The Ethan Hunt Files – Mission: Impossible

For many years, the James Bond character pretty much had the super agent franchise to himself. Sure, many films would attempt to copy the Bond magic, to varying degrees of success. For the most part, however, it wasn’t until the 1990s and beyond that a number of other wildly successful franchises would take flight.

As followers of my blog are aware, I’ve been blogging and sharing my thoughts on each and every 007 adventure – all 23 of them. That series will conclude in a couple of weeks, when Skyfall is released for viewing on my couch. It’s been the best experience I’ve had so far revisiting these pictures and writing about them.

So, naturally, I will continue writing about other famous film franchises. And that begins with “The Ethan Hunt Files”, where I will cover all four entries from the Mission: Impossible series.

As you’re likely aware, there was a very popular TV show “Mission: Impossible” that ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973 (they’re on Netflix if you’re interested). As I explained when I began my Bond series, this is a movie blog. That’s what I focus on. I didn’t talk about the Ian Fleming novels that many of the 007 pictures were based on. Two reasons: this is a movie blog and I haven’t read them. Same goes here: this is a movie blog and I’ve never seen the TV series.

There’s little mystery why Paramount chose to revive Mission: Impossible for the big screen. It had high built-in name recognition. More importantly, Tom Cruise decided to make it his movie franchise. Our younger readers may not recall, but there was indeed a time when Cruise was unquestionably the biggest movie star on the planet. He had big hits in the early 80s (most notably Risky Business), but from 1986 on, Cruise began a truly remarkable run. Top Gun. The Color of Money. Rain Man. Born on the Fourth of July. Days of Thunder. A Few Good Men. The Firm. Interview with the Vampire. This list is especially notable for the amazing list of directors he worked with, from the late Tony Scott to Martin Scorsese to Oliver Stone to Rob Reiner and Sydney Pollack and more.

When Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner moved on to Mission: Impossible, it guaranteed this TV show adaptation would get a lot of attention. They also chose a very well-known director: Brian De Palma.

De Palma came up in the same era (and was buddies) with Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. He’s directed such now-classics as 1976’s Carrie, 1981’s Blow Out, 1983’s Scarface, and 1987’s The Untouchables (also based on a 1960s TV program).

Robert Towne, one of the premier screenwriters in Hollywood, was enlisted to write it. Towne is the man responsible for one of the best scripts ever written – 1974’s brilliant Chinatown, as well as Shampoo, Heaven Can  Wait, and The Firm, among others. His co-writer was another hot commodity, David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park and another great De Palma film, 1993’s Carlito’s Way.

Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt, a member of the elite IMF (Impossible Missions Force – get it?), an ultra-covert branch of the CIA. The film opens with Hunt in disguise interrogating a witness with the help of his team – which includes the head of the group Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), techie Jack (Emilio Estevez), and agent Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas).

After that three minute opening sequence, we get the title credits with the well-known traditional “Mission: Impossible” theme song, composed by Lalo Schifirin. I may never have seen an episode of the TV show, but I definitely know and love the theme song.

The film moves to beautiful Prague, where the IMF team is tasked with retrieving the Noc list, which contains the identities of all covert agents in the Eastern European region. The Noc list serves as the movie’s MacGuffin. For those not familiar with what a MacGuffin is, you must not have read my blog post on the second Bond picture, From Russia with Love. Shame on you. The MacGuffin is a commonly used movie term: it’s the thing that all the characters desire. It doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s what the good guys want the bad guys not to have. It’s why the plot moves along. The reason for its being gives the characters the motivation for all the fancy action sequences, etc…

Mission: Impossible shares a common theme with many 1990s action pictures, including 1995’s Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan’s first 007 entry. The agents are trying to deal with the aftermath of the Cold War and what their purpose is in this new reality. For some agents, their reaction is not positive. This holds true for the film’s main villain. Spoiler alert: It’s Ethan’s boss, Jim Phelps… we don’t discover this until late. Phelps has become disillusioned and he wants the NOC list for nefarious purposes. His wife Claire is in on the scheme, too.

The action in Prague allows Ethan to disguise himself as a Virginia Senator at a party to retrieve the MacGuffin, with other members of the team populating the soiree as well. To say the least, all does not go as planned and the majority of the IMF agents are killed, including Emilio Estevez’s character in a memorable elevator shaft decapitation. Jim Phelps also “dies”, though we discover otherwise later. The party scene is terrific, complete with the kind of first-rate cinematography and long-take shots fans of Brian De Palma have come to expect.

For a while, we think the villain might be IMF Director Kittridge. He’s played by Henry Czerny in a wonderfully over-the-top performance. When Ethan meets with Kittridge in a restaurant after the party massacre and discovers he’s being set up for what happened, it provides one of the movie’s greatest sequences. If you’ve seen it, I’ll just say “Aquarium Scene” and you probably know what I’m talking about.

There are other now-famous action sequences. When Ethan discovers he must break into CIA headquarters in Langley to get that damn MacGuffin, he enlists Ving Rhames and Jean Reno as new members of his team. They concoct an elaborate way to break in which involves repelling Ethan into a high-security area. It’s a terrific sequence, done with no music, and is a major highlight.

The finale, set on a train, is also exciting. This sequence, more than any other, demonstrates what De Palma fans already know. He is heavily influenced by the master, Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his earlier pictures, including Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double, are direct homages to Hitch. If you want to find out for yourself, either watch those films or Google “Hitchcock and De Palma” and you’ll likely have a day’s worth of reading material. Watching the train sequence, it feels like you’re watching a big-budget action scene if Hitchcock was alive to direct it. I loved it.

Those three action set pieces are a huge part of the reason why Mission: Impossible works pretty darn well. Cruise makes a fine debut as Ethan and most of the cast are solid, with special props to Vanessa Redgrave as an arms dealer who shines in every scene she’s in.

Some of my issues are with the script. The screenwriters, as talented as they are, often seem to be pushing a little hard to make you feel that the plot is really complicated and intricate. It’s not. The film is basically about double-cross intrigue among agents that we’ve seen in many other similar pictures.

However, some of the methods deployed here by writers Towne and Koepp work. When Jim Phelps character comes back from the dead, he explains why he’s not dead and tries to convince Ethan that Kittridge is the villain. As he’s talking to Ethan, we see what’s going through Ethan’s head as he realizes it’s actually Jim and others that are responsible for the party massacre. It’s a very well-directed and written scene that takes an original approach to moving the story forward.

While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Mission: Impossible, the train scene, Langley scene, and aquarium scene make it a highly entertaining entry in the spy movie genre. Audiences were ready to take the Mission. Opening in the summer of 1996, Mission grossed over $450 million worldwide and was the third highest grossing domestic release of the year, with a U.S. take of $180 million (behind Independence Day and Twister). With this picture, Cruise would have his franchise and he can thank the solid contributions of De Palma and some well-thought out centerpiece action scenes for providing it.

Here are the facts:

Film: Mission: Impossible

U.S. Release Date: May 22, 1996

Director: Brian De Palma

Screenplay: David Koepp and Robert Towne

Budget: $80 million

Worldwide Box Office: $457.6 million

This blog series will return in “The Ethan Hunt Files – Mission: Impossible II”

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Box Office Predictions: February 1-3

Well, it’s Super Bowl weekend and conventional wisdom tells us it’ll probably be a pretty slow weekend at the box office. A lot of American moviegoers may be more focused on the Ravens and 49ers than the slate of films being offered up.

You never know, though. 2012’s Super Bowl weekend had two movies post very solid openings: the sci-fi flick Chronicle ($22 million opening) and the Daniel Radcliffe supernatural thriller The Woman in Black ($20.9 million opening).

The top spot this weekend is likely to be occupied by Warm Bodies, described as a “paranormal romantic zombie comedy”. It features no box office draws (though John Malkvoich and the hilarious Rob Cordry are in it), but it’s been heavily marketed by Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the juggernaut Twilight franchise. I expect it could post a nice weekend debut. It doesn’t hurt that the picture is also getting pretty darn good reviews.

This weekend’s other wide release is Bullet to the Head, an action flick starring Sylvester Stallone. It’s getting mixed reviews, not as positive as the critics reaction to Sly’s buddy Arnold Schwarzengger’s The Last Stand two weeks ago. And that movie bombed… bad. Stallone has been more successful in recent years with Expendables movies, but I’m not convinced Bullet will break out of the pack and do the kind of numbers those films put up. It just doesn’t look like anything special and with similar action titles like The Last Stand and Parker faltering, I would expect the same fate here.

Opening on only approximately 450 screens, Stand Up Guys features an impressive cast with Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin. Yet again, with its small release, I don’t see it doing much and the studio seems to have little faith in it.

As far as holdovers, I’d be surprised if last week’s champ, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, doesn’t fall 50% or more in its sophomore frame. The same holds true was last week’s #2, the horror flick Mama, entering its third weekend. Oscar darling Silver Linings Playbook is likely to experience a smaller drop. I would say the same for Zero Dark Thirty. 

And with that, my box office predictions for the weekend:

1. Warm Bodies

Predicted Gross: $20.5 million

2. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Predicted Gross: $8.6 million (representing a drop of 56%)

3. Bullet to the Head

Predicted Gross: $8 million

4. Mama

Predicted Gross: $6.7 million (representing a drop of 55%)

5. Silver Linings Playbook

Predicted Gross: $6.6 million (representing a drop of 30%)

6. Zero Dark Thirty

Predicted Gross: $6 million (representing a drop of 38%)

Finally, opening on that small number of screens, I’ll say Stand Up Guys grosses $1.2 million for a not-so stand-up opening.

That’s all, my friends. Check back over the weekend for updates and on Sunday for final numbers!

 

The 007 Files: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace, the 22nd entry in the 007 franchise and Daniel Craig’s second as Bond, is likely destined to forever be known as “the one between Casino Royale and Skyfall.” Frankly, it’s easy to see why. While the picture has its moments, it simply doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor or follow-up.

The film breaks the tradition of all entries that came before it: Quantum is a direct sequel to Casino Royale. It continues the story of 007 going after further bad guys who were ultimately responsible for events that unfolded in Casino Royale. We pick up right where the predecessor left off with the opening sequence and a car chase with Mr. White (who Bond captured at Casino‘s close) locked up in the trunk.

For the theme song, we get two immensely talented artists, Jack White and Alicia Keys, performing “Another Way to Die”. It’s not bad, but it’s a forgettable tune that should have been better, considering the players involved.

Considering the movie is a direct sequel, the mission for Bond is personal this time around. He’s searching for the people responsible for the death of Vesper, who Bond fell in love with in Casino Royale. 

This leads 007 to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), the head of a shady organization known as Quantum. He has dastardly plans to control the water supply in Bolivia. If that sounds like kind of a weak plot line, it kind of is. As an audience, we simply aren’t invested much in it and the character of Greene is not one of the stronger villains, even though Amalric’s performance is solid.

Our main Bond girl also isn’t terribly interesting. Played by the lovely Olga Kurylenko, Bolivian agent Camille Montes is also on a personal mission. Her family was killed by General Medrano, a secondary villain. Her story isn’t very fleshed out and she doesn’t make much of an impression. I found myself much preferring the secondary Bond gal, MI6 agent Strawberry Fields (in a good performance from Gemma Arterton) and wished she would have been the main Bond female character. Unfortunately, she doesn’t make it the whole way and her demise is a nice nod to 1964’s Goldfinger.

We also have Judi Dench back in her sixth go-round as M and Jeffrey Wright reprising his Casino role as Felix Leiter. Also back: Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, who helps out Bond for a final time.

Of course, there are a whole lot of action sequences. Quantum is directed by Marc Forster, most known for his work in 2001’s Monster’s Ball and 2004’s Finding Neverland. I actually found Forster’s direction for many of the action-oriented scenes a little lacking, with some of the scenes being too jumpy and others just typical fare. There are exceptions: the scene at the opera house is extremely well-done. It is definitely one of the picture’s high points.

Quantum of Solace has the interesting distinction of being the shortest Bond ever. While most entries clock in at over two hours, this one runs a quick 106 minutes. This makes sense because it illustrates my main criticism: there’s just not a lot of there there. The plot isn’t that good, the characters aren’t fleshed out, and the action sequences that get us from point A to point B are a mixed bag.

Journalists had a lot of fun with this film’s rather strange title. Starting with Goldeneye, Bond makers had to start coming up with their own names (after the majority of Ian Fleming titles were used up). This meant some generic ones in the Brosnan era – think Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day. This one isn’t too great either but I suppose it sounds better than Amount of Consolation or Portion of Comfort. 

While critics and audiences experienced an understandable letdown here, it’s box office numbers didn’t suffer. Quantum of Solace earned $586 million worldwide, just slightly under Casino‘s haul. It took in $168 million in the United States, barely edging its predecessor’s $167 million domestic take.

Quantum has some decent moments but is missing a key element that made Casino Royale such a rousing success. While this film maintains the serious and gritter tone of Casino, it fails to put in the sense of fun that was also present in the first Craig feature. And while it’s certainly watchable and moves along pretty briskly, its reputation as a disappointing follow-up to a great film is deserved.

Here are the facts:

Film: Quantum of Solace

U.S. Release Date: November 14, 2008

Director: Marc Forster

Screenplay: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade

Bond: Daniel Craig

Main Bond Villain: Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric)

Main Bond Girl: Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko)

Theme Song: “Another Way to Die” – performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys

Budget: $200 million

Worldwide Box Office: $586 million

My James Bond blog series will return in “The 007 Files: Skyfall”

Box Office Results: January 25-27

Box office results for the weekend are in and Hansel&Gretel: Witch Hunters ended up on top, surpassing my low estimate for its opening. The badly reviewed pic, starring Jeremy Renner, earned a so-so $19 million, well past my low ball $13 million prediction. I wouldn’t expect it to hold up too well in future weekends, however.

Last weekend’s #1, the supernatural horror flick Mama, dropped more than I figured, grossing $12.9 million in its second frame, lower than my $16.8M estimate. Multiple Oscar nominee Silver Linings Playbook placed third with $10 million, slightly more than my $8.7M estimate. Multiple Oscar nominee Zero Dark Thirty was fourth with $9.8 million, lower than my $12.3M forecast.

Two other debuts had weak openings. The Jason Statham-Jennifer Lopez action pic Parker placed fifth with $7 million, slightly higher than my $6.1M prediction. In a tie for sixth, the terribly reviewed all-star comedy Movie 43 and Django Unchained made $5 million, both lower than my respective $5.8M and $6.1M predictions.

I also overestimated the holdover films placed 8-10: Gangster Squad earned $4.2 million ($5.4M estimate), Broken City dropped to $4 million in its second weekend ($5.1M estimate), and Les Miserables was tenth with $3.9 million ($6.3M estimate).

Be sure to check back Wednesday with predictions for Super Bowl weekend, when the zombie pic Warm Bodies, the Stallone actioner Bullet to the Head, and the Pacino/Walken action comedy Stand Up Guys all make their debut.

The 007 Files: Casino Royale

After 44 years and 20 films, the makers of the James Bond franchise decided to go in a bold and brave direction by reinventing the series with 2006’s Casino Royale. To put it in proper perspective, 2002’s Die Another Day, the fourth 007 pic starring Pierce Brosnan, wound up being the highest grosser of the series.

It would have been an easy choice to do at least one or two more features with Brosnan, who probably would have been game for the job. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson chose to go in another direction and finally bring Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel to the big screen. By doing so, Casino Royale would essentially be a reboot of the series. Due to that, it meant Pierce Brosnan was out and a new 007 would have to be found. If you’re asking yourself why Fleming’s first novel hadn’t been made as an official Bond film, good question. The answer involves a lengthy, protracted battle over the rights to the book, which Fleming signed away before the “official” Bond films began. This actually resulted in Casino Royale being made into a 1954 TV movie and as a badly received 1967 007 spoof with an all-star cast that included Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. The entire history of the Bond producers finally gaining back the rights to the property is explained in great detail in an extra feature on the DVD/Blu Ray. If you own it, I’d strongly encourage you to watch it. It’s fascinating stuff.

As always, the search for a new 007 was the subject of much gossip. Actors like Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, and Hugh Jackman were talked about. Ultimately, producers turned to Daniel Craig, who had a nice little career going with roles in Road to Perdition, Layer Cake, and Munich. It may be hard to remember now, but the casting of Craig was not met with major enthusiasm. A blond Bond?!?!?! Beyond that, while he certainly showed acting chops in his previous work, there was high uncertainty as to whether he would fit into 007’s shoes, Aston Martin, and tuxedo.

After endless media speculation, audiences got their answer in November 2006. The opening scene of Casino Royale immediately informs us that we’re in true reboot mode, as Bond kills a turncoat MI6 section chief. This is his second kill as an agent and we see black&white flashbacks of his first. The significance of this? His two kills earns James Bond “00” status. This brief introductory scene is electrifying for two reasons: first, it’s just a well-written and action packed sequence. Second, it puts the audience in great anticipation of something we’ve never seen before in the franchise… an origin story.

Casino Royale is the first Bond picture to not open with the famous shot of 007 through the cross hairs of a gun barrel. We don’t get that iconic shot until the end of the great three and a half minutes opening sequence.

The theme song is “You Know My Name” by Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell. It’s a decent harder edged rock track that doesn’t rank with the best Bond songs, but is also not among the worst.

The action moves to Uganda, where we’re introduced to the main villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), an international banker who funds the world’s top terrorist organizations. The scenes in Uganda provide us with an absolutely incredible action set piece with Bond battling a baddie at a construction site and at an embassy where 007 likely violates several international laws. When Bond figures out he can’t take his prisoner out of the embassy, he uses his licence to kill. The tone is set early: our new Bond can be a ruthless badass if need be.

When Casino Royale moves to the Bahamas (nice touch), Bond uses a bad guy’s wife to get some information in typical fashion. We also get a shot of 007 coming out of the ocean that is reminiscent of Ursula Andress in Dr. No, though I suspect this particular shot pleased the series female fans to a higher degree. Additionally, as has been tradition when a new 007 is introduced, he takes the Aston Martin for a spin. Casino Royale has great moments of humor as well. A personal favorite is when a hotel guest mistakes Bond for a parking attendant and 007 obliges his request while not leaving his vehicle in pristine condition.

The events in the Bahamas lead Bond to Miami and we witness yet another fabulous action scene. This time, it’s 007 stopping the bad guys from blowing up the largest commercial jetliner in the world. Bond’s smile at the end of this sequence when he knows he’s got the best of the bad guy is priceless.

All of this truly exciting action takes place just in the first hour and looking back, I marveled at how fast-paced Casino Royale‘s first act is. What follows for the next nearly 90 minutes is more of a deliberate pace. 

We begin with Bond’s introduction to Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), an agent of the treasury. She’s assigned to accompany 007 to Montenegro and keep an eye on him as he’s been entered in a high stakes poker tournament at Casino Royale. On the train where they meet, the audience immediately sees the spark between Bond and Vesper. This isn’t going to be your average Bond girl. Much of this is due to Green’s fine performance (we’ll get to Craig later).

This isn’t just any card game. It’s been put together by Le Chiffre with a $10 million dollar buy-in. The game is of extreme importance to the protagonist and the antagonist: Le Chiffre got screwed over financially when Bond stopped the airplane attack and is depending on the winnings to pay off clients or risk getting killed. If Bond doesn’t win the tournament, he’ll be directly responsible for financing international terrorism. In other words, not your average Saturday night poker game with your drinking buddies.

The poker tournament sequence is something to behold. It lasts over half an hour, but before you go thinking it’s like watching half an episode of the World Poker Tournament, not so fast. The sequence jumps back and forth between the tournament, breaks in the tournament, back to the tournament, and events taking place the following morning. We see Le Chiffre being threatened by his clients, Bond and Vesper battling bad guys, Bond getting poisoned, and, yes, a few poker hands. This whole sequence is a marvelous achievement in editing and screenwriting. Quite honestly, everything about it works.

I realize I’m going over the plot points of Casino Royale probably more than other Bond blog entries. I think I’m doing so because everything in the film seems worth mentioning because it works so damn well. I’ll hurry it up. We get a scene with Le Chiffre torturing Bond that’s quite memorable. Right before that, a great car chase where Bond is forced to crash his precious automobile.

Finally, we get to Bond falling heads over heels for Vesper. It is at this point when audiences might feel the picture beginning to drag a little. All of this takes place after our main bad guy is, well, out of the picture. Soon enough, though, we understand why the film is showing their love blossom. Not everything is at it seems. Vesper has ulterior motives. Bond learns this after he’s tendered his resignation with MI6. He figures out that if he doesn’t, he’ll never have a normal life where he’s capable of love and he decides that isn’t what he wants. This is heavy stuff for a Bond film, but the screenwriters handle it so well that it’s totally believable.

Furthermore, it is the wonderful performance of Daniel Craig that sells it. When he was cast as 007, many (including this blogger) didn’t know what to make of it. Casino Royale silenced all his critics. Big time. Craig is the best Bond since Sean Connery.

The whole cast is first-rate, from Green and Mikkelsen to Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter and Judi Dench, still getting it done as M. As Mathis, one of 007’s contacts who may or may not be on his side, Giancarlo Giannini does a fine job.

Martin Campbell, who kicked off the Brosnan era in Goldeneye, return to direct the start of the Craig era. Veterans Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade return and are aided by Paul Haggis, screenwriter of the Oscar-winning Crash and many others.

Audiences and critics embraced the reinvention and it grossed just under $600 million worldwide.

When the Pierce Brosnan movies got underway after a long absence, we got a mix of previous 007s – a little Connery, a little Moore, a little Dalton. And for three films (excluding the disastrous Die Another Day), the formula worked fairly well.

Here we have something much different. Casino Royale is a reinvention. An origin story. It’s a bold decision by the Bond makers to have gone this route and it succeeds on a level that is truly unanticipated. It brings an energy to the Bond films unseen since Connery’s heyday.

And it still maintains nods to the old films that only a true Bond aficionado would cherish. The screenplay makes Bond more human than we’ve ever seen before (with the possible exception of the greatly inferior On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and they pull it off and then some. We believe the romance between Bond and Vesper. And when it goes south, we understand that Bond’s likely future habits of not getting too close to anyone make a lot of sense.

Casino Royale is not a great Bond film. It’s a great film. I highly suspect it will rank high (very high) in my final rankings of 007 pictures.

Here are the facts:

Film: Casino Royale

U.S. Release Date: November 17, 2006

Director: Martin Campbell

Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis

Bond: Daniel Craig

Main Bond Villain: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen)

Main Bond Girl: Vesper Lynd (Eva Green)

Theme Song: “You Know My Name” – performed by Chris Cornell

Budget: $150 million

Worldwide Box Office: $599 million

My James Bond blog series will return in “The 007 Files: Quantum of Solace”

Star Wars Director Announced: The Force Is With J.J. Abrams

The search is over.

J.J. Abrams has been selected as the man to take over the Star Wars franchise and will direct the seventh film. The announcement, leaked moments ago, is a bit of a surprise. This is not because Abrams wasn’t seen as a natural choice, but because he claimed in an interview just a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t direct it. Apparently, Mr. Abrams had a change of heart.

If you don’t know Abrams by name, you probably know his work. The 46 year-old got his start as a screenwriter, with credits for such features as 1990’s Taking Care of Business, 1991’s Regarding Henry, and 1992’s Forever Young. 

It was television, though, that made Abrams a well-known commodity. He is the creator of shows as varied as “Felicity”, “Alias”, “Lost”, and “Fringe”. He directed episodes of those shows, including the brilliant “Lost” pilot.

His exposure gained through TV has led to a very successful career as a film director, starting with his selection to take over Tom Cruise’s franchise Mission: Impossible. He made his directorial debut with the series third installment in 2006.

The success of his debut led to Abrams taking over another franchise, Star Trek. In 2009, the reinvention of that renowned franchise was released to enormous critical and audience acclaim. The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, is set for release this summer.

In 2011, Abrams directed Super 8, another hit that is a clear homage to one of Abrams’ heroes, Steven Spielberg. It is no secret that another cinematic hero of Mr. Abrams is Mr. George Lucas.

When Disney acquired LucasFilm late last year, the rampant speculation began as to who would be tapped to direct Episode VII, the gold standard of movie franchises. I wrote two blog posts that put forth about 25-40 potential directors. We now have our answer. Abrams name came up immediately and seemed like an obvious choice, yet his own comments and the fact that he was still in production with the Star Trek sequel seemed to rule him out.

Not anymore. My take: Abrams is an inspired choice. He has already proven a terrific ability to take over a franchise with a rabid fan base (Trekkies) and please them, while bringing in a new audience. I’ve never considered myself anything close a Trekkie… but I thought 2009’s Star Trek was great. His love of science fiction is boundless, from Lost (which I consider to be possibly the greatest TV show ever) to Kirk and Spock to Super 8.

It is unknown at this time as to whether Abrams will direct the eighth and ninth features. His involvement in Star Wars may mean bad news for Trekkies and end his involvement in that franchise, though we don’t know yet.

From my perspective, any true movie lover has anticipated the idea of more Star Wars. The announcement of Abrams as director builds that anticipation to an even greater level.

Box Office Predictions: January 25-27

For the final weekend of January, we have three new releases opening: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters with Jeremy Renner, Parker starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez, and the raunchy comedy Movie 43, featuring an array of stars including Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry, among many others.

I do not anticipate solid openings for any three. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters seems most likely the be first among the three, though I do not anticipate an opening that will be considered very good.

Jason Statham flicks typically don’t open too well and Jennifer Lopez’s movie career has been pretty shoddy as of late, so I don’t anticipate her presence will have much of an effect. With a recent glut of action flicks crowded the marketplace (Schwarzenegger’s Last Stand bombed last weekend) doesn’t help.

Movie 43, even with its all-star cast, doesn’t seem to make much an impression with its trailers. It’s hard to even tell what the whole thing is about and I don’t see audiences rushing out to this, even with a low amount of comedies out there.

All three pictures could easily struggle to match the grosses of last weekend’s #1 and #2, the Jessica Chastain horror flick Mama and the Jessica Chastain Bin Laden manhunt thriller Zero Dark Thirty. Opening with an incredible $32 million last weekend, Mama will likely suffer the fate of most horror pics and have a hefty second weekend drop-off. If the other newbies disappoint, however, it maintains a healthy shot at staying #1. Zero Dark Thirty only dropped 23 percent in its second weekend, an impressive hold. In its third weekend, I expect a bigger drop but it’s posting great numbers. Last weekend’s #3 was the expanded release of multiple Oscar nominated romantic drama-comedy Silver Linings Playbook and I expect its drop-off to be fairly light. Finally, holdovers like Gangster Squad, Broken City, and Django Unchained will experience drop-offs from the mid-3os to high-40s, in my estimation. Les Miserables only dropped a puny 6% last weekend (thanks to Oscar nominations). It should certainly drop way more than that, but its drop-off could be much lower than others.

Again, all new entries could have the ability to surprise with solid openings and my predictions for all three are probably on the low end of the spectrum, but I just don’t see any of them breaking out.

And with that, my weekend box office predictions:

1. Mama

Predicted Gross: $16.8 million (representing a drop of 54%)

2. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Predicted Gross: $13 million

3. Zero Dark Thirty

Predicted Gross: $12.3 million (representing a drop of 34%)

4. Silver Linings Playbook

Predicted Gross: $8.7 million (representing a drop of 32%)

5. Les Miserables

Predicted Gross: $6.3 million (representing a drop of 30%)

6. Parker

Predicted Gross: $6.1 million

7. Django Unchained

Predicted Gross: $6.1 million (representing a drop of 34%)

8. Movie 43

Predicted Gross: $5.8 million

9. Gangster Squad

Predicted Gross: $5.4 million (representing a drop of 47%)

10. Broken City

Predicted Gross: $5.1 million (representing a drop of 46%)

That’s all for now folks! Check back through the weekend for updates and on Sunday for final results…

 

The 007 Files: Die Another Day

Die Another Day marks the 40th year in the Bond film franchise and it brings the series to a level it hasn’t reached since 1979’s Moonraker. And that, my friends, is anything but a compliment.

Pierce Brosnan’s fourth and final 007 adventure opens in North Korea with Bond being captured and held prisoner for 14 months, after a hovercraft chase and some business about conflict diamonds and weapons trade. During his captivity, we do get the strange sight of seeing Mr. Bond with long hair and a beard which is rather disconcerting.

We also have a title song by Madonna that is a bad techno concoction and totally out of place for a Bond theme. It ranks among the very worst Bond songs, which is appropriate considering the movie. The material girl also has a lame cameo as a fencing instructor.

After spending those 14 months being tortured, Bond is released after being traded for Zao (Rick Yune), the henchman of the son of the North Korean colonel that Bond kills in the opening sequence. Got that? I really don’t see a point explaining the plot because it’s utterly ridiculous even by Bond standards. It involves the North Korean colonel 007 thought he killed actually being alive because he did a face transplant and has actually taken the form of Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a billionaire entrepreneur. The face transplant stuff looks like something out of a really crappy sci-fi B-movie. Ugh.

For our Bond gals, we have Halle Berry as NSA agent Jinx. The casting of Berry was highly touted because the actress was fresh off winning an Oscar for Monster’s Ball. She is probably the most high-profile actress to be cast in a 007 adventure. And… she pretty much sucks in it and the character is poorly written. A particular low: Jinx yelling “Yo mama!” while a villain is torturing her. Ugh.

She looks good getting out of the water, though, in a scene meant to remind us of a good Bond film, Dr. No:

For a secondary Bond gal, we have Rosamund Pike playing Miranda Frost, an MI6 agent who is actually working with the bad guys. Her performance is just OK and there’s nothing particularly interesting about her character either.

Weak performances are the norm in Die Another Day. Without strong material to work with, Brosnan goes through the motions. Toby Stephens is one of the least interesting Bond villains and his acting is atrocious in some scenes. For the finale, he battles Bond in something resembling a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers outfit. Ugh.

Michael Madsen shows up for some reason, but has very little to do as a U.S. agent. The character of Zao, with his disfigured face, is just a strange character and Rick Yune does little to make him interesting.

I want to find something good to say, so there’s a sword fight between Bond and Graves that’s well-choreographed and pretty entertaining.

The scene with our new Q (John Cleese) is decent as well. We see a lot of the old gadgets from earlier pictures which is a nice touch, but it does remind of better Bond entries… which is just about all of them. Bond gets an invisible car here, which sounds cool but really isn’t.

I’ll try to be mercifully brief with the rest of this entry. Other than those couple of compliments, Die Another Day fails on every level. It even fails on unexpected levels. Most notable is the completely horrible and I mean horrible special effects and CG shots that we witness. It’s embarrassing. CG technology was developing in 2002, but that’s no excuse. Some of the action scenes, particularly in the final half hour, look terrible and that’s something you could never say about 007 movies before this one. I actually found myself laughing unintentionally at the shoddy effects shots. Ugh.

The last portion of the movie takes place at the Ice Palace, a garish example of production design that serves as Gustav’s lair. Even in lesser Bond entries, I usually compliment the production design. Not this time.

New director Lee Tamahori, who made the critically acclaimed 1994 indie darling Once Were Warriors, fills the movie with weird slo-mo shots mixed with jump cuts and quick zooms. It’s a bad directing job; the worst I’ve witnessed in the franchise.

The script, by Brosnan pic vets Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, gives us a dumb plot and lame dialogue. Because its Bond’s 40th anniversary, they put in a lot of references to earlier pictures. Like I’ve stated, that succeeds in reminding us of better days and greater viewing experiences.

Inexplicably, Die Another Day went on to become the highest grossing Bond picture yet. I saw in the theater so I’m guilty of contributing to its big gross. I’m sorry.

I could go on and on complaining. You get the idea. Pierce Brosnan had three decent 007 entries before this. It’s a shame he went out on this note. I saw someone on a website once describe James Bond films as like pizza… even when it’s bad, it’s good. For the vast majority of 007 pictures, that holds very true.

However, I have had bad pizza on rare occasions. And there is such thing as a bad Bond film. It’s called Die Another Day.

Here are the facts:

Film: Die Another Day

U.S. Release Date: November 22, 2002

Director: Lee Tamahori

Screenplay: Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

Bond: Pierce Brosnan

Main Bond Villain: Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens)

Main Bond Girl: Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson (Halle Berry)

Theme Song: “Die Another Day” – performed by Madonna

Budget: $142 million

Worldwide Box Office: $431.9 million

My James Bond blog series will return in “The 007 Files: Casino Royale”

The 007 Files: The World Is Not Enough

The World Is Not Enough, the final 007 entry of the 20th century, is a mixed bag of an experience. It’s a little better than its general reputation and the film’s shortcomings (Denise Richards and more) have been highlighted much greater than its strengths.

The picture opens with the longest pre-title credit sequence in the series history (14 minutes). It’s an action sequence involving boats and a hot air balloon. With its outrageous and very fun stunt choreography, this opener actually felt more reminiscent of the Roger Moore entries. Most importantly, the sequence brings in the main plot when a close friend of M’s, a wealthy oil tycoon is killed.

As for the title track, Garbage does the honors here and it’s a pretty decent tune and definitely the best so far in the Brosnan films, being a definite improvement over the Tina Turner and Sheryl Crow tracks.

Bond actually sustains some injuries from all the spy work in the beginning, but of course he’s cleared for duty when he, um, convinces his female doctor. He is soon tasked with protecting the daughter of the slain oil tycoon. She is Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), who has a fascinating history as having once been a kidnap victim of the picture’s villain, Renard (Robert Carlyle). Renard is an interesting character himself… he’s got a bullet lodged in his brain that makes him impervious to pain. 007 and Elektra (and therefore Brosnan and Marceau) have a terrific on-screen chemistry. And Elektra is not all that she seems. Spoiler alert: she actually turns out to be the film’s main villain. She orchestrated her father’s demise and is hellbent on using her inherited oil empire to do really bad things (I could explain further, but it’s not all that important). I found Elektra to be one of the better female characters in the Bond franchise and Marceau puts in an effective performance. The dynamic with her and 007 is a major strong point.

It’s the other Bond girl here that got a lot of negative publicity. That would be Denise Richards, of Starship Troopers and Wild Things, as Dr. Christmas Jones (yep), a nuclear physicist helping James out on his mission. Yes, I used Denise Richards and nuclear physicist in the same sentence. There’s not a lot to be said about her character that hasn’t already been said… and little of it is positive. She’s a pretty girl and I don’t want to pick on anyone too hard that had to be married to Charlie Sheen, but Denise is not a very strong actress. And watching her spout lines like “THE HYDROGEN GAS LEVEL IS TOO HIGH!” is both wince and laugh inducing. Her name does allow 007 for a classic one-liner: “I thought Christmas only comes once a year.” Oh, James.

Robert Carlyle is a good actor and is effective as Renard, even if Elektra is the real show as the villain. Robbie Coltrane’s ex KGB agent character from Goldeneye makes a welcome return. Judi Dench definitely gets more screen time than ever as M and she’s always good. Brosnan, it should go without saying, is in fine form per usual.

And on a sad note, The World Is Not Enough marks Desmond Llewelyn’s final appearance as Q. It seemed the actor knew he was retiring after World because his character is also hanging it up in the film and “Monty Python” star John Cleese joins here as his replacement. Tragically, just days after this picture opened, Llewelyn was killed in an auto accident at age 85. Here he is briefing 007 for the last time, followed by a wonderful video tribute from the Bond 50 collection:

Director Michael Apted, known more for dramas like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Nell, does a perfectly suitable job here. And while the action sequences are first-rate, other than the opening scene, none of them really stuck out in my mind. We get another 007 on skis scene that isn’t as great as some others we’ve seen.

The World Is Not Enough is definitely too long and the climax drags quite a bit especially. Yes, Denise Richards and her character are silly and distracting. In all honesty, though, she’s no worse than, say, Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill. On the other hand, a lot of the plot elements involving Elektra were very well-handled and I tremendously enjoyed those aspects.

So, back to where I started… a mixed bag, much like previous entry Tomorrow Never Dies. And also like its predecessor, it was an enormous hit with $361 million worldwide and $126 million domestically, further solidifying audiences stamp of approval with Mr. Brosnan.

Here are the facts:

Film: The World Is Not Enough

U.S. Release Date: November 19, 1999

Director: Michael Apted

Screenplay: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and Bruce Feirstein

Bond: Pierce Brosnan

Main Bond Villain (s): Renard (Robert Carlyle) and Elekta King (Sophie Marceau)

Main Bond Girl: Christmas Jones (Denise Richards)

Theme Song: “The World Is Not Enough” – performed by Garbage

Budget: $135 million

Worldwide Box Office: $361.8 million

My James Bond blog series will return in “The 007 Files: Die Another Day”

Movies You Might Not Know: Dead Again

Director Kenneth Branagh was known for a while in Hollywood as the Shakespeare guy with such critically acclaimed pictures as 1989’s Henry V and 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Lately, he’s become a successful commercial director, with 2011’s Thor and Jack Ryan (coming Christmas 2013), which restarts that franchise.

He’s an accomplished director, but my personal favorite of his is definitely 1991’s Dead Again. The movie is an homage to Hitchcock and if you’re a Hitch fan, I expect you’ll find a lot to like about Dead Again. The story switches back and forth between the 1940s and present day, with Branagh and Emma Thompson (his wife at the time) playing dual characters. The plot involves possible past lives and murder. There’s multiple twists and turns in grand Hitchcockian fashion. It’s got a solid supporting cast including Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, and Robin Williams.

The movie was modest success in the United States, but it was released long ago and you don’t hear much about it anymore. Dead Again is a lot of fun and comes highly recommended, especially for Hitchcock lovers.