‘Casino Royale’ – James Bond Reborn and Reinvigorated

I came into “Casino Royale” with guarded expectations. When it came to the James Bond films which starred Pierce Brosnan, I found they were best enjoyed with lowered expectations as they veered to the more openly ridiculous films of the Roger Moore era. But once this particular Bond film started with something other than the standard gun barrel sequence, I quickly realized how serious the filmmakers were about reinventing and reinvigorating this long running franchise.

To put it mildly, “Casino Royale” proved to be the best Bond filmI have seen in years, and it was far and away one of the best movies of 2006. For once, we had a 007 movie which actually bothered to take itself seriously, provide us with a villain who was not going after world domination, and a Bond woman who is not just here for display. After seeing the franchise descend into self-parody for far too long, I was stunned at how much effort the filmmakers and producers put into this installment

This film also marked Daniel Craig’s debut as 007. These days, it is hard to believe many were quick to write him off and say how wrong he was for the role of Ian Fleming’s iconic character. What a joy it was to see him have the last laugh on everyone. Right from the start, Craig makes this character is own and gives Bond an edge I felt this British spy had been lacking after Timothy Dalton departed the franchise. But moreover, Craig gives Bond a shocking vulnerability to where it seemed criminal he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance. Seriously, he was that good.

“Casino Royale” also marks the return of director Martin Campbell to the Bond franchise as he previously directed Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as 007 in “Goldeneye,” a film I did not give enough credit upon its release. Rather than simply repeat what he did before, Campbell paints a whole new canvas for Craig to work with, and he gives us a number of thrilling actions set pieces throughout which quickly prove to be the most thrilling this franchise has seen in some time, and they get extra support from the enthralling music score composed by David Arnold.

As I said earlier, this Bond film does not contain a villain bent on world domination, and I was thankful for this as those villains had long since become overused in this or any other franchise. Instead, we get Le Chiffre who is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor who has since become famous for his own interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Le Chiffre may have an Achilles heel or two with his asthma and an eye duct which lets out tears of blood, but he is a formidable foe with his mathematical genius and brilliance at playing chess. Mikkelsen also dares to make Le Chiffre an especially vulnerable Bond villain as his immense ego gets pierced as easily as Bond’s does, and this leads to a scene of painful torture which we have not seen since “Licence to Kill.”

I also have to say how “Casino Royale” does a great job or making Poker such an exciting game to watch. Playing cards in a movie does not sound like something which would lend itself much to cinema, but Campbell milks Poker for all it is worth here to where seeing Bond stare Le Chiffre down is such an immensely satisfying delight.

Now let us go to the Bond woman of this piece as calling her a Bond girl would be an unforgivable insult. She is Vesper Lynd, and she is played by an actress as wonderful as she is beautiful, Eva Green. So memorable in “The Dreamers,” she quickly makes her strong presence known upon her first meeting with Craig on a train speeding to Montenegro. Seeing them stare one another down is a terrific sequence as this Bond film presents us with the first real love story it has had since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this is saying a lot.

If there is a holdover from the Brosnan era, it is Dame Judi Dench who gives audiences the most intimidating version of M yet. She never took it easy on Brosnan, but she goes ballistic when it comes to Craig as his Bond just reached 007 status. Dench makes M a tough nut to crack and a superior who truly means business. If there are any vulnerabilities to this character, we do not see them here as she makes clear to Bond she is not one to be trifled with. Dench is a thrilling presence in “Casino Royale” as a result, and it made me glad she would continue to inhabit this role for a few more films.

In a sense, this franchise has come around full circle with “Casino Royale” as the producers finally got the rights to Fleming’s book after so many years. But more importantly, they came to realize that this franchise needed a serious reboot even though “Die Another Day” was an enormous hit at the box office. While I am not always a big fan of origin stories, movies like “Casino Royale” and “Batman Begins” remind me of how necessary they are and of just how good they can be.

We don’t hear Craig utter the words “the name’s Bond, James Bond” until the very end, but this is perfect as it shows how we have many great adventures to look forward to from here, and we certainly did.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Skyfall’ Cast and Crew on Cinematographer Roger Deakins

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

Skyfall” has earned the respect of both critics and audiences around the world as they rightfully hail it as one of the best James Bond movies ever made. But while Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes have received tremendous praise for their terrific work, there is another man working behind the scenes who is equally deserving: Roger Deakins. Thanks to him, “Skyfall” features such unforgettably beautiful images like the assassination scene in Shanghai and the cold and barren landscape of Scotland. None of this is lost on the cast and crew as they spoke highly of Deakins’ work at the film’s press conference in Beverly Hills.

Deakins is best known for his work on many of the Coen Brothers’ movies such as “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men.” He had previously worked with Mendes on “Revolutionary Road” and “Jarhead,” and the director attributes the look of “Skyfall” solely to Deakins.

Sam Mendes: He contributes what a great cinematographer contributes which is an unbelievable eye, an extraordinary skill in lighting, and for doing an immense amount of work in prep. (He showed) huge care and dedication from day minus 100 to the last day of timing which was only a few weeks ago. He’s a very shy man and he expresses himself through his work, and you just put a camera in front of Roger’s eye and point him in the direction of something interesting and he’s a very happy man. He’s one of the greats and it’s a privilege to have him on the movie.

Daniel Craig: There is an incredibly consistency in his work. He has a surety and you feel like it’s a Sam Mendes movie but it’s also a Roger Deakins movie as well. He has put his stamp on it, it’s not intrusive and it’s very magical.

Bérénice Marlohe, who plays the mysterious Bond girl Sévérine in “Skyfall,” spoke lovingly of Deakins and his work on this film.

Bérénice Marlohe: I have this concept that I’ve always believed in that hugely talented people are hugely humble. When I was on that set, I saw that with Sam, Daniel and him. He’s such a pure, beautiful man and just very focused on his work, and then when I got to see the movie, I would never expect that. The first thing that struck me was that mix of reality, a real story with real human beings, and with each picture it felt like you were having a journey in a dream. It was all so surprising and beautiful.

Naomie Harris, who portrays Eve, also described Deakins as being shy, humble and also added that he was quite “self-effacing.” This made him much different compared to the cinematographers she has worked with in the past.

Naomie Harris: It was a very different experience for me than working with most DPs because they can be very strong characters who really make their presence known on sets, and he’s the complete opposite. He’s really quiet and doesn’t interfere with your process at all, and he’s very respectful of actors’ spaces. For me it was an amazing pleasure to work with him.

To hear all this said about Roger Deakins makes him seem highly unique among the cinematographers of the world. I couldn’t agree more with everyone’s individual assessments of his work as the look of “Skyfall” is indeed gorgeous especially for an action movie. The greatest directors of photography have a look which is all their own and the kind you can notice right away, and Deakins has earned his place among them. Hopefully the Academy Awards will recognize his work here with an Oscar nomination when the time comes around.

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ – ‘The Sopranos’ Prequel Drags When it Should Entertain

I guess it was inevitable that David Chase would eventually revisit the world he created with “The Sopranos,” one of the greatest television shows ever. Vince Gilligan did the same with “El Camino,” the sequel to his acclaimed series “Breaking Bad,” and now Chase gives us “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos.” But while “El Camino” proved to be excellent, this prequel ends up being nowhere as enthralling as even the average “Sopranos” episode. As much as I wanted to like it, I came out of it feeling rather disappointed.

“The Many Saints of Newark” comes with the tagline “Who Made Tony Soprano?” But while Tony is a major character, this movie focuses more on a violent gang war which takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s in Newark, New Jersey. The main character of this piece is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the DiMeo crime family who is also Tony’s uncle. As the story begins, Dickie and Tony are welcoming Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who has just arrived back in America with his new Italian wife, Giuseppina. On the surface, everything and anything seems possible to all the characters, but we know eventually that everything will come crashing down upon them before they know it.

A pivotal moment occurs for Dickie at one point (you’ll know it when it comes), and he ends up visiting his dad’s twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), in the hopes of doing some good deeds which will absolve his soul. It is during these conversations where Salvatore tells Dickie, “Pain comes from always wanting things.” This reminds me of what Mr. Spock once said on the original “Star Trek” series:

“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Salvatore comes to discover this the hard way. While he is serious about doing good deeds, some of us may remember how the road to hell is paved with them, and this is certainly the case here.

The screenplay, which Chase wrote with Lawrence Konner, paints a rich canvas for everyone to work with as it confronts the racial strife in Newark back in the 60’s and 70’s. We watch as African Americans riot against the racist police who abused a black taxi driver just because he was black, and it serves as a depressing reminder of how many still will not learn from history as America remains engulfed all these years later.

At the same time, Chase, Konner and director Alan Taylor, who directed many of the best “Sopranos” episodes, have given themselves too much to work with. While they have vividly captured a turbulent past, the screenplay lacks a center for which to hang everything on, and the movie ends up dragging far too often. As a result, I found my attention wandering in a way I never would have during any “Sopranos” episode.

There is a subplot involving Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) who has returned to Newark to start his own black-led crime operation. The actions of his gang lead to some moments of truly shocking violence which “The Sopranos” was known for, but this does little to alleviate the times where this prequel drags as no one seems to be able to balance out this subplot with all the other varying storylines.

I also got to say there are far too many obvious odes to “Goodfellas” throughout. Maybe I am a little biased because Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime classic remains my all-time favorite movie, but seeing Ray Liotta getting his head smashed into a steering wheel several times over just takes me out of the story for no good reason.

For me, I was hoping “The Many Saints of Newark” would focus more on Tony Soprano as he is presented here as a young adult, and it was fascinating to see how intelligent he was even when he does not apply himself at school. A lot of this has to do with the performance of Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini who originated this iconic role. It is tempting to say Michael got cast because of resemblance to his father, but he did in fact had to audition which was smart. From start to finish, he does a tremendous job of showing Tony to be a confused kid who struggles to find meaning in his life as he is forced to deal with an absent father and an ineffectual mother. As a result, it is no wonder he looks up to his Uncle Dickie, the only one adult who seems to be looking out for him. Michael is terrific and, more importantly, he makes this role his own.

It feels like it has been far too long since I have seen Alessandro Nivola in anything. I still remember him best for being Nicolas Cage’s brother in “Face/Off” and for playing the guy dumb enough to steal some velociraptor eggs in “Jurassic Park III.” But he is excellent here as Dickie Moltisanti, a man who wants to do some good deeds after having performed a number of heinous ones. Still, Dickie is a man whose passions typically get the best of him, and Nivola is great at showing the constant struggles he endures while struggling with a lifestyle which could see him get killed at any moment.

Indeed, there are many great performances throughout. While some have no choice but to inhabit younger versions of “Sopranos” characters to where they offer mere impersonations of them, others are a bit luckier. Vera Farmiga is tremendous as Livia Soprano, the same role made famous by the late great Nancy Marchand, to where if she decided to utter “I wish the lord would take me,” I would have been perfectly fine with that. In addition, John Bernthal makes for a very tough Johnny Soprano, Corey Stoll is excellent as Junior Soprano, and it is fascinating to watch Michela De Rossi as she makes Giuseppina Moltisanti evolve effortlessly from one scene to the next.

I do have some reservations, however, when it comes to Liotta, or half of Liotta anyway. As “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, he overacts to a painful degree as he tries to look and sound older than he really is. Watching him as this character was a bit unnerving, and thankfully this character disappears from the proceedings early on.  

But as the incarcerated Salvatore Moltisanti, Liotta brings an understated menace, the same kind he utilized in “Unlawful Entry,” which makes his performance one of the most compelling here as he dispenses advice which everyone around him would do best to take seriously. Plus, I love how the actor does not have to do much to show how serious Salvatore is about jazz. Seeing him stare at a Miles Davis vinyl record shows the kind of heaven this character seeks in life, and that’s even if it doesn’t bring a smile to his face.

And in a series where the dead characters are still hovering the lives of the living, I liked how Michael Imperioli returns to narrate this movie as Christopher Moltisanti as the character attempts to illustrate how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano. There’s even a scene when Tony first meets Christopher as a baby, and it proves to be ahaunting sign of things to come.

Look, if you are a fan of “The Sopranos,” you are bound to see “The Many Saints of Newark” at some point. What we got here is not a bad movie, and I am thankful that it is not the kind of prequel which hurriedly tries to tie everything together to match up with the events of the show. Still, despite some strong writing and performances, this movie is unbalanced and is nowhere as enthralling as a “Sopranos” episode should be. It sucks to call this a missed opportunity, but it is what it is. There is a lot to admire, but not enough to enjoy.

And if you are interested, yes, Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” is featured here. It would be blasphemy for any “Sopranos” episode or movie to be absent of it.

* * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: “The Many Saints of Newark” is the latest film to be released theatrically while simultaneously being given a month-long streaming release on HBO Max. I have long since found this form of release to be counter-productive as, while it may benefit HBO Max, it completely devalues the theatrical experience. While the COVID pandemic is still a big thing, I truly believe this type of release is one of the main reasons as to why “The Suicide Squad,” “Cry Macho,” “Malignant” and this prequel are dying quickly at the box office. I shudder to think what this will do to “Dune” and “The Matrix Resurrections” as they are being released in the same way, and these two movies demand to be seen on the silver screen. The sooner this simultaneous release pattern ends, the better.  

Bérénice Marlohe on Playing an Especially Haunted Bond Woman in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

French actress Bérénice Marlohe leaves quite the impression with her performance as Sévérine in the James Bond movie “Skyfall.” Like many “Bond girls” (or “Bond women” as many would prefer to call them), Sévérine is beautiful and glamorous, but she also proves to be very enigmatic as she shows a sleek confidence which soon becomes undone at the mention of her employer Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Marlohe is a knockout in the role, and she makes Sévérine one of the more unique and mysterious of Bond girls in this franchise’s history.

Marlohe appeared at the “Skyfall” press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California to answer questions regarding her role as Sévérine. When asked what the notion of being a Bond girl meant to her, Marlohe responded about how what excited her was the mix of “male attitude of power and danger” and “a very glamorous feminine figure” this particular one had to offer.

Bérénice Marlohe: They are theatrical characters, bigger and more colorful than in life like any of the Bond characters. I sensed that I would have a lot of freedom on set, and after the experience I was happy that I could be in those iconic scenes in the casino (where she and Bond meet over a shaken martini) that you find a lot of the time in Bond movies. For me, they are very meaningful in the history of the series so I was very happy to get to be in one of them.

When asked about the audition process, Marlohe said she heard about a friend who encouraged her to go after the role, which she did.

Bérénice Marlohe: I felt so connected with the Bond universe that I spent two days in front of my computer trying to find the contact information of anyone I could possibly find who was involved with the movie. I even found Sam Mendes’ agent Facebook account! And then I found Debbie McWilliams’ (the movie’s casting director) email, and I was so happy that she saw and liked my reel. They auditioned me in Paris on two scenes from “Skyfall,” and they called me back in London and I auditioned again with Sam Mendes. And then I did the third audition with Daniel (Craig) and Sam as well as Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, and then Sam told me I was chosen. I felt extremely peaceful and had a huge feeling of happiness in my stomach over getting the part because I felt very connected with the Bond universe. I called my father and family, and they were very happy for me.

Upon getting cast, Marlohe was determined to create “a real human being” out of the character of Sévérine. It involved a lot of digging inside herself to see what moves her as a human being, and also questioning herself about her own ancestors whom she never got to know. Being in “Skyfall” has also allowed her to speak out for causes she truly believes in as well

Bérénice Marlohe: Researching that character just had me become even more aware of the condition of the world and mainly of what happened in Cambodia years ago. I always wanted to be a voice to fight against the injustice, but I could never do that before. Now I have this ability to be heard, and I just learned that there is a very important trial going on in Cambodia where leaders of Pol Pot’s genocide 37 years ago are being judged. This is what I connected with. I wanted to be a voice for that. This is the incredible advantage I got from doing this movie; the connections I had as a human being and the revelations I had on the set.

Marlohe described her preparation as being very serious, but it was especially important to her that she be relaxed when on set. She also recalled joking around a lot with Craig on a daily basis.

Bérénice Marlohe: You have to be very relaxed and build your connections to the other actors so that it shows onscreen. The shower scene for instance, we (Daniel and I) were so relaxed that I would sing in the shower and he would be like, what? Daniel was doing some impersonations and other stuff in between takes, and the six months we worked together were like that so it was fabulous.

When it comes to Bond’s relationship with women, many still debate if he is still the love them or leave them type, or if 007 has evolved in this three movies Craig has starred in. Marlohe herself hopes that it her character’s destiny were different in “Skyfall,” a huge love story would have come about between Bond and Sévérine. Still, she describes Craig as succeeding in making Bond seem like a real human being.

Bérénice Marlohe: You can see that through his relationship with M (Judi Dench) that he has a sensitivity. They have a very beautiful and pure relationship that is very human and moving.

Some Bond girls develop a great career after they have appeared in a 007 movie while others have somehow vanished without much of a trace. Watching Bérénice Marlohe in “Skyfall” makes me believe we will be seeing a lot more of this French actress in the near future.

Naomie Harris on Portraying a Bond Woman in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

She thrilled us as a hardened survivor in “28 Days Later” and wowed us with mystical powers in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, so it was only a matter of time before English actress Naomie Harris got the chance to play a Bond girl. She finally gets the opportunity in the 007 adventure “Skyfall” where she plays Eve, an MI6 field agent who works hard at being Bond’s equal. She shares a sizzling chemistry with actor Daniel Craig in certain scenes, and it’s the kind of chemistry you want to see last for more than one Bond film.

Harris appeared at the “Skyfall” press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California where she talked about her role as Eve. Being a Bond girl carries with it a weight of expectations, and some still consider a character like this to be sexist in its design. Harris was asked what being a Bond girl meant to her and she said it meant being alluring and beautiful, and she initially found it to be constraining as a result.

Naomie Harris: I usually don’t play roles like that. In fact, I don’t know if I have ever played a role like that before, so I felt confined by all those set ideals. But then a friend of mine gave me a great piece of advice which was, just forget about all of that and imagine you are a part of a low budget movie where you can do whatever you want with this role and just make it your own. And that ultimately is how I come to see Bond girls. In terms of Bond girl terminology, I think we’re just women in Bond movies and women now in Bond movies can be anything so you’re totally free to create. That’s what makes it an interesting role.

Now Bond has a reputation of loving women and leaving them, and this has made being a Bond girl seem less appealing to many people. For Harris, however, playing Eve in “Skyfall” represented an opportunity to portray a new generation of them, and it’s just as well as the Bond franchise is now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Naomie Harris: They certainly said that to me when I auditioned. They said, we want you to create a modern woman that women can respect and admire and look up to, and this is something we’re creating that’s new and different. That was one of the reasons why I was so excited about taking on the challenge of this role.

When asked if people should say Bond girl or Bond woman, Harris replied we can call it whatever we want.

Harris was asked to audition for the role of Eve after director Sam Mendes and casting director Debbie McWilliams saw her in a production of “Frankenstein” directed by Danny Boyle. She had no idea they were in the audience, and her agent later told Harris they wanted to meet with her about being in “Skyfall.”

Naomie Harris: I had two auditions and I didn’t really take it seriously because I never ever saw myself as a Bond girl. I wasn’t really very nervous at all because I know they auditioned hundreds of girls all around the world, and I thought this is right at the beginning of their casting process so they’re not going to cast me. It wasn’t until the third audition when Sam said, “It’s down between you and just two others” that I realized this is actually serious and could actually really happen. That was the first time I got really nervous. Thankfully I got the role and largely because of Boyle because Mendes called him and asked what I was like to work with, and he gave me a glowing report.

Doing “Skyfall” gave Harris a great respect for action heroes because before this she had no idea of the amount of training which goes into getting prepared for a film like this one. Harris even said Craig would do a 15-hour day and then train for 2 hours afterwards, and she doesn’t know of anybody else who works as hard or has that dedication to a particular role.

Naomie Harris: Movies like these are emotionally and hugely physically demanding. For someone like me who’s incredibly lazy and doesn’t exercise at all, it was a big change for me to be exercising for two months before doing the movie. I was out five days a week with a personal trainer, I was on the gun range three days a week, and I was even doing stunt driving and developing all these other skills that I didn’t have before. I really got in touch with my body in a way that I never had before.

When it came to talking about working with Craig, Harris couldn’t have spoken of him more highly.

Naomie Harris: Daniel definitely remembers what it was like coming into this franchise and how intimidating and overwhelming it was for him. It’s amazing that in his third Bond movie he remembers that and he really goes out of his way to make sure that you don’t feel that weight of pressure and that it is shared. He kind of holds your hand and says ‘we’ll get through this together’ throughout the whole thing, and he is an incredibly generous man.

Talking about Craig also let Harris to tell one of the most memorable stories from that press conference.

Naomie Harris: For me the story that sums up Daniel was the first time that I met him. He was having a costume fitting and I was being walked down the hallway and I was asked whether I wanted to meet him. I was very intimidated and I thought I don’t want to bother him while he’s having a costume fitting as that wouldn’t be a great first time to meet him. So, I kept on walking down the hall and he saw me walk past, and as he ran out of his costume fitting, he hit me over the head and said, “Where are you going stupid?” And then he gave me this massive hug and said, “Welcome aboard,” and that for me really sums up Daniel because he’s incredibly down to earth and incredibly warm and also quite silly as well.

In closing, Harris leaves an everlasting impression as Eve in “Skyfall,” and this will become clearer to audiences around the world once they have seen this 007 movie. She is not your average Bond girl who pales in comparison to him, but instead one who can say she’s in many ways his equal.

Naomie Harris: Eve is very capable in the field. She is a very competent field agent but she’s working on this mission with the ultimate field agent who is Bond. She’s never going to be able to live up to him, and no man and no woman can. That’s why he is Bond and so it’s understandable that she needs a bit of help, but I was not happy about having to shoot him. I thought I really wanted to be a better shot than that.

Javier Bardem on Portraying an Unforgettable Bond Villain in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

As Raoul Silva, Javier Bardem gives us one of the most unforgettable and nastiest of Bond villains in the 007 movie “Skyfall.” But unlike other Bond villains who are bent on world domination, Silva is far more interested in seeking revenge on one of this series’ regular characters. It should be no surprise at how Bardem can play such an unnerving character to a great extent as he won an Oscar for playing Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” but it’s the actor’s attention to character which makes his performance as Silva especially riveting.

For Bardem, it doesn’t matter whether the characters he plays are good or bad. What matters to him is if he is able to portray a character as a full-blooded human being with flaws and all.

“As long as there’s a human being behind the character, with some kind of conflict, as we all have, then it’s interesting to play anyone, whether it’s a villain, good guy, bald, long hair, tall or short,” says Bardem.

“Here there is a broken person,” Bardem continued. “What I like the most is there is a clear motive to kill. We understand he is very human and this is powerful. I was attracted to the villain because I thought he was a nice guy. I could see it in his eyes.”

In talking with “Skyfall’s” director, Sam Mendes, Bardem was told the key word regarding Silva was this one, uncomfortableness. This is a character who lives to make the skins of his opponents’ crawl, and Bardem portrays this ever so brilliantly here.

“I don’t want him to be someone that threatens somebody that’s threatening to someone. It’s about creating a very uncomfortable situation every time he talks to somebody else,” Bardem said.

There has also been a lot of talk regarding Silva’s sexuality as many wonder if this is the Bond’s franchise first homosexual villain. In a perfect world, this question would be completely irrelevant as good and bad comes in all forms, but many still cannot help but be curious. Bardem ended up using Silva’s ambiguity to his advantage.

“The character’s sexuality was part of the game,” Bardem said. “Sexuality was there as something important to create the behavior of being uncomfortable. From uncomfortableness, we brought the sense of humor.”

Bardem went on to describe Silva as being “really confident about himself in a weird way,” and that this character thinks of himself as “the most beautiful man in the world.” The actor also explained that while he wanted to make this particular Bond villain unique, he was also fully aware of how these movies were made with the fans in mind.

“You have to work on two different levels,” Bardem said. “One is to make him as real as possible. And the other is to fly a little bit higher than the rest of the characters. You are allowed to do that. Because that is what people are expecting to see when you play a Bond villain, especially since the films are turning 50 years old.”

Mendes himself went on to talk about how playing a Bond villain allows actors to create unusual kinds of characters.

“Doing a Bond movie affords you that kind of flamboyance that you can’t get in purely naturalistic movies,” said Mendes. “As an actor, you get an opportunity to do things that, frankly, are hovering a foot above the ground. They’re not rooted in reality. Javier always has a slight theatricality about him, which we just tweaked in this movie.”

The James Bond movie franchise is now fifty years old, but “Skyfall” makes it feel like it has been reborn. A lot of this is thanks to Mendes and the actors, and it says a lot about Javier Bardem and of how he has created one of the most memorable villains this series has ever seen. Raoul Silva is far from your usual one-dimensional bad guy and who is instead one who has been wronged and is actually justified in seeking revenge against those who abandoned him. As a result, Silva has more layers to him than your usual Bond villain, and Bardem more than rises to the challenge in making him one of the more complex bad guys you will ever see in this or any other motion picture.

SOURCES:

Bryan Alexander, “Javier Bardem gets in Bond’s head as ‘Skyfall’ villain,” USA Today, November 7, 2012.

Alexandra Gratereaux, “Javier Bardem on Being James Bond ‘Skyfall’ Villain: He’s a Broken Person,” Fox News Latino, November 8, 2012.

Jake Coyle, “Javier Bardem in ‘Skyfall’: James Bond Villain for The Ages?” The Huffington Post, October 23, 2012.

‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ is Cinematic Chaos and Lacking in Depth

I came out of “Venom” thinking its inevitable sequel (heaven forbid Marvel or Columbia Pictures lets the train stop there) was easily going to be better. The 2018 film was fun and I was willing to accept “Venom” for what it was, but I could not help but believe a better version of it could have been made. With a talented cast of artists in front of and behind the camera, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” had the possibility of being as good as any of the recent “Spider-Man” movies or perhaps be as good a sequel as “X-Men 2.” Well, what results is is nothing more than sheer chaos which is louder than hell, and it lacks much in the way of depth. Whereas this infamous comic book character once showed a lot of promise for a cinematic adaptation or two, it now feels like a tragically lost opportunity.

We catch up with Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the alien symbiote a year after the events of the first film, and Eddie is still looking for a strong comeback as a news journalist. He finds this comeback while interviewing psychotic serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) who is on the verge of being executed by the state of California. Cletus wants to tell Eddie his life story before he breathes his last breath as he says, “People love serial killers.” But after Eddie and Venom get a peek at Cletus’ prison cell which contains a plethora of clues as to where buried all bodies of victims, they instead betray Cletus’ trust to where his execution gets move up. Cletus, feeling betrayed, ends up biting Eddie’s finger to where his blood quickly infects him. From there, it is only a matter of time before Cletus turns into another symbiote, Carnage.

The most memorable moments in this “Venom” sequel come near the beginning when the title character and Eddie struggle to co-exist with one another. Director Andy Serkis has cited “The Odd Couple” as a major influence on this film, and it certainly shows in the early scenes as Venom is desperate to eat and digest some human heads while Eddie struggles to keep the symbiote’s hunger at bay with chickens and a truckload of chocolate. Still, Venom is quick to physically drag Eddie all over the place to where they literally hanging off the edge of a building.

Of course, considering how messy these two are, I have to wonder who is Oscar and Felix in this relationship. The way I see it, Eddie and Venom could both be Oscar while the role of clean-freak Felix would remain unfilled. Or maybe Eddie is the Felix in this relationship as we watch him meticulously clean up all the trash Venom leaves. Then again, Eddie never seems to shave and rides a motorcycle, things Felix would never do.

Anyway, there is a great scene in which Venom attempts to console Eddie after he discovers his ex-fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is now engaged to Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott) because she says he makes her feel safe (lord only knows why). Seeing this pesky symbiote make Eddie breakfast while singing him a song is one of my favorite moments as it is truly inspired and something I did not expect to see.

But then there comes a pivotal moment when Venom, having grown tired and frustrated at Eddie for constantly wrangling him in, furiously departs his body and searches for a new host. It is then in which Eddie enjoys the first peace and quiet he has had in what must seem like ages. And that’s the thing, I enjoyed this peace and quiet too. For this sequel to have a moment a silence felt so welcome to me, and it could have used many quieter moments as well.

Before and after Eddie’s moment of comfortable solitude, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is sheer cinematic chaos filled with endlessly loud noises and explosions which proved to be overwhelming instead of thrilling. While Serkis doesn’t go all Michael Bay on us, and I could tell the difference between Venom and Carnage during their fight scenes, what we get is a lot of sound and fury which signifies very little. Sure, there are some laughs to be had, but the story and its characters do not have much in the way of depth.

I never felt fully engaged in any of the characters’ plights even as the world they inhabit is threatened with utter destruction. We learn of how Cletus was institutionalized as a child, and it was there he met the love of his life, Frances Barrison/a.k.a Shriek (Naomie Harris) who is soon stollen away from him. In a film like this one, a broken heart is something to be deeply feared. Still, everyone looks to be going through the motions to where I never cared much for anyone or how things would turn out. The only character I really gave a damn about was Venom as we watch him going up and down the streets of San Francisco looking for acceptance, and seeing him find it at a rave was fun, however brief it was.

Tom Hardy is a perfect choice to play Eddie Brock/Venom, but while he is certainly not bad here, he plays these characters a bit too broadly. While everyone here has gone out of their way to embrace the silliness of the previous film, I was hoping he would bring more pathos to this, but we instead just watch him suffer through all of Venom’s madness while wearing the kind of jacket and t-shirt Axel Foley wore in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, and it all quickly becomes tiresome and exhausting.

As for Harrelson, he makes Cletus an entertaining character but does not bring the fear and malevolence to this serial killer which I have seen him do in other films. At this point, I believe Harrelson can play anyone, be it a hero or a villain, and we have already seen him play at least one American President. But here, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel gives him only so much to work with, and he never comes across as a serious threat to the protagonists. Perhaps if Cletus was more like Harrelson’s character of Harlan DeGroat from “Out of the Furnace,” he would have been a far more enthralling antagonist.

In some ways, Naomie Harris represents the stronger adversary as she embodies Frances/Shriek in such a slyly threatening way to where when Shriek screams, the actress makes you feel the power of her scream all the more intensely. Seriously, she makes clear how Shriek can easily render you deaf or, at the very least, can give you a nasty case of tinnitus which will have you begging to be deaf. Alas, it is not meant to be as, like Harrelson, she has been given a role which was not as complex as I thought it would be.

As “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” rages on to is infinitely furious climax, I sat back in my seat wondering if a theater employee would be kind enough to turn the volume down. I was never thrilled with all the chaos being presented, and I walked out this sequel feeling rather empty and let down. While it is tempting to blame this on the weariness I have since developed for superhero movies in general (I have not been in a rush to see “Black Widow” or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”), this is simply a film which is not very good.

I figured with someone like Serkis, who should have at least 6 or 7 Oscars for his work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” or as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films, would bring a sense of wonder and imagination to this material. Instead, everything here feels average and shallow, and the endless bombast quickly becomes numbing to the senses.

As comic book characters go, Venom always seemed a must for a cinematic adaptation, perhaps even more so than Captain America. His transition to the silver screen, however, has been a bumpy and rather frustrating one. The character’s first appearance in “Spider-Man 3” was more of an after thought than anything else, and it proved to be just as disappointing as the film itself. I did like the first “Venom” film, but many did not, and I think I have a better understanding of why now. This character came with many expectations whereas Captain America initially did not, and it is no wonder as to which Marvel character had the easier time in any cinematic universe it could be a part of.

Despite some strong moments from Michelle Williams, and she is fantastic in everything she does, and a scene stealing performance by Peggy Lu as convenience store owner Mrs. Chen, there is very little I enjoyed about “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” as it feels like a poor facsimile of many superhero movies I have seen before. If there is to be a third “Venom” film, my hope is more attention will be paid to the story and the screenplay. If we should expect anything from any “Venom” film, it should be for it not to seem or feel the least bit average.

And by the way, where was Eminem’s “Venom” song? I kept waiting to hear it throughout!

* * out of * * * *

Dame Judi Dench on Making M a Central Character in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Skyfall” marks Dame Judi Dench’s seventh appearance as MI6 spy master M, and it gives the Oscar winning actress her biggest role yet in the James Bond franchise. Ever since her first appearance in “Goldeneye,” the same film which introduced Pierce Brosnan as 007, Dench has made the character a no-nonsense leader who considers the famous secret agent “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War.” M also shows no hesitation about sending Bond to his death if the situation calls for it, and this made the role all the more exciting for Dench to play.

“A man saying that to Bond is one thing, but a woman saying that to him was quite another,” says Dench.

Whereas M has typically remained on the periphery of the Bond movies, “Skyfall” has her playing a significant part in the film’s story. We come to learn more about M’s past as it catches up with her in the form of one of the nastiest Bond villains ever, Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem). Dench was understandably excited about her enlarged role in this particular 007 film as Bond struggles to protect M against Silva who has a very personal vendetta to settle with her.

“It’s very nice to be out from behind the desk,” Dench said. “It’s extremely nice to get a go in the field, as it were, and get a bit of the action. It made me feel very grown-up. It’s not just the fellas who are spinning about and shooting guns – I get a go.”

In talking about M’s backstory, Dench talked about the need for actors to create one for themselves even if it is not there in the script.

“You always have to make a backstory for yourself in order to know how to react to certain things,” Dench said. “I’ve had this backstory with two grown up daughters and everything. I knew her capabilities and I knew that she must have been through all sorts of things in order to get where she was and hold this job over a lot of chaps at MI6. So I knew her capabilities but I’m very glad they came to the fore.”

As for how she prepares for a role, especially this one which she has held onto for 18 years, Dench said it is no different from when she plays a character in the theatre.

“With M, she’s always slightly changed in each film,” Dench said. “In the first one (“Goldeneye”) naturally I would have thought out why and how this woman has gotten to this part and why she’s head of MI6. Each time you come to do it you actually learn a little bit more about her, and you supply a little bit more about her. So there’s a lot more of the relationship between her and Bond beforehand that goes into this one, but it adds a bit more because there’s more to tell.”

There’s a lot more which could be said about Dench’s role in “Skyfall,” but doing so would give away many of this film’s surprises (and there are several to discover throughout). What can be said about Dench is she will always be a tremendous acting talent we should all feel privileged to watch in anything she appears in. Perhaps the person who can sum Dench up best would be “Skyfall’s” director Sam Mendes who also had the fortune of directing her in a production of “The Cherry Orchard.”

“She was the first bona fide great actor I had ever worked with,” said Mendes. “I learned more from watching her, the way she worked, than I ever had before. She would never think of herself as a teacher. She has too much humility and too much grace to consider herself to be knowledgeable. But in fact, it wasn’t about what she said, it was about how she conducted herself, how she rehearsed, how she thought about the play, her dedication to the play and the audience, her work ethic.”

SOURCES:

Jake Coyle, “Judi Dench on ‘Skyfall’ & Her Reign as M (SPOILER INCLUDED),” The Huffington Post, November 9, 2012.

Daniel Fienberg, “‘Skyfall’ star Judi Dench enjoyed going to ‘the ammunition shed’ for the new James Bond adventure,” Hitfix, November 5, 2012.

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Dame Judi Dench Talks SKYFALL, Working with Roger Deakins, the Best Part of Playing M, Her Upcoming Stephen Frears Film, and More,” Collider, November 8, 2012.

Daniel Craig on Playing James Bond in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

They say third time’s the charm, and this could not be truer for actor Daniel Craig’s third go around as James Bond in “Skyfall.” Many are calling this latest 007 adventure one of the best ever, and by now there should be no doubt that Craig is the best actor to play Bond since Sean Connery. Craig goes on record about how he prepared to portray the iconic British spy this time around, and of the rules he and the filmmakers broke in this franchise.

At a recent press conference, Naomie Harris, who plays agent Eve, said Craig worked a 15-hour day on set, and then he spends another two hours doing physical training. Craig talked about how he trained for “Skyfall.”

“I’m not a fighter. I pretend to be one. It’s bullshit boxing,” Craig said. “I had to do a lot of running in this movie, which I hate. I did a lot of sprinting and running. Bond doesn’t usually walk through a room. … On paper it looks very easy: it says Bond goes from A to B and he goes from B to C. But he goes from A to B at a lick. He runs down the stairs, he runs up the stairs, and you have to do 10 takes at a time.”

One big question people had for Craig was how many of his own stunts he did for “Skyfall.” He wasn’t about to fool anyone with his answer.

“I get a kick out of it,” Daniel said of the action scenes. “I don’t do all my stunts. I’d be lying if I said that. But I like the fact that occasionally that you’ll see on screen that it’s my face and it’s me. And I think audiences hopefully appreciate that. At least, I really hope they do.”

Craig, however, did participate in one hair raising stunt which takes place during the movie’s prologue which takes place in Turkey.

“My first day on the train was just about learning how to stand up. The train was going about 25 mph, but it’s not the speed that matters, it’s the side-to-side motion,” Craig said. “Then when we get over the bridge, it’s a 300-foot drop over this ravine. They all said, ‘Don’t look down!’ And I tried not to.”

With this particular 007 movie, Craig was determined this time to bring Bond back to the basics. In other words, it was time to bring back the gags and the gadgets audiences had been missing in the previous installments.

“I always had a plan in my head, however tenuous it was, that when we did ‘Casino Royale’ – that was the beginning – we had to set a tone. Then we finished the story in ‘Quantum of Solace’ and wrapped it all up. The third one would always be about bringing in the classic Bond,” Craig said. “The characters, the people that really make a Bond movie a Bond movie. That was my only desire.”

But there is one rule which Craig freely breaks in “Skyfall,” and it is showing Bond crying. Some will say it is an unbreakable commandment for 007 to shed tears over anybody, but ever since “Casino Royale,” the rules for how to make a Bond movie have been broken out of sheer necessity. Things needed to be reinvented in order for Ian Fleming’s famous secret agent to remain relevant in this day and age. Even when Craig jokes how Bond is seen sweating, he makes it clear how he and the filmmakers are looking to break the rules of the fifty-year-old franchise.

“Of course we did, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to mess around with it,” Craig said. “It’s interesting: You said he cries, other people I know said he doesn’t cry, it’s open. But it’s an emotional scene.”

There’s also no forgetting Mr. Fleming whose books gave life to this long series. As time goes on, the filmmakers and whoever plays Bond remain dedicated to portraying the character as closely to the books as they possibly can. At the same time, Bond is a complicated kind of secret agent.

“We always go back to Fleming when we sit and discuss, and if you look at the novels, he’s so conflicted,” Craig said. “Fleming tries to kill him off. He gets really pissed at him. And he’s a killer. He kills for a living. It’s a very dark place he goes to.”

Daniel Craig is contracted to do at least two more movies as James Bond, and he is not about to part with the role. Here’s hoping he lasts even longer as he is the best actor to inhabit this iconic role since Connery.

SOURCES:

Jay Stone, “Daniel Craig on playing Skyfall’s ‘complicated’ Bond,” Canada.com, November 5, 2012.

John Boone, “James Bond in Action, in Love and…in Tears?! Everything You Want to Know About ‘Skyfall,’” E! Online, November 9, 2012.

Stephen Galloway, “‘Skyfall’ Star Daniel Craig Reveals the Downside of Being James Bond (Q&A;),” The Hollywood Reporter, November 8, 2012.

Hollie McKay, “Bond Turns 50: Daniel Craig says ‘Skyfall’ is ‘classic Bond,’ wishes next 007 ‘good luck,‘” Fox News, October 24, 2012.

‘A Clockwork Orange’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

As a film lover and someone who considers themselves well-versed in the world of cinema, I’m sad to report this was my first-time watching “A Clockwork Orange.” I feel like no matter how many films you have seen, there are usually a dozen or so that have just slipped through the cracks. This is the 50th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick classic and, as a first-time viewer, I can’t imagine the impact it had on viewers when it first came out. I know from reading up on it, it was quite controversial and misunderstood, but it ended up gaining a cult following. After watching it last night, I can’t wait to watch it again.  Kubrick is truly a genius when it comes to cinema. There is always so much happening in his films, but everything is happening for a specific purpose.

The first forty-five minutes or so of “A Clockwork Orange” are a little out there and a little frustrating from a narrative perspective. The film is set in a dystopian Britain where a group of young gang members run around terrorizing anyone who gets in their path. For example, when they run into a homeless man, they beat him up simply because they find it amusing and comical.  In another instance, they go out of their way to create chaos and havoc for a writer and his wife by attacking them in the middle of the night.  One night, this group of four young men takes it too far when one of their members, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) ends up killing a wealthy woman. His three fellow gang members leave him behind, the police catch him, and he is sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

The early part of “A Clockwork Orange” is not necessarily hard to watch as I’m used to movie violence, and it takes a lot to upset me or really get under my skin.  It’s more so that Alex and his “droogs” are unpleasant to spend time with, which I would venture to guess was Kubrick’s intent as a filmmaker. This film is based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. I think they could have trimmed out some of their antics in the film as, at times, it’s beating the audience over the head with violence and becomes repetitive and dull.  However, when Alex is sent to prison, it is when the film becomes really, really interesting and takes off.

After being well-behaved in prison for two years, Alex hears about this experiment which allows someone to be cured almost instantly of their bad thoughts and impulses. They start to think and behave without any lust or violence.  The experiment exposes them to footage of violence, rape, and other heinous acts.  When they see this footage, they start to become sick.  Because of this, if they ever have the urge to misbehave again, it is quickly stopped because of how they feel after the aversion therapy.  The prison chaplain tries to warn Alex against it by telling him the good should come from inside of him and the choices he makes.

What happens from there makes for an incredibly thrilling and intense final act. The beauty of a Kubrick film is the details all around you that are happening in a scene.  For example, when Alex returns home, the way his house is shot is gorgeous.  Kubrick is never afraid to use colors and lots of them. He knows the beauty of imagery, color and scenery, and it makes the scenes much more effective. There is also his use of music.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to “Singing in the Rain” or anything from Beethoven again without thinking of this film. There is a purpose for everything in his films from a visual and audio standpoint.

I could go on and on about “A Clockwork Orange.”  The best praise I could give the film is that I want to watch it again and again.  Kubrick was a true visionary of cinema.  This film also has a lot to say about politics, drugs (think of the milk featured here), violence, sex, karma and so much more.  After I woke up today to write this review, the film was still in my head.  His films really stay with you and mess with your head in the best possible way.  On 4K, the brightness is taken to a whole new level.  I know I’m stating the obvious here, but Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is a masterpiece. I absolutely loved this film.  It’s a great reminder of how great movies will always stand the test of time, no matter when they were released.

* * * * out of * * * *

4K/Blu-Ray Info: “A Clockwork Orange” is released on a 4K/Blu-ray combo pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. It comes with the 4K, Blu-ray, and also a digital copy of the film as well. It has a running time of 137 minutes and is rated R.

Video Info: The 4K of the film comes in 2160p Ultra High Definition with a ratio of 16×9 1.66:1.  If any film ever deserved the 4K treatment, it is “A Clockwork Orange.” I plan on watching the Blu-ray of the film at some point, but the high dynamic range and the colors are on full-display with the 4K.  The film is mesmerizing to watch on 4K. This is the reason why more and more people are getting 4K TV’s and players for films like this. They were made for 4K.  There is no other way to watch it at home. The Blu-ray of the film comes in 1080p High Definition with a ratio of 16×9 1.66:1.

Audio Info: The audio for the film is presented in DTS-HD MA: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English, French and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish as well. This applies to both the 4K and Blu-ray discs.

Special Features:

Commentary by Malcolm McDowell and Nick Redman

Still Tickin’: The Return of Clockwork Orange [2000 Channel 4 Documentary]

Great Bolshy Yarblockos! Making A Clockwork Orange

Turning Like Clockwork

Malcolm McDowell Looks Back

O Lucky Malcolm!

Should You Buy It?

According to the press release, the special features are the same released on the previous Blu-ray of the film, which is a bit of a bummer.  One would have hoped they would have done an updated version of the special features, especially with it being the 50th anniversary of this film.  If you haven’t seen “A Clockwork Orange” before, you are missing out! I can vouch for that.  This one is a no-brainer to add to your collection for the film itself and the visual aspects of 4K. 

This film is going to stay with me for a long, long time, and I get to watch it again on Blu-ray and 4K.  I can even watch it on my iPad because of the digital copy which comes with this combo pack.  However, as Spike Lee says, do the right thing and watch it on 4K. There will never be another director like Kubrick.  Kudos as well to Warner Brothers for their recent upgrades of classic films like “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” They are on a roll lately!

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.