Aug 16

Russell Brand says humor is a survival instinct

Editor’s note: As my loyal readers may have noticed, it’s been several months since I last posted on “She Likes to Watch.” The reasons for my lengthy absence include an increased work load, furlough and vacation time, and some technical difficulties that have since been resolved. However, I hope to begin posting again on a semi-regular basis as my schedule allows. Thank you for your patience, and happy reading!

Russell Brand survived a tough childhood to become one of comedy’s brightest stars

By most standards, British comic Russell Brand had a fairly horrific childhood.

Russell Brand will perform in San Luis Obispo as part of his Messiah Complex World Tour.

Russell Brand will perform in San Luis Obispo as part of his Messiah Complex World Tour.

His parents divorced when he was just 6 months old, leaving his mother to raise Brand on her own with only occasional visits from his philandering dad. At age 7, Brand was sexually abused by a tutor. Around the same time, his mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer, then breast cancer, forcing Brand to live with relatives.

By the time the budding performer reached his teens, he was battling bulimia, drug and alcohol addiction and a host of other ills.

Brand survived, miraculously, to become a successful stand-up comedian and actor known to American audiences for his memorable turns in “Arthur,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek” and the “Despicable Me” movies. He’s currently entertaining audiences via his Messiah Complex World Tour, which finds the performer discussing such controversial figures as Jesus Chris, Che Guevara and Adolf Hitler.

“I think that adversity is very good training in character and possibly in humor,” said Brand, who performs tonight at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo. “There’s a universality around humor that suggests it can flourish in any conditions, but if you need to make people laugh for some reason, it’s a skill that you will develop. Giraffes have got long necks for a reason.”

And comedians have a sense of humor for a reason, he added, if only to “put distance between themselves and sadness.”

I recently interviewed Brand about his comedy, his convictions and his Messiah Complex World Tour. (You can read the bulk of the interview right here.) Here are some interesting tidbits that didn’t make it to the print edition.

Your on-air evisceration of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” hosts received a lot of play online. How representative is that interview of your typical interactions with the media?

Usually people are more polite. I’m not worried. I probably am emotionally affected if people are not polite to me but that’s not particularly pertinent or relevant. But it is relevant to have news organizations that propagate an idiotic agenda to keep people hypnotized and spellbound when there are important and effecting things happening in the world.

So when these interviewers are more fascinated by your wardrobe than your message, they’re probably missing the point?

You can’t blame any individuals. All of the people that are concerned about things that are important are filtered out of the (place) when they’re employing interns.

Do you feel that your rock-star persona has a way of overwhelming your message?

I don’t know. I don’t know what other people think, and it’s none of my business. And it’s also I don’t care. (laughs)

Your television show, “Brand X with Russell Brand,” wrapped its second and final season in May. What was your original vision for that show?

Just doing stand-up (comedy) on the telly, like really spontaneous … It’s really hard to make that television. There’s so many requirements. It was a learning experience for me.

What did you learn?

(To) allow the energy of what’s happening to guide you. Don’t try to force things. Do what is there. Do what is in front of you. You will get taken care of.

When the world wants that television program, that television program will happen. That’s not (to say) “Don’t be innovative,” but … It’s like nylon. All those people who were trying to design nylon in New York could have stayed home and watched the television, and nylon would have still got invented. Or all the people in London could have sat around smoking marijuana, and nylon still would have got invented because the world wanted nylon at that time.

Things will happen, even things that are innovative. I think that human beings are just a portal, a vessel, for a far greater, far more powerful, less easily discernible energy. So just allow that to guide your life and that will be fine.

Can you give me an example in your life where you followed that philosophy?

Yeah, in those films with Judd Apatow. I didn’t go right now to Hollywood. I wanted to be in movies for ages, but the world didn’t want me to be in movies so I wasn’t.

Then I went to America and thought, “Oh I’ll audition for this Judd Apatow movie.” … I hadn’t read the script so I was just myself and they put me in the film.

Which of your acting roles are you most proud of?

Dr. Nefario in “Despicable Me.” It’s the world’s most successful movie.

Which role was the most fulfilling?

All the stuff with Judd Apatow and Jason (Segel), what I call the Snow stuff. … I love working with those people. It feels good to improvise.

Jan 10

Meet the real Abraham Lincoln, warts and all

Daniel Day-Lewis gives another Oscar-worthy performance as the title character in “Lincoln.”

Steven Spielberg’s biopic “Lincoln” takes an honest look at Honest Abe

Steven Spielberg is the master manipulator of the movies.

Capable of plucking our heartstrings like a harpist, he preys on our emotions with larger-than-life heroes, sweeping cinematography and soaring soundtracks. When he wants us to gasp, we gasp. When he wants us to weep, we turn on the water works.

So it comes as somewhat a surprise that Spielberg’s biopic “Lincoln” offers a portrait of our 16th president that’s often less than flattering.

His Abraham Lincoln, brought to roaring life by Daniel Day-Lewis in a virtuoso performance, is a man of intelligence and resolve. He’s also cunning, crafty and willing to use almost any means at his disposal — bribery, intimidation, misdirection — to accomplish his admittedly worthy goals

Rather than attempt to encompass Lincoln’s entire presidency, “Lincoln” wisely focuses the final four months of his life — and his campaign to pass of the 13th Amendment, which would revise the U.S. Constitution to outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude.

It’s a mission that finds him constantly butting heads with the likes of influential Republican Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbook), who wants Lincoln to broker a peace deal with the Confederates, and Radical Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a resolute abolitionist who worries the president will abandon his promises of emancipation once the brutal, bloody Civil War has ended.

In the meantime, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Stathairn) must find a way to win over enough Democrats to ensure the amendment’s passage in Congress.

They secretly hire unsavory lobbyist William Bilbo (James Spader) and his cohorts (John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to seek out lame-duck Democrats willing to change their votes in exchange for plush public posts.

Some bite. Others do not. And all this skulduggery does not go unnoticed by pro-slavery Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and his allies.

Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” “Lincoln” offers a refreshingly honest look at a public figure who has been idolized, mythologized and lionized since — spoiler alert — his assassination in 1865.

Here is a self-schooled lawyer and politician who uses his wit like a weapon. He’s deeply moral but unquestionably practical, exceptionally well-read yet always willing to trade on his reputation as backwoods bumpkin and folksy storyteller.

In one delightful scene, the president shares a slightly off-color tale about a toilet — prompting Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) to protest, “You’re going to tell one of your stories! I can’t stand to hear another one of your stories!”

Spielberg doesn’t shy away from Lincoln’s home life either, delving into his complicated relationships with his tart wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and distant eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln(Joseph Gordon-Levitt). We see Lincoln grieve over the early death of his son Willie, and dote on his youngest surviving son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath).

Adding yet another Oscar-worthy performance to a career that has included Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” and Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” is Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the most powerful actors of his general. He is every inch the president, from his lanky, awkward frame to his reedy yet piercing tenor.

As Mrs. Lincoln, Sally Field encourages a sympathetic view of one of the most maligned first ladies in American history. Her turn as a sentimental matron might be a bit broad but it goes a long way toward rewriting the history books.

The other powerhouse performance in “Lincoln” belongs to Tommy Lee Jones as the irascible firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. After a string of roles in which he’s been required to play his emotional cards close to the vest, it’s endlessly enjoyable to watch Jones thunder and roar and rage — his deeply creased face awash with sardonic humor and profound irritation.

The rest of the cast is a “who’s who” of terrific character actors, from Jackie Earle Haley to Michael Stuhlbarg. Holbrook is likable as Blair, and Jared Harris has a nice, brief turn as General Ulysses Grant, to whom he bears a spooky resemblance.

Like all Spielberg dramas, “Lincoln” has its share of big emotional scenes punctuated by inspiring speeches and stirring musical flourishes. But they’re matched by quieter moments, resulting in a more thoughtful, intimate film where most of the heavy lifting is done by dialogue.

Despite occasional schmaltz, “Lincoln” makes for a splendid history lesson.

***

“Lincoln” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.

Jan 09

"Les Miserables": Do you hear the people sing?

Anne Hathaway performs “I Dreamed a Dream” in the new movie musical “Les Misérables.”

New movie adaptation of “Les Misérables” is simply spectacular

Anne Hathaway’s eyes are pools of misery.

Her anguished gaze seems to take in everything: the dark, dingy room, her tattered clothes, her pinched cheeks and cruelly cropped hair. Then her mouth opens, and a torrent of anguish comes pouring out — as pure an express of loss and longing as ever heard on screen.

The song is “I Dreamed a Dream,” undoubtedly the most famous number in the mega-hit musical “Les Misérables” and a favorite among altos. Yet Hathaway’s performance in Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation is so raw, so moving that it’s difficult to imagine anyone — not even “Britain’s Got Talent” success story Susan Boyle — imbuing that theatrical songbook staple with more meaning.

Sitting as it does at the intersection of Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard, “Les Misérables” offers the best of both words: moments of aching intimacy like Hathaway’s solo coupled with unbridled, unabashed spectacle.

Although the vocal performances don’t always meet expectations — these are well-trained celebrities, after all, not professional recording artists — the acting, casting, costuming and set dressing might just set a new standard for movie musicals.

Like Victor Hugo’s book and Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical, “Les Miz” — as it’s known to legions of theater fans — opens in 1815, roughly 15 years after the end of the French Revolution.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, superb) has just been released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence. His original crime? Breaking a window and stealing a piece of bread to feed his sister’s starving child.

Valjean’s sense of freedom is short-lived when he realizes he must carry a yellow parole card for the rest of his life, forever haunted by his past. In the eyes of society and the law — particularly those of his former prison guard, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) — he will always be a criminal.

Only a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson*) takes pity on Valjean, offering him not only food and shelter but his best silver. The ex-convict decides to start his life anew under an assumed name.

Eight years later, he’s living as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.

One of his employees, Fantine (Hathaway), gets in a fight with her fellow factory workers when they discover that she has an illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), currently in the care of an innkeeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter).

Forced out onto the streets, Fantine is forced to sell her locket, her hair, her teeth and eventually her virtue. It’s there, among the impoverished prostitutes and well-heeled johns that frequent the city’s red light district, that Valjean discovers her, desperately ill.

He promises the dying Fantine to care for Cosette as if she was his own. But Javert, who’s now aware of Valjean’s true identity, has other plans for the ex-con.

Valjean must flee into the night once more, this time with a fresh sense of purpose.

A monumental production worthy of the original musical, “Les Misérables” will undoubtedly secure another Academy Award nomination for director Tom Hooper, whose previous movie, 2010′s “The King’s Speech,” won four Oscars.

An Oscar nod is most certainly in store for Anne Hathaway, who brings a remarkable rage — mixed with sorrow and pain — to her role as Fantine, the most miserable of “Les Misérables.” Although she appears in less than half the film, her performance will stay with filmgoers long after she’s vanished from sight.

As Jean Valjean, who experiences imprisonment, freedom, flight and fatherhood over the course of 17 years, Hugh Jackman is a strong, inspiring presence bursting with brio.

His counterpart, Russell Crowe, seems significantly less at ease as unyielding Inspector Valvert, whose slavish devotion to his duty leaves him incapable of pity. Part of the reason may lie in the Aussie rocker’s limited singing range; his baritone often sounds thin.

Dishy Eddie Redmayne is more compelling as Marius, the idealistic student revolutionary who falls for teenage Cosette. Whether comforting his dying friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) during “A Little Fall of Rain” or saluting his dead comrades in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” his tenor sings out sweet and true.

Unfortunately, Amanda Seyfried — whose soprano sounds great, not surprisingly — doesn’t have much to do as beautiful, virtuous Cosette. Her character’s simply a bit boring.

What little levity exists in “Les Miserables” comes courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who provide welcome comic relief as Eponine’s parents, the deliciously unscrupulous Thenardiers. (Even young Daniel Huttlestone, as plucky street urchin Gavroche, manages to add some spark to the grim, gritty proceedings.)

With its lengthy run-time and admittedly melodramatic plot, “Les Misérables” might be a bit of a long slog for folks who aren’t accustomed to Broadway musicals. There’s almost zero spoken dialogue during the 157-minute film, and all relevant plot developments are conveyed as song lyrics.

But for those who love achingly raw performances and emotion-packed musical numbers in lavish period settings, the experience couldn’t be more rewarding.

***

* Fun fact: Colm Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean on stage in London and New York City.

***

“Les Misérables” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.

Dec 13

All the world’s a stage in "Anna Karenina"

An aristocrat (Keira Knightley) and a cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) begin a passionate affair in “Anna Karenina.”

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts …”

– “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare

Keira Knightley stars in a sumptuous adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel

“Anna Karenina” is a tragedy of truly operatic proportions.

Filled with sumptuous beauty and sweeping performances, it’s a theatrical marvel — both visually and emotionally stunning.

The curtain opens on the pomp and pageantry of a truly Gilded Age: Imperial Russia, circa 1874.

Our prima donna is Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), a beautiful, passionate and privileged woman wed to a stern, principled government official (Jude Law). Like that of her husband, her reputation in aristocratic circles is spotless, her conduct beyond reproach.

That all changes when Anna travels by train from St. Petersburg to Moscow to visit her brother, civil servant Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden), whose dalliances with the family governess have landed him in hot water with his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). On board, she bumps into Countess Vronskaya (Olivia Williams), whose affaires de coeur are legendary in upper-crust society, and her equally promiscuous son, dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Vronsky may be technically off-limits — after all, he’s romantically linked to Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) — but the spark that flies between them is unmistakable.

Those feelings are later fanned into flame at a ball when Vronsky takes Anna in his arms, ignoring Kitty — and the hushed reactions of the shocked onlookers — entirely.

Anna is clearly disturbed by such a public indiscretion, but she can’t deny the desperate attraction she feels. “If you have any thought for me, you will give me back my peace,” she pleads.

“There can be no peace for us,” Vronsky replies, “only misery, and the greatest happiness.”

His words prove prophetic. As the adulterers embark on a passionate love affair, Anna finds herself the subject of ruthless gossip, scorned by her humiliated husband and shunned by all but her closest friends. Whispers gradually build to roars.

Anna and Vronsky’s torrid tryst stands in sharp contrast with the slow, sweet courtship of Kitty by Oblonsky’s landowner friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s more comfortable swinging a scythe in a wheat field than holding court with his fellow aristocrats. Theirs is the film’s only unsullied relationship, as pure as Anna’s is poisonous.

In the face of certain ruin, Anna must decide whether she’s willing to sacrifice everything — her adorable young son, her social status, even her life — for the sake of love.

Oscar nominee Keira Knightley, who previously worked with director Joe Wright in “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” is electrifying here as the title tragic heroine — torn between passion and devotion, wracked with jealousy and consumed with fear.

Whether shrouded by veils or festooned with feathers, she suffers in silence and magnificent rages. (The camera clearly loves doe-eyed, swan-necked Knightly; her elegant profile appears on screen so many times it could be considered a visual motif.)

She finds a charming foil in Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a curly-haired up-and-comer whose credits include “Kick-Ass,” “Nowhere Boy” and “Savages.” Here he provides his most compelling performance yet.

Rounding out the love triangle is “Sherlock Holmes” star Jude Law, playing convincingly against type as pious patriarch Count Karenin. He’s an stiff yet sorrowful presence.

Wright provides a suitably splendid setting for his star-packed cast. Working with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Sarah Greenwood, he creates an atmosphere of art and artifice — part grand theater, part cinematic marvel — that turns private moments into public entertainment.

In this surreal world, the stage serves as a ballroom, banquet hall, theater, race track and ice skating rink, while backstage areas become bedrooms and catwalks double as grimy city streets. Toy trains track across frozen landscapes. Horses careen past footlights.

There’s a sense of the characters being constantly on display. Only off-stage — away from the prying eyes and judgmental hearts of snobby society matrons– can the characters comfortably express themselves.

Although “Anna Karenina” is unquestionably lush — Jacqueline Durran’s gorgeous costumes and Dario Marianelli’s swooningly romantic score are practically worth the price of admission alone — all of those artistic trappings occasionally obscure the film’s bigger themes, including faith, fate, morality, inequality and, of course, love in its many forms. I can’t imagine “Anna Karenina” author Leo Tolstoy, that austere old saint, would have been very happy about that.

But does it matter Tolstoy would have thought?

This is a production in the truest sense of the word, an astounding achievement in filmmaking. To view “Anna Karenina” as anything else is to ignore its deep, abiding beauty.

***

“Anna Karenina” image courtesy of Focus Features.

Nov 16

Abraham Lincoln: A life in pictures

"Lincoln" star Daniel Day-Lewis is the latest actor to play president Abraham Lincoln on screen.

Honest Abe has proven a popular subject for filmmakers over the years

Was Abraham Lincoln our most cinematic president?

From his hardscrabble childhood on the frontier to his dramatic death due to an assassin’s bullet, Lincoln lived a life fraught with hardship, triumph and tragedy.

He shepherded the nation through its greatest crisis — the American Civil War, a period of unprecedented bloodshed and destruction — while preserving the Union, ending slavery and ushering in a new period of economic and political reforms.

On top of that, Honest Abe was a primarily self-taught scholar, a skilled politician and an accomplished orator and writer — the kind of charismatic public figure* who could hold a crowd in thrall.

No wonder he’s proven such a popular subject** for filmmakers over the years.

Steven Spielberg’s insightful historical epic “Lincoln,” which opens in theaters today, stars Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis as the our nation’s 16th president.

Strangely enough, it’s not the first film this year to feature the commander-in-chief in a starring role. In “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” released in theaters this summer, a younger, hunkier Abe (Benjamin Walker) wrecks vengeance on the bloodsuckers who murdered his mother.

In honor of “Lincoln,” here are five more movies that celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

***

“Young Mr. Lincoln”(1939)

Henry Fonda is the very picture of decency and dignity as Abraham Lincoln, a young Illinois lawyer facing his greatest court case. Here, he defends two men accused of murder, mourns the death of his sweetheart, courts his future wife, and eyes a career in politics.

“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”(1940)

This time it’s Raymond Massey (“Arsenic and Old Lace”) sporting the familiar stovepipe hat. This Oscar-nominated film follows Lincoln from his days chopping wood in Kentucky to his election to the presidency in 1860.

“The Lincoln Conspiracy” (1977)

What if Lincoln’s assassin wasn’t captured and killed shortly after the president’s slaying? What if he escaped to Canada instead? That’s the premise behind this thriller, a favorite with conspiracy theorists.

“The Civil War” (1990)

Considered the definitive documentary about the Civil War, Ken Burn’s nine-episode miniseries traces that nation-shattering conflict from beginning to end — starting with the abolitionist movement and concluding with the beginning of Reconstruction.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough serves as narrator, while “Law & Order” actor Sam Waterston voices Abraham Lincoln. He previously played the president in the 1988 TV movie “Lincoln.”

“The Conspirator” (2010)

Directed by Robert Redford, this drama centers on Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the sole woman charged as a co-conspirator in the Abraham Lincoln assassination trial. Her only hope for salvation lies in her reluctant lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy).

***

*Sure, Lincoln, a tall, lanky man with dull, deep-set eyes, a sizable nose and a few prominently placed warts, was far from a matinee idol. But moviemakers tend to overlook that fact.

** According to the Internet Movie Database, Abraham Lincoln has appeared as a character in more than 300 films, television movies and TV shows. That figure, however, doesn’t include his seven video-game credits.

***

“Lincoln” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.

Nov 14

Bond is back — and better than ever — in "Skyfall"

British secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to his roots in "Skyfall."

Everyone’s favorite spy, Agent 007, returns in a thrilling new adventure

After half a century on the silver screen, James Bond still has a few surprises up his immaculately tailored sleeves.

The British secret agent is back — and, some might argue, better than ever — in “Skyfall,” a smart, sexy thriller that pays tribute to the franchise’s past while spinning Agent 007 forward into the future.

“Skyfall” establishes its tone early with a fun, frenzied chase through the streets and rooftops of Istanbul that rivals “Casino Royale’s” landmark parkour sequence. Aided by fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond bounces from Land Rover to motorcycle to train — all in pursuit of a hard drive containing a list of the MI6 agents secretly embedded with terrorist organizations around the globe.

When Bond corners his quarry on top of a speeding train, M (Judi Dench) orders Eve to “take the shot” — even if it means her favorite agent might end up in the crosshairs. She shoots. He falls.

Bond survives, of course, nursed back to health by a beautiful woman on a remote shore.

And when MI6 comes under attack, the super-spy resurfaces. Sure, he claims that he’s healed. But this is a broken Bond — the haggard, hollow-eyed shadow of his sleek, stylish self.

The trail — and the lovely Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) — leads Bond to Raoul Silva (a blond Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent with a deep-seated grudge against the organization that left him physically and psychologically scarred. His animosity toward M, who he mockingly calls “Mother,” is even further entrenched.

Like Bond, Silva has suffered betrayal. Like Bond, he’s a once essential player now considered obsolete. And like Bond, he has nothing to lose.

“We are the two rats left. We can either eat each other,” Silva says, “Or eat everyone else.”

In the hands of director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”), “Skyfall” isn’t just a return for Bond. It’s a return to his roots.

In fact, the 23rd entry in the James Bond franchise is the first film in a while that feels utterly linked to its lineage. In addition to the usual guns, gadgets and girls, we get in-jokes and knowing nods. Heart-pounding action scenes are interspersed with humor and a touch of nostalgia.

It doesn’t hurt that nearly every scene in this beautifully crafted thriller boasts visual and visceral impact. And the settings — ranging from the neon-lit high rises of Shanghai to the golden gambling houses of Macau to the rugged moors of Scotland — couldn’t be more stunning.

David Craig continues to prove his worth as a sexy, sardonic successor to Sean Connery and company. His character in “Skyfall” may be older, wiser and considerably worse for wear, but he manages to maintain the same sense of playfulness that makes Bond so irresistible. At the same time, he taps into more emotional depth than I thought previously possible.

As Silva, seething with hatred and puckish perversion, Javier Bardem makes a worthy adversary. He has the grit to beat Bond, the craft to confront M and her commanding officer, soldier-turned-desk jockey Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and the cunning to outwit Q (Ben Whisaw, a delightful addition to the franchise).

As for the women, Naomie Harris brings a sweet spunkiness to her cute coworker role, while Bérénice Marlohe is scintillating as a terrified femme fatale trying desperately to play it cool. But the real Bond Girl in “Skyfall” is Judi Dench, playing an aging matriarch clinging to the shreds of her now-tattered career.

She’s both ruthless and remorseful, torn between her position as a cutthroat commander in the war against terrorism and her role as a surrogate mother to an army of orphaned agents.

When Mallory urges her to “be sensible. Retire with dignity,” M retorts, “Dignity! To hell with dignity! I’ll retire when my goddamn job is finally done.”

Her reply could be interpreted as Bond’s own answer to a world that claims he’s old, out-of-date and altogether unwanted.

Unwanted? Hardly. If “Skyfall” is any indication, we want Bond than ever.

***

“Skyfall” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.

Nov 12

The Best of Bond, from "Goldfinger" to "Casino Royale"

Daniel Craig made his debut as British secret agent James Bond in 2006's "Casino Royale."

With “Skyfall” out in theaters, it’s time to rank our top 10 Bond films

Here’s a quick pop quiz.

1. What does British secret agent James Bond drink?
2. What weapon does he prefer?
3. What is his favorite form of transportation?

If you answered the above questions correctly (the answers are at the bottom of the page), you’re likely among the legions of James Bond fans flocking to theaters to see “Skyfall.” The 23rd installment in the popular franchise, which opened Friday, finds Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) facing off against the sinister Silva (Javier Bardem), a man with a mysterious connection to M’s (Judi Dench) past.

Here are 10 of my favorite Bond films, organized chronologically.

***

“From Russia With Love” (1963)

After years of thrilling readers on the printed page, James Bond made his big-screen debut in 1962′s “Dr. No.” In this well-crafted sequel, Sean Connery returns as Agent 007, a dashing, well-dressed British secret agent who’s equally at ease seducing a beautiful woman, matching wits with a dastardly villain or grappling with a seemingly endless succession of henchmen. “From Russia With Love,” which once gain finds Bond battling the international terrorist organization SPECTRE, features many of the elements that would become the hallmarks of the classic Bond canon: gorgeous girls, quirky bad guys, exotic locales and loads of cool gadgets.

“Goldfinger” (1964)

Shirley Bassey’s bold, brassy theme song sets the tone for this fabulously fun film, which pits Bond (Connery) against a German bullion dealer with a yen for gold. Auric Goldfinger is so obsessed with the precious metal that he has hat-throwing Korean manservant Oddjob (Harold Sakata) suffocate a girl using gold paint. Can our tuxedo-clad hero foil Goldfinger’s plot to turn Fort Knox into a radioactive slag-heap?

“Thunderball” (1965)

For impressive underwater antics, look no further than “Thunderball.” About a quarter of the film, set largely in the Bahamas, takes place below the surface. On a mission to find the two atomic bombs being held ransom by SPECTRE, Bond (Connery) meets shark enthusiast Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), SPECTRE’s card-playing, eye patch-sporting No. 2. Aided by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) and Largo’s lovely mistress, Domino (Claudine Auger), the agent dives into his assignement — culminating in a massive scuba battle beneath Largo’s ship, the Disco Volante. (Connery would reprise his role in the 1983 remake, “Never Say Never Again,” but it pales in comparison to “Thunderball.”)

“You Only Live Twice” (1967)

Two words: volcano lair. That astonishing set piece, designed by “series regular Ken Adam” is one of the coolest things about this Far East thriller, which also features a theme song performed by Nancy Sinatra and a script penned by Roald Dahl. Bond’s adventures in Japan include marriage, murder and the first full appearance of SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Blofeld (Donald Pleasance). Sponge baths all around!

“Live and Let Die” (1973)

Blaxploitation, voodoo, alligators … Could Roger Moore’s first Bond movie be any more awesome? In this zany outing, which pits our plucky British agent against an international crime syndicate that includes a virginal tarot reader (Jane Seymour), a vicious voodoo priest (Geoffrey Holder) and a Caribbean dictator (Yaphet Kotto) who doubles as a Harlem drug lord, Moore quickly establishes himself as a fun, lighthearted alternative to Sean Connery’s smoldering spy. Still, it’s difficult not to wince whenever stereotypical Southern Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) lets loose with one of his oh-so-racist remarks.

“Moonraker” (1979)

Most of Moore’s Bond movies skew toward the silly side, but this space-crazed laugh riot might be his goofiest adventure of all. Bond’s search for a stolen space shuttle leads him from Los Angeles, where he meets industrialist Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) and scientist Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), to Venice to Rio de Janeiro. Eventually he and Goodhead end up in outer space, where they team up with toothy henchman Jaws (fan favorite Richard Kiel) to foil a plot to repopulate the earth with a genetically perfect master race. Seriously. Sheer bonkers.

“For Your Eyes Only” (1981)

Moore shows his steel in this Mediterranean adventure, his most serious outing as 007. (It’s still pretty silly.) Ordered to prevent a transmitter capable of commanding the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarine fleet from falling into the wrong hands, Bond teams up with Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), the scuba-diving daughter of a murdered marine archaeologist. — only to find himself in the midst of a power struggle between Greek businessman Aristotle Kristatos (“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” baddie Julian Glover) and genial smuggler Columbo (Chaim Topol of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame). Bond pushes physical boundaries as well; just watch him racing up a long flight of stone stairs to stop a speeding car.

“The Living Daylights” (1987)

Timothy Dalton only made two appearances as James Bond, but he definitely left his mark on the franchise. His version of the character — deadly serious, deeply earnest — stands out in stark contrast to Sean Connery’s swaggering machismo and Roger Moore’s comic charm. Here, he crosses paths with a sexy Soviet assassin (Maryam d’Abo) and an American arms dealer (Joe Don Baker) with a Napoleon complex in his Cold War quest to rescue Soviet defector General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé). Dig that the totally ’80s theme song by A-Ha!

“GoldenEye” (1995)

Pierce Brosnan makes his first, and arguably best, appearance as Agent 007 in the franchise’s first post-Cold War thriller. The Soviet Union’s legacy plays a big part in the plot, which revolves around the Janus crime syndicate’s attempts to control the GoldenEye satellite system. Together with a beautiful Russian programmer (Izabella Scorupco), Bond must battle Alex Trevelyan (Sean Bean), an ex-British agent turned terrorist, and Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a femme fatale who derives pleasure from causing pain. Engaging performances,impressive stunts and groundbreaking special effects make this a enjoyable jaunt.

“Casino Royale” (2006)

James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes back to basics in this reboot, which finds the spy at the beginning of his career. (Before the credits roll, we’ve watched him earn his 00 status in a brutal black-and-white fight scene.) From the parkour-inspired chase sequence through the streets and construction sites of Madagascar that seems to deny the laws of physics to the pivotal poker game in Montenegro, it’s a brilliant, convention-bucking ride. “Casino Royale” also boasts a great villain (Mads Mikkelsen) and one of the best Bond Girls in years, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a gorgeous government wonk who is as intellectual and polished as Bond is instinctual and raw.

***

Answers:

1. In Bond’s own words: “Vodka martini, shaken not stirred.”
2. A Walther PPK handgun.
3. An Aston Martin car.

***

“Casino Royale” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.

Oct 23

The horror, the horror: "Psycho" plays tonight in SLO

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Two horror classics — “Psycho” and “The Exorcist” — screen in San Luis Obispo this week

Some roles follow actors their entire lives.

Mention Anthony Hopkins, and you instantly picture Hannibal Lector. Harrison Ford is still linked to Han Solo. And Janet Leigh, whose credits include “Touch of Evil” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” will forever be associated with Marion Crane, the hapless victim in “Psycho.”

Leigh was already an established star with a string of popular hits, including “Little Women,” “Holiday Affair” and “Angels in the Outfield,” when she joined the cast of Alfred Hitchcock’s latest thriller. She reportedly took the role for $25,000, a quarter of her usual fee.

Although Leigh only appears in about a third of the 109-minute movie, the cool blonde leaves an undeniable impression.

Leigh appears as a lovelorn Phoenix secretary who steals $40,000 from her employer to help out her divorced boyfriend, Sam (John Gavin).

While in route to Sam’s California home, Marion stops at a remote roadside motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a nice young man with a domineering mother. Unfortunately, her relaxing after-dinner shower is interrupted by a mysterious figure wielding a knife.

Norman discovers Marion’s body and quickly disposes of the evidence, sinking her corpse, her car and her ill-gotten loot in a nearby swamp.

But covering up the crime isn’t quite that simple. Before long, a number of concerned citizens — including Sam, Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), and private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who’s been hired to recover the stolen cash — are knocking on the front door of the Bates Motel.

“Psycho” screens at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Fremont movie theater, 1025 Monterey Ave. in San Luis Obispo. Admission is $8.

Then, on Wednesday, the Palm Wednesday screening series makes its triumphant return with “The Exorcist.”

When actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) moves into a Washington D.C. neighborhood, she starts noticing dramatic changes in the behavior of her 12-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair.)

Chris initially connects Regan’s condition with puberty, but doctors suspect a brain lesion.

When medical test fail to find anything wrong, the increasingly desperate mother turns to the divine for help — calling in doubt-stricken priest/psychologist Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and grizzled archaeologist Father Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to perform an exorcism.

The winner of two Academy Awards, “The Exorcist” is known for its groundbreaking special effects and evocative visual storytelling.

“The Exorcist” screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Palm Theatre, 817 Palm St. in San Luis Obispo. Tickets are $8 apiece.

Palm Wednesday continues on Halloween — Oct. 31 — with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Oct 18

Truth is stranger than fiction in Ben Affleck’s "Argo"

Ben Affleck stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez in the historical thriller "Argo," based on a true story.

“Argo” gets its white-knuckle thrills from real-life events

Whoever coined the expression “Truth is stranger than fiction” may have had “Argo” in mind.

Director Ben Affleck’s latest film focuses on the joint efforts of the Canadian and United States governments to smuggle six American diplomats out of the country during the height of the Iran hostage crisis.

Their plan, known alternately as the “Canadian Caper” and “The Hollywood Option,” was complex, convoluted and impossibly risky. And, remarkably, it worked.

Our story begins on Nov. 4, 1979, as a mob of angry Iranian students and militants storm the American Embassy in Tehran. Most of the embassy staffers and their Marine security guards are taken hostage, but six diplomats — Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane) and married couples Cora and Mark Lijek (Clea DuVall and Christopher Denham) and Kathy Stafford and Joseph Stafford (Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy) — manage to slip out the back door unseen.

The fugitives take shelter in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) and his wife (Page Leong), who risk swift and violent retribution if their house guests are discovered.

Rescue seems inevitable. But three months later, the stir-crazy Americans are still waiting for a way out.

Frustrated by the U.S. State Department’s inane rescue plans — one proposal involves dropping off a few bicycles so the fugitives, disguised as international do-gooders, can pedal to Turkey in the middle of winter — CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) formulates a plan of his own.

He’ll pose as a Canadian movie producer scouting locations for a science fiction film, pass off the American embassy workers as members of his production crew, and fly everyone out of Tehran’s sole commercial airport — right under the Iranian Revolution’s very noses.

First, however, he needs a faux film to back up his cover story.

Mendez and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), reach out Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who puts them in touch with curmudgeonly producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together, they set up a phony film studio, purchase a script (from a posturing Richard Kind), craft storyboards and get to work promoting “Argo,” a second-rate space opera that borrows elements from “Flash Gordon” and “Star Wars.”

“If I’m going to do a fake movie,” Siegel declares, “it’s going to be a fake hit.”

It’s all fun and games for a while. Then Mendez goes to Iran, and the mission begins in earnest.

Affleck and first-time screenwriter Chris Terrio keep the tension taut throughout “Argo,” toying with our emotions as Mendez and his charges dart in and out of danger — sometimes unknowingly. When the faux film crew navigates the city’s historical Grand Bazaar, the effect on the audience is white-knuckled terror.

At the same time, “Argo” is a surprisingly enjoyable film, stuffed with crowd-pleasing one-liners, picture-perfect set dressing, and an endless parade of recognizable actors.

Arkin and Goodman have particularly strong chemistry as a couple of wise-cracking Hollywood insiders pressed into service for their country. (Their obscenity-laden exchanges are almost worth the price of admission alone.) Affleck, for his part, nicely underplays his role as a courageous, principled Average Joe who just wants to make it home to his wife and son.

Even the cinematography — done by Rodrigo Prieto of “Babel” and “Brokeback Mountain” fame — is flawless. Watching sections of the film, it’s clear that each documentary-style shot was painstakingly recreated from historical photos and news footage.

Of course, “Argo” doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story behind the Canadian Caper. It focuses mostly on CIA efforts and minimizes the Canadian government’s role in the unlikely rescue mission. Nonetheless, the movie remains an effective, and entertaining, history lesson — drawing indirect parallels between the Iran hostage crisis and our current kerfuffle in the Middle East.

Even if you know how “Argo” ends, you’re sure to learn something.

***

“Argo” image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and MovieWeb.

Oct 17

"Seven Psychopaths" lives up to its name

Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell make trouble in the new crime comedy "Seven Psychopaths."

“Seven Psychopaths” serves up a veritable smorgasbord of crazed killers

Note: Today’s guest reviewer is artist, photographer and filmmaker Chris Daly, who recently directed a music video for local country band Red Eye Junction. Check out his portfolio here.

In Martin McDonagh’s first film, “In Bruges,” we got a taste of nasty, foul-mouthed, suicidal murderers.

In “Seven Psychopaths,” his sophomore effort, we get the whole smorgasbord.

Right off the bat, the film opens on two hitmen waiting for their target to appear. They discuss their nervousness in detail, but it is clear they’ve done this thing before. Are we being introduced to our first two psychopaths?

Hold on a second. Before their mark shows up, this pair of dimwits is gunned down by a man they would have seen coming — if they’d just turned around. And so we meet our first psychopath, the mysterious Jack O’ Diamonds Killer.

This leads us to Marty (Colin Farrell), an Irish screenwriter with a drinking problem.

Marty’s latest script, aptly titled “Seven Psychopaths” is having trouble getting off the ground.The only psychopath Marty has come up with so far is a Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton), who patiently waits his whole life to get revenge for the slaying of his daughter.

So his best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell, perfectly cast), suggests that he write about the Jack O’ Diamonds Killer from the papers.

Billy and his friend, Hans (Christopher Walken) encounter another psychopath through their side business — kidnapping dogs and returning them to their owners for reward money.

Everything runs smoothly until they kidnap the wrong Shih Tzu, which belongs to a sadistic, out-of-his-mind gangster (Woody Harrelson). This man’s relentless quest to retrieve his dog could be compared to mop-topped villain Antoine Chigurh’s malicious pursuit of stolen money in “No Country for No Old Men.”

That’s only three psychopaths, you say? Don’t worry. Before this journey’s end, we’ll be treated to tales of serial killers, a vengeful Vietnamese priest and probably the most over-the-top movie shoot out I’ve seen in years.

“Seven Psychopaths” is a film that lives up to its name. The characters, whether big or small, all seem to have more than just one screw loose. The real story here, however, is writer/director Martin McDonagh and his career path.

Given the success of “In Bruges” — coupled with the popularity of “The Guard” a 2011 sleeper hit written and directed by his brother, John Michael McDonagh — it’s no surprise that Hollywood should haven taken note of McDonagh.

What’s a talented foreign director to do when given a big budget and big-name stars? Roll over and let the studios tell him what how they do things in this town? Not Martin McDonagh.

Instead, McDonagh gives Hollywood a hilarious gut punch of a film — relying on his strengths to write charming yet innocent villains who we love best when they’re saying the wrong thing.

“Seven Psychopaths” may slow a little halfway through, but the movie’s characters always have a trick up their sleeves. Or perhaps behind a cravat.

***

“Seven Psychopaths” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.

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