MI6

November 24, 2012

Double-ovember: Casino Royale (DJ’s Take)

REAL

Lets face it.  Die Another Day sucked.  I haven’t reviewed it yet, but in case I don’t get a chance to, let me save you the suspense.  Die Another Day sucked.  James Bond deserved better than that.  At the time, 007 was hit by a perfect storm.  Pierce Brosnan was getting too old for the role, producers thought Bond should compete with and emulate the extreme sports sci-fi spy film xXx, while they underestimated the the rise of Jason Bourne.  It didn’t take them long to rectify those mistakes.  Eon Productions decided to not only recast Bond, but reboot the series with a more gritty and REALISTIC feel.  Bond’s beginnings is Casino Royale.  And it is f*#king awesome.  Wait, that isn’t a very professional review of it.  So, let me just say that Casino Royale reinvents the James Bond formula and world with an amazing flourish that extends the franchise’s cinematic life for decades to come.  But honestly, it is f*#king awesome.

So, who do you recast Bond with?  You have to give it to the producers of the franchise.  They are not afraid to shake things up a bit.  Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan are as similar to each other as members of The Muppets.  But no other Bond in history has been criticized and scrutinized more than Daniel Craig.  Even to this day.  People lost their minds over his hair, his thin acting resume, and his rugged looks.  So much so, there were online petitions to have him removed.  In retrospect, these critics of Craig were not understanding the central point of Casino Royale.  Casino Royale is essentially the origin story of James Bond.  He isn’t suave yet.  He isn’t debonair.  He isn’t the man who always has a plan.  He is just a cold-blooded killing machine.  If I can’t capture my target, I’ll kill him instead.  I might beat you in a fight, but not without receiving my fair share of damage.  I’d rather just skip the secret identity crap and get right to the bad guy confrontation.  Craig fits that role to a tee, in my opinion.  Craig is what a REAL secret agent would probably look like.  Not some pretty boy underwear model who uses as much skin moisturizer as he does bullets.  A man who has been in a few scrapes and survived.  A man who has just qualified to be a double-0, but not a seasoned one.  Oh, and despite his, then, thin resume, Daniel Craig had acting chops that were on par with or better than any other Bond before him.  He has plenty of range, and shows it off in this film.

Director Martin Campbell knocked GoldenEye out of the park.  But the odds were in his favor.  Craig casting controversy made this film an underdog from the start.  On top of that, Casino Royale did not have as many action beats as his previous outing.  So, it would have been easy for the film to feel flat and tedious.  However, Campbell makes Royale anything but.  A scene where six guys are sitting around a table feels as compelling as a car chase or a shootout.  He directs the Paul Haggis script with perfection and gives the movie the ‘Almost Bond’ feel it needs.  I just love how we start to get hints of a typical Bond feel in scenes, but are suddenly pulled back because we aren’t there yet.  You see, James isn’t James until the last five minutes.  Campbell, Craig, Haggis and even composer David Arnold all knew that.  Critics didn’t grasp it until now.

In every Bond review I’ve done so far, I have talked about the validity of the Bond girls in each film.   I’ve differentiated them by how weak they are as characters.  How much of a pawn they are for the villain or Bond or both.  I’ve said that the stronger the Bond girl, the brighter 007 shines.  And, for me, there is no stronger Bond girl in the entire series than Vesper Lynd.  She is my ultimate Bond girl, hands down.  She is beautiful, she is smart, she is witty, and most importantly, she is the one Bond girl 007 can’t read, can’t play, can’t impress.  At every point where you think Bond has figured her out, Vesper throws him for a loop.  And SPOILER ALERT…this is probably the only instance where the Bond girl makes Bond a pawn in the plot of the story.  She is not the typical, “I just met you five minutes ago, but I love you James” weakling most Bond girls are.  James and Vesper’s relationship feels REAL.  It feels earned.  Eva Green is amazing in this film.  Her chemistry with Craig is perfect and the range of emotions she displays throughout this film always floors me.  You can actually see her fall in love with James and instantly regret it.

If there is a weakness Casino Royale has, it is the villain.  Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre isn’t bad by any means.  The plot just doesn’t allow for a satisfying final confrontation between Bond and Le Chiffre.  Casino Royale is thinking bigger than that.  It is setting up a more dangerous organization along the lines of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. during Connery’s run.  And because the reveal of this mysterious organization has not been immediate, Royale’s set up for it feels unfulfilled.  Again, this is a small weakness seeing as the main focus of Casino Royale is Bond.  Everything else falls to the wayside.

Casino Royale is not just a successful reboot of a franchise.  It is a well made, well acted, Bond film that set the bar high for every Bond film to come.  I’m especially thankful to it because it completely washed the taste of Die Another Day out of my mouth.  Seriously, that movie sucks.  Sing along with Chris Cornellstop touching your ear…go all in…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

November 17, 2012

Double-ovember: Goldfinger

ICONIC

If you looked in the spy movie encyclopedia and searched for James Bond, the first film it would reference would be Goldfinger.  It is an ICONIC example of the world Ian Fleming created all those years ago on the beaches of Jamaica.  It is the starting point for all the other spy movies in this encyclopedia I just made up.  It stars the most ICONIC Bond in Sean Connery.  It has one of the most ICONIC villains in Goldfinger.  It has one of the most ICONIC henchmen in Odd Job.  It has the most ICONIC Bond girl in Pussy Galore.  The car, the kills, the gadgets, the catchphrases, the song…all ICONIC.  There have been many great Bond films since, but in my eyes, none have surpassed the notability of Goldfinger.
I have stressed before my belief that the best kinds of Bond girls are not just beautiful.  They are not just a pawn for which Bond can casually move around for his own benefit.  They are women who can hold their own with Bond physically or mentally or both.  The larger the challenge they give James, the brighter he shines.  Bond girls in the beginning were victims of the time.  Female empowerment was rarely seen in cinema in the 60s.  Goldfinger, however, manages to have two girls that bucked that trend.  Jill Masterson, who has probably the most ICONIC fate in Bond history, does fall into the pawn category.  However, her vengeful sister Tilly does not.  She makes it her life’s mission to find and kill the man responsible for her sister’s demise.  Even if that means shooting through 007 to do it.  She still  pales in comparison to Pussy Galore.  Pussy is beautiful, a pilot, proficient with firearms, and a judo master.  The first time Bond meets her, she pushes him around at gunpoint.  The next time they meet, Pussy knocks Bond on his ass and recaptures him.  The next time, they both have a Judo showdown in a barn.  Pussy Galore is the opposite of a pushover.  Even her relationship with Goldfinger seems more like one of competitive equals than employee/employer.  Pussy Galore was the benchmark Bond girl for me until Vesper Lynd came along.  But that is a conversation for another day.
Goldfinger and Odd Job shouldn’t work as villains on paper.  A British born, Dutch sounding, gold obsessed, spoiled sport teamed with an Asian chauffeur who likes playing ring toss on people’s heads with a lethal, metal brimmed bowler.  However, they are two of the Bond franchise’s most referenced villains.  You’ve never seen a Bond retrospective without seeing THIS…or THIS.  But other than ICONOGRAPHY, how do they stack up as villains?  Goldfinger’s plan is surprisingly sound, even for today’s standard.  Hell, a version of it was used in Die Hard With A Vengeance.  He should also get props for making Sean Connery’s Bond appear actually desperate.  That laser scene always reminds me of this amazing scene in Mission Impossible 3.  Goldfinger’s obsession with gold falls short only to his obsession with winning.  If Francis from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure grew up to be a Bond villain he’d be Auric Goldfinger.  
A henchman’s scariness and effectiveness usually depends on their commitment to their boss’s cause.  Suffice to say, Odd Job is committed.  So much so, when the authorities begin to close in to stop a bomb he’s transporting, Odd Job locks himself inside a vault with the bomb and kills a nearby henchman to make sure he won’t diffuse it.  He’s more than a match for Bond physically and uses a weapon so implausible that it would make Q scoff.  That is a great henchman.
Goldfinger is literally James Bond 101.  If you ever need a refresher course on what exactly a Bond film should feel like, I advise you to …sing along with Dame Shirley Bassey…buy back all your gold from this guy…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong. 

November 13, 2012

Double-ovember: Skyfall (DJ’s Take)

STIRRING
See what I did there?  But no, my above one word review of Skyfall is not a joke.  Well, maybe a little bit.  Bond 23 is easily the most dramatic Bond film of the franchise.  It finishes an origin trilogy of Bond, M, MI6, Q branch and many other elements of Ian Fleming’s universe.  Yes, a nutshell synopsis of Skyfall has fairly been labeled, “What If Bond, Not Batman, Had To Stop The Joker?”  I personally think that concept is an interesting one.  The events of The Dark Knight and Skyfall are similar.  However, the two heroes in it are not.  Bruce Wayne is not James Bond.  Bruce is a bit of a softer character than Bond.  That doesn’t make Bruce weak by any means.  That just shows you how hardened Bond actually is.  Where Bruce’s childhood trauma made him somewhat bipolar, Bond’s made him somewhat sociopathic.  He is way closer to the line than Bruce.  So much so, that his constant defiance is the only thing that keeps him from crossing it.  That dynamic is what differentiates the two films. 
It is a pleasure to see such an accomplished director like Sam Mendes and a living legend cinematographer like Roger Deakins take on James Bond.  This is a franchise that thrives on creativity and style.  Something that is totally brought to the table here.  Both men show off how excellent action scenes and films can be when they are put in capable hands.  Deakins displays such a mastery of composition, color, and shadows, you’ll want to gorge yourself on each well painted frame.  That is a little too technical for a film review, so let me just say your eyes experience is all the better for having this duo at the helm. 
I sort of guessed beforehand as to the ultimate role of Naomie Harris in Skyfall.  However, she still makes her part feel surprising and memorable.  Her chemistry with Craig is great and provides some of the lighter moments of the film.  The other buxom Bond girl, Sévérine, does not make that great an impact unfortunately.  Her story, though interesting, is rushed.  This was assuredly done to make room for the biggest Bond girl narrative of Skyfall.  That is the M, played by Dame Judi Dench.  I may just be showing my bias toward the franchise here, but I wish people could recognize the absolutely perfect performances Dench has been delivering as M since Goldeneye for crying out loud.  This is the heaviest lifting she’s had since her arrival and she does not disappoint.  I would bet green money there was a hesitation at first to focus a large part of the film around M.  A hesitation quickly followed by the chuckling realization that M wasn’t being played by some minor character actor, but Dame Judi f*#king Dench!  Casting  a women as M was unheard of back when Goldeneye came out.  Now her presence is as comforting as a warm blanket.  
This brings me to the Joker of this picture, Raoul Silva.  Javier Bardem needs to do another comedy immediately.  If he continues to convincingly play these raving psychotics, he’ll be typecast forever.  Silva is easily the best villain Craig’s Bond has faced and possibly one of the creepiest Bond has ever faced.  His path, his plan, his will is frighteningly focused.  Bardem’s choice to make Silva always appear friendly on the outside while hinting at the extensive damage underneath is terrific.  Unpredictability is the ultimate foil for any hero.  
Some critics have also been wary of the new Q, played by Ben Whishaw.  Mainly, because he is younger than Bond.  However, I think it represents the new generational dichotomy of modern technology.  In the 60s and 70s technology was stereotypically run by the old and lost on the young.  Nowadays it is the complete opposite.  Don’t believe me?  Ask your parents to input their name and number into your smart phone.  As long as Bond has zero respect for the effort Q puts into his work, the age swap doesn’t matter.  And besides, Whishaw is great in the role.  His lecturing of Bond feels just as natural as when Desmond Llewelyn did it. 
Skyfall will critically be a victim of its own hype.  It will be harshly judged because of its 300 commercials a day, its 10 beer related contests, and bold claim to be the best Bond ever.  Resentment towards hype should not influence what you see in Skyfall.  It is action packed, surprisingly moving, franchise faithful, and most of all, fun.  Renew your license to kill…sing along with Adele the song that is a lock for a Best Original Song Oscar nod…take the bloody shot….watch it….then tell me I’m wrong.   

November 10, 2012

Double-ovember: Skyfall (Matt’s Take)

Skyfall – Dysfunctional

I’ll set the record straight; in no way am I as big a fan of James Bond than my co-reviewers.  I’ve seen the more well-known Bond films (Goldfinger, Thunderball, and the Pierce Brosnan flicks).  I enjoyed the re-done “Casino Royale” and thought Daniel Craig did a great job as a young (and crazy) 007.  However, watching “Skyfall” I found myself wondering; when did it become so cool to become a nihilist?

Let me start from the beginning before I lay into “Skyfall,” the 23rd Bond film, and third to feature Craig as the MI6 agent.  When I watch these new Bond movies I can’t help but realize that everyone wants to go the Christopher Nolan, Batman, route.  If I had to rename this film I would probably call it “The Bond Knight Rises.”  By the end of “Skyfall” James Bond has become Bruce Wayne in many ways, and I have a hard time understanding why they decided to go that route, oh wait, I know; it both makes money and is a sure-fire plot device.

When you think of iconic characters you could say Batman, Indiana Jones, John McClane, and James Bond.  They are part of our pop culture DNA and while I do appreciate a darker, more anti-hero, aura around heroes, it comes to a point where the soul is sucked out from them and they become a hollow shell with few redeeming qualities.  Apparently this is what our society has comes to.  They crave blood, vengeance, and nihilism.  For my money I might call “Skyfall” one of the most polarizing, and dysfunctional entries in Bond’s 50 year cinema history.

I don’t want to say too much bad about “Skyfall” because I know I’ll catch hell for it.  But, I’m going to do it anyway.  The plot, as paper thin as it is, includes a stolen hard drive containing important MI6 information, a former MI6 agent now terrorist, and a plot to kill M (Judi Dench).  There is a lot of MI6 stuff in this film as you can tell.  As we’ve come to know this new breed of Bond we know that he hates authority, hates women (sort of), but loves his country.  If anything can be said, “Skyfall” can live by the monikers, “Britain Soldiers On,” or “Bond Kills a Lot of People Without Remorse.”

Another issue I have, and this comes right back to dysfunction, is the identity of “Skyfall.”  The atmosphere is stark and everything seems critical and any wrong move can mean someone’s death.  Then you have something ridiculous where a komodo dragon eats someone (you have to see it).  This goes back to our review for “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”  Either be serious or silly, you can’t be both, especially after how serious both “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” were, it seems like the writers jumped into their DeLorean and decided to revive plot devices from “Die Another Day” one of the more ridiculous Bond films in recent memory.

To wrap up my gripes, I’d also like to bring up the third act of the film which devolves into two things.  One, Bond’s past.  This I really didn’t mind but it felt force fed and not necessary to the overall plot of the film.  Like I said before, they tried to turn Bond into Batman, and it seems contrived.  Two, the clear “Home Alone” rip-off.  Yes, imagine James Bond, the most bad-ass spy of all time, taking cues from Macaulay Culkin.  Again, this is something that you will have to see for yourself because you might think that I’m kidding, but unfortunately, I’m not.  I was waiting for both Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern to slip down a staircase at some point.

The one saving grace is Javier Bardem, who plays the primary antagonist, Silva.  He is clearly a bad-ass former spy with some serious sexual confusion and seems to hate women, just like Bond.  Throw in some mommy issues, a bad soft palate, and you have the makings of a great villain, but just like “Skyfall” he falls short, with poor character development and not enough screen time.  This is the film’s biggest mistake which usually prides itself on larger than life bad guys.  Silva is by far the best villain the series has seen since maybe Sean Bean’s 006 or Christopher Lee in “The Man With the Golden Gun” and it feels like he is just window dressing.

With two Bond movies already under his belt, you have to wonder how many more films Daniel Craig will stick around for (he already is signed up for Bond 24 and 25).  Yes, “Skyfall” is going to bank a bunch of cash just based on the 007 name.  However, tread carefully, there are a lot of issues with this newest Bond installment; thin plot, fodder characters, lackluster action scenes (though I do appreciate how they used a lot of practical shots, in particular the opening scene), but worst of all, an identity crisis.  Fanboys will love it, especially the end, but the casual fan; you might find yourself scratching your head.

Fun Fact:  Before he was Bond, James Bond, Daniel Craig starred in the “Tales From the Crypt” episode, Smoke Wrings in 1996.

November 9, 2012

Double-ovember: The Living Daylights

WORTHY

Do yourself a favor.   If you haven’t seen The Living Daylights before or if you haven’t in a while, watch it again…and if you come away thinking it isn’t one of the most well made, WORTHY Bond films in the series…Please…PLEASE…tell me how on earth I’m wrong.  I usually save my signature catchphrase for the end.  However, after being recently blown away by this fifteenth installment of Bond, I wanted to put proper emphasis on how good it still is.  For me, there is only one small flaw that I can find in it.  And that flaw is Timothy Dalton.

Now, that is not to say Timothy Dalton is bad.  He is actually quite good here.  However, I just don’t look at him as James Bond.  Dalton is considered to be the roughest of the seven Bonds. (Including David Niven)  He was Daniel Craig before Daniel Craig.  The difference between the two is that Craig, though rough and tumble as well, comes to us at Bond’s beginnings.  Dalton’s Bond comes to us as an already established agent.  Craig’s Bond is built up before our eyes, whereas Dalton is forced upon us.  For two actors who were such big departures from their predecessors, Craig’s transition into the role is much smoother.  Dalton, to me, always seemed like another agent aiding the real 007.  Still, this is merely my personal preference.  A digressive critique of the well constructed film surrounding him.

The plot of The Living Daylights is right in the wheelhouse for Bond.  Russian defectors, megalomaniac arms dealers, governmental power plays, political assassinations, double-crosses, triple-crosses, CIA, MI6, KGB.  All there.  The first thing that really impressed me though, was the quality of the action.  Everything from the set pieces to the execution.  For a film made 25 years ago, the action is still WORTHY by today’s standards.  Any fan of the franchise will be in heaven during the terrific, gadget filled Bond car chase sequence.

It can be argued that The Living Daylights is a tad light in the Bond girl department.  The film revolves around the character of Kara Milovy, played by Maryam d’Abo.  Her naiveté and easy manipulation by Bond and others does weaken her as a whole.  And I do wish they would have played up her KGB sniper angle more.  However, I do give her props for actually taking action to help Bond during the film’s climax.  With a little more filling out of her character, she could have really been a great foil for Bond.

There is a character named Sgt. Hatred on the amazing television show The Venture Brothers.  And I am about 99% certain he was inspired by Joe Don Baker’s character Brad Whitaker.  Whitaker steals every scene that he is in and has a great showdown with Bond at the end.  He completely outshines Jeroen Krabbe’s General Georgi Koskov and even the great John Rhys-Davies.

The Living Daylights should be held up higher in the Bond lexicon than it is.  It seems like it has almost been lost in time.  I recommend you find it…Sing along with A-ha…watch it…and for consistency’s sake…tell me I’m wrong.  
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