MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence and Thematic Elements

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Michael Green

(based on the novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton & Marwan Kenzari

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is arguably Agatha Christie’s most popular mystery novel (with AND THEN THERE WERE NONE being the only possible exception). Christie’s book has been adapted onto the big screen, the radio, and the small screen (three different times). ORIENT EXPRESS’s most recent adaptation has come loaded with big talent and recognizable faces. Though this film isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t rank it as the best Agatha Christie adaptation that I’ve sat through (that honor actually belongs to the miniseries adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS should provide classy entertainment for mature audiences.

In the 1930s, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is famous for solving seemingly unsolvable cases. Poirot seems determined to put a stop to all crime, but he also needs occasional vacation time. In an effort to get away from his stressful line of work, this mustachioed crime-solver has booked passage on the Orient Express in the dead of winter. Poirot’s holiday is cut short by the sudden murder of shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). To make matters even worse, an avalanche has derailed the train. With a train full of suspects and an increasingly tense atmosphere, Poirot must uncover the killer’s identity before another life is lost.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS benefits from high production values and a cast/crew who clearly cared about putting their all into this project. Kenneth Branagh shot this film on 65mm cameras and the resulting visuals are gorgeous to behold. Most of MURDER’s plot doesn’t necessarily rely on effects (other than shots of the train and its snowy location), instead playing out as a tense thriller between its contained cast of characters. There are a couple of confrontations and suspenseful chases, but this film mostly builds its tension from conversations and flashbacks within those conversations (that reveal further clues about a possible motive and the killer’s identity).

Having not read the source material, I had the pleasure of not knowing a thing about MURDER’s conclusion. Though thrilling, unexpected and oddly moving, I have to imagine that ORIENT EXPRESS will likely lose some of its impact on repeated viewings. Still, the film benefits from the sheer entertainment of Kenneth Branagh in the leading role as Hercule Poirot. This over-the-top Belgian detective is quirky to the extreme and noticeably obsessive-compulsive, as opposed to being a borderline sociopathic detective (ala Sherlock Holmes). Besides driving the plot forward and cleverly piecing together clues for the viewer, Branagh’s Poirot also provides enjoyable comic relief. The tonal mix of almost cartoonish humor and straight-faced seriousness never once dissuaded my love for this strange protagonist.

As far as the supporting cast goes, ORIENT EXPRESS contains quite the impressive gathering of A-listers and emerging talent among its passengers/suspects. Johnny Depp gets some mileage out of his scumbag victim because he actually gets to flex his acting muscles in this role. Penelope Cruz is a standout as a suspicious missionary, while Willem Dafoe plays an oddball professor. Judi Dench fits well into the role of a creepy princess. The usually comedic Josh Gad plays a far darker character than his usual light-hearted fare. Michelle Pfeiffer is a hysterical (though possibly deceptive) passenger, while Daisy Ridley is a charming (though possibly homicidal) woman hiding secrets. Meanwhile, Leslie Odom Jr. is good enough as the charismatic (but possibly murderous) doctor.

On the non-suspect side of things, Tom Bateman is also a lot of fun as Poirot’s best friend (and the Orient Express’s director) Bouc. ORIENT EXPRESS’s only noticeably bad performances come from Lucy Boynton as a reclusive countess and Sergei Polunin as her ill-tempered count husband. Boynton is bland in her role and doesn’t get enough screen time to leave much of a positive impression at all. Meanwhile, Polunin is laughably over-the-top in the scenes where he switches from a calm 0 to a furiously enraged 100 in a matter of seconds. His violent temper just feels unbelievably forced. One confrontation involving this character comes out of nowhere and is almost laughably bad due to Polunin’s unconvincing line delivery. Still, both of these performers don’t receive too much screen time.

The beauty of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is that its seemingly simple murder-mystery that gets drastically more complex as the list of possible suspects and motives continues to grow. Clues and red herrings run rampant. The viewer’s emotions are thrown into a borderline distressed state as you try to figure out who the killer is…much like protagonist Poirot. As I mentioned before, I don’t think this film will hold up nearly as well upon a second viewing. Once the cat has been let out of the bag, the film’s surprise and novelty is pretty much gone. However, Branagh’s Poirot, the visuals, and performances from a talented cast make a viewing worthwhile. If you’re into murder mysteries and enjoy classy slow-burn storytelling, then you’ll likely dig MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

Grade: B

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Fantasy Action/Violence and Peril

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Jane Goldman

(based on the novel MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs)

Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie & Samuel L. Jackson

To be perfectly blunt, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is Tim Burton’s X-MEN. I’m far from the first person to say that and I know that this film is based on a popular series of dark-fantasy books. However, the comparison is definitely valid. Taken on its own merits, there are positive qualities in PECULIAR CHILDREN. However, lots of factors contribute to the film being merely okay as opposed to anything special or a return to oddball form for Burton. This is yet another young-adult adaptation that feels like set-up for a franchise with more interesting installments down the line.

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is an angsty teen who’s recently lost his dementia-ridden grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) to unnatural causes. Abe would constantly wow kindergarten-aged Jake with tales of invisible children, monsters, and shapeshifters, but Jake outgrew those silly stories. In coping with his grandfather’s untimely death, Jake discovers there may be some truth to the old man’s stories. Jake soon finds himself immersed in a “time loop” with weird headmistress Alma Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar children. Dark forces soon threaten Jake, Peregrine and the strange youngsters, putting bravery to the test and throwing Jake into a supernatural conflict that he’s just beginning to understand.

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The good news is that MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN isn’t on the same low quality that many other generic adolescent-aimed adaptations have been. This isn’t nearly as lame as something like DIVERGENT, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, BEASTLY, TWILIGHT, etc. The slick cinematography, special effects (lots of cool CGI and impressive stop-motion) and sheer amount of creativity make PEREGRINE serviceable enough for older viewers and entertaining for younger viewers who might not be familiar with the books. Burton has occasional moments of great weirdness that feel like they belong in his earlier films. The second half is fun to watch as we see the X-Men, I mean the Peculiar Children, facing off against Lovecraftian monsters.

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Now for the negative, PECULIAR CHILDREN takes an entire hour to set up the basics of its plot and establish the supernatural world that Jake finds himself in. There have been plenty of fantasy adventures that introduced new story elements as the plot moved forward, but PEREGRINE seems to be deliberately taking its time to establish the universe for future films. There are so many rules, exposition-filled conversations, and explanations that it takes nearly 60 minutes to sit through these patience-testing plot developments. What’s even more frustrating is that apparently this film deviates significantly from the source material (according to a friend who has read the books), so this is a problem that lies squarely on the movie’s shoulders.

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As far as characters go, almost everybody seems to be defined by their powers. To bring up the aforementioned X-MEN comparison, there are mutants in that series who are defined by their powers, but there are also plenty of deep backstories and distinct personalities. The same cannot be said of MISS PEREGRINE as these kids are their peculiarities (a.k.a. powers). These supernatural abilities (or as Charles Xavier would call them “gifts”) serve as jokes, defense tools and excuses to further along the plot (e.g. one kid projects his dreams). Asa Butterfield has proven himself to be a talented performer in the past (HUGO, ENDER’S GAME) and seems to be have been handed a bland protagonist here. Jake feels like a character that we’ve seen a million times before and portrayed better.

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Terence Stamp is decent as Jake’s “delusional” grandfather, while Chris O’Dowd is entirely wasted as Jake’s concerned father. He’s understandably worried about his son’s mental health and we never get a concluding scene with his character. Eva Green is hollow as Miss Peregrine, serving almost no purpose other than guarding the children and explaining stuff to Jake (and the viewer). Samuel L. Jackson plays his most over-the-top villain since 2008’s THE SPIRIT as the eyeball-eating mad scientist Barron. It seems like Tim Burton (as so many other directors have) just let Jackson do his own thing in front of the camera. Sometimes this strategy works and other times (like in this film) it falls completely flat.

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Though MISS PEREGRINE definitely has problems, it should be mentioned that I don’t think this is a bad film. It’s just one of the lesser Burton efforts and seems overly familiar in a cinematic landscape that’s already become watered down with young adult adaptations in recent years. PECULIAR CHILDREN is just okay by both Burton standards, adolescent adaptation quality, and pure entertainment. I had fun watching the second half and was utterly bored by the poorly paced first hour. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to sitting through any future PECULIAR installments in a potential trilogy. However, it would be nice if franchise starters could hold up on their own merits as opposed to feeling like a feature-length commercial for future sequels that might not even happen.

Grade: C+

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexuality

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Directed by: John Madden

Written by: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton & Tom Wilkinson

I’ll address the elephant in the room first. A lot of people feel that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE stole the 1998’s Academy Award for Best Picture away from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, thus some backlash has generated against this film (similar to backlash that’s generated against TITANIC and FORREST GUMP). While I definitely don’t think that everyone will enjoy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I will say that it enraptured me from the first frame and was a hugely entertaining experience as a whole. I imagine that the film will work a similar spell upon fans of Shakespeare’s work and 16th century period dramas. The film is a romantic comedy that succeeds in being more than just a stereotypical chick flick (though it does contain a few well-worn clichés), but rather a beautiful love story featuring one of history’s most famous influential writers.

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The year is 1593 and William Shakespeare is a struggling playwright trying to make his way in London. Though he has a way with words, Shakespeare is encountering a particularly nasty bit of writer’s block as he tries to construct a new comedy (titled ROMEO AND ETHEL, THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER). Through a few passing circumstances, Romeo finds a muse in the lovely Viola de Lesseps, a royal woman with a penchant for plays. In a forbidden friendship and secret romance, Shakespeare constructs his most famous play. We see how inspiration, tragedy, and timeless love hits William as his relationship with Viola evolves.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was shot on a budget of 25 million and that seems nearly impossible given the film’s sheer beauty, attention to detail, and elaborate costumes on display. The Elizabethan setting comes to colorful and dank life (depending on the scene) as every piece of jewelry and grimy smudge of dirt shines on the camera. Not once, does it ever appear that this film was shot on a sound stage. Instead, it makes me question as to whether director John Madden used a time machine to shoot this film in 16th century London. It looks that friggin’ good. The spectacle alone is worth watching, but that’s far from the most enjoyable aspect of this film.

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The cast includes many big names (some of whom weren’t nearly as famous as they are today). Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as William Shakespeare and exudes the kind of eccentricity that one would assume the brilliant playwright had on a daily basis. Gwyneth Paltrow is great as Viola. Though the character was invented purely for the purposes of this film, I couldn’t help but see her as one of those rare nobles with a deep appreciation for the theatre. Colin Firth is fantastic as a pompous jerk with his eye on Viola. Though he’s in a small role, Ben Affleck is enjoyable as an actor who takes his craft very seriously. Imelda Staunton and Geoffrey Rush serve as two very different types of over-the-top characters. While Rush is a grimy theatre owner, Staunton serves as Viola’s kindly nurse. Tom Wilkinson has an enjoyable part as a thuggish brute who slowly develops an appreciation for theatre over the course of the film. Finally, Judi Dench is phenomenal as Queen Elizabeth and seems born to play the role.

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The screenplay isn’t immune from common tropes that show up in every romantic comedy. These mainly include problems that stand in the way of Shakespeare and Viola’s true feelings for each other as well as an ending that probably got more than a few people to cry in the theater. I also didn’t buy one of the sillier sequences that really stretched plausibility midway through. However, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE feels very much like one of Shakespeare’s comedies that happens to star the playwright and other historical figures. In that sense, it’s truly a brilliant film. I especially enjoyed the use of Christopher Marlowe (another acclaimed playwright who lived during the Elizabethan era). The plot itself weaves elements of both ROMEO & JULIET (obviously) and TWELFTH NIGHT into a love story that feels familiar, but beautiful and touching all the same.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a cinematic treat for those who adore the bard’s work or enjoy romantic comedies in general. This is definitely not your average “chick flick,” though it has some familiar clichés. Instead, the film is a very clever, well-crafted love story about a real-life writer who penned clever, well-crafted love stories among other brilliant plays. The performances are outstanding from everyone involved. The period details are fantastic. The movie has impeccable comedic timing and a genuine heart behind all of the emotions on display. This might be an obvious way of stating it, but SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a creation worth loving.

Grade: A-

SKYFALL (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violent Sequences throughout, some Sexuality, Language and Smoking

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & John Logan

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney & Ben Whishaw

To me, Daniel Craig is James Bond. Though the original Bond series had its ups and down, the momentum and fun was officially slaughtered by one really crappy Brosnan entry. The resulting box office returns and backlash from fans and critics alike forced the studio into rebooting the 007 franchise. This was a cinematic blessing. 2006’s CASINO ROYALE stands as one of the absolute best Bond films we’ve received to date (sitting ahead of GOLDFINGER for me). However, 2008’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a mediocre follow-up to that film. All cinematic sins have been repented for in 2012’s SKYFALL. This is a stunning return to top-notch form and stands as my favorite Bond film thus far (making me ridiculously excited for SPECTRE in a few months). Going in bold, new directions, SKYFALL is a 007 film unlike any other. Considering that it’s the twenty-third installment in the official cannon, that’s an impressive accomplishment.

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After a mission goes wrong in Istanbul, James Bond seizes an opportunity to fake his death and leave MI6. Enjoying an early retirement, Bond is forced back into duty when a cyber-genius psycho steals a list of undercover agents. It seems that the evil hacker has a bone to pick with M (Bond’s boss) and is doing so by revealing five names every week (getting agents killed in the process). Bond goes on the hunt for this cyber-terrorist and in the process uncovers a darker plot at work. That’s all I’ll say, because (unlike many other Bond films) SKYFALL packs a lot of unexpected twists and turns in its formula.

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It doesn’t bear repeating, but I’ll say it anyway. Daniel Craig is the perfect Bond. He brings humanity to a character that was once a one-note (though extremely fun to watch) charismatic ladies-man/action hero. Craig shows that there’s pain behind his tough persona and that occasionally seeps through. However, the most remarkable thing about this script is that it forces M (played once again by Judi Dench) up front and center as a main character. She mainly served as a side character who seemingly only showed up to berate Bond, but that’s not the case here. She’s developed into someone worth caring about and shares a solid chunk of screen time with Bond. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem is absolutely astounding as the villain. I won’t reveal much about him or his motivations, because I don’t want to spoil anything. What I will say is that Bardem played this psycho in a manner that no one else could have. He’s simply amazing to behold in the role. Finally, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw are introduced as two side characters who will be showing up in future Bond installments. Fiennes is a welcome presence as M’s superior and Whishaw is the new Q (and provides just as much comic relief as the older Q’s).

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SKYFALL is extremely well-written and not just for a Bond film. Instead of revealing the threat to us right away, the film takes its time to develop the story and we don’t see Bardem’s villain on-screen for almost the entire first half of the story. However, that doesn’t mean that the build-up and mystery isn’t compelling, because I was fully sucked into this movie for its entirety. The building, quiet tension only makes each of the plot revelations (including Bardem’s spectacular villain reveal) that much more sinister when they arrive. The action works perfectly and moves from creative set-piece to set-piece. My favorite of which involves a chase through subway tunnels between Bond and Bardem’s baddie. Especially praise-worthy is the final third which goes into territory that no Bond movie has ventured into before. It makes for a terrifically exciting climax and more than a few surprisingly emotional moments. The finale hits all the right notes and left me wanting to experience this movie all over again the second that it ended.

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Risk taking and a brilliant script elevate SKYFALL into being my all-time favorite Bond film (with CASINO ROYALE as a close second). SKYFALL takes the series into a new, exciting direction that is executed flawlessly. What else can I say about Daniel Craig other than he’s my definitive James Bond? Judi Dench’s M is fully developed into a main character this time around. Javier Bardem serves as a delightfully insane villain. SKYFALL is less jokey than previous Bond installments (with only a handful of one-liners that I could spot), but manages to be far more enjoyable, entertaining and resonates more than a majority of the franchise. SKYFALL is my favorite Bond film and I am giddy with excitement to see where SPECTRE takes us next.

Grade: A+

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Marc Forster

Written by: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench & Anatole Taubman

2006’s CASINO ROYALE made a huge splash at the time of its release. This was Bond for a whole new generation and seemed to be turn the iconic 007 into a more human hero. Anyone penning the sequel to ROYALE was guaranteed have their work cut out for them. Two years later, QUANTUM OF SOLACE hit theaters to an apathetic “meh.” Though this follow-up to the Bond reboot held a lot of promise in its premise, it simply doesn’t do anything remarkable with it. Daniel Craig remains top-notch as 007, but he’s the stand-out in a sequel that’s a disappointing step-down from its predecessor.

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QUANTUM picks up where CASINO ROYALE left off. Seeking revenge for the death of his lover, Bond has tracked down the mysterious Mr. White (a member of the organization that killed both Vesper and La Chiffre). However, James soon discovers that Mr. White is merely one brick in a much larger, more intimidating wall. A secret organization, known as Quantum, has it out for Bond and they have members everywhere. 007 soon finds himself wooing more women and trying to take down the head of Quantum, Dominic Greene.

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Unlike previous Bond disappointments, where main actors seemed bored, Daniel Craig is still in full force as 007. He’s made the character into a heartbroken man who merely wants to satisfy his aching vengeance for Vesper. Unfortunately, his performance is the one shining moment in an otherwise mediocre film. Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton fill the roles of Bond girls and both seem kind of bland. Arterton simply isn’t given enough time to develop, while Kurylenko’s character is pretty one-note. What makes this even more confusing is that Kurylenko has played better “Bond girls” in non-Bond films (e.g. THE NOVEMBER MAN, and even 2007’s HITMAN). Mathieu Almaric comes off woefully miscast as the villainous Greene. Though his character is a violent businessman, I couldn’t fully buy him as a baddie deserving of Bond. Other nebbishy bad guys have appeared in the series (Jonathan Pryce’s Carver in the underrated TOMORROW NEVER DIES), but Almaric’s Greene comes off as bland and unintentionally hilarious. The latter arrives in a fiery fight scene in which Greene keeps letting out high-pitched squeals as he battles Bond with an axe. The scene was supposed to be intense and I was just trying not to laugh. Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini also reprise their roles from CASINO ROYALE, but merely serve as two plot devices instead of returning characters.

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Besides every character who isn’t James Bond being underwritten, QUANTUM’s action doesn’t fare much better. There are a couple of intense moments, but most of the action is made up of chaotic BOURNE-like scenes. In the opening car chase there is a headache-inducing amount a quick editing. Shaky-cam is also frequent throughout the entire film. For my money, the best scene in the whole movie is a stalking scene at an opera in which Bond tries to capture the identities of Quantum members. Unfortunately, this suspenseful moment is then compromised by an incoherently edited action scene that follows. Unconvincing fights aside, the Quantum organization comes off as a low-rent form of SPECTRE (which might actually link to it in the upcoming film). Instead of getting me excited to watch Bond take down a villainous organization that has people everywhere, I was more bored by everything that followed. This seems like a major step backwards for the franchise.

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CASINO ROYALE’s high momentum sinks to a lackluster crawl in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. The premise holds a lot of potential and none of it is fully utilized to the extent that it should have been. Daniel Craig still stands as my favorite Bond and he’s easily the best part of this whole film. However, the follow-up to the rebirth of the franchise comes off like a combination of a lesser Roger Moore flick (in which Bond is trying too hard to emulate other films, like the BOURNE series) and a disappointing Dalton installment (becoming far too grim to be fully enjoyed as a Bond film). Overall, I would just skip this middle entry and go directly from CASINO ROYALE to SKYFALL. Just pretend that QUANTUM doesn’t exist.

Grade: C-

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