Film Review: Thunderball (1965)

Release Date: December 9th, 1965 (Tokyo premiere)
Directed by: Terence Young
Written by: Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins, Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ian Fleming
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi, Rik Van Nutter, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, Philip Stone

Eon Productions, United Artists, 130 Minutes

Review:

“My dear girl, don’t flatter yourself. What I did this evening was for Queen and country. You don’t think it gave me any pleasure, do you?” – James Bond

After Guy Hamilton directed Goldfinger and took the Bond film franchise away from focusing on SPECTRE, Terence Young came back to direct the fourth film and made SPECTRE a focal point once again. And I’m glad because as much as I like Goldfinger, I’d rather see Connery’s Bond duking it out with Blofeld’s minions on a grand stage. Auric Goldfinger just seemed like a chump when compared to a high ranking SPECTRE agent.

This chapter in the franchise also feels a bit like a call back to the original film, Dr. No. Mainly just in aesthetic and geography though, as this film’s big finale takes place in the Bahamas, which draws some similarities to Dr. No‘s Jamaica sequences.

Also, the villain in this is Emilio Largo, one of the all-time greatest Bond villains of all-time. See, I said “all-time” twice to solidify the point. In fact, I ranked him third on a list where I did a countdown of James Bond baddies. The only villains I ranked higher were Blofeld (obviously) and Francisco Scaramanga because c’mon man, that’s Christopher Lee. Largo is just perfect as a top SPECTRE operative and “Number 2” to Blofeld, who Bond would finally face in the film after this.

In a lot of ways, this sets up the big Bond vs. Blofeld showdown that was coming in You Only Live Twice while also being a culmination of the events that started in Dr. No and From Russia With Love. This is a vital chapter in the Connery era, as it acts as a bridge linking the important SPECTRE plot points. Plus, it’s just damn good.

While this Bond film is tropical and beautiful, it also has a grittiness to it. It feels more real than the previous outing. Granted, that’s a bit undone by the hokey speed boat finale but the technology to make that sequence less cheesy, didn’t exist yet. And really, that whole stopping the super speedy boat from crashing is really my only complaint about the film.

I love Connery’s James Bond. I also love Largo, as I have already pointed out. The scenes that the two share together really take this film to a different level though. Red Grant was good in From Russia With Love and Dr. Julius No was solid in Dr. No. But there is just something larger and more threatening about Largo. Sure, he can’t physically match Bond like Red Grant but he effectively uses other tools and plays to his strengths.

Underwater sequences in movies usually suck, let’s be honest. But the ones in this film just work and there’s a lot of underwater stuff. Plus, you get to see Bond literally swimming with sharks and I mean “literally” in the grammatically correct way and I’m not using “sharks” as a metaphor. I mean actual sharks.

Thunderball is better than just being a popcorn movie set in majestic scenery. If you ever wanted to pick a handful of Bond movies to have a mini marathon with, than this should definitely be in that handful.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: The other Sean Connery James Bond movies, as well as that George Lazenby one.

Film Review: Goldfinger (1964)

Release Date: September 17th, 1964 (London premiere)
Directed by: Guy Hamilton
Written by: Richard Maibaum, Paul Dehn, Berkely Mather (uncredited)
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe, Shirley Eaton, Harold Sakata, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn

Eon Productions, United Artists, 110 Minutes

Review:

“Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor… except crime!” – Auric Goldfinger

A lot of lifelong James Bond fans that I talk to, consider Goldfinger to be their all-time favorite film in the franchise. While I love it, it isn’t my favorite or even my favorite of the Connery pictures. I rank it behind From Russia With LoveDr. No and Thunderball but let’s be honest, all the Connery films were solid. Yes, even Diamonds Are Forever.

I think the thing that makes this film stand out, is that it feels different than the other pictures from the Connery era. At least, it feels different to me.

Goldfinger is a bit more confined. Sure, Bond travels the world but a big chunk of this film takes place in the United States, which is far from exotic, at least to a guy from the United States. The nicest place in the film is the Swiss Alps but the movie doesn’t spend a great deal of time there. There is Miami, then the London office of MI-6, then the Switzerland stuff and then back to the United States for Auric Goldfinger’s big raid on Fort Knox.

This isn’t what I would call a smaller film but everything just seems less grand overall. In fact, the Fort Knox heist seems a bit below Bond’s pay grade. While I like Goldfinger tremendously as a villain, this film lacks the extra gravitas you get when SPECTRE is present onscreen. Goldfinger was certainly a decent foil but he is sort of a bumbling man baby that Bond had no problems with outsmarting from the outset of the film. I feel like Bond could have dealt with Goldfinger in the first twenty minutes of the story and been done with it, if he wasn’t just trying to frolic with the fancy ladies. This seemed more like a story where Bond was on vacation, got kind of bored and just stumbled upon a quick and easy caper to occupy his downtime.

I guess Oddjob was a formidable henchman but he could have also been easily dispatched with a gut shot from Bond’s Walther PPK. Sure, he’s a big dude with a razor sharp hat but a nice shot to the tummy would have taken the mute Korean bear down. Bond needs to stash more tiny pistols on his person.

Goldfinger, as much as it probably seems like I am knocking it, just makes me feel like we checked in with James Bond on an off day. The villain had charisma and personality but I feel like the bayou sheriff from the Roger Moore Bond films could have beaten Goldfinger accidentally.

I do like the cinematography and the film’s style and visual tone. I also love the Aston Martin DB5. However, the film seemed generally less gadget-y than a typical Bond picture. Although, the car had some cool features that were completely ripped off for the Spy Hunter video game in the ’80s.

I just don’t agree with the popular opinion on this one. It’s a good Bond movie but it is definitely not in the upper echelon. When watched within the context of all the Connery films, it seems like filler and a forced break away from the larger SPECTRE story arc.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: The other Sean Connery James Bond movies, as well as that George Lazenby one.

Film Review: American Ultra (2015)

Release Date: August 18th, 2015 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
Written by: Max Landis
Music by: Marcelo Zarvos
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Lavell Crawford

The Bridge Finance Company, Circle of Confusion, Likely Story, Merced Media Partners, PalmStar Media Capital, PalmStar Entertainment, Tadmor Entertainment, Lionsgate Films, 96 Minutes

Review:

“If I die, I’m going to do it stoned and smiling in my bed.” – Mike Howell

*Written in 2015.

I went into American Ultra with no expectations. Although I did like the chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in Adventureland and thought that it was Stewart’s best performance that I had seen.

So maybe their having worked together so well before is why they felt very comfortable in this movie and with each other. Their relationship felt natural and nothing seemed forced or out of place. As the two leads, Eisenberg and Stewart shined.

As far as the plot goes, this film doesn’t really tread new territory but it doesn’t need to. It is about a “fish out of water” sleeper agent for the C.I.A. who has woken up in an effort to save himself from the agency director who thinks he’s a dangerous dog that needs to be put down. In this film, the agent is a stoner with a lot of phobias. Of course, the phobias are all stuff that the agency put in his head in an effort to control him.

Eisenberg and Stewart are backed up by a great cast. Topher Grace plays the C.I.A. asshole that wants Eisenberg’s character dead. Then there is John Leguizamo who plays a friend and drug dealer. The great Walton Goggins shows up as a psychotic agent named Laugher. Bill Pullman plays a high ranking C.I.A. official that mixes things up in the end. Tony Hale a.k.a. Buster from Arrested Development plays another C.I.A. agent that is caught between doing good or doing evil. And then Connie Britton rounds out the cast as the C.I.A. agent who is trying to save the main characters.

The film was well shot, well edited, perfectly paced and came off as a lot of fun. It wasn’t a flawless film but it wasn’t littered with issues and even the unbelievable elements felt believable, in the moment, and that is what a director should strive for.

American Ultra was entertaining. It ends the summer movie season and it was at least a refreshing end to a summer full of a lot of crap. This wasn’t a big budget CGI fest yet it achieved much more than most of the other summer movies I had to sit through this year.

I guess it is left open for a sequel but one isn’t necessary. This isn’t a forgettable film but it doesn’t warrant any more installments. I liked it for what it was and the filmmakers should let it stand on its own. Besides, I don’t anticipate this being a sleeper hit.

At this point, I think a lot of summer moviegoers are suffering from tent pole fatigue. While this is a good contrast to the tent pole feature, it will probably suffer for the date it was released. If this were a late September or early October film, it may have had more of a chance for success. Instead, it shares the docket with Sinister 2 and Hitman: Agent 47 – all three of these will probably underwhelm at the box office between coming out on the same day and following a slew of mediocre summer movies.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Adventureland for having the same leads, as well as the Kingsman movies for some similarities.

Film Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Release Date: August 2nd, 2015 (Barcelona premiere)
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson
Based on: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Music by: Daniel Pemberton
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant

Ritchie/Wigram Productions, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Davis Entertainment, Warner Bros., 116 Minutes

Review:

“There are only two masters in this world: fear and pain.” – Uncle Rudi

*Written in 2015.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the latest attempt at Hollywood trying to remake an old popular television show into a movie. In a sea of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spinoffs, this film is just as forgettable and unimportant as most of the others. Now, it’s not a bad film, it just isn’t anything memorable or fresh.

The best thing about this movie, is that it is one of those rare films where style actually is substance. Everything about the film’s style makes this movie better than it would have been without it. Guy Ritchie, the director, talked about how in some ways it wasn’t just a tribute to the 1960s television show it was based on but that he also drew inspiration from the original James Bond films starring Sean Connery. I wouldn’t say that he succeeded in capturing that old school Bond magic but the homage was still satisfying.

However, the Bond style that Ritchie tried to recreate here made this film feel more like a wannabe ’60s Bond movie and less like the original version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I feel like this was just a vehicle for Ritchie to make a Bond picture without having the rights to do so.

This movie benefitted from having a pretty good cast. Finally, Henry Cavill showed some personality as the American spy Napoleon Solo – a stark contrast to his almost lifeless performance as Superman in The Man of Steel. Armie Hammer was the scene stealer as the Soviet KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin. Where the character of Napoleon was supposed to be the suave charismatic one, it was Illya that actually was. Alicia Vikander was perfect as Gaby while Elizabeth Debicki was a bit robotic as the villainous Victoria. The Gaby character was definitely the more engaging of the two female leads. Hugh Grant and Jared Harris also show up. Grant is a British spy and becomes the commander of the group while Harris plays the American spy boss with a fantastic accent.

The action is pretty good throughout the film, although some of the more stylistic editing techniques make certain sequences seem rushed. There could be more action but the film never feels too slow. The final showdown between the hero and the villain is more comical than anything and feels like a wasted opportunity in an action film. The comedic death of the villain is ineffective and a letdown.

This is a fun movie though. While sitting through it, it is pretty enjoyable. There just isn’t much to take away from it that would leave you wanting more in the future. Like all attempts at summer blockbusters these days, it sets up a sequel at the end. Everything has to be a franchise now but The Man From U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t have the legs to stand on its own.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: The Kingsman movies and some of the hokier James Bond films.

Film Review: From Russia With Love (1963)

Release Date: October 10th, 1963 (London premiere)
Directed by: Terence Young
Written by: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Sean Connery, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Daniela Bianchi, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn

Eon Productions, United Artists, 115 Minutes

Review:

“Siamese fighting fish, fascinating creatures. Brave but of the whole stupid. Yes they’re stupid. Except for the occasional one such as we have here who lets the other two fight. While he waits. Waits until the survivor is so exhausted that he cannot defend himself, and then like SPECTRE… he strikes!” – Blofeld

After the huge success of Dr. No, Eon Productions didn’t waste any time in fast tracking a sequel. While that usually results in shoddy results, what we actually got was one of the best James Bond films of all-time and my personal favorite out of the Connery pictures.

This also serves to establish SPECTRE as a much bigger threat than you might realize that they were when watching Dr. No. Blofeld makes an appearance here and he employs two of his best agents (and two of the best Bond villains ever) Rosa Klebb, SPECTRE’s “Number 3”, and Donald “Red” Grant, an incredibly talented and deadly assassin, who really is the evil counterpart to James Bond and the first time we’ve seen this sort of character.

What I really like about the Connery Bond pictures, especially the earliest ones, is that they had a seriousness about them. Sure, they were also playful, as Bond movies should be, but they also knew how to balance it really well. Bond doesn’t yet feel invincible and with the opening scene in this picture, where we see how astute Grant is at killing, the danger in this film feels much more real. I think the very dark opening, regardless of its narrative swerve did a lot in foreshadowing the tone of the rest of the picture.

This movie has a real grittiness to it. However, that grittiness started to dissipate with each new Bond film after this one. A grittiness that is mostly non-existent in the era of Roger Moore.

Part of that is due to the fight scenes. This has some of the best cinematic face offs that you will see from the 1960s. The confrontation between Bond and Grant on the train is almost strenuous to watch because it has a real sense of authenticity to it. It’s might vs. might, skill vs. skill, as two well trained men with deadly hands try to kill one another.

Also, Bond still has all of the elements that made him cool and tough in the first film but it’s at a whole different level here. Dr. No was the trial run and now, by film two, Connery seems more comfortable and familiar with the territory. And the best part, is that this was before the character started to become watered down and cliche. Connery’s Bond has a certain panache and gravitas and the writers weren’t trying to purposefully maximize it or fine tune it yet. Connery just put it out there, carried the film and it was all natural. Or at least it felt that way.

And while you don’t need a lot of money to make a good picture, this film had double the budget of its predecessor and it shows. All the on location stuff was great and even though I love the beauty of Jamaica, the Turkey scenes in this are majestic and made the scale of this film come across as much more epic.

From Russia With Love isn’t just one of the greatest James Bond films, it is one of the absolute best in the entire spy thriller genre.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: The other Sean Connery James Bond movies, as well as that George Lazenby one.

Film Review: Licence to Kill (1989)

Release Date: June 13th, 1989 (London premiere)
Directed by: John Glen
Written by: Richard Maibaum, Michael G. Wilson
Based on: characters by Ian Fleming
Music by: Michael Kamen
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe, Frank McRae, Everett McGill, Wayne Newton, Benicio del Toro, Anthony Starke, Priscilla Barnes, Robert Brown, Desmond Llewelyn, Caroline Bliss

Eon Productions, United International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 131 Minutes

Review:

“Señor Bond, you got big cojones. You come here, to my place, without references, carrying a piece, throwing around a lot of money… but you should know something: nobody saw you come in, so nobody has to see you go out.” – Franz Sanchez

Timothy Dalton was my favorite James Bond. I know that makes me strange and weird but he was the first Bond on the big screen for me and his movies had a bit more gravitas than those cheesy Roger Moore outings. They also had more gravitas than those later Brosnan films because those went back towards the route of cheese and eventually killed the franchise until Daniel Craig came along and stopped smiling.

Licence to Kill is a very divisive Bond film but then Dalton is a very divisive Bond. The film takes a turn for realism nearly two decades before the Daniel Craig starring Casino Royale. In 1989, that rubbed most people the wrong way. This was the first Bond film to get a PG-13 rating due to that realness and its use of violence. Some people also felt that the more violent bits were too much but I felt that it reflected a Bond franchise that was about to enter the ’90s.

The film boasts some solid action sequences. All the Key West stuff was fantastically shot and looks great by modern standards. The Mexico material also looks incredible, especially the Olympatec Meditation Institute scenes, which were filmed at the Centro Cultural Otomi. The cinematography was pretty standard but the locations didn’t need much razzle dazzle. They really only needed explosions, which there were plenty of.

Robert Davi plays the villain and I can’t think of another actor that could have played the role as well as he did. He had the right look, the right level of intensity and had a predatory presence like a reptile. His top henchman was played by Benicio del Toro in only his second film role.

We also get to see Wayne Newton in a role greater than just a cameo and honestly, I love Newton in this. The film also boasts a collection of other talented actors in supporting roles: Frank McRae, Everett McGill, Anthony Zerbe, Anthony Starke and Priscilla Barnes.

I thought that the Bond Girls were a mixed bag in this film. Carey Lowell was pretty badass and held her own. I liked her a lot and think that she doesn’t get enough credit as one of the great Bond Girls. She certainly had more to offer than the standard “damsels in distress” of the classic Bond pictures. Talisa Soto, however, was more like a useless damsel but to the nth degree. I thought Soto was fine with the material she was given but she didn’t serve much purpose other than being a pretty gold digger that probably deserved to be in a drug kingpin’s web. I don’t think that she was a character that anyone could relate to and really, wouldn’t care about because she’s a greedy woman that lays around all day.

The thing is, I love Timothy Dalton’s Bond. This is the better of his two pictures but sadly, we wouldn’t get anymore with him. Not because no one else liked him but because the James Bond franchise went into a state of limbo for six years, as the rights to the material were being battled over in court. By the time things were settled and GoldenEye was slated for a 1995 release date, Dalton decided to step away.

Licence to Kill is rarely on people’s lips when naming favorite Bond movies. But when someone else mentions it, it usually comes with a fist bump and a stoic, confident nod of admiration because I know that I just met someone with real taste.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: The only other Timothy Dalton James Bond movie, The Living Daylights.

Film Review: GoldenEye (1995)

Release Date: November 13th, 1995 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Written by: Jeffrey Caine, Bruce Feirstein, Michael France (uncredited), Kevin Wade (uncredited)
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: Eric Serra, John Altman (uncredited)
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Cumming, Judi Dench, Desmond Llewelyn, Samantha Bond, Minnie Driver

Eon Productions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 130 Minutes

Review:

“You don’t like me, Bond. You don’t like my methods. You think I’m an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.” – M, “The thought had occurred to me.” – James Bond, “Good, because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.” – M, “Point taken.” – James Bond

I had always considered GoldenEye to be the best James Bond movie that starred Pierce Brosnan. It still is but revisiting it now, I realize that it isn’t the best by a wide margin. It’s a film that feels incredibly dated, boasts an atrocious score and is so goofy and over the top that the old Nintendo 64 game felt more realistic.

I like Pierce Brosnan as James Bond… A. LOT. It’s just that the vehicles they gave him weren’t up to the standard that his performances were. And to be honest, I think that the high opinion that people have about this chapter in the massive Bond franchise is really just caused by nostalgia for its video game adaptation.

Granted, that game, as fun as it was in 1997, is also extremely dated and sort of a relic from a bygone era of primitive polygonal first-person shooters. Some people still love that game but I picked it up recently and thought it was unplayable. And like that game, this movie is a product of its era and really only speaks to that era. It could have been the coolest thing at the time but we moved past that era pretty damn quickly and never looked back except through rose colored nostalgia glasses.

The score is the biggest problem for me. It pulls me right out of the film and is in conflict with the classical James Bond scores the franchise has become synonymous with. That early scene where Bond is racing his car through the mountains against Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp is a prime example of how the score ruins everything on the screen. It takes what should have been a cool and classic Bond moment and turns it into a corny cat and mouse game accented by a generic synth heavy tune that sounds like it should be in an early Tekken game or a Bulgarian porno movie.

We get one good moment with the score when the tank chase happens. However, John Altman stepped in to score that scene, where Eric Serra was the one who composed all that other bizarre stuff that wrecked the film’s vibe.

This film does have some strong positives and its those positives that keep this chapter above the other Brosnan Bond outings.

The biggest positive is that most of the cast was really good.

I loved Sean Bean and Famke Janssen as the villains and they made a great pair. I also liked Joe Don Baker returning to the franchise as an ally and not a villain. Also, Robbie Coltrane’s character is one of my favorites from the Brosnan era. The real highlight though, was the addition of Judi Dench as M. Her scenes with Brosnan were spectacular and she immediately walked in, stepped into the role and had a bigger impact than all the previous Ms.

On the flip side, Alan Cumming’s Boris was one of the most annoying characters I have ever seen on film. I guess he was supposed to be but over twenty year later, I still want to punch him in the face: ten times for each scene he’s in, multiplied by the amount of times I’ve seen this film. At least he was a good Nightcrawler in X-Men 2.

GoldenEye is decent but it is not great and certainly not as amazing as some people seem to remember it being. Sure, maybe it worked for 1995 but isn’t that the same year that the “Macarena” blew up?

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Any other Pierce Brosnan Bond movie. But ignore Die Another Day at all costs.