Daniel Craig

"Smart Gun" technology may never be good enough

In the latest Bond film, "Skyfall," movie-goers may have been shocked by the unusual absence of cutting-edge technology. Armed with a seemingly normal handgun and a distress beacon, Daniel Craig was forced to rely more on his cunning than Q’s latest gadgets.

The reality, however, is that Bond’s seemingly normal gun is patently state-of-the-art. The sidearm holstered by Britain’s infamous secret agent employs technology that helps instantly recognize its wielder to determine if it should fire. Since the grip of the gun is mapped to Bond’s palm print, only he is capable of using it. At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, this kind of equipment is not confined to the realm of spy fiction.

For the last 13 years, engineers have been undergoing research and development to make this safety feature more marketable to consumers. Gun manufacturers have even come up with their own security measures, which include wristwatches and rings that activate a firearm.

But even while the most outspoken proponents of this technology claim it will prevent accidental gun-related deaths and minimize risk in violent situations, American gun-owners may not be too keen on changing the status quo. If, for example, people become too reliant on this safety feature they may be encouraged to keep their guns loaded at all times. Should the sensor happen to fail in any situation, the results could be fatal.

Will this kind of technology make enough of an impact to bring down gun violence in the United States? Since American is a country founded on the premise of free will, the answer is most likely "not at all." Without any kind of legislation to back up or require these safety features, the most likely outcome for "Smart Gun" technology would be dust collecting on shelves. Even if the sensors were more highly tested and reliable, it is a dubious proposition to suggest that everyone will agree on what increases or decreases a gunowner's safety. 

The terrifying Silva (Javier Bardem) introduces himself to James Bond (Daniel Craig) in “Skyfall.” Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Fifty years after the iconic secret agent ordered his first martini, shaken, not stirred, we find the Bond franchise at an impasse. “Casino Royale,” Daniel Craig’s series debut, was one of the best in recent memory, but the sequel, “Quantum of Solace,” was rushed and undercooked. The meltdown of MGM derailed the franchise for a few years, but four years later Bond is back in “Skyfall,” a film that works to define Craig’s legacy as Bond, even as it takes the time to look back at the history of both the franchise and the character.

In a rip-roaring opening, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is accidentally shot and presumed dead by fellow operative Eve (Naomie Harris) as they attempt to reclaim a stolen hard drive containing the secret identities of undercover MI6 agents. In his absence, terrorist Silva (Javier Bardem) attacks MI6, targeting Bond’s mentor M (Judi Dench). Springing back into service after an overseas respite, Bond finds himself shakier, less alert and in the crosshairs of a bloody vendetta against MI6.

Director Sam Mendes is best known for domestic dramas “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road”, but he’s always been willing to try new things in the process of developing his voice, and his collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins is extremely fruitful. Much of “Skyfall” is concerned with how agents like Bond can function in a world so reliant on technology, and the film is shot with deliberate thematic purpose, casting Bond as the shadowy figure keeping the world safe. Mendes and Deakins also stage the hell out of their action sequences, impressing with an opening scene that easily fits among some of the best Bond pre-credits sequences ever and a stunningly beautiful pair of action scenes set in Shanghai that lends the film its most indelible images.

In addition to exploring how Bond fits into this world, where hackers are quickly becoming the most useful secret agents, “Skyfall” delves into Bond’s history, two rich themes that give the film an outstanding purpose and resonance. Without spelling too much of the character’s history out, “Skyfall” gives us a sense of where Bond came from and how MI6 shapes its agents. Craig continues to impress as Bond, and the remarkable physicality and suaveness he brings to the role is tempered with an uncharacteristic insecurity as Bond struggles to get on top of his game. Craig seems to know Bond inside and out by now, and “Skyfall” gives him plenty of new notes to play without compromising Craig’s unflappable cool.

What can really make a Bond film stand out is a great villain, and once Javier Bardem is introduced into the “Skyfall” equation more than an hour into the film, things really start to get interesting. Bardem won an Oscar in 2008 for playing a terrifying assassin in “No Country For Old Men,” but it would be wrong to accuse him of repeating himself here. His villain is much more vibrant, driven by a desire for revenge against MI6, and Bardem is fantastic, instilling the character with a sharp wit, an eye for creating chaos and a surprisingly personal bloodthirstiness.

Judi Dench has been playing M, the head of MI6, for seven films now, and “Skyfall” makes her surprisingly instrumental to the plot. More than ever before, Dench is playing not just a secret agent but also the public face of her agency and the guiding force for all of her operatives. The rest of the supporting cast are mostly new characters settling into the archetypes that have defined the Bond franchise, and Ben Whishaw’s charming take on Q, Bond’s gadgets man, stands out. Unfortunately, “Skyfall” lacks a strong Bond girl, but Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe both manage to look stunning and register some chemistry with Craig, although they fail to make a strong impression.

Thanks to some legitimately inspired touches from Sam Mendes, “Skyfall” is a highlight of the Bond franchise, an appropriately touching and retrospective look at Bond’s past that also charts a course for his (and the franchise’s) future. Featuring some of the most beautifully staged action scenes in the series’ history, a memorable villain and a strong, well-rounded cast, “Skyfall” is the Bond film at its best.

Printed on Friday, November 9, 2012 as: Latest Bond packs in action, thrills 

Thomas Newman; Adele - Skyfall [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]
Record label: Sony Classical
Songs to download: “Skyfall” [Adele single], “Breadcrumbs”

This weekend, Daniel Craig’s reimagined James Bond character careens back onto movie screens worldwide. The 50-year-old, 23-film, billion-dollar-generating franchise has steadily cultivated an impressive musical legacy, boasting hit theme songs by Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, Madonna and, most recently, Jack White and Alicia Keys.

For the “Skyfall” installment, Eon Productions ups the ante, signing on prolific composer and Hollywood royalty Thomas Newman to handle scoring. The result is a riveting 79 minutes of music that updates the aural backdrop of the brooding secret agent while never veering too far from the series’ iconic original theme.

The album opens with “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul,” setting the tone with an ominous fury that is sustained throughout the album’s 30 tracks. A sprinting string section darts around clamoring horn crescendos, both of which are locked into a frenetic ride-cymbal drum pattern that paints the sonic picture of a desperate foot race.

The mood levels out significantly by the fourth track, the lush, dreamlike, aptly titled “Severine.” The vitality and graveness of the underlying theme remain, but here Bond is imagined gliding through a gilded hallway to an ethereal Sirens’ call of violins, his mission no less imperative, just not as immediate.

Another example of Newman’s adroitness at creating suspenseful-yet-subdued audio-scapes drifts in in the form of the 17th selection, titled “Close Shave.” Intermittent stringed arpeggios spiral around a lone wind flute, augmented by a murky bed of ice-world vibraphones and a stringently dissonant synthed chorus pad. “Deep Water,” “Mother” and “Adrenaline” close out the set with a dramatic climax and austere resolve.

Frustratingly, the album does not include British soul singer Adele’s soaring rendition of the movie’s eponymous theme song, which was instead released as a single last week. Even so, the album offers an eclectic, imaginative and thrilling 79 minutes of music, perfect for studying, exercising or battling cyberterrorists atop speeding trains.

Aerosmith - Music from another Dimension!

The Boston-based band returns with their first album of all-new material since 2001’s Just Push Play. This album displays the same brand of formulaic arena schlock shuffled in with maudlin trash ballads that constitutes the majority of their recorded output.

Ne-Yo – R.E.D.

The accomplished songwriter and silk-voiced platinum-selling R&B crooner releases his first album with the revitalized (and now Island Def Jam subsidiary Motown Records. The production is soulful and cutting-edge, but is also greatly marginalized by asinine lyrics such as “I’m a man of my word, but only when I ain’t lyin’.”

The WhoLive at Hull 1970
Record label: Geffen
Songs to download: “Tattoo,” “My Generation”

The iconic hard rock trailblazers release the recording of their concert that took place the night directly after the seminal Live at Leeds taping. As such, there is little difference between the two sets, with a majority of the contrast stemming from recording technicalities rather than performance.

Harrison Ford is back to giving good performances in Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens.” (Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.)

If one thing defines cinema in 2011, it’s alien movies. From “Super 8” and “Battle: Los Angeles” to lighter fare such as “Paul,” it’s been difficult to hit a multiplex without seeing some sort of interplanetary entertainment option. “Cowboys & Aliens” is the last big blockbuster of summer, and it’s not even the only alien movie opening this weekend, but its fresh twist on the genre makes it an entertaining ride.

Even though the film’s ad campaign touts it as blending sci-fi and Western elements, it starts off as a mystery. Jake (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a bizarre bracelet attached to his wrist and no memory of how it (or he) got there. He rides into the nearest town and quickly bumps up against Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), unaware that Percy’s father (Harrison Ford) is a powerful cattle baron whose very name inspires fear in the local townspeople.

The film’s first act is by far its best, staged with all the tropes of a traditional Western. Director Jon Favreau nails the pace, letting an intense slow burn guide the opening scenes. He showcases beautiful, sprawling landscapes and dusty gunfights with a flair that would make John Ford proud. Also great is Dano, whose absolutely revolting character gets big laughs as Craig humiliates him time and time again.

And then the aliens attack, and the film begins to sputter. The first alien attack scene is effective and tense, but it’s also dark to the point of being distracting. Just before the aliens attack, the screen is so dim that it’s nearly impossible to see what’s going on, something that most of the film’s nighttime scenes suffer from. The film also makes the mistake of sidelining a good chunk of the supporting cast after this attack scene, taking Dano out of the equation, as well as Keith Carradine’s intriguing sheriff and a few others — all of them vital parts of what’s made the movie work so far.

Once the cowboys go tracking down the aliens who have kidnapped their townspeople, the film slowly catches up with its forward momentum. One of the main problems with this middle section is Harrison Ford’s character. Ford is, as always, simply awesome and gives an energized, hungry performance that holds up a half-baked character. His ruthless cattle baron never quite inspires the terror in the audience as he does in the characters, and his inevitable redemption arc is nothing short of forced. It’s as if the film’s five (!) credited screenwriters knew he had to start the film as a gruff bastard and end it as a slightly less gruff town leader but decided to let Ford fill in the blanks.

All of the film’s acting is solid, even if the character work isn’t. Craig is a hero through and through, instilling his character with a confidence that carries him even when he has no memories whatsoever. The film’s only real character is Sam Rockwell’s Doc, whose wife is kidnapped in the alien attack. At this point in his career, Rockwell can pretty much do no wrong, and he quietly steals the show from seasoned vets given much more material to work with, even getting the film’s most cheer-worthy moment.

Where the character work stumbles, Favreau picks up the slack by keeping the film moving. His aliens aren’t exactly distinguishable from the many other extraterrestrials that have graced multiplex screens this year, but there’s a few delightfully gross details that redeem them. Favreau also knows how to make his creatures menacing, casting them as fast, brutal conquerors that never run out of ways to kill you, brought to life by near-seamless visual effects.

“Cowboys & Aliens” gets a lot right. From the cowboy iconography to the thrilling action sequences, Favreau’s passion for the project is clear throughout, and that’s enough to forgive some shoddy character work and the occasional slow stretch. Fans of Westerns will find plenty to like here, as will sci-fi fans, but the real treat is watching Ford truly acting again. One can only hope he continues to give such clearly enthusiastic performances, hopefully with better written scripts in the future. And Ford isn’t even the strongest part of a stacked ensemble that helps make “Cowboys & Aliens” an enjoyable close to the summer movie season.

Printed on Thursday, July 28, 2011 as: Western crosses sci-fi in 'Cowboys & Aliens'