FlixChatter Review: BELFAST (2021)

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I am drawn to films that are personal to the filmmaker, and when that said filmmaker is Sir Kenneth Branagh, well it adds another layer of intrigue. As the title says, the film is set in the capital of Northern Ireland. I’m not too familiar with the Troubles, that is the tumultuous period of ethno-nationalist conflict between the late 1960s to 1998. The first film I saw that dealt with the warring Protestant vs Catholic factions was Five Minutes of Heaven where two of its main characters are invited to meet up by a media organization 3 decades after one of them killed the other’s brother in mid 1970s.

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Branagh’s film is semi-autobiographical and was set in 1969 when he was just nine years old. Newcomer Jude Hill portrays the young Branagh, aka ‘Buddy’ in the film. He’s a vivacious boy who loves playing with his friends and neighbors in their tight-knit working class neighborhood where ‘everybody knows y’er name.’ He pretty much grows up mainly with his ‘Ma’ (Caitríona Balfe) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), as well as his doting grandparents ( Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). His ‘Pa’ (Jamie Dornan) is often away on business in London, where he seems to be earning pretty good living for his family.

Narrated by Judi Dench, Branagh’s introduction to the Troubles comes early in the film in a stylish way as the film turns from color to black and white. Buddy is playing war games with pretend swords + shields, as kids often do. but suddenly a group of violent mob descends and things go awry and fiery very quickly. British military with troops and tanks arrives to keep calm the riots. It’s quite a disturbing scene told from the eyes of a young boy. Despite the restless times he’s living in however, the film depicts a vibrant and happy life for Buddy … we see him thriving at school, nursing a romantic crush on a school mate, doing pranks after school, basically doing things mischievous young boys do.

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The topic of the Troubles is handled in a whimsical way when Buddy and his friend Moira (Lara McDonnell) discuss the difference between being Catholic vs. Protestants… but the mirth and whimsy doesn’t mean it lessen the impact and emotional struggle the family are facing. Pa feels that Belfast is getting more and more dangerous and wants the family to move to London. That becomes a point of argument with his wife who can’t imagine life outside Belfast.

It’s interesting to see the relevance of immigrant life we’re still dealing with today, as Buddy’s family are wary about how they would be accepted by Londoners who view them as outsiders. I love the conversation between Buddy and Pop who’s a proud, defiant Irishman… when Buddy asks what if the English won’t understand they way they talk, he replies ‘If they can’t understand ya, then they’re not listening.’ 

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There is a specificity to the film’s casting, most of the cast here are Irish, in fact, Dornan and Hinds are from Belfast. Northern Irish young lad Jude Hill is quite a find, discovered amongst 300 actors. He’s delightful in his big feature debut, perfectly capturing the wide-eyed innocence of a precocious kid forced to be wiser beyond his years by circumstance. Many have complimented Dornan in one of his best performances of his career. I think he’s terrific here and his fans would be happy that he gets to sing again (he seems to sing quite a bit in his movies!). I was really taken by Balfe’s nuanced, layered performance, she’s definitely more memorable here than Dornan. That moment in the bus is likely going to be used as the clip for her Oscar campaign by the studio. She’s won acclaims in Outlander series, but she’s definitely ready for more prominent film roles.

Judi Dench is always a highlight in any film, and here she still shines in an understated role. I love the casting of Hinds who’s such an underrated character actor. It’s quite amusing to see him play Dame Judi’s husband despite being almost two decades younger. Another Northern Irish actor, Colin Morgan, has a small but memorable role as Pa’s childhood friend Billy, who is as close as you get to seeing the face of the ‘enemy.’

Those expecting lots of violent civil war action scenes are going to be disappointed. It’s not that kind of movie… it’s decidedly more reflective in its approach, more observant in nature. It’s appropriate for a coming-of-age drama about a boy whose life is about to change significantly. Given the highly-personal subject matter, I think Branagh is allowed to be lyrical and sentimental in his poignant love letter to his hometown. He employs a decidedly theatrical style as opposed to gritty realism, which is fine for this story but it also lessens some of the suspense. One particular scene in the third act when Pa’s conflict with the relentless Billy reaches a penultimate climax, the way it was staged makes the scenario feels less severe than I imagine it would have been in real life.

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Branagh isn’t exactly known for his visual flair, but this is perhaps one of his most visually striking films. The black-and-white cinematography immediately conjures up a sense of nostalgia. DP Haris Zambarloukos uses a lot of wide angle shots to frame the scenes and most of the shots are deliberately off-center. It definitely adds a level of visual interest in an otherwise mundane, day-to-day life. The music by Belfast composer Van Morrison perfectly complements the tone and atmosphere.

Overall I find BELFAST entertaining and heartfelt… with plenty of wit and humor to keep things from being too dour. It shows the 30-year conflict through a different, non-judgmental lens that shows how in every clash, there are always the regular people who got caught up in something they didn’t want to be a part of. The ending pays a moving tribute to the people of the region, those who left, those who stay behind, and those who will always carry Belfast in their hearts.

4/5 stars

P.S. This film won the Twin Cities Film Fest’s Best Feature Film prize AND the 2021 Audience Award this year – see all TCFF’s winners list!


Have you seen BELFAST? I’d love to hear what you think!

Top 15 Daniel Craig’s JAMES BOND Moments

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I’m a longtime Bond fan and it feels like ages ago since I saw a new Bond movie. Can you believe it that SPECTRE was released in 2015? That’s SEVEN years ago! Thanks to this ongoing pandemic, this film just kept getting delayed. Well, Bond has been on my mind the past week as NO TIME TO DIE is finally coming to theaters! It marks Daniel Craig‘s fifth and final appearance as James Bond, and even he seems quite emotional saying goodbye to the role and regretted his rather blasé response about returning to the franchise after Spectre wrapped. 

I personally think Craig has done a phenomenal job as Bond and proved me wrong in my early assessment of his casting, as I mentioned in my review of Casino Royale. So in honor of his last outing as Bond, my pal Ted and I are listing our favorite Craig’s Bond moments. Nice to finally have a new post for FC’s 007 Chatter category 🙂

Let me start with Ted’s top 5 list:

1. Casino Royale – Bond broke into M’s apartment

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Fans of Bond films knows that the relationship between M and Bond has always been professional, but I really appreciate the filmmakers decided to come up with this scene and showed us the real relationship between the young 007 and his mentor. I love the back-and-forth performances by Craig and Judi Dench in this one. Too bad we never find out with M stands for.

2. Quantum of Solace – Opening car chase and climatic shootout/fight scenes

In rare case in the Bond franchise, this film was a direct follow up to the previous one. Unfortunately, the film was not well received by fans of the franchise, but I still thought it’s a good sequel. The film came out around the time another spy franchise was dominating the box office, Jason Bourne. Most of the action scenes in the film were pretty much carbon copy of action scenes from The Bourne films. I thought this opening car chase was great way to start the film:

The shootout and fight scene for the climax was quite intense, just wish Bond was fighting a formidable foe here. Mathieu Amalric was a total miscast as the main villain and in this scene, it looked like Bond was fighting a little kid. I still thought it was well shot and edited: 

3. Skyfall – Kincade introduction

Some Bond fans probably know that Kincade was originally written for the late Sean Connery, it’s supposed to be a surprise cameo. But Connery turned down the part and we can only imagine what would’ve been like to have seen Connery came out of the dark and utter the famous lines “Bond, James Bond.” I thought Albert Finney was great in the role but man it would’ve been great to have seen Connery back in the Bond franchise one last time. 

In any case, the scene I’m referring to starts around 3:05 below:

4. Skyfall – The Shanghai scenes

The entire sequence in Shanghai was beautifully shot by Roger Deakins. This scene starts with Bond following his target and ended with a big fight in a empty office building:

5. Spectre – The opening of action scene

This is my least favorite of Craig’s Bond films and this Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City is probably the best scene in the entire film:


I love the five scenes Ted listed above. In fact, I was going to include the SPECTRE opening scenes too, as I think it’s the best part of the entire movie. I just learned from the Being James Bond documentary that Craig actually did that scene with a broken leg, what a trooper!

So I’m listing mine in order of the film’s release. The Quantum of Solace‘s opening car chase scene is my favorite from Craig’s second outing as Bond, so I’m not listing that again.

In any case, here are my top 10 picks:

6. Casino Royale – Opening Parkour Chase Scene

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Bond movies are known for their bombastic and action-packed intro scenes. In Casino Royale, it’s even more crucial to have a memorable sequence as it’s the first time we see Daniel Craig in full-on action and boy did he deliver! The parkour chase is what’s on-trend at the moment but even re-watching it over a decade later, it doesn’t feel dated and I’m still in awe of Craig’s physical prowess in this scne.

7. Casino Royale – Bond Meets Vesper Train Scene

I’ve included this clip so many times on this blog, I think it’s a record, ahah. Those who have been loyally following my blog knows how much I LOVE Vesper, my favorite Bond girl, and her intro here is my absolutely fave Bond moments. Craig’s got a sexy but playful chemistry with Eva Green, which makes this scene so delightful to watch over and over. 

8. Casino Royale – Shower Scene

I’ve already been on board with Craig as Bond at this point but THIS scene makes me LOVE his portrayal. He manages to be tough, almost thug-ish in his action scenes, but he’s also got a sensitive, emphatic side that’s displayed beautifully here. It’s Bond like you’ve never seen him before, and THAT’s sexy.

9. Casino Royale – Card Game, Bond meets Felix

Given the title, obviously the card game has to be one of the main highlights. I enjoy the banter and dynamic between Bond and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), but what I think is underrated is the interaction between Bond and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), his on the staircase. I LOVE Wright’s casting as Felix and definitely the strongest actor to portray Bond’s ‘brother from Langley.’

Bonus: We also got Craig uttering the brilliant ‘do I look like I give a damn’ line when asked if he wants his drink ‘shaken or stirred.’

10. Casino Royale – Ending scene

Craig’s Bond debut is just filled with so many wonderful moments from start to finish. Oh what a triumphant ending it is! Of course fans expect all Bond actors to utter this famous line, but here it doesn’t feel like fan service at all. In fact, it’s a perfect cap to a phenomenal Bond movie and perhaps even Craig’s way to say ‘screw you’ to naysayers.

11. Skyfall – Bond meets Q scene

I’m really fond of Ben Whishaw‘s casting a Q and this whimsical intro of them practically insulting each other is wildly amusing.

12. Skyfall – Bond takes M on Aston Martin DB5 ride ‘back in time’

Director Sam Mendes did a wonderful job in Skyfall, and I love that the plot of Judi Dench’s final Bond film appropriately centers on her character. After ‘kidnapping’ M after Silva’s attack at the court house, Bond took M to a garage where he’s been hiding his precious Aston Martin DB5… I LOVE M’s comment when he saw the car! 😛

13. Skyfall – Bond & Silva interaction

Javier Bardem is definitely one of the most memorable Bond villains ever, and perhaps the best in Craig’s tenure to date. This interaction may come across homo-erotic at first glance but the way Silva tantalize/manipulate Bond to see if he would crack is simply brilliant.

 

14. Spectre – Rome car chase

I’m with Ted in that I find Spectre underwhelming overall. I think Christoph Waltz is such a weak villain here (such a contrast to his work in Inglourious Basterds) but his henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista) does have some memorable moments with Bond. I love this beautifully-shot car chase scene (by DP Hoyte Van Hoytema) through Rome, and the ending with Bond parachuting down with a smirk on his face is a classic!

15. Spectre – Train fight scene

I actually rewatched this clip right after I watched Craig’s documentary Being James Bond that he broke his leg doing this stunts. Bautista is such a big guy, I cringe watching this now, Craig could’ve been seriously hurt! Interesting to learn from another interview that Craig actually broke Bautista’s nose doing this scene, so I guess they’re even! 😀


Hope you enjoyed our Daniel Craig tribute. I know he’ll be missed!

So what are YOUR favorite Craig’s BOND moments?

FlixChatter Review – CATS (2019)

Directed by: Tom Hooper
Screenplay by: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper

Most people who know me probably think I’m a huge Cats fan; I’m a choir nerd and a crazy cat lady (my Instagram account is mostly pictures of my boyfriend’s three adorable kitties), so a musical that combines two of my loves sounds tailor-made for me. Honestly, though, I never really got into it. I saw it at the Orpheum during an anniversary tour, and while I appreciated the beautiful music, clever choreography, and elaborate costumes, I had trouble connecting with the story- unsurprising, considering it’s based on a collection of T.S. Eliot poems. When I heard the musical was being adapted into a movie, though, I figured I would give it another shot.

Cats is about a group of alleycats called the Jellicle Cats (no, I STILL don’t know what Jellicle Cats are; based on the songs, it sounds like they’re basically just normal cats but some of them are maybe magic?) preparing for the Jellicle Ball, an event where their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses one cat to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer,” basically a cat heaven where they will be reborn into a better life. The cats each perform for Old Deuteronomy in order to convince her to choose them. However, a nefarious cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) is also trying to be chosen, and is doing his best to get rid of his competition.

Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: the uncanny valley CGI character design. It’s not quite as bad as I was expecting-at least close up. The CGI fur is very realistic-looking, and it seems to be combined with practical costuming and makeup in some cases. That said, the full body shots looked so much creepier, and I am still super weirded out by how aggressively human the faces look. They put so much detail into the bodies, but the faces are mostly left as is, save for some CGI whiskers and occasional tufts of fur. Couldn’t they have done something with makeup or prosthetics? As it is, all I could think of was that scene in What We Do in the Shadows where Jemaine Clements’s character tries to turn into a cat.

Besides the unsettling character design, the movie is mostly pretty to look at. The production design is beautiful, and the choreography is impressive (if not necessarily well-shot); mainly casting professional ballet dancers was one of the best things they could have done for the movie. Some of the “cat-like” movements are a little uncomfortable, though. There’s this weird sexual energy about it, which for some stories or musicals is totally fine, and I know the stage show has a similar vibe, but knowing that it’s about literal cats makes it kind of awkward.

The other big topic I obviously have to comment on is the music. Overall, it’s decent; the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic hasn’t endured as long as it has for nothing. Several of the songs are fun, catchy, and in some instances, haunting. I liked the ensemble numbers, although the orchestration sometimes drowns out the vocals in some parts. Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella  obviously sounds fantastic in the best-known number, “Memory.” Jason Derulo gives a solid performance as the flirty and energetic Rumtumtugger; his diction suffers a little because he’s trying to sing with a Cockney accent, but I still really enjoyed his voice. Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is especially delightful; he has such a clear, bright, strong tone.

Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina only has one song, Macavity, and it’s…fine. She was obviously a stunt cast, because they gave her a song that’s not that vocally taxing. The song itself has this sultry vibe that Taylor’s breathy voice sort of works for, although it some parts it sounds more breathless than breathy, and I really would have loved to hear some more power behind the chorus. My biggest issue with the music was the shoehorned in Oscar-bait song, Beautiful Ghosts. It was written by Swift and Webber, but it definitely sounds more like the pop star’s song than the Broadway composer’s and doesn’t really fit the rest of the show’s tone. Worse still, it comes immediately after Grizabella’s first snippet of “Memory,” and having this slightly pretty but underwhelming song follow it dampens the effect of that moment.

The rest of the cast quality is pretty mixed. Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy and Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre cat are amazing actors in general and could make reciting the phone book sound good, so they do well with what they’re given. Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots and James Corden as Bustopher Jones are pretty groan-worthy; they’re the comedic relief, but they have way too much addded dialogue that’s basically just the individual actors’ brands of humor, and it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the movie. Idris Elba tries so hard, and he’s clearly giving it his all, but his character has been rewritten from a mysterious and malevolent presence to a cartoon villain, so there’s not much to salvage there. Lastly, newcomer Francesca Hayward as the abandoned kitten Victoria is, again, fine. She’s primarily a dancer, so her acting and singing aren’t spectacular, but she does okay with what she’s given. Her role in the movie is mostly as an analogue for the audience-someone for the other cats to explain the plot to- so there’s not much needed from her acting-wise.

This movie isn’t great. It’s not even so bad it’s good, which would at least be fun. Honestly, the source material just doesn’t lend itself to being adapted to a movie. Even with the added dialogue explaining the weird plot, the lyrics are still pretty bonkers and the anthropomorphized felines writhing around is uncomfortable, and  and while that might work on stage, it just doesn’t in film. Even if the character design hadn’t been terrifying CGI and the cast had been stronger, I don’t think anything could salvage Cats as a movie.

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Have you seen CATS? Let us know what you think!

MSPIFF 2019 Review: RED JOAN

Given that I have a thing for spy films AND I adore Dame Judi Dench, I knew I had to see Red Joan the second I saw the trailer. Dame Judi is best known to most moviegoers as James Bond’s tough-as-nails boss M, so the idea of her playing a British-born former spy who transfers nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets is undoubtedly intriguing. Red Joan is more in the vein of John Le Carré’s slo-burn type than an action-packed Bond flick, with most of the story told in flashback mode.

The film begins in modern day with the 80-something Joan Stanley tending her English garden. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door and she’s charged with treason and whisked away by MI-5 for interrogation. Then we’re transported to Cambridge in the late 1930s. Young Joan (Sophie Cookson) is a bright, studious physics student who meets a new, rather mysterious fellow student Sonya (Tereza Srbova) who climbs through her window in a party dress. Her new charming, persuasive friend later takes Joan to a ‘film night,’ which is a cover for a meet-up with communist party sympathizer. The subsequent meetings and rendezvous with a Soviet-born student Leo (Tom Hughes) propel Joan into the world of espionage.

As I mentioned above, if you expect a high-octane thriller a la Bond, Bourne or Atomic Blonde, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. I for one enjoy both, there’s plenty of room for both styles in the genres. Inspired by the true story of Melitta Norwood, dubbed the “most important female agent ever recruited by the USSR,” Joan’s covert activities in the top secret nuclear research facility are far more grounded. The fact that back in the day women in the office were regarded as nothing more than secretaries was perhaps an advantage for female spies. Physics was (and still is) a male-dominated field where male chauvinism was the norm. On the flip side, it also makes Joan the perfect spy, as few would suspect that she’d possess the intellect to discern what the covert agency was building, let alone have the audacity to share those plans with the enemy.

Director Trevor Nunn, famous for his Shakespearean adaptations, adapted Norwood’s story based on Lindsay Shapero‘s script. Overall it’s a handsomely mounted production that should please fans of period pieces. The more I mull over this film though, there’s just something wanting. For one, because of the extensive flashback scenes, there isn’t enough of Dame Judi on screen for my liking. She’s billed as the lead, but Cookson clearly has the most screen time. But even with two actors playing the same character, the film barely scratches the surface in depicting a multi-layered woman in one of the most interesting times in history. Nunn depicts a series of espionage activities rather than deliver a compelling character study.  We barely get any insight into who Joan really is, her background, and why she did what she did. Even as her son Nick (Ben Miles) berated her ‘how could you?!’ and constantly asking her why, we only get generic answers like ‘I’m not a traitor… I love my country.’ 

For a film about a world filled with secrets, intrigue and imminent danger of being caught, the film also lacks any real tension. At times the romance get overly melodramatic that it often overpowers the story. I guess it’s a matter of expectations–I was expecting more of a mystery/suspense thriller than a spy romance. The performances are uneven as well. Cookson is quite fascinating to watch as a conflicted young woman who often finds herself in impossible situations. Naturally Joan is drawn to men who believe in her and sees her as her equal. As Leo, Tom Hughes comes across as rather lackluster and not charismatic enough for a supposedly sly, seductive character. Stephen Campbell Moore as Professor Max, Joan’s boss-turned-lover, fares a bit better here in a smaller role. Dame Judi herself is always solid, but given her immense acting cred, her talents is largely wasted in this film.

The biggest miss-opportunity any film could make is when it places its focus on the wrong thing, and I feel that it’s the case with Red Joan. It’s one of those movies that was entertaining enough because of the cast, but in the end I can’t help wonder what it could’ve been. Joan was described at one point as ‘one of the quickest minds in atomic physics,’ I wish the film had been as razor-sharp as its own protagonist.


Have you seen RED JOAN? What did you think?

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FlixChatter Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

There are films you’d readily see just for the cast and this is one such a film. I’m familiar with Agatha Christie’s work though I can’t claim I’ve actually finished even one of her books from start to finish. I did however, see the episode from British ITV production of the Agatha Christie series starring David Suchet a couple of years ago, so the plot is still quite fresh in my mind. The latest adaptation featured Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian super detective Hercule Poirot. Branagh also served as director, based on a script by Michael Green (who’s had quite a year as he also wrote Logan and Blade Runner 2049).

The opening sequence in Jerusalem seemed too whimsical and decidedly over-the-top, and I’m not just talking about Poirot’s outlandish mustache. I read in a review somewhere that Branagh can’t decide which fake mustache given to him from the makeup department so he basically just wore them all in a row. I think that enormous mustache probably has its own trailer, too! That establishing scene introduced us to a god-like figure who’s an absolute genius in cracking criminal cases. It also revealed his quirky OCD personality, so obsessed he is with balance that when he stepped one foot on manure, he immediately had to do the same with the other foot.

For a story famous for being set on a train, the film took its time to finally get there. But once there, the train set pieces is really quite glorious, filled with lavish set pieces and even more gorgeous passengers decked in 1930s costumes. Despite the rather sluggish pacing, I enjoyed myself thanks to the amazing cast. A movie with Dame Judi Dench is an automatic must-see in my book, though sadly she didn’t get to do anything in this film. But to be fair, most of the actors here seemed to have spent more time in costumes than learning their lines. She’s still memorable here, as is Olivia Colman as Dench’s German maid.

It’s tough to be memorable in a large ensemble cast as this one, but I’d say the film’s MVPs are Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham, Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. Oh, and hello Tom Bateman as train director Bouc (never seen this tall, dark and handsome Brit before but I sure hope I’ll see more of him!) It’s interesting casting to have Johnny Depp as Ratchett given his dire reputation of late. Branagh’s performance is often borderline over the top as well which in itself can be distracting. But I thought his monologue after the big reveal is pretty good and provides the high emotional point of the film. I love La Pfeiffer in this scene too, I’ve missed seeing her in movies. She’s one of those veteran actresses I wish would still get many intriguing roles.

I’m not going to talk about the plot here, but Branagh took some interesting creative licenses with how the story came to the big reveal. He also tried to vary the scenes of each passenger interrogation as to not bore the viewers, some work better than others. I love Branagh’s direction in Cinderella but here he seems too preoccupied with camera work (esp. the bird’s eye view angle) that the film feels rather haphazard at times. The dynamic camera angles adds energy to an otherwise stuffy whodunnit drama, but at times can be quite distracting as well.

Overall it’s a decent adaptation, but I’m not sure if it’s really all that necessary. I feel like the rich story would’ve been better served as a miniseries. There are parts that feel emotional, especially as we get to know who the passengers really are, but I think the film lacks any real suspense. That said, I still enjoyed it thanks to the committed cast, the stunning set pieces and the gorgeous score from one of my fave composers (and Branagh’s regular collaborator) Patrick Doyle. The ending seems to hint at ‘Poirot will return’ a la another titular character James Bond. Not sure I’d be so eager to return to another Poirot adaptation from Branagh though. I guess I’d recommend this if you like the cast, though if you’re a Christie fan you’d probably be more satisfied with re-reading the novel.


Have you seen the latest adaptation of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: Casino Royale (2006)

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This review was part of Mark & Tom’s Decades Blogathon that was published back in mid May. But since July 6 is Eva Green’s birthday, I decided to post it here this week.


I can’t believe it’s been a decade since Casino Royale came out. I just re-watched it this weekend to refresh my memory for the blogathon, though I had probably re-watched it a few times in the last 10 years. It’s still as good as the first time I saw it, and I still would regard it as one of my favorite Bond films… ever. I’ve mentioned Casino Royale so many times here on my blog, in fact it’s one of my fave films of 2000s and one of the 8 films I’d take with me if I were stuck on a desert island.

Like many Bond fans, I too had trepidation about Daniel Craig casting (too blond, too short, etc.) but of course we’re all proven wrong the second he appeared on the pre-credit scene. Craig might not be the most good looking Bond actor (and he is the shortest), but he more than made up for it in charisma AND swagger. Apart from Craig’s brilliant casting, it’s the story that makes this film so re-watchable. It’s not only a great Bond film, it’s a great film, period. An origin story of sort, James Bond goes on his first ever mission as 007, and he didn’t get off on the right foot with M right away. The scene when M berated Bond when he broke into her flat was intense but humorous, a perfect balancing act the film continuously play throughout. It’s not the first time we see the venerable Dame Judi Dench as M, but I must say I LOVE the banter between her and Craig even more.

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A great Bond film has to have an effective adversary and we find that in Mads Mikkelsen‘s Le Chiffre, a cold-looking Scandinavian with a bleeding eye. It would’ve been a silly gimmick if not played carefully, but here Le Chiffre is a cool and ominous villain. The fact that he’s really not a mastermind in the likes of Blofeld or Drax, but the fact that he’s not hellbent in ruling or destroying the entire world is frankly refreshing. He is a banker to the world’s terrorists, and so his only motive is money, like most of real world villains are. And a great Bond film also needs a memorable Bond girl. Well, Eva Green‘s Vesper Lynd is perhaps the hottest cinematic accountant ever. “I’m the money,” she quips the first time she enters the screen and into Bond’s heart. To this day I’m still enamored by the train scene to Montenegro, the way Bond & Vesper banter each other with wit and sexual undercurrents is what Bond movies are all about. Vesper is no Bimbo and that automatically made her a bazillion times more intriguing than bombshells in lesser Bond movies.

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Casino Royale isn’t big on gadgetry, and as a longtime Bond fan, I actually didn’t mind it. It’s got everything else one would expect in a Bond movie – the cars, the exotic locations, the suspense, action and quick wit – it’s all there. Compared to Craig Bond movies, the Roger Moore versions feel more like a drama given how relentless and vigorous all the action sequences are. The opening parkour/free running scene apparently took six weeks to shoot and my goodness, I’m out of breath just watching it! This is one sprightly Bond and Craig did most of his own stunts, so it looks believable that he was the one doing the action in the movie. He reportedly has the injuries to prove it too! The car chase wasn’t overlong, but dayum was it memorable. The scene where Aston Martin missed Vesper by a hair and rolled over multiple times still took my breath away every time I saw it.

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But all of that action stuff wouldn’t have mattered much without a grounding story. I think the last time Bond was genuinely romantic and emotional was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was when Bond fell in love. The scene of Bond tenderly comforting Vesper in the shower is one of my favorite scenes in all of the Bond films. There is nothing erotic or sexual in this scene, instead it packs an emotional wallop that makes Bond/Vesper relationship one of the best and most convincing romances in a Bond movie. The love story in Casino Royale is core to the plot and it was woven perfectly into all the espionage intrigue.

Vesper: You’re not going to let me in there, are you? You’ve got your armour back on. That’s that.

Bond: I have no armour left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me – whatever is left of me – whatever I am – I’m yours.

Bond films are known for being an eye and ear candy, and this probably ranks as one of the most beautifully-shot. The scenery in Venice as Bond stroll in the Grand Canal is especially striking, topped off by the intense fight scene in a crumbling house (shot at Pinewood Studios modeled after Venice’s Hotel Danieli). The soundtrack also ranks as one of the best, done by David Arnold with an homage to the legendary composer John Barry. I can’t get over how much I love the track City of Lovers, which I’ve highlighted for my Music Break here. The theme song You Know My Name by Chris Cornell is also one of my favorite Bond songs, and the cards-themed opening sequence is spectacularly-done.

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Per IMDb, this was the first James Bond movie to be based on a full-length Ian Fleming novel since Moonraker 27 years prior. Goldeneye‘s director Martin Campbell helmed the film from a screenplay from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis. I wish Campbell would be back in the director seat again as his previous two Bond films rate as one of my all time favorites. There’s so much style & sophistication in abundance here, but never at the expense of story & character. What I also love is that the quieter moments in the movie is still just as intriguing as the high-octane action scenes. That poker game in Montenegro is brimming with elegance as well as suspense, whilst showcasing the film’s excellent production design and costume design. Vesper’s plunging purple dress is a real head-turner and I don’t think Craig has looked more suave than in his tuxedo that Vesper tailor-made for him.

I really can go on and on about this movie as it’s really a masterpiece in the 50 years of James Bond films we’ve got so far. It also made me even more dismayed that the recent film in which the plot directly followed this one was such a downgrade. Looking back at Casino Royale‘s fantastic finale with Bond introducing himself to Mr. White, I expected SO much more than what they gave us with Spectre.

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What are your thoughts about ‘Casino Royale’? Does it rank amongst your favorite Bond films?

Thursday Movie Picks #62: Journalist/Reporters for Print/TV

ThursdayMoviePicksHappy Thursday everyone! This is another entry to the weekly Thursday Movie Picks that’s spearheaded by Wandering Through the Shelves Blog. Here’s the gist:

The rules are simple simple: Each week there is a topic for you to create a list of three movies. Your picks can either be favourites/best, worst, hidden gems, or if you’re up to it one of each. This Thursday’s theme is… 

Movies featuring journalists/reporters for print/TV

I LOVE this month’s theme as I actually wanted to be a journalist growing up. I was thisclose to enrolling in Journalism major in college before I switched to Advertising. I like a lot of film that involve journalism, especially investigative journalism that continues to be an intriguing subject today. In fact one of the films I’m anticipating later this year that screened at TIFF is SPOTLIGHT, about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the child molestation scandal within the local Catholic Archdiocese. These three films also involve scandalous events that’s notable in their time.

So without further ado, here are my picks:

All The President’s Men (1976)

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Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Nixon’s resignation.

This was one of my Blindspot picks of last year and I’m glad I finally saw it. It’s as much a detective tale as it is about journalism. I like how the story stays focused on the investigative aspect of the scandal and how the Post finally got to publish it, there’s no unnecessary subplots about the personal lives of the leads or anything of the sort. What an intriguing slice of American history, and as someone who’s not born in the US, it’s especially fascinating to see. To this day, every political scandal is tagged with the “-gate” suffix because of this, which adds to the timeless aspect of this film. Thanks to Robert Redford for acquiring the rights to Bernstein’s and Woodward’s memoir and for Mr. Pakula for bringing this engrossing political history to life. The two leads Redford and Dustin Hoffman are in top form here, but it also feature fantastic supporting performances from Hal Holbrook who played Woodward’s extremely secretive source, “Deep Throat.”

The Insider (1999)

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A research chemist comes under personal and professional attack when he decides to appear in a “60 Minutes” expose on Big Tobacco

This film (as well as HEAT) is why I will always admire Michael Mann. I was disappointed by Blackhat but I think he’s still a phenomenal filmmaker that can infuse such a compelling drama to an otherwise ho-hum story. Russell Crowe gave one of his best performances in his illustrious career, which I think deserved a Best Actor Oscar more than his role in Gladiator. I dedicated this post to highlight some of the scenes I love from this film. The relationship between Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe), the whistle blower of the mammoth tobacco company Brown & Williamson’s and Lowell Bergman, a senior producer on 60 Minutes (Al Pacino) is compelling to watch. It’s amazing how even just two people talking on the phone can be so riveting, but that’s the genius of Mann’s style. Lots of great supporting cast here too, most notably Christopher Plummer as the legendary CBS News reporter Mike Wallace, Bruce McGill as trial lawyer Ron Motley, and Michael Gambon as the top tobacco company exec.

Veronica Guerin (2003)

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Based on a true story, this is about the Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, a reporter for The Sunday Independent, who exposed some of Dublin’s most powerful crime barons and drug lords in 1996.

One of my all time favorite Cate Blanchett performances, where she totally disappeared into her role. Cate not only portrays the feisty reporter, she embodies the journalist’s incredible valor in investigating Dublin’s drug trafficking. You immediately believe her as the character and the Aussie thespian even nailed Guerin’s Irish accent convincingly. I know some of you might be put off by Joel Shumacher as director, but it’s a good film, so give it a shot if you haven’t already. It’s one of the great examples of the danger of investigative journalism and how some of them are truly unsung heroes for their bravery to expose things that are harmful to society.

 

BONUS PICK

Philomena (2013)

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A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

I already had the three above locked down but I still want to include this film as I haven’t reviewed it yet. I LOVE Dame Judi Dench and she’s simply phenomenal as Philomena (hey that rhymes :D) Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the script) played the disgraced former journalist Martin Sixsmith who ended up coming alongside Philomena Lee in her journey to find her long lost son. A lot of his acting consist of bewildered reaction to Philomena, especially the part where she basically divulges the entire plot of a trashy book she’s reading that he couldn’t possibly be more disinterested in. It’s a bittersweet story that made me laugh and cry. Dame Judi is mesmerizing here and she’s as effortlessly adept in comedy as she is in dramatic roles. I find the story to be poignant, thought-provoking, and profoundly moving.

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What do you think of my picks? Which movies involving journalism/reporting are your favorites?