The Incredibles (2004)

Director: Brad Bird

Voices of: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Peña, Brad Bird

Can it be that I’ve gone almost three years on this page without reviewing a single animated film? Shocking. The truth of the matter is that I just don’t watch them with the frequency that I once did. Even more surprising is the fact that it’s taken until now for me to have seen 2004’s “The Incredibles” for the first time. Given my love for superhero films in general, that made no sense at all. More to the point, with the premiere of “Captain America: Civil War” only hours away, now seemed like as good a time as any to give “The Incredibles” a look. I’ve spoken often of my disdain for movies with misleading titles. False advertisement really bugs the hell out of me. That’s not a problem here. This superhero family is exactly what they say they are.

In a situation not unlike the one about to befall the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mounting incidents have begun to sway public opinion against superpowered humans, or ‘supers’ for short. As the lawsuits continue to pile up, the government finally steps in and forces the ‘supers’ into retirement. Some find civilian life a lot harder to handle than others. Fifteen years pass, with Bob and Helen Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) having officially renounced their powers of super-strength and super-elasticity, and are now married with three children. Helen, the former Elastigirl, wants to live as normal a life as she can even as her two oldest children now exhibit superpowers of their own. Bob, on the other hand, can’t let go of his glory days as Mr. Incredible.  Carrying on the facade of an ordinary man with a desk job, Bob still moonlights as a vigilante with his old friend Lucius Best, a.k.a. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Bob is still so tuned into the seedy goings-on around him that he puts his boss through several walls when he is prevented from putting a stop to a mugging. Naturally, this causes Bob to lose his job, not that he lets Helen know about it.

Bob’s luck seems to change almost instantly, as he is coaxed into resuming his role as Mr. Incredible and given a mission by a woman named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña). He goes to a remote island to destroy a giant robot without knowing from whom this mission came from. Bob doesn’t seem to care so long as he’s free to be himself again. He gets a brand new suit from his old costume designer, Edna Mode (director Brad Bird), who also makes matching costumes for Helen and children Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox). Back on the island, Bob discovers the ugly truth: His new missions are all a sham devised by a jilted fan-turned-enemy. Years ago, Mr. Incredible had been dogged one night by a kid looking to become his sidekick. Mr. Incredible refused. Buddy Pine (Jason Lee) has since grown up into the disturbed, technology-dependent supervillain Syndrome. Buddy’s great scheme is to eliminate all existing ‘supers,’ trick the public into accepting him as a heroic figure by defeating one of his own robots, and then subsequently sell his technology. Thus, once everyone is a ‘super,’ this will be recognized as the new ‘normal.’

With Bob captured, Helen pilots a jet to the island, not realizing that Violet and Dash have stowed away. Though they are children and are sneaky little devils, it is also true that Violet has the powers of invisibility and Dash… naturally… has super speed. So both will come in handy, especially once their plane is detected and shot down. Thinking his family dead, Bob threatens to kill Mirage, a proposition to which Buddy seems indifferent. Not surprisingly, this will lead later to Mirage helping the Parr family escape together. With the help of Lucius, they destroy Buddy’s robot, but their nemesis eludes them, heading to the Parr household to kidnap their infant son Jack-Jack. His plan now is to raise the boy as his evil sidekick. Jack-Jack, once thought to be the only normal member of the Parr family, finally manifests his own powers, that of shapeshifting. As Helen comes to Jack-Jack’s rescue, Bob kills Buddy by hurling the family car at him, causing Buddy to get sucked into the turbine of his getaway plane.

Made before the superhero genre had kicked into the high gear it has enjoyed since 2008, “The Incredibles” works fantastically as an animated film that could just as easily have been a big-budget live-action phenomenon. It’s also a better “Fantastic Four” movie than any of the existing turds which have sullied the good name of one of my favorite comic series. I think first and foremost of “Watchmen,” (from which this movie takes some cues) as another example of a superhero story I’ve read/seen where the costumed vigilantes have arrived at a point in their lives where they are trying to adapt to normal life, which is an interesting concept that “The Incredibles” plays with quite well.

Beyond the great writing and the terrific voice actors, what really makes “The Incredibles” FEEL like a great superhero movie is Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score. As I watched the film, I found it to be close to the kind soundtrack that I would expect to hear in a movie either made or set in the 1960’s. That’s no accident, as I came to find out. In fact, Brad Bird is a fan of both comics and spy movies from that decade, and his first choice to compose the soundtrack for “The Incredibles” was John Barry (who, sadly, declined). Furthermore, in the theatrical trailer for “The Incredibles,” a remix of the first few notes of Barry’s theme from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” can be heard. Purely by coincidence, OHMSS was the sixth James Bond film just as “The Incredibles” was Pixar’s sixth full-length animated feature. An “Incredibles” sequel is planned for a 2019 release. With the landscape of the superhero genre constantly evolving, one wonders what type of world the Parr family will find themselves in when next we check in on them.

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Director: Jeff Kanew

Starring: Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards, Timothy Busfield, Curtis Armstrong, Ted McGinley, Julie Montgomery, Brian Tochi, Larry B. Scott, John Goodman, Donald Gibb, Bernie Casey

One of the enduring legacies of 1980’s teen comedies is not gross-out humor (which was present but generally not as dominant as it is now), but relatable characters placed in adversarial situations with idyllic outcomes. The protagonists earn their hero worship in part by standing up and declaring unapologetically, “This is who I am!” They upstage whomever is trying to hold them down, learn something about themselves and, in the process, allow the viewer to do the same. They also get the hot girl/guy in the end… if they aren’t with them already. Can’t leave that out. Also interesting about how the main character in a teen comedy arrives at their desired goal are the decidedly anti-heroic methods they use to get their way. Indeed, if real-world logic were applied, most of these crazy kids would wind up in jail or juvenile hall for all that they do to break the rules. That’s what you call wish fulfillment. One of the few great 1980’s comedies to be neither directed nor written by John Hughes which lives and breathes this philosophy is “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Away from home for the first time, best friends Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert Lowe (Anthony Edwards) are ready to begin their freshman year at Adams College. Although the school has many fine courses suited for young geniuses like Lewis and Gilbert, it’s also dominated by a highly successful athletics program. The Adams football team in particular rules the roost, with Coach Harris (John Goodman) standing as a more powerful authority figure than the wimpy dean. The football players, members of the Alpha Beta fraternity, basically always get their way. When they accidentally burn down their frat house (to the tune of a familiar song by the Talking Heads), the Alpha Betas take over the freshman dorms, marooning the nerds and other outcasts (a collective group of nearly every racial and social stereotype that there is) in the gymnasium.

Although the dean is too spineless to stop this or even involve the police, it’s up to the nerds to find a place to live. None of the fraternities they apply to will have them, but they do find and renovate an old abandoned house on campus. Every step of the way, the Alphas pull childish pranks in the hopes of breaking their spirit. The Greek Council is no help, since it’s stacked with Alpha Betas and members of their sister sorority, Pi Delta Pi (a.k.a. the Adams College cheerleader squad). In order to even have the chance to bring their grievances to a vote, the nerds must first join a national fraternity.

The only fraternity which accepts them (due to it being the only one not sent a group photo of the nerds) is the all-African American chapter, Lambda Lambda Lambda. The Tri-Lambs and their president U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey) are at first reluctant to accept the nerds into their family, until Arnold Poindexter (Timothy Busfield) points out that the bylaws specify that they are obligated to take them in on a 60-day probationary basis. The nerds plan a party to sway Jefferson to their cause. Foolishly, Lewis thinks he’s managed to secure dates with the members of Pi Delta Pi, having discussed it with head cheerleader Betty Childs (Julie Montgomery). Of course he knows full well that Betty is dating quarterback Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), the nerds’ #1 nemesis, but it was the heat of the moment and Lewis was thinking with the wrong brain. When the Pis no-show, Gilbert invited the Omega Mu sorority. The Mus are more like their male counterparts than the Pis: they may be less physically appealing, but make up for it with their intelligence. They’re also just as hesitant to dance, a problem which Booger (Curtis Armstrong) solves by supplying certain herbal refreshments.

The party is just livening up when the Alphas and the Pis crash it with a herd of pigs. The nerds seek revenge this time, first organizing a panty raid against the Pis… but it’s just a smoke screen to hide their true motives. While the shenanigans are going on, a few of the nerds set up cameras inside the Pi house, which the nerds use for their own entertainment later. Is it sick and perverse? Yes. Can it be seen as a sexual violation? Yeah, if you’re looking to slap real-world morality onto the situation. But let’s not forget that this is a movie, and the Pis haven’t exactly been portrayed as innocent up to this point. Eventually the nerds tire of watching the Pis parade around in the buff (except for Lewis, who still has a thing for Betty) and the focus is shifted to the Alphas, whose jocks are made to itch and burn to an excruciating degree. The nerds are congratulated by U.N. Jefferson for their willingness to stand up for themselves and are accepted as members of the Tri-Lamb fraternity.

Of course, all of their efforts are moot, since Stan Gable is president of the Greek Council. The only way for the nerds to ever have their voices heard is by winning the Greek Games at the homecoming carnival. Again, since the football team basically runs the show, most of the events are based in athletics. Teaming with the Mus, the nerds have luck in some areas, such as Booger winning the belching contest, but they don’t fare are well in arm wrestling, tug-of-war, and other such events. To say that the nerds resort to cheating at times is a bit strong… Let’s just say that they use their brains to devise clever rule-bending strategies. Hence, the “limp-wristed” Lamar (Larry B. Scott) wins the javelin toss with a more aerodynamic spear, Takashi wins the drunken tricycle race by first ingesting something to counteract the effects of the alcohol, and nude pictures of Betty are used to outsell the Alphas at the pie stand. Trading 1st and 2nd positions throughout the contest, the Tri-Lambs ultimately defeat the Alphas during the musical finale, during which they put on a Devo-inspired performance. Sore losers, the Alphas trash the Tri-Lambs’ house, prompting Gilbert to take an inspirational stand that unites the school’s nerd population and forces even the dean to grow a pair, all to the tune of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Now to address the one thing that so many who discuss the movie seem to want to talk about. In-between the costume/food contest and the battle of the bands, Betty tries and fails to coax Stan into a sexual rendezvous. In fact, his response is typically insulting. Dejected, Betty heads off to the funhouse alone. Lewis, who has witnessed the entire thing, grabs Stan’s discarded costume and follows Betty into the funhouse. There, the two fool around (though exactly how far they go is left to our imagination), with Betty believing that Stan has changed his mind. It is only afterwards that Lewis reveals himself. Many who watch this sequence lose respect for Lewis and look at the situation as one of rape. Certainly, if this were real life, Lewis would be facing hard time for his actions. Betty is no worse for wear, as she has fallen in love with Lewis based on how sexually proficient she finds him to be. That says as much about Betty as taking advantage of her says about Lewis… and, yet again, this comedy never asked us to think too hard about these things. I never really did until I started reading online commentary on the matter. At most, I find her sudden turn a little jarring considering how awful she’d treated Lewis and the other nerds.

Perhaps one could focus more on the politically incorrect parts of “Revenge of the Nerds” if it weren’t for the terrific casting. Putting on particularly iconic performances are the two leads, Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine (the latter of whose nerdish laugh MUST be heard to be fully appreciated). I also really like Timothy Busfield as Arnold Poindexter, even though his is not nearly as big of a part. He does get one of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the film, with his out-of-nowhere “WTF?” reaction to his arousal while watching the live video feed from the Pi house. Like any successful comedy, the nerds returned in ill-conceived sequels… three of them, actually… each one progressively worse than the last. A remake was even threatened a few years back, but was just as swiftly cancelled. Must’ve had as much to do with today’s climate as it did the chance that it was going to be horrible. Nerds are more highly thought of in what today is a much more technologically-dependent society. In some way, the ending to “Revenge of the Nerds” is reflective of this: Bullies will always exist, but it is nerds who inherit the Earth in the end.

007 Gun Barrel

One thing you’ll never catch me doing on this blog is using star ratings. It’s not that I don’t believe in them. I just find them a bit too arbitrary for my own taste. Opinions can change so fast that you could give two or three stars to a film that you later realize is an all-time classic. I normally avoid making lists of rankings for similar reasons. Apart from how my own thoughts are subject to change, that’s nothing compared to how different others would think the same list should look. But then that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The subjectivity of it all?

Besides, when you have a series of films with the kind of history that the James Bond franchise has enjoyed… and the wide range in quality it has experienced over 50+ years… that makes it the perfect candidate for a list such as this. Never having the pleasure of watching the entire series back-to-back before now, it’s been quite a trip through time. There were at least two, possibly three which I’d never seen before. Others I hadn’t seen in a long time. There are those which I almost know by heart and love very much, and some which at times tested my sanity. Through it all, the most unexpected of events took place: The James Bond series has within the space of the last month or so turned into my favorite film franchise! Without any further delay, here they all are, ranked by level of my own personal enjoyment, counting from 24 up to Number 1.

24. A View to a Kill (1985)
View to a Kill

Having Christopher Walken as the main villain ought to make any film enjoyable on some level. Not so much with “A View to a Kill.” Watching Grandpa Bond (58-year old Roger Moore) hop into bed with women young enough to be his daughters is too depressing to think about. The plot doesn’t help matters either. Much of the early portion of “A View to a Kill” has something to do with horse steroids. That’s funny, because the whole thing makes me feel as though I’m on Ambien.

23. Octopussy (1983)
Octopussy

As a matter of fact, I DID have to show off another image of Roger Moore dressed as a freaking clown! It really puts into perspective just how bad “A View to a Kill” is when “Octopussy” can make Bond look this ridiculous and still manage not to be the worst film in the series.

22. Die Another Day (2002)
Die Another Day

Bad music. Bad CGI. Bad acting. Bad writing. Bad Halle Berry, too. Bad, bad, bad. The only good thing to come out of this frozen turd was that it eventually led to the hiring of Daniel Craig as the next James Bond.

21. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Diamonds Are Forever

Yes, they are forever… and, sadly, so is this halfhearted effort from the guy who used to completely own the role of James Bond. That’s what happens when you do it all for the money. The only actual gem in “Diamonds Are Forever” is Charles Gray, who to this very day is still the best actor ever to play Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

20. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Spy Who Loved Me

This’ll probably be the one to raise the most eyebrows, seeing as how “The Spy Who Loved Me” is usually well-thought of, and considered by many to be Roger Moore’s best as Bond. Not by me. Moore and Barbara Bach don’t have near the amount of chemistry that their characters require, and the plot is way too familiar… something that’s probably less problematic if you’re watching this one as a stand-alone. I didn’t, so I can’t excuse it.

19. Moonraker (1979)
Moonraker

Stupid, bloody stupid movie. The first 2/3 are hard to watch under any circumstances. Jaws is brought back for a second go-round after “The Spy Who Loved Me,” only now he’s even more of a punchline than ever before. Poor guy belongs in a Road Runner cartoon. The outer space stuff in the last 1/3 is so beyond crazy that I actually end up liking this part of the movie… just because it had the balls to be this silly. Still doesn’t make “Moonraker” a good James Bond film.

18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Man with the Golden Gun

Hey! I know what let’s do! Let’s take the two very best things about “The Wicker Man”… Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland… put ’em together again and set them up to fail. We’ll even throw in Tattoo from TV’s “Fantasy Island”! Still not enough? How ’bout we bring back Sheriff J.W. Pepper? You liked him the first time, didn’t you? …Well no, damn it, I didn’t! Ekland ends up looking like a stereotypical dumb blonde. Someone should have done some hard time for writing her that badly. But Christopher Lee is up to the challenge and pretty much carries “The Man with the Golden Gun” all by himself. Almost makes up for the things the movie gets wrong. Almost.

17. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Tomorrow Never Dies

Pierce Brosnan’s second adventure as Bond is actually not half-bad. Certainly got a lot of help from his co-star, Michelle Yeoh. Bond’s cold-blooded murder of Vincent Schiavelli’s Dr. Kaufman is a true moment of fist-pumping satisfaction. But for whatever reason, Jonathan Pryce just isn’t all that threatening as the villain.

16. Quantum of Solace (2008)
Quantum of Solace

One of the only truly disposable Bond films. It’d be further down on the list if it weren’t for Daniel Craig. Also kind of wish we’d gotten more out of Gemma Arterton’s Strawberry Fields (pictured with Craig) before her unfortunate demise.

15. You Only Live Twice (1967)
You Only Live Twice

So much build-up leads to such a crushing disappointment. Ernst Stavro Blofeld had existed only in the shadows for several of the preceding films, and all but the final twenty minutes of this one. “You Only Live Twice,” although it would never have been considered perfect, was pretty good right up until the reveal of Donald Pleasence (whom I otherwise love). Gone is the menace, replaced by a laughably defeatable wimp who can’t fire a kill shot at Bond when he has the chance to take it. Not that I’d actually want him to.

14. Dr. No (1962)
Dr. No

Another one that most fans would be likely to place higher. It’s a solid introductory chapter, but it’s just that there have been several others since with more high octane plots and Bond girls who have more to do than stand around, look beautiful and need rescuing.

13. The Living Daylights (1987)
Living Daylights

The series had begun circling the drain until Timothy Dalton gave Bond back his balls in “The Living Daylights.” He won’t turn big and green, but you still don’t want to make this guy mad. Explosions were the name of the game in 80’s action films, and this one was more than willing to oblige.

12. The World Is Not Enough (1999)
World Is Not Enough

Say what you will about Denise Richards, but man was she a hot one back in the late 1990’s! Still, Richards isn’t the big draw. That honor belongs to Sophie Marceau (pictured), the series’ second female main villain. As Elektra King, she’s also the only one to ever force Bond to kill an unarmed woman. That counts for a lot in my book.

11. Live and Let Die (1973)
Live and Let Die

Made in an attempt to cash in on the blaxploitation craze of the early 70’s, a few points are deducted for the needless creation of comic relief character Sheriff J.W. Pepper, played by Clifton James. I’m not gonna lie… The reason I love “Live and Let Die” as much as I do is easy to explain. Her name is Jane Seymour.

10. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
For Your Eyes Only

Without question Roger Moore’s best Bond movie, and the first true spy story in the series in quite some time. SPECTRE isn’t missed, not even after Blofeld (yes, we’re sure it’s him) is dropped down a smokestack in the prologue. Speak of the devil…

9. Spectre (2015)
Spectre

This is the only ranking I’m not entirely sure of, and that’s due to my only having seen it once. The good: some of the most spectacular action scenes of ANY Bond film. The mesmerizing: THAT dress! The so-so: the chemistry between James Bond and Madeline Swann. The not-so good: Bond and Blofeld’s familial connection, and the notion that Blofeld and SPECTRE were behind the plots of each of the first three Daniel Craig films. Still, all in all a damn good movie which I intend to see again sooner rather than later.

8. Thunderball (1965)
Thunderball

Claudine Auger (Domino) and Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona Volpe) provide the stunning eye candy, Adolfo Celi (Largo) provides the terrific Bond villain, and Tom Jones provides the ultimate Bond theme song. Could have gone higher on the list but for the the tedious underwater sequences.

7. Licence to Kill (1989)
Licence to Kill

Bond is out for revenge, and anyone he holds responsible is going through the meat grinder! Well, actually just henchman Benicio Del Toro. Bond has other methods for disposing of the rest of the slimy characters in this movie. The underrated “Licence to Kill” shows us a Bond without the pretense of professionalism, something we wouldn’t see to this extent again until the role was Daniel Craig’s.

6. From Russia With Love (1963)
From Russia With Love

In the end, for me, it’s all about the train. The fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw is such a classic that I need both hands to count the number of times it’s been redone… by the Bond series.

5. Goldfinger (1964)
Goldfinger

This was the one that introduced me to Bond… James Bond. It’s also the one that set up the formula which the series has followed through most of its run. Only thing that doesn’t fire on all cylinders for me is the finale aboard Goldfinger’s plane.

4. GoldenEye (1995)
GoldenEye

My favorite for a long time, it’s still a joy all these years later. Sean Bean made the most significant impact on me as the villainous Alec Trevelyan. Pierce Brosnan had one hell of a debut. But somebody else had a better one, and with the very same director…

3. Casino Royale (2006)
Casino Royale

Back from the brink and kicking ass like never before! “Casino Royale” brought a dark tone the series had been in need of for a while. Daniel Craig doesn’t look like a guy who was just settling into the role. Still, it takes two to create chemistry, and the other element I speak of is Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. An amazing beauty with the talent to match, Green aids Craig in creating a modern classic. But Craig had yet another one up his tuxedo sleeve…

2. Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall

The dark tone from “Casino Royale” carries over into Craig’s third and best effort as Bond. It also made him my favorite James Bond. But, once again, he couldn’t have done it alone. Javier Bardem… What else can I say except that this guy is one outstanding actor! As the chaos-loving Raoul Silva, his vendetta against Judi Dench’s M turns Bond’s whole world upside down, and I kinda love him for it.

1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service

How could #1 possibly have been anything else? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bond films are always best when they are dark and emotional. How much darker can you get than by having Bond fall in love and get married, only to lose the love of his life in a drive-by shooting perpetrated by his worst enemy? Gut-wrenching, brutal, and bloody brilliant. Every time I watch “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” I’m reminded of just why I fell in love with actress Diana Rigg. As Tracy, Rigg takes full command of each scene she’s in, making damn sure that you hang on her every word. Nothing has and nothing ever will beat this one.

Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes

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

A recurring line from “Skyfall” was “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” This was an observation which was backed up by several callbacks to previous films, as well as the simple method by which the major villain’s plot was finally put to an end. Taking a much less subtle, but at the same time far more traditional approach in telling its story is the 24th James Bond film, “Spectre.” As hinted by its very title, the criminal organization known as SPECTRE, makes its return after a 44-year absence from the franchise. There’s no hollowed-out volcano lair this time, but one should still have a pad and pencil handy to document all of the classic era references which are present, as “Spectre” more than any other Bond film is a movie made by fans for the fans. As such, it’s a fitting one to end a marathon with… just as I have done.

“Spectre” starts things off by giving us what will go down as the most spectacular prologue in the series’ history. James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in Mexico City carrying out one last order from the dearly departed M (Judi Dench). Unsanctioned by MI6 and the new M (Ralph Fiennes), Bond kills three men plotting a terrorist bombing, inadvertently demolishing an entire building by destroying the bomb and tossing the lead terrorist out the side of an airborne helicopter. Before doing so, Bond relieves the man of a sinister-looking ring with an octopus symbol on it. Additionally, although Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” pales in comparison with Adele’s “Skyfall,” the accompanying visuals are as striking a main title sequence as any that we’ve seen from this franchise, and somewhat creepy on top of it all.

Grounded by the new M for his actions in Mexico City, Bond hasn’t finished his old boss’s mission just yet, travelling to Rome to attend the funeral of the man he tossed from the helicopter. Bond seduces the man’s widow, Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) for the purposes of gaining information about the late terrorist’s employer, which turns out to be SPECTRE. At the same time, M is butting heads with C (Andrew Scott), who considers the 00 Agent program antiquated and means to replace it with an Orwellian global surveillance network which he calls Nine Eyes. Bond, wearing the late Mr. Sciarra’s ring, attends a SPECTRE meeting where the organization’s head, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) calls him out by name. Realizing his presence there has not merely been anticipated but planned, Bond escapes certain death at the hands of SPECTRE henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Afterwards, Bond enlists the aid of Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), whom he asks to look into Oberhauser, a man whom Bond recognizes from his own past… and whom he previously believed to be dead.

In the meantime, Bond looks up his old enemy Mr. White (Jesper Christensen),  who now is slowly dying from thallium poisoning. Bond promises to protect White’s daughter, Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux) in return for information. Prior to taking his own life with Bond’s gun, Mr. White tells Bond that Madeline will point him in the direction of L’Américain, which will then lead Bond to SPECTRE. Bond finds Madeline working as a doctor at a clinic up in the Austrian Alps… where one can only hope that no one is secretly plotting global takeover through germ warfare. The initial meeting between Bond and Madeline doesn’t go so well, and Bond is about to leave when he sees that Mr. Hinx has showed up to kidnap Madeline. Rescuing her, Bond introduces Madeline to Q (Ben Whishaw), who has used Sciarra’s SPECTRE ring to uncover a link between that organization and all of Bond’s previous tormentors: Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene and Raoul Silva. Finding Bond more trustworthy now, Madeline reveals that L’Américain is actually the name of a hotel in Tangier.

At L’Américain, Bond discovers a secret room where Mr. White had all kinds of information on SPECTRE’s operations, which includes the directions to a secret base out in the desert. Bond and Madeline travel to their destination by train, where they encounter Mr. Hinx one last time before Bond ejects him from the moving train car, apparently killing him. Afterwards, Bond and Madeline become intimate. Upon their arrival at the SPECTRE base, a few unsurprising facts are revealed. First,  SPECTRE is behind C’s Nine Eyes project. Duh! The ability to watch your enemy’s every move is just the sort of thing an evil criminal organization would spring for! Next, Oberhauser reviews his personal history with Bond. Oberhauser’s father served as Bond’s temporary guardian in the aftermath of his parents’ death. A jealous Franz would later kill his father over this and stage his own demise. This would allow Oberhauser to re-emerge with the identity of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and form SPECTRE.

*Sigh* You know, these movies always manage to do one aspect of the character of Blofeld poorly, and I think in “Spectre” it’s the reveal of his origin. It’s not a fatal flaw, mind you. In part because Mike Myers had already done the “he was your brother all along” angle with Dr. Evil and Austin Powers, it’s a little hard to take it seriously. There’s also a ridiculous device that Bond is hooked up to which can supposedly drill into and screw with parts of his brain. We see it working not once but twice, yet Bond is 100% fine afterwards. He and Madeline break custody and blow up the base (a magnificently HUGE explosion, by the way), and Blofeld is presumed dead. Of course he isn’t dead… just disfigured like the Donald Pleasence version of the character from “You Only Live Twice.”

While M and Q put a permanent stop to the plans of C, Blofeld captures Madeline and forces Bond to search for her through the ruins of the old MI6 building (abandoned after the attack in “Skyfall”), which Blofeld will thoroughly demolish with explosives in a matter of minutes. Though Blofeld insists that Bond must make a choice between saving his own ass and dying in the attempt to save Madeline, Bond gives those choices the finger by rescuing Madeline AND getting out of the building in time. Not only that, but Bond also shoots down Blofeld’s getaway helicopter. An injured Blofeld crawls from the wreckage. Instead of killing him as promised, Bond elects to throw away his gun and walk away with Madeline while MI6 takes Blofeld into custody.

The way that “Spectre” ends, it offers a convenient out for Daniel Craig should he indeed wish never to play James Bond again… an honor which none of the previous actors to play the role (whose tenures fizzled out) were awarded. I’ve already come up with my own shortlist for who I think should be the Bond girl for “Bond 25,” but I can’t even fathom who the next James Bond could be if Craig really is done. Replacing Sean Connery was tough enough, but Craig has raised the bar so impossibly high that I don’t envy whomever follows in his footsteps. Even Daniel Craig’s least effective entry, “Quantum of Solace,” is still a decent film compared to some of the turkeys of the 70’s and the 80’s.

I have my concerns about “Spectre,” but despite being the longest James Bond film, the pacing isn’t one of them. The whole thing is practically non-stop, grab-you-by-the-throat action. It loses a tiny bit of steam in the final act, but not a significant enough amount. Virtually abandoning the darkness that makes both “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” so attractive, Bond is more confident even in the face of an imposing threat like SPECTRE. You never for a moment believe that he won’t win the day, which makes this Bond more like Sean Connery than he’s ever been before. Likewise, Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of M is eerily reminiscent of Bernard Lee. Christoph Waltz is as terrific as Blofeld as I had expected him to be, and wouldn’t mind if he returned as he has teased that he might. Less effective is Léa Seydoux. She’s good, but I’m not sold on Madeline Swann as the girl that James Bond would consider leaving MI6 forever to be with.

A movie as big as “Spectre” pretty much demands repeat viewing. As this was my first, time will tell if my opinion on it changes at all. But I feel safe in saying that it’s one of the better films in the series despite not being in the caliber of either “Casino Royale” or “Skyfall.” As long as you’re not setting your expectations too high, anticipate no surprises and go in ready to have the kind of fun you had with the Bond of old, “Spectre” will not deceive you.

Skyfall (2012)

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney

It has been said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, that you have to experience a fall before you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. For the James Bond franchise, on occasion, this has meant that the series has weathered a less-than-stellar entry just before being blessed by a magical one. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” followed the disappointing “You Only Live Twice,” “Casino Royale” stood the series back up on its feet after “Die Another Day” had knocked it down, and the forgettable “Quantum of Solace” was made up for by the mighty “Skyfall.”  This sentiment gets turned on its head when the same application is given to Bond himself. In each of the three superior films cited, Bond’s usual armor of invincibility is penetrated and he is forever changed by the experience.

After a breathtaking chase sequence from rooftops to a train in Istanbul, the prologue to “Skyfall” literally ends with James Bond (Daniel Craig) taking a fall, having been accidentally shot by Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). He’d been trying to recover a stolen hard drive containing a list of MI6 agents currently undercover in the not-so-nice parts of the world. Not the sort of information you want leaking out, but leak it most certainly will. With Bond presumed dead and the mission a complete bust, M (Judi Dench) is the one who must shoulder the blame. It is suggested by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) that she retire with grace and dignity. M would much rather clean up her mess first, but she’s got a long way to go before being able to do that. On the way back to MI6, M’s car gets caught up in traffic. She then receives a cryptic message on her computer just moments before witnessing an explosion at MI6 headquarters. Catching a CNN breaking news bulletin about the attack, a very much alive Bond resurfaces. Although he dismally fails the required physical and mental evaluations (which include a rather amusing word association test), M nevertheless restores Bond back to active service.

Following a lead provided by shrapnel removed from Bond’s shoulder wound, 007 tracks the hard drive thief to Shanghai where the man, named Patrice, is performing an assassination. Not only does Bond not prevent the murder, but the ensuing struggle leads Patrice to plummet to his death without revealing the identity of his employer. Among Patrice’s things, Bond finds a gambling chip, redeemable at a casino in Macau. Once there, Bond meets Séverine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a woman employed by the same person as Patrice. Séverine was curious to see who might be the one to cash in the casino chip. Working under duress and in fear for her life, Séverine promises cooperation if Bond agrees to kill her boss. Once Séverine has brought Bond to the private island her boss acquired for himself, the man reveals his identity as that of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a disgruntled former MI6 agent with a personal vendetta against M. Silva worked for MI6 from 1986 to 1997, until being captured by the Chinese while pursuing an unsanctioned mission in Hong Kong. Feeling abandoned and betrayed, Silva has plotted his revenge ever since. Silva shoots and kills Séverine, but Bond uses the radio transmitter given to him by Q (Ben Whishaw) to signal for backup and takes Silva back to MI6 as his prisoner.

All is not as it seems, however. It turns out that Silva had intended all along to be caught so that he could attempt to kill M. Bond realizes this when Q foolishly attempts to access Silva’s computer, thereby allowing it to hack into MI6’s mainframe and free Silva from his cage. Dressed as an officer of the law, Silva and a few other armed men barge in on a public inquiry regarding the stolen hard drive and opens fire. Thanks to resistance from Bond, Mallory and Moneypenny, Silva is unsuccessful in his attempt to kill M, but hasn’t given up on his goal yet. Knowing this, Bond drives away with M in his 1964 Aston Martin DB5 and heads directly for his childhood home of Skyfall in Scotland. Intending to end the chase once and for all, Bond tells Q to leave a trail for Silva to follow. Sure enough, Silva and his men show up and start shooting up the place. Unfortunately, Skyfall is not as well-stocked with weapons as it once was, and Bond sends M through a secret passage with Bond family friend Kincade (Albert Finney) while he remains behind and booby traps the house. Bond joins them in the tunnel just in time as the explosion destroys the house and takes with it Silva’s helicopter, the villain watching in shock from a safe distance on the ground below.

A confrontation between Bond and Silva’s men results in the ice beneath their feet giving way. Satisfied that Bond has either been killed by his henchmen, drowned or frozen to death, Silva presses on to the chapel where M and Kincade are hiding out. Upon arrival, Silva discovers that M has sustained a gunshot wound during the battle, and attempts to force her into using his gun to fire a single bullet through both of their heads. Quietly, Bond enters the chapel and throws a knife into Silva’s back, killing him.Despite defeating his enemy, Bond has arrived too late to save M, who succumbs to her earlier wound and dies in his arms. For the orphaned Bond, losing M is like losing his mother all over again. An epilogue shows off a more old school MI6… with Miss Moneypenny now a secretary, Mallory installed as the new M, and M’s office almost an exact duplicate of the one which appeared from 1962 until 1989.

If “Casino Royale” was Bond’s “Batman Begins,” then “Skyfall” is most certainly his “Dark Knight.” It isn’t just that Raoul Silva has a lot in common with Heath Ledger’s Joker (including his affinity for the creation of chaos), or that Bond bests his nemesis while failing to protect a woman he cares for. “Skyfall” is also just a hair better than “Casino Royale”… no small feat. There’s so much that “Skyfall” gets right that it renders any plotholes insignificant. Adele’s Oscar-winning title tune is the best piece of Bond music since Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” Javier Bardem, though not as menacing as he was in “No Country for Old Men,” makes Raoul Silva my favorite Bond villain. I also love the fact that Judi Dench is given a meatier role here than in any of her previous appearances, which date all the way back to “GoldenEye.” But the greatest of all is, of course, Daniel Craig. It was with “Skyfall” that Craig dethroned Sean Connery as my favorite actor to portray James Bond. I have nothing but love for a movie that can pull that off! To date, “Skyfall” is the only Bond film I’ve ever seen theatrically. My knee-jerk reaction to it at the time was to call it my all-time favorite Bond film. It’s not quite THAT good, but it’s brilliant enough to get closer than anything else the series has produced in years.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Director: Marc Forster

Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench

Among the many differences between the James Bond film series and its original source material penned by Ian Fleming, there is the fact that the plots of the novels tended to all be interconnected. The only real continuity that ever existed between Bond films were passing references to previous gadgets and deceased characters. But the stories which each film told were otherwise self-contained… that is until “Quantum of Solace.” Fans of the books who had hoped that “Casino Royale” might be followed by the second filmed version of “Live and Let Die” (since that was the second Bond novel) were in for a disappointment. So was anyone looking for Bond to move on to an entirely new mission.

“Quantum of Solace” picks up in Siena, Italy, mere minutes after the end of “Casino Royale.” James Bond (Daniel Craig) leads a bunch of would-be attackers in a high-speed car chase, with Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) locked away inside the boot. Back at MI6, Mr. White is interrogated about the organization he works for, known as Quantum. Mr. White laughs, noting that Quantum has influence everywhere. With that, M (Judi Dench)’s bodyguard attacks her and Mr. White escapes. Bond pursues and kills the bodyguard. A search of the dead man’s flat reveals a lead which Bond follows to Haiti. A hitman has been hired by businessman Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric)… a truly pathetic individual… to kill Greene’s girlfriend, Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko). Greene is also plotting to help install an exiled Bolivian general named Medrano as that country’s next president, one whom just so happens to have also been responsible for the death of Camille’s entire family. Bond prevents Camille’s murder, but inadvertently also prevents her from exacting revenge for her loved ones… a subject to which Bond can relate.

Bond tracks Greene to an opera in Austria, where members of Quantum are meeting in secret. Bond sneaks in and snaps a few key photos before he’s discovered and a gun battle begins. At the end of it, Bond drops one Quantum member off the side of a building, a man who turns out to be a bodyguard to an adviser of the British Prime Minister. Although the fall doesn’t kill him (despite landing on the hood of a car), Greene has him shot and killed to make it look like Bond did it. M takes the bait, and revokes Bond’s credit cards and passports when he won’t report in. Instead, Bond heads back to Italy to contact Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), whom he has forgiven for his perceived betrayal at the Casino Royale, and persuade Mathis to accompany him to Bolivia.

Upon their arrival, Bond is confronted by Ms. Fields (Gemma Arterton), who is under orders to bring Bond back to the UK. Naturally, it won’t work out that way, as Bond persuades her to jump into bed with him instead. Fields’ first name is never uttered on-screen, but her full name is listed in the end credits as Strawberry Fields. The second Beatles-inspired name in the series’ history (after the title for the movie “Tomorrow Never Dies”), Strawberry Fields shows how far we’ve come since Sean Connery’s Bond deliberately badmouthed the Fab Four in “Goldfinger.” Speaking of “Goldfinger,” Strawberry Fields will sadly meet a fate similar to that of Jill Masterson, the difference being that Fields is covered head to toe in crude oil, not gold paint. Mathis also is killed by the Bolivian police working for Medrano. Bond goes with Camille and discovers that Quantum is damming the Bolivian water supply. CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) tells Bond about the meeting place between Greene and Medrano. Bond kills the Bolivian Chief of Police in revenge for Mathis’s death, and gives chase to Greene while Camille confronts and kills Medrano. Bond catches up to Greene and leaves him stranded in the desert, only to learn later that Greene’s body turned up with two fatal bullet wounds.

An epilogue finds Bond in Russia where he has tracked down Vesper Lynd’s former boyfriend, the one for whom she was blackmailed by Quantum. It turns out that the creep is a Quantum member himself, and that his specialty is the seduction of women with connections in high places. He’s in the middle of seducing his latest mark when Bond interferes. Turning the bastard in to MI6 custody rather than kill him, Bond finally finds it in his heart to forgive Vesper.

In the decades-long run that the James Bond franchise has enjoyed, there has been only one film which truly called for a direct follow-up… and “Casino Royale” wasn’t it. Perhaps in some way Bond needed to forgive Vesper, but we didn’t, and we didn’t need a whole movie devoted to that subject. Daniel Craig is still in top form as Bond, but he’s surrounded by a less interesting story and faces off against a decidedly weak sauce villain. You could probably skip this one entirely, jumping from “Casino Royale” straight into the 23rd Bond film, and not even miss a thing. Still, although James Bond has participated in his share of bad movies, “Quantum of Solace” isn’t one of them. It’s more that type of ‘okay’ movie that is completely disposable despite still being fun to watch.

Casino Royale (2006)

Director: Martin Campbell

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench

The James Bond series has taken many risks over the years, but waited until crossing into the 21st century to make its biggest gamble yet. After the sub-par “Die Another Day,” I welcomed the news of a complete series reboot. I also chose not to join the crowd of objectors to the hiring of Daniel Craig, noting that once upon a time even Sean Connery was doubted at first. That “GoldenEye” director Martin Campbell was returning only added to my enthusiasm. The consequences of failure could have been a permanent retirement of the character. But “Casino Royale” didn’t just ensure the series would survive. It gave us the best James Bond since Connery and the best film in the franchise since the 1960’s.

“Casino Royale” establishes its gritty tone by beginning with a prologue shot in black and white. Here, we see MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) acquiring his 00 status by performing his first two kills. The first one, inside a public restroom, is as sloppy as it is brutal. The dead man is an accomplice of a traitorous MI6 section chief named Dryden, Bond’s second target. Bond gets the drop on Dryden in his office and, before Dryden can finish assuring Bond that the second kill is easier, Bond puts a bullet right between Dryden’s eyes. Bond later botches an assignment in Madagascar where, after a long and dangerous chase on foot, he kills the target he was supposed to apprehend for questioning. Chiding him for his recklessness, M (Judi Dench) speaks to Bond like a mother reprimanding her insubordinate son.

At the same time that all this is going on, a meeting takes placein Uganda between freedom fighters and Mr. White, a man from the same criminal organization as the man Bond killed in Madagascar. Mr. White introduces the freedom fighters to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of terrorism. It will be Le Chiffre’s job to look after the Ugandan warlord’s money. To this end, Le Chiffre is going to gamble the money on the failure of an airline company, which he means to ensure by blowing up the company’s new plane. Bond heads for Miami, where he is able to put a stop to the bombing just in the nick of time. The loss of the Ugandans’ money forces Le Chiffre to set up a high-stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. In an effort to force Le Chiffre into accepting help against the Ugandans from the British government in exchange for information, MI6 sends Bond to Montenegro to beat him in the poker game. On the train ride Bond meets his banker, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a woman who is about to change Bond’s life forever.

As the game gets underway, Bond believes he’s learned the signs to look for to tell when Le Chiffre is bluffing, and gains confidence. During a pause in the game, Le Chiffre is accosted in his suite by the Ugandan warlord. Bond eavesdrops nearby, and is spotted by the Ugandan, whom Bond chokes the life out of with his bare hands. When the game resumes, Bond incorrectly assumes that Le Chiffre is bluffing and blows all of his money. When Vesper refuses to front him any more money, a furious and impulsive Bond decides instead to kill Le Chiffre, but is stopped at the last minute by a fellow player: CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). Felix notes that his own odds are not improving, and agrees to trade the money Bond needs in exchange for custody of Le Chiffre when it’s all said and done. Bond’s luck begins to change almost immediately, prompting Le Chiffre to have Bond’s vodka martini poisoned. Bond nearly succumbs to the poison, but is resuscitated by Vesper. Determined to win now more than ever, Bond ultimately cleans Le Chiffre out with a straight flush.

A sore loser now in fear for his own life, Le Chiffre baits Bond by capturing Vesper, leaving her in the middle of the road so that Bond will be forced to swerve to miss and then crash his car. Le Chiffre reveals that Bond’s MI6 contact, Mathis, actually works for him. Le Chiffre then tortures Bond for his account password (which is V-E-S-P-E-R), but Bond refuses. Having completely and utterly failed, Le Chiffre is shot and killed by Mr. White. As Bond recovers in a hospital, MI6 takes Mathis into custody. Bond expresses his love for Vesper, and sends his letter of resignation to M. After Bond and Vesper arrive in Venice, M calls Bond to inform him that Vesper has stolen the poker winnings. Bond spots her as she meets with the intended recipients of the money. They kidnap her and lock her in an elevator inside a building under renovation. Bond kills Vesper’s captors, but the battle causes the building to collapse and sink. Bond attempts to free Vesper from the elevator, but she allows herself to drown. Mr. White then takes possession of the money.

Feeling betrayed, Bond rejoins MI6. M tells Bond of the true nature of Vesper’s involvement in the scheme. It turns out that Vesper had a boyfriend whom the mysterious criminal organization had captured and threatened to kill if she didn’t cooperate. Vesper’s love for Bond was real, however, and it was that love which saved Bond from being killed by Mr. White along with Le Chiffre. Checking his cell phone text messages, Bond discovers that Vesper had left him Mr. White’s name and phone number. The movie ends with Bond tracking down and arresting Mr. White.

You would think that a Bond movie revolving around a high-stakes poker game would be a tough sell to a modern audience. If that were all there was to “Casino Royale,” then it’s conceivable there might be a problem. However, the incredible action sequences (which draw inspiration from “The Bourne Identity” and “Batman Begins”) coupled with the dazzling chemistry between Daniel Craig and Eva Green (the best Bond girl since Diana Rigg) make “Casino Royale” a modern classic. Far, FAR greater than I remembered, it is in my opinion one of the absolute best films in the series. I love seeing Bond at this early point in his career: more violent than the Timothy Dalton Bond, yet also more vulnerable than the George Lazenby Bond. The producers were wise to bet the series’ continued longevity on Daniel Craig, and even smarter to ask him to return. As if I wasn’t already sold on Craig as Bond, after “Casino Royale” I was all in.