PERSONAL VENDETTA — Daniel Craig is certainly one of the best James Bonds ever, and with Skyfall he hits a high note with his rugged yet nuanced portrayal of the famed British secret agent. This time it’s personal as M (the ever fabulous Dame Judi Dench) becomes the target of an old nemesis (Javier Bardem) who wants her head. He even blows up her office in MI6 to prove his point. Bond and M have had a prickly relationship in the past, but their genuine fondness and caring for one another comes through in this tense entry as 007 and his superior eventually find themselves on the run. The stakes are raised as Bond is nearly killed at the start of the story, and his reflexes and reactions are a little shaky as he tries to get his mojo back. M’s twisted assassin is a master showman with a nasty bag of tricks, and the ultimate showdown takes place at Bond’s childhood home, where we finally get a glimpse into his melancholy childhood. There’s always been a grittiness to Craig’s Bond movies that is combined here with some awesomely atmospheric scenes at the climax. (Cinematographer Roger Deakins deserves that Oscar nomination.) This is the star’s best 007 outing yet.

 

INCENDIARY IRANIAN INTRIGUE — Director/star Ben Affleck’s highly lauded, Oscar-nominated Argo is worthy of the praise heaped upon it. Working from a taut screenplay by Chris Terrio, it is based upon, but does take dramatic liberties with, the real-life operation masterminded by CIA operative Tony Mendez as he sought to rescue six American diplomats who managed to escape the American embassy in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis that began Nov. 4, 1979. The lucky few receive refuge from the benevolent Canadian embassy for more than three months, a fact some people feel is underplayed here but is ever present. Affleck plays Mendez, who comes up with the idea of pretending to be a Canadian producer wanting to shoot a Star Wars clone in the country, thus providing new identities and cover for the men and women he wants to exfiltrate, their identities not yet publicly known. Argo is a well-directed and well-acted film that does not try to get too deeply into Middle Eastern politics but focuses on Mendez’s seemingly foolhardy mission, one which could end badly if their cover is blown. Like Zero Dark Thirty, this is a film whose outcome we know, yet it still makes you nervous to watch. It’s also worth noting that in the film’s opening summation of the events leading up to the hostage crisis, it does acknowledge the secret U.S. government coup that ousted Iran’s first democratically elected leader and moved them into the 60 years of hardline rule they have endured since. There are some great documentary extras on the DVD and Blu-ray that flesh out the real-life story further.

 

CREEPY CHILDREN — There’s something about ghostly children that freaks people out, and that concept is exploited to excellent effect in Sinister, a film with a growing sense of dread. Ethan Hawke plays true crime reporter Ellison Oswalt, who shuttles his wife and two young kids to a new home every time he works on a new book. This time, however, he has neglected to tell them that their latest suburban abode is the actual crime scene for his book—a family was hung from a tree in the back yard—and when bad dreams and then supernatural occurrences begin taking place, he and his wife know things are not right with the place. Even worse, mysterious Super-8 snuff home movies also mysteriously appear in the attic, and Ellison secretly views them and the killings they document. He soon learns that the mass murder he is investigating is linked to other serial family killings across the country, and as he comes closer to the truth, child apparitions make their presence known in a very spooky way. Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson maintains an appropriate level of fear that is built around dark spaces, jarring sounds (and Christopher Young’s gritty ambient compositions) and most importantly the anticipation of something truly awful happening. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it will still rattle you good.

 

MONSTER RETREAT — We may fear monsters, but they fear us too, particularly our persecution mania. The conceit of the animated comedy Hotel Transylvania is that monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Mummy, Invisible Man and many others need a place to kick back and be themselves, free from outside prejudices. As a single parent whose wife died tragically a hundred years earlier, Dracula wants to make sure his daughter Mavis is safe, hence his massive castle retreat for his scary peeps. And on the occasion of her 118th birthday, when she has been promised the chance to explore life beyond the castle, he tries to instill enough fear of the outside world into her that she will stay close to him forever. With rowdy, merry monster friends assembling for the big day, a 21-year-old backpacking student named Jonathan arrives by accident, unintentionally threatening to destroy the venue’s eternal no human policy. Dracula quickly hides then disguises him as a Frankenstein-like monster to blend him into the crowd then shuffle him out. But the fun-loving Jonathan inadvertently draws the attention of Mavis and other guests and soon becomes the life of the party, much to the chagrin of the stuffy Dracula, who fears that knowledge of a human visitor could destroy his business. And he could steal Mavis’ heart. I’m not a big Adam Sandler fan, but he does a good job voicing the legendary vampire and is complemented by a strong voice cast that includes Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Cee Lo Green, Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Steve Buscemi and a slew of other names. Director Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars) keeps things lively and fun, even if the predictable ending deflates things a bit.

 

CRAZY IS AS CRAZY DOES — Pacifist screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) needs inspiration for his unfinished script Seven Psychopaths—but he wants it not to be a violent movie, perhaps dialogue heavy—and his unemployed actor friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) works on giving him crazy ideas based on real-life incidents and people he knows about. Things get complicated as Billy precipitates the break-up of Marty and his girlfriend, and then get worse when Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), Billy’s accomplice in dog snatching (the animals later returned for reward money), unwittingly steals the beloved pet of a crazed mobster played by Woody Harrelson. It’s an unfortunate choice that leads to some very bad repercussions. Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s character study of dysfunctional characters who seem more at ease with themselves and their delusions than normal people would be is a bit disjointed but still fascinating. McDonagh’s violence-laden work—from plays like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant Of Inishmore to the Oscar-nominated film In Bruges—has deservedly drawn critical acclaim and sometimes appropriate comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, although he’s not nearly as sadistic. Focusing this tale on a screenwriter whose association with psychopathic characters takes him down a dark road also underscores the way that Hollywood is often misguided in its portrayal or understanding of violence. It’s all fun and games until a psycho shows up at your door.

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