SPECTRE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action and Violence, some Disturbing Images, Sensuality and Language

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Jez Butterworth

Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes & Jesper Christensen

SPECTRE just might be the hardest review that I’ve had to write this year and that’s not for reasons you might expect. While I’ve revisited many franchises over the course of the summer movie season in order to prep myself for certain reviews, SPECTRE lurked over me like a giant mountain that I had to scale. Before the month of August, I had only seen one 007 film (2006’s CASINO ROYALE). So I found myself going through a long (sometimes painful) process to watch/review fourteen entries in this behemoth of a movie series. This resulted in me gaining a newfound appreciation for the iconic secret agent character as well as a love for (most of) the series. To quickly recap on the Daniel Craig entries: CASINO ROYALE is one of the best reboots to ever grace the silver screen, QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a lackluster follow-up, and SKYFALL is my favorite Bond film of all-time. Where does SPECTRE fit into Craig’s stint as 007? It’s not as good as CASINO ROYALE or SKYFALL, but it’s definitely miles better than QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Though the early word-of-mouth has been mixed, I imagine that many Bond fans will find a lot to like in this film.

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After causing an international incident on an unofficial mission, James Bond has been grounded by M. As we all know, Bond has never been one to respond well to authority and takes it upon himself to complete his unfinished unofficial mission. What should have been a simple visit to a funeral becomes something else entirely as 007 discovers a massive international criminal organization known as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). The leader of this secret society is the author of all of Bond’s pain (as he so eloquently puts it). Soon enough, Bond and the daughter of a former Quantum agent find themselves hunted by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. as he tries to stop a diabolical plan that would cripple the 00 program and the world as we know it.

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Like the other Craig entries, SPECTRE is remarkably well shot and scored. The cinematography and gorgeous locations kept me invested in the film, even during the less exciting portions of the story. Speaking of which, SPECTRE is definitely the first Craig film in the 007 cannon that’s heavily relied on the stereotypical Bond formula. By this, I mean there’s a world-ending plan, a cat-stroking villain with a penchant for evil monologues, a seemingly unstoppable henchman with a weird quirk, a clichéd Bond girl, and some one-liners. Those elements aren’t necessarily bad things, but this is a definite change of pace for a rebooted series that seemed to be going out of its way to humanize the iconic character and deliberately throw cogs into the predictable formula.

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The plot for SPECTRE isn’t anything groundbreaking or surprising. You’ve seen this kind of Bond movie before with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan. This just happens to be Daniel Craig’s turn to play the game. You can easily predict certain plot developments that are pretty obvious within the first third. It doesn’t necessarily lessen the fun to be had, but I do wish the script had kept a couple of these twists hidden. Running at well over two hours, SPECTRE just might be the longest Bond film to date and you can tell. As action-packed and exciting as most of the movie may be, there’s a noticeable patch in the middle that drags.

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As far as the cast is concerned, Daniel Craig is comfortable as ever in the skin of Bond. This might be his final entry in the series and I’d be happy with him going out on a high note rather than sinking to the embarrassment of Brosnan’s final entry. Lea Seydoux (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) is a serviceable Bond girl, though she isn’t exactly given much to do other than be a heart-throb for James. Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris all do well in reprising their roles as M, Q, and Moneypenny. Meanwhile, Andrew Scott is appropriately hateable as a cocky character with a very punchable face.

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The best characters of SPECTRE are definitely the villains. Christoph Waltz is having a field day as the main baddie. This man was born to play a Bond villain. Though it takes a while for him to really dominate the screen, he’s a ton of fun to watch. I loved every second that he was on the screen. Meanwhile, Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) serves as a formidable Oddjob-like henchman. Though he doesn’t have any dialogue, the chases/fights between him and Craig are a blast to behold.

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SPECTRE is definitely not on the same level as SKYFALL or CASINO ROYALE, but it’s certainly an enjoyable fourth outing for Craig’s 007. The film’s problems stem from a predictable plot and pacing that drags in the middle. However, the returning characters are just as fun as ever, while the new additions really sell this film. The action scenes are exciting and I left the theater more than a little happy. If this had come out before SKYFALL, then I think the general reaction to it would be more positive. As a whole, I really enjoyed SPECTRE and it’s on the upper level of the 007 pantheon for me.

Grade: B+

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+

ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: David Self

(based on the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION by Max Alan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker & Ciaran Hinds

Try to think of nice guy Tom Hanks as a hitman. It’s not exactly an easy image to get into your head, let alone process how it might play out. Talented director Sam Mendes and versatile actor Tom Hanks pull of this unlikely feat in ROAD TO PERDITION. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, this film combines a father-son drama with a crime thriller. The result is one of the best movies from 2002!

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Michael Sullivan is a devoted husband and loving father who works closely with notorious mob boss/father figure John Rooney. His life is simple and he deeply loves his wife and two sons. When Michael Sullivan Jr. (his elder son) gets curious about his father’s mysterious work, he makes the shocking discovery that his father is actually a hitman for Rooney. This results in lives being lost and both Michael Sullivans (Sr. and Jr.) trying to get make it out of a bullet-ridden cat-and-mouse game alive, while also seeking revenge against Rooney’s gang.

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I was hesitating about details in that initial synopsis of this film. It’s very easy to give key plot points away that might come as shocking to someone who doesn’t know too much about this movie to begin with. I will say that the premise sounds simple on paper, but things actually get complex. With those twists and turns included, it never felt as if story was overly complicating itself. There’s a looming suspense that’s hovering over the whole film from the moment Hanks’s job is revealed.

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It goes without saying that if you have a movie where a son discovers that his father is a hitman, you’d expect the father and son to spend a lot of time together from that point onwards. That is the case here and it’s made all the better that their relationship feels real. Tom Hanks, though technically a bad guy, comes off as more of a concerned father than a cold-hearted killer. I never forgot what his violent profession was, but he was still a fantastic character. His job may have gotten his family into an awful mess, but I was rooting for him for the entire movie. Hanks breathes life into a character that was probably difficult to balance. A newcomer at the time this was filmed, Tyler Hoechlin (who hasn’t gone on to do much since) is phenomenal as Sullivan Jr. The pairing of Hanks and Hoechlin seems like a match made in heaven as they play off each other so well.

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Besides Hanks, a lot of other big names populate the cast. The best of which is Paul Newman (in his final live-action appearance) as Rooney. The late actor (who still had a joyful glint in his eye) excels in mafia boss role, injecting conflicted emotions that help the audience feel the struggle of his tough dilemma. Rooney isn’t just a cut-and-dried villain. He’s actually a sympathetic guy. You understand the appeal of working for a man like this and he’s also a father being torn apart by the sins of his son (played by Daniel Craig, pulling off a damn good American accent). The relationship between Newman and Craig is the antithesis of Hanks and Hoechlin, but there are also a lot of parallels that make things even more interesting. Stanley Tucci and Dylan Baker aren’t given a lot of screen time, but make the most of what they have. Then there’s Jude Law as the creepy Maguire. With long fingernails, thinning hair, and a devilish smirk, Law embodies a ghoul with a gun. As if that wasn’t enough to make his character terrifying, he also has an unusual hobby (shown in his introduction).

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To put the icing on the cake, the mood and atmosphere created in PERDITION is potent! If other directors had attempted to tell this story, they might have included tons of explosions and clichés galore. Sam Mendes opts for a more subtle approach and creates a quiet sense of tension that escalates in the more exciting scenes. It’s not all about brooding suspense though, as plenty of emotional moments (including a couple of devastating scenes) had enough impact to bring me close to tears. Adding to the mix is the awesome soundtrack from Thomas Newman, who seems to have constructed the music to fit the mood of each scene perfectly with a subtle pieces of music.

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Overall, ROAD TO PERDITION is not nearly as big today as it was upon its original release, but remains an amazing movie that still has a powerful emotional core. The premise might sound predictable on paper, but it moves into some pretty unexpected directions. Instead of just being a movie about violence, tragedy and revenge, ROAD TO PERDITION is more focused on fathers, sons, actions and consequences. This movie is perfect and I adored every second of it! One of the greatest crime films I’ve ever seen!

Grade: A+

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexuality, Language, Violence and Drug Content

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: Alan Ball

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher

There are some movies that go above and beyond the scale of how one measures films. These classics are on the highest pedestal that make them exempt from criticisms. This is because these are perfect movies and they remind me of the reason I enjoy watching this art-form to begin with. If I had to pick one movie as my absolute favorite of all-time, then AMERICAN BEAUTY would be it. This is a masterful piece of art that can be taken from many different angles all at once and each one is compelling in one way or another.

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Lester Burnham has been a slave to his job for fourteen years and seems like a normal family man from the outside. Carolyn, his domineering wife, puts success in her career before the needs of anybody else. Their teenage daughter, Jane, hates both of them and has low self-esteem, which is made worse by Angela, her gossipy best friend. This seems to be the all-too-familiar American family dynamic that we’ve seen so many times in the media and the real world. The slate all begins to change when Lester goes through a mid-life crisis. He quits his job in style and begins to do things that make him feel happy (both legal and illegal). I don’t want to go any further, because there are so many things that happen in this movie and it would criminal to give too much away. To keep it vague, the film doesn’t just focus on Lester, but dedicates the equal amount of time to every character making this supposed dysfunctional Norman Rockwell painting that much more fantastic.

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AMERICAN BEAUTY is beautifully constructed all around. The film begins with an introduction to a perfect looking neighborhood complete with white picket fences. This entire story could be seen entirely as a deconstruction of the American ideal and that’s just taking it on the surface. The story itself isn’t merely satirical, but offers deep emotions as we view the transformations that each character takes. Thus, the entire thing is far more complex than just a hilarious dark comedy. This is the perfect drama! It was originally written as a play and the script passed around through many acclaimed directors in a lengthy process. Good things come to those who wait and AMERICAN BEAUTY is simply a perfect film. In fact, this is my favorite movie of all-time! No hyperbole, this is my number one movie and I could never get sick of watching it.

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Kevin Spacey’s Academy Award for Best Actor speaks volumes of his performance and everybody else’s acting is on the same sublime level of perfection. Even Chris Cooper’s character, who may be seen as a tyrant, has a sympathetic side to him. Intricate care went into the writing and creation of these characters, not to mention the various journeys they make internally throughout the film. I felt that all of the characters were understandable on some level, if not relatable. It may be a controversial statement given the ending, but I felt that there wasn’t really a villain or a clear bad guy in this film. It was just the events of this chapter in these people’s lives playing out and we get to witness them.

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For all the uncomfortable material covered, everything is shot and told in a beautiful way. Besides some tragic irony, plenty of dark comedy is thrown in that provide hearty laughs. In the end, what I feel AMERICAN BEAUTY tackles first and foremost is the view of happiness. Most of the characters wind up doing things throughout the film that make them happy and they suffer the consequences. The fate of each every single character range from happy to downright devastating, but are all poetic in one way or another. This is one film that is meant for multiple viewings and deep conversations among fellow cinephiles.

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It’s true that there is an underlying dark nature to the American dream. AMERICAN BEAUTY analyzes this in a carefully constructed manner of interlocking plots and memorable characters. It’s my favorite film of all-time and the perfect example of the highest pillar fantastic cinema can reach. Plainly put, it’s a masterpiece! If you’ve never seen it, watch it as soon as you possibly can. If you already have seen it, watch it again. This is the kind of film that ages like fine wine!

Grade: A+

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