Category Archives: James Bond

Movie Review: Skyfall

Now, this was the James Bond I’ve been waiting for. Or, more accurately, I didn’t know there would be a James Bond quite like this.

After 2006′s masterful “Casino Royale” redefined the series, 2008′s mediocre “Quantum of Solace” set it back another few years. 007 makes a major comeback yet again with “Skyfall.” When James Bond was rebooted, the intention was to radically start England’s greatest secret agent over from scratch. Now, everyone seems comfortable enough with Craig in the role to bring back some classic Bond tropes. I didn’t realize how much I even missed them until “Skyfall.”

“Skyfall” might be the first time since “You Only Live Twice” that Bond has “died” before the opening credits. A failed mission to get a hard drive containing a very secret list of names sends Bond hurdling off a train and into a river, leaving M (Judi Dench) to write Bond’s obituary. Before the train chase there is a motorcycle rooftop chase that is both implausible and impossible not to be thrilled by. The very best Bond moments make the implausible so much fun.

Shaken, not stirred.

After a fantastic opening credit sequence, Bond is found hiding on a tropical island. Craig’s Bond might be the most reckless Bond yet, so much so that he’ll even play drinking games with a scorpion. Unlike most exiled heroes, Bond doesn’t seem to miss his job. That is, until he sees a news report about a terrorist attack at M16 headquarters that effects him personally, despite being out of the job. The revisionist James Bond of the 21st century is not motivated merely by a duty to defeat the bad guys; this Bond also has a strong emotional compass.

Once we know that the actor is good, there is always the expectation that the character of James Bond will be awesome. However, it is rare that a Bond film produces a truly memorable villain. That is until they cast Javier Bardem as hacker terrorist Silva. Bardem has pretty much cornered the market on creepy villains in modern film. While Le Chiffre of “Casino Royale” was dark and frightening in a realistic way, Silva is cheesy in the best sense of the word. He is entertaining to watch because he is so unpredictable. We might know where he will go, but how he will get there is impossible to know. Bardem plays him with the exaggerated movements of a Broadway dancer. Here is a villain who is as interested in causing anarchy as he is in putting on a show. In that aspect, he is a perfect movie villain.

“Skyfall” might be the first time that a “Bond Girl” didn’t have significant screen time. I would argue that M is the Bond Girl of “Skyfall.” It makes sense, as the plot becomes largely about protecting her. It is also interesting to see a Bond film that is more about the development of a friendship than about the development of a romance. Bond and M have a very complicated relationship, as M is not above sacrificing an agent in order to complete a mission. It is this kind of character work that has made the past few Bond entries some of the strongest in the 50 year history of the series.

That dog.

“Skyfall” is brought to life by director Sam Mendes. Mendes has directed some smaller scale action flicks (“Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), but never anything on this scale. Mendes has done with James Bond what Christopher Nolan has done with Batman. Mendes brings a lot of his artistic sensibility to the table and makes the cities more than just giant action set pieces: they are living, breathing, and stunning places. The opening throws us relentlessly into the center of a bazaar. Bond has never stared so pensively at the London skyline. Shanghai is brought to life with beautiful colors and then becomes the stage for an amazing fight consisting only of silhouettes. I have yet to go to Shanghai*, but it looks something like the way “Blade Runner” imagined Los Angeles to look like in 2019.

While “Skyfall” may be the funniest Bond yet, there is a constant, dark shadow of death that hangs over it from the very beginning. It is as if Bond’s whole way of life is in more danger than ever before. “Skyfall” may be the most thematically rich Bond film ever made. It truly questions the place of a spy made for the Cold War in the modern age when anyone can get a computer and become a hero or a terrorist. This is probably the most self-aware Bond as well. It is an eloquent and deep territory to explore, but it is almost ruined at several times by overstatement.

As a director, Mendes’ Achilles’ Heel  has always been subtlety. He seems afraid to let a theme come across organically, so he feels a need to hammer the audience over the head with it. They ask, “are we still relevant with technology?” so many times that by the end, it almost loses all value. However, the surprising amount of innovation in this theme saves “Skyfall” in the end.

Anyone upset about the lack of technology in “Skyfall” clearly hasn’t seen Daniel Craig with a shotgun.

“Skyfall” is both a throwback to James Bond of the past and a radically new Bond as well. It includes a few surprises that will be most meaningful to die hard fans. It also peppers in some backstory that makes the Bond legend so much stronger. But overall, this is just the best action movie I have seen in ages. For every plant there is a payoff and for every explosion there is a reason. “Skyfall” shows how smart Bond and the other agents are. Getting Bond as far away from technology at the end was a pretty ingenious move on the writers’ part. Modern blockbusters never forget the eye candy, but they often neglect to make their heroes actually seem intelligent. I believe a Bond without jetpacks or invisible cars is the best Bond there is.

The question of whether Bond is still relevant is actually pretty meta, and questions whether after 50 years, Bond films are still necessary. I think the answer is yes. James Bond has become something of a constant to me, and no Thanksgiving ever feels as awesome when there is no new Bond film to look forward to. It’s also great to think that whatever existential fear is currently haunting the collective subconscious (nuclear war, terrorism, cyber attacks), James Bond will always be there with his Walther PPK to stop it.

*Between “Looper” and “Skyfall,” Shanghai has gotten a glorious portrayal this year in film.

Top 5: James Bond Movies

The jetpack from “Thunderball”: the peak of bad special effects humor.

This weekend, “Skyfall” opens in theaters. “Skyfall” marks a remarkable 50 years of the existence of James Bond onscreen. Directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”), “Skyfall” has already been receiving early raves.

No matter how repetitive or ridiculous it gets, I will have a strong fondness for the Bond series. Thanksgivings of my childhood were usually marked by watching the Bond marathons on AMC or TNT (or whatever other network showed them) with my dad and brother. From my years of watching, I compiled a list of my favorite Bond films, building up to number one. Here are my five favorite Bond films:

5. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

It’s hard to fill the shoes of Sean Connery, but I believe Roger Moore did as good a job at it as anyone could. This is my favorite Moore installment, and it certainly doesn’t shy away from the Cold War inspired madness of the time. While the villain’s objective of creating a new civilization under the ocean should be completely ludicrous, it doesn’t feel as unrealistic in light of climate change. Plus it’s got a hot Bond girl, and Jaws, one of the few villains in the Bond series who got to come back for another film. If only Oddjob didn’t meet his end in “Goldfinger,” him and Jaws would have made a great team of villains.

4. Dr. No (1962)

This is where it all began. Bond had much less weapons to use, so he mainly relied on his own cunning. And while ejecting car seats are cool, it’s even cooler to see Bond having to use his own wits, like watching “Spider-Man” try and scale the city when his web blasters run out. And speaking of spiders, there’s a great scene where Bond battles a tarantula, which has the kind of slow-burning suspense rarely seen in movies anymore. I had the distinct pleasure to go to a beach screening of “Dr. No” while at Cannes this summer. To say that “Dr. No” has aged is an understatement. To say that because of that “Dr. No” is no longer funny or exciting to watch would be a lie.

See my Top 3 after the jump:

3. You Only Live Twice (1967)

“You Only Live Twice” might be one of the most insane Bond films, yet it still manages to keep its cool. It’s hard to disagree with an intoxicating theme song by Nancy Sinatra. This one has a space ship that steals other spaceships, a secret volcano lair, and Bond pretending to be Japanese. It is also the first glimpse we got of bald, kitty-loving bad guy Blofeld. “You Only Live Twice” was one of the Bond films I would always watch the whole way through every time there was a Thanksgiving marathon. But it is hard to deny, without “You Only Live Twice,” there might not have been “Austin Powers.”

2. Casino Royale (2006)

In 2006, “Casino Royale” both brought Bond back to his roots and reinvented the Cold War spy for the modern age. Many balked at the idea of a blonde Bond, but Daniel Craig effortlessly fit into the role. This was a much grittier Bond film, and the first time our hero actually seemed like a vulnerable human being. Plus, the gravity-defying opening chase is absolutely magnificent. Not to mention, the action replaces implausible death rays and such with the simplicity of guns and knives. Its greatest achievement, however, is turning a poker tournament into a breathless life or death situation. “Quantum of Solace” couldn’t quite follow in its footsteps, but I have a good feeling that “Skyfall” will bring back the Bond promised to us by “Casino Royale.”

1. Goldfinger (1964)

This seems too obvious but the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to put any other Bond film first. This was the first time Bond went high tech, but there is more to it than just that. It has one of the most simply sadistic villains in the entire series (he kills people by painting them gold!). It also had the audacity to (SPOILER) kill off the girl early on and replace her with another one. If anyone needs a perfect example of the witty intelligence of James Bond and the awesomeness of Sean Connery, look no further than “Goldfinger.”

Most Underrated: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

George Lazenby was the first Bond after Connery and he only got one shot at 007. He’s definitely not on top in the Bond caliber, because “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is actually a classic. It has a famous ski chase in which no one can remember which Bond film its actually from. Most notable about “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is that it is the most self-aware Bond has ever been. At the beginning  after the girl gets away, he turns to the camera and says, “this never happened to the other fellow.”

Worst: Die Another Day (2002)

I was close to choosing “Moonraker,” both for its “it’s like “The Spy Who Loved Me” in space” premise and the fact that it gave Jaws a love story. Yet, “Moonraker” is campy fun. “Die Another Day” represented the breaking point of Bond. The series had gone too ove-the-top for its own good. The need to see shiny lasers totally overshadows the plot. The only things I could pick up were a beam that harnessed the power of the sun, a hotel made of ice, and a Korean dude who was reincarnated as a white dude. Sure, it tried to be relevant by making the bad guys North Korean. Yet, it didn’t tap into any plausible fears like the Bond of the Soviet Era. Pierce Brosnan, who actually fit the Bond label very well, deserved better than this. And we ended up getting better. Four years after the mess of “Die Another Day,” Bond arose from the ashes in the form of “Casino Royale.”

The Reel Deal Goes to Cannes Update #1: Insomnia Washes Over Me in an Awesome Wave

I just touched ground in France today and could be described as a jet lagged zombie. Apparently, staying up until 10 PM (French time) is the cure to jet lag. Luckily, I have not reached brain dead level of zombie yet.

Movie watching has not begun yet. However, that will happen in the next few days. I was informed that there may be a James Bond marathon on the beach. I guess it is fitting, as Nice and Cannes resemble the kind of towns that Bond would likely frequent. A film that can be shown beyond its typical medium is a special thing. And because it is James Bond (and includes the likes of “Thunderball” and “From Russia with Love”), you can bet I will be in line for tickets.

So far, this is my first impression of France. Not too shabby:

And contrary to popular belief, the French have a very good sense of humor:

What Your Thanksgiving TV Watching Says About You

James Bond Marathon (SyFy)
The Bond marathon is a staple of just about every Thanksgiving. You are likely knocking a few back, and desperately wishing you were James Bond. Given that this marathon consists largely of the most recent movies, it will most likely be an excuse for your dad to talk about how everything was better during his day.

Arrested Development Marathon (IFC)

Your family is loud, insane, and probably a little dysfunctional. Watching the Bluths lie to each other as they cheat and steal might make you feel a little better about your own dysfunctional family. Watching the many insults of Lucille Bluth will put that racist comment your relative yells about Barack Obama into a lighter perspective. You’ve also seen every episode over 200 times, but you can still find another pun in Tobias’s dialogue every time you watch. And for that, I salute you.
The Godfather Marathon (AMC)
This is a different kind of dysfunctional family story. Here’s if your family enjoys talking about the secret sauce in their cooking, and occasionally killing people. But more likely you enjoy stories about American history as much as your dad; you will also likely be switching between this and the History Channel all day long. You are also probably a movie buff, and drool over the mise-en-scene during the scene in which Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey. And for that, once again, I salute you.
The National Dog Show (NBC)
Dogs are more entertaining than cats. There, I said it. Watching this also probably brings up great memories of “Best in Show” for you.
NFL Football: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions (FOX)
Thanksgiving wouldn’t make sense for you without football. That, or you just really enjoy watching Detroit suffer (current score: 24-0).
Now, get off the internet and go stuff your faces. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Shaking Things Up: Sam Mendes Will Be Next Bond Director

Over the past few years, the James Bond series, which is now approaching its 23rd installment, has begun to make some changes to the classic character. Some changes have worked amazingly, and others haven’t really changed much at all.

Now comes the most surprising change of all: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Away We Go,” “Revolutionary Road”) is slated to direct the next Bond film. This is a piece of news I am quite happy to report. Mendes is a very talented dramatic director, and even though trashing “American Beauty” is a hobby of most film critics, I still stand firmly stand by its side.
Anyway, Mendes might be the first Oscar winning director to helm a Bond film, and probably the most talented. There was once word that Quentin Tarantino was going to direct “Casino Royale,” but those unfortunately turned out to be just rumors (I guess Bond fans would’ve been a little turned off by hearing 007 talk about what they call a Big Mac in England).
What I wonder though is this: can Mendes handle the action? “Casino Royale,” which revamped the series, was directed by Martin Campbell. Campbell isn’t known for making amazing stories, but he did have experience on how to make a good action film. That might be why “Casino Royale” not only had one of the most interesting Bond stories, but it also gave us one of the most beautifully choreographed chase sequences ever put on film.
“Quantum of Solace” was put in the hands of director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball”). While the film’s plot was engaging, the action sequences lacked the sheer grace found in “Casino Royale.” The action here was too quick, sloppy, and unfocused to be thrilling. Even when Bond was in gravest danger, it was hard to feel too worried. There’s no way to enjoy a good thrill when you can’t even tell whether or not it’s going on.
This is the sole reason I worry about Mendes’ direction: will his inexperience in the action genre be problematic? He’ll definitely be able to conceive a well put together storyline and believable characters, but he might not be able to trigger that wow factor a well-made thrill ride can produce.
Hopefully, this won’t be true. Many directors have gone from art house to blockbuster with amazing results. Take for example, Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Batman Begins”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Children of Men”). Both managed to add their unique storytelling skills to films defined by action. Both these men would be fine future candidates.
For now, lets just hope Mendes can make another “Goldfinger,” and not another “Die Another Day.”
I originally intended to end this post with a joke about Mendes turning the next Bond film into a story about 007 going through suburban angst. Too bad every other film blogger beat me to the punch.