movie is essentially a large-scale drawing-room drama with lots of backroom political dealings and, for the first little while, we are trapped inside cramped interiors with clusters of characters vying for Lincoln's attention. But Lincoln, who is given to launching into meandering stories and who seems serenely confident and bemused by the constant tussles and flutterings around him, isn't about to be distracted from his goal and we see the determination underneath the easy mannerthe master politician at work on getting what he wants.
Day-Lewis (whose physical proximity to Lincoln is uncanny) gifts the tall, awkward man with the oddly high-pitched voice and slow drawl whom historians have described, as well as the profound sadness. His subtlety helps humanizes this nearly mythic figure, once again approaching the unparalleled acting glory he achieved in There Will Be Blood. Tommy Lee Jones, as irascible Lincoln supporter Thaddeus Stevens, and Sally Field, as the long-suffering Mary Todd Lincoln, are exceptional standouts in a dream castthe film is like a master class in film acting where even the actors in the tiniest parts shine. (These are the kinds of roles that actors dream of.)
The movie itselfthanks to Spielberg's experienced hand and the aid of his usual production teamis lyrical, graceful and feels a bit like one is aboard an elegant cruise ship gliding through a calm, glassy sea. One luxuriates amidst so much good acting, serene with the thought that a master technician is at the controls, with every detail thought out and presented just so.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Lincoln and Skyfall is that both pictures go beyond their expected boundaries. The Bond movie has much more depth than the usual 007 outing while Spielberg's biopic is sensationally entertaining as it delivers a truly involving history lesson. Both movies also trumpet a reinvigorated renewal of their brandsSpielberg is back, firing on all thrusters after the predictable though entertaining War Horse and Adventures of Tin Tin, while the Bond franchise looks to add another 50 years to its luster.
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