New Arrivals: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

In retrospect, it’s appropriate that the teaser trailer for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest opus from the incomparable Martin Scorsese, was scored to the pounding march of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” That song, along with the album it was taken from, “Yeezus,” is a scalding document of rampaging male id, meant to both exhilarate and appall in its lack of inhibitions. This film, chronicling the rise and fall of stockbroker/fiend Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the Hell he raised, drugs he took, money he stole and lives he ruined, is also a scalding, hilarious descent into madness and excess.

Scorsese has built a career out of confrontation. Dangerous men, some who poisoned by isolation (“Taxi Driver”), sexual impotence and personal inadequacy (“Raging Bull”) or who come on as charming rogues only to turn into drug-ravaged monsters (“Goodfellas”) populate his work. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the longest, wildest, and possibly greatest film from his late period, is an onslaught of all the great director’s favorite themes, as we see Belfort and his cohorts at Stratton Oakmont recreate their own Roman Empire, built on money, sex, cramming every toxin they can find into their blood streams, etc. “Wolf of Wall Street” is a comedy on the surface, a brilliant one for most of the run time. But there is a seed of darkness that runs through.

We meet Belfort in 1987, as a bright-eyed kid from Queens ready to chase the American Dream on Wall Street. This is more difficult than it seems, since the stock market is built on destroying everyone around you to chase the Almighty dollar. This is white male privelege on steroids. Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in ten minutes of reptilian lunacy) lays down the stockbroker mantra: get high, get rich, fuck everything and everyone. Black Monday sends Hanna into unemployment and Jordan to Long Island, selling penny stocks to people naive enough to think the stock market is supposed to be a fun way to make money. These stocks give 50 percent commission to the broker, a loophole that Jordan will exploit to build his empire.

The degenerates who populate his boiler room are led by Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, also totally unhinged), who will become the court fool to Belfort’s Lear, and jumps feet first into the stockbroker racket for the respect but mostly for the high you get from gobbling Quaaludes like candy.

The firm grows in power. Their office is filled with whores, dwarf-tossing, drugs, fighting and basically the fall of Western civilization in microcosm. Jordan dumps his first wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie, giving a nothing role cunning and depth), a piece of blonde royalty from Queens who toys with Jordan’s sexual dependency.

“Wolf of Wall Street” is paced like the film itself is on cocaine; it’s like the helicopter sequence from “Goodfellas” stretched to three hours. All the power these guys have reduces them to their base, primal states. More money, more sex, more drugs, more everything. DiCaprio is one hell of a ring-leader. His towering performance is the most complete he’s ever given. His movie-star charisma, his boyish, age-resistant face and his inner rage combine to make Jordan Belfort a force of nature. The movie is a force of nature, as Scorsese, and the dense, cracking script by “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner Terrence Winter, pummels us with debauchery. It’s the funniest movie he’s ever made; recalling the black-comic New York anarchy of his little-seen 1985 film “After Hours.” For the first two thirds, this film is a punk rock bonanza as Scorsese’s camera flies around like a maniac and editor Thelma Schoonmaker gives shape to the chaos.

But as the movie goes on, rock and roll retreats back to the blues. This is foreshadowed in an early scene where the firm pays a woman working in their office $10,000 to shave her head to pay for breast implants. At first she’s in on it; even the women in the office are just like the boys. But as her blonde hair falls in crooked chunks to the floor, there are cracks in her oblivious smile. The rumble of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” slows down, as does the film. When the movie takes a breather, we don’t see men; we see deranged children, we see monsters. We are far away from Henry Hill gliding through the Copacabana. There’s little romance here. Scorsese’s films have dealt with themes like guilt, masculinity, identity amongst a specific group and remorse. Belfort has no remorse. He doesn’t care that the FBI (personified by the always excellent Kyle Chandler) and the SEC are circling him like sharks.  Not since “Raging Bull” has one of Scorsese’s protagonists been so monstrous. So Scorsese gets to focus on something  that he’s dealt with in his own life but never to this degree on film: addiction.

Jordan and Donnie refuse to be sober, no matter the situation or consequences. This is demonstrated when they dig out some “Lemmons,” ultra-concentrated Quaaludes that rob the user of all motor skills, showcased in an insane, screamingly funny scene allowing DiCaprio to unleash his inner Charlie Chaplin. The film becomes exhausting and darker in tone because we are seeing everything from Jordan Belfort’s perspective. Consuming copious toxins wears you down. The film is still hilarious, but the laugh have a chaser of horror and disgust to go along with them. It’s hard not to think of someone like Jake La Motta, especially when looking at the deterioration of his marriage.

In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort doesn’t get wacked, or gain 40 pounds or go into hiding. Neither do his cohorts. In 1983’s “The King of Comedy,” Scorsese showed an audience lauding a man who committed atrocities to become a celebrity. Jordan Belfort and countless others on Wall Street did the same. When we get to that quietly devastating final shot, as a cycle of adulation continues, “Wolf of Wall Street” cements itself as one of the director’s most uncompromising and dangerous films. It’s an epic farce on the surface, but underneath, this bull is still raging.

Grade: A


New Arrivals: American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell is a filmmaker who loves the people who populate his movies. His recent films are filled with eccentrics, crazies, dreamers and criminals, all filtered through Russell’s neurotic, madcap sensibilities (or if you’ve seen the video of him arguing with Lily Tomlin on the set of his 2004 film, “I Heart Huckabees,” he’s just an abrasive dick, but that’s another conversation).

His films also walk a tightrope. 2010’s “The Fighter,” 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and even his 1999 masterpiece “Three Kings” all walk a delicate line between genre convention and self-indulgent craziness. His latest film, “American Hustle” was shot guerilla-style, supposedly detailing the crazy antics surrounding the ABSCAM scandal, a sort of sting operation conducted by the FBI in the late 1970’s. I don’t have more information about ABSCAM, because Russell and his stable of actors do not give a fuck about this scandal. Or making an interesting film, for that matter. True to its title, “American Hustle” is about hustlers; con men and women who live for the art of the steal, ruining suckers to fill the void in lives as fake and outlandish as their haircuts.

These con artists are Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, 4o pounds heavier with an impossibly elaborate combover) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, sexy as hell), two melancholy souls who finally found purpose setting up a fake loan office in New York, robbing cash-strapped marks at $5,000 a head. Irv’s a sad-sack Long Island Jew, lonely and melancholy, trapped with a beautiful idiot of a trophy wife named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Sydney seeks solace in Duke Ellington records and putting on the guise of a British Lady with good banking connections.

These two get involved in an even bigger swindle, spear-headed by near-insane FBI agent Richie DiMasso (a miscast Bradley Cooper, doing a terrible Robert De Niro impression), involving the take-down of politicians including Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, underserved) and the mob, and fake sheikhs…and…well…screw it. This film doesn’t care about the ABSCAM plot, or any plot for that matter. Describing the damn thing is an exercise in futility. “American Hustle” is an incomprehensible, self-indulgent, self-amused and completely up its own tacky polyester-clad ass. The slow-motion, constantly roving camera, and wall-to-wall pop songs on the soundtrack are emblematic of a film that tries desperately to be something like “Goodfellas.” Except that film had a point, coherence, character development, and any other compliment one might use to describe a movie that actually works.

It’s inexplicable to me that people find this enjoyable and propulsive, not hollow and tedious like it was for me. 130 minutes felt like an eternity. Why? Because every scene of this film is drained of purpose; it’s just an enormously talented cast riffing on a theme that isn’t nearly as profound as it thinks it is. Hold on to your hairpieces guys, but some people in America lie to themselves to get ahead. And sometimes they feel bad about it. The tone of this review might be condescending, but that’s because the movie was condescending. The director thinks just having his cast wax poetically on the nature of fakery and forging your livelihood is enough to carry an entire film. If “American Hustle” was committed to being a plotless, ramshackle affair, akin to something like another Scorsese film, “Mean Streets,” it might have been easier to sit through. There are plenty of great films made in the ’70s that treated plot like a nuisance.  But the film wants to have it both ways. It’s both driven by its plot and it doesn’t care about its plot. That battle makes the movie a well-acted chore, because so many moments are based on plot developments that are so cluttered and dispensed in random chunks that makes “The Big Sleep” look logical. As a result, this movie was numbing, with every moment ringing hollow since it didn’t earn any profundity.

Although this film is the Donovan to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan, some of the actors are committed to this hairsprayed wreck. Amy Adams is fantastic, nailing the sexuality, loneliness and desperation of Sydney, filling in the blanks that the script co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer didn’t bother itself with. Renner does what he can with Carmine, the naive mayor who…I’m honestly not sure what he’s trying to do in this movie. At least he doesn’t mumble and loaf around as the least-convincing Jew in recent memory like Christian Bale does (the Batman voice is now the second-most ridiculous voice in Bale’s repertoire, after the community-theater Woody Allen impression put on display here). Jennifer Lawrence does have a lot of fun playing the screeching Long Island stereotype, but a little goes a long way, and the dramatic moments she’s given at the end of the film feel shrill, like Russell was too afraid to reel her back in.

“American Hustle” isn’t just a wannabe Scorsese riff. It reminds me of why I hate Judd Apatow movies now, its just a smattering of scenes where the actors do things for the sake of doing them, narrative momentum be damned. This movie is an impeccably-decorated jam session with a band without a rhythm section. David O. Russell loves his cast so much that he forgot he was supposed to make a damn movie, not a cluttered, store-brand version of other great films. You don’t get elated watching “American Hustle,” but it does achieve something, perhaps, if a movie about con artists leaves you feeling totally conned.

Grade: C

New Arrivals: Star Trek Into Darkness – 2013

Rebooting a beloved franchise can be both cumbersome and liberating as a creative enterprise. Yes, one must deal with hordes of ravenous fans who relish in character assassination-via-message board if you deliver a movie/comic/TV series that somehow desecrates what they loved about the original work. But on the flip side of that, you could choose to ignore the rabble and rework the property into something new, that tips its hat to the precursor while running on its own creative thrust that brings it back to life. Look at the Christopher Nolan “Batman” trilogy or the “Battlestar Galactica” re-think on TV to see how this works.

J.J. Abrams’ first “Star Trek” was a blast into a new frontier, synthesizing his own witty, character-driven and convoluted bent on science-fiction with what worked best about Gene Roddenberry’s original idea into a sleek, exciting and tremendously well-crafted rebirth. Purists missed the original show/movie series’ focus on philosophical inquiry and slow-building take on the sci-fi legend, but Trek 2.0 took photon torpedoes to the bad acting, painfully-stiff dialogue and ham-fisted symbolism and kept the good stuff: the realistic view of the future and the comradery of these characters. The movie was far from perfect, but Abrams gave Star Trek a new action-oriented perspective and renewed relevance that didn’t disrespect where it came from.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” however, succeeds in many areas where the first movie stumbled, but there is an enormous albatross of exclusionary nostalgia that drags the movie down toward the end, that in a way violates the ideal this reboot, that it would appeal to non-Trekkies and would focus on being a movie and not sinking into the fanboy abyss, originally stood for. But there is enough in “Into Darkness” that works exceedingly well.

As the film opens with the Enterprise crew fleeing natives on an uncivilized planet that’s about to be destroyed by a volcano; the mere presence of Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the crew is a clear violation of that “Prime Directive” thing that says Starfleet can’t interfere with rural planets, a problem that creates a rift between Kirk, who loses the Enterprise as a result, and Spock over the merits of following protocol: what happens when the necessary thing to do doesn’t happen to be the right thing  to do?

This is a theme that permeates the script by Abrams’ screenwriting entourage of Alex Kurtzmann, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof, and only intensifies when a mysterious scientist calling himself John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks a Federation archive in London and later opens fire on a room full of officers. Kirk is reinstated to go to Kronos, the home planet of the Kryptons where Harrison may be hiding, with experimental new photon torpedoes commissioned by the nefarious Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, you may know him as Robocop). The plot gets ridiculously complicated from there, but for the majority of “Into Darkness” the focus is on the conflict between the Enterprise crew and Harrison, who is extremely pissed off at Starfleet for some reason.  But when the focus is kept on the Enterprise crew on the chase, “Into Darkness” really thrives. This ensemble, including translator Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the pilot Sulu (John Cho), and the engineers Chekov (Anton Yelchin, having fun with the Russian accent) the constantly frazzled medical officer Bones (Karl Urban) and especially Scotty (Simon Pegg is a blast as always) are given a bit more to do and the chemistry between these actors is totally natural; their comradery pefectly complements the witty approach this new series takes to the lore, which is great because the old “Trek” was so damn self-serious and ponderous.

The relationship between Kirk and Spock (Pine’s brashness and the fantastic Quinto’s emotionless logic bounce off each other perfectly) is taken to greater heights because they finally have a compelling (at first) villain to deal with in Harrison. Cumberbatch, so indelible on the amazing BBC series “Sherlock,” is excellent, using his pale features and lanky physique to add to secretive menace that defines his character. When the Enterprise is chasing him, allowing Abrams to stir up a whirlwind of action, with the roving camera work, seamless special effects that don’t drown out the dynamics between these characters or the charming wit of this approach, “Into Darkness” works like gangbusters.

But as the final act closes in, and Harrison’s real identity and motivations are revealed, the film’s energy, tone and thematic resonance go into a tailspin faster than the Enterprise does. The problems comes with Harrison, who is revealed to be…someone else. But the problem is that this information is only fan service; unless you are a Star Trek fan going in, this plot twist will be completely meaningless. It’s so frustrating that Abrams, a creative storyteller who’s unique perspective breathed new life not just into this franchise but into “Mission: Impossible” as well, would revert back to stories already told; it’s like a songwriter who runs out of new material for the back half of his album so he just threw some covers in at the last minute. “Into Darkness” becomes a giant exercise in nostalgia, and as a result the final scenes with Kirk and Spock, the final emotional crescendo to their individual arcs as well as the movie’s themes on sacrifice and whether the ends justify the means, rings sort of hollow. The last movie saw the destruction of Vulcan, Spock’s home world. This was an incredibly ballsy move, and it showed Abrams and his cohorts weren’t afraid to throw lore out of the window and change the constructs of these characters and this universe. But “Into Darkness” doesn’t just pull its punches at the end, it steps out of the ring, goes home, locks the door and puts in old “Star Trek” DVD’s.

All that is unfortunate; because when “Into Darkness” walks its own path, and Abrams stages set pieces that are reminiscent of Indiana Jones in their good humor and coherent development of suspense, it’s a thrilling piece of popular entertainment that is powered by heart and soul, not financial security. When it tries to restage old triumphs, it falters, especially in a non-ending that both cheats its way out of a profound emotional development and piles on hackneyed allusions to 9/11.  J.J. Abrams said his focus was on making great movies first, bowing down to mythology second. But in the final stretch of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” it’s not just Captain Kirk who has violated his Prime Directive.

Grade: B+

New Arrivals: Django Unchained

Well it looks like  Quentin Tarantino and I have one thing in common: I think he hates “Gone With The Wind” as much as  I do.

“Django Unchained” is a movie that defies any easy, glib description a cinephile like myself can throw at it. But I will say that no movie in 2012 pummeled me as much as this one. When I walked out of the theater I wasn’t yet able to articulate in my mind what I felt about Tarantino’s odyssey of the titular freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and his quest for vengeance and his beloved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), which left the preconceived notions of blaxploitation movies, Westerns and Civil War-epics like “Gone With the Wind,” along with dozens of bodies, in the bloody wake of Django’s drive for retribution and freedom.

But now I can say this: “Django Unchained” is a bold, outrageously violent, wildly funny, explosively provocative destruction and corrective of cinema’s old notions of the portrayal the toxic, dehumanizing industry of slavery, all in the guise of a spaghetti Western that owes a heavy debt to Sergio Leone and countless other reference points in the  grindhouse collage of Tarantino’s mind. The man is a lunatic that has a mastery of his own craft.

Tarantino has always been criticized for being nothing more than a thief, a sort of DJ who takes pieces of the obscure genre films he treats like holy writ and mashes them together in a hollow, showoff-y manner. I never bought that criticism. Sure, Tarantino borrows from other movies and directors, but he puts them together in a way that makes his films accessible to people who don’t know Sonny Chiba from Sonny Bono and also leaves something for everyone to chew on. “Reservoir Dogs” looked at honor amongst men amid a failed heist. “Pulp Fiction” dealt with criminal low-lifes slowly coming to terms with their individual relationships with morality and decency. “Jackie Brown” used an Elmore Leonard story to explore racism and old age and “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof” literally turn gender roles on their head, with empowered women gleefully emasculating the cliched macho icons that dominated midnight theaters in the early ‘7os. These films are reverential, but they aren’t afraid to flip the script on their predecessors, to create a new perspective. It’s what makes one of Tarantino one of our most fascinating and unpredictable auteurs.

“Django Unchained” continues this tradition. The film opens in 1858, when Django is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter who recruits Django to help him find the Brittle Brothers and bring them to justice. In return, Schultz promised to grant Django his freedom. Django slowly morphs from a man stripped of his dignity into a confident gunslinger, as the two do battle with the Brittles and a dapper plantation owner named Big Daddy (Don Johnson), leading to a gunfight with Daddy and his legion of pre-Klansmen, whose impaired visibility from their poorly made masks leads to an insanely funny scene that I would put against any comedy released this year. Django convinces Schultz to travel with him to Mississippi to rescue his beloved Broomhilda from the  Candieland plantation, whose ruthless owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) trains his slaves for Mandingo fighting, which entails bare-knuckle brawls to the death. In a convoluted plan that has Django and Schultz pretending to be slave owners looking to purchase Mandingo fighters, they infiltrate the plantation.

“Django Unchained” is unusual in how it is entertaining and horrifying at the same time. The first half of the film glides on the effortless charisma and chemistry between Waltz and Foxx. Waltz, just like he did as the inhuman Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds,” goes through the English language like an overly enthusiastic gymnast, twisting Tarantino’s peerless dialogue into fantastic shapes, creating a character just as indelible as Landa, but on the other side of the humanity spectrum. It’s not by accident that his name is Dr. King, but Schultz does not share Martin Luther’s affinity for non-violence. He trains the uneducated Django not just how to read and dress himself, but how to become a trained killer. In his best performance since “Collateral,” Foxx subtly shows Django’s transformation from a broken slave into an avenging badass worthy of comparison to a Shaft or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name,  becoming the Siegfried destined to save his beloved Broomhilda from the fiery dungeon in the German folktale Schultz shares with him.

But as absurd and fun as Django and Schultz’s journey to Candieland is, the dark side that always works on the fringes of Tarantino’s work until it explodes with profound repercussions, sets in in the film’s depiction of slavery. I have never seen any film that depicted America’s greatest shame in such clear-eyed and brutal fashion. We see the mazes of scars formed by whippings. Hot boxes that suck the oxygen from already withered bodies. Full-face masks that look like they belong on Hannibal Lecter, that are equipped with spear-tipped metal collars, treating these men and women like feral beasts.  The N-word gets spewed out of everyone’s mouth like cannon fire. “Roots” is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s frustrating that it took 97 years after the release of D.W. Griffin’s KKK-supporting “Birth of a Nation” for an American film to present slavery in such a manner. In an age where Hollywood movies such as “The Blind Side” and “The Help” soft-pedal the conversation of race in favor of sentimental tear-jerking, “Django” pummels us with our nation’s past.

While still keeping with the darkly funny, irreverent tone, the film also shows how slavery is thought of as a business, and those who partake are desensitized to it. Django bristles at having to pretend to be a black “slaver” looking for fighters in order to buy his wife her freedom, and that he is forced to watch and even dole out abuse to other slaves to stay in the good graces Calvin Candie, an antebellum demon played with sadistic relish by DiCaprio in the performance of his career, is thrilled by the sight of two slaves beating each other to death in these brawls. With the wave of his hand he has a runaway torn apart by dogs. He may have sexual desires for his sister, and he shows how generations of white superiority can suppress any and all empathy for these black victims. In the lengthy dinner-table scene, where Tarantino showcases his stone-cold mastery of building suspense around the conflicting motivations of his characters and his unmistakable dialogue that is so good it’s almost like a form of music, DiCaprio’s monologue detailing the anatomy of a black man’s skull shows how Candie himself doesn’t even fully understand why he is the way he is; slavery and subjugation are part of the air he breathes, rotting his soul along with his tobacco-stained teeth.

But the movie’s gutsiest, most troubling creation is not Calvin who is not even the most villainous character in “Django.” That would be his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackson, buried under prosthetics that make him look like the worst Uncle Ben-esque, minstrel show caricature, plays the epitome of an Uncle Tom who lives to kiss the ass of his master and belittle the other slaves. At first you pity Stephen, but pity is replaced by disgust, as his willingness to be subserviant masks a Machiavellian soullessness. Jackson is extraordinary in showing how the horrors of slavery warp the oppressors and the oppressed, symbolizing Tarantino’s unflinching eye for holding everyone involved in the prosperity of slavery accountable. Making the villain of a movie about slavery another slave? That, ladies and gentlemen, is ballsy as hell.

“Django Unchained” is the farthest thing from a smooth ride. At 165 minutes it does feel bloated at times, especially in a totally unnecessary scene involving Django and a bunch of Australian miners, one of which is played by Tarantino himself, who really needs to stop operating under the delusion that he is an actor. Also, it was an interesting choice in presenting the relationship between Django and Broomhilda in a series of wordless fantasies, and Washington is very effective as an almost silent victim of slavery, but it’s disappointing that a writer who is in a class by himself when it comes to creating well-developed female characters, at least among male filmmakers, gives Broomhilda such little to do.

But “Django Unchained” more than pays off in the end, despite the occasional lapses in narrative discipline. There is something deeply thrilling in watching Django tear through the institution of slavery, set to a fire-breathing mashup of James Brown and 2Pac, along with original music from John Legend and even the immortal Ennio Morricone. Years of oppression lie on the floor, soaking in blood. Some may be troubled by the film’s romantic view of revenge, and the unsatiated bloodlust that overtakes Django as his transformation is complete. But for everyone else who has followed Quentin Tarantino into the wild blue yonder over the past twenty years as he flips the script on how we view cinematic temples. In the film’s final sequence, which is a direct homage to the ending of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” years of turning a blind eye over this country’s greatest sin, literally goes up in flames. With “Django Unchained,” as wild as ungainly as it may be, Tarantino once again wants us to feel the burn.

Grade: A-

New Arrivals: Skyfall

Before Daniel Craig was bestowed with the license to kill, I was never a James Bond fan. I thought the exploits of the MI6 agent were just too…quite frankly, stupid. To be fair I haven’t seen all of the Bond films, but the few I did see did nothing for me; they were just cheesy artifacts, too busy winking at action and thriller tropes to be taken seriously as movies. Perhaps my biggest problem was that James Bond wasn’t a character; he was an idea, a male fantasy that didn’t have anything going on in his head and just beat up bad guys and slept with every partially lobotomized woman he met. After the CGI-mad clusterfuck that was 2002’s “Die Another Day” the franchise either needed to die or be reborn. “Casino Royale” was such a breath of fresh air; a movie that turned James Bond into a full-bodied, reckless character capable of getting his heart shattered into pieces. Daniel Craig was the perfect choice for 007. His work in “Layer Cake” and “Munich” showed he could be ice-cold and ruthless, but  vulnerable at the same time. Unfortunately, Marc Foster’s shaky-cam and an incomplete script made the follow-up, “Quantum of Solace,” a massive disappointment that lost the thread that “Casino Royale” established so brilliantly. For the latest installment, “Skyfall,” the Broccoli family handed the reigns over to Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”), who was an esteemed if unconventional choice to continue the franchise.

But bringing in new blood and a renewed focus on the sensibilities established by “Casino Royale” were just what we needed. “Skyfall” is an immaculate, exhilarating piece of popular entertainment that succeeds by once again stripping the series to its very essence, but the most fascinating thing about it is that it’s a character study designed as an action movie.

The movie begins with Bond and a new female operative named Eve (Naomi Harris) in Istanbul chasing down a man who has stolen a hard drive containing a list of all the double-0 operatives in MI6. Bond chases him by train, car and motorcycle until he is accidentally shot by Eve and is left for dead in the river. Bond’s superior M (Judy Dench) doesn’t have time to mourn for him. She is dealing with an unknown enemy hellbent on destroying her and MI6, and her failure to protect her agents’ identities has forced the British government to investigate by sending a rep from the Prime Minister’s office, Mallory (a solid if underused Ralph Fiennes) to start a transfer of power.

Meanwhile, Bond is indisposed of, drowning his past and his current defeat in alcohol and women. James Bond is a broken man; plagued by gunshot wounds, bad legs and the greatest affliction of all, age. Him and M are in a world where they are becoming relics at the mercy of anyone who knows how to use a computer. Bond’s condition doesn’t improve when he comes back to the fold to find the stolen list; he’s weakened, he can’t shoot straight, and his own country is tentative to trust him and MI6 again.

Who wants to destroy M? What is “Skyfall,” and why does Bond bristle at hearing it during a personality test? To answer the second question would reveal one of the many surprises lurking in the excellent script by Robert Wade, Neil Purvis and John Logan. But the villain of this piece is Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent with a personal vendetta against Bond and M.

Of all the Bond films, “Skyfall” is one of the smallest in terms of scale. There’s no grand plot to blow up the world or a plethora of ridiculous gadgets from Q,(who returns to the franchise in the form of the young, nerdy Ben Whishaw). “Skyfall” is about people at the end of their rope, who have to prove that they still have a place in the world. Mendes the director said “The Dark Knight” was a huge influence on his approach to “Skyfall.” Just like how Christopher Nolan showed Batman as a broken man trying to fix a broken world, “Skyfall” finally shows Bond as a flawed human being, with a haunted past and an uncertain future. The great Daniel Craig once again puts his own spin on the role of Bond, making him tenacious and unrelenting, but realistically so. There’s a weariness behind his ice-cold blue eyes and impeccably tailored suits. His tenuous relationship with M is also tested, as Bond begins to question M’s willingness to sacrifice agents for the prime directive. In a film that doesn’t have a traditional “Bond girl,” Dench tears into the role as M, making her a stubborn, tragic figure, finally letting some remorse seep in when her way of life is under siege.

Silva, a victim of M’s habit of abandoning agents, has let revenge mentally (as well as physically) warp him into a sadistic madman. Bardem plays Silva like the hellspawn of Liberace and Anton Chigurh, the now-legendary hit man from “No Country for Old Men,” which won Bardem an Oscar. We don’t see or even know Silva’s name until almost an hour into “Skyfall,” and his introduction; walking toward a tied-up Bond with an monologue on how to trap rats, drips with unsettling menace. He is easily the best villain the series has ever had because he wants to destroy the souls of M and Bond, not Earth. Bardem has the ability to make you think his character is over-the-top, without ever raising his voice. He is able to suggest the outlandish nature of his character through a haircut and speech patterns. It’s an astonishing display of feral, yet coiffed, malice.

Mendes makes this meaty, character-driven story come to life on screen, mixing his elegant, old-fashioned approach to character with a surprisingly sure hand in the action scenes The opening chase is cleanly edited and shot, a revelation in the shaky-cam era. He also uses long takes and tracking shots, making what is so incoherent in lesser movies so enveloping here.  His partner in crime is the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. It’s hard to put into words how beautifully shot this movie is. The chase in Turkey is a sun-drenched blur, a casino in Macau is given a burnt-gold sheen, and a rooftop confrontation between Bond and an impossible informant is shot entirely in silhouette, with a backdrop of neon lights from the adjacent towers (my favorite scene of any movie this year), and the final showdown in Scotland, at a place tied to Bond’s past, is an overcast tapestry of fog and dust. Deakins and Mendes put effort into every frame in this film, which is why it is a career peak for both of them.

“Skyfall” is also a new peak for the James Bond series because it acknowledges that its characters have pasts, demons that feed into why they do what they do. Filled with surprises that change the way we look at these characters (including a fantastic cameo from Albert Finney). One of  the final shots in “Skyfall” has James Bond, looking out at the London skyline. The series, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is like England itself. Stubborn, regal, and ready to face the future on it’s own terms. “Skyfall” is Bond redefined, by way of using the past as prologue for a revitalized future.

Grade: A 

New Arrivals: Argo

Deception can be a bitch to pull off, especially if its elaborate and consisting of a lot of unpredictable, moving parts. Take “Argo,” the new political thriller directed and starring Ben Affleck, which is the story of a wild CIA operation where the agency had to extract six American diplomats working in Iran who were in hiding at the house of the Canadian ambassador  after they escaped from the American embassy there in 1979, right when a band of irate acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the place. These six Americans, Robert Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), his wife Cora (Clea Duvall), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) and Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe) know that if the Iranian revolutionaries realize they escaped, they’ll be hunted like dogs and likely subject to a public execution.

The CIA, represented by “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his associate Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) scrambled to find a way to get these people out of the increasingly hostile Iran, until Mendez comes up with an insane, complicated plan: have him and the 6 workers pose as a Canadian film crew doing a location scout for a Hollywood film. To borrow a cliche that’s old enough to file for Social Security, it’s a story so crazy it must be true.

Ben Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio are fully aware of how crazy this mission, which wasn’t declassified until 1997, was. That energy is what makes “Argo” such an electric piece of mainstream entertainment, one where Affleck puts his blossoming filmmaking skills to work to do something highly unusual: lacing a political thriller with some sharply observed satirical comedy.

It would’ve been a mistake to remove the levity from the ludicrous conceit of the movie; the movie knows how ridiculous its central conceit is. So does Mendez at first (who Affleck ably plays as an understated, quiet anchor), desperate to get these six diplomats home, even though the CIA has found every other possible option unfeasible, as the situation with Iran grows more unstable and dire by the day. So Mendez comes up with the idea to have the six diplomats pretend to be screenwriters, producers, etc. and under this guise take a plane out of Tehran to Switzerland, safe and sound. For this plan to work, Mendez has to go through the actual process of getting this fake movie made. With the help of legendary makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and washed-up producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), they find a script for a cheap “Star Wars” knockoff called “Argo,” and they go through the process of securing the rights, making up story boards, setting up table reads and press junkets, all for a movie that will never exist.

Meanwhile the six diplomats are trapped inside the Canadian ambassador’s house, which has become a nesting ground of frazzled nerves and forgotten hope, trapped in a country consumed by upheaval. These two threads are so disparate, and so different in tone until they meet, which makes “Argo” even more impressive in that it walks the tightrope between satire and thriller with uncommon dexterity. Mendez’s trip to Hollywood to put “Argo” together is a wonderfully funny attack on the vapidness of the Hollywood process. Goodman and Arkin are both excellent here, representing the hurdles of what Siegel calls the “bullshit business.”

The reason why the comedy and drama mesh so well is because the CIA is in the “bullshit business” as well. Mendez has to teach the diplomats on the fly how to act and behave like Canadian filmmakers. They have to know their individual manufactured histories like the backs of their hands. “Argo” is a fake movie, the selling it was all to real. By using two different tones, Affleck and Terrio (who’s water-tight script is a model of economic storytelling) are painting the same picture, but with two different brushes. They also make satirical jabs at the Iranian situation itself; the opening prologue explains the whole history involving Khomeini and the Shah as a comic book, not afraid to quietly point out that the whole situation is partially America’s fault. It’s political history done with a smirk, not a glower.

“Argo,” which is masterfully paced throughout, builds to a wellspring of suspense, when Mendez has to lead the diplomats through a public market on a “location scout,” with hostile revolutionaries literally surrounding them, and then later at the airport, making the minutia of the boarding process even more agonizing than one would ever imagine. Affleck’s camera, given a burnished glow by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, is right in the actor’s faces, capturing every sweat-soaked moment, and darting through the crowded streets of Tehran and the offices at Langley with unobtrusive skill. There isn’t an unnecessary line or shot in the film’s two hours; in an era where movies are getting more and more bloated, that kind of economy is a saving grace.

Affleck knows to use an ensemble of actors, a skill on display in all three of his films. While “Argo” doesn’t have a galvanizing supporting performance like Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone” or Jeremy Renner in “The Town,” there isn’t a weak spot either. Cranston, so brilliant week after week on “Breaking Bad,” emits an implosive  authority as O’Donnell. Affleck is at his best when he isn’t trying to do to much, giving Mendez a quiet but ever-present confidence. McNairy is also strong as Stafford, the Embassy worker who has trouble buying the insanity that Mendez is selling to them.

“Argo” does briefly stumble into Ron Howard territory in the last 10 minutes, when Alexandre Desplat’s score, which had been simmering in the background, erupts into a saccharine boil and we get a lot flag-waving corn, but that’s a minor complaint. “Argo” is an exhilarating throwback to 70’s-era filmmaking, when thoughtful storytelling and subtle thematic inquiry reigned supreme. Affleck scores his third straight victory as a director, bringing to mind the work of Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet and putting him in the company of America’s most vital contemporary filmmakers. Without dipping too much into nostalgia of an era gone by, “Argo” is a special kind of a great film: heavy on real-world importance, but still light on its feet.

Grade: A-

New Arrivals: Prometheus

There are few things in the process of making and writing movies harder to implement and/or analyze than narrative ambiguity. Movies defined by philosophical musings or non-linear narratives have to decide how to present their secrets and secluded themes. Make things too obvious and you sacrifice narrative stakes and also insult your audience; make things to confounding and you…sacrifice narrative stakes and insult your audience, by limiting or completely removing the catharsis that can make a movie satisfying.

It is even harder when a movie has connections to an older, more beloved movie, one made by the same director to boot. 1979’s “Alien”  is a masterpiece of slow, unbearable dread; a haunted house movie in space that gave birth to one of cinema’s iconic monsters in the Xenomorph alien and launched the careers of star Sigourney Weaver and director Ridley Scott. When it was announced a couple of years ago that Scott was working on a project that may or may not be a prequel to “Alien,” a storm of intrigue brewed as a result. That film has become “Prometheus,” and the onslaught of trailers made a lot of people wonder how much of a connection to the “Alien” universe this new film would have.

First of all, “Prometheus” is a prequel to “Alien.” This is undisputable. But how does it do as a stand-alone movie, and not just another chapter in a franchise? “Prometheus” comes close to drowning in its own ambiguity and mythology, creates characters and plotlines that go nowhere, and its lofty ambitions are sometimes beyond the grasp of director Scott and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of “Lost”). But despite the flaws in its vision, “Prometheus” can be downright electrifying; visually stunning, almost vibrating with otherworldly intensity, and for better or worse, tries to add some philosophical heft that summer movies, and the sci-fi genre, have been missing for many a moon.

After an eerie prologue involving a humanoid being drinking a strange substance and disintegrating into the ocean, we are introduced to Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who are married and happen to both be scientists. While exploring some ancient caves in Scotland, they find drawings containing a star formation that has popped up in heiroglyphics around the world. This star formation exists in a far off solar system, and Shaw and Holloway lead an expedition funded by the mysterious Weyland Corporation (run by Guy Pearce under a mountain of old-age makeup) and take the good ship Prometheus, along with 15 other crew members, to this distant star system, hoping to find what may be the key to the origin of mankind.

On this journey, on which they all spend two years in hypersleep before reaching their destination, Shaw and Holloway are joined by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a representative of the Weyland Corporation, Janek (Idris Elba), this ship’s gruff and charismatic captain, a bunch of red-shirt scientists that turn out to be cannon fodder, and David (Michael Fassbender), the enigmatic android with a slightly unsettling interest in humanity. The star map leads them to the moon LV-223, where they find caves filled with familiar markings, and more importantly, pods covered with a tar-like substance and monuments of beings that look just like humans. Shaw finds a severed, humanoid head and brings it back aboard the Prometheus. And for the rest of the movie, all hell breaks loose in a variety of gruesome and shocking ways.

It would be unfair to reveal what happens next. “Prometheus” is so defined by its own mystery that knowing them would dampen the experience of seeing the film. For the first hour of “Prometheus,” the film is a master class in mounting suspense. We’re left wondering what are those creatures that they find? What is up with the black, gooey substance, and the small worms that swim through it? And what is the deal with David? Can he be trusted? Does he have an alternative agenda that may endanger the rest of the ship?

That is a lot of mystery to cram into two hours. And for the first half at least, it works beautifully. We are just as curious about the meaning of these discoveries as the crew of the Prometheus, and that is thanks to Ridley Scott himself. Over the past decade his films have become very ham-fisted in his directorial approach; using liberal amounts of slow-motion and editing his films into mush like they all suffer from ADHD. There is none of that here. Scott’s directorial approach is very restrained, using long shots and slow, snakelike camerawork to give the movie an atmospheric, almost seductive pull. Scott’s best films, including “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and Matchstick Men” all put story first and trickery second. Scott has rediscovered his storytelling mojo. It helps the film is glorious to look at; the shots of the landscape on LV-223 are as beautiful as a Monet, the ship itself has an eerie, green glow. The fact that this movie is so amazing to look at makes some of its more frustrating aspects easier to deal with.

The acting does too. Elizabeth Shaw is a different kind of heroine than Ellen Ripley; she is more curious, less of a warrior-in-waiting than Ripley was. Shaw’s devout Christian beliefs are what lead her on this quest; she thinks solving the mystery of the star formation and the origins of the Earth may bring her closer to God. Rapace, Lisbeth Salander 1.0 herself, is put through one hell of a ringer in this film (there is a scene where she must perform surgery on herself that is one of the most unsettling things you may ever see), but she makes the path from exuberance to terror seamless and realistic. Her husband Charlie, as played by Marshall-Green is less interesting; in both the way the character is written and the performance; the movie doesn’t know what to do with his character. Same with Theron, who can do the “uptight bitch” shtick in her sleep at this point. Idris Elba (the immortal Stringer Bell from “The Wire”) brings humor and tenacity to Janek; but the rest of the crew are barely developed at all; they are just there to get ripped to shreds.

But the best part of the movie lies with David. Fassbender is brilliant, finding the right balance between David’s obviously robotic nature combined with a darker undercurrent and something approaching childlike wonder. He is obsessed with humanity; he models his personality and appearance on Peter O’Toole in the film “Lawrence of Arabia;” he watches the dreams of the crew while they’re in hypersleep; we come to empathize with part of David’s plight. He was given the gift of having an understanding of humanity, but his prime directive is to serve them and cast his curiosity aside.

But once the crew touches down on the planet, and digs around in the strange artifacts that they find, all this mystery becomes too much of a good thing. Every answer brings only more questions. “Prometheus” delivers on the suspense and some truly terrifying moments, but all the setup collides in a traffic jam, and the story becomes distractingly muddled. But the most frustrating thing about “Prometheus” is how much of this murkiness is intentional; does the film’s lack of obvious answers come from bad writing, or is the film withholding information on the beginnings of mankind to comment on how curiosity can lead to despair and hubris?

The answer will different depending on who you ask. I don’t know for sure what role the ambiguity plays, but I think “Prometheus” could really be, at its core, a movie about faith. Shaw and David are both on a quest for knowledge, although they want to know different things. David wants to know what makes humans tick, Shaw wants to know who built the ticking mechanism. We have not, and possibly never will, find a definitive answer to where we came from; but Shaw, and plenty of people in the real world, keep searching anyway because their faith burns so brightly that no roadblocks can diminish it, sometimes to their detriment. Do we as an audience have faith that answers will come, or do we give up and go look for easy explanations? Horrible things happen to Shaw, David and the people they care about, but their faith is never diminished, even though the answers are hazy at best. Maybe we as viewers have to decide whether or not to follow them down the rabbit hole.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and Lindelof and Spaihts are just trying to hide the holes in the story they concocted. With “Prometheus,” you have a decision to make; if you can ignore the ambiguities and expect the film to work as entertainment, “Prometheus” can be thrilling. If you want it to provide revelations withing its own story and its connective tissue to “Alien,” this movie may give you a headache. Either way, “Prometheus” is worth the ride. Perhaps hindsight will elevate this movie to the level of the genre’s masterpieces with mysteries of their own, like the aforementioned “Blade Runner” or “2001.” Or maybe it will only become a footnote; but Prometheus is still an enthralling, flawed vision; albeit one that is defined, and consumed by, to quote Tolkien, “riddles in the dark.”

Grade: B+