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[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone. I had the opportunity to see Skyfall at a screening of the recent AFI Festival in Hollywood, and wish to thank the AFI Festival for making that possible.]

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By Jason Apuzzo. How does James Bond do it? He barely seems to have aged a day. The famously overworked British Secret Service agent, drinker of vodka martinis, and seducer of dangerous women (why are Bond’s girlfriends always pointing guns at him?) is now 50 years old in the movies — yet it hardly shows.

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With Skyfall, the latest 007 thriller opening this weekend, it’s now been five decades since the Bond character debuted on screen in 1962’s Dr. No. Since that memorable first film, in which Sean Connery saved the world from a megalomaniac with metal hands — while rescuing Ursula Andress from the confines of a white bikini — James Bond has saved the world from nuclear bombs and space lasers, cheated death using jet packs and exploding cigarettes — and even found time to romance women with names like ‘Plenty O’Toole’ and ‘Xenia Onatopp.’

It’s been a busy, full life for the world’s most famous secret agent — which begs the question of why, as currently embodied by Daniel Craig in the latest film, the character suddenly seems so fresh and relevant to the world of today.

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Daniel Craig in "Skyfall."

The question arises because the James Bond of Skyfall no longer seems like an exhausted relic from another era, as he often did during the ’90s and early 2000s. Instead, he now feels like a character who has been fully and (for the most part) successfully reinvented as a merciless, sardonic and lethal warrior for our age of terror.

And although Skyfall isn’t quite the classic some critics are making it out to be, it’s easily one of the best Bond films since the 1970s.

On this point, I must confess to having given up on Bond long ago. Until recently 007 was looking like a tired hero — a guy in a middle-age crisis, a character to put in the next Expendables. M needed to send Bond into retirement — maybe ship him off with a fifth of vodka and a Russian mistress (I recommend Anya Amasova, aka Agent XXX from The Spy Who Loved Me) to James Bond Island off the coast of Thailand. Even SPECTRE would probably leave him alone.

After all, with the Cold War long over (despite Vladimir Putin’s best efforts), Great Britain no longer the force it once was, and with women less eager to play characters named ‘Kissy Suzuki’ or ‘Dr. Molly Warmflash,’ you’d think 007 would be quietly boxed away in the attic by now along with vinyl records and your parents’ fondue pot.

Casino Royale in 2006 seemed to change all that, but director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall really confirms it; Bond now absolutely works as a hero for the 21st century. The question is: why?

There are three reasons, in my opinion:

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Reinvented to fight the War on Terror.

1) Bond has been fully reinvented for the War on Terror era.

This process began in Casino Royale, but Skyfall digs much deeper into the purpose and mentality of our intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 world — and strongly reaffirms their value. Without giving away too much of Skyfall’s plot, suffice it to say that the entire purpose of the film is to re-invent the James Bond mythology to fit the current war, which as Judi Dench’s M memorably states is fought primarily “in the shadows” — with our enemies less likely to be nation states with massed armies than shadowy, sociopathic operators working within hidden networks.

And it’s precisely in this environment that Bond thrives.

As Skyfall opens, information pertaining to NATO penetration of worldwide Islamic terror cells has been stolen in Istanbul, and Bond has to get the data back before Western agents are exposed and killed. As the story unfolds, Bond’s value as an experienced field agent — able to make human judgments in murky situations and act, where technology alone is inadequate — is constantly reinforced, even when his physical and emotional resources are depleted.

Bond and his colleagues are also depicted as patriotic and reflexively selfless, to the point of being subtly associated with Winston Churchill and his legacy. (Look for references to Churchill’s wartime bunker along with visual cues of a vintage British bulldog.) In the midst of this, the tone of the film is more sober — and befitting of wartime — than what we’ve seen from the Bond series in a long time. Continue reading »

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By Joe Bendel. Ivan Naidyonov could be called the tank whisperer. He seems to have the mystical power to commune with armored vehicles, but his environment is pure blood and guts. War is still war, except more so on the Eastern Front in Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger, which Russia has chosen as their official submission for this year’s foreign language Academy Award.

Hoping to put the debacle of last year’s submission (Friend of Putin Nikita Mikhalkov’s universally panned Burnt By the Sun 2: Citadel) behind them, Russia has opted for another well-connected standard bearer in Mosfilm head Shakhnazarov. However, in this case the quality of the film and the director’s critical reputation represent a considerable step up.

Picking through the remains of a routed Russian tank division, soldiers find a charred driver who is somehow still breathing. Despite suffering severe burns to ninety percent of his body, the tank mechanic makes a full recovery, except for his acute amnesia. Rechristened Ivan Naidoyonov (“found Ivan,” roughly), he is sent back to the tank corps. He is a whiz at fixing and operating tanks, but he is a little spooky. Naidyonov claims tanks speak to him and even starts praying to the “God of tanks” enthroned in the big garage in the sky. Yet he is just the man to track down and destroy the white German super tank that seemingly materializes out of nowhere to wreak destruction on blindsided armored columns.

For Naidyonov it is personal. The spirits of the destroyed tanks have spoken to him about the White Tiger. So perfect are its maneuvers, he is convinced its crew is “dead.” He can sense it before it appears and it seems to be hunting specifically for him.

White Tiger might sound like Life of Pi in a tank, but at every battlefield juncture, Shakhnazarov chooses grit over woo-woo. Everyone thinks Naidyonov is nuts, but they secretly suspect there might be something to him – particularly Major Fedotov, the counter-intelligence officer in charge of the hunt for the White Tiger. The resulting vibe is like The Big Red One as re-written and Russified by Melville.

With his studio’s resources at his disposal, Shakhnazarov stages some fantastic tank battles, vividly conveying their force – and also their limitations. During the first two acts, White Tiger is a completely original, totally engrossing war film. Strangely, though, the final third is largely dominated by completely unrelated scenes of the German surrender and Hitler’s ruminations in the face of defeat. It is like White Tiger won the war, but lost the peace. Still, since it is a war movie, the former is more important.

When Naidyonov and his obsession are center stage, White Tiger is genuinely riveting, with a good measure of credit due to its primary leads. Aleksey Vertkov is perfect as Naidyonov. Refraining from distractingly ticky or showy behavior, he is compellingly “off” in a way that could believably be recycled back into the Soviet war machine. Even though in reality his character would have probably been purged halfway through the film, Vitaliy Kishchenko’s work as the square-jawed Fedotov is similarly smart, understated, and intense.

It is hard to understand why Shakhnazarov would establish such a powerfully focused mood, only to break it up down the stretch. Still, White Tiger boasts two excellent performances and some impressive warfighting sequences, which is more than many of its fellow contenders can offer. Academy voters certainly love them some WWII, so it is probably worth keeping an eye on. Shakhnazarov has also had American distribution for past films like Vanished Empire, so White Tiger should have international legs. Regardless of its odd flaws, it is a film of considerable merit that ought to find an audience.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on November 9th, 2012 at 2:20pm.

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Nov 092012

By Joe Bendel. In the working class seaside village of Mohang, there is not a lot to do except drink. Fortunately, that is what Hong Sang-soo’s characters do best. Intimacy, on the other hand is a problem – especially for a trio of French women stumbling through cultural and linguistic barriers. Isabelle Huppert plays all three of them in Hong’s sort-of English language debut, In Another Country, which opens today in New York.

Dodging debt collectors, film student Wonju and her mother are laying low in a sleepy Mohang inn. To pass the time, she starts writing a screenplay very much in the style of Hong Sang-soo. It is a triptych in which the French expat Anne comes to the very same hotel under different circumstances, yet has similar experiences each time.

The first Anne is an accomplished filmmaker, who tries to discourage the attentions of a drunken colleague with a very pregnant wife. The second Anne is cheating on her wealthy husband with an almost-famous film director. The third Anne bitterly resents her ex-husband leaving her for a Korean woman, but it is not hard to understand why he dumped her. In each case, she flirts with the meathead lifeguard with varying degrees of ambiguity, half communicating through their broken English.

Country is just so Hong Sang-soo, but the tone is a bit lighter than Oki’s Movie or The Day He Arrives. Nor is it as self-consciously post-modern in its approach to narrative. Each of the three Annes’ stories are discrete and completely self-contained (though take 2 includes a dream sequence that could almost count as a fourth strand). In fact, it is a rather sunny film, taking long walks on the beach and chatting amiably with the cute but shy Wonju, who also appears in each arc as the daughter of the hotel proprietor.

Still, it is rather fascinating to watch how Huppert brings successively darker shades to each Anne. Frankly, the third is a bit of a pill, whereas the flawed but self-aware second is the most fully developed. Yu Junsang, the only other constant besides Jung Yumi’s pleasant but rather inconsequential Wonju, is a perfectly believable lunk, but his best dramatic moments come during the first go-round. However, Youn Yuh-jung, the veteran leading lady of Korean television and cinema, is absolutely perfect as Anne #3’s academic friend Park Sook (and appearing as Wonju’s mother in the opening segment as well). Smart, somewhat tart tongued, and likably world-weary, she brings some real verve to the talking and drinking.

Indeed, Country is a chatty film, utilizing English as a second language, so communication is always an issue. The manner in which Hong repeats certain key phrases is often very droll, but there are no great profundities to be found here. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Watching Hong’s latest is like falling in with a group of strangers at a party who are amusing for an evening, but you don’t really want to make a habit of seeing afterward. Again, if they are good for some laughs, that is not so terrible. For Hong and Huppert’s fans, it works quite well. Recommended accordingly, In Another Country opens this Friday (11/9) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on November 9th, 2012 at 2:20pm.

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