31 Days to Scare ~ The Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in 1965 New England, a troubled girl encounters mysterious happenings in the woods surrounding an isolated girls school that she was sent to by her estranged parents.

Stars: Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel Nichols, Bruce Campbell, Marcia Bennett, Emma Campbell

Director: Lucky McKee

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The Woods didn’t get much attention when it was released back in 2006, bypassing a wide release and arriving for home consumption with little fanfare. Pity. It’s quite a good little scare show with some nicely creepy moments. The performances are on target (notably Patricia Clarkson, an expert at mellow menace) and I loved how the forest elements made their way into the school corridors and even the wardrobe of the increasingly tightly wired staff. Though it gets a tad overstuffed toward the end and betrays a bit of its ‘girl power’ intentions, it’s an overall taut watch.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Carol Anne is staying with relatives in a high-rise building and the supernatural forces that have haunted her previously follow her there.

Stars: Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn-Boyle

Director: Gary Sherman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The best thing that can be said about Poltergeist III is that at least it’s better than its predecessor…though the bar was set so low by Poltergeist II: The Other Side that that’s not saying much.  The third sequel to one of my all-time favorite films had a troubled production and limped onto the screen amidst a cloud of doom.  Still, it has one or two interesting sequences and is more than competently made…but fails to deliver on anywhere near the same level at Poltergeist.

Young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been sent to live with her aunt (Nancy Allen, Carrie) in a new high-rise apartment building in Chicago.  She’s there to attend a school for the gifted but it’s clear that it’s maybe more to give her beleaguered family some distance from the girl that attracts ghosts…and most likely because JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wanted nothing to do with the movie.  Her aunt lives with her new husband (Tom Skerritt, Steel Magnolias) and stepdaughter (Lara Flynn-Boyle) in a gloriously late ‘80s mirrored apartment…a perk of his job as one of the developers of the building.

It’s not exactly clear how it happens but somehow the vengeful spirit of Reverend Kane wasn’t totally vanquished in the previous film and has tracked Carol Anne down with the intent to finally take her to the other side.  This traveling ghost takes a page from the shark in JAWS: The Revenge and travels out of his comfort zone to lay claim to the girl that got away.  Over the course of an evening, Carol Anne and her family are hunted by Kane and his minions of spirts throughout the building, from the parking garage to the swimming pool.

Now I firmly believe that a good movie could have been made of the material here…but director Gary Sherman was either too limited by the paltry budget or his imagination to deliver a worthy film that wound up putting the final nail in the Poltergeist coffin.  Not that he was helped by the numerous maladies that seemed to plague the film…chief being the tragic death of O’Rourke before the film was finished.

Performances are all over the board here with Skerritt and Allen showing up for their paychecks (though Allen seems to have fun with how alarmingly insensitive she is to her niece) and O’Rourke improving slightly on her dreadful previous performance as Carol Anne.  It’s nice to see Flynn-Boyle’s first screen appearance but stormy weather arises when Zelda Rubinstein shows up to preside over a master class of bad acting.

A film that’s literally just smoke and mirrors, it’s a shame that Poltergeist III couldn’t make something of material that should have worked better than it did.  With multiple deaths associated with the series that came to be known as the Poltergeist Curse, it’s no wonder the studio took one look at the finished project and anemic box office returns and decided to call it quits on future installments.

 

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist II: The Other Side

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Freeling family has a new house, but their troubles with supernatural forces don’t seem to be over.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Julian Beck, Will Sampson, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Director: Brian Gibson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s no secret that the mid ‘80s produced a bad case of sequelits in most major studios and after 1982’s Poltergeist scared the pants of audiences throughout the summer it didn’t take a genius to see that a sequel would be on its way.  Released in May of 1986, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is one of the worst sequels ever and while it doesn’t tarnish the memory of its predecessor it sure gives it the good college try.

It’s been one year since the Freeling family encountered some nasty goings-on in their storybook like tract-house in suburban California.  Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood), Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) are living with Diane’s mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) while they find a place to live.  In the original film there was a third child and she’s never mentioned…at all.  Tragically, the young girl that played the role was murdered shortly after the film was released, the first to die in what was later called the Poltergeist curse.  I get that they didn’t want to recast the role but to not mention her at all was very strange.

Anyway, our feisty medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) has enlisted the help of an Indian shaman (Will Sampson) to help dig through the remains of the original Freeling home to discover secrets of the bodies that were buried under the development.  She uncovers the skeletons of a religious cult that died with their leader, Reverend Kane (Julian Beck, the second actor to die, this time before the movie was even released).  Somehow the spirit of Kane is released and again targets Carol Anne…hilarity, sorry, hysteria ensues.

It’s been rumored that Poltergeist II: The Other Side went through some major cuts in the editing room and it shows.  At a scant 91 minutes, the film doesn’t have the luxury of the slow burn that made the first film so enormously enjoyable. It’s a very get in and get out affair with a special effects heavy third act that inspires more snoozing than shrieking.

Especially disappointing is how bad the performances are here.  Nelson and Williams seem like they’re serving community service, but I’d be mad too if I had to pretend to vomit up a gigantic animatronic tequila worm like Nelson does in one particularly nasty scene.  Robins was never an especially, um, gifted child star and when he’s attacked by his braces you may be rooting for the metal to win.  The angelic O’Rourke was a tiny six year old in Poltergeist and her performance felt spontaneous and without guile…but in the four years between films she must have enrolled in too many child acting classes because she stinks.  While I loved Rubinstein’s unexpected charisma in the first film, her Razzie Award nomination for the sequel was absolutely deserved.

The worst thing about Poltergeist II: The Other Side is not that it’s a cheap money grab for fans of the original…it’s that it’s so very boring.  Though loaded with decent effects and benefiting from Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, it barely holds your interest for even seconds at a time.  It’s a silly mess that doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the landmark film it followed.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist (1982)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a family moves into their new home, they notice strange events that mostly affect their young daughter.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Dominique Dunne, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, James Karen

Director: Tobe Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  How sweet it is to feel the tingle that goes up your spine when you’re sitting down watching a truly satisfying horror film…there’s just no other feeling like it.  Horror films have come and gone over the years, each one a more cannibalistic example of mindless copies of something original.  But try as they might, no haunted house ghost tale can hold a candle to classics like 1963’s The Haunting and 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films are handsome, classy productions that aren’t cheap scarefests and each delight in playing (or rather, preying) on the things that scare you.

Poltergeist is one of my favorite films of all time because it fits into several categories at once (like the best horror films do…see JAWS as an example).  It’s a drama, a mystery, a midnight movie freak out, a paranormal thriller, and a period piece all centered on one suburban Regan-era family out to live the good life in a new home development that holds its share of buried secrets.

Life for the Freeling family is pretty typical of the time period.  Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood) is a sales agent for the residential development where he lives with his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), and three children (Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke).  The kids go to school, the mom cleans the house, sports are watched on the television over the weekend, and the biggest problem they face is worrying about the new pool they’re putting in the backyard.

Strange things begin to happen, though, seemingly out of the blue.  Little Carol Anne (O’Rourke) starts to talk to the television and the “TV people” that want to play with her.  A scary tree and ominously stormy nights keeps young Robbie (Robins) from getting a peaceful slumber.  Not to mention the kitchen chairs that stack themselves and some strange gravitational pull that moves things across the room at an alarming pace.  It all culminates in the film’s first big scare and before you know it, Carol Anne has vanished yet her presence and voice remain in the house.

What happens next involves a team of paranormal investigators (lead by Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight) and one tiny medium (Zelda Rubinstein) as they attempt to help the Freelings find their daughter and rid their house of the titular entity that for some reason has targeted them for trouble.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and written/produced by Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), the film is a welcome blend of the eye-popping scares that Hooper was famous for capturing under the watchful hand of Spielberg’s sensitive script.  I’ll admit that there’s a part in the film which always causes me to tear up a bit…how often do you find that in a film that literally tosses skeletons and rotting flesh at the screen?

What’s so wonderful about Poltergeist is that even though it spawned two disappointing sequels, inspired three decades worth of copycats, and is clearly a film from the early ‘80s it manages to remain timeless and timely.  The scares continue to work like gangbusters and no matter how many times I’ve seen it I never manage to lose interest in the story being told.

31 Days to Scare ~ Carrie (1976)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young, abused and timid 17-year-old girl discovers she has telekinesis, and gets pushed to the limit on the night of her school’s prom by a humiliating prank.

Stars: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, P.J. Soles

Director: Brian De Palma

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Original Release Date: November 3, 1976

Review: Carrie is one of those movies I think I’ve seen a whole lot more than I actually have. I know it’s on TV a lot and I’ve even started watching it on BluRay a few times only to get distracted fifteen minutes in, never to return. So when my scaredey-cat companion agreed to let me tutor him in the ways of horror I decided that Carrie was a good place to start. After all, though the film rests on the horror shelf in between Cabin in the Woods and The Changeling, it’s not your typical exploitation/slasher effort.

Watched as the second film of a prom themed evening (the first being, naturally, Prom Night which liberally borrows a few characters/scenes from Carrie) I finally saw the whole film again and was impressed that it’s held up so well almost 40 years after it was first released. Maybe that’s because the central theme of alienation still has an impact in this day and age of cyber bullying and everyone’s base desire to fit in with their peers.

Also, it’s damn frightening. Director Brian De Palma (Passion) was just starting to refine his filmmaking style, bridging the gap between black comedy and outright horror. From the icky mystery surrounding 1973’s Sisters to the whacked-out camp musical Phantom of the Paradise in 1974 and peaking with 1976’s very Hitchcock-y Obsession, Carrie represented a major step forward for the director. His split screens and distinct framing are all on display here, albeit less emphatically used than they would be in his later work.

Adapted from Stephen King’s novel published just two years prior, certain liberties with the plot were taken that remakes on TV and the big screen tried unsuccessfully to fix and I’m of the mind that De Palma’s Carrie remains the most bang for your buck-ish.

This is thanks in no small part to one of the best casts you’re likely to find in a horror film. From the wicked delights of mean girls Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, and P.J. Soles (Halloween) to the hunky boy toys of John Travolta (Savages) and William Katt, De Palma may not have filled his tale with actors that were believably in high school, but all leave a lasting impression on the viewer. Good too is Broadway belter Betty Buckley as a kindly gym teacher that becomes a mother figure to Carrie (Sissy Spacek) who is otherwise being cared for by her religious zealot mama (Piper Laurie) in their small quaint home.

Ah Spacek and Laurie. Rightfully Oscar-nominated for their roles the two actresses have several whopper scenes together with Laurie truly relishing in the chance to gnash her teeth on the handsome scenery. The film belongs to Spacek, though, and your heart aches for her when she’s humiliated at two of her most vulnerable moments. The product of a mother that seems to fear her own daughter as much as she fears God, the young girl with the power to move things with her mind recognizes she has a gift that needs to be controlled…but when she’s pushed over the edge on prom night all hell breaks loose.

The prom sequence is a textbook example of the perfect marriage of style, cinematography, performance, and sounds as De Palma stages an unfolding nightmare with nail-biting visuals. Aided by Pino Donaggio’s icy score, Mario Tosi’s rich lensing of a series of carefully timed events, and Spacek’s wide-eyed possession my socks were truly knocked off that after all these years and viewings I could still be so terrified. And it doesn’t stop there…after the prom the frights are still coming leading to two climaxes that I’m sure had audiences crawling up the walls in 1976.

It’s a truly effective film, one of the best the genre has to offer. If you’re like me and think you’ve seen Carrie before, fire it up again because you may have forgotten how good it really is.

Bond-ed for Life – Skyfall

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost

Stars: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Dame Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace, Tonia Sotiropoulou

Director: Sam Mendes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  The release of the 23rd Bond feature film inspired me to take a look back at the 22 films that have come before it.  Starting with the 1962 of release of Dr. No and continuing on through the 2012’s Skyfall, audiences around the world have come to know, trust, and count on James Bond to show up on Her Majesty’s secret service to get the job done.  Though the faces of Bond have changed over the years and the man himself has gone through some character development, one thing remains true…this is a gentleman who loves his country, his women, and his martini’s shaken not stirred.

Now, as the franchise celebrates its 50th Anniversary, a Bond adventure has been crafted that surpasses every expectation one could have and reaches levels I’m not sure anyone involved could have ever imagined or hoped to reach.  It’s as close to a perfectly made action film as I’ve seen in my years of going to the movies, one that will hold appeal to those well acquainted with 007 and those that are just starting out.  Skyfall is, in my opinion, the best James Bond movie ever produced.

Bold statement, right?  Well…let me try to explain it the best way I can – and know that this review is going to be spoiler free so as not to ruin the experience for you.  The less said about the scope of the picture the better because one of the key ingredients to its success is the not knowing what’s lurking around the corner for Bond, M, and his colleagues at MI6.

I can’t go further into this review without mentioning a few new faces behind the camera for Skyfall.  New director Mendes draws on his theatrical background to help his cast dig deeper than ever before in service to the dynamite story/script provided by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and exceptional screenwriter John Logan.  In his first true action film (let’s not mention 2005’s Jarhead), Mendes works like a master to create the most fully formed Bond experience one could hope for. 

Mendes brings along Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, another artist not readily known for his work in the action genre.  Deakins keeps the camera moving in such a way that though the action is fast, furious, and delirious, we never lose track of what we’re watching and where it’s going.  Production designer Dennis Gassner returns to Bond after Quantum of Solace to create a bar-raising world of exotic locales, abandoned islands, and misty moors.  It’s all set to Thomas Newman’s hat-tipping score that’s quite thrilling.  When Monty Norman’s original Bond theme starts to play at a key point in the movie, I had chills from horn to hoof.

Now this all would make for a very pretty picture…but if you didn’t have the right people to stick in front of the camera you’d be up the creek.  Thankfully, Mendes has populated his film with intriguing cast additions and welcome return visitors.

Craig should now be considered the fully formed embodiment of Bond.  No disrespect to the the other actors that have come before him but Craig is as close to the James Bond found in the novels of Ian Fleming as anyone yet to suit up for the part.  A reckless Bond in Casino Royale and a vengeful Bond in Quantum of Solace, in Skyfall Bond has become someone that is genuinely afraid to feel anything that he can’t control.  It’s a brilliant move for the film to give the actor (and us) the opportunity to see under the skin and it’s Craig’s best performance on screen in any film.

Is there anything bad one could say about Dame Dench at this point in her career?  Her involvement with the Bond films since GoldenEye have been nothing short of excellent but it’s with Skyfall that M becomes a leading character along with Bond.  She sits atop a plot that hinges on how much we really want to know about her…had M stayed on the sidelines during her tenure this film couldn’t have happened in the way it did.  M has always been illustrative of a surrogate mother to Bond and that relationship comes into play several times.

In a series that is famous for its outlandish villains, you’d be hard pressed to find one as genuinely menacing as Silva.  Bardem takes a huge risk with his character that could have crashed and burned but winds up making him even more terrifying.  Even without the bleached hair and eyebrows, it’s the actor’s eyes that tell the biggest story with thinly veiled rage boiling deep down.  His personal vendetta against M and MI6 takes the place of any kind of global domination, allowing the film to hit close to home.  It’s a terrifying performance that doesn’t merely replicate his Oscar winning role in No Country for Old Men from the man my friend (let’s call him R for Bond-time sake) calls the Spanish Meryl Streep for the way he totally immerses himself in a role.

Supporting players are nothing to snuff at either.  Fiennes has a nifty role as one of M’s colleagues and Whishaw is a wonderfully nebbish Q.  Bond Girls are a dime a dozen but Mendes has found two shiny silver dollars in Harris and Marlohe.  Harris is a spunky field agent that helps set into motion the action of the film in the breathless prologue and Marlohe may have one of the single best meet and greets with Bond in memory.  Both actresses are splendid but aren’t featured as prominently as the ladies of the past.  Still…Mendes and co. are smart enough to see that this story is ultimately about Bond and M.

Adele’s powerful theme song is a real winner as both a throwback to the Shirley Bassey Bond themes and a mysterious clue to what the film has in store for us.  Playing over a gorgeously designed credits sequence by Daniel Kleinman, the haunting melody is nicely incorporated by Newman in several music cues along the way.  And what of the mysterious Skyfall of the title?  I’m not going to give that secret up but it acts as yet another way the film opens up to audiences the mystery that is Bond. 

Everyone has their favorite Bond and reasons why they lean towards one or the other.  Having reached the end of my Bond journey, Skyfall just happens to be the best of the bunch.  It’s a fantastically entertaining, surprisingly emotional, and stupendously produced action film that once again redefines the spy genre.  James Bond will return…this much we know from the closing credits.  How he’ll top himself after Skyfall is the next big mystery to figure out.

Want more Bond?  Check out my reviews of the previous 22 James Bond Films:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

Live and Let Die

The Man with the Golden Gun

The Spy Who Loved Me

Moonraker

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

A View to a Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

GoldenEye

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World is Not Enough

Die Another Day

Casino Royale (2006)

Quantum of Solace

Bond-ed for Life ~ Quantum of Solace

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The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seeking revenge for the death of his love, secret agent James Bond sets out to stop an environmentalist from taking control of a country’s valuable resource.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Into every franchise a little rain must fall and though Quantum of Solace isn’t a fully fledged thunderstorm, it still leaves you feeling a little sad after the blue skies of Casino Royale.  It’s not as if the players entered into the 22nd Bond film with anything other than noble intentions – there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in the movie but seeing that it’s really a direct sequel to Casino Royale there is a sense of feeling cheated out of the opportunity for a totally new adventure.  Though Diamonds Are Forever also carried on a small piece of the story that ended On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that film at least wrapped things up in its pre-credit prologue.

Without spoiling some of the later events that happen in Casino Royale and spill over into this film, Quantum of Solace opens with Bond seeking vengeance with no less passion than he did in Licence to Kill.  Determined to find the group responsible for a betrayal that’s hit too close to home, the opening moments of the film are a mountaintop chase delivered with breakneck speed and quick cut editing.  The first thing I noticed about this entry was its different filming style that favors the herky jerky hand held camera and flash cuts to its predecessors slow burn sweeping panoramas.  Under the direction of Forster (lensing his first true action film) the film enters the race at 99% so there’s not much room for the rest of the movie to keep pace.  The opening credits and title song are also slightly disappointing with graphic design studio MK12 taking over for Daniel Kleinman  with a mish mash of sand and sun and Jack White’s duet with Alicia Keys sounding slightly off key at time. 

Off key is maybe the best way to describe the movie because everything just seems slightly askew or off the mark…something that grows more frustrating as the film goes on.  At 106 minutes, it’s the shortest Bond film which is probably a good thing considering that it may also be its slowest.  Yes, there are some dynamic action sequences on land and sea but nothing ever takes flight like I think it could have with a better script and stronger direction. 

It’s no fault of the actors on board that the movie drags and I was more sympathetic to Craig in this film than I was in the previous entry.  Here he’s a haunted man that masks his pain with his determined hunt for retribution.  If he was a loose cannon in Casino Royale here he’s as wild animal as he goes above and beyond his call of duty to get the answers he’s looking for.

More depth is given to Dench in this film as well as she achieves duality in her role as Bond’s superior and also an unwitting mother.  Craig and Dench take the roles deeper than one would normally feel is required but the end result are stronger performances because of it.  Dench may be the biggest Bond girl of them all when you really think about it.

The real Bond girl here is Kurylenko that gives off a Catherine Zeta-Jones vibe and not much more.  A character with motivations that I feel we’ve seen before (in For Your Eyes Only, for example), she’s also out for vengeance that may align with Bond’s.  Frenchman Amalric is one of the slighter villains in these films but what he lacks in his physical presence he makes up for in his maniacal plans to steal a valuable natural resource.

I’ve seen the film four times now and I should freely admit that I’ve fallen asleep each time at some point.  I’m usually a pretty alert moviegoer and it’s not that the film lacks for loud action scenes…but around the 60 minute mark my eyelids get droopy.  That being said, watching the film back-to-back with Casino Royale is probably the way to go as both films are really all part of the same story.

Bond-ed for Life ~ Casino Royale (2006)

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: In his first mission, James Bond must stop Le Chiffre, a banker to the world’s terrorist organizations, from winning a high-stakes poker tournament at Casino Royale in Montenegro.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright

Director: Martin Campbell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 144 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:

After Die Another Day, the Bond series would go through another long hibernation until its producers and studio settled a few legal issues that had been slow burning for several years.  When the 21st James Bond film was ready to move into production it was time for a new actor to take on the role of 007 – after a lot of rumor and speculation it was blonde, blue-eyed Brit Craig that won the role.  At first, hardcore fans were agog that their dark horse agent created by Ian Fleming would now be sporting a new look…but most changed their tune when Casino Royale was released in the fall of 2006.

Marking the first time the franchise had gone back to an original Fleming full source novel since Moonraker, Casino Royale had been given the film treatment a few times before…in a television movie and a spoof film from the late 60’s.  This Casino Royale, however, would adhere more closely to the original novel and act not only as an introduction to the Bond of Craig but also as a way for the series to get a fresh start.

From the opening moments we can tell that this will not be your typical Bond film.  Leaving out the traditional gun barrel opening was risky but winds up fitting in perfectly to the prologue’s origin story aspirations.  This pre-credit sequence is raw knuckle but restrained energy filmed in black and white that leads to an explosion of color during Daniel Kleinman’s gorgeous animated credit sequence.  Paired with Chris Cornell’s rock theme song, it’s clear that this is not your granddad’s James Bond.

The longest Bond film to date, Casino Royale is a white hot film that keeps the grand villains trying to take over the world at bay and instead focuses on a more personal and one on one approach as Bond matches wits and poker hands with evil banker Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen) at the titular casino.  There’s about an hour of lead up until the games begin and it’s here we see that Bond is a loose cannon that has just achieved his double O status.  Operating as a shoot first and ask questions later sort of agent, Bond’s first scene after the strong opening is a breathless chase over rooftops, construction cranes, and through an embassy before he finally gets what he’s after. 

Craig’s brute force physicality is exactly what Bond has needed for quite some time.  The previous actors playing the role all came across as intelligent agents but I never fully bought into the fact they could knock someone’s lights out with a single punch.  In the guise of Craig, Bond is an agent not to be messed with lest you want to pick your teeth up off the ground.

Appearing late in the game is Vesper Lynd (Green) who represents the financial institution bankrolling Bond’s admittance to the high stakes poker game that occupies a good portion of the second act.  From the moment she plops down and proclaims “I’m the money.” both Bond and the audiences know that we’ve met a woman that might just be his equal.  It helps that Green is excellently cagey in her portrayal of Lynd…we’ve seen enough Bond films to know that he’s been double crossed before…so how much can we trust her? 

Craig and Green’s screen chemistry goes on for days and could fuel a small island – both actors really understand the roles they are playing and how they relate to each other.  The complexities are great and it’s a credit to both that you don’t see them working as hard as we come to realize they are.  Green is so perfect…I’d be hard pressed to offer up a better Bond girl.

Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre cries blood and has a torture method sure to make any male viewer wince…Craig is particularly good in these torture scenes in conveying real pain and conflict.  The way the film is structured it’s never clear if Le Chiffre is the main villain or the shadow for someone behind the scenes…there’s a few twists to be had but sometimes the stakes don’t feel as high as they could be.

Dench is back as M and while chronologically it doesn’t make sense that she’s present, I can’t imagine the role without her.  With each film the writers are smart to beef up her contribution and she maximizes every zinger for all its worth. 

The last Bond film to be this long was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and like that film Casino Royale has a deeper story to tell.  It’s refreshing that the producers and director Campbell (returning after GoldenEye) take the time to let the film have its moments that don’t involve big chases and fiery explosions.  It doesn’t feel as long as it is and all production values work in harmony to provide great entertainment for longtime Bond fans or those that are new to the world of 007.

Bond-ed for Life ~ Die Another Day

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: James Bond is sent to investigate the connection between a North Korean terrorist and a diamond mogul who is funding the development of an international space weapon.

Stars:  Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, John Cleese

Director: Lee Tamahori

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With three films under his belt, Brosnan’s next venture into Bond territory was delayed slightly to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Bond films and the 50th anniversary of the publication of author Ian Fleming’s work.  Going into the release day, there was a lot of hype around the movie concerning the far-out premise and the casting of an Oscar winner as a sort of female Bond.

I remember seeing Die Another Day the morning it was released in Dublin, Ohio while I was on tour with a show and how much I was looking forward to it.  At the time, I found the film to be overblown, overlong, and finally tipping the scales to gimmickry after avoiding it for so long.  I’m not sure that I’ve seen it again until recently when I was surprised to find myself enjoying what would be Brosnan’s last time onscreen as James Bond.

After a prolonged prologue set in Korea, for the first time we see Daniel Kleinman’s opening credits incorporating film elements into his design and accompanied by Madonna’s admittedly one-note but fitting theme song.  (Madonna herself also becomes the first theme artist to cameo in a Bond film in a small role that nevertheless sticks out like a sore thumb).  Changing up the credits was a benefit as it had to show some passage of time in a creative way.

There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo in the way of a plot concerning cloning, diamonds, and a very large ice palace owned by wealthy magnate Gustav Graves (Stephens, son of Maggie Smith, who obviously inherited his mom’s way with a clipped one-liner) but it’s best not to get too involved with the more silly details happening in the film.  It’s best to enjoy what the gigantic budget bought for us in the way of impressive special effects and well maneuvered stunt sequences.

Brosnan is his usual dapper self, not letting a 14 month stay in a Korean prison hold his superspy back for long.  Dench is tart per usual but she must have had other work at the time because her role is noticeably shorter than it was in The World is Not Enough.  Pike is nicely ensconced as chilly Bond girl/MI6 agent Miranda Frost and Yune makes the most out of his underdeveloped diamond acne-d villain.  If someone can explain to me why Michael Madsen shows up I’d be interested to hear!

That leads us to Berry who is introduced ala Ursula Andress in the first Bond film, Dr. No.  When I first saw the film I wasn’t impressed with her but over time the role has grown on me and it’s easy to see why there was buzz about her character Jinx getting her own spin-off but, alas, like Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies it was not meant to be.

Bringing on yet another new director, the producers went with an Australian and Tamahori brings a smart sensibility to the film.  He keeps the light stuff light and the full throttle action on high alert so even if the film is a little too long for its own good it still doesn’t feel like its overstaying its welcome.

Some feel that Die Another Day is a lesser title in the world of 007 and even if it is…there’s a lot to like in it that would keep even the casual action moviegoer interested.  Brosnan’s four Bond films are the most consistent of any of the previous Bonds so some credit should go to him for taking good care of Bond in his tenure.

Bond-ed for Life ~ The World is Not Enough

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: James Bond uncovers a nuclear plot when he protects an oil heiress from her former kidnapper, an international terrorist who can’t feel pain.

Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, Sophie Marceau, Denise Richards, Robert Carlyle

Director: Michael Apted

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Like Sean Connery and Roger Moore before him, it would take Brosnan three attempts to get into the true groove of James Bond.  Moving easily through two entertaining films (GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies), Brosnan would be given his best material in The World is Not Enough and even with the presence of the worst actress in the history of the series, it’s a film that is a nice return to form for our top British agent.

Director Apted makes a wise choice to open the film with not one but two of the most thrilling chase sequences that Bond has been presented with as he escapes from an assassin’s bullet in Spain and then pursues another assassin through the waterways of London.  It’s twenty minutes of spectacular action capped by another strong opening credits courtesy of designer Danny Kleinman and rock group Garbage.

Bond is sent by M to protect the daughter of a recently deceased oil tycoon that M has a complicated history with.  Elektra (Marceau) is a headstrong heiress that escaped a kidnapping plot by a terrorist (Carlyle) that may have returned to collect the money he lost out on.  It’s not long before Bond has taken extra good care of Elektra all through the night and deeper secrets are revealed that will put Bond, M, Elektra, and the world in whole lot of danger.

Sounds pretty good, right?  And it is good up until the point when Bond makes a detour and meets up with Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear scientist played by Richards in one of the most ridiculous examples of bad casting you’re likely to see in a Bond movie or any other film.  Everything about the actress is wrong from her costuming to her delivery of basic dialogue.  The feeling comes across that Richards had never seen a Bond film so isn’t in on any of the jokes happening around her.

Though she threatens to sink the whole movie, even she can’t crash land this ship that stays admirably on course thanks to Apted’s skilled direction and another strong performance by Brosnan.  He’s a no fuss no muss kind of actor and that works well when playing the dapper and cooly confident 007.  What’s nice about this entry is a beefed up role for Dench that allows the actress to get in on the action and out of her stuffy office.  She also gets to deliver a swell face slap to a deserving party.

Marceau does well in the surprisingly complex role of Elektra…a character that comes more mysterious as the film progresses to entertaining results.  Though Carlyle’s murderous thug is oblivious to pain courtesy of a lingering bullet in his brain, I wish the script allowed for more ways to exploit this condition when he goes head to head with Bond.  I think the film could have dialed back on a few extraneous characters that seem to be there only for bad guys to use them as target practice.

This was the final film of Desmond Llewelyn, the actor who played gadget man Q for nearly four decades.  Killed in an auto-accident shortly after the film was released, he nevertheless gets an eerily perfect sendoff as he passes the reins to Q 2.0 Cleese.

The nineteenth Bond film could have easily tipped the scales into gimmicky territory but it wisely comes forth with a well developed story featuring characters that don’t feel like familiar retreads of other films.  It’s more than enough to entertain Bond purists and new fans alike.