Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

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Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Casino Royale (2006)


Casino Royale

"All right, damn it, I'll say it - I'm Bond, James Bond. Now someone get me my freakin' martini!"

(2006) Action Adventure (MGM) Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Akbarian, Caterina Murino, Jesper Christensen, Ivana Milicevic, Isaach de Bankole, Tobias Menzies, Claudio Santamaria, Sebastien Foucan.  Directed by Martin Campbell.

There is a kind of comfort in certain things that don’t change. French waiters will always be rude, politics as usual will always be depressing and James Bond will always ride in to save the day. Of course, the franchise itself has been full of change. Circa 2006, there have been six men who have played Bond in the “official” series (more on that later). The newest one is making his debut in this, the last original Ian Fleming novel to have its title on a film from Eon Productions, who have been making the Bond movies since 1962, first under producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, and later under his daughter Barbara Broccoli, who went to college at Loyola Marymount University, where yours truly took several classes together as we both majored in Communication Arts (and no, I didn’t know who she was until much later). But how did Daniel Craig do in his first outing in the role? 

The filmmakers go a little radical here, choosing to create something of a Bond origin story. MI-6 agent James Bond (Craig) is promoted to Double O status after killing a double agent in the ranks of the British diplomatic corps and his contact. Afterwards, he is chasing a bomb maker (Foucan) to try and get closer to the terrorists that hired him (some amazing free running stunts here) when he is captured on camera apparently murdering unarmed diplomats in an embassy. This infuriates MI-6 chief M (Dench) no end and embarrasses the agency.

Bond being Bond, he doesn’t back off. He continues following the money and manages to determine that the next target is going to be a prototype airplane. He manages to avert the destruction of the prototype, unknowingly thwarting the plans to manipulate the stock of the airplane’s manufacturer by Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen), a kind of investment banker for terrorists. Now in the hock to a bunch of guys who like to kill innocent people (just imagine what they’ll do to someone who isn’t so innocent), he has to recoup his losses. Being an extraordinary poker player, he organizes a card tournament at the prestigious Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI-6, sensing a major opportunity to break Le Chiffre’s bank (which would effectively put him at their mercy, and perhaps in exchange for protection they could find out detailed information on most of the world’s terrorist organizations), know they need to beat him at his own game. And who do you send in to do it? The best card player in MI-6 – namely, Bond, James Bond. M is reluctant to do it – “I promoted you much too early” she snarls at him when he breaks into her home to hack her encrypted computer. Still, it is their best chance for success.

To keep an eye on the double “o’ bad boy, they send Vesper Lynd (Green) from the Ministry of Finance to keep an eye on the ten million pounds they are floating Bond to enter the tournament. Bond, having an eye for figures (ahem) manages to charm the frosty Lynd even though they don’t hit it off right away. Le Chiffre is desperate to win the tournament by any means necessary. Bond will have to use more than his card-playing skills to survive this Texas Hold’em tournament.

The filmmakers are returning to the style of James Bond that Ian Fleming originally envisioned when he first wrote the books more than 50 years ago. This is a gritty, rough around the edges Bond who can be urbane and elegant when he has to be. You see the cold, efficient killer in Bond more than the charming one-liner machine we saw in later incarnations of the character. Bond gets beat up something awful during the course of the movie, but he dishes out far more than he takes.

Director Martin Campbell, who got the Pierce Brosnan era off with a bang with GoldenEye does much the same here, although he is completely kickstarting the series. This is more real world Bond, relying less on gadgets (although there are some here, they aren’t the supercool spy gadgets of yore; these are things that you’d probably be able to find at your local Sharper Image) than on the skills of the world’s best spy. 

I was surprised to find that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) was one of the writers on this movie. It didn’t seem to be his style, at least so I thought, but he, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have put together one of the more complex screenplays of the series. There are many twists and turns to the story, some of which you don’t see coming (some of which you do) and it’s nice to be kept guessing while watching a Bond movie. Bond movies have always tended to stick to a formula – a very successful formula, but a formula nonetheless – and the producers have served notice here that they intend to shake things up and they have, in a good way. 

The Bond girls, led by Green, are less Barbie Doll goddess gorgeous than past Bond girls; in fact, it could be said they are more conventionally pretty, the sort of girls you’d find in a shopping mall or at the beach rather than in an ultra-expensive spa or casino. Unfortunately, most of them are written pretty colorlessly, although that’s fairly standard practice for Bond girls of the last 20 years, Die Another Day excepted. This installment could have used another Jinx-like girl to liven things up.

Craig makes a pretty decent Bond, although nobody can replace Sean Connery. Even if someone was the perfect Bond(and I don’t think Connery was), he couldn’t compete with the memory of Connery who established the category and was as close to perfect as you could get in playing him. Craig may well have moved to number two on the list. He is ruthless, tough and brilliant. He doesn’t toss out facts like the know-it-all Bond would occasionally become; instead, he just knows the things he needs to. Craig may not fit the tall, dark and handsome stereotype of Bond but he captures the essence of the character. That goes a long way in my book. 

There were a few bugs in the movie – the poker sequences go on far too long, and the movie’s momentum is screwed up as a result. There is no Q Division or Moneypenny in the movie and both are missed, even though I do understand their absence. The early free running stunt sequence is SO spectacular that the climactic sequence in Venice pales next to it. These are not minor things exactly, but they are truly fixable. What’s important is that the producers have a Bond who they can count on for at least the next couple of films. Keep this kind of momentum up and who knows, they may be doing Bond movies when Barbara Broccoli’s grandchildren are producing. I’ll take mine shaken, not stirred.

WHY RENT THIS: Craig makes a terrific Bond, perhaps the best since Sean Connery. Tremendous action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bond girls are colorless; no Moneypenny or Q. Poker sequences shut down the movie’s momentum dead.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence, a little torture, some sexuality and even a little nudity. A little more extreme than the average Bond but still Bond.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  “You Know My Name” is the first Bond theme song since 1983’s Octopussy to have a different name than the film itself.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are featurettes on the Bond Girls, as well as the selection process for the new James Bond. There’s a music video for the theme song as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $594.2M on  $150M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paul

Quantum of Solace


Quantum of Solace

Bond's morning after is always so much more interesting than everybody's elses.

(MGM) Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Jesper Christensen, Joaquin Cosio, David Harbour. Directed by Marc Forster

After Casino Royale, fans of the James Bond franchise were over the moon. Despite early misgivings, Daniel Craig had turned out to be a magnificent 007 – maybe the best since Sean Connery. A gripping storyline that adds more detail and background to the Bond mythology than any single movie ever has whetted the appetite of fans for more, but did the follow-up deliver?

Following the events of Casino Royale, the new one picks up literally minutes after the last one left off. Bond, who has captured Mr. White (Christensen), is being chased on the mountain roads of Italy by a cadre of thugs in black cars who can’t shoot straight. Bond eludes them and manages to deliver the banker to M (Dench) in Portofino, I think – it might be Siena. Somewhere in Italy, anyway.

It turns out that the organization that Mr. White works for (identified later in the film as Quantum, although nobody explains what this stands for – at least SPECTRE and SMERSH actually were acronyms that stood for something) has agents everywhere, including in that very room. A shoot-out ensues followed by a chase across Italian rooftops, ending up in a church undergoing refurbishment.

M is understandably shaken and pissed off. How could there be an organization so well-financed, so large with fingers in so many pies but MI6 doesn’t even have a clue about who they are? She sends Bond to go get some answers.

I won’t give a lot of the plot away because it really is unnecessary to. Nobody goes and sees a Bond film because of the plot. People want the same elements from their Bond movies – great action, beautiful women, clever gadgets and exotic locations. That’s it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to keep Bond fans happy, but they’ve gone and done that anyway.

Some of the changes are definitely for the better. The relationship between Bond and M becomes the most important relationship in the story. That’s a new twist for the series and one which I quite like. Dame Judi Dench need play a second banana to nobody, and she makes a fine foil for Craig. The chemistry between them exceeds that between Bond and Kurylenko as Camille, this edition’s Bond girl. Trust becomes a central theme to the film, which is bloody revolutionary for a spy film.

I also like that Daniel Craig’s Bond is cold, vicious and driven by the events at the climax of Casino Royale. First of all, a little continuity between movies isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Secondly, it lends a new edge to James Bond and while he does toss a quip out every now and again, he is all business. That has its pros and cons, but I don’t mind that we take Bond a little more seriously with Craig than we did with, say, Roger Moore.

Some of the changes, however, leave something to be desired. The action sequences should have an element of the unbelievable to them, a sense of scale; these are action sequences that are straight out of the Bourne movies (which is, I admit, a bit of an unfair comparison but it does make a useful reference point) and they are a bit rough, the shaky hand-cam which works in other action franchises just seems out of place here. The James Bonds of yesterday always seemed to get into brawls without so much as messing up their impeccably tailored tuxedo or immaculately coiffed hair, but this is a James Bond that gets dusty, bloody, filthy…he survives a plane crash and looks it. I kind of want my James Bond to step out of the wreckage, arch an eyebrow and loose a devastating witticism that gives you the comfort of knowing that Bond is going to save the day in about 20 minutes, and that the megalomaniac of the moment is going to get his comeuppance in a gruesome and deserving manner.

In short, I want to have fun with my James Bond movie and to be honest, I didn’t here. Despite the work of Daniel Craig who is as perfect a Bond for this era as Connery was for his, I didn’t feel exhilarated after watching Quantum of Solace as I usually do for other Bond movies. I felt I’d endured it, survived it but not enjoyed it.

That’s not to say that this is a movie totally without merit. I like some of the changes, as I said and I hope they continue to explore them. I might have liked a more vicious villain than Amalric as Dominic Greene, and a more urgent plot than to – horrors! – steal Bolivia’s water supply.

Unlike other critics, I don’t think that the franchise needs to be burned to the ground and rebooted again but some tweaking is definitely in order. Less grim, more fun I say. Now, I’m going to namedrop a little – I went to college with Bond executive producer Barbara Broccoli and actually shared several classes with her (we shared the same major) although we weren’t ever close. In fact, the odds that she reads my blog are about a hundred trillion to one, but I kind of hope she does. Not that I’m any sort of cinematic genius or anything, but if I had one word of advice to pass along to my fellow alumni of Loyola Marymount, it would be to ratchet up the fun quotient.

That’s the key. At the end of the day, I want to live vicariously through James Bond. I don’t want to see him shot, bloodied, beaten or bruised. If I wanted to be those things, I’d pick a fight with a NASCAR fan. I want to be pampered with the very best luxuries that the taxpayers of Great Britain can afford. I want to be with the most beautiful, seductive women on earth. I want to look great in a tux, use my license to kill and save the day. In short, I want to be stirred, not shaken.

WHY RENT THIS: It is James Bond, after all – the action sequences are second-to-none.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The reboot of Bond is moving a little too far from the original concept for comfort.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and sexuality but no more than any other Bond movie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the first time, Felix Leiter is played by the same actor in two consecutive films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: For a 100-minute movie, there are a ton of locations and a feature called “Bond on Location” discusses the logistics of all of them, as well as living up to the expectations raised in Casino Royale.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Iron Man 2