Atomic Blonde


This is what a femme fatale looks like.

(2017) Action (Focus) Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Attila Arpa, Martin Angerbauer, Lili Gessler, Declan Hannigan, Daniel Bernhardt, Sara Natasa Szonda. Directed by David Leitch

 

Hitchcock famously had a thing about icy blondes; along comes a film that may have the best one yet. For one thing, Charlize Theron isn’t just a master manipulator – she can kick quantum ass. Here, set to a pulsing and throbbing soundtrack and a cornucopia of mayhem she becomes the coolest and sexiest assassin of them all – drinking, smoking and seducing her way to Bond’s title.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent in Berlin days before the Wall fell in November 1989 to retrieve a list of double agents that, should the Soviets get their hands on it, would mean the end of a goodly number of high-value assets, to use spy film terminology. Broughton, who also has an agenda of her own, is assisted by the none-too-trustworthy station chief who in the dry words of her MI-6 handler (Jones) “has gone native.” Basically she goes looking for the list and every step of the way she gets attacked by goons and beats the snot out of them while getting her share of lumps as well.

There are some amazing action sequences here, particularly one set in an abandoned apartment building that is as brutal and as realistic a fight as you’re ever going to see. Lorraine dishes out the pain but gets her own share of it as well and even though this is set up in many ways as a distaff Bond film, this feels more in tune with the real world. The soundtrack of mainly Euro-New Wave (heavy on the Depeche Mode, Nena and Siouxsie and the Banshees) will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was young during that era i.e. people my age.

The film, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City gets more convoluted as the film wears on but the pace is always frenetic and you’re never more than two or three minutes away from another breathtaking action scene. 2017 has been the year of the renaissance of action movies (and of horror movies as well but that’s for another review) and this one is right up there among the best of a year that brought us Baby Driver, Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard among others. That’s some fine company to be included in.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are stunning. The 80s soundtrack is perfectly matched to the action. Theron takes an unforgettable character and runs with it. As spy films go, this one is much more realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets a bit convoluted and the ending is not unexpected.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and violence as well as some graphic sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Charlize Theron cracked two teeth during the course of filming the action sequences for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Verizon, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knight and Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Shape of Water

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London Has Fallen


Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

(2016) Action (Gramercy) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Colin Salmon, Alon Aboutboul, Waleed Zuaiter, Adel Bencherif, Mehdi Dehbi, Shivani Ghai, Penny Downie, Deborah Grant, Nigel Whitmey, Andrew Pleavin, Julia Montgomery Brown, Elsa Mollien. Directed by Babak Najafi

What do you do when you’ve already foiled a hostile takeover of the White House? Why, for most of us it would be resting on our laurels. For any action hero worth his salt, that’s just the beginning.

But Mike Banning (Butler) has had enough. Despite the fact that he has the world’s best tough-guy name (just say it out loud over and over again – you’ll get what I mean), his wife (Mitchell) is having a rug rat and is due any day now. He wants to settle down and be a dad and a husband. He’s even writing out his resignation letter.

But when you’re a Secret Service Agent with a Special Forces background who goes jogging with the President every morning that’s not such an easy task. When the Prime Minister of Great Britain has a fatal heart attack, the world is coming to London to attend the funeral, and President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) is not one to miss the funeral of a world leader. So with Banning’s boss (Bassett) breathing down his neck to be in charge of the President’s security while he’s in London, he can’t really say no.

It’s a good thing he decides to go because bingo bango bongo five world leaders are assassinated and the President’s chopper is shot down by terrorists. Like most terrorists, they have an axe to grind with the United States, but unlike most terrorists they seem to be well organized, infiltrating nearly every stratum of security in Britain. Getting the President to the U.S. Embassy is job number one for Banning but he’ll have to negotiate the streets of London which are now overrun with bad guys impersonating cops, soldiers and Central Casting.

While I liked the predecessor Olympus Has Fallen just fine, this is a step backward from its predecessor. The first film was a wild ride in the vein of Die Hard; this one just dies hard. The action is on the pedantic side, never a good thing. Action junkies may end up yawning which is always a bad thing – there is a definite been there-done that feel to the action. I don’t expect them to reinvent the wheel but there needs to be a lot more passion invested than apparently was put in here.

The shame is that I have always really liked Gerard Butler as an actor and you can tell he’s really doing his best with a subpar script. Butler is one of those guys that you’d probably have a great time sharing a beer with and telling tall tales to in a pub. He’s what I call a working class actor; he’s not  the sort of guy who gets offered roles that win Oscars, but he gets the job done day in and day out and in the end comes off as a likable guy, even when he’s playing a real douchebag (as in Gods of Egypt). I think he doesn’t get the respect he deserves, either from critics or casting agents but that’s just me talking.

He has a decent supporting cast, but many of them are wasted in roles that feel like they mostly ended on the cutting room floor – Leo and Forster have both got Oscar nominations on their resumes but barely get a line or two in here. Morgan Freeman, maybe one of the most respected actors of this generation, has a little bit more to do but not by much; his role is essentially display dismay, frustration and once in awhile deliver a “we’re gonna kick your ass” zinger as is necessary in most action films. Like the previous one, there is a bit of a right wing dick swing vibe here as the President gets tough on terrorism directly – with a machine gun. Go, POTUS, Go!

I get that with most action movies you really don’t want to think about the plot too closely as there are often logical holes in them but there has to be at least a LITTLE bit of logic; most people understand that the President is protected by a virtual army and when he goes to a foreign country, he is literally surrounded at all times by Secret Service agents and if his helicopter was shot down in a friendly country like England, there would be a rescue operation already in place and scrambled even before the chopper hit the ground.

Still, even as mindless entertainment goes, there is a bit too much disbelief to suspend here. I’m one of those people who thinks that there is something noble about creating a vehicle for people to forget about their troubles for a couple of hours but this movie could have used a serious rewrite (and it got several, judging from the number of screenwriters credited) or more likely scrapping the project altogether. While I wouldn’t mind seeing the character Mike Banning again, I would rather see him in a much better movie than this. Check it out if mediocrity is your thing, but don’t make too much of an effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty action sequences. Butler is excessively likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Really hokey script. Lacks any sort of credibility and any sort of logic.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of action, mayhem and violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fredrick Bond was set to direct but dropped out due to creative differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White House Down
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: TBA

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

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!

The Imitation Game


Beauty and the Beastly

Beauty and the Beastly

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Tom Goodman-Hill, Steven Waddington, Ilan Goodman, Jack Tarlton, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon, Tuppence Middleton, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Morten Tyldum

During World War II, one of the crucial technological breakthroughs made by Nazi Germany was the development of Enigma, a virtually unbreakable code using an ingenious machine whose code key changed daily. The Germans did virtually all their communicating with it and were able for that day to relay orders from command to the fronts quickly and efficiently. The Allies found that breaking that code would be the key to winning the war – and the code was considered unbreakable.

British Intelligence, in the person of Commander Denniston (Dance) and the mysterious Stuart Menzies (Strong) of the nascent MI-6 are looking for the best and the brightest cryptographers to break the code. Currently their team based in Bletchley Park is led by Hugh Alexander (Goode) has had no success and at midnight each day all their work comes to naught as the Germans change the code key.

Into this mix they bring Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) , a brilliant mathematician and cryptographer. He is also arrogant and a social misfit, unable to communicate with even the barest cordiality with his team. He dreams up a machine that can calculate combinations of letters and numbers faster than even the human brain, one that can go through an infinite number of calculations without stopping in the course of a day. Unfortunately, it proves expensive and cumbersome and is yielding no results. Denniston is eager to shut the project down but Alexander surprisingly stands up for Turing with whom he has butted heads endlessly.

Turing needs more help and he gets it in a comely young woman named Joan Clarke (Knightley). Brilliant in her own right and intellectually Turing’s equal in many ways, she is held back because she’s got breasts and apparently those cumbersome things prevent her from thinking clearly and concisely because….well, I don’t get it but it has to do with hormones and…I don’t know, because men have been idiots for a very long time?

In any case the team has to weather the frustration of knowing that every day they don’t solve the code that thousands of Allied soldiers die. Denniston is completely out of patience and has given the team a hard deadline to get results. Menzies also lets Turing know that someone on his team is funneling information to the Soviets. Finally there’s the awful realization that even if they do solve the code, they have to make sure the Germans don’t guess that they’ve broken it – otherwise they’ll just improve their machine and then the Allies will be back to square one, which means they’ll have to decide which information to act on – which also means letting people die when they might possibly have saved them, which leads to tragic consequences for one member of the team.

Beyond that Alan has a secret of his own – he likes boys and not just in a fraternal way. Homosexuality is illegal in Britain and if word got out that Turing is one it will be all the ammunition Denniston needs to get rid of Turing. Actually, there is one thing Turing likes more than boys – that’s Christopher, the creation he has built to crack the code and Christopher is, in a very large part, the forerunner of modern computers.

The real Turing would be credited by no less than Winston Churchill for winning the war, but nobody knew the extent of his involvement until just 20 years ago when some wartime secrets were declassified. In fact that Enigma had been broken at all was a very closely guarded secret that Turing himself didn’t even take credit for and when asked, he would say he worked in a radio factory during the war. But far from being grateful for his service in saving millions of British lives, he was convicted of being a homosexual and disgraced, forced to take chemical castration treatments. A year after his treatments were completed, he died of cyanide poisoning, ruled a suicide although there are those who think that the poisoning may have been accidental.

This is the first English-language film for Norwegian director Tyldum (Headhunters) and it’s already netted him praise and award nominations including the DGA award. He shows a very good eye, juxtaposing scenes in the bucolic Bletchley Park campus with the spartan lab facilities filled with all sorts of electrical gear.

Tyldum is fortunate in his casting as well, with Cumberbatch turning in a performance that has already garnered major award recognition and is likely to be bringing in an Oscar nomination later this week. It is certainly one of the most outstanding performances of the year. Turing portrayed here is awkward and unlikable, honest and blunt to the point of rudeness. He is supreme in his knowledge that he is right and doesn’t like to waste time arguing the point. He knows he has a momentous task ahead of him and while outwardly at times he may seem to look at it as a game, a kind of brain teaser, there are moments when he lets slip that he is fully aware it is anything but. He is tormented and dreadfully unhappy, brilliant but alone in his brilliance. He also has a tender heart which breaks easily. The only person he can truly confide in is Joan and even in her case he can’t tell her everything.

Cumberbatch isn’t alone. Knightley turns in another sterling performance as the brilliant but repressed Joan, whose parents discourage even the hint of impropriety but she yearns to do something that makes a difference and has the intellect to do it, but is unable to exercise it because of attitudes towards women at the time. Only Turing gives her the opportunity to flower and she is extremely grateful – to the point when he asks her to marry him she says yes even though he only does it to keep her at Bletchley. Joan in Knightley’s capable hands is a thoroughly modern woman in a very snazzy wartime suit.

In fact the film manages to capture the period nicely, although this is definitely a movie with modern sensibilities. Tyldum parallels the attitude towards women hampering Joan’s career with the attitude towards homosexuality being a constant fear for Turing although one gets the sense that he felt that due to the indispensable nature of his war contributions that the government would turn a blind eye and maybe they did but that attitude certainly caught up to him.

What happened to Alan Turing was disgraceful and a waste of human potential. However, the movie made about his work does honor him and that’s very important to remember – not all film biographies are this respectful. Many who knew Turing have commented that the movie was fair in its depiction of Turing who was at turns arrogant, brilliant and sweet. One of the great performances of the year is reason enough to go see this, but there are many others as well.

REASONS TO GO:
Cumberbatch gives an award-worthy performance, and receives ample support from the rest of the cast. Does honor the memory of Turing well.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have cut down on the repetitious scenes of the cryptographers failing to solve Enigma.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cumberbatch, who is distantly related to Turing, wore dentures based on Turing’s actual dental imprints as did Lawther who played Turing as a young boy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Gambler

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

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