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-

CASINO ROYALE (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violent Action, a scene of Torture, Sexual Content and Nudity

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Directed by: Martin Campbell

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Paul Haggis

(based on the novel CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini & Simon Abkarian

The original James Bond series ran four decades and twenty films. Like any other movie franchise, it had definite ups and downs. 007 may have started off as a trend-setter in the cinematic world, but the franchise constantly found itself cashing in on other popular genres (e.g. kung-fu in MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, cop dramas in LICENCE TO KILL, etc.). When DIE ANOTHER DAY (the fourth and final Brosnan entry) turned out to be an embarrassment, it became apparent that Bond was in desperate need of a reboot. Most reboots are seen as useless cash-ins or lame-brained attempts to reinvigorate doomed franchises. 2006’s CASINO ROYALE manages to surpass any and all preconceived notions about reboots as well as 007 films. This is one of the very best Bond movies we’ve ever received!

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James Bond is an MI6 agent who has recently received his 00-status. Armed with a license to kill, Bond draws some attention when he kills a terrorist at an embassy. As much as the strict M (Bond’s boss) doesn’t care for his radical tactics and hot-headed ego, she recognizes that he’s the best card-player in MI6. This skill will come in handy as Bond is assigned to enter a high-stakes poker tournament run by Le Chiffre, a nefarious banker who funds international terrorism. Aided by an HM Treasury agent, Bond finds himself sucked into an intense mental battle between himself and La Chiffre that gets more dangerous with each passing second.

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Out of all the actors to don the tux, I do believe that Daniel Craig might be my favorite Bond. Part of this stems from him being so unlike any of the other actors who have played the character before him. The rest of this comes from the iconic secret agent being written as a vulnerable, flawed human being. As fun as the original Bond is, you can’t deny that he’s one-note in his sexist treatment towards women and smart-ass attitude (complete with bad puns). Craig’s Bond is still a suave ladies’ man and action hero, but has a sensitive appeal as well. The script develops him as an emerging secret agent and serves as a compelling origin story. As Bond girl Vesper Lynd, Eva Green does a damn fine job and serves as a strong character in her own right. Much like Craig, Green is far different from any other Bond girl previously glimpsed in the series. Serving on the side are Jeffrey Wright (as CIA operative Felix), Giancarlo Giannini (as an aid to Bond) and Judi Dench (reprising her role as M).

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Besides the protagonist serving as a welcome change of pace in the series, Mads Mikkelsen also serves as a phenomenal antagonist. Mads has proven through NBC’s HANNIBAL that he’s very good at being bad. CASINO ROYALE sees him the role of a well-developed villain. He’s not just a cookie-cutter madman with a nuke. Instead, there are scenes that humanize him and make him that much more intimidating for it. We see how desperate La Chiffre’s situation is. We know how far he’ll go to keep his money from getting into Bond’s hands and why he’ll resort to such violent lengths. The tone of CASINO ROYALE is far more intense and brutal than any of the previous Bonds, but doesn’t ever go too dark. The visuals are well-shot and there is plenty of crazy action to be had, though the movie also takes time to dramatically develop the proceedings. What results is a beautifully constructed film in which scenes of people playing poker become just as intense as gun fights or car chases. The screenplay does a wonderful job of keeping the viewer on their toes and (unless you’ve read the book) you never really know where things are heading next.

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CASINO ROYALE is my favorite Bond movie thus far (though I haven’t seen SKYFALL yet). Opening with one of the catchiest tunes in the franchise, this secret agent reboot weaves together a fantastic origin story. Craig delivers a 007 that’s far different from anyone else in the series and is made all the better for it. The action is harshly realistic, but never crosses the line into being unnecessarily gratuitous. Mads’s villain is also fleshed out far more than other Bond baddies in the franchise. Simply put, CASINO ROYALE is not only one of the most spectacular Bond films yet, but it’s also one of the best reboots to ever hit the big screen!

Grade: A+

DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Action Violence and Sexuality

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Directed by: Lee Tamahori

Written by: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, Judi Dench, Will Yun Lee, Kenneth Tsang & John Cleese

The twentieth movie in the Bond franchise and eleventh in my 007 retrospective, DIE ANOTHER DAY marked the end of the Pierce Brosnan’s stint as the iconic secret agent. In the grander scheme of thing, it also technically serves as the conclusion of the original series and caused its studio to reboot the franchise. In other words, DIE ANOTHER DAY has a pretty bad reputation for wrecking James Bond to the point where the series needed to be remade. So, is this a colossal failure? Is DIE ANOTHER DAY the BATMAN & ROBIN of Bond? I wouldn’t go that far, because there are a couple of things I like about this “final” Bond movie. That being said, this is still pretty bad.

DIE ANOTHER DAY, Pierce Brosnan, 2002, (c) MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

James Bond’s latest mission has taken into dangerous North Korean territory. When his cover is blown, Bond is taken captive and suspended as an MI6 agent. Through a few cunning decisions and sheer dumb luck, Bond escapes and tries to track down a crazed terrorist from his past. This will require Bond partnering up with catsuit-wearing NSA agent Jinx. The two spies are forced to face off against a terrorist with diamond-acne and a super-weapon-wielding entrepreneur.

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Let me address the good stuff first. I really enjoyed the prologue in North Korea. The action may be bombastic, but there’s a sense of excitement that reminded me of GOLDENEYE‘s opening. It also set up this story with a ton of potential…and then everything goes down hill as soon as the opening titles roll. The problems begin in the titular song of the credits, which doesn’t sound like it even belongs in a Bond film. This just sounded like a random pop song that was thrown in at the last-minute. As the minutes tick forward from that point on, DIE ANOTHER DAY wastes away its potential on pointless scenes, a bored Brosnan, and a screenplay that’s riddled with plot holes. The story feels too clichéd and over-the-top, even for a Bond film (which can typically be far-fetched, but fun). Besides the opening sequence, the only other moment that sticks out for good reason is a fencing scene between Bond and the main villain. As cool as that sequence is, it only raises further plot holes once a few convenient (and stupid) revelations occur during the final third.

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Brosnan seems past his point of caring to be Bond. His performance in this film is even more apathetic than his purely-for-the-paycheck effort in WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. As far as villains go, only one performance stands out and I won’t give that cast member’s identity away for fear of spoilers. However, I appreciated this person’s contribution to the film and wish that their character served as the main villain instead of a mere plot device. Halle Berry headlines the film with Brosnan and doesn’t really feel like a Bond girl at all. Instead, it almost feels like CATWOMAN got crossed with a crappy Bond flick. Speaking of which, DIE ANOTHER DAY is on the same level as CATWOMAN’s special effects. We get some shockingly crappy visuals. These include cartoony electricity (courtesy of the main villain’s super suit), Flash Animation quality lasers (that don’t blend well with a fight scene), a Syfy-level melting ice palace, and a rubbery surfing Bond aided by a fake-as-hell parachute.

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DIE ANOTHER DAY came out on the 20th anniversary of DR. NO. Throughout this twentieth Bond flick, there are little nods to the other movies (e.g. the shoe-knife in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the rocket-pack from THUNDERBALL, etc.). All these little cameos only served to remind me how badly this final Brosnan entry screwed the pooch. The original Bond series survived decades of directors, actors, and varying levels of effects. However, none of that could endure after DIE ANOTHER DAY sent everything plummeting into such a rut that a reboot not only became preferable, but transformed into a damn necessity. The original Bond series ended with a whimper as opposed going out with a glorious bang…

Grade: D

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action Violence, some Sexuality and Innuendo

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Directed by: Michael Apted

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Bruce Feirstein

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Colin Salmon & John Cleese

The nineteenth entry in the Bond series and the tenth review in my 007 retrospective, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is a movie that I actually had a weird childhood connection with. Though 2006’s CASINO ROYALE was the only Bond movie I had ever watched before starting this retrospective (in anticipation of SPECTRE), I played the Nintendo 64 version of WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH throughout my later years of elementary school. So while I had never seen this 1999 film, I had played its videogame counterpart enough to guess a basic outline of where things might head. That being said, I was excited to see if this third Brosnan Bond flick would hold up to his first two entries. To put it nicely, this was a disappointment…

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Sir Robert King, a high-profile businessman, has been assassinated inside of MI6. James Bond gives chase to the assassin, but is left in the dark as to why King was killed and by whom. As a result, MI6 assigns Bond to guard King’s daughter, Elektra. The culprit behind King’s assassination appears to be Renard, a chaotic terrorist who had previously abducted Elektra. Bond quickly discovers that Renard seems to be coming after Elektra for a second time and a deadly, destructive plan is set in motion. Aided by a most unlikely nuclear physicist (Denise Richards), Bond must race against the clock to stop a nuclear attack.

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The opening ten minutes of WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH speak volumes as to what kind of movie this is. We see Bond confront a Swiss banker, leap out of a building, witness an assassination, engage in a high-speed boat chase and then jump off an exploding hot-air balloon. As adrenaline-pumping and overwhelming as all of this sounds, none of these things come off as the least bit exciting. An apathetic approach towards the action is constant throughout most of the running time. However, there are a couple of ridiculous scenes that I enjoyed if only for their sheer absurdity. The best of these has Bond facing off against a helicopter equipped with saw blades. This sequence is just as stupid as it sounds, but at that point, I was taking any possible enjoyment that I could muster. The film also looks good (for the most part) with solid special effects and stunts, but sadly this cannot make up for a lackluster screenplay.

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I don’t know what happened between TOMORROW NEVER DIES (my pick for the most underrated 007 film) and WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, but it seems like Brosnan just stopped caring. When performed well, the character of James Bond can bring a level of fun and excitement to even the most preposterous script. In his third outing as the iconic secret agent, Brosnan seems bored. The only halfway decent performance in this movie comes from Sophie Marceau as Elektra King, but I saw her character’s whole story arc as forced and unbelievable. Denise Richards takes the spot of worst Bond girl that I’ve ever seen. She has no chemistry with 007 and her wooden delivery make all of her puns even more painful to behold. Finally, there’s Robert Carlyle as the scarred madman Renard. This Bond villain is just plain vanilla. He’s bland and the only unique characteristic to him is that there’s a bullet in his brain that makes him immune to pain. That being said, the final showdown between himself and Bond comes off like the actors are rehearsing for a fight scene as opposed to actually performing stunts in front of the camera.

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THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is where Brosnan’s stint as Bond began to turn sour. The self-referential attitude is absent and the character of Bond has suddenly turned into another generic action hero. The qualities that made this long running franchise of spy movies so special don’t seem to exist within the confines of these 128 minutes. I was far more bored than excited. The action scenes (which should have been impressive, save for that lame final fight) somehow come off as dull. Sadly, WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH doesn’t pack enough of a plot or enough excitement to be remotely satisfying.

Grade: C-

TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action Violence, Sexuality and Innuendo

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Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode

Written by: Bruce Feirstein

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Teri Hatcher, Gotz Otto, Ricky Jay, Joe Don Baker, Vincent Schiavelli & Judi Dench

The eighteenth film in the Bond series and the ninth in my 007 retrospective, TOMORROW NEVER DIES wasn’t as well-received as GOLDENEYE by most critics and audiences. Color me surprised, because I absolutely loved this second Brosnan Bond film just as much as GOLDENEYE. In a franchise that has frequently used evil organizations, constant nuclear threats and a noticeably sexist viewpoint towards its female characters, TOMORROW NEVER DIES does something out of the ordinary. It’s so vastly different from the rest of the 007 series (in a good way) that I couldn’t help but appreciate every second of this eighteenth(!) Bond entry.

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After saving the world during an opening sequence, James Bond is saddled with yet another assignment (does he ever get a break?). His latest venture is to investigate narcissistic media mogul Elliot Carver. Carver’s newspaper was the first to report on the mysterious sinking of a British submarine. Bond discovers that Carver is intent on starting World War III in hopes that he’ll gain a stronger hold on the media and more power for his god-like complex. Bond is on a mission to stop the insane businessman, but Carver is also onto 007. A deadly, international game of cat-and-mouse erupts between the two with others caught in the crossfire.

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I already said in my review of GOLDENEYE that Pierce Brosnan wonderfully inhabits the old-school Bond that Connery made his own. That doesn’t change in this second outing with Brosnan in the role. The biggest stand-out is Jonathan Pryce as Carver though. He’s simply a fantastic villain. Though his plan to start WWIII might echo a certain earlier Roger Moore entry, his insanity and motives are wholly unique. The narcissistic attitude and smugness in which Pryce plays the part make Carver into a Bond villain unlike any other. He’s simply a lunatic with a massive complex and a most unusual view of world domination. What’s also notable is a distinct lack of a singular Bond girl for a majority of the running time. If you want to be technical there are two female partners with whom 007 teams up, but they come at different points in the movie and don’t necessarily qualify as main characters in my view. It was nice to see Bond up against a villain who was one step ahead of him for nearly the entire film. Unlike Sean Bean in GOLDENEYE (who served as a wonderful villain due to his familiarity with 007), Carver is just an insane genius who makes some pretty ballsy moves in order to outwit Bond.

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Much like GOLDENEYE, TOMORROW NEVER DIES uses familiar elements from older Bond flicks in a fresh way. A megalomaniac villain exists in pretty much every Bond movie to date. After all, who are you going to pit a seemingly invincible secret agent up against? An average small-scale bad guy or someone who wants to wreak global havoc? I think everyone would agree that the latter option will always be the better one. Besides a killer villain, TOMORROW also uses an extremely fast pace with tons of action. However, it doesn’t feel like it’s doing so merely for the sake of using bombastic special effects. Instead, the story ventures into remarkably darker territory (especially one scene in a hotel room) that older Bond movies wouldn’t have dared to go into. These plot points make for a more sinister and intense storyline. It all worked because I was hooked from start to finish.

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Thus far, the two Brosnan Bond flicks I’ve seen have shaken up familiar 007 conventions. Familiar plot points are adjusted with a modern flare that make for high-octane spy entertainment willing to take more risks than previous efforts. TOMORROW NEVER DIES really stands out as one of my favorite 007 films so far. It has a creative, original story when compared to most other entries in the franchise. Carver stands out as one of the most unusual villains in the series too. I was blown away by this movie and look forward to revisiting it many times in the future. TOMORROW NEVER DIES comes highly recommended as one of the very best Bonds.

Grade: A

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