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Josh Reviews No Time to Die

No Time To Die is the fifth and final film starring Daniel Craig as James Bond.  The film is excellent, with some terrific action set-pieces and also some lovely moments of emotional depth (something the series rarely saw before Mr. Craig took on the role).  While the film is not everything I’d hoped it would be, it’s definitely top-tier Bond and a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.

One of my favorite aspects of Mr. Craig’s run of Bond films has been the continuity between the films.  (I’ve heard many say this was a first for the Bond movies.  That’s not exactly the case, as the early Sean Connery films had a gentle continuity between them as Bond slowly became aware of the menace of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and things got escalatingly personal, culminating with the death of Bond’s wife.  Unfortunately, after George Lazenby’s one-and-done time in the role, the series for the most part abandoned any connections between their films, with each new movie basically being a stand-alone adventure.)  I’ve loved the continuity between the Daniel Craig Bond films.  When well done (as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), this allows for stories and character development with increasing depth and resonance.  Unfortunately, the Bond series also has shown the dangers of this approach — when Spectre (in my opinion) completely bungled the reveal of Blofeld and Spectre, the whole multi-film storyline appeared to collapse.

I’d wondered whether this new film would attempt to forget about Spectre or if it would somehow try to follow up on that film.  The filmmakers chose the latter approach, and I’m delighted that they did.  No Time To Die works hard (and mostly succeeds) at correcting the mistakes of Spectre, bringing back characters such as Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) but doing a much better job at developing their characters and their relationships to Bond.  The film is filled with references to and connections to the previous films in Mr. Craig’s run, in a valiant attempt to bring the many storylines and character threads together into a satisfying conclusion.  I’m delighted that is the approach the filmmakers took.  No Time to Die is a film that takes many big narrative swings, several of which truly surprised me.  These story twists didn’t all work for me, but I love the film’s ambition and the attempt to do what has never before been done in more than fifty years of Bond films: actually craft a satisfying ending.  (I’ll get into more details, in the SPOILERS section below, on my thoughts on these plot developments.)

A key element of the strength of the Daniel Craig Bond films has been the caliber of the directors hired to helm … [continued]

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When wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumer) is found dead in his home, many of his family members and others in his orbit all seem to have a possible motive.  Enter: detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired to get to the bottom of the whole bloody affair.

Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a ferociously entertaining film, an agreeably funny and twisty whodunnit.

Mr. Johnson’s film is a clever modern version of an Inspector Poirot or Agatha Christie mystery, with a brilliant detective investigating a large cast of characters, each of whom might be a suspect in the crime.  The film is very much of the current day, with conversations about immigration and references to Netflix.  At the same time, it’s a murder mystery in the classic mold, one that can hold its own proudly with the classic stories of this genre.  The film is very funny, but it’s not a spoof.  There is real death, and significant stakes for the characters involved.  And yet, Mr. Johnson effectively maintains a fun, jaunty tone for the film’s entire run-time.  It’s an impressive accomplishment.

The cast is magnificent.  I don’t know what’s going on with Daniel Craig’s accent, but his surprising and unexpected choices continually delighted me throughout the film.  His detective Blanc seems in many ways to be just as loony as the characters he’s investigating; but he proves again and again his skill and attention to detail.  I love how Mr. Craig was able to make this detective character just as interesting as all of the other suspects.  Ana de Armas was dazzling in Blade Runner 2049, and she proves that was no fluke here with her empathetic work here as Harlan’s young nurse, Marta, who suddenly finds herself in an escalatingly crazy situation.

Jamie Lee Curtis is devastatingly sharp and acerbic as Harlan’s oldest daughter, Linda.  It’s a delight to see the great Ms. Curtis back on screen playing such a strong and memorable character.  I don’t think I’ve seen anything Don Johnson has done in almost 20 years, and yet here I am loving his work in HBO’s new Watchmen series, and he was terrific in this film as Linda’s husband Richard.  Chris Evans plays an anti-Steve Rogers character in Ransom, Linda and Richard’s spoiled son.  It’s fascinating to see Mr. Evans use his thousand-watt smile for such a smarmy, selfish character, rather than a noble one.  Michael Shannon’s usual intensity brings interesting colors to the role of Harlan’s youngest — and somewhat desperate — son Walt.  Toni Collette is hilarious as Joni, the ditsy widow of Harlan’s dead son Neil, who runs a fake-sounding lifestyle business that rather resembles … [continued]

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Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Flemming’s James Bond, is not a completely terrible film but it’s a huge missed opportunity for the franchise and is probably the worst of Craig’s four Bond films.  (That’s right, I think Spectre is weaker than Quantum of Solace.)  This film should have been the triumphant and thrilling return of the best and most iconic Bond villains — S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld — after forty years on the shelf, but instead it’s a humdrum head-scratcher and I am left wondering what the heck went wrong.

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Spoilers ahead, gang.

One of my favorite things about the Daniel Craig Bond films has been the continuity between the films.  I loved that Quantum of Solace directly picked up on the events of Casino Royale, specifically Bond’s grief at Vesper’s betrayal, as well as bringing back characters such as Mathis and Mr. White, who was revealed to be connected to a criminal organization called Quantum (or perhaps Q.U.A.N.T.U.M.).  (One of my complaints about Skyfall, which I enjoyed but didn’t view as the triumph that most everyone else seemed to, was that it was a stand-alone adventure that didn’t continue the development of Quantum.)

This sort of continuity in the Bond series feels like a radical new idea, but in fact it’s a very old one.  Though the series became famous for each film’s being a totally stand-alone adventure, the original Connery Bond films had a gentle continuity between them.  Characters carried over from one film to another (such as Sylvia Trench) and we gradually got to learn more about S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the criminal organization behind much of Bond’s troubles, and its leader Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

A turning point in the Bond series — and what stands as the series’ greatest missed opportunity (though boy does Spectre give it a run for its money) — is the abandonment of that continuity following the terrific cliffhanger ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  That film under-performed and audiences did not respond well to the newly re-cast Bond, played by George Lazenby.  And so while the follow-up should have been the grand culmination of the story that had been slowly developed over the course of the first six films, an emotional and epic climax to Bond’s fight with S.P.E.C.T.R.E., now taken to an intensely personal level following the murder of Bond’s wife, the producers made the decision to totally abandon that story and quickly do away with Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.  From that point forward, the films became stand-alone adventures and, following a brief and stupid appearance of a Blofeld-like character in the opening of For Your Eyes Only, that was the last we ever heard of Blofeld and … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Layer Cake

I saw Layer Cake in the theater, probably because I loved Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and so I was excited for another British crime flick, and because the great Colm Meaney (who I had grown to love because of his years portraying Miles Edward O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was in it.  I remember absolutely loving the film, right up to the final minute, which I absolutely hated.  Hated!  The ending totally soured me on the movie.  For quite a while now, particularly after becoming more of a fan of director Matthew Vaughn, I have been wanting to revisit the film to see what I would think of it on a second viewing.  I am pleased that I loved the first 99% of the movie just as much as I did when I first saw it back in 2006. As for the ending?  Well, I’ll get to that in a moment.

Daniel Craig plays a smart, calm British drug dealer.  He’s fairly low-level in the larger scheme of things, but because he is clever, patient, and risk-averse, he has managed to thrive and to build a fortune.  He is ready to get out of the business, but his boss, Jimmy Price, asks him to do him a small favor: find the missing daughter of a fellow crime-boss, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon).  Meanwhile, a shipment of ecstacy has been stolen from a Serbian drug lord, who has sent an assassin to kill the thieves and return the drugs.  These two events will soon collide, with Daniel Craig’s character stuck right in the middle, forced to bloody his knuckles and to use every ounce of his cleverness to try to navigate the conflicting goals of all of the violent criminals surrounding him in order to get away with his head intact.

Layer Cake is a ferociously entertaining, complex, twisty crime caper.  It’s far more serious than the jokey Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, though there are a few moments of humor in the film.  Layer Cake is a complicated story of double and triple crosses, as a large cast of characters collide, each competing with one another for wealth and power.  The film was written by J.J. Connolly, adapting his own novel, and I love how incredibly dense the film’s story is, daring the audience to keep up with the layers upon layers of twists and turns.

I first became aware of Daniel Craig when I saw his riveting supporting role in Road to Perdition (a vastly underrated movie that I should write more about one of these days).  Layer Cake was Mr. Craig’s first big lead role, and he is … [continued]

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Fifty Years of 007: Josh Reviews Skyfall

Well, after an unexpectedly lengthy hiatus, James Bond has returned, just in time for his fiftieth anniversary.  To the pleasure and relief of fans of Bond, James Bond, Skyfall is evidence that the redoubtable secret agent (and his franchise) has plenty of gas left in the ol’ Aston Martin tank, though I must confess that this is the second Bond film in a row that doesn’t quite succeed at living up to the promise suggested by Casino Royale.

NOTE: This is a hard film to write about while avoiding spoilers.  I will avoid ruining any of the big plot twists, but I would nonetheless advise not reading this review until you’ve seen the film.

The Opening/The Music: Skyfall’s opening sequence is thrilling, surely ranking amongst one of the very best Bond opening sequences. It’s a spectacular extended chase sequence, from car to motorcycle to train and beyond. (It’s a far more coherent action sequence that Quantum of Solace’s thrilling but hard to follow opening car chase.)  It’s a tremendous, thrilling opening, and I was totally hooked in. But thing got a little shaky as soon as Adele’s theme song began, and for much of the next hour I was a little worried about how things were going.  More on that in a few minutes.  I am lukewarm on Adele’s theme song.  It’s fun to have a Bond song once again using the same title as the film (after two films in a row in which the songs had different titles than the film, a divergence from the standard Bond-movie procedure), though trying to make a song based on the bizarre title of Skyfall, without spoiling the terms’ meaning in the film, is a task in which Adele and her team do not quite succeed.  Also, I tend to prefer my Bond songs to have a bit more of a propulsive beat, and to be a bit more hummable.

The bad: After the terrific opening sequence, the film hits the brakes and it takes a good long while, in my opinion, to really get going again.  The first hour is very hit and miss.  The film looks gorgeous with some truly stunning, cleverly designed sequences.  Bond’s fight with an assassin atop a Shanghai skyscraper, bathed in the reflection of neon lights, is particularly notable.  But I found myself filled with questions as to the unfolding story.  All sorts of little plot points niggled at me.  Why the hell did Bond keep those bullet fragments in his arm all that time?  Why perform surgery on himself when hes right in the middle of MI6, with plenty of trained medics all around him?  Wouldn’t that only further damage the usefulness of … [continued]

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Special ADVANCE REVIEW of the New James Bond film: Skyfall!

Guest-blogger Josh Lawrence lives in London, where the latest James Bond film Skyfall has already been released.  Josh submitted an advance review of Quantum of Solace back in 2008, and was kind enough this morning to send in his thoughts on Skyfall!  My own review will be up next week, after I see the film this weekend…  Take it away, Josh…

Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the Bond franchise, is an enjoyable action-packed movie that nonetheless will leave the avid Bond fan a bit disappointed.

After a rather tepid mission in Quantum of Solace, Bond is back to the darker, broodier character introduced in Casino Royale. But instead of the newly-minted “00” agent humbled and hardened by the loss of the love of his life, this time around Bond’s dark attitude stems from anger at M.i.6. for interfering with his current mission and, the movie hints, from some deeper secret.  Needless to say, this deep secret is connected to “Skyfall” — how else could one explain such a bizarre title.

For the old-school Bond fan, the movie follows a very familiar trope: Bond saves the world from say nuclear disaster—and is clearly the only agent capable of doing so—but M and his or her cohort and Q all treat Bond like some sort of a rakish self-centered idiot who can’t be trusted to do anything right.  Maybe it would be better for Bond to take a break and recover from his shoulder injury, his superiors suggest, as he is probably not fit for service?  Bond agrees but of course goes rogue — this time it’s personal — identifies the criminal gang behind the next threat, gets some grudging support from key people at headquarters, and then is welcomed back into the fold when he saves the day.

This time around the villain does not have a diabolical plot to radiate the gold supply or give racing horses steroids (phew!), but predictably has spent years developing a needlessly elaborate form of revenge for his grudge.  The story strains to make the point that non-state actors are the real risk in the modern world, and that the cloak-and-dagger services (and “00” agents specifically) are still relevant.

Of course the bigger challenge is in making the Bond films continue to be relevant, and this is where the movie was less successful.  As with Casino Royale, this movie owes a lot to the Bourne movies for its big action scenes, though director Sam Mendes is not as adept at using close-action cameras that lent Casino so much grit and brutalism.

The central problem is that the plot does not stand alone, or rather, could only be credible as a plot … [continued]