Musings on Christopher Nolan’s TENET (2020)

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know that Christopher Nolan is one of those filmmakers whose films I always anticipate. Even if I don’t end up loving the film (*cough* Interstellar *cough*), I still consider his film release as an ‘event’ and this one is no different. The repeated delays–it was supposed to be released this Summer on July 17–due to Covid-19 somehow made it even more highly-anticipated by film fans, me included. After careful considerations and reading all kinds of articles on it, my hubby and I decided to go ahead and see TENET at a cinema, as it’s always intended, and we chose EMAGINE’s EMAX theater with its wall-to-wall screen and Dolby Atmost surround sound.

Let’s just say that even after a couple of days mulling over it, consuming all kinds of articles and videos of ‘TENET endings explained’ … I still can’t fully explain just what the plot is about. But then again I shouldn’t feel too bad as even some of the actors couldn’t really explain it during the press tours! Those who are familiar with Nolan’s work should expect the fact that Nolan often treats his films as a big puzzle piece… he’s not interested in spoon-feeding the audience with straightforward premise and neat endings wrapped nicely with a big red bow. If you think Inception and Interstellar is confusing, be prepared for a discombobulating treat with TENET. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal any spoiler here, but if I do, I’ll be sure to give you a fair warning.

As a scientist said in the film, ‘Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.’ I remember hearing that in the trailer and you know what, given how confusing this movie was, I’m glad I took that advise to heart. Per Nolan’s tradition, his films opens with with a high-octane action piece, this time at an opera house. It’s full of adrenaline, suspense and mystery that definitely gets you in the mood for what about to unfold. Unfortunately, I immediately notice sound issues which apparently has plagued other screenings as well. According to this article, apparently the hard-to-hear dialogue is on purpose, which I find hugely irritating. I mean, I don’t mind a puzzling plot, but how do they expect us to figure out what’s going on if exposition dialogue are delivered in muffled speech or drown out by all kinds of noise. It’s also quite eerie seeing characters in this movie using masks (it’s even on some of the posters), even if it’s got nothing to do with a pandemic.

One thing for sure is Nolan’s obsession with the spy genre, given his affinity for the Bond movies, having seen The Spy Who Loved Me as a young boy with his dad. But he said in interviews that he wants to up the ante and deliver something that’s geared towards the modern audience. Nolan basically fused his favorite genre with a high-concept of time inversion, not to be confused with time travel. More on that later, but let’s start with the Bond-ish elements. John David Washington‘s The Protagonist, who’s a CIA agent, oozes 007’s coolness and swagger, sporting one sleek suit after another and can effortlessly take out half a dozen goons in a cramped kitchen with his bare hands without breaking a sweat. His ‘Felix Leiter’ is Robert Pattinson‘s Neil, sporting tousled blond locks who looks equally dashing in a suit. The two has a fun chemistry, definitely the best ‘bromance’ in Nolan’s movie so far. I love the scene where they first met in Mumbai and later when the two try to break into a high rise apartment.

I’m surprised Kenneth Branagh hasn’t played a Bond villain yet, but well, he practically plays one here as an arms dealer oligarch Andrei Sator, complete with a droll Russian accent. In classic Bond-baddie fashion, Sator threatened our protagonist with choking him with his own balls, ahah. There’s also a damsel in distress in the form of Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) – if you have seen The Night Manager miniseries, Debicki’s character is basically similar to Jed who’s also the love interest of an arm’s dealer.

The high-concept element here is the time inversion, where characters can move backwards in time. Some key phrases are required to understand just what TENET is about… Entropy Inversion, Temporal Pincer Movement, Turnstile, Palindrome are just a few of them. It’s the kind of movie that would require a glossary of physics to comprehend. Of course, the title itself is a Palindrome, which refers to a word, phrase or sequence that reads the same backward as forward. Clearly I had fallen asleep in physics class as the word entropy is as perplexing as Kenneth Branagh‘s Russian accent.

Apparently Nolan worked with physicist Nobel laureate Kip Thorne once again, the same physics expert he consulted with in Interstellar on wormholes and time travel. This time, he’s consulted on the subjects of time and quantum physics, specifically time inversion where characters move backwards in time. Even after reading all kinds of articles explaining the science of the movie, some things just don’t add up. SPOILER ALERT – just how in the world would a kill switch on Sator’s Fitbit would be able to activate the Algorithm to reverse entropy that would make the future cease to exist??   I find that TENET is best enjoyed when you just surrender to the movie and all its cool spectacle, like the backward car chases, instead of trying to process it all during the movie. Now, I don’t advise you ‘park your brain at the door’ the way you would when watching a Fast & Furious movie, but I would refrain from overthinking it as you are watching it. I actually have a better appreciation of it after I had spent time reading about its concepts afterwards.

That said, I’m not going to let Nolan off the hook in his storytelling style, as I think there are flaws that dampen my enjoyment. The one sequence in particular is the climactic battle at the end in an abandoned Soviet banker. There are so much information going into it, delivered by a soldier by the name of Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that’s quite tough to follow. By the time the two set of troops are on the ground, things are moving fast, loud and bombastic that it was hard to decipher just what in the world is going on. SPOILER ALERT – it actually took me a while to realize that half the troops are attacking while inverted (that is they’re moving back in time) and the other half moving forward as normal. I wish this sequence were filmed in a way that’s more comprehensible as I practically tuned out because the massively loud sound mixing alone was simply an attack on my brain.

Another major issue I have is in regards to Sator who could’ve been a strong villain. I think his motives are pretty lame (as lame as most Bond movies) and Branagh’s performance is so uneven–at times he can be genuinely menacing but in a few scenes he’s hilarious, and not in a good way. While he’s obviously a talented actor and filmmaker, I don’t think Sator is a particularly strong villain. Oh,  I think it needs to be said that Nolan isn’t great about writing female characters either. I’ve mentioned the similarity of Kat to another role Debicki has played within the past five years that’s also a spy genre, I think it’s a waste of her talents to see her play essentially the same type of role. I do think she made the best of what she’s given, but I’d love to see Debicki portray someone who’s worthy of her prowess, both physically and in terms of her acting ability.

Many people have regarded Nolan as the ‘savior of cinema’ given how TENET was supposed to lift Hollywood’s box office during this unprecedented time of a pandemic. It remains to be seen of course how much TENET made, which undoubtedly would still be far less than what it could’ve made when things are normal. I think he is a talented filmmaker and a visionary, but I feel like he might have over-reached with this one and have substituted high-concept for good narrative. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but I feel like here, Nolan seems to care more about the fantastical spectacle and time-inversion/ thermodynamics extravaganza than he is about an affecting story, so the result frankly, is a cold, detached film. I think the only bit that has a semblance of emotional resonance is the ending exchange between the Protagonist and Neil, but there’s barely any heart-string tugging moment the entire film.

If you’re on the fence about this one though, I still recommend it despite its flaws. The 200+ million dollar budget allows for the best kind of escapism cinema could give you. If you love action, there are the cool car chases + fight scenes like you’ve never seen before, a supercharged catamaran race, AND a Boeing 747 crashing into a building! Given that Nolan doesn’t like using green screens nor visual effects, that’s an actual plane being used, not a miniature one. Props to Ludwig Göransson for the dynamic soundtrack with some seriously cool beats, and Hoyte Van Hoytema for the stunning cinematography. I’m still obsessed with the song The Plan by Travis Scott used in the final trailer – I never thought an American rapper would be featured in a Nolan movie, but it worked!

Of course Nolan’s longtime collaborator Nathan Crowley is always superb on his production design, he certainly had his work cut out for him creating some of the set pieces in various locations around the world. Speaking of locations…having been cooped up for more than half a year, I live vicariously through the characters as they globe trot to London, Mumbai, Amalfi Coast, Oslo, Tallinn, Estonia etc. Of course the filmmakers made it seem so smooth and effortless to jump from place to place and nobody seems to be having the slightest bit of jet-lag.

I’d also recommend it for the actors, particularly J.D. Washington and Pattinson. Oh shout out to Bollywood actress Dimple Kapadia in her Hollywood debut playing an elegant arms dealer Priya. Washington proves even more of his star quality and given his athletic background, he’s perfect for this physically demanding role. I have to say though that I’d like to see him in something with a little more heart as I’d love to see more of his emotional intelligence on display.

Lastly, while I still think Nolan is a visionary filmmaker, I’d love to see him tackle a smaller film (maybe under $50mil) and come up with something stronger narratively instead of just a big puzzle piece. That said, I’m glad I saw it on the big screen, and considering how confusing the movie is, the 150-minute running time actually doesn’t feel tedious or overlong. I only wish Nolan gave us a bit more for the heart as he did for the head. I will definitely be renting this once it’s available, and hopefully I’d enjoy it more on second viewing.

P.S. This movie is more of a 2.75/5 but since I grade this by half point measure, I’d bump this up to 3.


So, have you seen TENET? I’d love to hear what you think!

 

FIVE best cinematographers in Hollywood (not named Roger Deakins)

The process of making films is very difficult, whether it’s a short or full-length feature, one needs to put together a team of talented people in order to produce something that one can be proud of. One key component to make any film work is the person who does the actual shooting. The director tends to get all the credit when it comes to making a film but in a big or small production, a cinematographer is the real star behind the scenes. The director is in charge of the entire production crew, so he/she can’t oversee each and every shot during the shoot. That’s where the cinematographer comes in, this person must know the ins and outs of the cameras, which lens to use for each scene, set up lightings for each location and most importantly this person needs to be on the same page as the director. Basically, the cinematographer is the second most powerful person during the shoot.

I do feel that cinematographers tend to get over look when people are talking about certain films. One of the most well-known cinematographers in Hollywood is Roger Deakins and I won’t put him on my list here since his work deserves a list of its own. Here, I’m listing some of the best but not that well-known cinematographers working in Hollywood today.

In no particular order, here’s my list:

1. Robert Richardson

I was hesitant to put Richardson on the list since he’s won 3 Oscars for his work on JFK, The Aviator and Hugo. But I don’t think most film fans know much about him. Known to be a hot head in Hollywood, there were reports that he actually took over the directing tasks when Marc Forster lost control of the troubled shoot of World War Z. He then asked him name to be taken off the credits for that film because he wasn’t happy that the studio decided to convert the film to 3D and changed the color lutz of the footage that he shot. Richardson sounds like a man who don’t have much patience for inexperience directors in large productions, which explains why he mostly work with famous director like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.

Here are some clips of his work that I think are great:

2. Oliver Wood

Wood has been working as a cinematographer since the late 60s. He shot several episodes of the TV show Miami Vice in the 80s and got his first big Hollywood production gig by shooting Die Hard 2. He’s been busy shooting big blockbusters ever since. But I don’t think many people knows much about him at all. You’d be surprised that some of the well-known films were shot by him, Rudy, The Bourne Trilogy and Face/Off are some of the films he shot. Now some might say that he started the whole fast editing and shaky cam action shots that plagued many action films of the 2000s, but I think that blame should go to Paul Greengrass.

Here are some shots of his work that I think are great:

The snowmobile chase/shootout in Die Hard 2. I’m pretty sure this scene was a very difficult shot to set up, it contains snow and set at night time.

The opening intro of Castor Troy in Face/Off. John Woo apparently fired his original cinematographer for this film because that person couldn’t keep up with his demands. Wood took over the gig and this scene is one of the many great shots in the film.

The epic car chase through the streets of Moscow in The Bourne Supremacy. One of the best car chases ever filmed and I assume wasn’t easy to film:

3. Ellen Kuras

Sadly, this is the only female cinematographer on my list here. As most of everyone knows, this is still a male dominated field and many female cinematographers are having a hard time breaking in. Kuras is one of the few that have been working in this field for a long time. She started out doing mostly short films and documentaries in the 90s. Her big break came when Spike Lee hired her to lens He Got Game starring Denzel Washington for him. Apparently, she worked well with Lee and they shot two more films together, Summer of Sam and Bamboozled. Some of her best-known films are Blow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Ballad of Jack and Rose. In the late 2000s, Kuras decided to go back and direct mostly documentaries and short films. I hope she comes back and shoot more feature films because I think she’s very talented.

Here some samples of her great work:

Summer of Sam trailer, I couldn’t find any clips on YouTube but you can see her work on this trailer. An underrated gritty drama that should’ve been seen by more people:

Train ride sequence in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A simple sequence but probably very difficult to set up, shooting scenes in a tight spot is never easy. There were many great shots in this film, but I’ve always enjoy watching this scene.

4. Steven H. Burum

Probably the oldest cinematographers on this list, in fact Burum hasn’t been working much since the early 2000s. But I’m sure you’ve seen many of his great work. He’s a constant collaborator of Brian De Palma and some of his famous work were Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, The Outsiders, St. Elmo’s Fire and The War of the Roses.

Here are some of my favorite shots of his work:

The mission gone wrong scene in the first Mission: Impossible. By killing off each of the team members early in the film, fans of the TV show were pretty shocked by it. The way this sequence was shot was quite spectacular. I think this whole film was full of great shots, most people tend to forget that the first Mission film was more of a suspense thriller and didn’t have a lot of action like its sequels. Most of the scenes were shot in tight spaces but Burum was able to make them look cinematic and big in scope.

The climatic foot chase/shoot out in Carlito’s Way. One of the most underrated films of the 90s and this sequence alone is worth the price of admission. Just watch and be awed by it.

PART I:

PART 2:

5. Matthew Libatique

Out of the people listed on here, Libatique might be the most well-known cinematographer working today. He’s been working with Darren Aronofsky since the early 90s and has shot all of Aronofsky’s films ever since. Probably his most famous work are his shots in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Inside Man and the recent remake of A Star is Born. I think Libatique is maybe the most generic of all these cinematographers that I’ve listed. It doesn’t mean that he’s done average work, it’s the opposite. I think he really catered to the style of the directors he’s worked with. Some of the clips from his work will show you what I mean. One is a film from Aronofsky and other is a Spike Lee’s film.

Here’s a clip of Aronofsky’s The Fountain:

Here’s Spike Lee’s Inside Man:

If you’re a fan of either Aronofsky or Lee then you can see how Libatique really catered to both of the director’s style.


These cinematographers didn’t quite make the list, but I think they will have have long career in front of them:

  • Rob Hardy
    He’s a constant collaborator with Alex Garland and has shot all of Garland’s directing projects including Ex Machina, Annihilation and the current TV show DEVS. But Hardy’s biggest success was 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
  • Zoe White
    She’s young and most of her work were short movies. But I think her work will get more recognition in the upcoming years. She’s already shot several episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and the recent episode of Westworld. Let’s hope some directors will hire her to shoot their upcoming films soon.

  • Hoyte Van Hoytema
    He’s young and has shot some of the biggest event films in the last few years. He’s also working with the most popular director right now, Chris Nolan. Pretty sure you’ve seen his work in Interstellar, Dunkirk, Spectre, Her and Ad Astra. His next film is Nolan’s Tenet.

– Post by Ted Saydalavong


So, those are some of the best cinematographers working in Hollywood today. Did I miss any of your favorites? If so, please name them in the comment section.

Everybody’s Chattin’ + Trailer Spotlight: DUNKIRK (Trailer #1)

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Happy Wednesday! It feels like a sluggish past few weeks… especially when I got barely ANY vacation left through the end of the year. My European friends, you guys are lucky you get at least a month worth of vacation, I mean I’ve worked in the same company for a decade and only got three weeks of vacation :\ But hey, I’m seeing Rogue One tonight, so at least that adds an extra spring in my step in these cold, frigid Winter days!!

It’s been ages since I did some community links… so let’s get to it!

Jordan reviewed the music documentary of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, One More Time With Feeling

Margaret reviewed the last episode of Westworld (can’t wait to binge on this later this month)

I love it when a fellow blogger reviewed a little-seen indie gem I happen to enjoy. Steven reviewed the Welsh comedy Hunky Dory

Glad someone else thinks this film deserves to be seen. Brittani reviewed Loving 

Vinnie reviewed one of my Blind Spot picks (that I haven’t yet to see), The Big Sleep

Well, it’s that time of the year! Chris asked fellow bloggers ‘What’s their favorite Christmas movies?’

Last but not least… Courtney reviewed critical darling of the year La La Land (and from her headline I think you know full well how she feels)


TRAILER SPOTLIGHT

Well it seems that every movie out of Christopher Nolan is a big event… and DUNKIRK is no different. I’ve been excited for this for a while. I posted the teaser trailer here back in August, but now we finally got the full first trailer. Behold…

Woof, this gives me goosebumps! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film dedicated to the brutal event in Dunkirk, France. The only one I remember vividly was this scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement, with its stunning tracking shot. But it’s such a pivotal moment in WWII history, and if there’s a director who could do it justice on the big screen, it’d be Chris Nolan!

As always, Nolan’s always assembled top notch cast for his epic films…

  • Tom Hardy
  • Kenneth Branagh
  • Cillian Murphy
  • Mark Rylance
  • James D’Arcy
  • Aneurin Barnard

I love all of those actors, including my recent discovery (read: crush), Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard! Sorry I don’t care for that kid from the famous boy band, but surely it’ll bring a ton of teenyboppers to see this. So Tom Hardy plays a fighter pilot, but I hope he gets to talk in this movie? Yes it seems to be another male-dominated Nolan film, which made me think perhaps Nolan’s next movie should be a female ensemble cast? 😉


Visually this movie just looks epiiiiic! It’s shot in IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large format film stock by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema who also worked with Nolan in Interstellar (though my fave work of his is the visually-stunning Her). Does that mean he’s done working with his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister?? But looks like Nolan regular Hans Zimmer is back scoring this film.

It’d be amazing to behold how Nolan recreated the harrowing chaos of Allied forces who are surrounded by German army. It’s more than just staging a spectacle of aerial bombardments wreaking havoc on the beach and the ocean, destroying troops and sinking Allied ships. It’s also a tale of hope… as the evacuation is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. Per Wiki, on the first day of the evacuation, only 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats.

I’m not usually a huge war movie fan just because I can’t handle the brutality, but yet I’m looking forward to this.


What do you think of the the first DUNKIRK trailer? 

FlixChatter Review: SPECTRE (2015)

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I wonder if the way I feel about the Bond song somehow impacts how I feel about the film itself. Some of my least favorite Bond songs are The Man with the Golden Gun, Die Another Day, and Quantum of Solace, and those are also my least favorite Bond films. I already mentioned in this post how much I abhorred Sam Smith’s latest, Writing’s on the Wall which sounds more like fingernails on a chalk board. Unfortunately for me, during the press screening, I had to endure that song not once but twice as they played Sam Smith’s music video before the movie, so I had to suffer through THAT song once again during the opening title [sigh]

Of course it’s ludicrous to judge a Bond movie from the song, so I was prepared for an awesome Bond film. To be fair, the melody of the song itself is actually not bad, with Thomas Newman back scoring this again after Skyfall. Well, the first 15 minutes is certainly promising. It’s tradition that Bond films open with a bang and this one is no different, starting with a foot chase through a throng of huge crowd during the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City. It’s followed by a spectacular fight scene aboard a helicopter flying above the main square. If we’re to judge a movie by cinematography alone, Spectre is excellent, thanks to Hoyte van Hoytema whose done amazing work in Her and Interstellar recently.

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Plot-wise, Spectre has a lot going for it, at least on paper. The parallel conflicts that Bond and M are facing in the film also promises an extra layer of intrigue, in addition to the personal vendetta that runs through the vein of Daniel Craig‘s Bond films. A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization and somehow he ends up going rogue. Meanwhile, his boss M (Ralph Fiennes) is dealing with a crisis of his own as the head of Joint Intelligence Service (which merged MI5 and MI6) threatened to shut down the double-O section. It’s an intriguing set up and as a massive Bond fan, I expect once again to be bowled over.

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Alas, after that spectacular opening, the film seems to lose momentum and never quite claim it back. All the high-octane action didn’t have quite the adrenaline rush I expected from a Bond movie. Even the car chase through the streets of Rome feels rather stale, it’s like I’ve seen a far more exciting car chase scene in previous Bond movies and recently in its rival franchise, Mission Impossible 5. Then there’s the unintentional humor that makes it hard to take the film seriously. The two times Bond wooed two of the beautiful Bond girls, Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux, the scenes elicit laughter from the audience. It feels so obligatory and cringe-worthy, a far cry from the intriguing AND sexy love affair between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale. Vesper was a complex character with a compelling story arc, but here the two Bond girls aren’t given the same courtesy. It’s sad to see an actress of Bellucci’s stature be utterly wasted here.
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The film also promises a massive super villain, the mother lode of all villains Bond has encountered in his past, “I’m the source of all your pain,” Oberhauser tells him once Bond gets to his lair. So it’s quite a let down that this supposedly fearsome, ultra-powerful mastermind turns out to be not so menacing at all. Remember how sinister Christoph Waltz was in Inglourious Basterds? Well, here he’s nothing more than a clichéd psychopath throwing tantrums at Bond because of… a childhood feud. Huh? No less than FOUR screenwriters credited here, three of whom also worked on Skyfall, and all they could come up with is THIS half-baked story? [spoiler alert] I find it hard to believe that Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chifre, who was effortlessly menacing AND intriguing in Casino Royale, actually worked for this lame, petulant nutjob.

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Sam Mendes and his team of writers seems to have recycled a lot of what’s been done in previous Bond films with nothing new to add to the franchise. In fact, in terms of the treatment of the Bond girls, it’s a step backward. The film seems to aim for a darker story but the execution feels light and even unintentionally comical. I realize that Bond films aren’t expected to be too deep or poignant, but even the fun, escapism factor seems to be missing in this one as Mendes can’t decide what kind of Bond movie he wants this to be. At times it harkens back to the Roger Moore era, which is a jarring contrast to the more pensive and grittier tone established in Craig’s films.

The returning characters from Skyfall are still good in their roles. I do like Ralph Fiennes as M but yet he still can’t hold a candle to how fantastic Judi Dench was in the role. Moneypenny and Q (Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw) have bit more to do in supporting 007, though not so much that would make any real impact in the movie. Andrew Scott, who’s excellent in the Sherlock series, is just serviceable here, but Dave Bautista certainly lives up to other big, burly but taciturn henchmen of Bond’s past. The fight scene on the train is certainly an homage to From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me with my favorite henchman, Jaws.

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As for the titular hero, I still like Craig as Bond, but more often than not he looks bored in this movie. It’s as if he’s weary of the same old types of shenanigans and hollow sexual escapades in various exotic locations. Yes I know Bond’s supposed to have this devil-may-care attitude but I think there’s a sense of fatigue that the actor can’t quite conceal. Perhaps it’s telling when Craig said in an interview recently how he’d rather slash his wrist than play James Bond again. It’s tacky to bite the hand that feeds you, but I can’t say I blame him for feeling that way.

It’s a pity because this could’ve been a truly great swan song for Craig if he were to retire as Bond (though I think he’d be back for at least one more). I like the fact that four of his films are connected in some way, though the constant throwback to his previous films also invites the inevitable comparison. If I were to rank Craig’s Bond films now, Spectre is just slightly more watchable than Quantum of Solace, but falls far short of the greatness of Casino Royale and Skyfall.

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Spectre might’ve topped the box office, but it’s nowhere near the top of the best Bond films for me. So I guess that awful theme song is sort of a warning about the movie. Bond’s most personal mission barely evoke any emotional response as the protagonist himself didn’t even seem to care. There’s just no compelling human drama here in this largely soulless affair. Overall the payoff just doesn’t live up to all that build-up and frankly, the film is just forgettable. I saw it four days ago yet I barely remember anything about it. It’s such a bummer really, this movie even made this loyal Bond fan think that perhaps I’ve outgrown this franchise a bit.

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Well, what did you think of Spectre? Did you like it more or less than I did?