Judi Dench

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot is back on the big screen with this newest version of one of one the greatest mystery novels of our time: Murder on the Orient Express, based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel of the same name. Directed and staring Kenneth Branagh as the world’s greatest detective, Poirot, the film is the fourth adaptation of Christie’s novel, following 1974 film, a 2001 TV film and a 2010 episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. What could have been just another remake ends up being a new and fresh adaptation of the old story, adding new themes and elements while staying with the core tone that makes this one of the greatest mysteries ever.

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Movie Issues: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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Movie Issues: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The sequel to the 2012 sleeper hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has arrived, once again directed by John Madden and written by Ol Parker. We travel back to India where we join our returning cast of British old timers seeking enlightenment in their golden years: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, and Dev Patel are joined by newcomers Richard Gere and David Strathairn. It’s more of the same heart and fun from the first movie, continuing with another journey with this great cast.

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I didn’t really know what to expect, walking into Nine. Well, I kind of knew what to expect from director Rob Marshall (Chicago), and I knew Nine was sexy and kind of based on someone’s mental state, so I probably expected a little Chicago magic again. For those confused by my review of 9, here I am speaking of the live-action musical and not the animated post-apocalyptic thing. Maybe the lead character’s state of mind is a little post-apolcalyptic, but I digress. Nine is set in Italy in 1965, that groovy frontier between girl group femininity and crazed hippie abandon.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a famous film director and walking id. Day-Lewis plays Guido with a cultured Italian accent, a good singing voice, and plenty of angst. He has made himself quite a career playing tortured men, and his customary level of actorly dedication therefore requires him to pretty much have a full-on nervous breakdown on screen. While this is not often the stuff of musical comedy, Nine isn’t either. Guido is difficult to like, which seems more like a failing of the original musical than of this production of it. Nine is not as good a show as Chicago and the filmgoing experience reflects it, but it definitely wrings all the best out of it that it can — and in gorgeous coastal Italy smothered in beautiful women.

Guido’s muses alternatively fuel him, torment him, love him, inspire him, arouse him, and nurture him, and in his mind, all exist only as fully as their usefulness to him extends. The women who surround Day-Lewis all turn in great performances, with some that took me by surprise. Who thought Kate Hudson could rock her Laugh-In genes on the only original song of the film? She doesn’t dance much (neither does anyone except Fergie) but she sells it. Marion Cotillard we already know can act and sing and she’s breathtaking here. Penelope Cruz, whom I usually really dislike, was awesome — though I hope her father never sees this film. Gentlemen, wear loose pants. Nicole Kidman doesn’t surprise us with what she does so much as remind us that she can still play a sexpot screen siren at 42 like nobody’s business. Fergie/Stacy Ferguson gets the big jaw-dropper number as far as I am concerned and tears up the screen even with a zillion backup girls in a long-ago but salient part of Guido’s psyche. Hers is the song you will be humming as you leave the theatre. And of course Judi Dench. As always, Dame Judi takes a little screen time and runs with it — her number is wonderful.

Marshall has always been marvelous at painting with bodies and light, and this film benefits from that touch immensely because of the abstraction of most of the songs. He uses static lighting like a stage production and as a result gets tons of gorgeous depth on screen. I would like to see this film in full Avatar 3-D to float in the spaces of light and dark and layers of people Marshall builds. Costumer Atwood proves she’s a force to be reckoned with but even her mastery cannot give Nicole Kidman boobs. Nine is about religion and morality and love and intimacy and inspiration and objectification and intimacy and superficiality and it’s a solidly-made film. It may not make you a fan of the show, but it should make you a fan of Rob Marshall.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 12/25/09

Time in minutes 118

Director Rob Marshall

Studio Weinstein Company

Quantum of Solace

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I did not look up director Marc Forster’s filmography until I had already written the below review, and now I am even more disappointed then I was previously. Before, this was a fun but forgettable romp over well-trod territory. Now it is a drastic divergence of quality from the man who brought you Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, and Stranger Than Fiction.

In this new era of a blonde and brooding Bond (while in keeping with the franchise’s tradition of terrible titles), 007 must compete with a cadre of solo badasses for whom he blazed a trail, and he’s got to stand out doing it. While Jason Bourne, Sydney Barstow, and Jack Bauer all owe their dangerous, isolating shadow careers to Her Majesty’s Secret Gigolo, they have taken the formula and run in exciting and contemporary directions with it. Bond had no choice but to drop the martini, throw off the cravat, and try and catch up. (Is this really the 22nd Bond movie?) Casino Royale (the first Daniel Craig-as-Bond movie) was to previous Bond films what Batman Begins was to that franchise: a dark, semi-realistic upgrade. Dark Knight was an improvement even on that, but sadly, Quantum of Solace does not follow suit to improve upon Casino Royale. It’s a pretty fun time, but it (like so many franchise movies seem to be these days) feels more like a generic movie with famous characters playing the leads instead of a new batch of names. (see: Narnia 2 and Star Trek 10, for starters.)

Quantum starts out with enjoyable old-school Bond nudie credits over the grating collusion of Jack White and Alicia Keys. Then the cameraman climbs into Daniel Craig’s pocket and shoots the rest of the movie from purse-dog perspective (only slight exaggeration here). This is sometimes excitingly alarming (jumping with the jumper through a stunt like that window dive in Bourne Ultimatum), but it’s also alarmingly jolting. Do you like being in the middle of some serious fisticuffs? Do you like the experience of being in more than one car crash? (OK, Paul Haggis we get it, you like car crashes!) Do you think elevators could do with some more grappling? If you’re a fan of excessive force (and what red-blooded American moviegoer is not?) you can ride the camera lens right into the baddie’s face.

Robot Chicken has a gag about one-sided fistfights, and their stop-motion hyperbole is not far from the mark here. We don’t really get a handle on (or care much about) how people are related to each other, or why much of anything is happening. We get a nice one-sided dogfight and some big explosions and a pretty, scarred girl and Judi Dench waffling pointlessly between indulgence and indignance. Craig is gruff, macho, inscrutable, and of course haunted, I guess. Olga Kurylenko (The Girl) is mysterious, inscrutable, and takes it in turns to be highly competent and rescue bait. Mathieu Almaric makes for an interesting and different villain, but his skills are not enough to focus the movie.

Quantum of Solace, despite its reported clock time of 106 minutes, is also quite long. The ladies’ costumes are weird, the premise is weirder, and it just kind of feels like a mess when all is said and done. It was a diverting mess, but what does it say when the further a Bond movie deviates from the classic Bond formula, the better it is? Overall I’d have liked the camera to feel just 3-5 feet further away and have some reason to care about anyone on screen. I know I’m greedy, but this isn’t July! It’s the fall when all the “good” movies come out.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/14/08
Time in minutes 105
Director Marc Forster
Studio MGM/Columbia

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Notes On A Scandal

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Narrated through the acidic yet poetic diary scratchings of Judi Dench’s character Barbara, Notes On A Scandal is a morbidly fascinating psychological thriller from a unique perspective. Barbara meets, writes about, and eventually obsesses over Sheba (Cate Blanchett) a new teacher at her school. Sheba has problems of her own, thought they were probably manageable to a degree before Barbara wormed her way into her life. While all the description and plot ostensibly centers around the titular scandal, the guts of the movie are concerned with the true nature of Barbara and the workings of her mind with regards to Sheba.

Both characters are blind to their own narcissim and their selfish forms of neediness – both characters are willfully blind to their counterpart’s true nature. Barbara is a fearsome frump, intense like Dench but simultaneously vulnerable like Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake. The fire inside Barbara flames hot and suddenly, without warning or rational rein. Sheba is a child princess, taken care of and a caretaker and weary of responsibility. She is finding her own feet and pulling away from her older husband (Bill Nighy). She is knocked from her pedestal by Steven (Andrew Simpson), a freckly, blank-eyed buck who reeks of danger and life.

Bill Nighy supports Sheba as her older husband, supporting her bohemian ways and their Down’s syndrome son and active teen daughter. He is a man who knows well the destructive allure of a younger lover, but has aged into a nobler bastion of fatherhood. Their family seems well-adjusted and comfortable, but somehow the confluence of Steven and Barbara in Sheba’s life collides in just the wrong way and at just the wrong moment. Seeing how completely ruled Sheba is by Steven is painful but truthful.

Barbara diaries constantly, pouring out everyone’s secrets and whitewashing her own. She reinvents the past even as she documents it. It is upsetting to think that people have the capacity to turn away from their own true natures and the near sociopathic way Barbara misinterprets any simple situation is enthralling and terrible. The

slow revelation of her mind as exposed through her writing is mesmerizing on its own, but Dench knocks it out of the park with her virtuoso face. I can only assume that Zoe Heller’s book from which Patrick Marber adapted this elegant script captures the same poetic poison.

Dench and Blanchett are wonders to behold, wielding their respective powers over each other and drawing near and far, sparking flames between themselves. It’s a buffet of acting you have to see to believe. Notes on a Scandal explores attraction, intimacy, obsession, and dark levels of interpersonal dynamics in a very vibrant and immediate way. It’s a powerhouse bit of acting and an intense but rewarding drama.

MPAA Rating  R-language and some aberrant sexual content.
Release date 112/27/06
Time in minutes unknown
Director Richard Eyre
Studio Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Queen

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When Princess Diana met her untimely death in Paris in 1997, having divorced the Prince and living a new life with Dodi Fayed, the Royal Family was curiously silent. While Britain and the world mourned openly a woman they had come to embrace even more passionately than the Royals, her surviving former in-laws holed up in Scotland, scandalizing their subjects.

This film dares to try and reach inside the head and heart of Queen Elizabeth II (notably never mentioned by name) during this time. It was a time when her “different than us” qualities could have been broken down to reveal a relatable human woman within, but her response cemented the gap between the monarchy and the people it has represented for centuries.

Dame Helen Mirren is a fantastic choice to play this woman, a queen so unknowable and so removed. Mirren is a fiery, passionate actress, one with a young figure and a younger soul (though well-tempered with gravitas), and a queen herself in the cinema firmament. One would first think of a more chilly portrayal, like one that could have come from Judi Dench or even Maggie Smith (Dames themselves). It’s a tough job to dowdy up this sexy actress, but costumer Consolata Boyle (check out her filmography!) captured the public essence of QEII and bundled Mirren’s fit spryness into a regimented, waddling ruler.

Mirren’s native passion is bottled up into a delicious sort of mortification over the response her subjects (as sniffed, “the people,”) and new Prime Minister Tony Blair demand of her. She seems to radiate power, authority, a sureness of her place in the world that is felt by few in it. In day to day life, the Queen is handled with almost antiquated care: the rituals involved with being in The Presence, the number of handlers she has for what is essentially an idle, figurehead life of dictated condolence letters and advising her Prime Minister. Her existence is so removed from the reality of the world around her, the world who embraced Diana even as she was repelled by her, and Mirren shows us her sense of entitlement and power while never making her appear spoiled or imperious.

I have to admit here that while I was saddened by Diana’s death, I wasn’t one of the keening, devastated masses in protracted mourning as so many understandably were (I’m talking to you, SL-P!). This is not a judgement, just context for my next remark: I was pretty much bawling through a good two-thirds of this movie, both in empathetic response to the national outpouring and in particular over Prince Charles’ (Alex Jennings) reactions to the event.

It was a provocative choice to have no one refer to the Royal Family by their actual names; they were only The Queen or The Prince of Wales, even at home. It further dehumanized them to the outside world, even as the movie imagines what was happening inside Balmoral Castle. To have the Royals sniping cattily about the deceased, misguidedly distract the bereaved children, and to insist that their mourning was genuine, but private, was gripping. It was a fictional account of moments we the public will never be privy to, but an effective and affecting portrayal of an intimate yet remote bubble during that sad time.

Elizabeth’s capitulation (a matter of public record) toward the end of the film is charged with resentment and a gnawing, possibly insecure realization of how her role has changed in the hearts of the people. She is human after all. It’s a fantastic, iconic performance.

MPAA Rating Miramax
Release date 9/30/06
Time in minutes 103
Director Stephen Frears
Studio Miramax

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Pride and Prejudice (2005)

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I was so revolted by the heinous Hollywood marketing of Jane Austen’s classic (“Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the one person you can’t be without” – I mean come on!) that I was tempted to skip it. The previews made Keira Knightly look as if she were traipsing down the Winona Ryder path of a modern woman too modern to make the classics breathe. Boy, am I glad I was wrong! There were men in the audiences as fully caught up in the story, laughing and applauding and essentially “Oh no he didn’t!” -ing their way throughout the film. The audience clapped at the end! Clapped at a mall multiplex showing of a film adaptation of a book published in 1813 about a woman and her humiliating family finding a man willing to marry her for love. (If Bridget Jones and the 1995 BBC version didn’t give it away already, I can’t protect you from spoilers.)

The movie was tightly scripted – no 6 hour BBC masterwork but a true feast of the essence of the book and all its characters, without leaving anything out (a miracle) and with “new” dialogue that sounded perfectly suited. It was incredible to watch something so familiar reinvented in such a way that it was so accessible to “mainstream audiences” while still remaining true to the source material; a triumph for screen writer Deborah Moggach, whose writing credits are largely TV miniseries.

What seemed like odd casting of Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet becomes evident as to its purpose when he steals the ending right out from under our leads. I have read this and other takes on it a dozen times, seen other film versions almost as many times, and I bawled my eyes out at the end. I wasn’t alone, either. Now THAT is what movies are about. And of course Judi Dench as an indignant tyrant, well, how can you go wrong there? I have to admit, I never really warmed up to Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy, but it is not due to his performance – he delivers every line, both the cold and the vulnerable, with supreme perfection. And it is important, as her family realizes, that he is perfect for Lizzie; we can wonder all we like from the outside. The rest of the enormous cast is delicious (Brenda Blethyn!) and just right. If only that horrid ad campaign weren’t making it look like an insipid, horrible waste of time.

Director Joe Wright makes Austen’s country gentry more rustic and less buttoned up and fancy than other Austen adaptations (this is not a polemic against such things) and as a result, everyone feels a little more modern without acting as much. A crowd scene looked more like the extras tent for Les Miserables than a fancy ball, and people looked like they were really having fun, really meeting the potential mates of their life, and not just posing prettily listening to Chopin studies and writing florid letters about nothing. It makes this 200 years-distant world feel much more real. We can forget the Regency rules we aren’t familiar with about who can speak to or write letters to whom, how family connexions are vitally important to all business affairs, and just enjoy the agonizing course of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as they insult each other into love.

It’s good stuff, something even the boys can enjoy. If you’re gonna get your man to a Jane Austen movie, this is the safest bet yet. Austen fans, it won’t disappoint.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 11/11/05
Time in minutes 127
Director Joe Wright
Studio Focus Features

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I walked into Hitch assuming it would be a Will Smith mug-fest, his character being portrayed as cooler than cool and only flummoxed by another generic Hollywood beauty. (And still I went.) Instead, I found the character of Hitch to be a surprisingly witty and charming, ethical and professional guy, and the film of Hitch to be endearing and charming. Hitch himself is humble, cool, funny, and (except for his insanely groovy apartment and unlimited resources) totally accessible.

It was especially cute and refreshing to show the expository parade of men who were genuinely smitten with their ladies, and vulnerable; in only a few minutes, you empathize with and root for them. They show up, now and again, throughout the rest of the movie too, investments that pay off. Wisely, the filmmakers strayed clear of any “get laid in 3 easy steps” stink, which cynically would be expected of such a film. Not a puerile drop in the bucket.

Hitch’s love interest is a sassy, relationship-wary, self-assured career gal, outspoken and brassy without quite treading into rude. My male companion hated her almost instantly. When I asked him why, he said she was too cynical, and assumes the worst of men. No female in modern America can’t relate to the walls this attractive woman has erected to keep herself from being hurt, so it surprised me that such a universal feeling (though expressed more directly by Eva Mendes) would read to a male as repellent. Guys, if you don’t like it, don’t make us that way by being jerks. Will Smith didn’t seem repelled, and his mistakes pile up. (Many of his errors would be very forgivable to any reasonable person, so I was unsure what all the fuss was about, but he played it all very charmingly.) The lessons he learns from these mistakes are invaluable and I hope the men of the world take heed. (My male companion excepted; he’s pretty evolved.)

This is not at all what I left Hitch thinking about. Kevin James, as the main focis of Hitch’s latest gig, steals the movie out from under Will Smith like Judi Dench in a cheerleader comedy. His character is a sweet, shy, endearing fellow, with an impossible crush/love – you don’t really care if it’s true love or just a crush, he believes it is love, and so we believe. He’s absolutely the heart and soul of the film – the character we most care about and relate to. His anxieties and failures, his triumphs and how he interacts with Hitch are all just superb. James’ whole journey through this film is adorable and nail-bitingly tense. Will Smith may be on the poster, and he may be the catalyst, but Kevin James is the star of this movie.

Everyone in the film has great chemistry, whether friends or love interests, and that sparks makes the whole engine hum. It’s a winner.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 2/11/05
Time in minutes 115
Director Andy Tennant
Studio Columbia Pictures

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The Hours

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They say this book was extremely difficult to film. The novel is as famous as L.A. Confidential in its complex unfilmability, mapping the internal landscapes of three women bound unknowingly across time. I submit to you that this film is possibly equally difficult to review. I was fortunate enough to see this film with two ladies who had not only read Michael Cunningham’s novel but also Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the novel that informs The Hours. They were able to fill me in on key elements that were, for me, missing in the film and crucial to its total understanding. It should also be said that, even left to David Hare’s own narrative devices, director Stephen Daldry still manages to hook me and keep me involved, even when I was totally lost. That is an impressive task.

The film primarily takes place in Britain in 1923, Los Angeles in 1951, and New York in 2001, with bookends of 1941 Sussex. Got that? That’s the easy part. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is writing Mrs. Dalloway in 1923, and suffering from an unspecified illness (it’s all in the book, you literate fans, this is a critique of the film adaptation only). Meanwhile, in 1951, Juliann Moore as sad housewife Laura Brown is reading Mrs. Dalloway. Her child conveys a sense of urgency about her situation that the narrative itself does not provide. A side note: Toni Collette has a scene in Laura’s kitchen which is brief but as salient as Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning 8 minutes in Shakespeare in Love. Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is sort of living an inside out Mrs. Dalloway life in New York in 2001, including caring for her spectacularly ill friend, Richard (Ed Harris).

My Hours fans were exceedingly pleased and gratified by the success of Hare’s screenplay in capturing what is truly an invisible thread of truth running deep inside this triad of lives. As one who had not read the novel, the parallels pulled me and held me like a web. I felt them and relied on them when some of the novel’s subtext was flying over my unread head.

Much has been said about the performances of these powerhouse actresses, who exude tremendous ensemble while never sharing a second of screen time. I agree with all the raves, all the lauding and fawning and everything for these ladies. Even Meryl Streep joked at the Golden Globes about her 483 nomination ensuring no win, but it cannot be overstated that she is one of the strongest performers to come from the 20th century. Julianne Moore (despite Lost World) is also a radiant workhorse of an actress, making everything look easy but hooking us despite ourselves. Kidman has always fluctuated but comes in strong behind her much-touted prosthetic.

Kidman’s skin is so ethereally luminous, that no matter how good the schnoz is, her skin glows in a way no latex can reproduce.

However, for such a film, high caliber actresses are key. Let us not forget Ed Harris or Jeff Daniels or John C. “Soon To Be A Household Name” Reilly! In New York, Harris is a dying poet and Daniels is his ex. Harris does not disappoint; in the showier role, the deathly makeup, he is hard core. But dear, under-appreciated Jeff “Dumb & Dumber” Daniels plays in a scene where I am totally riveted, totally open in my heart to feel this performance. What made it so marked was that this scene felt (to me) the most like tons and tons of information had been omitted, and only those who had read it could even fathom what he and Streep are talking about; but Daniels made me care, made be believe, as much as if I had been in the know. That is a performance of note, Dear Readers.

The themes are there for you to discover – even without the book’s help you will feel the sacrifices and noisy distractions these women fill their emptiness with (with varying results), all at the altar of men’s needs, and not even a woman’s love can fill the void. It’s beautiful, and it made me want to read the book(s); but if it had not been for my companions, I would have been deeply lost. Beautifully shot, with an unobtrusive score by Philip Glass of all people, you sense the film deserves your love and you want to find out more about it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/27/02 (NY/LA)
Time in minutes 114
Director Stephen Daldry
Studio Paramount & Miramax

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Die Another Day

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By recent James Bond movie standards, i.e. the past 20 years, this installment rates a 7 or 8 out of 10. However, by regular movie standards, it still only rates a 4, which says more about the degradation of the Bond franchise than much else. I am thereby granting a rating of Rental + Snacks as the average between the two. Most Bond fans know where to set the baseline for their expectations.

One thing I do respect about Bond movies is their adherence to tradition; recent ones try to stick to the old formula but still keep the action up to modern expectations (and the new safe sex Puritanism). These traditions are as follows: Cutting edge pop title song with undulating chicks. Check, though the flame chicks look disturbingly like zombie corpse women. Hot cars, hot ladies, a tux, a nice watch, a killer gizmo, a martini, some boinky, a gun in a thigh holster, and the tagline “Bond. James Bond.” He did not say “shaken not stirred,” causing rumbling in the tectonic plates.

Like writing a pulp romance, the screenwriters are by necessity and tradition partially restrained by the expectations of convention. The ending of the Cold War and Sexual Revolution did a lot of damage to Bond’s swagger. After stuffing all the “have to haves” into the script, the rest is just showy set pieces and far too many plots. And as my companion agonized, watching Judi Dench “slumming for queen and country,” just makes it all the more painful. With what appears to be one of the two main plots being lifted straight from a Simpsons episode (2F16 if you must know) and a character whose face recalls 4F18’s Mr. Sparkle, it doesn’t seem as if the spy genre can sustain itself any further. Bond must not only work out a complex North/South Korean political snafu, isolate some dirty diamonds, shut down a genetic lab that is somehow bad, uncover a mole, get revenge on his betrayer, and shut down two concurrent supervillain plots, but also bag babes and look good in a tux and Aston Martin? Come on!

While some of 007’s sequences in this film make the average action movie look like a documentary, some are still pretty cool. None are altogether feasible, but I maintain that we don’t go to the moves to see feasible. My rocket scientist companion, commenting on the physics of the various sequences, wished to be quoted as saying, “No. Just no.” Our favorite ladies’ man suffers indignities and deprivations unheard of in recent scripts, and then we get a fun barrage of Classic Bond in-jokes, as if they were wrapping up the series. This would be OK, a good place to stop. Poor Ian Fleming has probably spun himself into dust by now.

Pierce Brosnan was genetically engineered to play 007 – steely blue eyes, smooth shave, perfect hair, and even men find him attractive. He’s stretched a little thin, but at least Brosnan looks like he believes in what he is doing. Since he’s been licensed to kill, the scripts have not given him the room to play and banter like he got to in his Remington Steele days. He’s devolved into reactionary bang bang, land the girl and get on with the explosions. The dialogue (including his “that actually worked??” pick up lines) is more punny and painful than I recall – tons of agonizing one-liners. Sure, every Bond movie has a little limp repartee but this was ridiculous. Bond is British, he’s got more wit than that. Brit wit writ by Yank wank stank.

Close your ears to any dialogue accompanied by an arched eyebrow and think of Iceland as exempt from NATO laws of physics, and you should have an OK time. Damn, that movie was expensive.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/22/02
Time in minutes 132
Director Lee Tamahori
Studio MGM