‘Skyfall’ – One of the Best James Bond Films Ever Made

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

“American Beauty” director Sam Mendes has just accomplished the impossible; he made a better James Bond movie than “Casino Royale.” That one set the bar for so high to where it should not have been a surprise “Quantum of Solace” was not as good, but “Skyfall” gets my vote for being one of the very best in the 007 franchise. This installment continues in giving us a darker and edgier Bond as portrayed by the excellent Daniel Craig, and it also brings back some of the things many felt were missing from the last two films like the gadgets, the one-liners and, of all people, Q.

“Skyfall” starts off with a bang as we catch up with Bond in Turkey where he is on the trail of a man who has stolen the hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents. While trying to retrieve the drive, Bond is accidentally shot by fellow British agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and presumed dead. But being this all happens at the movie’s beginning, we know he will not stay dead for very long. While we watch him use his presumed death to go into retirement where he gets drunk off his ass while remaining deeply resentful of M’s (Dame Judi Dench) order for Eve to “take the bloody shot,” MI6 is suddenly destroyed and his love of England forces him to return to active duty. Upon his return, he soon discovers M’s nemesis has a very personal connection to her which makes him all the more dangerous.

This film does take its time to get going, but in retrospect it was worth it. Craig’s Bond has never been a superhero, but instead a vulnerable agent with weaknesses he cannot hide from others. As we watch him retrain, Craig shows us his Bond is deeply troubled and almost bent on self-destruction. It’s his duty to the country of England which manages to keep him relatively sane. This is Craig’s third outing as 007, and I still think he’s the best thing to happen to this franchise in a long time, and he looks to be having more fun this time around as he cracks a joke or two.

Thankfully, Craig never lets 007 descend into camp or tries to turn him into a standup comedian with a gun. While his take on this iconic role feels like it been deadly serious, seeing him loosen is a real gift as he has long since come to own this character. In a perfect world, Craig would get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but since the other actors who inhabited Bond never did, it is unlikely he will break tradition in this circumstance.

Now when it comes to my favorite Bond films, they usually are the ones where things get very personal for 007 and those around him. When this happens, they become more emotionally involving and exciting for me to watch as there is more at stake than just defeating a villain bent on world domination. This is especially the case with “Skyfall” as it delves into the past of its main characters in a way I don’t think any Bond movie has done before. The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (“Hugo,” “Coriolanus” and “Gladiator”) places most of its emphasis on relationships, especially on the one between Bond and M. It is that emphasis that makes this film all the more riveting to watch.

Dame Judi Dench, who has played M since Pierce Brosnan first played 007 in “Goldeneye,” benefits here especially as her character is given a more severe complexity than what we have seen previously. Dench has always been superb as M, but ever since Craig came into the series she has been a fireball as she starts out with a powerfully brazen attitude which never ever lets up. But here we see the seams in her controlled nature as the past catches up with her in an especially nasty way. Dench nails every moment she has in “Skyfall” perfectly, and she makes M an especially fascinating character to watch this time around.

“Skyfall” also has the advantage of having not just one, but two terrific Bond girls: Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe. Harris, best known for her roles in “28 Days Later” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, shares a sizzling chemistry and playfulness with Craig, especially in the scene where she gives him a very close shave. As for Marlohe, she’s a knockout as she makes her character of Sévérine as enigmatic as she is beautiful. When Bond asks for the name of her employer, the look of utter fear which crosses her face is an unforgettable moment as it sets up the grand introduction of this film’s Bond villain.

The Bond villain of this piece is Raoul Silva, and he is played by Javier Bardem in a deliciously evil performance. It should be no surprise how brilliantly unnerving he is here as this is the same actor who won an Oscar for playing Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” But when it comes to Silva, he is an especially twisted soul to witness in action. This isn’t a villain bent on world domination, but instead on avenging a betrayal which made him what he is today. Bardem actually doesn’t make his first appearance until well into the film, but he has an unforgettable entrance where he tells a story involving rats. The Bond villains always have great stories to tell, and Silva’s proves to be one of this franchise’s most memorable.

And yes, we do get to see the return of Q, and he is played here by Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas”). Whishaw is splendid in the role as he skillfully underplays this classic character to where he makes it his own. Unlike the late, and still missed, Desmond Llewellyn, this Q is not quite in a position to admonish Bond on a regular basis. Whishaw, however, is able to match wits with Craig and hold his own in a way Q has not always been able to do previously, and he is a lot of fun to watch as a result.

Mendes remains a masterful filmmaker as he manages to balance out the action and the story in “Skyfall” to great effect. I also applaud him for not letting this Bond adventure turn into a clone of a Jason Bourne movie. This proved to be a big problem with “Quantum of Solace” as the shaky cam got to be a bit too much, but Mendes is perfectly aware that while Jason Bourne is Jason Bourne, Bond has been around long enough to where he doesn’t need to copy anyone. The opening sequence gets things off to a thrilling start, and it shows how Mendes has a talent for filming adrenaline pumping action scenes as he does in directing actors to great performances.

“Skyfall” also features a terrific music score by Thomas Newman and one of the best Bond theme songs in a long time performed by Adele. The title song brings back the classic Bond song sound which singers like Shirley Bassey made famous with “Goldfinger,” and it fits the movie’s story perfectly. While I miss David Arnold who has composed the scores for the Bond movies since “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Newman’s work here is exceptional as it sounds unlike any score he has done previously. It’s always a thrill to see a composer step outside of their comfort zone to do something a little different.

But another star of this film I have to single out among others is its cinematographer, Roger Deakins. While I was previously familiar with his work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo” and “Revolutionary Road,” the lighting in “Skyfall” is infinitely beautiful to where I am certain few other cinematographers could never accomplish like he did here. Whether it is Bond’s memorable entrance in Istanbul, his time in Shanghai or the climax in Scotland, he gives us visuals no other director of photography could ever give us.

I don’t think I have ever seen a 007 movie I didn’t like, and even the worst of them prove to be very entertaining to watch. Having said that, it is such a thrill to see a Bond movie where all the elements come together in such a truly fulfilling way. “Skyfall” is not only one of the best Bond movies ever, but also one of best films of 2012. It took four years to get one to the big screen, but it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *

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.

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *