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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

Jeremy Renner replaces Matt Damon at the center of the Bourne franchise, and the studio should've just left well enough alone.

The events of The Bourne Legacy take place at the same time as Damon's last Bourne outing, The Bourne Ultimatum. We know this because Matt Damon's character is mentioned on occasion, and his image shows up during TV news telecasts. It's just a reminder of how much more fun the franchise was with Damon starring.

Renner plays Aaron Cross, who, like Damon's Bourne, is part of a superagent experiment. He's a superstrong, supersmart agent thanks to some magic drugs and outlandish writing. Renner is a decent enough actor, but he's no Matt Damon. Consequently, Aaron Cross is no Jason Bourne.

Edward Norton is new to the series as a suspicious retired colonel, and Rachel Weisz is cast as well. Both barely register. Yes, the Bourne movies made a lot of money, but when Damon basically refused to soldier on, it would've been a good idea to let things lie for a while. This one feels rushed and unimportant.

There was some talk of Damon and Renner teaming for a future chapter. I'm doubting that will ever happen, but it's not a bad idea. Damon needs a hit, and Renner needs some help.

SPECIAL FEATURES: You get a director's commentary with Tony Gilroy, deleted scenes and some making-of featurettes.

Saturday, 22 December 2012 12:38

Apatow Does It Again: 'This Is 40' Is Hilarious

Nepotism pays off in a big way as Leslie Mann stars in husband Judd Apatow's hilarious This Is 40 reprising her role of Debbie from Apatow's Knocked Up.

Also returning are Paul Rudd as Debbie's husband, Pete; Maude and Iris Apatow (Mann and Apatow's kids) as Pete and Debbie's daughters; and Jason Segel as, well, a strange variation on Jason Segel.

Spinning off Knocked Up to further explore the characters of Debbie and Pete sounded like a strange enterprise. (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl are nowhere to be seen.) Fear not, for This Is 40 is as smart and funny as the film that spawned it. And who needs Heigl, anyway? (As for Rogen, I can never get enough of the guy ... was hoping for a cameo, but no dice.)

The film opens with Debbie in denial of her 40th birthday, a worn-out movie cliché, for sure. No matter, because Apatow and Mann make it all fresh, funny and, at times, wonderfully vulgar.

Debbie sneaks smokes, chastises her husband for taking Viagra and pretends she's 38 on her 40th birthday. Mann just pulled down a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. (Rudd is nominated as well.) They both deserve the noms.

And then there's the ever-reliable Rudd. His Pete secretly devours cupcakes, tries to get his wife to like the Pixies, and steals private time with his iPad through extended, unnecessary bathroom breaks. He also attempts to revive Graham Parker's fledgling music career with his small record company so he can make the mortgage payment.

Rudd and Mann play a married couple with stunning reality, efficiency and humor. They throw lethal verbal daggers at one another, and even fantasize about each other dying. Yet, there seems to be a strange sort of everlasting love at play. Rudd is essentially channeling Apatow here, surely getting plenty of hints from his director on how to deal with the wife.

Adding to the authenticity are Maude and Iris Apatow, realistically sparring with their real-life matriarch. Maude is especially good, capturing the shrieking frustration of a teen girl who is having her Wi-Fi restricted. One of the movie's running gags is her obsession with watching Lost, a joke that is funnier than it sounds. Little Iris is obviously the daughter of Mann and Apatow; she possesses killer comic timing.

As for supporting casts, you won't find one much better in 2012. Albert Brooks plays Rudd's dad, getting more laughs than he has in years. John Lithgow plays Mann's pop, a stick-in-the-mud who has a moving change of heart by film's end.

There's more! Megan Fox is actually really funny (something she proved when she hosted Saturday Night Live a couple of years back) as Debbie and Pete's employee at their clothing boutique. She's capable of playing more than Michael Bay eye candy, for sure. Chris O'Dowd, who got a lot of laughs playing Kristen Wiig's love interest in Bridesmaids, gets many again as one of Pete's record-label employees.

If that's not enough for you, there's Melissa McCarthy stealing her few scenes as a parent who gets into a feud with Debbie and Pete regarding their children. The aforementioned Segel shines as Debbie's trainer, and Charlyne Yi is her usual deadpan funny as another of Debbie's employees. The list goes on, but I'll stop now. (Actually, I will tell you that Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day makes an awesome cameo.)

Apatow seems to have carved out a nice niche for himself. He's sort of like James L. Brooks at his best, with a little bit of Adam Sandler when he was good, finished off with just a pinch of Woody Allen from back when he didn't suck.

This is one of the year's best comedies, featuring stellar, barnburning screen arguments. Mann and Rudd have fights for the cinematic ages on many occasions. They're actually quite despicable, yet lovable at the same time. It should also be noted that when Rudd and McCarthy square off, you should hold on to your butts.

Stick around for the credits for outtakes of McCarthy's principal office meltdown. It is laugh-until-you-cough-up-blood funny. If there were an award for credit outtakes, McCarthy would win it without contest. Seeing Rudd and Mann unsuccessfully trying to keep a straight face while McCarthy goes off counts as a 2012 cinematic highlight for me.

This Is 40 is a long one at an epic 133 minutes. (That's just 25 minutes shorter than Les Miserables, and 33 minutes shorter than The Hobbit!) Trust me that this is time well spent. Apatow and company know how to put a comedy together, and Mann and Rudd are beyond competent at delivering it.

This Is 40 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Although it is being pushed as heady Oscar fare, Hitchcock is a little too bizarre and too goofy to find itself seriously in the running for Best Picture. I'm not complaining; I am a fan of bizarre, goofy movies, and I like this one. I just don't think it's going to take home a bagful of awards.

As this film explores the making of Psycho—Alfred Hitchcock's biggest risk as a filmmaker—Hitchcock takes a few enjoyable diversions. It contains a blast of a performance from Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, with Helen Mirren perhaps outpacing him as Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville. The film has a surface sheen to it, seemingly placing more of an emphasis on Alma's possible love affair with a fellow writer (Danny Huston) than on the making of Psycho.

Still, when it's dealing with Psycho and the mechanics of making a movie, Hitchcock is a lot of fun. Hitch and Alma must mortgage their house to finance Psycho themselves when studios pass on the project. That really happened.

Sacha Gervasi (the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil) directs from a script by John J. McLaughlin (which, in turn, is based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho). McLaughlin takes on some factual angles, such as Hitchcock's running problems with Vera Miles (an excellent Jessica Biel) and his struggles with his weight.

Then there are the slightly oft-kilter embellishments, like Hitchcock's imagined discussions with real-life serial killer Ed Gein (a perfectly cast Michael Wincott), on whom the book Psycho was loosely based. Seeing Hitchcock and Gein in the frame together having a conversation is welcomingly bizarre. Had the two ever spoken, I imagine it could've gone the way it does in this film.

Scarlett Johansson captures the allure and sweetness of Janet Leigh, who withstood the torturous shower scene and was back to smiling shortly thereafter. It's no secret that Hitchcock had troubles with his leading ladies. (HBO's recent The Girl chronicles this fact with Tippi Hedren.) Johansson's Leigh treats the job like nothing but a job, and shares little beyond gratitude and candy corn with her boss.

Hopkins—wearing a decent-looking fat suit and makeup, and employing just enough of Hitchcock's nasally voice—delivers work that captures enough of Hitch's characteristics without being a full-blown impersonation. His Hitchcock is obsessive, funny and sometimes a little sad and lonely. Hopkins does a remarkable job of delivering myriad Hitchcock moods without really changing the expression on his face.

Mirren brings a nice, dry wit to Alma, who reportedly helped rewrite and direct Hitchcock movies without screen credit. When Alma and Hitch risk it all to make a slasher movie nobody seems to want, Mirren delights in portraying the rush Alma must've felt when throwing all caution to the wind.

James D'Arcy provides a convincing Anthony Perkins, who, of course, played Norman Bates. D'Arcy gets Perkins' mannerisms just right, to an extent that I wish there were more of him in the film. According to the Internet Movie Database, Andrew Garfield had been considered, but couldn't take the role due to scheduling conflicts. That would've been interesting.

This isn't a flattering picture of one of cinema's most influential and masterful directors. It isn't a smear job, either. He's seen as a relatively insecure man who maintains his sense of humor while obsessing over blonde female leads and occasionally stuffing his face to get back at the wife. Some of that is probably stretching the truth. Did Hitchcock hallucinate about Ed Gein while filming Psycho? Did he peer at his female stars through a hole in the wall, as does Norman Bates in Psycho? Did he need to hide his wine-drinking and snacking from his domineering wife? I don't know. I do know that it makes for a moderately fun movie.

For such a hefty subject, Hitchcock is surprisingly lightweight. It is also undeniably enjoyable.

Hitchcock is now playing at Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs), UltraStar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City) and Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012 14:25

Delights on Disc: Some DVD/Blu-ray Gift Ideas!

It's the holidays, a time for giving people movies, because you love movies, and you want them to love movies, too.

You are bullish and pushy by nature, and this needs to stop.

This guide assembles some of the best releases from the past year. Let it assist you in the art of handing over a film to a friend to cherish and enjoy, rather than having him use it as a coaster or squirrel-decapitator.

And if you have a friend who would indeed ferociously fling a Blu-ray at a squirrel with the intent of taking the poor thing's head off ... perhaps you should reconsider this friendship.

The prices listed are for Blu-ray, unless otherwise noted. These were <Amazon.com prices at press time, and they change frequently. There are bargains all over right now, so shop carefully.

SPIELBERG!!!

Oh ... the Spielberg fans had a good Blu-ray year. Oh, yes, they did. If I have a movie-lover on my list, and that movie-lover isn't one of those lousy snobs who think Spielberg is a hack, I'll just buy him two or three of these selections, and call it a day.

Jaws (Blu-ray)

Universal, $19.96

The greatest movie of all time is on Blu-ray, and it's a winner. The transfer will bring tears to the eyes of those who were fortunate enough to see the film on the big screen in its heyday. It has some great documentaries on it, including The Shark Is Still Working.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures (Blu-ray)

Paramount, $64.96

This has all of the Indiana Jones movies on Blu-ray for the first time in one affordable package. It's a perfect gift for that friend you sort of like, but not so much that you would fork over more than $100 for them. Not recommended for Secret Santa office parties. Way too extravagant.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)

Universal, $19.96

This is the old-school version of the movie, without the damned walkie-talkies replacing the shotguns.

AMAZING DIRECTORS, AMAZING PACKAGES!

Tarantino XX 8-Film Collection (Blu-ray)

Lionsgate/Miramax, $89.98

This contains all of the films directed by Tarantino these past 20 years, plus True Romance, which he wrote. For less than $100, you can give that Tarantino fan every movie he has made, or piss off the Tarantino-hater for that same amount. You can't lose!

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Limited Edition) (Blu-ray)

Universal, $207.99

This has 15 discs loaded with 15 Hitchcock movies and special features. You get Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, North by Northwest and many others. This was my holiday present to myself.

TELEVISION: RETRO AND NEW

Steve Martin: The Television Stuff (DVD)

Shout! Factory, $34.93

This gathers many of Steve's TV specials from the early days, along with music videos and more-recent awards-show appearances. This is bliss for any Steve Martin fan. It also includes new interviews, with the man addressing each special and appearance. This is one of my favorite DVDs of the year.

Get a Life: The Complete Series (DVD)

Shout! Factory, $30.49

The great Chris Elliott TV show features him as a grown-up paperboy living in his dad's house and putting huge toy submarines in his bathtub. This show was really weird and always funny.

Louie: Season 2 (Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, $21.99

Louis C.K.'s creation is the best thing on television, and the second season was as good as the first. The third season has aired, but doesn't have a DVD or Blu-ray version yet (although you can watch it on iTunes). Give the gift of laughing so hard that socks go through one's nose.

Metalocalypse: Season 4 (Blu-ray)

Cartoon Network, $21.83

You don't have to be a fan of death metal to like this hilarious animated series (although the music is actually quite good). One of the year's greatest special features has Dethklok's lead singer reading Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors for 90 minutes or so. This continues the Metalocalypse home video tradition of Nathan sharing the Bard.

SUPERHEROES

Marvel's The Avengers (Blu-ray)

Walt Disney, $24.96

The Dark Knight Rises (Blu-ray)

Warner, $18.99

The Amazing Spider-Man (Blu-ray)

Sony, $18.96

For my money, The Avengers offered the best superhero ride this year, with The Dark Knight Rises coming in a distant but solid second. The Amazing Spider-Man was stupid, but I'm in the minority on that one, so I'm sure lots of folks would appreciate seeing it under the tree.

THE BEATLES!!!

Yellow Submarine (Blu-ray)

Capitol, $22.78

Magical Mystery Tour (Blu-ray)

Capitol, $24.99

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Blu-ray)

UMe, $17.99

Chances are, you have a Beatles-lover on your list who would find great value in the titles listed above. Chances are, you also have a Beatles-hater on your list. If, deep down, you actually hate that person, give her these discs, and enjoy her "WTF?" face. Beatles-haters suck, so make them really angry.

<h/2>SHIPS DON'T SINK

Titanic (Blu-ray)

Paramount, $21.49

A Night to Remember (Blu-ray)

Criterion, $17.81

Here are two awesome films about the same thing, coming to Blu-ray for the first time. One has Leonardo DiCaprio getting really cold in glorious color, while the other has a bunch of English actors going down with the ship. Both are pieces of incredible moviemaking, and worthy of your average stocking.

THE SINGLE COOLEST BLU-RAY THIS YEAR

Little Shop of Horrors: Director's Cut (Blu-ray)

Warner, $17.99

For the real collector, this Blu-ray has the best special feature of any disc this year: You get the original ending of this twisted musical, in color—a huge change. Instead of Rick Moranis triumphing over his evil plant, he is devoured by Audrey II, who then proceeds to eat New York City and hump the Brooklyn Bridge.

GREAT NEW MOVIES THEY PROBABLY HAVEN'T SEEN

Safety Not Guaranteed (Blu-ray)

Sony, $24.99

Ruby Sparks (Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, $11.93

These two gems didn't light up the box office, but they have the capacity of lighting up the various holiday things people put gifts under or around. Lovers of independent, intelligent cinema will see two of the year's best performances by actresses (Zoe Kazan in Ruby and Aubrey Plaza in Safety).

COMPLETE THEIR ALIEN COLLECTION

Prometheus (Blu-ray 3-D/Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, $29.49

Ridley Scott's return to his Alien universe was a stunner, and the Blu-ray is packed. Make sure to get 3-D Blu-ray, even if you don't have 3-D capacity yet. That's because there are many more bonus features on this disc, and they don't require the glasses.

A REMINDER THAT LIAM NEESON ACTUALLY MADE A GOOD MOVIE THIS YEAR

The Grey (Blu-ray)

Open Road, $26.99

This one came out early in the year, and I'm afraid the great Liam Neeson performance will get ignored come awards time. Oh well ... it does have lots of snow, which is sort of holiday-like. It also has lots of wolves eating people, which might put a damper on somebody's holiday joy. Give this one to the person who doesn't mind seeing people getting eaten by wolves while drinking his eggnog.

WES ANDERSON RULES

Moonrise Kingdom (Blu-ray)

Universal, $19.99

While the Blu-ray itself doesn't have nearly enough supplements, the movie is one of the year's best, and is currently at the top of my list. It's gift-worthy.

As I watched Brad Pitt's Killing Them Softly, from director Andrew Dominik, I sat in a virtually empty theater with a few friends and several other patrons. The movie is a slow, meditative and strangely beautiful examination of bad people, and I could sense it was testing people's patience.

I kept hearing the relentless "tap, tap, tap" of restless-leg syndrome coming from somebody behind us. I heard a lot (a lot) of deep sighing from the few people who were there, along with rustling as they fidgeted.

What I am trying to say is that Killing Them Softly requires great patience while viewing. This is a movie that takes its time, features more than a few wordy monologues, and has lots of poetic slow-motion shots.

Pitt plays Jackie, a smooth, shady type called upon to clean up a situation gone bad regarding an organized-crime card game. The film is set about four years ago; the country is in recession, and that recession has spread to crime. So when the card game—a big money generator—goes down, something has to be done.

The big card game is off due to a series of robberies at the games, some of them inside jobs, some of them not. People are going to die, and it's Jackie's job to make sure that it all goes off without a hitch.

The result is an interesting look inside what makes a crime syndicate tick. I enjoyed seeing Pitt's Jackie discussing his killing plans with a buttoned-up type (played by Richard Jenkins) while parked in a swank car.

I also liked seeing a hired hit man (James Gandolfini) drinking heavily and bitching about his wife—right before he's supposed to pull off an important job. Jackie, essentially his boss, acts like an antsy shift supervisor who knows the cash drawer is going to come up short when the bell tolls, because his employee is hitting the bottle.

Dominik previously made a movie in this same vein, and it even starred Pitt as another criminal type: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a similar, meditative vibe about it. Audiences were split over that film's beauty and its slow pacing. Killing Them Softly is producing a similar reaction.

In a way, Jackie represents the sort of criminal Jesse James was in his day, although Jackie is hampered by modern problems regarding money and technology. Dominik uses speeches by Barack Obama and other political types as background noise, constantly reminding the likes of Jackie that the landscape is changing: When the average Joe is having trouble making a buck, it results in less money for stealing and paying hit men.

Ray Liotta endures what has to be one of cinema's all-time-worst beatings, full of blood, broken bones and vomit. I've read comments about how Dominik romanticizes or glorifies violence with some of his more-poetic killing sequences. Hey, the scene involving Liotta getting his clock cleaned more than balances things out. It's brutal.

Pitt is a movie star of the highest order, and every moment he spends onscreen in this film amplifies that point. Jackie is a despicable character, and while Pitt doesn't necessarily make him all that likable, he does make Jackie funny in a sinister way; he's always engaging.

I really liked the use of Gandolfini. I pictured his Tony Soprano all washed up, relegated to taking killing assignments and drinking himself to oblivion. No, he's not Tony in this movie, but I'm sure the connection wasn't lost on him or Dominik.

Critics like Killing Them Softly, while audiences are giving it an "F" (according to Entertainment Weekly's moviegoer polling). I guess that qualifies Dominik as a "critical darling"—and somebody who is going to have a hard time procuring big budgets for movie ideas in the future.

Killing Them Softly is playing at theaters across the valley.

It's that time of year when studios release their Oscar hopefuls, continuing the tradition of saving the best (or what they hope to convince us is the best) for last.

So here's Life of Pi, an adaptation of the seemingly unfilmable novel by Yann Martel about a 14-year-old boy spending more than 200 days at sea on a lifeboat alone—except for a Bengal tiger that totally wants to eat his face.

Many have looked at making the 2001 spiritual novel into a film, and many have just thrown their hands up in the air and said, "Screw this. I'm going to Cabo!"

I've never read the book, but seeing a synopsis of the story had me thinking it would be best to leave this particular fable on the page. It looked like a real bitch to film. Then I read that somebody got director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) on the project. For me, this meant that something amazing could be on the way.

Life of Pi is just that: an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Not only does it prove that an entirely unfilmable project was filmable; it's also one of the year's best movies, and easily one of the best uses of 3-D. Lee is a creative force who cannot be deterred; Life of Pi is his most enchanting film to date, and this is the guy who gave us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

It only takes a few seconds of this film's opening, depicting animals grazing in an Indian zoo, to see that a master has something special in store. Here's a 3-D movie so innovative that even Roger Ebert declared, "I love the use of 3-D in Life of Pi." Anybody who reads Ebert knows he detests 3-D, so we are definitely talking about a landmark film achievement when The Ebert comes around.

Lee cast Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi, and Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi. Both deliver performances that center the film. In a movie full of so many visual treats and surprises, much of them done with excellent CGI, these two men give the film a beautiful and sincere human element.

Khan sets a good, worldly tone as the older Pi, being interviewed by a writer (Rafe Spall) who heard from a source that he had a great story to tell. Khan describes in very matter-of-fact terms how he came to be the lone survivor of a spectacular shipwreck.

The shipwreck sequence contains some of the most harrowing and eye-popping footage you will see any year. Lee uses 3-D to put you right in the middle of it. As water pounds Pi, you'll be checking yourself to see if you are wet.

Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with animals from his family's zoo that were being transported on the big boat: a frightened zebra, a crazed hyena and a rather annoyed tiger. Things transpire to where it is just Pi and the tiger staring each other down, with Pi using a makeshift raft to stay the heck out of the boat. The tiger, as it turns out, is not very good company.

The tiger itself is a mixture of CGI and actual tigers. He's named Richard Parker for a reason I won't give away, and there's never a dull moment when he's onscreen. I especially liked it when Richard Parker found himself in the water and unable to get back on the boat. And let it be said that there are few things sadder than a giant, soaked tiger that is very hungry.

Through a series of exciting fishing efforts, Pi manages to feed himself and Richard Parker. They eventually wind up on a mysterious island full of meerkats. The meerkat island is one of those fantastical things you can't believe you are seeing as you are seeing it.

The movie is full of many moments that fit that description: whales breaching the water's surface; magically starry skies reflected on the shimmering sea; zebras flying through the air. Perhaps it's easier just to say that most of the moments in this movie fit that description.

Those who have not read the book are in for a lot of surprises when watching Life of Pi. Those who have read it are in for some big surprises as well, in that the film greatly honors the best-seller. If you read it thinking, "There's no way anybody can make this into a movie!" you are in for a big shock. It's a movie, all right—and it's a great one.

Life of Pi is playing at various valley theaters.

I consider The Amazing Spider-Man to be one of the year's bigger disappointments—not only because we got this instead of a fourth film directed by Sam Raimi (he quit when the producers tried to force a villain for the pic on him, as they did with Venom in Spider-Man 3), but also because I dislike the goofiness director Marc Webb brought to the universe.

He apparently thinks everything needs to be explained. He must show us Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) making mechanical web devices to show how smart Peter is, for example. Well, I don't need all of the physics of Spider-Man explained. And I certainly don't need another Spidey origin story so soon after Raimi's version. It's also a little weird to watch a man in his late 20s playing a high school student. What is this, Grease?

The villain this time out, the Lizard, played by Rhys Ifans, is a bust. I've never been a big fan of Ifans, and I would've liked to have seen a multitude of different actors play the baddie. However, the film does receive high marks for casting the likes of Martin Sheen, Sally Field and Denis Leary.

I understood that Raimi's reign was going to end someday, but a fourth try (and a shot at redemption after Spider-Man 3) would've offered a better finish. His Spidey films, even the overstuffed third movie, were better than this one.

SPECIAL FEATURES: A commentary from Webb and crew is OK, but you'll struggle to take in the whole thing. There are lots of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and you can download an app for your iPad and have the "Second Screen Experience": Your tablet synchs with the movie and offers myriad interviews and behind-the-scenes extras while you watch.

Skyfall is my all-time-favorite Bond movie.

Mind you, this is coming from a guy who didn't really get it when it came to James Bond. I've warmed up to him over the years, but I used to hate him. The first time I witnessed Bond in action was as a boy, seeing Sean Connery use a bikini top to choke her in Diamonds Are Forever. This act scared the shit out of me, and made me think Bond was some sort of bad guy. (I had similar child-brain confusion with Robert Shaw's Quint in Jaws ... he was just so mean.)

When I was "coming of age," so to speak, Bond got silly, with Roger Moore and stuff like Moonraker and Octopussy. I turned my adolescent attention to the likes of Star Wars, Rocky and The Pink Panther movies. It wasn't until Pierce Brosnan took over the franchise that I started to think the enterprise was OK. Then, I went back and watched the Sean Connery films, and realized those were actually a lot of fun. Sean Connery's Bond was a misogynist, but he wasn't a bad guy.

Which brings me to Daniel Craig (after skipping over George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton ... hey, I have a limited word count). Craig IS James Bond to me at this point. He's made three Bonds in a row that I can tolerate—and Skyfall is a showstopper.

It has a Bond villain that I count as the most memorable since, say, the goofy Jaws guy with the teeth from the Moore era. Javier Bardem plays Silva, a former agent who has a major bug up his ass regarding M (the awesome Judi Dench). His first meeting with a tied-up Bond is perhaps Bond's best meeting ever with one of his adversaries. It's also perhaps the most erotic, which took me a bit by surprise. Bardem relishes a good bad-guy role, as he proved in his Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men. He's a genuinely funny and nasty creep.

Skyfall has stunts and chases that had me fully engaged. When Bond faces off with an assassin atop a moving train crossing over a series of bridges and going through tunnels, it amounts to the year's best action sequence ... and that's before the opening credits.

Those credits, by the way, are a series of astonishing visuals set to a beautiful Bond song—the title track delivered by Adele. As the opening credits played out, I was hooked already, and it only got better from there.

This one comes courtesy of director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), and it's clear that he has a tremendous amount of love and respect for the icon. While the movie gives us an older and arguably dated Bond, it also shows us that a man who is good with a gun and popular with the ladies might win out over megabytes after all.

As for the ladies, there are a few, and they don't register as much as past Bond women. Naomie Harris is on hand as Eve, a fellow agent and sharpshooter. Harris is fine, and she shares an interesting shaving sequence with Bond, but she doesn't make an indelible impression. Maybe it's because she should've been called Serenity Bottoms or some other naughty name. Those tend to stick.

Bérénice Marlohe plays Sévérine, a girl with a tough past—and an even tougher future. She's fine, but again, she doesn't truly register.

The one lady who makes a big impression this time out is Dench's M, who shares a funny, sometimes caustic and somehow sweet, motherly relationship with Bond. This movie pulls her into the plot more than past efforts (including those with Brosnan; she's been around for a while). Mendes offers some great odes to past Bonds, including a sweet Aston Martin and some funny wordplay. By the time Bond faces off with Silva in the film's finale, we get a true sense of vintage Bond as much as future Bond.

There's also some typical product placement, including pitches for Cadillac, Heineken and, surprisingly, Sony VAIO. The film's new and much-younger Q (Ben Whishaw) is seen prominently using a Sony laptop. I found this relatively implausible. Those things freeze up way too much for a high-level British agent to be utilizing one during a tense good-versus-evil showdown. I had one once, and it met its demise by being smashed on the corner of my coffee table after one too many blue screens of death.

This dark, brooding and somewhat deep Bond is a Bond I'm more interested in as a moviegoer. No more choking girls with a bikini top unless they're brandishing a broken bottle as a weapon or something!

Bond has evolved over the years, while staying true to his origins. In Skyfall, he's actually at his most mature ... and his most badass.

This gem of a movie stands out as one of the year's best.

When a newspaper investigates an advertisement seeking a time-travel partner, everyone figures the person who placed it will be a real kook. Such is the case when journalism-intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) meets wannabe time-traveler Kenneth (Mark Duplass). He's an obsessive sort who wants to travel back in time to save an ex-girlfriend, and Darius can't help but find his scheme endearing.

There are wonderful side stories involving Darius' boss (Jake Johnson), who uses the investigative-journalism trip to hook up with an old flame. And there's co-worker Arnau (Karan Soni), a shy virgin who happens to look really good when he puts on sunglasses.

Johnson (funny as the principal in this year's 21 Jump Street) is a real standout, delivering hilarious and heartfelt work as an aging playboy who has a strange way of trying to help others. This guy has monster comic timing. Duplass is also great as the crazy love interest who thinks he's being followed—but he won't let that deter his training.

However, this is Plaza's movie. She is a genius of deadpan humor on TV's Parks and Recreation, and she puts that to work here. She also shows that she can handle dramatic and heartfelt moments with the best of them. She's got a good career in front of her.

This is, in many ways, a little movie with grand ideas, and those ideas are played out perfectly. No movie this year has left me smiling like this one did. It's one of those movies that come out of nowhere to charm you.

SPECIAL FEATURES: The Blu-ray is a bust when it comes to special features: You only get a short about the original ad on which the film is based, and a quick look behind the scenes. A Plaza and Johnson commentary should've been a must, but is nowhere to be found. Boo!

A reckless alcoholic who happens to really know how to fly a plane gets a rather strange and romantic screen treatment in director Robert Zemeckis' uneven but entertaining Flight.

As airline-pilot Whip Whitaker—who likes vodka, beer, cocaine, cough syrup and flight attendants to excess—Denzel Washington delivers a typically great performance. The movie is excellent in the first half-hour, but just OK after that. Even though the film drags and gets a bit melodramatic or trite in spots, Washington always manages to hold it up. That's a tough task, seeing as this one clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The film opens with Whip, hung over to the point of still being intoxicated, waking up in a hotel room. A beautiful naked woman prances around while Whip has a tense phone conversation with his ex-wife. Washington plays this scene with a wicked finesse, especially when he leers at the nude woman while arguing with the ex. It's one of those great Denzel moments. Whip then snorts a line of cocaine, dons some sexy sunglasses and a pilot's suit, and heads off to fly a jetliner with more than 100 people aboard. (Viewers will probably do a little extra scrutinizing of their pilot the next time they get on a plane.)

The flight itself is a wonder of filmmaking. Zemeckis produced a shocking plane crash before—Tom Hanks going down in Cast Away—but this sequence is among the best he has ever directed. It's amazing enough when Whip pilots the jet through a storm during takeoff. When that plane takes a dramatic plunge later in its flight, and Whip eventually flies it upside down before gliding it to a crash-landing in an open field, it's a true pulse-racer.

The crash results in minimal casualties, and Whip is initially praised as a hero. Then people start seeing the toxicology reports.

Watching Whip deal with his alcoholism and the eventual legal proceedings gets a little tedious and, at times, ridiculous. The movie hits a real low when Whip visits his co-pilot in the hospital, who happens to be pumped up on painkillers—and far too much religion. It's a scene the movie didn't need.

I'm also not a fan of how Whip conveniently picks up on an angelic heroin addict during his hospital stay. The film chickens out here, refusing to allow Washington to simply portray a man in a downward spiral. The screenwriter just had to throw in the addict with a heart of gold to make Whip more of a romantic character.

With Flight, Zemeckis and Washington have to make a somewhat despicable man worth rooting for over the course of two-plus hours. In the end, they achieve that feat, but only because Washington is almost incapable of being totally unlikable onscreen. Heck, you still liked him when his character's evil ass was getting riddled with much-needed bullets in Training Day, right?

Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle do good work as the union representative and the lawyer trying to save Whip's career, respectively. John Goodman gets some uncomfortable laughs as Whip's buddy and drug-supplier, while Melissa Leo makes a good impression in a short time as a crash investigator.

Flight is ultimately an OK but inconsistent movie about a man's struggle with alcoholism, with a stunning plane crash thrown in. Stay tuned for Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in Smashed, a much-better movie on the subject of substance abuse coming soon to a theater near you.

<i>Playing at a variety of theaters across the Coachella Valley.</i>