Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Favorite Movie Scores of 2015

When it comes to popular music, I really don't listen to a lot, if any, however if you take a look at my iTunes library, you'll find hours upon hours of movie music.  While I may be abnormal in that I prefer the stylings of John Williams to Adele, I really don't mind that sort of abnormality.  For me, one of my favorite things every single year is listening to all of the new movie music and hoping with every ounce of optimism I have, that with each new movie I will hear a new unforgettable movie theme that can rival any other.  For the most part, 2015 was a rousing success in that department.  There were a great many awesome movie scores this past year and today I would like to share my 10 favorite movie scores from 2015.  As with any list this is entirely subjective, but hopefully this list will be representative of the year that was and will be some great reading and listening to round out the end of the year.  So with all that said, here we go with number 10!


10.  Avengers:  Age of Ultron
One of the biggest things that Marvel has struggled with in all of its various movies thus far, is a musical identity that saw themes carrying over from one movie to the next.  While I still think that Marvel has a long ways to go, the score for Age of Ultron made a great many strides in correcting this course.  Co-written by Danny Elfman and Brian Tyler (who also wrote the music for Iron Man 3 and Thor:  The Dark World), the music for Age of Ultron harkens back to Alan Silvestri's score for The Avengers at most of the appropriate moments, while at the same time Elfman penned a new heroic theme for the Avengers that builds off of Silvestri's cues while helping further solidify a musical identity for the team.  As for Tyler's contribution, you can really hear it in the way he weaves in the themes he wrote for Iron Man and Thor in the other Marvel movies he composed, creating an aural consistency that links this movie to those other Marvel movies.  While I still think Marvel could do more on the music front with their movies, Age of Ultron's score was a step in the right direction, let's just hope it continues going down this path.

9.  Mr. Holmes
Carter Burwell is a composer whose contributions to so many great movies have often been overlooked because he is typically not an in your face kind of guy with his music.  Burwell's work on Mr. Holmes is bar none some of his best work, and that is saying something considering he is typically the go-to composer for the Coen Brothers.  With Mr. Holmes, he crafted a very stately, churning theme for the aged Sherlock Holmes that really suited this interpretation of the character, with the theme being at times tragic, uplifting, and mysterious.  While I'm hard pressed to say whether or not anyone else will remember this score come awards time, this is one that should at least be in the Oscar conversation.

8.  Ant-Man
This score was perhaps the most purely fun score to listen to all year long.  Composer Christophe Beck wrote a sensational blockbuster score that does everything that is required of a movie like this.  Beck handles the action sequences with propulsive brass, the quieter moments with strings and woodwinds, and through it all he gives it a flair that is unique and slightly different from other movies.  A large part of what set Ant-Man apart from other superhero movies in general, was the fact that it was a heist movie and Beck really exemplifies that in the music, with the themes often echoing the music from movies like Ocean's Eleven.  However my absolute favorite part of Beck's score is his theme he wrote for the Ant-Man character.  The theme works in so many different capacities throughout the movie with it being everything from a solemn, reflective piece to a massive, heroic overture.  Simply put, this is one of the finer scores ever written for a Marvel Studios movie.

7.  Kingsman:  The Secret Service
Another really fun score, Henry Jackman's music for Kingsman was a great highlight early in the year and still stands up there with the rest of the scores that came after it in 2015.  Of all of the spy movies that came out this year, I actually liked the music for this one more than any of the others, primarily because it was all new and fresh.  Jackman managed to craft a spy movie score that sounded like we had heard it before, but we actually hadn't.  Sure, the music never does anything to break the spy action movie mold, but it does it with so much style and energy that you are hooked from the first few notes of the Kingsman theme that Jackman wrote.

6.  The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay - Part 2
I said it in my review of the movie when it came out, but James Newton Howard has been the unsung hero of the whole Hunger Games franchise.  His scores for all four movies were consistent, while there were few new themes introduced in the latter movies, he just continued to refine what already worked and made it work even better.  The perfect case and point of this was in the music for the final scene of the whole series.  The music harkens back to the main theme that Newton Howard composed for the very first movie and it is still as emotionally resonant now as it was then.

5.  Inside Out
If there is any kind of successor to John Williams, it is Michael Giacchino.  Perhaps the most busy composer currently working (having composed the music for four major blockbusters just this year alone), Giacchino has written some of the most hummable movie music of the past decade or so, primarily thanks to his collaborations with Pixar.  With his score for Pixar's latest, Inside Out, Giacchino once again did what he does best, he created easy to hum themes for all of the primary characters and managed to work them in concert with one another in different tempos and keys to fit the mood of what the story needs at that moment.  His theme for Joy is light and effervescent, while his theme for Sadness is rather brassy and glum, and then his theme for Bing Bong is very bouncy and reminiscent of a circus.  Few composers can actually bring together that many vastly different sounds into a cohesive whole, but Giacchino has the ability to do that and just makes it look easy.  While Inside Out is not my favorite Giacchino score of 2015, it is one of his best of all-time, which goes to say what I really think about it.

4.  Paddington
Most of my favorite movie scores this past year were done by well-known composers, but in the case of Paddington, composer Nick Urata came from the world of Indie movies to craft a score that perfectly captures everything I love about this immigrant bear from Peru.  Urata gave many scenes an appropriately South American flare, especially when Paddington is given a bath to look presentable, but it is Urata's main theme for the movie that gives it heart and perfectly encapsulates Paddington.  The theme is at times soft and delicate, at others bouncy and eccentric, and even grand and majestic, like when Paddington first arrives in London.  I have always loved this bear, and this music is a great way to travel back to the colorful realm of Paddington's adventures when you're needing a nice reminder of the good in our world.

3.  Tomorrowland
The other Michael Giacchino score on this list, Tomorrowland is one of my five faves he's ever written.  The music for Tomorrowland is seemingly simplistic and standard for a blockbuster adventure movie.  It creates wonder and awe, mystery and suspense, and emotional heart tugging all when it needs to, so why is it one of my favorites of Giacchino's oeuvre?  Because it's just full of hope.  The whole idea of Tomorrowland is about discovering hope for the future amidst all of the negative thought in our world and that idea is what Giacchino captured most brilliantly in his themes for this movie.  When you hear his music for Tomorrowland, you just can't help but want to dream, and dreams are the first building blocks in making a better future, so in a way you can say Michael Giacchino's music for Tomorrowland helps make the world a better place.  I can't think of a better way to sum up the score other than that.

2.  Cinderella
This movie was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the whole year at the theater and the score was one of the reasons for that.  Patrick Doyle is a composer I have been familiar with for a long time and I have often found his scores enjoyable, but I think his work on Cinderella ranks as his best ever.  The score is sweeping and romantic, grand and majestic, and most importantly, heartfelt and emotional.  The core concepts of kindness and courage are musically interpreted in Doyle's music via the theme for Cinderella in the movie, which is one of the most pure and innocent themes I've ever heard for a character.  Contrast that with the tragic and calculating theme he wrote for the Evil Stepmother, and you wind up with a very rich and diverse musical landscape that expertly tells this classic fairy tale anew.

1.  Star Wars:  The Force Awakens
Anytime there is a new John Williams score, I go bananas.  When it's a new John Williams Star Wars score, I go bananas times a hundred!  Mr. Williams has outdone himself again with The Force Awakens.  It would have been very easily for him to have just relied entirely on the old themes he composed for the Original Trilogy and fans would have gone ape over it, but he didn't do that.  While many of the old themes make an appearance here and there within the score, about 90% of the score is made up of entirely new themes that Mr. Williams wrote just for this movie and its brand spanking new characters.  Rey's theme is instantly iconic, perfectly representing the character's innocence, resilience, and charm, by harking back to a swashbuckling-type feel.  Then there is Kylo Ren's theme, which is itself a mirror of Darth Vader's music, but perhaps a little more ominous with much more chaotic turmoil bubbling underneath its minimal facade.  Then you have the March of the Resistance, which is a militaristic piece that speaks to heroism in the face of danger and yet never mimics any of the other marches that Mr. Williams has written for the other Star Wars movies.  In short, The Force Awakens is a complete home run in every department, with the score being just another perfect element to the movie.  Now the real question is where does The Force Awakens score rank amongst the best of the whole Star Wars saga?  It may take a little more time to figure that out, but I've already integrated the new themes and best music cues from the soundtrack into my Star Wars playlist on iTunes, so that says enough for right now.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

The Force has awakened once more and this time it feels as if it will never go away again.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise and is the first of the Disney-era after they purchased Lucasfilm back in 2012.  Directed and co-written by fanboy lightning rod, J.J. Abrams, The Force Awakens is a Star Wars film that was made by fans, for fans.  While this could have easily been just a whole bunch of fan service to grab for some quick and easy cash, The Force Awakens is more than that -- it's a true tour de force of a movie (no pun intended).

There is simply a confidence to The Force Awakens that is evident from the very first frame, resulting in a movie that is more of a new beginning than a retread of past films.  Taking place nearly thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the film boldly places its new heroes front and center instead of the old stalwarts like Han Solo (who doesn't even show up till nearly forty-five minutes in).  That is not to say that characters like Han, Luke, and Leia do not play crucial roles, but their roles are always in service to the new cast who are the main reason this film works.

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac make up the hero side as Rey, Finn, and Poe, while Adam Driver plays the mysterious new villain, Kylo Ren.  All of these characters feel very Star Wars, but are different than any other Star Wars characters we've ever seen before.  Rey is a hopeful desert scavenger who had to raise herself when left by her family on the planet Jakku as a child, whereas Finn was a stormtrooper for the First Order (a less politically powerful, but restructured Empire) who defected when refusing to kill in cold blood, and Poe is a Resistance fighter pilot (the New Republic's secret military force led by Leia) who is literally the greatest pilot the saga has ever seen.  And what can really be said about Dark Side acolyte Kylo Ren without giving anything away?  Other than that Adam Driver delivers arguably the most nuanced portrayal of a Star Wars villain ever.  As for Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac, the chemistry between them is impeccable with all of them having phenomenal comedic timing as well as an amazing ability to wear their hearts on their sleeves, with 23-year-old Ridley in particular shining the brightest in her cinematic debut as an actress.  Thanks to the new cast, The Force Awakens is both one of the funniest movies in the Star Wars saga and perhaps the most emotional.

It's quite amazing that Abrams, alongside co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, managed to keep such a great balance going between light and dark without going too far either way.  As previously mentioned, the new cast is one of the key reasons that the script managed to work, but the thing that really makes this one so emotional is the old, returning cast.  Carrie Fisher delivers her best work in years as Leia, but it is Harrison Ford as Han Solo that really gets you in this one.  The pure joy of seeing Harrison back as Han is most certainly one of the primary reasons so many people are going to go see this movie, and I will say this much because I don't want to spoil anyone, his return does not disappoint and Han goes to some new places that we've never seen him go before.  As for Mark Hamill as Luke, well I'll just tease that there is a reason he hasn't been in any of the promotional materials so far, and it's a good one.

One of the things that people often say in the film business is that lightning rarely strikes twice, but in the case of the Star Wars saga, lightning seems to have struck seven times now.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivered in all of the expected ways as well as in a great many unexpected territories.  As is par for the course with a Star Wars movie, the movie looks and sounds great, with more imagination on display here than in just about any other movie being made nowadays, and what can you really say about the music from the great John Williams?  It's phenomenal, with himself being bold in not relying too heavily on old themes, utilizing mostly new creations for this go around.  That is the best way to sum up The Force Awakens.  It took a great many risks and they all paid off brilliantly, culminating in one of the best movies made in perhaps the last decade.  It's emotional, fun, and just super cool.  Go see it and enjoy it, because Star Wars is in safe hands.

I give Star Wars: The Force Awakens a 10 out of 10!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Favorite Star Wars Characters of All-Time

Okay, here is a hard fact to believe.  We are only a week away from seeing a brand new Star Wars movie!  Star Wars:  The Force Awakens opens on Dec. 18th, with special screenings starting at 7pm on the 17th the night before.  That is how close we are to seeing the return of Luke, Leia, and Han to the big screen, and also meeting a whole new batch of characters that I am almost certain will live up to the Star Wars legacy.

One of the main reasons I feel so many people love Star Wars so much, and it is really what separates it from any other sci-fi or fantasy franchise, is because of the characters.  We love the characters of Star Wars because they're human with real human emotions bubbling underneath.  We can identify with the best Star Wars characters, and there are many.

When you go through not just the movies, but the countless TV shows, games, books, and comic books over the years, there are hundreds upon hundreds of great characters in the Star Wars universe.  It is one of the few franchises where even the smallest little background character in a movie or TV episode gets a book, comic, or short story written about them to flesh their character out.  For this reason alone, it is almost impossible to say who is the greatest Star Wars character, but that doesn't stop me from telling you my favorites, and that is exactly what I am going to do today -- share with you my 30 Favorite Star Wars Characters of All-Time!

Now let me preface my list by saying that this is entirely subjective and I am owning up to that.  There is no rating criteria here, it's just the characters I like the most from the Star Wars universe (hence why I phrased it as my favorite characters and not the best or greatest characters of all-time).  I am sure everyone else would have a different list of favorite characters, but in sharing mine I hope you meet a few new characters that you've never met before and be interested enough in learning more about them.  One thing I love to do as a fan is to share what I love most with other people, and that is really all I am ever trying to do with lists or reviews or awards.  So without any further ado, here are My Favorite Star Wars Characters of All-Time!!!


30.  Count Dooku
Played morally gray by Sir Christopher Lee, Dooku is a highly undervalued character in the entirety of the Star Wars mythology.  As The Clone Wars TV series illuminated, Dooku was behind the creation of the Clone Army, impersonating as Jedi Master Sifo Dyas, acting as a key piece of the Emperor's machinations to take over the galaxy.  Equal parts ruthless, manipulative, and charming, Dooku is a character that never really gets his due which is why people need to understand why he deserves more credit.

29.  Chopper
A fairly recent addition to the Star Wars universe, Chopper is the astromech droid aboard the Ghost in Star Wars Rebels.  Unlike Artoo, there is no cute factor with Chopper.  Chopper is selfish, cantankerous, and borderline homicidal at times (that time he wielded dual blasters to save his allies was a real treat).  With that all said, Chopper is loyal to the Ghost crew and would do anything to save them, even though he will do it his way or the highway.

28.  Admiral Ackbar
Famous for saying, "It's a trap," in the Battle of Endor, Admiral Ackbar has long been a fan favorite, while not having a ton of screen time (though that's changing a little with his return in The Force Awakens).  Where Ackbar really won a lot of points with me though was in the Mon Cala story arc on The Clone Wars.  The Separatists and the Republic joined sides in the Mon Cala Civil War, where future Admiral Ackbar acted as attendant to the young prince of the Mon Calamari.  It was here where we really got to know Ackbar in greater detail, discovering that he is a master military strategist who firmly believes in good over evil.

27.  Duchess Satine
The Duchess of the planet Mandalore, Satine is one of the most fascinating additions that The Clone Wars TV show made to the Star Wars mythology.  When she was a teenager, her fierce pacifist beliefs led to her desire to demilitarize her home planet, which led to her needing the protection of a teenaged Obi-Wan Kenobi and his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, during this time.  Obi-Wan and Satine fell in love with one another but never acted upon their feelings because of Obi-Wan's loyalty to the Force (Jedis are a monastic order, therefore romance is forbidden).  Reuniting during the Clone Wars when Satine was once more under duress, Obi-Wan protected Satine from an insurgency known as Death Watch, and in the course of it he revealed his feelings for her by telling her that if she had simply asked him to leave the Jedi Order, he would have for her.  So that makes the tragedy of her death at the hands of Darth Maul all the more heartbreaking, with her dying in Obi-Wan's arms, neither of them ever having acted on their love while both clearly being one another's one true soul mate.  This is why I love the character of Satine.

26.  Grand Moff Tarkin
In a great many ways, Tarkin was the perfect embodiment of the Empire.  He had no other goals than to have power and to use that power to establish order.  There really is no moral conscious to Tarkin because if it would help him, he'd have no guilt in killing someone or blowing up an entire planet!  Played icily by Peter Cushing in the original Star Wars, he also was a thorn in the side of the Jedi via animated form in The Clone Wars TV show, being the heartless prosecutor in the trial of Ahsoka Tano.  He is the epitome of the villain you love to hate and I really love to hate him, no matter what incarnation he shows up in, whether it be film, television, or literature.

25.  Lando Calrissian
Do I really need to explain why Lando is awesome?  It's the swagger that Billy Dee Williams brought to the role that made him such a remarkable character and still does, having recently voiced Lando for a couple of episodes of Star Wars Rebels.  In truth, if he weren't such a conning old smoothie, we wouldn't love him so.

24.  Kit Fisto
Kit was a lesser known Jedi Master but one who really got his due thanks to The Clone Wars TV show.  Known for basically being a walking, talking, lightsaber wielding squid, as we learned from his appearances in The Clone Wars, someone so cool did not deserve to die so unceremoniously in Episode III.  Sporting a Rastafarian-accent and a laid back demeanor, he was just the embodiment of cool.  Add on to that his ability to breathe underwater and his awesome lightsaber skills, and you can see why Kit is one of my favorite Jedi of all-time.

23.  Plo Koon
Jedi Master Plo Koon is another character who was killed very unceremoniously in Episode III only to be redeemed by The Clone Wars TV show.  If I were being so bold, I'd almost argue that Plo Koon is the second wisest Jedi Master behind Yoda.  Sporting a very calm, contemplative persona, Master Plo also had a warmth to him making him an ideal teacher to the Younglings and Padawans at the Jedi Temple.  To sum him up, he's like your favorite high school teacher who also happened to be a super awesome Jedi ninja!

22.  Asajj Ventress
Another creation of The Clone Wars TV shows, Ventress started out as Count Dooku's Sith apprentice, but by the end of the show had survived Dooku's attempts to kill her because she was becoming too powerful to be controlled, and became a bounty hunter instead.  She was a character who was evil when it suited her means.  She had no problem killing, but she was smart about it, standing out for me because she was not purely Sith.  Ventress was not good by any means, but having been raised by the Nightsisters of Dathomir (essentially witches), Ventress really just wanted to have power.  She could easily see reason if she thought it could benefit her in the end, occasionally forming alliances with Jedi like Quinlan Vos and Ahsoka Tano when it suited her means, but in truth the main reason I've always liked Ventress is cause she looks cool.

21.  Darth Maul
There is perhaps no other character in all of Star Wars mythology who is more purely evil than Darth Maul.  A man of few words, Darth Maul saw himself get chopped in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode I only to have survived because of the power of his hatred towards Kenobi.  Returning in The Clone Wars TV show with new robotic legs, Maul did everything in his power to get his revenge on Obi-Wan.  In one swoop, Maul took over the entire galactic criminal underworld and the planet of Mandalore just to draw Obi-Wan to him, so Obi-Wan could watch as he killed the one woman Obi-Wan ever loved, Duchess Satine.  With the cancellation of The Clone Wars a few years back, we don't know what happened to Maul after the Emperor bested him in their duel on Mandalore, but we can only hope that he'll return someday in the future to wreak some more havoc.

20.  Sabine Wren
I think it says something to the quality of Star Wars Rebels that every member of its main cast made my list of favorites.  I know the show is relatively new, having only run for about 24 episodes so far, but the rebel crew of the Ghost is just that likable.  With that said, Sabine is an exceptionally unique character in Star Wars history because she is the first artist to ever really be portrayed in the galaxy far, far away.  She is a painter who enjoys street art and blowing things up.  That's all you really need to understand about her.  Well, that and that she's a Mandalorian with some cool Mandalorian armor.

19.  Boba Fett
For many a Star Wars fan, the Fett-man might top their lists and while he isn't my all-time favorite Star Wars character, I do like him a great deal.  There just are very few characters in the history of any film franchise that are as mysterious and cool as Boba Fett.  While there are the fans that dislike Boba being a clone of his father Jango and all that, I really don't get the fury over that.  So what if Boba was a clone?  The boy in Episode II is bloodthirsty, he relishes in the thought of Obi-Wan's demise when him and his father are chasing Obi-Wan's ship above the planet Geonosis.  Sure, maybe revealing where Boba came from makes him less mysterious, but the complete disdain many fans have over Boba's origins is really just those same fans spiraling out on their utter hatred that the prequels are not the origin stories they always imagined in their heads for twenty years.  Get over it and just enjoy it.

18.  Jar Jar Binks
Okay, I am going to be bold here in professing my love for Jar Jar, but I really don't care, it's my opinion and no one else has to share it.  The reason I love Jar Jar is simply because I think he's funny.  His purity and innocence makes him a character I personally find refreshing in this day and age of cynicism laced with acidic sarcasm.  He's like a three-year-old in an adult's body.  Exceptionally clumsy, but always polite about it, Jar Jar is the traditional court jester found in Shakespeare and mythology.  While some have tried to come out and say he's racist and all of that stuff, I don't believe he is (just because an African American man is portraying him does not mean he is in any way offensive to his own race).  Plus, if it helps those fans live with Jar Jar's inclusion, just think that the Empire would have never been formed had he not brought about the movement in Episode II to grant emergency powers to Chancellor Palpatine to create the clone army.  Jar Jar's naive belief that he was doing the right thing, ultimately proved to not be good in the long run.

17.  Zeb Orrelios
Yet another character from Rebels to make my list, Zeb is the muscle on the Ghost crew.  Based off of the original concept art done for Chewbacca, he is a warrior whose entire race was almost completely eradicated by the Empire.  Striving to do what's right and protect others from the Empire's wrath, Zeb is also known for his short fuse temper.  To put it even more simply, there is no one else I'd rather have on my side in a galactic bar brawl, save for Chewie perhaps.

16.  Princess Leia
Another character that really doesn't need much explanation as to why she makes the cut of my favorites.  Leia was never the damsel in distress, even when she was captured in the original Star Wars, she always put it back to her captors.  As equally capable with a blaster as Luke or Han, Leia broke all of the traditional damsel stereotypes for adventure films, while having the sensitivity and regal elegance expected of a fantasy princess.

15.  Ezra Bridger
Another recent addition to Star Wars lore, Ezra is the answer to the question:  What happened to all of the Force sensitive children in the galaxy after the collapse of the Jedi Order?  Starting out as an orphaned street rat, similar to Aladdin, Ezra was found by the rebel crew of the Ghost in Star Wars Rebels.  Taken on as an apprentice by Jedi on the run, Kanan Jarrus, Ezra is now training to become a new kind of Jedi to take on the Empire.  With Ezra and the rest of the Ghost crew now working to help the fledgling Rebel Alliance, Ezra has proven himself to be one of the most inherently good characters in Star Wars history.  While occasionally having to combat his own self doubt and anger toward the Empire for killing his parents (presumably, we really don't know what happened to them),  Ezra has gone from being a kid who only looks out for himself to being a hero who helps others without a second thought, and his arc isn't over.  There are still a great many shades that the writers of Rebels will hopefully add to Ezra, and that makes me excited for the future of him as a character.

14.  Qui-Gon Jinn
Long before Liam Neeson became an action movie star, he first proved his action chops as Qui-Gon Jinn in Episode I.  He is the character that I most wish had survived the whole Prequel Trilogy, because he was so awesome.   In a great many ways, he was the opposite of the only other Jedi we knew from the Original Trilogy.  While he was smart and compassionate, like Yoda or Alec Guinness's Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon had a rebellious streak and would go against the Jedi Order if what he felt via the Force conflicted with the Council's rulings.  We can only hope that Qui-Gon might get a spinoff movie of some kind in the future, but even if he doesn't, he will always be remembered for being the awesome master who trained Obi-Wan Kenobi.

13.  Captain Rex
One of the greatest things that The Clone Wars TV show did was it showed that the clones, while they all had the same genetic material, were very different from one another with their own personalities and moral convictions.  Captain Rex is the perfect example of this.  Acting as Anakin's right-hand man in the 501st Legion during the Clone Wars, Rex was not only an awesome fighter and military strategist, but a genuine hero who did what was right, even if it sometimes went against orders (as was evidenced when he went against a corrupt general).  Realizing the corruption within the Republic before it was too late, Rex removed the microchip in his brain that every clone had that made them all kill the Jedi when Order 66 was given.  Because of all of this, Rex proved himself to be his own man.  With him now working with the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars Rebels, it is fun to know that Rex's story is far from over.

12.  Hera Syndulla
The captain of the Ghost in Star Wars Rebels, Hera is the daughter of Twi'lek freedom fighter, Cham Syndulla.  Hera is like the mother of the Ghost crew, she keeps everyone in line and is actually the secret leader of the team.  While she often defers to Kanan, she is the one who always has the bigger plans in motion.  Her compassion and desire to bring freedom to all in the galaxy makes her very determined and headstrong at times, with her always placing the mission first before her own personal wants (most notably her romantic attraction to fellow crew member, Kanan).  It is going to be real interesting to see how large of a role Hera continues to play in the growth of the Rebel Alliance.  Future episodes shall tell.

11.  Wicket
How can you not love Wicket?  He is the star Ewok and is so teddy bear cute you just want to squeeze him.  Exceptionally brave and compassionate, Wicket is the most unlikely of warriors.  While you may mock the Ewoks and wonder how on Earth they could have defeated the Empire, if any soldier has half of the heart that Wicket and most of the Ewoks have, I would want any of them on my side.  It also speaks volumes about why Wicket makes this list in that I still wish I could have an Ewok as a pet.

10.  Yoda
Everyone loves Yoda.  From the very first time you meet him in The Empire Strikes Back, it's really hard to not fall in love with him.  Initially appearing as a funny eccentric, he quickly reveals himself as a wise sage with a firm belief in the light side of the Force.  Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the main reason Yoda is so popular -- the way he talks.  The backwards talk has many different people claiming they were the first to suggest it to George Lucas (from Yoda performer Frank Oz to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan), but regardless of who was the first to suggest it, the backwards talk is the thing that makes Yoda so unique and unlike any other character in the history of film.  It's funny though, even after all these years Yoda still manages to surprise, like in Episode II when he wields a lightsaber for the first time.  Who'd have ever thought Yoda could be so spry.

9.  R2-D2
It is because of Artoo that I wish I could have my own personal robot assistant.  One of the first characters to ever appear onscreen in a Star Wars movie, he is also, along with his partner in crime, one of only two characters to be in every single Star Wars movie or TV show.  R2-D2 really was one of the first robots in movie history to buck the traditional sci-fi trend of evil and/or heartless robots with no emotion whatsoever.  One thing you can never accuse Artoo of not being is emotional.  He is brave and impulsive, highly loyal to a fault, and stubborn.  Like the adorable stray dog, Artoo is the kind of droid you'd just want to take home with you when you meet him.

8.  C-3PO
As R2-D2's partner in crime, C-3PO is the straight man to all of Artoo's antics.  Threepio is very much the traditional English butler.  He is easily agitated, very fretful, and has a difficult time understanding human reasoning when it contradicts with his fact-based approach.  In truth though, what makes me love Threepio so much as a character is not necessarily his relationship with Artoo and the constant bickering that ensues, but it's the way Threepio reacts to the situations he finds himself in.  From his believing he failed in saving Luke and company from the trash compactor, to interrupting Han and Leia's romantic kiss, all the way to being hailed as a God by the Ewoks, Threepio continuously creates humor without even realizing he is doing so.

7.  Ahsoka Tano
Ahsoka is the greatest element of The Clone Wars TV show.  The revelation that Anakin Skywalker had an apprentice during the Clone Wars was one that I was not entirely sure about when I heard it was going to happen, but it really turned out to be a brilliant move on George's behalf.  Ahsoka starts out as a very smart, headstrong character, whose impulsive desire to prove herself and do good often lands her in hot water.  Throughout the course of The Clone Wars, we watched Ahsoka grow from a brash young Padawan to a powerful, compassionate Jedi in her own right, one who was ultimately betrayed by the very order she swore her life to.  When she was accused of murder and no one other than Anakin believed in her, she had to go on the run to clear her name, and in the end (with Anakin's help) she was able to do just that, but not without coming to the realization that the Jedi had lost their way in the Clone Wars conflict by having to become a military power.  Her shaken faith in the Jedi led her to refusing the offer to return the Jedi Order once cleared and it was really Ahsoka's shattered faith in the Jedi that spurred Anakin to begin to doubt the Jedi Order as well (and we know how that ultimately turned out).  Such a remarkable character is one that I hope someday we'll get to see even more of, especially the years between The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, where she now acts as not a Jedi, but a Force sensitive warrior helping the fledgling Rebel Alliance.  One can only hope that some day she will fight Darth Vader in the fight of the century, I only fear she wont make it out alive if she ever does.

6.  Kanan Jarrus
Kanan is the final member of the Ghost crew in Star Wars Rebels, and my personal favorite.  He is the semi-leader of the team, sharing that duty most often with Hera (the woman he loves, even though neither ever act on their feelings, always placing the mission first), but what makes Kanan such a fascinating character is that he was one of the few Jedi to survive Order 66.  When the clones turned on the Jedi and assassinated all of them, Kanan was a 14-year-old Padawan named Caleb Dume.  His master sacrificed herself so Kanan could escape.  Ever since then he's been on the run, trying to lie low, changing his name to Kanan in the process.  After many years of basically just existing, he met Hera and her fierce determination to help others spurred Kanan to follow the ways of the Force once again.  Now, Kanan has his own apprentice in the form of Ezra, but Kanan, having never become a Jedi Knight and finished his training, is constantly unsure of himself, but he is determined to pass on the ways of the Force to Ezra.  There just really is a lot to love about the character of Kanan, and the main reason for that is because he is so different than any other Jedi in the Star Wars universe.  He does not hold to all of the Jedi Order's rules, in particular the one about not forming romantic attachments, and he's as equally adept at being a scoundrel with a blaster as he is with a lightsaber, but he always does what's right in the end.  I guess the best way to sum up Kanan is if you combined Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi into one character, he is what you'd get, and that's not a bad combination to be.

5.  Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader
You know, a large part of what makes Darth Vader the ultimate villain of all-time is the notion that he was a hero before he was ever evil.  Vader is the cautionary tale of what can happen if we allow ourselves to be tempted by the Dark Side, even when we are doing those things for the right reasons.  He is also the perfect example of how, no matter how much evil has been done by our hands, we can all find forgiveness and redemption.  And while some people despise the Prequels, one of the unique things that the Prequels do, in tandem with The Clone Wars TV show, is really paint us a picture of how a selfless hero can be corrupted by evil.  In Episode I he is this innocent 9-year-old boy who simply wants to free his fellow slaves someday with his Jedi powers.  In The Clone Wars he is a heroic warrior who strives to do what's right in a world where it is no longer black and white.  By the time he goes to the Dark Side in Episode III, it is genuinely tragic because he is doing it to try and save the one he loves most, and in the process actually brings about her death.  From a character complexity angle, Anakin / Darth Vader is the most complex character in the whole Star Wars saga, and while the new films look to have a good villain in Kylo Ren, I don't think any movie franchise will ever be able to come close to Darth Vader as the greatest bad guy of all-time.

4.  Luke Skywalker
Every kid who grew up watching the Original Trilogy believed they could be Luke Skywalker.  That was the brilliance of the character.  He was this idealistic everyman, the cypher for the audience to project themselves onto, and as such is probably the most relatable main character from the Original Trilogy of Star Wars movies.  The thing that I've always loved about Luke though is he's a hero through-and-through.  He always did what was right in the Original Trilogy, even if the end result might have been his death.  While Luke's compassion for others nearly led to his downfall, unlike his father, Darth Vader, Luke was able to not repeat the same mistakes and prove himself to be a Jedi.  It was this act of defiance, in not letting the Dark Side in, that managed to redeem Darth Vader and turn him back into Anakin Skywalker.  You could almost argue that because of this that Luke was the real Chosen One who brought balance to the Force and not Anakin.  Now, while we do not know what's happened to Luke in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, we don't have long to find out, and hopefully it's all worthy of the character.  However, irregardless of what The Force Awakens does to the character, nothing can change the fact that he was the character who experienced the most growth in the Original Trilogy.  His character arc, from being a naive farm boy to being a wise Jedi Knight is arguably the greatest arc of any character in the Star Wars saga.

3.  Chewbacca
Everyone loves Chewie.  He's essentially a big dog who is loyal, tender hearted, and huggable.  Oh yeah, he's also an ace with a bowcaster who can rip your arms out of your sockets if you frustrate him (always let the Wookie win).  With that said, the main reason we all love Chewie is because most wish he could be our best friend like he is for Han Solo.  If we all could have a best friend who was as devoted as Chewie, I think the world would be a better place.  However, it would be nice if a real-life Chewie could talk, but for a fictional character, there is nothing more iconic than Chewie's growls; people often try to imitate them, but rarely sound anything other than stupid (but that doesn't stop us from trying).  The love for Chewbacca is even more evident as we grow closer to the release of The Force Awakens.  While we do not know what will happen to him, we should soon enough.  We should also get some good backstory on the character in the near future with him presumably popping up in the young Han Solo spin-off movie that's in production.

2.  Obi-Wan Kenobi
Sir Alec Guinness's portrayal of wise old Ben Kenobi in the Original Trilogy would be enough to make this list, but what really makes Obi-Wan my second favorite Star Wars character of all-time is the way that George Lucas had Obi-Wan and Anakin's paths mirror one another in the Prequels and The Clone Wars TV show.  Obi-Wan and Anakin really were two sides of the same coin.  They both had loved ones die in their arms (Anakin with his mother and Obi-Wan with Duchess Satine), they both struggled with their feelings of romantic attachment (Anakin with Padme and Obi-Wan once again with Satine), and both were slightly arrogant Padawan learners who often challenged their masters, however where the similarities stop is in how Obi-Wan responded to every thing.  Whereas Anakin always took the easy way and gave into his anger and fear, in every situation Obi-Wan overcame those emotions to be stronger, wiser, and much more heroic.  I think this is something that often eludes fans, but it is the thing that makes Obi-Wan so fantastic to me, aside from the fact that I love the character's dry wit and ability to make light of tough situations.  Ewan McGregor was exceptional as Obi-Wan in the Prequels at maintaining the lighter touches of Alec Guinness's performance while also showing us an Obi-Wan before he became so wise.  He really was the best part of the Prequel Trilogy and while the jury is still out as to whether or not we'll ever see an Obi-Wan spin-off movie with McGregor once more in the role, I think it would be a shame to never give him another go at a role that he owned so well.

1.  Han Solo
Okay, as the kid who said at his kindergarten graduation that what he wanted to be when he grew up was Harrison Ford, this one was a no-brainer.  Why is Han Solo everyone's favorite scoundrel?  Because of Harrison and the swagger he brought to the part.  He is charming, tough, and cynical, and yet his Han is a character who, even though he denies it, keeps finding himself helping others even against his own wishes.  Not to mention the fact that Han and Chewie are one of the greatest buddy relationships in movie history, but it's Han's romance with Princess Leia that is the perfect proof that he is not simply in it for the money.  Han cannot leave the Rebels because of his affection for Leia, and for that matter, his close friendship with Luke.  Han cares, we know it, and deep down even he knows it.  Why else would he keep placing himself in countless life threatening situations for the well being of others?  Just don't ever try and get Han to actually say, "I love you."  "I know," is the best you will ever get on that front.  Although, a lot can happen in thirty years.  The trailer for The Force Awakens found Han saying the exact opposite of what he said in A New Hope regarding the Force.  The Han then did not believe in any of that nonsense, but now Han Solo is wise enough to understand that there are other forces at work in the galaxy greater than him.  It it is going to be real interesting to see what else has changed, and not changed, about my favorite Star Wars character of all-time.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2"

There are few movies based on books that actually surpass their source material, and The Hunger Games series has done just that.  With the final chapter of the series having finally hit theaters, The Hunger Games film franchise comes to a very satisfying conclusion that puts a very nice punctuation mark on this whole enterprise.

Mockingjay - Part 2 picks up right where Part 1 left off and really doesn't let off the gas until the finale.  This is the final battle between the rebels of Panem and the Capitol and it does not disappoint.  However, where a lot of movies could have gone and screwed around with the ending of the book to make it more Hollywoodified, this movie does not.

For all four movies, the filmmakers of The Hunger Games franchise respected what Suzanne Collins wrote so much that they never really deviated from it.  Too many book to film adaptations try to jazz up their source material by adding in unnecessary scenes that clearly show they don't trust what was already a bestseller on the page, and had the filmmakers done that here, it would have diluted the strong themes at work in the story.  Thankfully, director Francis Lawrence and company managed to keep the spirit of the book in tact and surpass it with some truly phenomenal filmmaking craft.

The Hunger Games books were already so cinematic in the way that they played out on the page, that the idea of adapting them into movies was a no-brainer, and Mockingjay - Part 2 accentuates why with ease.  From the highly emotional musical score by the unsung hero of the franchise, James Newton Howard, to the always phenomenal cinematography and art direction, Mockingjay - Part 2 fires on all cylinders behind the scenes to elevate what was already great in the book, to something that really manages to milk out even more emotion than what the written word could.

There's always going to be that argument in storytelling circles over which is the better form, literature or film, and I think here Mockingjay - Part 2 proves how film can be effective in ways that literature just never can.  When you add together the haunting beauty of an image with the clever choices made in what we see and what we don't see in the editing, as well as the aural nature of the music and sound effects, film can be a storytelling medium unlike any other.  There is still always going to be something about the written word that is special and meaningful, you can have more detail in certain areas (in particular in the thoughts and feelings of the characters) that you can never have in a film, but as is the case here, the things that makes films unique makes The Hunger Games franchise one of the best film franchises over the past decade.  Of course, a large part of that success stems back to the exceptional cast of these films.

From Julianne Moore to a final screen performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Hunger Games movies have always been stuffed to the gills with great established actors.  They all do great work as usual, but I don't think anyone quite realizes how much the filmmakers lucked up with the first film in locking down the main trio of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth, before they all went through the stratosphere (in particular Oscar winner Lawrence).  These three are just such good actors that it has always looked effortless for them, with Jennifer Lawrence once more affirming with this film that Katniss Everdeen was a once-in-a-lifetime role for her.  The three stars all manage to round out the series with some of their finest work to date, allowing all of the many emotional gut punches that this film packs, really leave their mark.

Now sitting here at the end of this whole thing, it really is astonishing to see how great The Hunger Games movies are as a whole.  There is a consistency in tone and style that has bled over from one film to the next, which is something most other similar film franchises have struggled with.  Director Gary Ross came in and set up the template with the first film, and then with these last three, Francis Lawrence took over and didn't change anything from Ross's vision, he just refined it and made it even more hauntingly beautiful.  Then there is the political and social commentary beneath the lovable characters and high emotions that often get overlooked I feel by many who watch these movies and see them as just another action/adventure story.  The ideas on government, war, and the media, that Suzanne Collins tried to say through the writing of the books, really carried over into all four films, allowing these films to be something more than every other young adult sci-fi dystopia.  It is a rarity to see movies this thoughtful made by the Hollywood studio system and it is why I will greatly miss these yearly excursions to the world of Panem.

I give The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay - Part 2 a 10 out of 10!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Greatest James Bond Villains of All-Time

Okay, so Spectre has been out for a couple of days now and so I think it's safe to start dealing with a few spoilers from the film.  With that said, if you don't want to be spoiled for Spectre, then do not read the entirety of this post till you have seen it, however if you have seen it, carry on with me as I want to take a look back at Bond's iconic gallery of villains.

With Spectre featuring the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld to the 007 fold, I figured it would be fun to do a Top 10 of the Greatest Bond Villains of All-Time.  There are few movie franchises with as many memorable bad guys as the Bond franchise and after seeing Spectre I really thought long and hard about which bad guy is the best.  Is it Le Chiffre?  Or is it Dr. No?  Is it Blofeld?  Or is it Goldfinger?  I quickly realized that I couldn't quickly come up with which villain from the Bond franchise is the definitive Bond villain, so I've decided to brush up on my Bond lore and pick the Top 10 Bond Villains.

When I began to actually break each Bond villain down, I discovered that the best ones all had three things in common, and so I decided that my list should be based on those three things:  cool factor (aka what makes them memorable), evil plot, and the impact they had on James Bond personally.  With those three things in place, I was quickly able to compile my list by ranking each of the three factors on a scale of 1 to 10, with henchmen getting the same amount of points for evil plot as whoever their boss was.  So without any further ado, here are who I think the 10 Greatest Bond Villains of All-Time are:

10.  Emilio Largo
Cool Factor - 8 out of 10
Evil Plot - 6 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 5 out of 10
Total Score - 19 out of 30
The baddie from Thunderball, Largo was a worthy adversary for Bond.  While he is not physically imposing, his awesome eye patch and no tolerance policy that results in the deaths of even his devoted henchmen if they fail, earned him some cool points.  As for his evil plot, it's fairly simple, but still threatening.  As a high-ranking member of SPECTRE, Largo is tasked with acquiring nuclear warheads to extort money from world governments via threats of annihilation.  However, with there really being no ticking clock on Largo's plot, it doesn't feel as if there needs to be any urgency in Bond stopping it.  Also, Largo had very little impact on Bond personally.  Truly, if Largo weren't so cool in appearance and attitude, he wouldn't have beaten out so many of the other Bond villains.

9.  Auric Goldfinger
Cool Factor - 5 out of 10
Evil Plot - 8 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 8 out of 10
Total Score - 21 out of 30
The titular villain from Goldfinger, Goldfinger makes up for what he lacks in coolness in his fiendishly clever plot to contaminate all of the gold in Fort Knox with radiation, allowing his gold supply's value to skyrocket.  Also, Goldfinger killed not just one, but two Bond girls in the same movie, right under Bond's nose at that, thus giving Bond an anger that really made his taking down Goldfinger even more important to him.  While visually Goldfinger is squat and not that imposing, the thing that really got him on this list was his famous response to Bond that saved him any cool points that he got.  "Do you expect me to talk?"  "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"

8.  Le Chiffre
Cool Factor - 8 out of 10
Evil Plot - 5 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 9 out of 10
Total Score - 22 out of 30
Casino Royale's big bad guy, Le Chiffre won many cool points simply because of that awesome scar over his eye that causes it to weep blood.  On top of that, his cold, calculating persona really made him a very worthy adversary, sadly his plot is really complicated and not all that exciting -- having lost all of his money playing the stock market thanks to Bond stopping a terrorist attack that Le Chiffre orchestrated, the only hope he has is to win back the money he owes in a high stakes poker game.  While this plot led to some highly intense moments, all of those moments came purely form Le Chiffre's cool factor and not his evil plot itself.  Still, he made Bond go into cardiac arrest and also gruesomely tortured him, so his impact is definitely felt.

7.  Xenia Onatopp
Cool Factor - 10 out of 10
Evil Plot - 6 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 6 out of 10
Total Score - 22 out of 10
Cornball name aside, Goldeneye's Xenia Onatopp is one of the finest henchmen in the Bond franchise (excuse me, henchwoman).  With her super strong legs that nearly squeeze Bond in two, and her equal parts cold, yet playful personality, makes her a truly cool Bond villain.  As for her impact on Bond, that's very minimal, even though it always rattles Bond a bit when a lovely woman turns out to be bad.  Also, a thing that drags her down is the fact that the evil plot of her boss, Alec Trevelyan, is not all that strong.  Even still, Xenia is Onatopp of many of the Bond villains just because actress Famke Janssen really made her so awesome (yes, I went there with that pun).

6.  Alec Trevelyan
Cool Factor - 7 out of 10
Evil Plot - 6 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 10 out of 10
Total Score - 23 out of 30
With a half-scarred face and a checkered past, Trevelyan already hits many of the right notes to be a classic Bond villain, but what takes him over the top is his closeness to Bond.  Formerly 006 and James's friend, Trevelyan was believed to be dead only to have survived with a hatred of James and MI6.  As played by Sean Bean, Trevelyan is calculating and suave, like James, but with much more darkness to him, really helping his cool factor.  The big thing that drags Trevelyan down is really his evil plot, with it simply being a heist job -- Trevelyan steals the Goldeneye satellite to send an EMP that will allow him to cover up his theft from the Bank of England.  While his endgame is rather weak, Trevelyan as a character is so strong, and his impact on Bond is so pronounced, that he is one of the finest Bond villains ever.

5.  Oddjob
Cool Factor - 10 out of 10
Evil Plot - 8 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 4 out of 10
Total Score - 23 out of 10
Where Goldfinger lacks in coolness, his henchman Oddjob makes up for it.  With a bowler hat that can literally cut your head off if thrown, to the imposing physical frame of Olympic weightlifting silver medalist Harold Sakata who never utters a single line, Oddjob is perhaps the most iconic henchman in Bond lore.  While his character really doesn't impact Bond all that much in the course of the story, he gets some added kudos thanks to Goldfinger's evil plot and just how cool he is.

4.  Jaws
Cool Factor - 10 out of 10
Evil Plot - 7 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 6 out of 10
Total Score - 23 out of 10
What marks Jaws as one of the greatest villains in Bond history is simply the fact that he is the only henchman to have ever returned for a second go.  Featuring in both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, Jaws makes his mark on Bond because he kind of is the definition of the great Bond henchman.  With his metallic teeth that can chew through anything, to his simple minded devotion to his bosses (unless a girl is involved), all the way to actor Richard Kiel's almost giant-sized frame, Jaws is perhaps the most physically taxing opponent Bond has ever faced.  You can't kill this guy, he just keeps coming back and that is why Jaws is so awesome, which is why it's a shame his antics against Bond never really made much of an impact, as well the evil plots of both of his bosses -- Karl Stromberg and Hugo Drax -- are pretty dull (however Drax does help up the score a little due to the absurdly fun nature of his plan to destroy Earth's population and repopulate via a space station with only the best looking citizens allowed).

3.  Red Grant
Cool Factor - 10 out of 10
Evil Plot - 8 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 6 out of 10
Total Score - 24 out of 10
From Russia With Love's Red Grant (played by Robert Shaw) ranks so high because of one scene primarily, the fight scene between him and Bond in the claustrophobic train car.  This is one of the finest fight scenes ever in movie history, but it wouldn't work if Red Grant wasn't such a cool, mysterious character.  He is a SPECTRE agent/assassin who is calculating and completely devoid of emotion, his one goal... to kill James Bond.  His evil plot is simple, but it works.  He manipulates all of the events in From Russia With Love to basically bring about the end of 007, and while he ultimately fails in his goal, Red Grant will forever be remembered as one of Bond's most mysterious and deadly villains.

2.  Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Cool Factor - 8 out of 10
Evil Plot - 10 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 10 out of 10
Total Score - 28 out of 10
Every good hero needs an archnemesis.  For Batman it's the Joker, for Superman it's Lex Luthor, for James Bond it's Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  The head of the evil criminal organization SPECTRE, Blofeld has been featured in more Bond films than in any other.  Most of the times he has just been a manipulator in the shadows stroking the white pussy cat in his lap, but whenever he does reveal his face to Bond, it is worth it.  His evil plots are always fiendishly clever and he plays with Bond as much as he tries to kill him, making him a unique villain -- cerebral, playful, but also homicidal.  Of course what makes Blofeld such a memorable villain is not necessarily anything about the character himself.  Sure, the white cat and the scar over his eye have become trademarks of villainy, but in truth, Blofeld's look changed so much (especially in his early appearances) that his cool factor was always changing (also partially to do with the campiness some actors brought to the role), however what makes Blofeld stand out is the impact his character has had on Bond.  This one man orchestrated all of the greatest pain in Bond's life.  The deaths of Vesper Lynd, Tracy di Vicenzo (Bond's wife), and countless other Bond girls can all be traced back to Blofeld.  Then there's the recent revelation from Spectre that Blofeld and Bond actually grew up together.  Blofeld's real name was Franz Oberhauser, and after Bond's parents died, Franz's Father took James in as another son, but Franz's jealousy led to him murdering his Father and faking his own death to rechristen himself Blofeld.  After that, Blofeld began his reign of terror on James's life.  That is quite a bit of impact for one character to have had.

1.  Raoul Silva
Cool Factor - 9 out of 10
Evil Plot - 10 out of 10
Impact on Bond - 10 out of 10
Total Score - 29 out of 30
Edging out Blofeld just a teeny bit is Javier Bardem's Skyfall villain, Silva.  Here's the thing that gives Silva the number one spot, he's just flat-out crazy.  Silva is like the Joker, he is super smart with no care for human life, but he is also widely unpredictable and yet all of his plans are intricately designed to the teeth (which he is missing half of, by the way).  With all this said, had anyone else played Silva, he'd probably have come off as campy, but in the hands of Javier Bardem, he just works.  There is a flamboyance to Silva that makes you unable to take your eyes off of him whenever he's onscreen, you just can't wait to see what he does next.  One moment he's hitting on James Bond and the next he's making out with Severine, the Bond girl.  There feels like there is no rhyme or reason to Silva and his actions, and yet there is.  Everything Silva does is to get back at MI6 (where he was once an agent), and most importantly Judi Dench's M, for leaving him to die on a mission when captured.  Silva took his cyanide capsule in his molar, but it didn't kill him, it just eroded half of his jaw (which is quite ghoulish when he takes out his mouth piece to show M).  His similarities to Bond in that he was a 00 at one time, coupled with his utter hatred for M, would mark him as a stellar Bond villain regardless, but it's his final act that makes Silva the number one Bond villain.  Silva killed Judi Dench's M, Bond's surrogate Mother figure, rocking 007 in a way that I am not sure any other death has ever rocked him before.  All of this added together makes Silva the best Bond villain of all-time!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Movie Review: "Spectre"

If Skyfall was the deconstruction of James Bond, Spectre is the reconstruction.  Daniel Craig has returned once more as 007, with Spectre marking his fourth (and potentially final) outing as the character.  In Spectre, Bond follows a cryptic message from his past, which leads him to the evil criminal organization known as SPECTRE.  After three films, this is the first of the Daniel Craig Bond films that feels more like the Sean Connery/Roger Moore-era Bond adventures, and that is a good thing.

Longtime Bond fans should know all about SPECTRE, who were the very same criminal organization that terrorized Bond for almost all of the Sean Connery films (save for Goldfinger).  Due to some issues involving legal rights, the filmmakers have not been able to use SPECTRE since the early-to-mid Seventies.  Ultimately, the rights were returned just a couple of years ago and now we have SPECTRE's triumphant return in a film that hits all of the beats one expects of a classic Bond adventure:  exotic locales, an imposing henchman, some sultry Bond girls with troubled pasts, cool gadgets, and a maniacal villain in the form of Christoph Waltz's Franz Oberhauser.  On top of all that, Spectre is chock full of great Bond moments.  From an opening action sequence that features one of the finest Bond fight scenes ever, to a Swiss Alps duel between Bond in a plane and the bad guys in SUVs, Spectre finally turns Daniel Craig's Bond into the superhero the character once was, and the 12-year-old inside of me loves it.  Of course, the single greatest element of Spectre is not necessarily it's throwback feel or the fact that it's the first Daniel Craig Bond that fully embraces the Bond mythos, but it's how this film effectively ties together all of Craig's Bond movies.

Featuring nods to the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall, Spectre kind of feels like the end to the whole enchilada.  In some ways, that's good.  It has been rumored that this might be Daniel Craig's last Bond film, and if it is, then it is an amazing end to his tenure.  No other actor who has ever played Bond has had a run of films as strong as Craig's, and a large part of that is that all of these films have been direct sequels to the others.  None of the other Bond films ever really acknowledged any character growth or story progressions from one film to the next, but the Daniel Craig movies all have.  The Bond in Casino Royale was brash and impulsive.  The Bond in Quantum of Solace was moody and violet in response to Vesper Lynd's death.  As for Skyfall, Bond was tired and worn down, a relic searching for a purpose.  And Spectre finds Bond struggling with the repercussions of his past while finding his heart and soul once again.  By the time the credits roll on Spectre, you really feel as if a myth has been born and Bond is back in tip top shape, better than ever.

I give Spectre a 9 out of 10!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What is the Best James Bond Film of All-Time?

I first compiled this list back in November of 2012, right before Skyfall came out.  It was Bond's 50th anniversary, so it only seemed natural to honor such an iconic character in the grandest way possible.  Back then, I rewatched all 23 James Bond films up to that point, reviewed them, and ranked them from my least favorite to what I felt was the franchise's gold standard.  Now, I said I rewatched many of these, but in fact, I watched more than half of those films for the first time in getting ready for the list.  While I discovered a few turkeys in the process, I also discovered a fair share of new favorite films of all-time, and that's what I love so much about doing such lists.  Now with Spectre coming out this Friday, I decided this moment in time would be as good as any to update the list, adding in Skyfall, while also tweaking a few things here and there.  So without any further ado, let's kick it off with number 24:

24.  Diamonds Are Forever
This is the most painful James Bond film to date.  After the serious tone and darker feel of the box office flop, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the Bond producers wooed back Sean Connery for his final official Bond film.  This seemed like a good idea, as they tried to lighten things up a bit, and the result is a 00-dud.  Save for a tense two minute fight scene in an elevator, Diamonds Are Forever is almost painful to watch.  Featuring comedy that always falls flat, the two most annoying Bond girls in existence, a Sean Connery who just seems tired and grumpy the whole time, two dreadful henchmen, and Blofeld (007's archnemesis) in drag, do yourself a favor and skip this film.
Grade:  F!

23.  The Man With the Golden Gun
Roger Moore's second appearance as Bond is just a trainwreck.  Moore tried so hard to have that tough guy swagger of Sean Connery, but his Bond comes off more so as an arrogant jerk rather than a charmer.  Not to mention, a three-nippled villain named Scaramanga and his midget sidekick Nick Nack, as well as two of the more forgettable Bond girls, with the only sliver of light being the five minute duel sequence where Bond and Scaramanga square off at the end, this is a Bond adventure best forgotten.
Grade:  F!

22.  Never Say Never Again
The final Sean Connery Bond film, and often considered the unofficial Bond adventure, because the film was not produced by Eon productions, but rather by an independent company with Kevin McClory leading the charge.  McClory was one of the original writers working with Ian Fleming on Thunderball, and after many years of legal battles, he finally won the rights to the initial novel, therefore he made this remake.  Never Say Never Again is notorious for drawing Connery out of Bond retirement, and that is the only good thing about this film.  While Connery still has the charm, the rest of the film is a structural mess, paling in comparison to the original Thunderball, even if Kim Basinger tries her best as Bond girl Domino.  This is doubly sad because this film is directed by Irvin Kershner, who directed my favorite film of all-time, The Empire Strikes Back.  Hey, everyone makes a few turkeys.
Grade:  F!

21.  License to Kill
In Timothy Dalton's second outing as Bond, his best friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter, barely survives a shark attack after being fed to it by a ruthless drug lord named Sanchez, who also murdered Leiter's wife on his honeymoon.  The set up for this Bond adventure, where 007 goes rogue as he tries to avenger Leiter, has plenty of promise to start, such as M revoking Bond's license to kill, but unfortunately the film plays more so as an episode of Magnum, PI, or Miami Vice, and not as a Bond film.  It's a run of the mill drug lord vs. one man wrecking crew story, that was in almost every TV show in the 1980s.  Not to mention, the film is steeped in cheesy '80s fashion, style, and music too often to be taken seriously as a Bond film.  Is License to Kill a gosh awful movie?  No, but as a Bond film it just doesn't cut it.  However, if you're a fan of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, he has more screentime in this adventure than in any other Bond film, as Q humorously helps Bond in the field.
Grade:  F!

20.  The World Is Not Enough
This is one of the more forgettable Bond films.  There is very little that is memorable about this film, no real memorable action sequences, no real memorable villain, and no real memorable Bond girl, unless you count the atrocity that is Denise Richards as nuclear physicist, Dr. Christmas Jones.  Sadly, the film starts with promise, with the first thirty minutes or so promising a 007 adventure that actually has James and MI6 reeling after a friend of M's is murdered within their very walls, unfortunately after the strong opening, the film starts to quickly go down hill.  It is sad because the film had so much promise:  the first Bond villain that is a woman, her right hand man a fellow that cannot feel pain, and an intriguing plot to gain a monopoly on the West's oil supply, however the film is more interested in bombarding the viewer with action that adds little to the story, therefore never having time to fulfill the promises made early on in the film.  Plus, Pierce Brosnan tries a little too hard in his third outing to make the script work, and he often comes across as an angry uncle, shouting much of the movie.  Even still, the final line that Bond utters to Christmas is a classic, and that's the only thing that is about The World Is Not Enough.
Grade:  F!

19.  The Spy Who Loved Me
This film should really be called, "Jaws," and not because it's about a shark (even though it has one of those), but that the villain's henchman, named Jaws, is the greatest part of this film.  Jaws, who can chew through anything with his metal teeth, is easily one of the more iconic Bond villains of all-time.  Whenever Jaws is onscreen, whether it's fighting James, or when he's simply manipulating things in the background, he owns it.  Sadly, the film itself is fairly lifeless, with little to add to the Bond canon.  The concept for the film, with 007 teaming up with a female KGB agent on a mission when he killed her lover in the opening, is a strong concept that is merely brushed aside come to the end of the film, making any scene where Bond isn't battling with Jaws a chore to get through.
Grade:  F!

18.  Die Another Day
This was the very first Bond film I ever saw in theaters, and while I may have outgrown many of it's antics, Die Another Day is still one of the more gleefully enjoyable Bond films.  It's a guilty pleasure, because there really is no substance to this film, just tons of awesome, over-the-top action.  Sure, it follows the Bond formula and doesn't stray from it, but I mean, who doesn't love an insane villain, or the run of the mill Bond girls.  However, with very little substance, the film wears out its welcome around the 45-minute mark, with you only being able to take so much ridiculous action with no real character development beneath it for so long.  By the time Bond is windsurfing off of a melting glacier, my patience has worn thin and Die Another Day has overstayed its welcome.  While Pierce Brosnan's final outing as 007 is great to a 12-year-old, thanks to some enjoyable action sequences and Halle Berry, to a 25-year-old, it just falls short of the golden standard, with Brosnan's reign as 007 ending with a whimper, rather than a bang.  However, the finale with Moneypenny enjoying the virtual reality simulator is one of her funnier moments in the entire franchise.
Grade:  D-!

17.  A View to a Kill
Roger Moore's final outing as 007 is a dud.  The action, the plot, just about everything is forgettable, save for Christopher Walken as villain, Max Zorin.  Walken plays psychopaths so well, and he is marvelous as the bloodthirsty computer chip tycoon with eyes full of greed.  Other than Walken and the marvelous finale atop the Golden Gate Bridge, the film's jokes mostly fall flat, and Tanya Roberts' Stacy Sutton is perhaps an even more wooden Bond Girl performance than Denise Richards' Christmas Jones.  However, when you've got the Walken, it at least elevates this film above the ones below it on this list.
Grade:  D-!

16.  Live and Let Die
Okay, the good:  a charming Roger Moore, a badguy with a hook for an arm, born to be Bond girl, Jane Seymour, and an awesome theme song.  The bad:  just about everything else.  In this film, James Bond goes Blaxploitation as he deals with everything from voodoo to fortune tellers.  The film was shot like a Blaxploitation film from the '70s, making the film feel cheesy and outdated by today's standards.  Even still, some of the humor is kind of funny, however too much time is spent with the buffoonish Louisiana sheriff chasing James Bond through the bayou, who is by far the most offensive part of this movie.  A stereotypical Hollywood Southern idiot who is as annoying as all get out.  So what, the finale where Bond actually explodes the bad guy by expanding him from the inside-out, is good old-fashioned Bond fun.
Grade:  D-!

15.  The Living Daylights
The Living Daylights should be called, "The Tale of Two Films."  The first half of The Living Daylights is like the previous seven Roger Moore films, filled with jokes and insane action, but the latter half offers up one of the more hardcore Bond adventures there is in Timothy Dalton's first outing.  This the first Bond film that doesn't languish in cartoonish action, but delivers real meat-and-potatoes explosions, punches, and gunfire, however the film doesn't become awesome until midway through when a fellow 00 is murdered in front of Bond. While the film seems to have an identity crisis as to what kind of Bond film it truly wants to be, Dalton steals the show, proving to be a Bond that is romantic and charming, but believable as a man with a license to kill, who will not hesitate to use it.  That is what colors this entry.  If only the villains and Bond girls were as memorable as the action and Dalton's performance, to say anything for the murky, anti-climactic plot.  Even if the film doesn't truly know what it wants to be, how can you not watch the fight between Bond and the bad guy hanging out of the back of a cargo plane and not think this is one of the finest fights in any Bond film.
Grade:  C!

14.  Moonraker
It's hard to take the Roger Moore films seriously, but if you're looking for a good time, Moonraker was one of Moore's better efforts as 007.  Moonraker was the first Moore film that really allowed his personality to influence the character.  While the Moore films after this point lost much of the cool factor of the early Bond films, they became something that was imminently more enjoyable to watch, by mixing Moore's gentleman charm with his sly sense of humor, making for Bond films that were at times parodying what had come before it, but it worked.  For example, villain Hugo Drax's plot, to take only the best looking people up into space and then annihilate all life on Earth to create a master race, is one of the more clever evil plots in a Bond film, though it's absolutely absurd.  While the film dips into cartoonish moments a tad too often, such as evil henchman Jaws falling in love and then becoming an ally to Bond in the end, Moonraker always retains a good sense of humor and manages to have fun with the over-the-top action and thrills.  I mean, who doesn't love the final action sequence on the space station, or the opening where Bond falls out of an airplane without a parachute and fights the bad guy in mid-dive for his.  It's not a real thoughtful or suspenseful film, but it's fun.
Grade:  B-!

13.  Quantum of Solace
Daniel Craig's second Bond film failed to reach the heights of Casino Royale, yet it still serves up one of the more introspective 007 adventures ever written.  Bond is still reeling over the death of his love, Vesper, embarking on a quest for vengeance to take down the evil organization that was revealed to be behind her death, Quantum.  There are no gadgets to be found, no jokes, with the film just being hardhitting action.  While there is a lack of many classic 007 trademarks, the film works because of its deep characterizations.  Sure, the villain and his plot is merely there to get from point A to point B , but it's Bond's journey and the journey of Bond girl, Camille, that stands out in my memory from this film.  Olga Kurylenko's Camille is one of the more fully realized Bond girls of all-time, with her not being an object of affection for Bond, but rather being her own character who is driven by revenge.  While the brief interlude where Bond is with the other Bond girl, Strawberry Fields, is a little odd considering he is still trying to get over Vesper, I am partial to the scene where Fields is killed by being covered in crude oil, making one reminisce about the golden woman in Goldfinger (is that morbid to say).  Even if the film isn't 100% 007, the strong sense of characterization and humanization of Bond make this a serviceable entry in the franchise.  Not to mention, the tense scene at the opera, which is espionage filmmaking at its best.
Grade:  B!

12.  For Your Eyes Only
By the time Roger Moore got to his fifth Bond film, he had really found his groove.  This film in particular had more going for it than most of the other Moore films.  While For Your Eyes Only is not an A-grade film that causes you to think, it's a fun, enjoyable film that is extremely funny, and surprisingly suspenseful.  The film starts with a suspense-filled opening where Bond goes from his deceased wife's graveside to fighting for his life as his archnemesis, Blofeld, returns for the first time since Diamonds Are Forever, to try and kill Bond by remote controlling his helicopter.  This opening works to form a connection between Bond and his Bond girl in this film, who is seeking revenge for her parent's murder, and Bond wisely understands her grief, due to his own loss.   While this storyline between Bond and the Bond girl kind of fizzles out when it comes time for her to exact her revenge, it is still one of the better motives ever cooked up for a female character in a Bond film.  Though, what really makes this film stand out is that it has some of the more memorable action sequences in any Bond film transpiring in this movie -- from the gripping scene on the side of the cliff, to the battle in the sunken ship, to the bad guy's devious plan to kill Bond and his Bond girl by dragging them behind his yacht through a barrier reef filled with great whites!  As for the humor, who doesn't love it when Bond goes to confessional and Q rips off a fake beard, masquerading as a priest?  Simply put, For Your Eyes Only is a lot of fun.  So what if it drags a bit in the middle when dealing with the Olympic ice skater with a crush on Bond, the film works, and is one of the few Moore films that comes close to classic 007.  On a final note, the final scene with the Margaret Thatcher look-a-like is hilarious.
Grade:  B!

11.  On Her Majesty's Secret Service
One-time Bond, George Lazenby, suits up for what is one of the more intriguing Bond films out of the entire franchise.  On Her Majesty's Secret Service features the return of James's archnemesis, Blofeld, with Blofeld threatening to unleash a biological weapon unless he is given money and amnesty from the UN for his crimes.  While it is a weak plot, thankfully that is only secondary to the true core of this particular Bond adventure, which is its beating heart.  On Her Majesty's Secret Service is by far the most romantic Bond film of all, with 007 finally finding a woman to settle down with in strong-willed and vulnerable, Tracy di Vicenzo.  Tracy matches Bond's toughness, and his hidden loneliness, marking her as the only Bond girl that Bond was willing to say, "I do," with.  While Lazenby often comes across as a poor imitator of Sean Connery, when he is given emotional scenes, he comes through.  Oddly enough, if this film were made today, I feel it would be a few shades better, because the Bond producers seemed beholden to still try and keep some of the fun of the Connery films, while not wanting to traipse into too serious territory, which is where Blofeld's brainwashed women come into play, and James plays along with them, even though he's already in love.  Even still, the thrills are top notch -- in particular one of the series' best action scenes when Bond chases Blofeld in bobsleds -- and the heartbreaking finale where Bond is married, only to have his wife murdered shortly after by Blofeld.  If only Bond truly had all the time in the world with Tracy.
Grade:  B! 

10.  Dr. No
This was the film that started it all, and in some ways it shows.  The film has lower production values than other Bond films, and the Bond story formula was not perfected yet, with Bond girl, Honey Ryder, not showing up till over halfway through the movie.  Of course, who is to complain when we are given one of the more memorable Bond villains in Dr. No, and then there is Sean Connery as James Bond, who delivers each line of dialogue as if it were his natural, everyday language.  From tarantulas in Bond's bed, to the explosive finale, Dr. No may not be Bond's best, but it is easily one of the more entertaining adventures 007 has ever had.
Grade:  B+!

9.  Tomorrow Never Dies
Pierce Brosnan's second outing as 007 merely pales in comparison to Goldeneye,  but it's not a bad film by any means.  While there is not much depth of character in this film, there is tons of action.  It's hard to complain when there are gunfights, motorcycle chases, and explosions every few minutes.  As well, the plot is serviceable to the adventure, and Michelle Yeoh and Teri Hatcher help give this film an added spark as the Bond girls.  Bottom line, Tomorrow Never Dies is fun, and that's what really matters.
Grade:  A-!

8.  You Only Live Twice
Starting with the faked death of James Bond, to the volcanic eruption tearing apart the villain's hideout at the end, You Only Live Twice is one of the more quintessential Bond films.  Taking place almost entirely in Japan, the film features:  cool gadgets (his tiny helicopter named Little Nellie), Bond girls that are actually intriguing characters, and the reveal of SPECTRE's number one, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the pussycat stroking villain behind all of the actions in the first few Bond films.  We finally get to see Sean Connery square off with his archnemesis, and the wait is worth it.  I absolutely love the Japanese setting, which leads to some great sequences, only one question:  Why does the film see fit to create false racial stereotypes when they try to make Bond look like a Japanese man by pulling his eyes back, waxing his chest, and teaching him to be a ninja?
Grade:  A-!

7.  Thunderball
One of the more entertaining Bond films, Thunderball was written to be an underwater adventure for 007, and that is what distinguishes this film.  The shark attack, the spear gun fights underwater, and the plethora of tropical locations.  Not to mention a true Bond villain with the eyepatch wearing Largo, a likable Bond girl, and the awesome jetpack opening, Thunderball is classic 007.  Even if it has one of the more simplistic plots of the entire series, it's a thrilling adventure from start to finish.
Grade:  A!

6.  Octopussy
This is perhaps Roger Moore's finest hour as Bond.  Initially, I was not going to give this film such a high rating, due to its nature more so as an adventure comedy, but while I prefer Bond a little less campy, that is no excuse to deny camp when it's done exceptionally well.  See, camp is often considered a bad thing, but when done well, the tongue-and-cheek feels natural and completely a part of the world of the film, lending this particular film an innocent, almost boyish charm that few Bond films have.  Like the Adam West Batman, this is why I love OctopussyOctopussy combines the gentleman-like portrayal of Moore with a whip smart script that features developed characters and fabulous set pieces.  The film is mysterious and suspenseful, forcing you to have to really think to try and puzzle out who's crossing who, while still retaining that cartoonish charm that the Roger Moore films had.  Add with that an exceptional MacGuffin (a Hitchockian-phrase regarding an object that sparks the story into action) with the Faberge egg, and one of the best Bond girls ever, with Maud Adam's Octopussy and her island of women followers, and you have one of the more fun Bond films in existence.  From the opening where Bond misdirects a missile with his jet, to the battle atop a circus train, Octopussy is true-blue James Bond and Moore's best film as the character.  Plus, I always love it when Desmond Llewelyn's Q gets in on the action.
Grade:  A+!

5.  Goldfinger
Considered by many to be the quintessential Bond film, Goldfinger has more iconic elements associated with the character than perhaps any other installment in the franchise.  The tricked out Aston Martin; Shirley Bassey's theme song; Bond girl, Pussy Galore; bad guy, Goldfinger; Goldfinger's henchman, the bowler hat tossing, Oddjob; the battle in Fort Knox; and who can forget the murdered woman covered in gold paint that kickstarts the whole story, creating an anger in Bond that has him wanting to seek revenge on Goldfinger.  This is Sean Connery's best performance as 007.  In his third outing, Connery found the right groove between charm and toughness, with his performance being more reactionary than in any other installment.  Connery actually shows anger and sadness, when two, not one, Bond girls are murdered on his watch.  Not to mention, when Goldfinger shoots a laser between Bond's legs, there is real fear in Connery's eyes.  "Shocking.  Positively shocking."
Grade:  A+!

4.  Skyfall
Skyfall was the first James Bond film to ever have the audacity to actually explore James Bond's past (a trend that Spectre seems all but game to carry on).  Everything about Skyfall is classic James Bond, while at the same time it subverts the tropes of all the other Bond films.  While there is the tricked out Aston Martin from Goldfinger and the sultry Bond girl, as well as a pit full of Komodo dragons and a charismatic villain in Javier Bardem's Silva (one of the series' best baddies ever), Skyfall deconstructs Bond rather than carrying on with the Bond status quo.  From the opening sequence, Bond is vulnerable, always one step behind.  He is injured for most of the film and is literally outsmarted by Silva more times than he's ever been outsmarted by any bad guy.  Then there is the Home Alone-esque finale at Bond's childhood home, alluding to the tragedy of what happened to his parents followed up by the death of his surrogate mother in M.  Add that all up and you have a Bond film that is perhaps the most emotional of them all, really working to get under the skin of Bond in a way that I am not sure any other Bond film can quite match.  With all that said, Skyfall is fairly light on action compared to most other 007 adventures, but all of these differences between Skyfall and the other Bond movies is what allows it to stand apart.  This is the kind of film that they could only have done as the 24th installment in a franchise that will conceivably go on forever.
Grade:  A+!

3.  Goldeneye
Pierce Brosnan's debut as 007 is also the best movie in his four film tenure as Bond.  From the hair-raising bungee jump sequence, to his skydiving into a crashing plane, all the way to the awesome tank chase through St. Petersburg, this film flies along.  However, where Goldeneye shows up most other Bond films is that it portrays these characters as human beings and not as larger than life characters on a screen.  There is a believability and loneliness to Bond in this film, there is a believability in the fears and emotions of Bond girl Natalia as she is on the run, and there is a believability to bad guy Alec Trevelyan turning on MI6 and friend James Bond to seek revenge for his parent's deaths.  It asks the question:  Where do you draw the line between your mission and your personal emotions?  A question never really asked in a Bond film before, and answered when Bond kills Trevelyan at the end, saying it wasn't for the mission, but for him
Grade:  A+!

2.  Casino Royale
This film marked the first Bond portrayal from Daniel Craig, succeeding in both, re-establishing the Bond brand and reinventing it in the process.  Casino Royale marked a huge turn in the 007 films, shedding much of the cartoonish action and eye-roll inducing humor for an approach closer to the original Ian Fleming novels.  There were still exotic locations, Bond girls, and sly, verbal humor, but everything had a purpose to serve a human story of Bond falling in love and then losing that love in the film's climax.  Bond was a full-fledged human being in this entry, with Craig often conveying fear, anger, and sadness, and not always managing to keep the cavalier swagger that was Sean Connery.  It was a different Bond experience, but one that oozed with genuine suspense because for the first time in a Bond film, we felt he wasn't invincible.  When he is poisoned or when he is being tortured, you actually believed he might not make it, because, unlike all the other Bond films, he was no longer a suave superhero, but rather a flesh-and-blood man, marking this as one of the finest Bond entries.
Grade:  A+!

1.  From Russia With Love
The greatest Bond film also happens to be one of the greatest suspense thrillers of all-time.  Playing like North By Northwest's long lost twin brother, From Russia With Love is a classic cat-and-mouse game played on an international stage.  The film is filled with less action, but more suspense than any other Bond film due to the nature of the story.  Bond has unknowingly fallen into SPECTRE's trap from the very moment he comes onscreen.  SPECTRE pulls the strings, manipulating the events around Bond, always remaining one step ahead of him and very often putting him in danger that he does not know about but we as the audience do.  Of course, when Sean Connery meets Robert Shaw on the train, the pot boils over, with Bond killing SPECTRE agent Red Grant, finally taking the upper hand in this delicate chess match for a Russian decoding machine.   What more can be said?  This is a taut mystery/suspense film with so much going for it.  The Bond girl, Tania, is one of the best ever created, with a fragility to her that allows her to be manipulated by SPECTRE as well, unknowingly falling for James in the process.  Plus, we get our first, cryptic view of SPECTRE's number one in this film, only seeing the back of his chair and his lap where sits a kitty cat that he is always petting.  This is just a superbly directed film that requires you to think, while also having plenty of moments that make you cheer and laugh.  This is Bond's finest hour!
Grade:  A+!