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!

Spy


Fish out of water.

Fish out of water.

(2015) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jessica Chaffin, Miranda Hart, Morena Baccarin, Will Yun Lee, Carlos Ponce, Richard Brake, Raad Rawi, Michael McDonald, Peter Serafinowicz, Nargis Fakhri, 50 Cent, Ben Falcone, Katie Dippold, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

We are, as a moviegoing public, fascinated by spies. Of course, there’s the glamour – playing baccarat in Monte Carlo, wearing designer suits and dresses, using sophisticated gadgets that look like ordinary items, only deadly. Who wouldn’t want that kind of life?

Certainly Susan Cooper (McCarthy) does, to the point that she works for the Central Intelligence Agency. She is this close to getting an assignment in the field, but she winds up being a kind of handler/assistant to debonair field agent Bradley Fine (Law). She’s also quite smitten with the devilishly handsome spy, but he won’t give her a second look. In fact, nobody gives her much respect, not even the deputy chief (Janney) who supervises the team.

Unfortunately, while trying to discover the location of a nuclear bomb that is up for sale to the highest terrorist bidder, things go horribly, terribly awry. It turns out that the bomb seller, Reyna Boyanov (Byrne), has somehow identified every one of the CIA field agents. With a nuclear bomb in play and crippled by the fact that every agent she sends up against the bitchy Boyanov is sure to be spotted, the harried deputy chief is forced to send in someone that Reyna doesn’t know – Susan Cooper is finally getting her chance to be a field agent.

She is aided in her quest by gawky fellow basement dweller Nancy (Hart) and over-the-top touchy-feely Italian agent Aldo (Serafinowicz). She’ll also be hindered by egotistical, braggadocios agent Rick Ford (Statham) who, like about everyone else in the CIA, thinks that Susan doesn’t have a chance out in the field and will only mess things up. Susan, however, has a few surprises in store and is determined to complete her first mission. Will it be however, the last thing she does?

I’ve always blown hot and cold about McCarthy; she shows flashes of comic brilliance but Hollywood seems interested in casting her only as a boorish slob or an overbearing bully. One gets the sense that Hollywood can’t see past her weight, which coincidentally is Susan Cooper’s problem. One person who does see more in McCarthy is Feig, who has been at the helm for her three best performances yet – Bridesmaids, The Heat and now this.

McCarthy has always been adept at physical comedy, although it has often been to her detriment (having to do with her size) but here she outdoes herself. That’s not what makes McCarthy’s performance so memorable though; it’s that she portrays Susan as intelligent, capable and dare I say it, pretty. She turns all of our prejudices about overweight women on their ear, and for that alone one should applaud this movie, and Feig and McCarthy specifically.

What holds this movie back is that the story is really kind of generic spy stuff. We’ve seen the plot in movies and on television many times before. However, it is executed very well  here, with some cool high-tech sets in the CIA and lovely exotic (to American eyes anyway) locations. I would also have liked to see the villains be less bitchy and more evil. A spy movie is only as good as its villain and while Byrne is delicious as Reyna, one doesn’t get the kind of threat from her as one might from Auric Goldfinger, Ernst Blofeld or even Siegfried of KAOS.

Still, McCarthy gets to be James Bond and how cool is that for her? You can tell that she’s having the time of her life in this role, and it translates onto the screen and audiences are picking up on that, judging from the box office and audience test scores. It is said that Fox intended this all along to be a new franchise for them and quite likely it will be and I for one can’t wait for a sequel if McCarthy wants to do one.

REASONS TO GO: Statham plays against type and McCarthy is at her best. Some nifty sets and locations.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really explore new territory. Villains not villainous enough.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language, some violence, a little bit of sexual content and a brief scene of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feig is a huge fan of Jason Statham and wrote the part of Rick Ford specifically for him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Departed

From Russia, With Love


Much better than a mint on your pillow.

Much better than a mint on your pillow.

(1963) Spy Thriller (United Artists) Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Walter Gotell, Francis de Wolf, George Pastell, Nadja Regin, Lois Maxwell, Aliza Gur, Martine Beswick, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Lisa “Leila” Guiraut, Hasan Ceylan, Peter Bayliss, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Terence Young

While most people remember the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the third (Goldfinger) the casual moviegoer probably doesn’t remember the second. It was a box office smash, particularly in Britain where it set a box office record in only 82 days of release. Still, it doesn’t get a lot of the love that other Bond films over the years has attained.

James Bond (Connery), MI-6 agent 007 has irritated SPECTRE, a criminal organization set on world domination led by a mysterious Number One (Dawson) who pets a white cat constantly. Planning mastermind Kronsteen (Sheybal) has come up with a plan to steal a Lekter cryptographic device from the Soviet Union and sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous movie. Number One engages Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lenya) to run the operation. She in turn utilizes SPECTRE agent Red Grant (Shaw) as her primary field operative.

However, the way to get to Bond is to use a beautiful woman and the way to get to the Lekter is to use Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to lure in bond with the promise of a Lekter. Of course M (Lee) and Bond know it’s a trap but if they can get their hands on a Lekter, that would be a considerable coup. Bond goes to Istanbul where station chief Ali Kerim Bey (Armendariz) meets him. Grant follows Bond around, wreaking havoc and pitting the Soviets against the Turks and Brits. Romanova rendezvous with Bond and in keeping with – and adding to – a Bond movie tradition, falls head over heels in love with the British spy.

However, SPECTRE is dogging their every move, keeping Bond alive until he can literally deliver the Lekter into their hands. Romanova, who thought she was acting on behalf of the Soviet’s in-house SMERSH agency, is now ready to defect for real. There’ll be Murder on the Orient Express and a thrilling boat chase and of course face-to-face confrontations with both Klebb and Grant before all is said and done. And I could tell you how the movie ends but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it’s going to be.

Young was going for a more realistic atmosphere  this time around. While there are gadgets including a fairly useful briefcase and the Lekter itself, this is mostly straight-up action as opposed to later Bond movies. Connery cemented his stardom as it was very apparent that this was a franchise that was going to have staying power – this even before Goldfinger would make it a cultural phenomenon. He’s in so many ways the ultimate male circa 1963. He’s ruggedly handsome, tough as nails, absolute catnip to women and knowledgeable as well as cultured. We mere mortal males couldn’t possibly compete against all that and there were more than a few wives at the time who, seeing this, eyed their husbands with a critical expression. They’re still doing that today, if Da Queen is any indication.

Bianchi is one of the most physically beautiful of the Bond girls, although the former Miss Italy didn’t really have the charisma of the best of them – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry come to mind immediately. She’s usually lumped in with Lois Chiles and Olivia D’Abo as one of the less popular girls of the series. I don’t know that it’s fair but she certainly is easy on the eyes.

Llewellyn makes his first appearance as Q, although the head of Q branch is identified by his character’s real name, Major Boothroyd here. Istanbul makes a lovely and exotic backdrop for most of the movie and of course who can go wrong with the most romantic journey in the world, the Orient Express. The winning formula of exotic locations, jaw-dropping beautiful women and clever gadgets really got its start here.

The movie is extremely dated in a lot of ways, particularly in its attitudes towards women who are mostly portrayed as either besotted creatures whose place is in the bedroom and are in need of a manly slap once in awhile, or femme fatales who are out to emasculate if not outright murder any men who come across their path. Even the wise-cracking Moneypenny (Maxwell) really doesn’t get much respect.

Armendariz, who was terminally ill when he made the movie leading Young to film most of his scenes first, is one of the more charming Bond allies and sets the bar for those that would follow. Lenya, best known as the star of her husband Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and an Oscar nominee for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a shrill but deadly efficient killer whose fight with Bond is one of the biggest kicks in the movie. Shaw, who went on to greater fame as Captain Quint in Jaws shows off washboard abs and a sardonic wit. Grant is a brilliant agent provocateur that creates a good deal of havoc here and it’s fun watching him work.

Having recently re-watched the movie, I get the sense that while it often gets short shrift among all of the Bond movies, there is reason for it. The movie doesn’t jell as well as most of the Connery Bond films and while Klebb and Grant are fine antagonists, they lack the over-the-top panache of classic Bond villains Goldfinger, Blofeld and Largo.

Those things aside and despite being terribly dated in many ways the movie still remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Certainly those tired of seeing the same three or four Bond films over and over again could do worse than to use this one as a change of pace.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the more reality-based Bonds. Armendariz is charming and Lenya and Shaw both formidable foes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the more dated Bond movies.
FAMILY VALUES: Some era-appropriate sensuality and era-appropriate violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniela Bianchi’s voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford due to Bianchi’s heavily Italian-accented English. This was also the final Bond film that Ian Fleming got to see as he passed away shortly after it was released.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Blu-Ray edition is loaded with a plethora of extras that should satisfy most Bond fans, including a gallery of still images, radio and TV promos, featurettes on the late Harry Saltzman, the exotic filming locations (some of which weren’t quite so exotic), a comparison between Fleming and Raymond Chandler and an interview with Fleming by the CBC.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $78.9M on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/streaming), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Top Five

The World is Not Enough


Sophie Marceau thinks Pierce Brosnan looks fetching in this choker.

Sophie Marceau thinks Pierce Brosnan looks fetching in this choker.

(1999) Spy Thriller (MGM) Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Judi Dench, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, Desmond Llewelyn, John Cleese, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Samantha Bond, Michael Kitchen, Colin Salmon, Goldie, David Calder, Serena Scott Thomas, Ulrich Thomsen, Claude-Oliver Rudolph, Omid Djalili, Daisy Beaumont, Nina Muschalik. Directed by Michael Apted

Nifty gadgets. That’s why we see Bond movies. That and the outrageous stunts, fabulous action sequences, droll witticisms … and oh yes, the babes.

The 19th Bond movie finds our man James (Brosnan) looking out for a wealthy heiress by the name of Elektra King (Marceau). Bond feels responsible for the death of her father at the hands of a crazed terrorist named Renard (Carlyle). As “M” (Dench) was a personal friend of her father and that the murder took place at MI6 headquarters, she sends all the dogs after Renard.

Renard is unique in that a bullet fired by an MI6 agent has entered his brain and is slowly killing him. At the same time, it renders him impervious to sensation of all sorts, making him stronger with each passing day. Renard is out to steal a nuclear weapon from one of those pesky ex-Soviet republics. I won’t tell you how everything turns out; suffice to say that there follows mayhem of all shapes, sizes and description.

Bond gets lucky with a number of buxom women that would keep most of us awake nights just considering. And, of course, he saves the day after a final battle with Renard, while aboard a sinking submarine.

If you like Bond movies, this one isn’t going to disappoint. Pierce Brosnan is more comfortable than ever here in the role, and he proved why many thought that he should have been the one to replace Roger Moore. There’s more sexual tension between him and Moneypenny than there’s been in the Brosnan Bond movies, which is welcome, and we get to see a LOT more of M, which is a great thing. Dench makes a formidable M.

On the down side, this is the last appearance of Desmond Llewellyn as Q, making him the last of the original cast to depart. Llewellyn exits gracefully, but not before bringing aboard ex-Python Cleese to replace him – sadly, they never really utilized Cleese properly.

As is typical for Bond movies, great casting in the recurring roles. Marceau is a lustrous, otherworldly beauty who carries the right mix of innocence and steel necessary to carry out a complex role. She has a fascinating character and while Elektra is no Pussy Galore, she is memorable notwithstanding. Carlyle makes a terrific Bond villain, one who at the end turns out to be flawed and human, making him one of the better villains to come down the pike in a long time. Guest appearances by Coltrane as a Russian mobster (previously seen in Goldeneye) and musician Goldie as a bodyguard are memorable. Richards is unfortunately miscast as a buxom nuclear scientist. She, like Marceau, is pleasant on the eyes but unlike Marceau the former Mrs. Charlie Sheen is given little depth with which to work.

The World Is Not Enough suffers like most post-1985 Bond movies from the lack of a cold war. There is no evil empire to oppose; consequently, the movies lack the world-shattering urgency of such classic movies as Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Thunderball and Diamonds are Forever. Still, Bond soldiers on in an era when spies seem to be anachronistic. Bond’s anachronisms hold up, however, which is why the series continues today.

As sheer entertainment, the Bond movies are among the best bets on a continuing basis, as dependable as our own mortality and the inevitability of April 15th. It’s truly amazing that the series, now half a century and lots of different Bonds into the fray, is as consistently good as it is. The fact is, we need that kind of dependability in our lives. Presidents may come, monarchs may go, but Bond lives in a world that we remember and long for; one in which virile men can seduce gorgeous women by virtue of their sheer manliness, where bad guys always get their just desserts and a well-chosen witticism can deflect a bullet from its path.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid Bond entertainment. Carlyle a formidable villain and Marceau an excellent Bond girl. Brosnan at the height of his game.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Denise Richards totally miscast. Over-reliance on gadgets. Needs a SPECTRE or SMERSH.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some action violence and plenty of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The boat sequence is the longest opening pre-title sequence of all the Bond films to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a music video of the title song by Garbage as well as the ability to play featurettes at appropriate times during the playing of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $361.8M on a $135M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Supremacy

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mao’s Last Dancer

Skyfall


Skyfall

As classic Bond as it gets.

(2012) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace, Rory Kinnear, Nicolas Woodeson, Bill Buckhurst, Elize du Toit, Tonia Sotiropoulou. Directed by Sam Mendes

 

James Bond is not just a classic; it’s a brand name for many of us. When we attend a Bond movie, we have certain expectations – incredible, jaw-dropping stunts, a charismatic villain, gorgeous women for Bond to seduce and exotic locations.

Within those expectations there are also others; gadgets of some sort or another, nifty cars, a haughty M, a title sequence with beautiful  women writhing about apparently naked, martinis shaken not stirred and so on and so forth. Mess with them and you are likely to have the purists come to your door with pitchforks and torches.

The filmmakers have no need to fear a mob after the latest Bond flick. As the film begins, a hard drive is stolen containing the names of every MI6 agent undercover in terrorist organizations. Bond (Craig) chases the perpetrator, a smooth hitman named Patrice (Rapace) over the rooftops of Istanbul and on the top of a moving train, followed by an inexperienced field agent named Eve (Harris) and monitored by M (Dench) and her chief-of-staff Tanner (Kinnear). It soon becomes apparent that Eve can no longer continue to chase the train and she gets herself to a vantage point where she can get  clear shot at the combatants but as the train approaches, she doesn’t have a clear shot. M orders her to take it anyway and Bond falls down and goes boom, off of a speeding train over a bridge and into a river.

Of course he survived. He’s James Bond. You could drop the Empire State Building on his head and he’d pick himself up, dust himself off, let loose a choice witticism and head for the nearest bar for a martini (shaken, not stirred). However, in his absence MI6 has come under siege. A bomb is planted in their headquarters. M is now answerable to a new Minister of Defense, Gareth Mallory (Fiennes) who is gently urging her to retire. The ever-prickly M refuses. She needs to find out who is behind this before she can go.

Bond is much the worse for wear when he returns. The gunshot wounds have played havoc with his shoulder, making aiming a gun a bit more problematic. He has become dependent on alcohol and has unresolved issues of rage aimed at M for not trusting him to finish off Patrice himself. Even though he’s clearly not ready to go back in the field she sends him there anyway and he follows Patrice back to his employer, a former MI6 agent named Silva (Bardem) with a grudge against M that goes beyond fury and reason. He is a computer whiz who was able to hack the MI6 mainframe and in doing so, set up a plan that ends with the destruction of MI6 and the death of M. But with James Bond on the job, England can rest easy. Can’t she?

This is simply put one of the best Bond movies ever; when Craig debuted in Casino Royale there was a sense that he was going to do great things in the franchise. After a misstep in the poorly conceived Quantum of Solace this is a gigantic leap forward. Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty clearly knows his Bond. The pacing here isn’t breakneck but it’s fast enough to keep us breathless but not so fast that we can’t enjoy the ride.

There are nods here to the Bond movies of yesterday with old friends making their reappearances including Q (Whishaw) and other people and things who I will leave nameless so as to not spoil the surprise of their appearances which in every case were met with spontaneous “Ahhhhhh” sounds from the audience.  

Craig is perhaps the most battered Bond in history; he gets shot more than once and is riddled with scars physical and psychological. Craig plays Bond with the cool of Sean Connery and the physicality of Jason Statham. The movie goes into Bond’s backstory more than any other has before it (the climactic fight takes place in Bond’s childhood home) in which much that is past is made to be left there, leaving the film’s final scenes to pave the way for the franchise’s future.

Dench is a revelation here; while Bond has never been what you would call an actor’s franchise Dench shines as M in a way Bernard Lee never would have been allowed to and turns the character into a force of nature. Makes you wish Dench would be given the vacant slot at the CIA.

Bardem, an amazing villain in No Country For Old Men, shows that he might very well be the best screen villain since Anthony Hopkins. He is scary and psychotic with a particular axe to grind; he’s not after world domination but merely to rid himself of his demons so that he may live the life he chooses, a life uniquely suited to him. It’s a believable villain which is made the more layered with his apparent bisexual impulses and a pretty strong knowledge of psychological warfare. Silva is brilliant, physically capable and remorseless; he makes a fitting adversary for Bond, one in which we’re not always certain Bond can triumph over.

This is definitely a must-see movie this holiday season. It has the epic scope that marks many of the best Bond films but a lot of the human elements that make it a great film period. Even if you aren’t fond of the Bond franchise you may well find something to love here and if you are, you will undoubtedly find that the movie treats the 50 years of the franchise with respect even as it reinvents it for the next 50 years, a neat trick that requires remarkable skill to pull off. Reason enough to celebrate.

REASONS TO GO: Destined to take its place as a Bond classic. Shows proper reverence but modernizes the series at the same time.

REASONS TO STAY: A few logical lapses and a bit too much product placement gets distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Like all Bond movies, there’s plenty of violence, sex and smoking. There are also a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skyfall is the first Daniel Craig-era Bond film to use a title that didn’t come from Ian Fleming. Currently there are only four titles left from Ian Fleming-written James Bond stories that have not been used for the films; The Property of a Lady, The Hildebrand Rarity, Risico and 007 in New York City

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100. The reviews agree that this is one of the best Bonds ever.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye

KOMODO DRAGON LOVERS: .A pair of these gigantic lizards can be seen in a pit at the Golden Dragon Casino during a fight scene.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Rise of the Guardians

Cars 2


Cars 2

Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen, together again.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Jacobson, Bonnie Hunt, Darrell Waltrip, Franco Nero, Tony Shalhoub, Jeff Garlin, Bruce Campbell, Sig Hansen, Vanessa Redgrave, John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley. Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Pixar has become a brand name in the same way Lexus and Rolex are. It has become a symbol of prestige, the very best in their industry. Of course, no human institution can operate at peak ability every time out.

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) makes a triumphant return home after winning his fourth Piston Cup, marking him as one of the all-time NASCAR greats. He is happy to hang out with his best friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Hunt) when he receives word that a former oil billionaire gone alternative fuel-happy, Sir Miles Axelrod (Izzard) is putting together a World Grand Prix, a series of three races around the world (two of them in Europe, one in Asia – none in North America which seemed to be bending a bit backwards not to make this one as overly American as the first Cars) showcasing his new alternative fuel Alinol.

Lightning is a bit reluctant to go but after smug, arrogant Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (Turturro) – a clever reference to the principle of fluid dynamics which is part of what makes the modern automobile engine work – insults Lightning, its game on.

In the meantime, British spy Finn McMissile (Caine) discovers a plot led by the renegade scientist Professor Zundapp (Kretschmann) to ignite the Alinol fuel with a burst of microwaves, leading the public to believe that the fuel is unsafe and forcing them to buy their crude oil – the professor and his group happen to own the world’s largest fuel reserve.

The overall leader of the plot is unknown but an American agent has a photo of him. Finn and his compatriot, inexperienced tech agent Holly Shiftwell (Mortimer) are supposed to pick up the film at the party for the World Grand Prix, but the agent is spotted and in desperation, attaches the film to Mater, who has been embarrassing Lightning with his ignorant antics. Mistaking Mater for the spy, Finn and Holly team up with Mater who must discover who’s behind the plot (which turn out to be a consortium of lemons, cars like Pacers, Yugos and Gremlins, all of which have been written off as bad cars), a mission that becomes more urgent when it is revealed that Lightning is the next target for destruction.

By now, most people are well-aware that this may well be the weakest movie in the Pixar filmography. In terms of storyline, this is certainly true – the plot is quite a bit of fluff, disposable and not particularly original. When compared to such work as Up, Wall-E and Toy Story, it certainly doesn’t hold up well.

However from an entertainment point of view, it isn’t a bad choice for a summer afternoon. The movie has a breakneck pace that keeps it from being boring at any given time. Like all Pixar films, it is a work of outstanding visual achievement – the details of the world are absolutely amazing, and often clever. Keep an eye out for a number of Pixar in-jokes, from director John Lasseter’s name appearing in a clever way on the London speedway track to the name of a movie at the local Radiator Springs drive-in resembling that of a Pixar classic. There are also nice little cultural references, such as Sig Hansen of “Deadliest Catch” fame voicing a Cars-world version of the F.V. Northwestern, the vessel that Sig captains both on the show and in real life.

Whereas the original Cars tried to re-create a 50s Route 66 American Southwest vibe, this is a full-on 1960s British spy caper feel. Everything from the supercool Finn McMissile to the gadgets to the music makes those of us old enough to remember them (or those willing to have checked them out on Netflix or cable TV) the spy movies of Caine, James Bond or James Coburn, among others. There are homages to these films scattered throughout, sometimes subtly and occasionally not so much.

This is a movie which is more about entertaining the audience than it is about blowing them out of their seats. It isn’t a bad thing to be entertained; it’s just that the bar has been set so high by previous Pixar films that it’s almost impossible for any movie to measure up. I suppose it’s not a bad thing for a film company to be victims of their own high standards – and this movie certainly is. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not a great movie and I guess that’s enough to upset some people in the critical community. I can recommend it without a second thought, just don’t go in expecting too much other than mindless good fun and you’ll enjoy it purely on that level.

REASONS TO GO: Your kids will want to see it. Visually delightful.

REASONS TO STAY: Not on par with Pixar’s other films. Mostly fluffy, could easily have been a direct-to-cable film from a story standpoint.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect for family viewing, as you’d expect.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luigi visits Lightning to visit his Uncle Topolino. Topolino is the Italian name of Mickey Mouse.

HOME OR THEATER: This is going to seem sacrilegious, but I think it’s going to look just as great at home as it does in a movie theater.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: La Mission