Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Devilman


  Being a fan of the character, and at least the three OVAs that have been released, I was excited to find out that a live action Devilman movie had been made. The first warning sign should've been that I'd never heard about it before... and it was made in 2004. The second warning sign probably should've stopped me in my tracks, but no- the painfully low imdb score didn't deter me either. The trailer looked so cool, and well, the OVAs were friggin awesome, so how bad could this really be? I think the movie took that question as a challenge. Although I love Asian cinema (to an extent) I'm not really familiar with a lot of their actors and celebrities, so it's not like I could've offered up casting ideas on who should've played these characters but according to people who seem to know better, they only cast celebrities based on pretty faces, and to hell with acting talent. From what I've seen... I think this was definitely the case. Oh man...

  At first glance, things aren't so bad. The movie seemed to follow the story I knew more or less. I was genuinely excited to see how things went. Well, they went... bad. Fast. In the OVA (and the manga as far as I know) the main character, a young highschooler named Akira, is pulled into a plot to battle demons by his friend Ryo. See, Ryo's dad died trying to implement his theory that a person with a pure heart could 'merge' with a demon and take control of it's powers and strength whilst still remaining in control with a human heart. So Ryo proposed this plan to Akira, the most pure hearted person he knew. Akira agreed, after seeing proof of the demon horde's existence. Eventually, the plan worked, turning Akira into the super powered demon-killing machine, Devilman. HOWEVER, in the movie, Ryo takes Akira back to his house and tells Akira that his Dad turned into a demon and that he's one too. He asks Akira to kill him, and then... I dunno, Akira sorta just merges with a random demon on the spot?

  It was so underwhelming. For one, in the original story, there was purpose and a real drive behind Akira's transformation into Devilman. In this movie, it just sorta... happens. In the original story, they had to elaborately prepare for him to merge with a demon, even setting up a ritual and finding the right location. Again, in this one, it happens on the spot in Ryo's house. Like... what the hell? Then Akira just sorta... feels the urge to find an enemy so he can fight, and this demon bird lady shows up and says he should remember her. He's like, nope, sorry. So she flies him back to Ryo's house to jog his memory. He's like, still nope, sorry. I kid you not, she then says, fine, we'll fight. I have no idea what's even happening! Except that's not entirely true. I saw the OVAs remember?

  According to the OVAs, the demons are after Akira because the demon he merged with was basically the ultimate hero of the demon horde, and they want Akira dead so they can reclaim their hero. This is where the demon bird lady came in- in the second OVA. Akira's merging with the demon Amon was wrapped around a massive climatic action scene of it's own in the first OVA, involving a nightclub full of people who'd been turned into demons. It was long, brutal, gory, and jaw-droppingly cool. Since they changed the circumstances surrounding his merge in the movie, that scene is entirely absent. Thus, they skip right into the story of the second OVA. It feels like a slap to the face, and a major hack job to boot. The demon bird lady fight, which was the major show-stopping battle of the second OVA, is reduced to a lame two-three minute skirmish, followed by a ton more padding.

  This movie is a full-ass two hours. It would feel long even at 90 minutes. Anyways... then Akira encounters another villain from the second OVA. This encounter was terrifying and super important in the OVA, but in the movie, Devilman defeats this creature with one punch, and moves on like nothing happened. So you can see, the movie has a trend of taking the best, coolest moments from the pre-existing stories and completely dulling them down to nothing. Certainly nothing worth watching. If there are any other movies I can compare this to, it would probably be Spawn, and The Last Airbender. Spawn manages to be a better movie surprisingly/not-surprisingly. Better casting, better acting, better effects, it's short, and has a more coherent story. Comparing it to The Last Airbender makes even more sense, and on a whole nother level too. Both are adapted from amazing source material, and both manage to suck all the fun and creativity out of the concept, leaving us with a flashy looking- yet ultimately lifeless hunk of celluloid.

  If the comparison to The Last Airbender wasn't enough for you, or if you didn't loathe that movie (as you should), consider this...

  There is an infamous moment in the manga and the OVAs in which one of the main characters is brutally slain. It's a gut wrenching moment that is hard to look at, and even harder to accept it even happened. When Akira finds the culprits, he 'hulks' out and eviscerates them- then taking the time to grieve on the spot for his fallen friend. In the OVA you can FEEL his anguish. His screams are devastated and I had to cover my mouth because I could feel myself on the verge of unleashing some manly tears too. Yet... this same moment, brought to life with REAL people... ends up completely inert. Akira sorta kinda yells? I mean, Stallone yells better than this brat when his friends die in movies. Apollo Creed in Rocky IV? The chick in First Blood Pt.II? This kid just looked mildly annoyed, and sounded like he was trying to scare a mouse away. The actor was supposed to be reacting to the sight of the decapitated head... but it looked like he was reacting to a shocking tabloid headline instead.

The most devastating thing about the scene was how painfully underwhelming it was to the point of eliciting hopeless laughter from me. I wasn't laughing because it was funny, I was laughing because I realized how utterly bad this movie was. I wanted to like it. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to. I wanted to walk away from this movie and say, this was actually fun. Maybe it could've been on par with Spawn, as a guilty pleasure? No, just... no. It's entirely devoid of merit. It's just plain bad. So bad. So very very bad. Bad. Super bad. It's super bad man. Totally bad. Save yourself. HOWEVER.. I do urge you to check out the OVAs. They're friggin amazing.

The 007 Marathon



  The marathon is over! All 23 James Bond 007 movies. The holidays tripped me up towards the last bit of December here, but my goal of finishing before new years has been reached. It's been surreal to say the least and I'm rather sad the whole thing is over. I've watched a lot of these with friends and family, and I've had a lot of fun. My list of favorite James Bond movies is due to be officially revised any day now, and that was one of my goals, indirectly. I wanted to take an objective look back at the characters and the franchise. See where they've been, and see where they're going. Bond has had his good years and his bad years. Too many of his better films are still underrated, while some of the worst ones have an army of apologists ready to defend it.

  I definitely have some new favorites, and I've had a blast with this whole ordeal. Would I do it again? Sure. It was an excuse to sit through the bad ones, and a perfect reason to reevaluate the good ones.... and now I am done. Itching to get back to other movies and such! Nevertheless, I feel a much bigger appreciation for everyone's favorite MI6 agent having done this. It's been something to remember. I hope you've enjoyed taking this journey with me, given that I've posted -only- 007 reviews since November. Thanks for reading!



  1. Dr.No
  2. From Russia With Love
  3. Goldfinger
  4. Thunderball
  5. You Only Live Twice
  6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
  7. Diamonds are Forever
  8. Live and Let Die
  9. The Man With the Golden Gun
  10. The Spy Who Loved Me
  11. Moonraker
  12. For Your Eyes Only
  13. Octopussy
  14. A View To A Kill
  15. The Living Daylights
  16. Licence to Kill
  17. GoldenEye
  18. Tomorrow Never Dies
  19. The World is Not Enough
  20. Die Another Day
  21. Casino Royale
  22. Quantum of Solace
  23. Skyfall

Skyfall


*For the final review of my 007 Marathon, I've decided to do something a little different. For Skyfall, I approached a good friend of mine who runs a great movie review blog over at Movie Curiosities to do a 'tag-team' review on it. Check out his blog as well, and enjoy the review!
--

  Skyfall, the 23rd 007 movie, takes a chapter from the Connery era reminding us what we loved about a good classic spy caper. However, at the same time, it inhabits the world that Casino Royale laid out for the current Bond. The bad guys these days aren't the megalomaniacs of old. As M says, in one of the best scenes in the movie, "I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They're not nations, they're individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No! Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque! It's in the shadows.-", "-ask yourselves, how safe do you feel?" The scene is not only addressing the fictional world in which the characters exist in, but also how we view villains for real.

  It bears remembering that the 007 franchise grew primarily in the '60s and '70s, periods that now seem laughably campy in retrospect. Furthermore, Bond himself is clearly a product of the Cold War, which is now thankfully long gone. Making a statement to prove why James Bond is still relevant in the 21st century was a very smart move, especially for the series' 50th anniversary.


 Absolutely. It’s also something they should’ve done for the 20th movie, which just so happens to be Die Another Day; A movie that, to me, is pretty relevant to Skyfall. The villains of this era are desperate and dangerous. They're scary. Bond villain Silva captures this perfectly, and Javier Bardem brings him to life with such flair and gusto. Of course, as an ex-agent, Silva is cut from the same cloth as Bond, he knows MI6 inside and out. Bond himself could have been in his place very easily. In fact, he was. In Die Another Day, Bond was abandoned to the enemy. How much scarier is it to think that our 'maladjusted' hero could've easily been the villain in someone else's narrative?  Unfortunately Die Another Day chose not to do anything interesting with that plot thread and without time to waste, once again reduced Bond to a smattering of cliches, smirks, and raised eyebrows. Skyfall holds up Silva as a mirror to Bond, showing us exactly what Die Another Day could've been. Clearly, it could've been a much better movie. Which is exactly what Skyfall is.

  Sorry, I know I'm in the minority on this, but I thought that Silva was pretty much entirely salvaged by Javier Bardem's performance. Silva's motivation from start to finish was to take revenge against M, which seems rather petty for a Bond villain. It would have been something very different if Silva expanded his rage to MI6 or to England, out to take revenge against the organization and the country that left him to rot. But no, Silva makes it clear that he's only after M. Bardem does a fantastic job of selling the character's mania, and he wreaks some major havoc with the purpose of making M look bad before he kills her, but he still comes off as so small-minded for a Bond villain.

  I disagree. I think his small-mindedness was actually a product of how he was trained as an MI6 agent. Even going rogue, and launching a big plan just to get revenge seems completely within the mental and emotional parameters that I can imagine MI6’s psychological conditioning would’ve instilled. He’s a product of Queen and country, for better or worse. "Blunt instruments" like Bond and Silva seem to have been trained to focus on singular targets, often to detrimental results. Just look at the opening of Casino Royale, which had Bond storming an embassy just to kill one bomb maker.

  Fair enough. Anyway, this really is M's story as much as it is Bond's. Both characters have to deal with all the death and destruction they're responsible for, both have to justify their continued existence in a world that seems to have outgrown their methods, and both have to balance their personal feelings and flaws with their duty to the greater good. It all adds up to a fantastic send-off for Judi Dench and a worthy tribute to her treatment of M as a de facto mother figure for Bond.
Incidentally, watching the movie a second time, I realized that Ralph Fiennes' Mallory character takes a bullet for M during a shootout. That's a hell of a way to pass the torch.

  Oh definitely. I noticed that this time as well, as everyone else on the council was ducking, Mallory was leaping to M’s aide. Impressive no matter what the context. But yeah, aside from operating in the very grounded and frightening world of post-9/11 espionage and murder that Casino Royale introduced, Skyfall also infuses this ongoing reboot of 007 with much-missed elements from yesteryear. Firstly, the sense of humor is on point. There are plenty of moments in Skyfall that make me laugh, but it's not the brand of in-your-face silliness that's plagued the franchise in the past. It's smartly written dialogue, and clever moments that flow with the scene and the characters. In their effort to bring back classic elements, there's a fantastic scene in which Bond makes a quip about the 'company cars' and reveals he still has an Aston Martin DB5. Which is, for those of you who don't know, is the car from Goldfinger. M remarks that it's not very comfortable, and Bond hovers his finger over a very familiar little red button...
"Oh, go on, then, eject me. See if I care." She snaps. Bond then smirks as they drive away. Probably the most obvious example of it's nostalgic mentality and of it's wittiness. It's also a perfect example of how well it works.

  Easily one of this film's greatest strengths is in how it recognizes the Bond cliches of yesteryear without being beholden to them. Q finally appears, but the gadgets that he offers are quite sensible and useful in a variety of situations, unlike the gadgets that could only be useful in some laughably specific predicament (the glass-shattering ring from Die Another Day springs to mind). And of course he asks Bond to try and bring the equipment back in one piece, but the delivery of that line makes it clear that Q is only saying it as a formality.

  It also bears mentioning that Q is now a much younger man, which makes perfect sense given the younger generation of tech geniuses today. Also, Ben Whishaw plays the character in a sort of quiet and contemplative way that contrasts brilliantly with 007. Even better, Q is no longer some recluse who only shows up long enough to dispense the weaponry -- Q uses his computer know-how to play an active role in guiding Bond and tracking Silva.

  By a similar token, it was an absolutely genius move to introduce the new Moneypenny in the opening action sequence. Right off the bat, it's immediately shown that this is a love interest who could be a worthy field partner for Bond if he really needed her. She's a love interest who's an equal to Bond and a black woman, neither of which could have been possible in the sexist and racist years of Bond's heyday. Couple that with sizzling chemistry between Craig and Naomie Harris, and this is a fantastic update for a classic Bond character.

  Definitely. An update that was long overdue if you ask me. Some people have complained about the Daniel Craig era of Bond being 'too rigid' or 'too serious'. Well, I beg to differ. It's well-rounded entertainment. Moreover, it's good James Bond, period. The movie's message of "sometimes the old ways are the best." is not lost on a fan like me. Bond hasn't turned into an aftermarket Jason Bourne yet. The exotic locations still have that spy thriller flair to them, the women are still tragic and ill-fated characters, and the action scenes are still incredible. From the opening chase scene, which involves motorbikes, cars, a train, and a digger, to a claustrophobic fist fight in a casino in Macau, all the action scenes are top shelf stuff. They still manage to wow and impress in an era so desensitized to high flying stunts and elaborate choreography.

  Don't forget the camerawork. Roger Deakins is a master cinematographer and the visuals in this movie are absolutely superb from start to finish. I'm particularly fond of the fistfight with Patrice (the assassin played by Ola Rapace), done in silhouette while the lights of downtown Shanghai dance around them and reflect off all the glass surfaces. Jaw-dropping stuff.
I'll absolutely agree with you that the action scenes are amazing, though the underwater fight scene during the climax is terribly underrated. It's notoriously difficult to stage underwater action in a way that's technically feasible and safe for the actors, but that scene manages it in a way that sells the danger and looks incredible. The pit fight at Macau is a weak point, however; it's hard to get too invested when the Gila monsters look so laughably fake.

  Although they weren’t that distracting to me, I can see how that could take someone out of the movie. But I’m definitely gonna agree with you about that underwater fight sequence. In fact, that whole scene looks simply gorgeous. Visually, it’s stunning, and I think that adds a layer to the fighting and running around that many other movies lack. Another example is the scene you mentioned a bit ago, Bond’s fight with Patrice. Simply fantastic stuff. This whole movie is eye candy, without being insulting to the audience’s intelligence. Far too many Michael Bay apologists claim his movies are simply “eye candy”, yeah well so is Skyfall. It’s also not stupid though. So there’s that.

  Getting back to the love interests, I find it interesting to note that this is the third straight Bond film in which a sympathetic Bond girl dies tragically. Of course, Bond girls are expendable by definition, but Berenice Marlohe's character was just awful all around. Paper-thin, terribly acted, and disposed of without consequence just as soon as her limited contribution to the plot has been fulfilled.

  I can agree with that to an extent. Even Ms. Fields from Quantum of Solace was a highlight of the film; Severine was nothing of the sort. However terrible this may sound… I’m actually glad she died. Because if she hadn’t she would’ve been a useless tag-along like Olga Kurylenko was in the previous film. If that wasn’t the case, she would’ve disappeared from the movie, alive, but only given a throwaway line to resolve her sub-plot. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, she was just a plot device. A tragic one at that, but one that bothers me less each time I see the movie.

Nevertheless, Bond's trademark swagger is in full gear here. The 007 theme creeps into the score every now and then at just the right moment, and it gave me a fantastic feeling. He's back. Not just Daniel Craig, or James Bond, but Ian Fleming's James Bond 007... is back. This feels like a sequel to Goldfinger or From Russia With Love. It captures that classic spy thriller atmosphere, whilst maintaining the modern elements that have saved James Bond from becoming an antiquated dinosaur. It does all this while making Moneypenny a black woman, Q a young man, and Bond a man capable of anger and making mistakes.

  I'd argue that the title theme helped a lot with that as well. Adele has built her career on soulful performances with a retro style and a modern attitude, which is exactly the blend that this newest Bond era was built on. Her song, in tandem with the classic Bond theme, form the perfect foundation for this film. It's hard to imagine a better fit, though I'd be interested to hear the similarly retro-minded Bruno Mars give one of the sequels a try.

  That would’ve been pretty neat actually, and of course, I’m in total agreement about the title theme. Adele was indeed perfect for this. And speaking of perfect, this is the perfect end cap to a trilogy of movies that sought to update and redefine what James Bond could mean to us in this day and age. Casino Royale was a huge bold step in the right direction, shedding almost all affiliation with the "old" notion of 007, but Skyfall reminds us that sometimes... some of the old ways are still good. Still usable. Still the best. As long as you handle with care, it's okay to take the DB5 out of the garage for a spin every now and then.

  The film is solid (albeit flawed), and it's exciting to think that after three movies, James Bond is back in his prime like never before. The sky's the limit with the franchise at this point, and I'm thrilled to see where MGM and Sony take 007 from here. Personally, based on what I've seen and heard so far, I have every reason to believe that they'll continue to honor the character's past while blazing a new trail.
To paraphrase the series' new M, "Good luck, Mr. Bond. Don't cock it up."

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Quantum of Solace


  *Given that I actually reviewed Quantum of Solace, publishing it backdated, about two months ago, well before I started this 007 marathon, some portions of this review will be taken from this review. Simply because I feel like that review almost perfectly captured my feelings on the movie, which have barely changed since. However, given that part of my objective with this, and with any, big marathon is to update one's views on a movie. Watching all of the 007 movies in release order has given me a unique perspective on them, which extends into Daniel Craig's era as well. So I have written fresh material for this review which delves into my thoughts on how this one stacks up against the others, what it takes from them, and what it avoids.

  After the massive hit that was Casino Royale, people were eager to see how Daniel Craig would handle another go-round as the eponymous James Bond. Was he a one hit wonder? Was the appeal of his brand of 007 all but gone? Well, when Quantum of Solace hit the screens in 2008, everyone got their answers. For better or worse... The good at least? Daniel Craig was still a damn effective James Bond. The movie around him? ...Not so much. Quantum of Solace plays more as a direct sequel to Casino Royale than anything. Though you'd be forgiven for not keeping up on current events, Quantum of Solace is haphazardly plotted and only seems to really care about it's predecessor in a couple standout moments. Otherwise... it's only a shadow of Casino Royale. Let me break it down for you.

  First, I said in my review of the previous movie- a Bond movie's strength should be able to be determined by whether or not you can market the film entirely around the villain. In that case, let's look at the villain. Dominic Green is the chief bad guy this time, played with gusto by Mathieu Almaric. Unfortunately, this guy is about as interesting as a cardboard cutout. His unique Bond villain endgame is to control 60% of the water in Bolivia so that he can like... I dunno. Swindle then out of paying double for water. So... evil. And yes, while it is evil, it falls flat in a 007 movie. The guy himself has none of the on-screen presence of a proper villain, and comes across more like a greedy business mogul than anything. He has no unique traits about him, and all in all is uninteresting.

  Marketing the movie around him would've been disastrous. He's horribly boring as a character, as a villain, and doubly so in the wake of the profoundly sinister, Le Chiffre from Casino Royale. That's just one issue with this movie. There are plenty more. Secondly, things just seem to kinda... happen? The story is muddy, and the plot is too. Not to mention the Bond girl is entirely dead weight. She actually contributes nothing to the actual story aside from just tagging alongside Bond for the last act of the movie. Compared to how absolutely crucial Vesper Lynd was, this is just criminally disappointing. The movie seems content to be technically competent and only technically competent as he plot is advanced with one bloody action set piece after the next.

  This is wrong. This is a bad formula. Bond should not be reduced to being Jason Bourne in a suit. He has his own brand of suspense and danger, one that is only glimpsed here is a few scenes. Otherwise there is little to separate Quantum of Solace from being an entry in any action franchise. This is the first 007 movie to feature a foot chase, car chase, boat chase AND plane chase. Yet does this abundance of action make for a good movie? No. Solace is thematically weak, and stylishly inept. Director Marc Forster makes some mind bogglingly bad choices here, visually. Cutting to superfluous footage during action scenes, horrible shaky cam, and specific instructions to Almaric to not make any attempts to give his character any memorable visual attributes.

  On top of these issues, the first rough draft of the script was completed right before the writer's strike. It got so bad that Daniel Craig himself would have to re-write scenes, dialog, and even write entire new pages, on the set. It really shows too that the script was sort of thrown together. It's the kind of weak blockbuster formula of fill in plot holes with action scenes. Also, I've yet to find a movie with Olga Kurylenko in which her character has any intrinsic value to the movie itself, at all. Craig's character has little to do besides get shuffled along and swept up with the lackluster insanity around him. Aside from a promising opening, which is properly thrilling, Bond himself is wasted.

  The character we saw built up in Casino Royale has been hopelessly reduced to something with the emotional dimensions of an action figure. Daniel Craig must be commended though because you can see him trying to act right through the confines of this script. The direction was dire, but Craig tried very hard to breathe life into 007 again. And lucky for us too because we eventually got Skyfall, which was a superior effort in every way imaginable.  I cannot fully recommend against Quantum of Solace, because if you've seen all the James Bond films, you know they can get much worse than this. If anything, it scrapes by just enough on a wink and a bullet to be marginally entertaining.

  Watching it this time, I think I actually respect it a bit more. Olga's character may have no direct ties to the plot, but she makes an interesting foil for Bond. Her backstory has led her to a situation which directly mirrors Bond's. It may all be paper thin and underdeveloped, but it interesting on a superficial level. Also interesting, and on anything but a superficial level, was a scene in which another Bond girl turns up dead. The manner of her demise was a visual throwback to Goldfinger, which isn't clever or anything. It's just another nod that these movies keep doing. However, the scene around the girl's death was actually fantastic. M is there, and she has a dialog with 007 about his charms with women, and how it always turns out badly.

  In any number of previous iterations, a dialog like this could've been played for jokes believe it or not. It would've been an off the cuff remark and had the characters shuffling along to the next scene. I won't pretend that they managed any lasting effect after this one or two minute scene, because it was over and that was that, but... it did point out something which is largely skirted around in these movies. Bond is a deadly person to know whether you're an enemy or a lover. Especially if you're a lover. They might treat this as a tragic part of his character now, yet one can't help but wonder if there wasn't (as a friend of mine put it) an 'ugly misogynistic center' behind this at one point in the franchise. The movie grapples with this idea in a few short moments, which is altogether too brief, but it's also a few moments more than you'd find in any other Bond movie.

  In retrospect, the movie isn't that bad. It's certainly in the lowest tier of Bond movies, but despite the forgettable villain, the action scenes are on fire. They're directed with confidence and style, ending up being one of the sole highlights of the movie. However this does present a dilemma. This was to be the movie that wraps up the rather emotional loose ends from Casino Royale. It does this... almost as an afterthought. Instead of continuing with the tone and feel of the previous movie, this feels like a gritty throwback to GoldenEye. Which feels largely out of place and uncomfortable in the Daniel Craig era of Bond movies. The movie carts 007 around from one rapid-fire action scene to the next. Even the interludes seem intense and always fast-moving. There's no time to breath, and in a movie like this, we needed it.

  Nevertheless, I must give credit where it is indeed due. The camera manages to capture beautiful locales, stunning action sequences, and even some moments which teeter on artistic beauty. I'm willing to give them that much. Despite the fact the movie is a terribly disappointing misfire, it's a pretty looking one nonetheless. I suppose this movie works about as well as a car wreck. Something you can't take your eyes off of even though you really should look away. It's sleek visual style is somewhat captivating. It's sort of like the fact that anything in extreme slow motion is interesting to look at. Whether it's a water balloon being popped, a fly landing on a table, or someone falling off a bicycle. To watch the intricacies of such things, whether they are mundane or painful ends up being fascinating. I am hesitant to call Quantum of Solace fascinating per se, but it pays close attention to the mundane, and ends up being painful. Take that for what you will.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Casino Royale


  *Given that I actually watched Casino Royale about two months ago, well before I started this 007 marathon, some portions of this review will be taken from this review I published at the beginning of the year. Simply because I feel like that review almost perfectly captured my feelings on the movie, which have barely changed since. However, given that part of my objective with this, and with any, big marathon is to update one's views on a movie. Watching all of the 007 movies in release order has given me a unique perspective on them, which extends into Daniel Craig's era as well. So I have written fresh material for this review which delves into my thoughts on how this one stacks up against the others, what it takes from them, what it avoids, and why it's simply... the best.


  In the several year gap between Die Another Day, and Casino Royale, the powers that be decided that Bond would need to go in a different direction. The "Bond formula" so to speak, had become woefully predictable. The movies themselves weren't strong enough to shoulder the weight of the in-your-face innuendo, the incessant bedroom scenes, and the tired utterances of "Bond, James Bond". The very things that were at one point welcome familiarity, had become annoying cliches. With the Dalton movies, we saw the potential for a darker Bond. One that could maintain the image and the trappings of the MI6 agent we all know and love, but without being weighed down and held back by the cliches that were quickly turning into poison for our beloved 007. The Brosnan era movies had glimpses of that potential realized, but squandered it in the end with the laughable Die Another Day. Thus...

  Casino Royale was made. It was both timely, and on the money with it's depiction of James Bond and the world he inhabits. Everything is sharper and no-nonsense. It dispenses with the super-soldier angle of the Brosnan movies and introduces Daniel Craig as a proper, balls-to-bone spy. Not just any spy, but a spy in vein of Sean Connery's 007. The opening of Casino Royale is in black and white, but the more I see it, the more it reminds me of Dr.No. There's a scene in Dr.No where Bond has to shoot a traitor, and he does so in the most coldhearted fashion. All without rising from his chair. Craig manages to pull off an incredibly similar moment in the opening. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Craig is an old school spy. He kills in cold blood and can dole out even colder quips without it being funny in the slightest. Like Connery, when Craig quips... it's scary.

  He plays Bond well. Not just the suaveness and the swagger, but the blank stares and the detached attitude too. This is the Bond that movies like License to Kill and Die Another Day teased us with. This Bond is at home in the pervasive silence that briefly reared it's head in The World is Not Enough. Bond is here with vodka martinis and bloodied tuxedos. We see him hurt often, bleeding, and broken. Both physically and emotionally. It's no surprise that it seems emotional pain hurts him worse than anything else the movie throws at him, including a gritty torture scene. Yet Bond is Bond, and this is a 007 movie. It's all here, the beautiful women, the nail biting suspense, the flashy cars, and all his trademarks. What works about Casino Royale is that it mixes the best elements of all the previous Bond movies, in just the right measurements. It's most definitely a proper spy thriller.

  It's plot demands you pay attention almost more than even the action scenes do. Which is a pretty amazing feat considering the action scenes are some of the most grounded and impressive stuff to date in the franchise. From a fantastic multi-tiered foot chase early on, having Bond run down a bomb maker, to an explosive showdown at an airport, and a claustrophobic bloody brawl pitting Bond against two machete-wielding bad guys in a cramped stairwell. It's all insanely intense. It leaves you breathless. You'll notice though, it's not the same brand of action as the previous Bond movies. You won't find this Bond driving a tank through the streets of St. Petersberg, or spouting one liners in the middle of a fight. This is as grounded as it gets. Surprisingly, or not, I can't decide- Bond still works, and better than ever. He didn't need a plethora of gadgets, or several dozen scenes with him machine-gunning the bad guys. He certainly didn't need to bed every female that crossed his path, or make his getaways with a rocket pack.

  Casino Royale is almost a response to movies like The Bourne Identity. Another spy thriller that showed us that quick-thinking and brutality immediately trumps wit and gadgets. There will always be a place for wit and gadgets, but if you rely on them to make your movie, it will end up over-saturating. Which is what happened before Casino Royale. Nevertheless, Casino Royale does right and makes Bond a force of nature. After the most grueling ordeal... he can dust off his dinner jacket, adjust his cuff links, and act like he's only been away- freshening up. Not to say other Bonds haven't been able to pull this off to some extent, but Craig embodies it. What Bond is supposed to be like. Retrofitted for the modern spy game, for modern audiences, and for fans who are only capable of chuckling weakly at in-jokes and puns which have become drier than 007's trademark martini.

  With Casino Royale, we're not introduced to a Bond we've never seen before- only one we've forgotten about. Naysayers argue it's not true to form, yet I'd argue it's the truest. Side by side with Dr.No, they match rhythm so damn well. Bond is not a walking cliche this time. He's a character we're rediscovering as he's being introduced into this lurid mess of shady deals and licenses to kill. He lives and breathes the atmosphere, but he's a bit green. Casino Royale is the movie in which Bond cuts his teeth on. He becomes the 007 we all knew we loved. Which is why, at the end of the movie when the trademark theme slowly creeps up on us and we know what's coming- we're not ready with a weak chuckle, but a sense of excitement and anticipation. "Bond. James Bond." Words that had almost lost their impact, yet the movie behind them this time gives them new energy. Maybe they're not so relevant anymore, maybe people only need a hero like Jason Bourne... but Casino Royale itself is the perfect argument that Bond is still relevant.

  The other essential half of ANY 007 movie is the villain, which is what Dr.No did so well. Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. A sinister man who's gravitas is staggering, in the presence of brutal south African war lords and devious socialites who could afford to buy and sell your very life a thousand times over.  His onscreen presence is simply amazing. Sitting across from Bond, merely playing poker, and he somehow manages to be more threatening than a power hungry dictator with his finger on a big red button, wired to something catastrophic no doubt. This is where I am developing a theory... A Bond movie is only good if you could market the entire thing around the villain. I mean... your hero stays the same. More or less, you know what you like, you're already sold. If you can pull off a marketing strategy that focuses almost solely on the villain, then most likely you have a hit. If not... you have a Quantum of Solace. Le Chiffre would steal the entire movie from a lesser character, and Mads would from a lesser actor. Craig and Mikkelsen, Bond and Le Chiffre... they are fierce opponents, more brutal in their methods than any the franchise has seen before.

  Casino Royale updates the character and the franchise for modern times. It does so better than GoldenEye did in the 90's. It recognizes that villains are much more than comic book characters to people in a post 9/11 world. Thus, the stakes are incredibly high, and more is on the line than just money or any one or two lives- but perhaps hundreds and thousands of lives. Because, see, in this universe of 007- it's not so much about a bomb about to go off, or a massive laser orbiting Earth, about to eradicate a whole country... it's about terrorism. Letting a terrorist financier go free would be disastrous, and more or less that's what Le Chiffre is. Those are the stakes. The movie asks us to think ahead, to consider consequences. Not just flashy special effects that blaze across the screen, or allow a car to look invisible.

  A fantastic part of this movie is also how it reminds us about the rest of what makes 007 movies so fun. Exotic locations for example. The movie is nothing short of globe-trotting espionage. It's a broader type of thriller than say... The Bourne Identity. It's not drab or bleak either, lurid for sure. Murder and death follow Bond everywhere. But look at where he goes. The Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, London- it's all simply fantastic. The locations and the locale are interesting if not at the very least, visually interesting. This is something that's to be loved about the Bond movies. Classic sexy looking beach scenery is a must. Bright clear waters, golden sand, stunning blue skies- and yet... right around the corner someone is bound to get shanked in the back, or thrown out of a moving car, or shot, or punched, or... you get the picture. That sort of juxtaposition is really striking. Beauty with violence. Something 007 has revolved around since it's origins.

  On that note, this time, the Bond Girl so to speak, calls him out on it right away "you think of women as disposable pleasures-" and it's true. He does. So... he's not entirely different from the 007's of olden days. You can tell this is a woman who's not here just because she's pretty. She's not a typical damsel in distress, and she's not the opposite cliche either. She's not the sort to pick up a Kalashnikov alongside him and take out a few baddies. She's a real character, played by a real actress who was picked to be able to emote and bring life to this James Bond. It's funny how that works. Most Bond girls are eye candy, and Bond treats them as such. He's expected to. He's Bond. James Bond. Yet... this time, we have a character who seems like a real woman, and he begins to treat her and react to her like a real person. Someone who maybe shouldn't be called a "Bond Girl". The title is too kitschy for such a character. Bond grows to care about her. A statement that in and of itself seems kitschy, but the movie pulls it off in such a way that the inevitable tragedy that climaxes their relationship will forever shape him into the cold hearted secret agent we all know and cheer for. The difference now? We understand, and dare I say... we sympathize. It's a stone's throw from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but somehow pulls it off so much better.

  Is this too serious and droll for a James Bond movie? Not at all. There are poisoned martinis, car chases, foot chases, shootouts, fist fights (a machete ends up involved no less) and death defying stunts that still manage to make me gasp for air a little bit. Yet we actually care about this man, this... James Bond. Who while is so unlike the cookie cutter cliche his namesake had devolved into, he seems new. Fresh. Yet is on a journey which will make him cold and broken. Yet does that mean he has to be a boring character after this movie? Casino Royale promises: No. Because we can care about this character, and because he's wrapped up in such a well written story, airtight if you will- all the stunts and the action scenes and everything is that much more engaging. And the filmmakers' efforts to keep them somewhat grounded and semi-plausible help create this world that this Bond inhabits. It's not above supervillains, but maybe these supervillains play poker instead of rant about world domination... and maybe they're scarier like that.  Which is why this 007 works so damn well.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Die Another Day


  The 20th James Bond movie should've been better than this. An all time low for the franchise, Die Another Day was an artificial farce. Full of fake looking CGI and some of the cheesiest moments since Moonraker. Halle Berry was awful, Brosnan wasn't given any good material to work with, and the villain looks like he wrapped himself in Nintendos by the end of the movie. I hardly know where to start, but I guess I'll start with the positives. The opening is... mostly great actually. Aside from the fact that Bond basically shows up as a surf ninja, surfing into enemy territory somewhere in Korea. He has a typical showdown with some bad guys. Stuff blows up. A hovercraft chase ensues over a minefield. Bond wins, bad guys die, he cracks a joke... and then the unthinkable happens. Instead of strutting away into the sunset, he gets captured by enemy troops. Then the opening credits start.

  Woah.

  Bond spends the next year and some odd months in a Korean military prison camp. 14 months of torture and near-death. All over the sizzling opening credits. Which are actually really neat. Even the pop song by Madonna is sorta catchy. The opening credits show Bond's torture and pain complimented quite nicely with in-your-face 'fire and ice' graphics, and scorpions. There's lots of scorpions too. Then he gets shoved in front of a firing squad... only to realize he's being traded for a war criminal named Zhao. No gadgets. No flash escape sequence. No one-liner. Bond is broken, defeated, and looks like hell. This was a fantastic way to introduce us to him again. He could've been a changed man, but no. He sets out to find Zhao and break the world record for most one liners and innuendos per minute. I haven't counted because I value my sanity, but I'm pretty certain he holds the title.

  The movie is relatively fine until Bond goes to Cuba and Halle Berry shows up, playing a character named Jinx? Jynx? Who knows. Who cares. Instantly she manages to be the most annoying person ever seen in a James Bond movie since Sheriff J.W. Pepper. Her lines are poorly written, and her delivery doesn't help. She tries to sound hip and cool but she just sounds like she's reading from a script written by a teenager who's idea of witty innuendo is something like...

Miranda Frost: "-I take it Mr. Bond's been explaining his Big Bang theory?"
Jinx: "Oh yeah, I think I got the thrust of it."

  It's dismal and ridiculous. The movie doesn't go more than a couple seconds without lines like this. But yes, I forgot, positives. Well, the first half an hour or so feels really solid. I was ready to revise my opinion of the movie. It's snappy and enjoyable. Bond grapples with those pesky things called 'feelings' but not for long. It's easier to make puns and whisper about 'getting even'. Which is fine but then Halle Berry shows up and it's all downhill from there. Bad music cues, terrible dialog, and laughable villains are just the tip of the iceberg, and I'm not even trying to make these jokes. Ice, as you might've noticed, plays a big theme in the movie. They seem to have taken a page from Diamonds are Forever, because the villain really has another diamond powered space laser. At one point, everyone is staying in an ice castle. Eventually the space laser slices a chunk of the ice shelf off... leaving Bond to improvise, and surf down some waves. Cue global warming pun. Ugggggh.

  The surfing scene has some of the most groan-worthy CGI ever. It's distracting and silly looking. Video games of the era were looking better than this. It's so hard to take anything seriously in this movie. People get in fights, Bond drives an invisible car- which looks ridiculous. There's lots of lasers and more bad puns and just... I could go on and on. But the sad fact of it, this doesn't even feel like James Bond anymore. It feels like any CGI-filled mid 2000's action movie. Charlie's Angels, xXx, et cetera. It feels generic and flashy. Camera movements snap and zoom and the movie blitz from slow motion into super fast motion. It's such an annoying gimmick, it feels like it belongs in a music video- not a 007 movie.

  Bond is finally a superman. Which is shocking because he's never been more grounded and more human than he was in the beginning of the movie. With no arc whatsoever, he's instantly back to being a wise-cracking ladies man with a martini in his hand. Whoever wrote this one had a serious boner for the Roger Moore era. So much of it is tongue in cheek that the previous movies, asking us to take Bond seriously again have been rendered moot. There's awkward fight scenes that start and end nowhere, lame jokes galore, and the boyish anti-charm of Halle Berry making everything that much more unbearable.  The whole point of revisiting the Bond movies, or any movie for that point, is to reevaluate it. Give it a second chance. Trust me, Die Another Day doesn't deserve that chance. Nor did it deserve to be Pierce Brosnan's last movie.

  I don't think Brosnan ever hit his stride as Bond. He came incredibly close with The World is Not Enough, but it was no cigar. Die Another Day misses the mark by more than a mile. It's occasionally fun, but in a very artificial feeling way. You're very aware of the movie itself and that it's all an elaborately orchestrated mess. You stop caring about the characters, about the plot, and by the time we're at the climax, and the villain is wielding dual Nintendo power gloves... and you just wish it was over. It isn't about to let you off the hook so soon either. The climax goes on and on and on and it's just... so overblown it circles right back around to being boring. Too flashy, too sci-fi, and too bad. It could've been better if they had an iota of restraint and grounded the movie. It's not one I'll ever be watching again so long as I have a say in it. Casino Royale can't come fast enough...

The World is Not Enough


  After the trendy Tomorrow Never Dies, I think there was a serious push to add more classic Bond elements back into Bond. The plot was more complex, the movie focused more on Bond's character, and there were strong themes of revenge and betrayal. On that note, it was turning out to be a significantly more mature movie than it's mindlessly slam-bang predecessor. Not that I didn't enjoy Tomorrow Never Dies, it was exciting... but unfortunately it was also very simple in almost every way. The World is not Enough is not that simple, in any regard. It induces quite a fit of head-scratching when you wonder why they undercut their own seriousness with silly antics and antiquated innuendo. Although I'm beginning to think I'm one of the only Bond fans who isn't keen on the excessive innuendo. Alas...

  This movie has the 'spy thriller' feel back in place. Even though it's still a big action adventure, it doesn't quite feel like a Mission: Impossible sequel any longer. It feels like a 90's From Russia With Love, with a large contribution from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Granted, it's nowhere near as good or classic as those two, but it seems to take a page from the book that made those so successful. The World is Not Enough feels personal. From the get go both Bond and M are having to confront death and failures that are very close to them. It's a much more intricate and emotional take on a character who's been nothing but an action figure for a while now. Even though the movie departs from that feeling when it suits itself, the overarching themes hold steadfast.

  The action scenes serve the movie this time, not the other way around. They fold into the ongoing story and serve a purpose. Which is good for a movie that's taken the time to be so thoughtful. The action scenes are more like action sequences in this one. Much like the motorcycle/helicopter chase from the previous movie, the action sequences are creative and don't always involve fifty machine guns and dozens of expendable baddies. Most of the time Bond is trying to escape from some insane situation, pulling if off in the craziest way imaginable. From a high speed fiasco inside an oil pipeline with a nuclear bomb, to a skiing chase involving parahawks and a boat chase through London. The movie is exciting and engaging. More so than it's predecessor, but not entirely.

  The sad fact of the matter is that despite it's complexities and nuances, it's just not that interesting. Nothing really grabbed me about The World is Not Enough. It had good characters, good villains and a devious plot, but it had a completely vapid Bond girl following him around and being rather annoying. With acting so stiff, you'd be forgiven for mistaking her for a special effect. I'm thankful her screentime is limited, but the movie pretends like her and Bond have chemistry, but Bond would have the same chemistry with a plank of wood. It's sad too because I like Denise Richards... but she only really works when everyone is delivering their dialog in the same stilted, artificial way. (i.e. Starship Troopers) Hey, she's easy on the eyes though. She's easily one of the worst Bond girls in the franchise. The poster girl for everything that's wrong with the worst of the Bond girls. She may be a nuclear physicist but she feels so incredibly useless.

  She only seems to be around to wear short skirts and to spout  smart sounding stuff when necessary. Because of all that, it's so hard to believe that she's a nuclear physicist. Which just makes it worse. Having said that, I largely prefer her character, Christmas Jones, to Halle Berry's character in the next movie. I dislike Berry on principle. She doesn't have the look or feel of a proper Bond girl. However, I'll reserve my criticisms of her for the next review. In this movie however, a poignant farewell to Desmond Llewelyn as Q is one of the emotional highlights of the movie, undercut peripherally by his replacement's antics. John Cleese seemed like an ideal person to take over in Desmond's absense as the new Quartermaster, but his entire role here is wasted on the most inane comedy. It's so silly, and if the franchise hasn't learned by now, silly is not good. Thankfully Desmond's own irritable brand of humor outshines Cleese and saves the scene. Q is and always was a joy to watch.

  For all the emotions the movie generates, it ends in typical fashion with Bond getting laid with the Bond girl. It's so inert and hollow, it feels like a throwback to the Roger Moore era. Which... is not good. Having said all that, what The World is Not Enough does right, it does exceptionally right. Among which is the spectacular climax, involving a nuclear submarine sinking with Renard aboard it, ready to blow it up. Bond has to get inside the sinking sub and stop Renard from turning into a gigantic nuclear bomb. It's a great sequence that reminds us that a proper climax doesn't need a huge shootout. It relies more on spectacle and raw thrills instead. What the movie also does right is the other Bond girl, one Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). She plays her role with gusto. A role I don't want to give too much away about, but she's the core of the movie. Her and the villain, Renard (Robert Carlyle) are the two biggest highlights of the movie. You think the movie is primed to follow standard Bond formula, but the story between Renard and Elektra is unique and original. Refreshing enough to outshine the basic plot around them and give the viewer something complex and emotional to chew into.

  Elektra's dynamic with Bond is also quite unique. She ends up being quite the femme fatale, and one who's overly convinced of her charm. Bond responds, showing his cold detachment when it really counts. It ends up being one of the best scenes of the movie. Of which there are many. The World is Not Enough is full to the brim of exciting moments. If it wasn't for the pitfalls this movie gets trapped in, it could have maybe rivaled GoldenEye. It's a strong second regardless, infusing come essential Bond elements back into the franchise and into the character. As a result, Brosnan's Bond feels more complete in this movie than he has in either of the previous two. This is the Bond the 90's needed to make him last into the 2000's. He feels like a fully rounded person, complete with flaws and strengths, and everything needed to make a compelling character. If only the movie itself was as wholly compelling as he was, it would be one of the best.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tomorrow Never Dies


  James Bond in the 90's never gets old. Well... maybe that's an exaggeration. It feels hopelessly dated this time around. Especially since the bad guy is a media mogul who's entire plot revolves around using his media empire to reach everyone in the world. Something which we take for granted these days with something called the internet. To put it in perspective for you, Tomorrow Never Dies came out in 1997. Google was founded in 1998. The villain's own ambitions would've been squashed in a matter of years with the impending advent of the internet's golden age.  Thus the plot of the movie seems sort of silly. The villain, Elliot Carver (Johnathan Pryce) plans to start a world war just so that he can have exclusive media coverage of it. In this day and age, I should be able to take that more seriously. Unfortunately, I can't. Nevertheless, that's just about one of the only unfortunate things about this entry into the 007 franchise.

  It's hard to say they 'dialed it back' a bit after GoldenEye, but I do believe they did. If only just. There's a scene early on in the movie, which has Bond mingling among socialites, and introducing himself as a banker. This, if anything, is classic Bond. Not that long after, there's a scene where he's recovering from a beating, taking vodka shots and attaching a silencer to his Walther PPK. It's a sullen moment, and has the sort of pervading quietness that GoldenEye was lacking. Brosnan's Bond is at times vulnerable and always complex. He needed more moments like this. More disquieting silences and bloodied tuxedos. I'm fine with him being less of a spy and more of a soldier, so long as he's not a superman. They nailed this feeling quite well in the Daniel Craig movies.

  The movie never gets so in-touch with this side of Bond again. The rest of the movie has him rocketing through the scenes and shooting everything that so much as looks at him cross. The opening is no exception to the franchise tradition of having an explosive and exciting introduction to the movie. Bond has to hijack a fighter jet amid chaos in order to save it's nuclear missiles from being prematurely detonated. Sounds simple enough? Much to the viewer's delight, it never is with 007. The creative opening sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Aside from some very very painfully standard fight scenes that seem cut and pasted from any other action movie of the time, where the hero punches, and the bad guy punches, and then the hero punches, and then the bad guy punches... and so on... and so forth... -aside from all that nonsense, the action scenes are incredibly creative.

  There's one ridiculously neat scene where Bond has to remotely drive his car, using a gadget phone,  through shootout... while crouched in the backseat. It's such a clever scene and definitely one of the highlights of the movie. What makes it even better is a a quick moment that shows Bond laughing, enjoying the moment. The concept is nothing short of show-stopping (in the best way possible..) Bond clearly is having fun with this. It's not something we see very often from him. We all know he appreciates a timely little gadget, but to say he ever gets caught up in the excitement of the moment like this? Never. It was a great little shot, followed up with him having to clear his throat, calm down, and collect himself as he eventually walks away from the scene. It's a nicely self-aware moment, and is the kind of witty humor that feels at home with 007. More please.

  The inventive action scenes don't end there, but I shan't spoil them for you. Tomorrow Never Dies is a sleek, gadget-filled action movie chock full of women and flamboyant characters.  However, speaking of supporting characters, Michelle Yeoh plays Bond girl, Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent who ends up working with Bond to take down Carver. She's fantastic in the part. They seem to derail the fights a bit to showcase her martial arts. This was a big trend in the 90's. Especially with movies like Lethal Weapon 4 and such. It's not as distracting here, but the fact they kept overlaying this dorky vocal noises every time she did something was super annoying. Aside from that, she's a great partner for Bond. Capable and independent. She's a delight in the movie and a terrific onscreen presence. Her charisma occasionally even exceeding that of Bond's.

  She has a much bigger part than Teri Hatcher does. Despite the fact that on the posters and whatnot, they seem to have equal billing. Hatcher plays Carver's wife. A terrible sad and trapped woman who seemed fated to die since she shows up on the screen. I'd have to go back and check, but the villain's main squeeze seems to always die, and early on too. She seems much like the girl in gold from Goldfinger, yet her departure is nothing so iconic. She was killed by an interestingly chatty assassin, nicknamed 'the doctor'. He's only in the movie for a few minutes, but his moment with Bond is one of the best in the movie. Rather than a fight, him and Bond get a couple minutes of witty discourse. It's darkly comic, and you'd almost feel bad for chuckling at some of it... but it's so well done you can't help it. As is the movie itself so well done you can't help but like it.

  That's not to say it's one of the greats, it is content to continue the trend of Bond movies that seem to be little else but action movies. The climax is excessive and long. For once all the gunplay feels tired and overly stylized. I enjoyed it on a superficial level, as one enjoys a lesser Bond outing, but this climax almost felt helmed by John Woo. It's saving grace is Brosnan's stone cold gaze and his calm under pressure. He makes a great action hero. Although unfortunately, he never really got the room to be an even greater spy. He has all the potential, but the movies weren't tapping into it. Some may agree with that to an even larger extent, some may wholeheartedly disagree, but regardless I feel that the slam-bang action formula doesn't really fit the character. As I said in my review of GoldenEye, fantastical action scenes were and are undoubtedly a staple of the franchise... but they shouldn't overtake the movie.

  There should be a calm and deliberate pacing to an ideal Bond movie. Something which both GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies do not seem to have. Nevertheless, they do justice to the action genre and both movies are a rousing good time if you don't expect too much. Things blow up well and there's a witty one-liner around every corner. If that's what you like from 007, you won't be disappointed with Tomorrow Never Dies, even if it's only standard Bond fare.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

GoldenEye


  After an incredibly solid two-movie stint as the titular MI6 agent, Timothy Dalton dropped out of the role due to some lengthy legal disputes between MGM and United Artists. Thus the next installment into the franchise would be held up for several years. That movie, GoldenEye was also in need of a new actor to take over the role of James Bond for a new generation. That man was Pierce Brosnan. "You were expecting someone else?" Brosnan coyly asks the viewer in the first teaser trailer for GoldenEye. The truth is, Brosnan seems to fit the role like a glove. He may be more or less unexpected in the role, but silly us for expecting anyone else. He is Bond. He's a new Bond for a new era. A slick era, the age of rapid fire editing and the self-aware presence of 'cool' in music videos. Bond needed more than just a reason to exist in the 90's and beyond, he needed a style and a rhythm. GoldenEye gave him just that. It set the bar... and it set it really high.

  GoldenEye is a guns-blazing, high-octane action movie. It's arguably one of the most action packed of the entire franchise. Brosnan's James Bond is less of a spy and more of a super soldier. You'd be more likely to find him with an AK-47 in his hands rather than a Vodka Martini. He's still suave and sophisticated, even if the age old trademark innuendo hasn't been upgraded a single bit. Yet GoldenEye has Bond single-handedly taking on dozens of enemy soldiers with nothing but an assault rifle and his wits. It has him leaping off cliffs, swinging from ceilings, and blowing up anything that moves. Even the supporting characters are frequently in awe due to how much chaos and carnage revolves around Bond. He's a super soldier. Not that one could possibly mind in a movie like this. It's very self contained. You could watch this with no other knowledge of the Bond movies and have a great time. It's a rollicking action ride that doesn't mess around.

  It has all the best stuff of the franchise. Exotic locations, fantastic action scenes, beautiful women, colorful villains, a good plot, and decent gadgets. What's even better is that all these elements are put to proper use. A good portion of the movie takes place in Russia. The highlight of which is a collateral damage-filled tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg. That's not even mentioning a scene in which Bond and Bond girl Natalya Simonova are trapped in a grounded helicopter that's just fired missiles... aimed to double-back onto the helicopter. Or yet another scene in which they're sealed in a train car that's wired to explode. Bond seems to only just scrape by right before something explodes. GoldenEye is a far cry from the franchise's origins. The spy genre had evolved by the 90's, and Bond had to keep up. This wasn't a bad thing on the whole, but it spelled doom for some aspects of the character and the franchise that desperately needed to stay alive.

  Bond usually had to mingle with two-faced wealthy socialites, or pretend to be an ally to the movie's villain just long enough to find out some key piece of information. He had time to explore the exotic locales, and formally introduce himself to the beautiful woman. It was a spy thriller, not an action movie. Although big flashy action scenes were a mainstay of the franchise from the get-go, it needed a different label to define it. It mixed suspense, sex appeal, and sophistication in equal measure with wit, humor, and violence. GoldenEye doesn't mix these things with equal measure. It's wholeheartedly an action movie. A sexy action movie at that. It's sense of humor is rather on the nose, and I never really found it funny, but thank god it's not the slapstick humor from Moore's era. Bond's wittiness in GoldenEye is largely relegated to one liners, but there's hardly time for anything else. It has a breakneck pace that puts the pacing of any Bond movie that came before it to shame.

  Mainly I believe that's why GoldenEye feels so different. The pacing is that of an action movie instead of a spy thriller. That's okay though. The 90's needed Pierce Brosnan as Bond. Even if he wasn't given the room in GoldenEye to inhabit the character the way Dalton was in The Living Daylights, he was still good.  Between the machine-gunning and the running, the pace of the movie is no joke. Brosnan keeps up and propels the action forward, taking the 'man of action' feeling from the Dalton movies and cranking it up to '11'. One wonders what he could've done with a slower, grittier, and smarter story. He might've rivaled Connery. As is, he's a sly mix of Moore on his best day and Dalton's take-charge attitude. It's not a bad take on Bond, but it feels only slightly lacking. Just slightly. It's easy to ignore when everything is blowing up in your face, but it's there.

  Having said that, when given a quiet moment, Brosnan makes good use of it. He has a detached intensity that I believe Bond should always have. He has the makings of a good spy, if only he had the missions to match the man. The movie isn't overly indulgent in it's wit and charm, and neither is Bond himself. There are parts in GoldenEye that seem to be aware of how actually messed up 007 must really be. Specifically a romantic interlude on a tropical beach, where Natalya asks Bond how he can be so cold and detached. "It's what keeps me alive.", he answers. Bond girls are usually content to swoon and say "Oh, James..." But, GoldenEye realizes that the time for that has passed. The characters have to be more, have to think, and have to respond to the ever-changing times. Even though the moments like this are small and fleeting, they were a massive step in the right direction.

  As a result though, GoldenEye tries to have it's cake and eat it too. It tries to make Bond out to be a new person, with real feelings and the like... yet it also indulges in far too many of the franchise's over-worn cliches. Namely the juvenile and rather dated innuendo, among other things. I don't mean to sound resentful of what GoldenEye is. It's one of my favorite Bond movies ever. In my top 5 even. It introduces Judi Dench's 'M' (my favorite) and it has a slick visual style to it that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. It's a gorgeous looking movie and a heart-stopping thrill ride. A point that the franchise was going to hit eventually. Where the machine guns and the car chases took over. It's not bad at all. It's just different. Depending on what you like in your Bond movies, your appreciation may vary. Regardless, it's hard not to like the villains. Sean Bean as Alec Trevelyan, agent 006, Gottfried John as Russian general Ourumov, and the irresistible Famke Janssen as iconic femme fatale, Xenia Onatopp. These are easily some of the most entertaining villains in the franchise.

  Trevelyan's story adds a semi-personal touch to the movie as Bond has to now face a former ally as an enemy. Bean plays the character with a sinister glee that you can't help but love. He's the villain Bond was inevitably going to find himself faced with sooner or later. Then there's Xenia Onatopp. As deadly and as beautiful as any seductress Bond has come across to date, she leaves quite an impression on Bond and the franchise. If you were going to play a psychotic, lust murdering, femme fatale after this, Janssen's performance was one to study. She's fantastic in the role. Unfortunately, this rather leaves Bond girl Natalya in the dust. She's a fun character who holds her own with Bond, but she's also the least interesting character in the movie. She's simple. Beautiful, but very simple. Everyone else is larger than life. She's simply trying to survive. Granted, she's a lot of fun, memorable even, but not very interesting.

  It's flaws are small and subjective, (like the jazzy score that I just can't get into) but overall it's a great movie under superb direction from newcomer to the franchise, Martin Campbell. Make no mistake though, Campbell wasn't done with Bond. He would return in 2006, over a decade later, to helm the fantastic Casino Royale. Brosnan himself was only getting started. He returned next in... Tomorrow Never Dies. All in all, if you're not on board with Bond's new pace and style, then GoldenEye might not hold much appeal to you. For me however, it's one of the best. One of my favorite movies period, and one of my favorite in the franchise. It's a gutsy and bold debut for Brosnan who etches his place into the franchise with gusto (and a laser watch). The 'exploding pen' might get slighted later on, but for it's time, as with every other quirk of the movie, it was great. From St. Petersburg to Cuba, GoldenEye is a big action packed 007 adventure that's wall to wall bullets, explosions. and well crafted thrills. You can't go wrong with this one.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Licence to Kill


  It's hard to go wrong with Dalton as James Bond. Even though Licence to Kill isn't as good as The Living Daylights, that doesn't mean it's not a damn fine Bond flick in it's own right. It's a revenge thriller actually. In one of the most personal stories of the whole franchise, Bond's longtime buddy, Felix Leiter, an American CIA agent, gets married. However, a fiasco with an international drug lord paints a target on Leiter's back, resulting in his new wife's murder, and landing him in critical condition. Bond is outraged when red tape and due process prevent both him and the Americans from doing anything to investigate or retaliate. Nevertheless, It doesn't take Bond long to realize the only way Felix's attackers will be brought to justice, is by disregarding orders and taking matters into his own hands. Tendering his resignation from MI6, Bond sets out on his own to track down the drug lord, putting himself smack in the middle of a very dangerous business...

  Licence to Kill is a big departure from the average Bond formula. None of it was set in London, really. No megalomaniac villain. No trademark car. Bond doesn't really sleep around. Mainly though, the big thing is that the story revolves around a character that Bond knows. It's personal this time. When Felix is in danger, and his wife killed, it feels gut wrenching. This is a character who's been helping Bond since Dr.No, the first movie. I'd seen it before, but couldn't remember whether or not Felix ended up dying. Even though the bad guys are rather simple, their ruthlessness makes them stand out. Makes them memorable even. I should point out that Felix and his new wife were attacked on their wedding day. She was raped and killed (offscreen thankfully) and he was part-ways fed to a shark. As you could imagine... Bond was beyond furious.

  The villain is a drug lord. Not a drug lord with a crazy plot for world domination, or a drug lord who steals spacecraft, just... a drug lord. He's an elaborate drug lord, but still... just a drug lord. Bond is repeatedly told that there is more at stake than his own personal vendetta, but nobody else in the movie is remotely competent enough to see their objectives through. In the end, Bond's personal vendetta is the only thing that gets the job done. Everyone delivers their A game here. The acting ranges from great to flamboyant scenery chewing, but it's never stiff or boring. There's something hopelessly fun about Robert Davi's role as drug lord, Franz Sanchez. Even his name has a nice ring to it. It's the sort of name only a writer could come up with. It's great.

  Possibly even more interesting is a young Benicio Del Toro as Dario, Sanchez's personal henchman. He's loyal, like any good henchman. Yet there seems to be a little more than a boss/employee relationship between then. Instead it feels almost familial. Unfortunately his character is never developed much, as can be said for almost all the characters in this one. It stands in stark contrast to it's predecessor, especially with the Bond girl(s). We have two here, both I believe aren't really worth the mention. They feel like character archetypes, and at least one of the girls is responsible for the lion's share of stiff acting in the film. Bond himself is the anchor of the movie, grounding the action scenes, the humor, and the innuendo. Dalton juggles it all with a fiery intensity that the franchise needs more of.

  The movie is lacking Bond's trademark Aston Martin, but that doesn't mean there's any shortage of vehicular stunts. The climax involves two eighteen wheeler semi trucks in a chase down a mountainside. It's some downright explosive stuff. One of the most thrilling climaxes in the franchise up to this point. It's easy to enjoy the movie on the whole, seeing as it's stuffed full of high octane action like that, but it pales in comparison to it's predecessor. Licence to Kill is good, make no mistake, but it only just edges out above middle-of-the-road Bond fare. Come for the action and well made spy thrills, but stay for Timothy Dalton as Bond.  Given that this was his only other outing as Bond, I'm inclined to give it higher marks, simply because he's so great as Bond... but one can't help wondering what the franchise would've looked like if he had a few more movies after this one.

  Nevertheless, Licence to Kill is a great action movie that fits the era it was made in, to a T. The villains, the gadgets, the humor. It all works splendidly. Also worth pointing out is how Q's attitude towards Bond is different in this one. Gone is the casual disdain for Bond's antics, and it's been replaced by a grandfatherly concern and moderate indifference. It's a nice change, and fitting as well seeing as how Bond is not the irresponsible playboy that Roger Moore had played him as. I can't imagine anyone looking back on Timothy Dalton's movies as Bond with any sort of disappointment or ire. He was a great Bond who should've had the opportunity to make more. On that alone Licence to Kill is worth watching. In the vast middle ground of 007 outings, this one is one that manages to stand out as one of the better ones. It's not bad, it's not great, but it's good. Better than a lot of the Roger Moore movies, that's for sure.

Next up...

   GoldenEye.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Living Daylights


  After Roger's Moore's stint as Bond, the character was on the verge of running stale (and that's being generous, some would say it already had by the time he stepped down) there couldn't have been a better comeback than The Living Daylights. Timothy Dalton turns in the first all-around commendable performance as the titular MI6 agent since Connery. Lazenby had the good fortune of being in a good movie, but whether or not he was good... was and is, at least for me, debatable. Moore had a comfortability in his own notion of Bond that he wasn't eager to shake, even when the times called for it. Thus, we were graced with Dalton. Finally. In my humble opinion, for reasons I'll be sure to cover at length... The Living Daylights is one of the best 007 movies, hands down. Easily top 5 material.

  First and foremost, this is Timothy Dalton's debut. As far as debut movies go, his is probably the most thrilling thus far. Standing only second to the iconic status of Dr.No, The Living Daylights casts a rather large shadow over Live and Let Die and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Dalton plays Bond with an intensity that seems even more straight-laced than Connery. Bond is a new man here. Gone is the philandering playboy who's bedroom antics endlessly chewed into the run times, Dalton is the man of action that A View to A Kill so desperately needed. I'm sure that some fans missed Roger's laid-back approach to the character, but the movies were progressing and he wasn't. There is a time for everything and the 70's were Moore's era. Not the 80's. This is a James Bond that could survive in the era of Rambo and Commando.

  Besides that, Dalton plays a more serious Bond. Which is second only to how dark Daniel Craig managed to play the role. Sure, Dalton cracks wise here and there, but he doesn't keep the spoof-y game face on the entire time. He's capable of anger, and regret, a couple emotions that only found their way into Moore's movies maybe once or twice. This Bond is also much more of a thinker. The main plot of the movie involves Bond tracking down a Russian military defector who gets snatched back by the KGB. Bond ends up juggling several deceptions on all fronts as he slowly uncovers a plot far more sinister than just a botched defection. No matter what's going on, Bond is constantly thinking instead of just going through the paces.

  Of course it helps that Bond can multitask too because this one has a breakneck pace. Right away, the opening gambit has the double-o section engaging in a military efficiency game of sorts. They're tasked with penetrating a island fortress as part of their exercise. However, an enemy assassin with live rounds and deadly intent lurks on the island, systematically killing the double-o agents. Of course, James Bond is having none of this and chases the guy down, culminating in an explosive car chase with tons of glorious collateral damage and ending with a hell of a bang... and all this before the opening credits. It's one of my favorite openings out of the entire franchise. It not only sets the mood, but it manages to be a wonderfully exciting and self contained little action sequence that hardly needs context or knowledge of the franchise to enjoy.

  Even a non-Bond fan would be hard pressed to change the channel on this movie if he happened upon the opening on TV. The action gets rolling right away as Bond takes charge of an operation to oversee the defection of General Koskov. It's another thrilling sequence riding on the coattails of the opening, that only seems to lead into even more exciting scenes. The movie really doesn't let up. Even in it's 'down time', it's still moving forward. It's a 007 outing that belongs in the 80's action movie scene. In a good way though. It simply takes what we've loved about the movies so far, trims the fat, and streamlines it. It also doesn't try to include every single trope in the book. There are gadgets, sure, but they're practical (to an extent) and Dalton doesn't wholly rely on them either. They're sort of a last resort sort of thing. Except for the car... who doesn't want to see James Bond show off all the bells, whistles, and rockets in his brand new Aston Martin? Visually, one of the coolest looking Martin's in the franchise, second only to the DB5, and Dalton makes good use of it.

  I can't possibly go without mentioning Maryam D'abo as Bond Girl Kara Milovy. She's one of my favorite and most memorable in the franchise, in my opinion. She's less of a sexual object to be paraded around and swoon for Bond, and more of a real character caught up in this dangerous game of international espionage. She manages to balance fragility and naivete with a gutsy, take-charge attitude on par with Bond's. Maryam turns in a wonderful performance, that ends up both endearing and fun. Bond treats her like a person as well, we see him come to actually care about her, making every concession on her behalf and making an extra effort not to objectify her. Of course all this operates within the loose fitting confines of the typical Bond movie formula. A kissing session between the two was inevitable, yet it doesn't feel racy or salacious. It's, dare I say... romantic. The only downside to having such a character like this is that, as always, we know Bond's affection for her will only last for the one movie. Such a shame.

  The villains are intense, but are victim to the contemporary update of the character and his trappings. These guys aren't megalomaniacs or psychotics. They're greedy army generals and arms dealers. As far as bad guys go, they're well acted and fun to watch, but little more that pieces of the plot. Which in turn seems to exist only to usher in a slew of slick and well directed action scenes. This is not a bad thing really. With semi-lackluster villains like these, it's only fitting that the action itself compensate. Speaking of the action itself, all these sequences hold up incredibly well even in the face of eight more 007 movies, and any other modern day spy actioner. Especially the icy and explosive car chase with the Aston Martin. Nail-bitingly intense, and a huge big ball of fun- which can be said about the whole movie. The movie also has a slick and subdued sense of humor. It's comfortable with slight visual gags, but for the most part, the only funny thing about Dalton's turn as James Bond is that he only had two movies. Which is more of a bad joke than anything.

  Thankfully, the trademark wit and snappy discourse is still here, and aplenty at that. Dalton gives it his own brand, while managing to make it unmistakably... James Bond. In this movie, there's just literally no time to draw attention away from the action and espionage for silly jokes. Something which happened far too often in the Moore movies. Thankfully, it's all but absent here. The Living Daylights is a balls-to-bone action movie as only the 007 franchise can deliver. It's smart and quick-witted, but also full of excitement and thrills. As if that wasn't enough, it's well written, well acted and has Timothy Dalton as the best Bond since Sean Connery. You really shouldn't miss The Living Daylights. Public opinion of it and Dalton himself, at the time of it's release was mixed. As a result I feel like his movies never get enough appreciation. If you're interested in digging into the franchise again, or for the first time, The Living Daylights is an indisputable must-see.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A View to a Kill


  This was clearly a Timothy Dalton 007 movie. It felt like one. It played like one. The worst problem is... it had no Timothy Dalton. Instead we have Roger Moore, one last time. If his age was showing in the last couple movies, it's screaming out at us in this one. He somehow seems more awake and 'into' the role than he was in Octopussy, but he's hardly the star. He's just a face at this point, only good for closeups as the stunt team does all the fun stuff. It's so frequent and so obvious that it's hard to really get into the movie. Sir Roger handles the innuendo and the witty discourse as well as ever, but it seems like that's all he's handling this time. Having said that, the movie around him is rather great. With a plethora of honest-to-goodness thrills, A View to A Kill doesn't disappoint.

  Due in no small part to Christopher Walken as the sinister Max Zorin, the movie has a crackling energy to it whenever it focuses on the stunts and the action scenes. Walken plays a psychotic genius, who on top of being the CEO of a massive microchip manufacturing company, is an ex-KGB agent. Bond stumbles onto his plot to literally sink Silicon Valley so that his company will corner and dominate the microchip market. His plan is grandiose, but he plays up his part to such an extent that you can readily believe a mind like his could come up with this plan. His energy and insanity carry the parts of the movie that Moore simply couldn't.  However, with a large portion of the movie focusing on Zorin's horse racing interests, it's hard to connect the first half of this movie with the second half. They seem like completely different movies to me. The plot follows, yes, but the tone doesn't. Having said that, all the cloak and dagger business on Zorin's properties is quite entertaining.

  Henchmen have always been a staple of the franchise, and henchwoman May Day (Grace Jones) is no slouch. They may have exaggerated her physique a bit, but her presence more than makes up for it. She's so intense, you sorta believe she could lift a car just by staring at it. Nevertheless, I'm glad that wasn't a thing that happened. Instead, Jones is an assassin in the employee of Zorin, who also doubles as her lover. Both Max Zorin and May Day are very unconventional Bond characters, but they are a delight to watch nonetheless. Alas, there were the only 'updating' that seemed to really work. So much of the plot and style of this movie seemed to be trying extra hard to appeal to the younger and 'hipper' audiences in the 1980's. Which largely seems to backfire, as it was destined to with Roger Moore in the starring role. The term "dinosaur" comes to mind, but I like Moore. He may not be my favorite, but he always put on a good show and seems like a nice enough guy anyways.

  As I had been saying though, the stunt team is the real star here. From a ruthless car chase through the streets of Paris- ending on a barge no less, to the climatic nail-biting showdown between Bond and Zorin atop the Golden Gate bridge, the stunt team delivers. It's the best way to view this movie, as a showcase of technical prowess. The stunts, the action scenes, all of it... it's all fantastically done. Especially a scene in which Bond and Bond girl Stacey Sutton must escape from an elevator in a burning building, and again in a scene that has Bond being sucked into an impeller underwater. The movie doesn't skimp on thrills, and tries it's damndest to be original. I'd say for the most part it achieves that. Yet, it comes to a screeching halt whenever Bond must be called upon to practice his... social skills, mingling and conversing with Zorin's guests, and endlessly inquiring about horses.

  Of course this leads to a neat part where Zorin looks up Bond's file on the computer while Bond is in the same room and two are maintaining their guises. Walken's reactions to his file are priceless. As are his reactions to just about everything. Walken steals the show, and rightly so. He ends up being a very memorable villain, which is a breath of fresh air at this point. Most everything is on point with this one, except the fact Moore sticks out like a sore thumb. His humor, his innuendo, it all feels outdated by this point. He does what he's always done as well as he's always done it, but this wasn't the movie for Moore to do it in. This movie was begging for a darker James Bond to fit the times. Zorin was a dark villain, maybe too dark to pit against Moore. This was never more evident than in a shocking moment towards the end which I honestly didn't see coming. It made my jaw drop honestly. The acting, the music score, the action scenes... they're all a blast. Yet if I haven't made it clear enough, the movie is at odds with itself.

  It's calling for a more physical Bond, less of a lover more of an action man. Moore was 58 at the time of this one which is the movie's biggest detractor. That and a sense of humor that feels slightly off. Kind of like an aftertaste from the Moore era. There's a thrilling car chase involving Bond and Sutton in a fire truck being pursued by a bunch of SFPD cops. The sequence is thrilling, but sorta undone by how silly the cops end up looking. There's a limit to how serious and intense something like this can get when you're basically chased by the keystone cops. Nevertheless, there are enough positives to this movie for me to give it a recommendation. It's essentially a string of action scenes, each managing to outdo the last with gusto. It's spectacle, espionage, and on-location filming for another 007 outing. It's really fun regardless of Moore's age, but I can't wait to dig into Timothy Dalton's debut with The Living Daylights!