Wednesday, November 14, 2012


James Bond is officially back! This movie had a lot to prove, coming off the slight disappointment that was "Quantum of Solace" and facing inevitable comparisons to the terrific "Casino Royale". Then there was the big five-o. This year marks the 50 year anniversary of Bond in film, and thus expectations were high for not merely a solid entry that could coast on the good-will of its star, but a classic Bond that would stand as one of the best in the massively popular series. I've been anticipating this movie since I first heard its title, which certainly evokes some powerful and slightly ominous implications. Then I saw the impressive and mood-building teaser trailer, which also piqued my interest the moment I saw it. My hype has been steadily building  for the past several months, particularly given the famine of theatrical entertainment following The Bourne Legacy. Somehow, director Sam Mendes was able to not only live up to expectations, but provide possibly the best film of the entire series. As this is a new release, there won't be any spoilers (at least nothing that's not in the trailers) in the plot summary.

Skyfall begins with James Bond chasing after a goon whose employer has stolen a list of agents that are currently undercover. Despite a riveting chase scene through a Turkish city and an adrenaline-fueled fist fight atop a speeding train, the mission ends badly and Bond is presumed dead. Returning from a meeting with a government official who pressures her to retire, M's personal computer is hacked into and she is taunted with the phrase, "think on your sins" before her office is destroyed before her eyes. 007, who is using his supposed death as an excuse to retire, sees a news report of the attack and returns to London. However, despite his best efforts, Bond isn't the agent he once was and he must somehow overcome his lack of physical dominance as well as confront his past in order to stop a villain from assassinating his mother figure.

Unlike the previous two movies, I was able to catch this film in theaters, and I am so glad I did. This is a film that must be seen on the big screen. In my review of "Quantum of Solace" I complained that the editing style kept me at arms length by refusing to linger on anything for more than a second at a time. This film, shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, not only fixed the problem, but is without a doubt the most beautifully photographed James Bond film I have ever seen. Every frame is expertly lighted and captured and the editing allows you the time to revel in and truly appreciate the impressive scenery. The story also provides further insight into MI6, its director, M, as well as Bond himself, who has demons in his past that he must face in order to protect the people he cares about.

This film also features a wonderful villain, played exceptionally by Javier Bardem. His unnatural blonde hair is a perfect metaphor for the offbeat and disturbed former MI6 agent, Raoul Silva. He has a personal vendetta against M and a horrific past that almost justifies the lengths to which he goes for retribution. Judi Dench is also fantastic as M, whose dark history and questionable decisions are brought into sharp scrutiny throughout the film. But of course, this film belongs to its star, Daniel Craig. I am constantly finding myself more and more impressed with the man I believe to be the best James Bond of all. He can convey such subtle emotions with his eyes or a mere facial expression and brings a weight and depth to a character that has often been portrayed as just a figure to be idolized. This Bond has baggage and it's oddly refreshing to see that played with such care.

Skyfall is a love-letter to the expansive oeuvre that is the James Bond series. However, it keeps the same grittiness and intensity of Craig's previous films, melding a perfect combination of old and new for this latest installment. There are so many little homages that are paid to the previous films in the franchise that will absolutely delight anyone who enjoys the 007 films. This was obviously done in honor of the 50th anniversary, but it doesn't overshadow the narrative as there are still many insights and surprises that somehow manage to shed new light on familiar characters. Skyfall is an incredibly entertaining film, and one that I can see myself watching and enjoying for years to come. I plan on seeing it again in theaters and I can't wait. This is a great film, one of the best I've seen so far this year. I give Skyfall a solid four stars.

SKYFALL is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Quantum of Solace

I am really excited for "Skyfall" on Friday. So much so that I've been watching the previous installments of the franchise to review for this blog. First, a little background. I got home from my mission and remember seeing advertisements for this movie thinking it must have been referring to the previous Bond movie my friends had told me about. It seemed odd that there would already be a sequel to the extremely successful "Casino Royale". However, after seeing the movie it isn't surprising at all. When I reviewed "Casino Royale", I talked about how much of an improvement it was in comparison to its predecessors. As much as I like James Bond, particularly Daniel Craig's incarnation, this is not going to be as positive a review. Again, as this movie has been available to home viewing for almost four years, I am going to be spoiling certain plot points as I explain the plot. If you haven't seen "Quantum of Solace", please skip the next three paragraphs.

James Bond starts the movie racing his sports car on his way to question Mr. White with M about his employer, the leader of the operation known as "Quantum". However, in the middle of the interrogation, one of the MI6 agents reveals himself to be rogue and  after killing a fellow agent, flees the scene, hotly pursued by 007. Bond kills the double-agent, much to the chagrin of M, who intended to question the traitor following Mr. White's escape. 

Bond tracks a lead named Slate and ends up killing him as well. He eventually winds up with Camille Montes, an attractive young woman who Slate was hired to murder by her employer/lover. Following her, Bond discovers she is working for environmentalist Dominic Greene. Apart from trying to kill Camille, Greene is helping an exiled Bolivian general in exchange for a seemingly worthless desert property. Bond rescues the girl from what he assumes will be her certain death, and follows Greene to an opera in Austria. There, Bond identifies several co-conspirators in the crowd though the mission is thwarted by the public death of one of Greene's security team. Bond is blamed for the death and all of his credit cards are immediately cancelled. Later, while under the close scrutiny of a fellow member of MI6, Bond attends a party held by Greene where he once again rescues Camille and takes her with him as they survey the recently purchased desert land by air. However, they are attacked midair by Greene's men and are forced to eject, skydiving into a sinkhole where it is revealed that Greene has not purchased the land for oil, as was previously assumed, but for water. He has built dams that have forced the area into an unprecedented drought. Greene is planning to monopolize the water supply in the area and doubling the price.

After learning that the woman keeping an eye on Bond has been drowned in oil, Bond and Camille catch up with Greene at the disaffected general's home, and the poorly placed fuel cells in the house cause the entire building to explode. Camille gets her revenge on the general, who had killed her family in front of her when she was a child, and Bond fights off Greene before helping her escape the flames. Bond later catches up with Greene, stranding him in the middle of the desert with nothing but motor oil for hydration. Later, Bond corners Vesper's old boyfriend in Russia, allowing him to be taken into custody after answering his questions. M is impressed he didn't kill the man and Bond admits to her that she was right about Vesper - she had given the money to Mr. White to spare Bond's life after all.

This is, yet again, a very convoluted plot. Unlike the last film, however, this film didn't quite have the exhilaration and the organic storytelling to keep it afloat for me. Daniel Craig is as good as ever, and I appreciated returning characters and plot threads from "Casino Royale", but this movie was clearly rushed in production following the critical and financial success of its predecessor. The story is serviceable, but nowhere near the previous installment. I was really hoping for something complex and thought-provoking rather than confusing and dumbfounding.

The movie instantly had me at arms length, with the rapid-fire editing of the first thirty minutes preventing me from connecting to any of it. While the cinematography had just as much going for it, I feel the editing style really did it a disservice by not lingering on anything for more than a couple of seconds at most. There were also several plot contrivances that were incredibly frustrating. For example, isn't it convenient that they just happen to parachute into a sink-hole where Greene is hiding part of the water supply? Does it seem odd that the architects who built the General's house installed large, unprotected fuel cells in clear view? It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it saying "architectural flaw, shoot bullet here to exploit". It wasn't helped by the fact that characters are literally spelling out the ending of the movie by saying stupidly obvious things like, "I hope those fuel cells aren't damaged or it could destroy the whole house." The laziness of expository dialogue like that is infuriating to me.

Regardless of the film's many flaws, I also found a lot to enjoy in "Quantum of Solace". The action scenes are still well-done, and the connection to Vesper Lynd's story was somewhat satisfying (even if I didn't wholly understand her boyfriend's role in her death). I also appreciated some of the script-writing flourishes such as Bond offering Greene motor-oil at the end, though these kinds of moments are few and far between. Overall, though, this seems like a pale imitator of the last film and wasn't nearly as good as I was expecting/hoping. Perhaps if they had taken a little more time to polish some of the script's weaker elements this could have rivaled "Casino Royale", but instead it falls into the already crowded category of disappointing sequels. I am giving "Quantum of Solace" a generous three stars.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Casino Royale

This is the oldest movie I've reviewed for this blog, and it's obviously not a coincidence. I've been looking forward to the newest entry in the 007 franchise ever since it was announced, and have recently re-watched the previous installments in preparation for its release. I toyed with the idea of doing retrospective reviews of Christopher Nolan's Batman series when "The Dark Knight Rises" came out, and even considered reviewing all of the Bourne movies prior to seeing "The Bourne Legacy". Maybe it's because I haven't seen the Bond films as much as the other franchises, but I've finally decided to pull the trigger. I was on my mission when this movie was released in theaters, but younger companions who had seen it prior to entering the field absolutely raved about it. I therefore went into this film with fairly high expectations. Given that these movies have been out for several years, I am going to be discussing spoilers. If you haven't seen "Casino Royale", just skip the next three paragraphs entirely.

Casino Royale is a pseudo origin story about the famous James Bond (Daniel Craig). Bond is a tough, reckless agent for Britain's MI6 agency who has a reputation for causing headaches for M (Judi Dench), the agency's director. Following a particularly explosive outing in Madagascar while investigating a bomb-maker, M would like nothing more than to suspend Bond for his foolish escapades, but is forced into enlisting 007's help instead. MI6 is tracking a financer named Le Chiffre, who not only cries blood, but makes his living by short-selling stock in successful companies and sabotaging their share prices through terrorist attacks. Bond follows Le Chiffre to Miami, where he thwarts the terrorist's attempt to destroy an airline's latest prototype.

Following this devastating financial blow, Le Chiffre is forced into orchestrating a high-stakes Texas Hold 'em  tournament in order to recoup the funds. Though M doesn't trust Bond, she also recognizes him as the agency's most accomplished card player and assigns him to the Casino Royale. Bond meets treasury agent, Vesper Lynd en route to the tournament (who has been assigned to keep an eye on the rash 007) and quickly develops an attraction to the brunette. During the game, Bond discovers Le Chiffre's tell and, using the money given to him by CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond once again spoils the terrorist's plans. Shortly after turning the villain's capture over to Leiter, however, Bond realizes Vesper has been kidnapped and follows in close pursuit. He narrowly avoids running over her bound and gagged body in the middle of the road but crashes his car violently in the process. Now captured, Bond is subjected to unspeakable torture by Le Chiffre, who wants the code to access the tournament winnings. Bond refuses, bolstered by the idea that Le Chiffre's clients will hunt him down for his terrible miscalculation. This happens much sooner than Bond expected, however, and a Mr. White interrupts the torture, killing Le Chiffre and his men. 

Bond awakens in a rehabilitation center in Italy, where he and Vesper rekindle their romance. 007 promptly tenders his resignation to M, choosing a path of "redemption" and travelling with Vesper to Venice instead. However, one day Bond realizes the winnings were never transferred to the treasury's account and he follows an apparently traitorous Vesper as she delivers the funds to Mr. White. A gunfight ensues and the floating building begins to sink as the inflatable supports keeping it afloat are punctured. Bond kills the men but is unable to rescue Vesper, who has locked herself in a steel cage and drowns. Meanwhile, Mr. White recovers the briefcase containing the Casino Royale winnings and escapes. Bond later learns that Vesper had a boyfriend who was kidnapped by Mr. White's organization and blackmailed for into cooperation. M insists that Vesper delivered the funds to Mr. White in exchange for Bond's life, though he doesn't believe it. After rejoining the service, Bond tracks down Mr. White demanding answers for Vesper's death, introducing himself as "Bond... James Bond".

As evidenced by the lengthy plot-summary, this movie has a lot going on and can be somewhat confusing. Indeed, it took me a couple of watchings to understand exactly what was going on and why. Needless to say, however, this movie is incredibly exciting. Daniel Craig personifies the ultimate gritty James Bond. His toughness is never in doubt and his emotional struggles are genuinely stirring. As far as the 007 franchise goes, this might be the best. It's certainly indicative of our time, as our modern culture tends to gravitate to more plausible and slightly harsh scenarios in our entertainment. Having said that, it's clear that the aesthetic of this movie was heavily influenced by the highly successful Bourne series. Sometimes it's hard to admit one's mistakes, but thankfully the Bond franchise did just that and performed a much-needed correction. While I was a fan of "GoldenEye", it's clear that the focus of James Bond and what made his story so accessible and enjoyable was completely lost in the decade prior to "Casino Royale". This is a well-deserved comeback for the 50-year old movie icon.

While there are so many things about this movie that I greatly admire, I also found it to be a little hard to watch at times. Not only Bond's torture (which will make any man shrink), but the repetitive, though not unenjoyable scenes at the Casino Royale. I can't necessarily blame the film for that as it seems to be a common trope of any card-playing film. Also, as I mentioned earlier, this movie is a little convoluted and seems to bite off more than it can chew at times. Then again, if the worst thing you can say about a movie is that you need to see it again, it doesn't seem like it's really much of a complaint.

Overall, this is a masterful spy movie. The action is incredibly intense, the espionage complex, and the cinematography beautiful. I highly recommend "Casino Royale" to anybody who hasn't seen it that enjoys action movies in the vein of the Bourne franchise. Those who have seen, I recommend they see it again. I really enjoyed this film, but am so on-the-fence about how many stars to give it. Ultimately I see some room for improvement (which hopefully "Skyfall" will take advantage of) and I've decided to give this film a strong three and a half stars.

CASINO ROYALE is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, a scene of torture and sexual content