Sunday, November 11, 2012


I had all but given up on James Bond. Just recently, I gave Casino Royale (2006) a second chance to impress me, and am now ready to declare it one of my least favorite films in the long-running series. And I finally got around to watching its sequel, Quantum of Solace (2008)—the only Bond film since 1979’s Moonraker that I didn’t see in its original theatrical release—and found myself even more disappointed. I couldn’t follow either of the plots. I felt there was too much of Judi Dench’s M. There was no sense of FUN. And, perhaps most significantly, I didn’t buy Daniel Craig as James Bond. After two stinkers in a row, my interest in seeing Skyfall diminished rapidly.

But then I took a chance and went to see it on the Saturday of its opening weekend, with my wife Ginny and my 9-year-old daughter Maddie in tow—this being Maddie’s first-ever Bond film.

Well, to use a quote from another film series, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Skyfall is a return to form, a highly entertaining film that I hope is a harbinger of things to come.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Something from M’s past comes back to haunt her and threatens the future of MI6, the British Secret Service. Bond, who has his own issues with M resulting from a critical decision she makes during the film’s opening sequence, has to confront this formidable threat—but he’s physically and psychologically diminished, and he just may find himself sympathizing with the other side this time.

The first half of the film may be a bit slow in places, but it never gets boring or confusing. (In fact, Maddie leaned over to me at around the halfway point and whispered, “I’m really liking this movie so far!”) The second half, however, is downright terrific, with the main villain taking center stage and Bond discovering what he’s really up against. It’s here that we get to see a wonderful, affectionate acknowledgment of the series’ 50-year history—an embracing of the past that the previous two Daniel Craig entries tried to shy away from. And it’s during the latter part of the film that we find out what “Skyfall” actually refers to. I felt it was worth the wait—and quite revelatory.

Speaking of revelatory, I’m no Bond expert, but I think we learn more about 007’s backstory in this film than in the 22 previous movies combined. Not enough to humanize him in a major way, or to take away the air of mystery surrounding his character, but you certainly get more of a sense of who he was before he joined Her Majesty’s Secret Service and what shaped him into the man he is today.

The main villain, Raoul Silva, as portrayed by Javier Bardem, is the most colorful, compelling, and downright enjoyable Bond antagonist in many, many years. His motivation is pure and simple, and while his ultimate goal is less epic than that of, say, Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Auric Goldfinger, I think in years to come, Bardem’s Silva may be as fondly remembered as those two classic characters. Bardem really goes all-out and seems to be having a great time.

Javier Bardem as Silva

I can’t say I ever really warmed to Judi Dench as M, and I didn’t particularly care for her during the first half of Skyfall. But I have to say, by the end of the film, she won me over.

Judi Dench, playing M for the seventh time

Ralph Fiennes, an actor I’ve always liked, has a supporting role as Gareth Mallory, a British bureaucrat tasked with overseeing—and overhauling—MI6. But he proves to be much more than that, and I was delighted. I guessed the resolution of his story arc about halfway through the film, and I was very happy to be proven correct.

Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory 

Naomie Harris, a beautiful actress who was so impressive in the 2002 horror film 28 Days Later, is a welcome addition to the series. She plays Eve, an MI6 agent who forges a relationship with Bond that is both unique and somewhat familiar. There’s a nice payoff with her character that should have a significant impact on the series.

Naomie Harris takes aim

In the same vein, we’re finally introduced (or, rather, reintroduced) to Q, the tech wizard who supplies Bond with all those memorable gadgets. Here, he’s played by Ben Whishaw as a young, somewhat arrogant, geeky introvert—think Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. I still miss John Cleese in the role, but Whishaw makes a good first impression. (Maddie enjoyed him the most!)

Ben Whishaw as the new Q

But above all else, my feeling is that with Skyfall, Daniel Craig has finally become James Bond. He shows hints of humanity and even warmth, and there are a few moments of genuine humor. Those funny moments are never forced or goofy, as they were in the Roger Moore films—they come from the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Two particular moments stand out: Bond interacting with a train engineer on the London Underground, and later on, his reaction to M’s crabbiness as he’s driving her to safety in his car. I found myself genuinely rooting for Craig’s Bond in this film. I actually cared about what happened to him, and I wanted him to triumph.

Sean Connery’s still the best Bond of all time, and will most likely remain so. While many will undoubtedly disagree with me, I still rank Pierce Brosnan as #2. But with Skyfall, Daniel Craig lands at #3, with the potential to move up a notch before too long.

The film ends with the promise, “James Bond will Return,” and for the first time in a number of years, that’s something I’m really looking forward to.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


I was absolutely stunned. In the midst of all the Hurricane Sandy chaos, I heard on the radio (we’d lost cable TV and internet access by that point) that George Lucas was selling Lucasfilm Ltd.—and therefore the Star Wars franchise—to Disney. 

Disney? I thought. Don’t they have enough already? ABC. The Muppets. Pixar. Marvel. And now—Star Wars?!?!?!?

This is what popped into my head immediately:

It’s a short animated sequence from Godzilla Vs. the Smog Monster, a movie I watched a lot when I was a kid. I was reminded of the big, somewhat ominous factory, snatching up all of the green plants springing up nearby. Here was Disney, gobbling up yet another entity, thus adding to its “portfolio of branded entertainment.” (Ah, corporate speak—just warms the heart, doesn’t it?)

But as the news began to sink in, what I found myself focusing on most was the fact that George Lucas—GEORGE FREAKING LUCAS—was giving up control of Star Wars.

For anyone aware of the behind-the-scenes goings-on within the Star Wars franchise, this is mind-blowing.

For decades, George Lucas has exerted profoundly tight control over all things Star Wars—as the creator and owner of the property, that’s his right. And boy, has he exercised that right!

It’s been suggested that this was, in large part, a reaction to the making of The Empire Strikes Back, the one Star Wars film over which Lucas sort of lost creative control. As filming took place overseas, Lucas stayed home in California, primarily to oversee the movie’s special effects and its financial aspects. Director Irvin Kershner and producer Gary Kurtz shot The Empire Strikes Back their way. If Kershner didn’t like the dialogue, he changed it—or he allowed the actors to do so. (Han Solo’s now famous line, “I know,” in reaction to Princess Leia’s “I love you,” was improvised by Harrison Ford on-set. Lucas was reportedly dismayed by this deviation from the script, and remained so until he saw the overwhelmingly positive audience reaction during an early advance screening.) 

Kershner and Kurtz, both of whom knew Lucas before he was GEORGE LUCAS, CREATOR OF STAR WARS, were not afraid to stand up to him, to give some blowback when he gave input with which they didn’t agree. (To be fair, Lucas was understandably very concerned about the movie—he was financing it himself and it was slipping behind schedule and going over budget. He had a hell of a lot at stake and couldn’t risk the film being a flop. But apparently, he wanted Empire to be more like the original Star Wars in terms of pacing and overall feel—and that was very much at odds with the film that Kershner shot. Eventually, Lucas came around and made his peace with the film, but it seemed to be a pivotal experience for him.)

The Empire Strikes Back
turned out to be a huge hit, of course, but Lucas was clearly never going to allow himself to lose any sort of control over a Star Wars movie again—neither Kerhsner nor Kurtz came back for Return of the Jedi. In fact, some observers have described Lucas as a “shadow director” on Jedi, selecting a director (Richard Marquand) and a hands-on producer (Howard Kazanjian) who did exactly as they were told.

Since then, Lucas’s control over Star Wars has been absolute. He wrote and directed the three prequels himself. Like them or not, you have to acknowledge that they represent his singular, pure, unfiltered, uncompromised vision of the Star Wars universe and the characters that inhabit it. For that reason alone, the prequels are notable. 

Beyond the prequels, Lucas has revised the first three films repeatedly over the years—to the point where even I finally jumped off the bandwagon in frustration. What’s more, he has stubbornly kept the original theatrical versions of those films out of the public eye, despite great demand from the fans.

Which is why it was unthinkable to me that Lucas would just… let it all go. Sure, he’s getting $4 billion out of the deal, but still! I mean, this is George Lucas and Star Wars. Inextricably linked. I figured “till death do they part,” at the very least.

Of course, the other big news is the announcement of a new movie trilogy, Episodes VII, VIII, and IX—another notion that seemed unthinkable until a few days ago.

This will be the first Star Wars movie trilogy without the direct involvement of George Lucas, without him having final say. And I actually have very mixed feelings about that. Despite my disappointment in many of the creative choices he’s made over the last 15 years or so, I still have the utmost respect for him, his imagination, and his role as the ultimate authority on Star Wars.

Other than a 2015 release date for Episode VII, it’s way too early to know what to make of this sequel trilogy, other than the fact that production should begin fairly soon. Interestingly enough, Lucas himself is supposedly providing the story treatments for it, so he’ll still have somewhat of a creative role. I’m very curious to know what he has in mind for the Star Wars universe after the events of Return of the Jedi. Lucas won’t actually write the screenplays or direct any of the films, and that doesn’t worry me all that much—after all, The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite Star Wars movie, and one of my all-time favorite movies period.

And that’s why I think that Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm is actually cause for hope when it comes to the future of Star Wars—photos like this notwithstanding:

George Lucas made it abundantly clear that he personally wasn’t going to make any more films in the series, nor did he have any interest in allowing other people to do it. As a result of this deal with Disney, we’re getting at least three additional Star Wars movies, and maybe even more. As of right now, there’s every possibility that they’ll be absolutely wonderful. Without Lucas’s direct control over the franchise, other voices can come in—younger writers and directors who have a lifelong passion for Star Wars—and really open things up creatively and start exploring new and different ideas and directions.

I trust that Disney is well aware that it now possesses the jeweled crown of movie series, and will be very, very careful when selecting writers and directors and coming up with new scripts. Some things I’d like to see:

1) Steven Spielberg has long expressed a desire to direct a Star Wars movie. I say let him have at it.

2) J.J. Abrams, who successfully rebooted Star Trek in 2009, is an avowed Star Wars fan. I’d be interested in seeing him contribute in a significant way.

3) Joe Johnston would be an ideal choice to direct at least one of the films. He worked on the original Star Wars movies as a visual effects artist and went on to direct, among other things, the vastly underrated 1991 film The Rocketeer and the very enjoyable Captain America: The First Avenger

4) I hope Kevin Smith is kept far, far away from this franchise.

5) I also hope these new films don’t have to acknowledge or adhere to the many Star Wars novels and comic books set after Return of the Jedi. While some of these stories are great (hello, Timothy Zahn!), and they’ve long been considered part of the official “canon” by Lucasfilm, having to work within the confines of all that expansive continuity is too restrictive creatively. The incoming filmmakers shouldn’t be blocked from establishing what happened in the Star Wars universe in the years following Jedi just because it contradicts a novel or a comic book. One example: in one of the novels, Chewbacca was killed off. I don’t feel the filmmakers should be bound to that, assuming they want to use Chewie. And if they feel it serves their story, they should be able to establish that Luke Skywalker never married and never fathered any children.

6) I have little doubt that this next trilogy will take place decades after Return of the Jedi, but I hope it’s not set so many years later that it prevents appearances from at least some of the original cast members, particularly Mark Hamill reprising the role of Luke. It may be too much to hope that Harrison Ford will turn up as Han Solo—but then again, he’s been willing to do little cameo appearances here and there as favors to friends (see More American Graffiti and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series). And I think it would be a hoot to see Carrie Fisher playing an older, grouchier, even more sarcastic Princess Leia.

Beyond all that, I most certainly hope that the constant revising of the first three movies is now a thing of the past—and that Disney will eventually overturn Lucas’s decision to embargo the original theatrical versions.

I’m also curious to see what happens with the Star Wars comic-book license. For the last 20 years or so, it’s been at Dark Horse Comics, and they’ve done pretty well with it. 

But Disney does own a comic-book company now—the same company, in fact, that published the original Star Wars comics from 1977 through 1986. 

So it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that the license would end up back at Marvel. In which case I would immediately start calling the few contacts I still have over there, to let them know that if they need a writer…

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.