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Skyfall (2012)

Usually, these introductions are the first thing I write in these reviews, but this time, I had to write the whole thing before collecting my thoughts for this.  I will say that Casino Royale is my favorite James Bond movie to date, and this film did not change that.  The previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, has been admitted by the handlers of the franchise to be a real misstep that they intended to rectify with this film.  Unfortunately, I do have some points of criticism to levy against Skyfall from a first act that did not grab me to some tonal issues to a prominent character plot point that oddly disappears.  However, overall, the film is masterfully executed with a very strong and deeply personal story with one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen.  So, get ready for one of my infamously long in-depth reviews.  There’s a lot to talk about on both the positive and critical side of things.

007 (Daniel Craig) becomes M’s only ally as MI6 comes under attack, and a mysterious new villain emerges with a diabolical plan.  James Bond’s latest mission has gone horribly awry, resulting in the exposure of several undercover agents, and an all-out attack on M16.  Meanwhile, as M (Judi Dench) plans to relocate the agency, emerging Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) raises concerns about her competence while attempting to usurp her position, and Q (Ben Whishaw) becomes a crucial ally.  Now, the only person who can restore M’s reputation is 007.  Operating in the dark with only field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to guide him, the world’s top secret agent works to root out an enigmatic criminal mastermind and cyber-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem) as a major storm brews on the horizon.

Okay, I do have to start out with how the film had me doubting it first before I get into how it grabbed me.  While the pre-credits sequence has some nice bits, it ultimately left me unsatisfied as it featured next to nothing innovative or rousing that wasn’t spoiled in the trailers.  It has plenty of action, but it just didn’t have a high level of tension or dire circumstances for it to really do much for me.  Of course, things could have turned around if the film had a very inspiring theme song or amazing title sequence.  I have to admit that I just cannot stand the music of Adele.  It bores me and grates on my nerves.  The only reason I’ve heard her music is because it’s part of the mind searing music that plays incessantly at my place of employment.  Her title song for Skyfall could’ve put me to sleep.  It’s a dull thud of a song that offers no vibrancy, beauty, or diversity.  To my ears, it was monotone droning like she didn’t care, and neither did I.  The title sequence itself did nothing for me.  It seemed like an over thought menagerie of random images that had little to no coherence or context.  The digital animation wasn’t very good either.  After you’ve seen the whole film, some of the visuals make sense, but I think the visual tone was drastically off with no clear, direct focus.  I’d sooner take a generic or bland opening title sequence like The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill than one that just gets it all wrong.

From there, the film took a while to energize its plot.  MI6 gets blown up, M is facing bureaucratic pressure from her failures, and Bond comes back worse for wear.  These are surely steps the film needed to take, but it didn’t build momentum.  What finally jump started the film for me was the Shanghai sequence.  Personally, this is the most gorgeous part of the whole film.  Bond stalks Patrice, the man he was chasing at the start of the film, and it is inside a skyscraper which is all lit, at night, by brilliant neon glows reflected in an environment of pure glass.  It’s the most neo noir sequence I’ve seen since Blade Runner, and that is exactly the sort of visual style that excites me.  These visuals set a very captivating, dark, and subversive atmosphere.  The ensuing fight between Bond and the assassin Patrice is excellent.  Glass cracking and shattering all around them created a fantastic visual feast that ends on a very precarious, intriguing, and deadly note.  This beautiful cinematography carries over when Bond travels to Macau to further his investigation with a more Asian aesthetic and golden light saturating every frame.

This beauty and so much more is due to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Alongside director Sam Mendes, he creates a picture with amazing visuals and a very strong, personal scope.  The film does look absolutely stunning with beautiful and powerful compositions, highlighting the dramatic weight and action perfectly.  This is a strong turnaround from the bad shaky cam and quick editing incompetence of Quantum of Solace.  Here, the action is handled with more than competence.  It is handled intelligently never resorting to cheap tricks to make them intense or dangerous.  While some of the desaturated visuals aren’t really stimulating for me, they are dead-on reflections of the bleak and dire tone for this story.  Shots displaying the wide open, cold terrain of Scotland are gorgeous and display plenty of depth.  For me, the visuals really do excel in the darker settings where light and shadow are used to gloriously beautiful effect.  Overall, Deakins continues to solidify his artistic reputation with the immaculate quality of this picture.  What’s most startling is that not one frame of film was used to shoot this movie.  Deakins shot is all digitally, and I challenge anyone to tell the difference between this and a high quality film presentation.  Not once did this strike me as a digitally shot movie, but in retrospect, the bold clarity, especially in those dark environments, could only be produced via a digital format.

Skyfall does go darker and more grim with its story and tone.  While the previous two Daniel Craig outings were gritty, visceral, and personal in nature, this digs so much deeper.  While there is definitely a deeply penetrating personal quality for Bond here, this film takes great advantage of Judi Dench’s M.  Silva is a villain directed at her, specifically.  He challenges everything that she is, decisions she has made which parallel those she has made with Bond, and forces her to confront the consequences of her actions.  However, these are not decisions she regrets or ever thought twice about, but are ones that Silva holds against her for turning him into what he is now.  He feels there’s some penance to be done for them both, but she concretely does not share that sentiment.  Adding in a personal vendetta for the villain makes him immensely more dangerous as he will stop at nothing, will short no extent to see her dead and disgraced.

Javier Bardem creates for us one of the most fascinating and brilliantly conceived villains of the franchise.  The first thing I have to note is Silva’s very obvious homoeroticism.  This is blatantly on display in his first meeting with Bond, and it’s almost like, “I can’t believe they went there.”  It’s just the fact that the filmmakers allowed him to go so far as to where innuendo would not be an appropriate term for his behavior.  Even then, Bond plays along with him for a moment.  It’s a very surprising interaction between them.  Yet, this aspect seems to work for the character giving him a very effeminate and uncomfortable manner reflecting that he is an enemy who knows our heroes intimately.  He knows their secrets, and knows how to exploit every bit of knowledge he has on them.  He wants to get in under their skin and twist them around as badly as he has been.  The sort of A View To A Kill Max Zorin blonde hair on the Spanish Bardem also creates a unique, off-beat style for him.  It further pushes his enigmatic, unpredictable personality which is based in how thoroughly he has planned things out ahead of anyone’s anticipation.  It strikes me now what other people have been talking about with this film’s parallels to The Dark Knight.  That’s exactly the sort of villain the Joker was – unpredictable, intelligent, and a man who thoroughly planned out a complex series of events to get himself exactly where he wanted to be, unexpectedly turning the heroes’ victories into grave failures.  Director Sam Mendes did state that Christopher Nolan’s film did have definite influence on Skyfall, and however you want to take it, I think it was an effective and beneficial influence.  It certainly had impact on the tone and visual quality of the film.

Once again, Daniel Craig gives us a Bond that has depth, and is once again a wounded man.  He portrays these detailed, emotional qualities very well while mixing in some traditional Bond wit and suaveness.  He seems to be very comfortable with this more fleshed out and developed Bond.  Craig excellently balances the fun and charismatic aspects of the character with the more grounded, hardened qualities.  He still projects confidence for the future of the franchise under his tenure.

Although, the wounded man aspect of Bond having clearly lost a step is completely abandoned as soon as Silva is captured less than halfway through the film.  He’s apparently worked through it without showing us, and is more of an aspect by the filmmakers used to subvert Silva once Bond is in his lair.  This is surely not a fault of Craig’s performance, but the fact that the film can only focus on so much for so long.  During the time it is part of the plot, it is very good, and explored with plenty of nuance and emotional depth by Craig.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t a constant element of the story to give Bond something more to deal with and overcome while battling an enemy that is several steps ahead of everyone while Bond has actually lost a few.  It’s certainly teased with, but it evaporates a few minutes later when Bond single handedly guns down about a half dozen henchman in a matter of seconds.  He’s suddenly back to one hundred percent, and I think that was a missed opportunity that is never properly resolved, just glossed over.

I do like that the filmmakers have increasingly given Judi Dench more to do as M, and made her a more integral part of Bond’s development.  They have a very real and honest relationship that has built up a strong foundation for 007.  Judi Dench is unsurprisingly excellent here.  Skyfall gives her more than ever to work with, for very good reasons, and she handles everything perfectly.  Her scenes opposite Bardem as intriguing and compelling.  It’s great seeing the reverse side of her M who is usually a very confident and tough woman be faced with real fear.  It’s a situation that she’s not capable of dealing with hands-on, but it’s surely not for a lack of trying.  Dench gives a memorable performance that leaves an indelible impact on the franchise.

While Skyfall does have Bond girls, they don’t play a prominent role in the film for very long.  The most forefront of the two is Naomie Harris as Eve.  She develops a seductive relationship with Bond that results in a few very sensual moments.  Harris and Craig have good chemistry, and that is quite important when you reach the film’s ending.  She will be a recurring character, and Harris is quite capable of the role she was given, maybe even overqualified depending on what they do with her.  She does a fine job, but there’s not much for me to comment on without revealing major spoilers.

On the more dangerous side, I really liked what Bérénice Lim Marlohe did with Sévérine, the provocative lady Bond meets in Shanghai and Macau.  Firstly, she is very seductive, a true femme fatale with a wonderful edge and elegance.  That accent is so enrapturing as well, and she really slinks her way through that casino and into Bond’s attention.  Then, Bond digs deeper into her to reveal how truly terrified she is of Silva.  Marlohe sells this petrifying fear so concretely and realistically.  While her role is ultimately rather small in the overall movie, she does an exceptionally stunning job.  And yes, this film has its marvelously sexy moments that are pure Bond bravado and sensuality.  The only thing that wasn’t well put across with this character, which is a definite spoiler, is the certainty of whether or not Silva actually did kill her.  It was far too implied as the moment is handled too artistically, and that we never see her up-close after the gunshot.  I kept thinking she was a loose thread in the film that I was waiting to see tied up at some point.  It’s not like Bond to just stand there to watch someone innocent get murdered when he demonstrates a minute later how entirely capable he is of gunning down and disarming everyone there.  He could’ve save her life and captured Silva at the same time.  Of course, earlier on, Bond stands by as he watches Patrice use a sniper rifle to kill a random somebody.  So, that confused me too.  Thankfully, the internet cleared this issue up for me, and confirmed that Silva did shoot and skill Sévérine.

Moving on, I have zero problems with the casting of Ralph Fiennes.  While my only exposure to his work is Strange Days, that’s more than enough to get me excited for his inclusion here.  His character of Gareth Mallory might seem like a hard ass, a potential bureaucratic adversary, but through the film, he gradually shows that he is more ally than adversary.  He really takes a massive leap forward in the likability factor while protecting M in a firefight.  As always, Fiennes does a remarkable job, and I think the franchise would be well off to keep him around.

Skyfall finally revives the role of Q with a much younger and more soft spoken portrayal by Ben Whishaw.  He feels very authentic showcasing someone that is very highly proficient with modern computers and technology.  He only gives Bond two gadgets – a radio transmitter homing beacon, and a Walther PPK with a sensor that is fitted to 007’s handprint so that only he can use it.  Yet, Q becomes more vital later on when tracking the escaped Silva via security cameras, and then, laying an electronic trail for Silva to follow out to Scotland for the final confrontation.  Whishaw gives us a character that is very modern and highly relatable as a technologically savvy hipster.  While he is more low key than Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese, he still has plenty of witty exchanges with Bond that are quite enjoyable.  I won’t spoil anything.  However, Skyfall does gives us back all of those Bond regulars at MI6 that have been absent in the Daniel Craig films, and it does it in a very clever and refreshed way.

Now, aside from that pre-credits sequence, which left me a little flat, the action scenes of Skyfall are ultimately very impressive.  Director Sam Mendes had not done anything action oriented before, but he shows a great skill for it here.  Tension and suspense surround them due to the plot driven implications, and that enhances the danger immensely.  Bond gets into plenty of tight situations, but is able to use his confident ingenuity to slip out of them.  Surely, the Shanghai sequence is my favorite of the movie because of its visual style.  However, there is not a sequence with Silva that is not exciting and riveting.  Because he has planned things out so thoroughly and so far in advance, there is an unpredictability to everything he does.  He’s never truly cornered until the very end of the film, and that sells his intelligence and threat level enormously.  There is one massively tense sequence after Silva has escaped that is masterfully done.  Silva springs a surprise on Bond, and gets a long head start towards his goal of killing M.  The tension and emotional peril is at a sharp peak.  What we get is an amazing firefight that manages to a solidly further develop a few characters, and throw all things out of whack for Silva.  This is a brilliantly executed section of the film where anything could happen, and you know it.

The climax is very unconventional for a Bond film where our heroes are holed up in the old Bond family estate named Skyfall.  Setting up traps and secret explosives does both have a classic Bond idea behind it, but with a more gritty, low tech approach.  This is a very long and full sequence that continually ups the scale with larger explosions, more dire situations, and higher tension as Silva closes in on his target.  It really is one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year, and really holds to the visceral style of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.  I found the ending to be very original and effective on many levels.  I didn’t expect this ending, but it was indeed great, regardless.  It has emotional power and resonance for the character of James Bond.  It also sets up new possibilities for Daniel Craig’s run with the character, and does so with a very sly, signature Bond style.

Skyfall is eventually an expertly crafted film that goes deep beneath the surface of its main characters, and takes us to some especially personal places, literally, than I ever expected from a Bond film.  Rarely has much been delved into about James Bond’s family and heritage, but this takes us to where James grew up and tells us many insights into the young man he was before and after his parents tragically died.  It’s great to see the relationship between Bond and M become more personally intertwined, and pay off a lot of what Craig and Dench have done over these three films.

Thus, we have a Bond film that is very different from all others with its more grim, dark tone that focuses on the personal, character driven drama primarily.  All the talent on display is superb in the acting, artistic, and technical departments.  Aside from those first twenty to thirty minutes where the film is unable to gain traction with its plot, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that will undoubtedly be heralded as a success by most.

Perhaps you can anticipate that there is a catch I’m getting to here, and here it is.  For as exquisitely executed as this film is, the element of fun entertainment is not very high.  While I left the theatre very satisfied with what I just saw, on a dramatic and action level, I don’t see myself gravitating towards watching it over and over again like Casino Royale.  Again, while the film has some amazing action, there’s not that thrilling adrenalin rush high that I got with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, GoldenEye, or Casino Royale.  What allowed for that in those movies, at least, was levity and charm.  It’s all about tone allowing an audience to be invested in the suspense, but being able to rejoice in the elation of triumph.  While Skyfall certainly has its good, fun moments, they are just a few moments.  Because of the grim tone, it’s hard for the film to break free into something that feels enjoyably exciting instead of urgently dire.  It can’t have much fun with itself, and when it tries, it feels distinctly out of place.  Case in point is that whenever the film delves into a moment of quirkiness to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, it really disrupts the film’s generally serious tone.  It takes a self-indulgent step outside of itself to poke fun at the conventions of the franchise.  Some moments are more smoothly handled than others, and it is done immensely better than the fortieth anniversary campiness of Die Another Day.  Yet, while on the run from Silva, Bond takes his vintage Connery era Aston Martin out of storage, and comically threatens to use the ejector seat button on M if she insists on complaining throughout the ride.  It is an entirely extraneous silly bit that would’ve been more in place in Die Another Day, and this film would’ve been just that much more consistently credible without it.  Also, when Bond fights off a trio of bodyguards in the Macau casino, he falls into a pit featuring a CGI komodo dragon.  While it plays only a small part in the scene, a film of its grim, dark tone didn’t need a computer generated lizard in a cheeky humorous bit of dragging a bodyguard off to his death.  This is more self-indulgent behavior to poke fun at the franchise when a real tribute would be the make the best, most consistent film you could.  Don’t dilute the tonal integrity of the film by throwing in these nostalgic gags, please.  It would be like The Dark Knight taking inappropriate moments to pay tribute to the Adam West 1960s Batman television series.  They don’t mesh at all.  Skyfall does slightly self-sabotage itself with its heavy tone in making it very difficult to get enjoyable fun of it.  It is highly thrilling and dramatically powerful, but it cannot ease up on the tone to make things fun without making those moments seem out of place.

For as much as I went on about those last bits, they are not a large part of the film, but they were sore thumbs to me.  Most any Bond film I’ve seen, good or bad, has usually been a fun ride, but as I said, this is a very different style of film for the franchise.  I believe Skyfall is a really damn good movie, but I won’t be saying it’s the best Bond of them all.  Casino Royale still ranks as my favorite for many reasons, which I hope to get to in its own review.  That film meshed the fun and gritty aspects perfectly with enough charisma to make it a rousing adventure with personal and emotional depth to spare.  Skyfall goes fully for the darker tone, and director Sam Mendes executes that tone amazingly well.  The villain we are given is greatly memorable who is fantastically written and brilliantly realized by Javier Bardem.  He’s a far more fascinating enemy than most because of his eccentricities coupled with his very personal and deadly nature.  It’s a villain that makes the film exciting and spontaneous.  You cannot predict what the next turn in the story will be because of him.  There is ultimately even more that could be said and discussed about Skyfall.  However, to boil it down simply, it might not be entirely perfect due to that “worse for wear” Bond storyline vanishing part way through, and the lack of ability to be genuinely fun, but it is a vastly successful film in delivering a bold new direction and tone for the franchise.  While Casino Royale brought James Bond back to a more grounded sensibility, Skyfall simply strips more away for a grittier and bleaker storyline.  It is a vast improvement from Quantum of Solace, but I would hope that the next Bond film eases up on the tone a little to allow for more rousing action and more appropriately fun character dynamics.  I do give Skyfall a very strong endorsement, but I don’t think it is the best of the 007 franchise.


GoldenEye (1995)

GoldenEye is the first Bond film I ever saw.  My sister has been a big Pierce Brosnan fan since Remington Steele.  So, us and some friends saw this on opening weekend, and even if there wasn’t that sentimental value, I would still call this one of the finest James Bond films I’ve ever seen.  While it’s not perfect, it excels far beyond so many others that I’ve already reviewed here, and even Brosnan’s follow-ups.

Nine years ago, British Secret Agent James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) infiltrated a chemical weapons facility in Russia with friend and fellow MI-6 Agent Alec Trevelyan 006 (Sean Bean), but the mission went awry when corrupt Russian military officer General Ourumov (Gottfried John) murdered 006.  Today, Bond is assigned by his new boss, a female ‘M’ (Judi Dench) to recover GoldenEye, an orbiting Russian radiation pulse weapon that can destroy any electronic device within its blast radius.  The GoldenEye has been stolen from the Severnya research station by General Ourumov and the lethal and deadly Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), where they also slaughtered the entire staff.  However, there was a lone survivor in computer programmer Natalya Siminova (Izabella Scorupco) who Bonds seeks out in addition to the criminal figure named Janus who Ourumov and Xenia are working for.  Yet, after navigating through the Russian criminal underworld, 007 soon comes face-to-face with the man himself, revealed to be a scarred but living Alec Trevelyan who now seeks to wipe out London with GoldenEye.  With Natalya’s help, Bond races to save London from destruction as well as combat a man that knows him better than he knows himself.

GoldenEye features a great pre-credits sequence that is smart, suspenseful, and lays a strong emotional groundwork for the film, introducing two of its lead villains and our new Bond in Pierce Brosnan.  It also gives the sense of unfinished business amongst these characters which is greatly punctuated by the mysterious title song sung by Tina Turner and written by Bono and The Edge of U2.  The song feels like classic Bond with a gorgeous sound which fits Ms. Turner beautifully.  The title sequence is equally breathtaking with its fall of communism theme.  Making great use of digital effects, this is a title sequence that is able to be very ambitious with its ideas and make them pure reality.  It makes a fantastic splash to an audience that had been without new Bond for six years.

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond both embodies a serious sense of action and dramatic weight as well as a sly, suave, and fun mentality.  He’s a man that enjoys indulging himself in the finer things, and sharing some witty repartee with his friends or adversaries.  Brosnan gracefully balances the slightly immature or playful aspects of the character with the straight seriousness Bond must demonstrate as an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  He’s sophisticated, charming, classy, and elegant.  Brosnan certainly had the charisma and sex appeal to make his portrayal exciting and fresh.  Beyond all else, Brosnan is clearly taking a lot of pleasure in his performance.

The screenwriters and especially director Martin Campbell do an excellent job of building up suspense in this story.  Plot elements are strategically and methodically laid out setting the stage for a very strong story and masterfully executed film.  It has plenty of atmosphere and dramatic tension as 007 weaves his way through the Russian criminal underworld.  What starts out seeming like a subversive plot by a man Bond harbors feelings of revenge against develops into something far more startling for 007.  Revenge is abandoned for betrayal, and the plot becomes a more dimensionally personal one for James Bond.  We get many strong moments of emotional depth from various characters.  Natalya especially shows sorrow, grief, and anger, but is able to connect with James on a very honest and passionate level.  She is able to give him perspective on his feelings of betrayal, and he is able to focus them into a very sharp and clear intent.  The script gives every featured character dimension and purpose with their own relationships.  Natalya has some payback to deliver to Boris, the Severnaya computer programmer who also works for Alec and Ourumov, and James has plenty of sordid business with Ourumov, Xenia, and certainly Alec.  It’s all woven together into a very smartly structured and interconnected plot.  No issues are left unresolved, and everyone has their moments of prominence and purpose.  Simply said, this is a great work of screenwriting with a fresh approach that brought Bond strongly and smartly into a post-Cold War world.

The filmmakers use a combination of digital, practical, and miniature effects work to create some absolutely stunning sequences.  The destruction of the Severnaya facility alone is spectacular.  While the mixture of effects are noticeable to my well trained eyes, they are still damn great.  They create a high quality look for Bond’s first foray into the 90s, and deliver on the standards that you’ve come to except from this series.

The cinematography is also excellent creating some strong atmosphere that gives the film some edge, but never gets especially heavy.  It greatly holds the dramatic weight and urgency of the story with gorgeous lighting and an expert use of angles and composition.  All of the action is shot superbly giving us a great sense of fast paced movement while never sacrificing a clear sense of geography.  This is a golden example of how to competently and thrillingly shoot an action movie.  Enhancing that is some tight, solid editing.  Further credit goes to director Martin Campbell for knowing how to assemble all of these stunning elements into an amazing, rock solid, and exciting film.

My favorite action sequence is indeed the tank chase through St. Petersburg in Russia.  Bond commandeering a Russian tank to chase after Ourumov, who has captured Natalya, is just pure Bond excess and indulgence which has its equal shares of thrills and humor.  It comes off as light-hearted and fun, but never truly silly.  Other sequences are immensely excellent defining the tone of Brosnan’s Bond, and building up a very rousing action film with plenty of consequences.  The climax is absolutely awesome with plenty of big action and fiery thrills to result in an excellent pay-off.  James and Alec battle on the satellite dish in Cuba at a very precarious height.  Both Brosnan and Bean show their immense physical condition and ability to create a very intense and dynamic fight.

GoldenEye features three very good and enjoyable villains.  I think my personal favorite is General Ourumov.  He’s perfectly underhanded and slimy.  Actor Gottfried John put a little bit of wit and humorous charisma into the role making him a lot of fun to watch.  He’s very entertaining during the tank chase where he’s drinking from a flask, obviously a little stressed out, but John maintains him as a cunning and threatening villain.  It’s only a little too bad he doesn’t make it through to the final act of the film, and gets a rather unceremonious departure.

Of course, there’s the incredible Famke Janssen as the very lustful Xenia Onatopp.  She is a very wild woman who gains sensual ecstasy, not from sexual pleasure, but from violence and murder.  Janssen puts so much vile, dangerous passion into this role that she is instantly memorable.  The fact that Xenia likes to kill men by squeezing the life out of them with her legs wrapped around them is only found in a Bond film, and enhances the sexual drive of the character.  This is the role that easily broke her career wide open, and she has enjoyed the subsequent success ever since.

This film also introduced me to Sean Bean and his fine acting talents.  I think it was a great idea to have a villain with a personal connection to James Bond, someone that was once his friend, and could be viewed as his equal in many ways.  Instead of it being a revenge motivation like in Licence to Kill, we get a story of betrayal.  Bean’s performance is almost a dark reflection of Bond, but with a more malicious, malevolent vibe instead of a sly arrogance.  The best part of Alec and James’ exchanges are how deep their words penetrate past their facades or personas.  Still, it seems Alec has the upper hand in bruising James’ soul, probably because he still has one to bruise.  Sean Bean gives us a solid Bond villain who doesn’t fall into the clichéd tropes of old.  He’s more modern and personal of a character that was a fresh, solid fit for this film.

Alan Cumming also chimes in as the very funny and charismatic Boris Grishenko.  Cumming is a marvelously diverse actor who can do practically anything, and he does it amazingly well.  As Boris, he delivers a particularly salacious character who is so entertaining that it’s hard to entirely hate him.  While he is a traitor that left Natalya to die, Cumming’s too much of a vibrant source of laughs to condemn Boris fully, but you still enjoy it when he gets his comeuppance.

On the heroic Bond girl side, Izabella Scorupco proves to be a remarkable talent who shows a wide range of emotion as Natalya.  She can be fun and endearing as well as dig down deep with the pain and grief, such as in the ruins of the Severnaya facility.  What Scorupco puts forth in those scenes is very powerful and a bit heartbreaking.  The emotion really penetrates through the screen as it flows out of every fiber of her being.  She also has plenty of strength and fire as well as compassion and vulnerability to make Natalya a very well rounded and realistic person to invest our sympathies with.  Unlike some other Bond girls, she’s not just along for the ride.  She has a strong, personal stake in everything, and is willing to fight right alongside James at every step.  Her and Brosnan have great chemistry and rhythm between them sharing in the funny, dramatic, and heartfelt moments.  They were a beautiful fit that really gives this film even more strength and weight.

Also, we get a far more satisfying performance from Joe Don Baker here as CIA contact Jack Wade than with his Bond villain turn in The Living Daylights.  He uses his charisma and comic timing to great effect making Wade a genuinely funny personality that became a welcomed returning character in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Considering Felix Leiter got his leg chomped off by a shark in the previous Bond film, the filmmakers decided to change things up with a new CIA contact for Bond, and I think they created a very fresh and entertaining character that contrasted Bond while still complementing him.

Last, but not least, Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for this role, and the idea behind the character was brilliant as well.  Making the head of MI-6 now a woman made the old Bond concepts fresh with new perspectives applied to them.  Her “M” only has two scenes early on, but she really sets a tone that challenges James Bond’s misogynistic and cavalier attitudes.  Yet, for as much as she creates friction with Bond, she also shows her compassion by wishing Bond to come back in one piece.  Dench’s character is appropriately hard when she needs to be, but soft when it counts.  Through both Brosnan and Daniel Craig, she has really developed an excellent character who has become a welcomed highlight of every Bond film for the last seventeen years.

If there’s one thing to levy against GoldenEye is the lack of the classic Bond style scope.  The bulk of the film takes place inside Russia with the final half hour in Cuba.  There are not many exotic locales, or a wide spread canvas for Bond to traverse.  Because of this, the film feels a little narrow in scope.  This was definitely rectified in Pierce Brosnan’s subsequent Bond films, but I feel those films lost the edge this film had.  While Brosnan’s performances never went down in quality, the scripts or filmmakers could never quite hit the personal or passionate nerve that GoldenEye hit for the character.  While not all Bond films need to have plots of a strongly personal nature, I think that element helps to keep the films grounded.  Die Another Day certainly tried to walk the line of personal revenge and over the top indulgence, but the latter tended to dilute the former.  So, while the scopes of the following three films were certainly broadened, the stories didn’t quite have the personal drive of GoldenEye.  While it’s not the perfect or quintessential Bond film that Brosnan could’ve made, I do feel it’s his strongest, most consistent outing.  Although, this is just my personal taste.

After such a long absence from cinemas, many questioned whether or not James Bond was still relevant after the end of the Cold War.  GoldenEye dealt with that blatantly, and answered it with a resounding “yes.”  Director Martin Campbell brought together just the right elements to make this a refreshing, revitalizing success.  It’s no wonder that he was brought back about a decade later to reboot the franchise with yet another fresh approach and tone.  With this film, Pierce Brosnan made a big impact with a James Bond that instantly won over audiences.  It returned us to the suave and sophisticated sensibilities of the character while losing none of the intense action oriented excitement that we all desire from 007.  With a great cast inhabiting some solid and entertaining characters, and a solid foundation of talent behind the camera in all departments, GoldenEye still proves to be an excellent and highly satisfying entry in this franchise.  And yes, James Bond will return, again.


Safe House (2012)

This is me writing this straight after getting home from the theatre.  I saw this a few weeks after release just because of not getting my time in order.  Regardless, what I have to say about Safe House is that it is amazing on many different levels.  There are some cinematography shortcomings, but where it counts, this is a movie that delivers on more than just action.  Safe House is one of the best thrillers I have seen in many, many long years, and this is a genre I am very passionate about.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent who has been stuck as a “housekeeper” for their safe house in Capetown, South Africa for the past twelve months.  Believing he has the potential to become a full fledged case officer, Weston becomes frustrated by the complacency of his career.  Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal, obtains a digital file from an MI6 contact which contains incriminating evidence of several worldwide intelligence agencies.  However, he is targeted by a team of mercenaries, and the MI6 agent is killed in the process.  Seeing no alternative, Frost evades them by walking into an American consulate and turns himself over to the authorities.  This lands Frost in Matt Weston’s safe house where a harsh interrogation by a special ops team begins, but is cut short when the mercenaries attack the safe house.  Weston is forced to escape, taking Frost captive to keep him safe until brought back into CIA hands.  However, Tobin Frost is a master manipulator, and he begins to get into the head of the young operative who finds his morality tested and idealism shaken.  Circumstances soon push Matt Weston into going against orders and to figure out who he can trust before he and the world’s most skillful assassin are both eliminated.

Simply said, this is a very powerful, effective film fronted by two incredible actors.  This film entirely backs up my statements from my Green Lantern review of the wide range and quality of Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability.  Playing opposite Denzel Washington inevitably requires an actor who can carry a lot of weight, and in my mind, Reynolds never slacks off.  Matt Weston starts off the film as a very frustrated, yet untested agent.  He has the ambition to move up in the ranks, but hasn’t the experience to temper his confidence.  The film forces him into a dangerous journey that forges him into a sharp minded, confident, and capable man.  All the while, Reynolds holds up his end of the film with amazing talent.  This is him upping his game and allowing himself to shine through next to Denzel.  That is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the screenplay throws a lot at the character to make it an achievement to be hard earned.  Reynolds’ performance crafts a great and compelling arc for Matt to work through.  The character has many highly relatable aspects, and is a very human character.  He has a loving girlfriend named Ana, portrayed by Nora Arnezeder, who he wants to devote so much of himself to, but he cannot due to the secretive necessity of his job.  And being stuck on this assignment will soon force him to be parted from her as she takes a job opportunity in Paris.  All of these lies and frustrations ultimately create a conflict for Matt as the story forces him into a more perilous position, but never does he let go of his emotional core.

Now, Washington and Reynolds work off each other fantastically creating an evolving character dynamic which is constantly compelling and intriguing.  Throughout the film, Frost is imparting his experience and cunning skill set upon Matt, and this is the basis for their relationship.  At times, it’s survival based, but ultimately, it’s about trust.  As if it needed to be said, Denzel is stunning as Tobin Frost.  He is one of the finest, most talented actors around.  While Denzel usually has roles that allow his natural charm and charisma to work to his advantage, here, he curtails it entirely.  Frost is a far more psychologically driven character who is dark, dangerous, and ruthless.  Morality doesn’t factor into anything, it’s about strategy and survival.  However, he connects with Weston because Frost sees what he once was and wants to help this young man not become the same thing he became.  He’s never straight forward in saying that.  Instead, he works as an observer of Weston’s life, and bestows his experiences upon him.  This ultimately affects Matt’s decisions and actions.  Again, it tempers him, and allows him to survive to make better choices than Frost made.  Denzel is also quite unsettling in how he inhabits the merciless nature of Frost’s violence.  He doesn’t need to shoot a prone man five times, but he does out of cold rage or a vindictive point.  He shows his enemies how more deliberately violent he is by doing such things.  For him, it is only shoot to kill.  Denzel conjures up a brilliant performance of an intelligent, analytical character who brings immense gravitas to the story.  The emotion he shows is subtle and veiled in Frost’s inquisitive and foreboding nature.

The strength of the film is maintained by a solid and impressive supporting cast.  Everyone nails the dramatic weight and tone of the film, and their characters feel fleshed out and realistic.  Brendan Gleeson is the most prominent as Weston’s direct superior, David Barlow.  He plays the subtle turns of the character very nice, and holds an audience’s attention quite well.  The film plays some misdirection here and there, but these moments only continue to fuel Weston’s growing weariness.  Sam Shepard also appears as CIA Director Harland Whitford creating an all around interesting performance that motivates many of the thematic elements through to the end.  An appearance by the always solid and enjoyable Ruben Blades as a document forger adds an extra dimension to Frost.  Even if he happens to be a criminal, it shows that Tobin does have people he trusts and can call a “friend.”

What few scenes we do get of Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau are great.  From tender and affectionate to quietly concerned to distraught and upset, she inhabits all emotional aspects of Matt’s beloved superbly.  While she is never in peril or is a direct motivation for Matt to do what he does, she is always in the back of his mind.  He has something worthwhile in his life that he does not want to lose, but there are bigger ramifications at hand which he cannot turn a blind eye to.  If for nothing else, he wants her kept safe, and makes some difficult choices because of that desire.

This truly is a thriller on the level of Michael Mann.  Even a few moments in the musical score felt evocative of Collateral here for me.  Composer Ramin Djawadi has done some work I am familiar with including Iron Man, the Hugh Jackman-Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and the current CBS crime thriller series Person of Interest – and so, I can truly see why he has tapped for this film.  The score is entirely awesome bringing out some stellar emotional resonance in key moments, and serving the intense action sequences excellently.  This is another powerhouse element that raises the film up to another level.

Now, I have good and bad things to say about the cinematography.  First off, STOP IT!!!  Stop with the blasted shaky cam!  Break out a tripod, a steadicam, or dolly track for one scene!  Safe House was shot by Oliver Wood, who also photographed the first three Jason Bourne films.  Now, while Paul Greengrass has nothing to do with this movie, you would think otherwise in how it was shot.  Still, it is a little better than Greengrass’ Bourne films as the framing can be wider at times, and the lighting is far superior.  You can actually maintain a sense of geography in most action sequences, especially the car chases because the action is given a wider composition.  Still, this trend has worn on me so much over the years, I can only plead filmmakers to stop at this point.  There is one scene between Matt and Ana where it’s supposed to be a quiet emotional scene, but the camera just keeps wobbling all over the place.  From experience, shooting a simple dialogue scene with a handheld camera usually only results in a subtle instability, but here, it is so deliberately shaky like the camera operator was about to stagger and fall over.  The good half of the cinematography is that it does add a necessary gritty, hardened reality to the film.  There is nothing glossy about it, and that’s how it should be.  The lighting reflects this with perfect execution using many color schemes to breathe some vibrancy into select scenes.  There is moodiness and atmosphere, but that gritty texture is always present to maintain a consistent visual style.

And despite the shaky cam crap, the action sequences are massively effective.  This truly has some hardcore action going for it by never pulling any punches.  It’s full-on, straight ahead realism maintaining intense momentum and adrenalin.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are definitely impressive showing Denzel and Ryan handle themselves like dead-on professionals.  They both deliver hard edged physicality which further drove my respect for both actors, especially Reynolds.  It really is a pleasure seeing him in a role that showcases his wide range of abilities, and seeing him handle the physical demands of this film pleases me a great deal.  I also enjoy that the action sequences aren’t there for self-indulgence, they push the plot and character arcs forward.  Seeing Weston beat down on one of the gunman, interrogating him while Frost looks on from afar was an impactful scene.  It starts to beg the question of just what path is Matt Weston starting down.

The screenplay by David Guggenheim is a masterful piece of work.  Every character is written with such strength and depth that they must have jumped right off the page.  The story itself is wonderfully crafted establishing Tobin Frost quickly as a dangerous and cunning man through not just actions but words.  The tone of the scenes are built into how they are written through character interactions and situations.  While everyone else is panicking in the safe house when it is hit, Frost sits there, handcuffed and calm as can be.  He talks Matt through the situation, and tries to keep him calm and focused.  This is a man in control, a man who can see the next step forward.  He always sets up the situation where he has the leverage, where he dictates how it goes down.  This is established right from the beginning of the film, and continues on throughout.  The psychological aspects of the story are brilliant.  Whether or not Matt Weston trusts what Tobin Frost says, he cannot ignore his words when circumstances turnaround on him.  He becomes more and more aware of the truth closing in around him, and Matt must act in his own best interests as a direct result of what he learns from Frost.  The screenplay continually weaves a finely textured fabric of truth and deception around Weston with only Frost as the key to unravel it all.

This is all amazingly executed by director Daniel Espinosa.  You can be certain that his name is one I will take notice of from here on out.  Again, me comparing this to the best of Michael Mann’s work is a huge piece of praise as Mann is my favorite filmmaker (excluding Miami Vice & Public Enemies).  This truly has all the hallmarks of the finest this genre has to offer.  Every emotion, every conflict, every action sequence, and every character is handled with immense care, detail, and weight.  Nothing is cheated or unearned.  Great respect is given to all aspects of this story to craft it into a deeply satisfying and rich film.  I honestly can’t recall seeing another film as dramatically impactful an visceral as this one, theatrically, in a terribly long time.

For me, 2011 was not a great year at the theatre for me.  There were some enjoyable flicks, but nothing remotely as riveting as Safe House came into my view.   Whatever the rest of 2012 holds for me, I always enjoy starting out a new year of cinema with a strong film, and this is one of the most rock solid films around.  With an incredible cast of talent in front of the camera coupled with an intelligently written screenplay populated by powerful characters, Safe House was an absolute pleasure for me to experience.  I am glad I made the time to give it my attention.  I highly and deeply recommend this film for anyone who is excited by a psychologically rich dramatic thriller with visceral action sequences.