REVIEW: “Spectre”

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In a way I owe Daniel Craig a debt of gratitude. His tenure as James Bond is what lured me into the hugely popular franchise. Purists will likely scoff, but Craig’s iteration of the British super spy has featured less cheese and more humanity and vulnerability. An argument could be made that the high-energy cheese is what made those earlier films great. I believe that to a degree. But ultimately it has been Craig’s Bond run than has drawn me and given me an greater appreciation for the franchise as a whole.

This is Craig’s fourth turn as the dapper 007 and his second Bond film with director Sam Mendes. Their previous installment “Skyfall” was a global juggernaut at the box office becoming the 14th film to earn over $1 billion dollars. It was also well received by critics many of whom called it Craig’s best Bond picture. So now comes the next film and the unenviable task of matching the success of its predecessor. To do that the film was given a budget that has made it one of the most expensive movies ever created. But throwing money at a project doesn’t automatically equal good results.

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“Spectre” starts off firing with Bond in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. He’s on a deeply personal mission which leads him to a terrorist named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). Sciarra is connected to a sinister secret criminal organization called Spectre which is led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). At the same time M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling to protect MI6 from the aggressive head of the Joint Intelligence Service who wants to do away with the 00 program.

Bond tracks Spectre to Rome, the first leg of his globetrotting search for answers. He discovers that he may have a deeper connection to Ernst and his organization. As 007 hunts to unearth the truth, Spectre is out to stop him at all costs. They go head-to-head in a number of exotic locales including Rome, Morocco, Austria, and London. One of the film’s strong points is how well it captures all of the fun and varied locations.

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In fact all of “Spectre” looks good. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography lives up to the franchise expectations and at times it absolutely shines. The Mexico City opening is exciting and energetic featuring several visual highlights. The same goes for a fun car chase through the streets of Rome and a thrilling plane vs. Land Rover chase down a snowy Austrian mountain. The film definitely has its moments.

Unfortunately “Spectre” also has its flaws and no amount of visual splendor can cover them up. While I liked “Spectre” as a whole, I was expecting more action, more energy, more drama, more character development, and more signature Bond moments. Compared to Craig’s three previous Bond movies “Spectre” feels hollow, inert, and terribly inconsistent. After the phenomenal Mexico City start, the movie is constantly fluctuating between excitement and slow stretches of vapidity.

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You simply don’t expect this considering how well these movies have worked in the past. But as I sat in the theater I kept waiting for the film to gain its footing. I kept waiting for it to kick into gear. But there is a frustrating sluggishness to the screenplay – the collaborative work of four different writers. It wastes so much time that could’ve been better spent developing some of the characters namely the story’s villain.

Christoph Waltz is a superb actor but the amount of screen time he is given never allows him to flesh out a compelling villain. His villainy is mainly referred to more than shown and we never see that big Bond vs. Villain moment. The closest we get is an absurd torture scene that features one head scratching moment after another. I was so excited to see him as a Bond villain but this was a tremendous waste. As was Dave Bautista as Spectre’s hitman. He’s a stereotypical henchman who shows as much emotion as a house plant.

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Craig gives another good performance but he isn’t offered any material to stretch his character. All of the supporting Bond cast members are here including Q (Ben Whishaw) who gets more screen time than before. He’s a lot of fun. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) has a few good lines and Fiennes is good when wrangling back and forth for the 00 program’s survival. Unfortunately both feel underused. Lea Seydoux is the main ‘Bond girl’ this time around and her performance is solid. But her character is a bit flimsy and uneven.

That could be the best way to describe “Spectre” – uneven. It’s a film undoubtedly approached with mile-high expectations from many. Perhaps too high. But truthfully expectations aren’t the problem. This is a film that features some fine action sequences. It has a good story at its core and there are moments where it comes together in really interesting ways. But there are also moments where it makes practically no sense and other moments where it sputters and spins its wheels. Still I liked the movie and I’m anxious to give it another look, but with this cast and this pedigree I can’t help but be disappointed with what we get.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

2015 Blind Spot Series: â€œGoldfinger”

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I could probably fill half of my Blind Spot series lineup with James Bond films. I’ve just never been what you would call a big 007 fan. That said I do love the Craig films and a couple of Brosnan’s, but I’ve never felt compelled to give the older Bond films much of a chance. In an effort to do that I thought “Goldfinger” would be a good place to start. In fairness I have seen much of the film but never all of it and (obviously) never in one sitting. Yet I have heard so many good things about it especially from Bond aficionados who know and love the franchise a lot more than I do.

“Goldfinger” is the third film in the Bond series and the third of Sean Connery’s six Bond films. Watching Connery work it is easy to understand why many consider him to be the best Bond. “Goldfinger” is also recognized for its many firsts. It was the first 007 film categorized as a blockbuster. It’s budget equaled the previous two films combined and the movie’s promotion heralded it as a big box office draw. “Goldfinger” was also the film that made the extensive use of gadgets a fixture. It was also the first James Bond film to win an Academy Award and it was well received by both critics and audiences. The film would also influence the series in many other areas such as the title credits sequence and overall production quality. In many ways “Goldfinger” changed the standard of what a Bond film was to be.

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The story finds Bond lounging it up at a fancy Miami Beach resort, but soon he finds the true reason he was sent there and it wasn’t for vacation. At the same resort is Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), an obsessed gold smuggler. 007 is tasked with observing Goldfinger and finding out how his smuggling operation works. Bond’s mission takes him London, Switzerland, and bluegrass Kentucky. At each stop he finds himself getting a little too close to his objective and Goldfinger always seems one step ahead of him. But as 007 begins to piece together the inner workings of Goldfinger’s operation, he discovers a much bigger and more sinister plot.

Half of the fun in watching “Goldfinger” involves the characters Bond meets along the way. First there is Goldfinger himself. At first I wasn’t totally convinced in Fröbe’s portrayal but director Guy Hamilton never uses Fröbe beyond the actor’s capabilities. The big surprise was learning that the voice of Fröbe, who spoke practically no English, was dubbed. It’s a clever trick that is brilliantly pulled off. There is also Oddjob (Harold Sakata), Goldfinger’s enforcer and right-hand man. He’s a stout strong arm known for is lethal bowler hat. Silly and preposterous for sure, but he is also entertaining and a lot of fun.

Then of course there are the Bond girls. The stunningly beautiful Shirley Eaton meets Bond in Miami and gives us one of cinema’s most iconic images. Tania Mallett comes along next and aside from her shaky acting, she is a mysterious character that did little to serve the plot. But then you have Honor Blackman as the cool, confident, beautiful, and provocatively named Pussy Galore. Easily one of the most famous Bond girls, Galore had a tougher side which made her a lot more than the typical eye candy. For the rest of her career Blackman would always find herself connected to this classic character.

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“Goldfinger” is absurd and it times in sanely over-the-top. But at the same time it never falls into the cheesy category that some of the later Bond films would. I never had a problem just going along with the craziness of the plot or the way things unfold. There’s a fine line there and “Goldfinger” navigates it beautifully. That’s not to say there weren’t moments where the story pushes believability too far, but that’s forgivable when you’re being so entertained. The film doesn’t allow you to concentrate on its absurdity. The pacing is so crisp and the direction so calculated. It’s also a beautiful film to look at. Some of the locales are breathtaking and the film utilizes them well. But I was even more impressed with some of the clever camera techniques that truly made the film feel spectacular.

In a nutshell “Goldfinger” is a really good movie and I can understand why Bond fans hold it in such high regard. For those who are not fans of the suave secret agent, well this is unquestionably a Bond film so take that as you will. But consider this, as a lukewarm fan of the franchise, I had a blast. Connery is superb, the action is well done, and the story is good crazy fun. The film was surrounded by lawsuits both prior to and during development so it’s a surprise it got off the ground. Thankfully it did and in doing so it gave audiences a classic 007 movie. Without a doubt this is Bond done right.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Car Crashes

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Yet another “Fast and Furious” movie hits the big screen this week. I’ve always been indifferent to this franchise, at least until the last movie “Fast Five”. It got away from the illegal street car scene and gave us a more appealing full-blown action picture. It’s a franchise known for the crazy things it does with its cars. So in light of that I thought I would focus this week’s Phenomenal 5 on some of the biggest car crashes in the movies. Now obviously filmmakers have loved to do all sorts of damage to cars, trucks, semis, etc. so there’s no way I could call this the definitive list. But in the cinematic world of vehicular destruction these five movie car crashes stand out as phenomenal.

#5 – “CASINO ROYALE

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I cry just looking at this…

In 2006 Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” turned me into a James Bond fan. There is so much I love about this movie – the fresh cast, the new grittier and realistic feel. But there’s also a lot of 007 traditionalism which I love. One of those things is Bond’s love for sweet cars which leads to its inclusion on this list. Why Bond thought he could have a nice, romantic dinner with his girl Vesper is beyond me. She ends up being kidnapped by the deliciously evil Mads Mikkelsen. Bond hops into his gorgeous Aston Martin and pursues. Flying through the darkness at high speeds, Bond doesn’t notice Vesper’s tied up in the middle of the road until the last second. He makes a sharp turn, loses control of his car, and it flips and flips and flips. This may not be the most eye-catching movie crash scene, but it brings tears to my eyes every time I see that beautiful car being destroyed. *sniff, sniff*

#4 – “THE MATRIX RELOADED”

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The first of MANY flying cars…

The Wachowski’s caught the attention of a lot of people in 1999 with their science-fiction mindbender “The Matrix”. It was followed by the 2003 sequel “The Matrix Reloaded”, a film best described as three insanely good action scenes threaded together by loads of boring, coma-inducing blabber. One of the great action scenes features a frenetic freeway chase where a horde of agents pursue Trinity, Morpheus, and the key maker. This long, mind-blowing sequence features cars, motorcycles, SUVs, and semis, all being blown up, flipped, and rolled in ways you would never imagine. It may be a bit of a cheat to include this entire sequence, but there’s just too many phenomenal car crashes within it to single out just one.

#3 – “THE ROAD WARRIOR”

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Soooo many pieces….

The second installment of the Mad Max series was “The Road Warrior” and it’s still my favorite. This Australian post-apocalyptic action series put Mel Gibson on the map and featured some insane vehicular mayhem. The self-serving Max redeems himself by taking a band of murderous marauders on a merry chase along the barren wasteland. Along the way cars flip, roll, and explode but there’s one particular crash that’s especially vicious. At the end of this great chase Max finds his tanker truck steaming towards a head-on collision with the evil Humongous. Lord H has no chance whatsoever and when his tricked out metal machine meets the huge plow blade on Max’s truck at a ridiculously high speed, well let’s just say you could sweep up what’s left of him and his ride with a broom and dustpan.

#2 – “PLAYTIME”

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You can just see it coming…

There have been a wide variety of car crashes over the years but none have made me laugh as hard as the huge pileup in Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” from 1967. This was Tati’s final film featuring his beloved Mr. Hulot character and probably the director’s most ambitious. Nestled within this unusual film is a hilarious car wreck which all starts with a little yellow sports car speeding through an intersection. This sets off a chain reaction of funky little cars bumping into each other, sliding across the pavement, and spinning in circles. The following scene of everyone getting out and simultaneously stretching their stiff limbs is a great topper. It’s hard to describe this so that it sounds as funny as it is. Just look it up on YouTube. It’s well worth a watch.

#1 – “THE BLUES BROTHERS”

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The mother of all car crashes…

When I thought of doing this list the insanely over-the-top cop car pileup in the 1980 musical comedy “The Blues Brothers” was the first to come to mind. Aykroyd and Belushi drive their ragged ride to the “honorable” Richard J. Daley Center but not before leading a ton of Chicago’s finest on a high speed chase through the city streets. Through tunnels, under bridges, and hitting speeds of 120 mph, the chase tears through the town. That is until a quick left turn leaves a police car pileup unlike anything you’ve seen. Totally nuts but loads of fun. The Blues Brothers is remembered for a lot of things – the hilarious script, the great songs. But I’ll never be able to think of this film and not recall this phenomenal scene! If you haven’t seen it, hop to it.

So there are my five phenomenal movie car crashes. With so many great ones to choose from, I can’t wait to see your favorites. Please take time to comment and share your picks!

TOP 5 LEADING ACTOR PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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Today I wrap up my look back at the best acting from the 2012 movie year. We’ve looked at the supporting categories and the lead actress category. Now it’s time to look at the lead actors. Just like every other field this year, the lead actor category is loaded with great performances and with deserving actors who blew me away. It was crushing to leave some names off but I think this list sums up the category perfectly. There is a huge range of performances here covering everything from small budget independent films to monster sized blockbusters. But the one constant are the performances and these guys were great. So here are the Top 5 Leading Actor Performances from 2012 (according to me)…

#5 – JACK BLACK – (“Bernie”)

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I just can’t believe I’m actually putting Jack Black on my list of top lead actor performances. Let me say for the 100th time – I’m no Jack Black fan. But I’ve got to admit that his performance as the eccentric Bernie Tiede deserves to be on this list. Black’s loud, in-your-face brand of stupid comedy just doesn’t work for me but here he really dials it back a bit. A lot of it is due to writer and director Richard Linklater but I have to giver Black a lot of credit. I loved this performance in “Bernie” and it’s a big step in the right direction for Black.

#4 – DANIEL CRAIG – (“Skyfall”)

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Daniel Craig won’t make any critics lists and you won’t see his name down as a Golden Globe or Academy Award nominee. That’s a shame because he should be. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his run as James Bond and his work in “Skyfall” is his best yet. Craig has all the characteristics of Bond – suave, hunky, and tough. But he tones down the cheese and brings a much more grounded and flawed character to the screen. But make no mistake, he still kicks a ton of butt. Craig packages all of this up with his “Skyfall” performance and he deserves to be mentioned with the best of the year.

#3 – JOAQUIN PHOENIX – (“THE MASTER”)

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Regardless of my mixed feelings on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master“, I had no mixed feelings about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic World War 2 veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Anderson’s script takes Freddie down several dark holes, and even though they don’t always translate well on screen, Phoenix is riveting as this deeply damaged character. All of his past recent off screen antics can sometime cloud the fact that he is a brilliant actor. He reminds of that in “The Master“.

#2 – HUGH JACKMAN – (“Les Miserables”)

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I have to admit, I’ll never look at Wolverine the same way. Hugh Jackman starring in a musical may surprise some people but the actor has a history on stage. In Tom Hooper’s ambitious film version of the “Les Miserables” musical, Jackman takes the lead role and knocks it out of the park. Some have questioned his singing. It didn’t bother me a bit. But it wasn’t just his singing that made this performance so strong. Jackman invests everything, both physically and emotionally, into the part and that sold me more than anything else. He’s great in this film and he deserves the praise he’s getting.

#1 – DANIEL DAY-LEWIS – (“Lincoln”)

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I know it’s the popular pick and I know that Daniel Day-Lewis is the front runnuer for the Best Actor Oscar. Good! He should be! Sometimes people just get it right. How could I not go with Day-Lewis in what was the most towering and immersive performance of 2012. Nobody throws every part of themself into a role like Day-Lewis. In “Lincoln” he manages to take an incredibly well known historical figure and give us something we have never seen before. His looks, his voice, his expressions – everything is unique. Day-Lewis is the best and this is yet another brilliant performance to add to his resume. If he doesn’t get the Best Actor Oscar they shouldn’t have the award.

So that wraps up my humble opinion of the four major acting categories for the 2012 movie year. It was a year that reminded us of the wealth of talent both old and new in the movies today. Here’s hoping we have just as much to talk about at the end of 2013.

THE THROWDOWN – Sean Connery vs. Daniel Craig

The Throwdown

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

With November’s release of “Skyfall”, the 23rd installment of the James Bond franchise, I thought it would be good to do a 007 Throwdown. Since the 007 franchise spans so many years, there have been an interesting array of actors who have taken on the role of James Bond. I decided to make this the old versus the new. Sean Connery versus Daniel Craig. Both actors have cemented themselves into Bond lore and rightfully so. But this is all about who is the best. As always you decide with your votes. Who is the best James Bond? Is it Sean Connery? Is it Daniel Craig? Is it Connery’s suave and slick old-school charm or is it Daniel Craig’s tough and gritty new era Bond? Vote now!

Sean Connery VS. Daniel Craig

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Daniel Craig ushered in a new moodier and edgier era of James Bond and I have loved it. Craig has the style to sell the ladies man superspy angle that the series is known for. But he also brings a toughness and physicality to the role that gives the character an entirely fresh and new feel. This was never more evident than in the first sequence of Craig’s first Bond movie “Casino Royale “. What an introduction to today’s Bond. While many have had issues with his second 007 picture “Quantum of Solace”, I found it thoroughly entertaining even with its flaws. But he was back in top form with this year’s “Skyfall”, a brilliantly crafted spy thriller that mixed traditional Bond with the Craig interpretation. I’m all onboard with Craig in this role and I hope he continues for as long as he fits the part.

Sean Connery could be considered the Godfather of the James Bond series. He helped launch this wildly popular franchise in 1962 with “Dr. No”. He would go on to make six 007 pictures between the years of 1962 and 1971. He would even return for one more stint in 1983. There were a lot of doubts when they cast Connery but they proved off base. He was fabulous as Bond and the role catapulted him into stardom. He brought a suave and sexy sophistication to the role but he could be a tough cookie as well. More importantly, Sean Connery was instrumental in launching and making this adored James Bond franchise into the huge success that it is today.

So, the ball is now in your court. Who is the better Bond? Is it the classic Sean Connery or the new kid on the block, Daniel Craig. There will only be one winner and you decide who it is. Vote now!

“SKYFALL” – 4.5 STARS

Skyfall” may be the best James Bond movie ever. Better yet, Daniel Craig may be the best James Bond ever. Now before the Bond diehards come at me with torches and pitchforks let me make something abundantly clear. I am not the biggest Bond guy. I haven’t seen even half of the Bond movies. So I certainly don’t consider myself a Bond expert. In fact I may not even qualify as a true Bond fan by some. I’m not well versed on Bond lore, the Bond girls, or the history that has surrounded this universally loved character for the last 50 years. So I don’t live under the false assumption that I’m an expert when it comes to the James Bond franchise. But I like to think that I know a good movie when I see one and “Skyfall” is a very good movie.

My Bond apathy changed in 2006 with the release of “Casino Royal”. It introduced a grittier, more grounded Bond in the form of Daniel Craig. He wasn’t as prim and polished and a sense of reality was brought to the character that I had never seen before. It was also a fantastic movie that I thoroughly enjoy. The Bond appeal grew for me in 2008 with the lesser but equally entertaining “Quantum of Solace”. And now he’s back with “Skyfall”, a 007 film that’s every bit as good as “Casino Royale” and for my money even a bit better. Sam Mendes directs the film, the 23rd installment of the franchise. Mendes tips his hat to several of the previous 007 films and has fun with many things that Bond fans should love. But he also maintains the emotional edge to Bond that has made Daniel Craig’s run so effective for me.

The film starts with a jaw-dropping opening chase sequence that uses cars, motorcycles, trains, and cranes. It moves through market streets, on rooftops, through tunnels, and finally on a huge bridge where Bond is inadvertently shot off of a speeding train by a fellow agent at M’s command. Believed dead, Bond goes off the grid and submerges himself in a life of anonymity and alcohol. Now the movie never gives a satisfying reason as to why Bond became a closed off boozer. We get a few hints of it later but it seemed pretty drastic and off-the-wall. But we wouldn’t have a Bond movie if 007 wasn’t spoiling evil plots with his well-pressed suits and assorted gadgetry. He makes his return after MI6 is devastated by terrorist attack with M seeming to be the main target. Judi Dench returns to the role that she first played in 1995’s “GoldenEye”. This time she’s not only a terrorist’s target but she’s facing heavy political pressure concerning her handling of MI6. As with each of her other performances in the series, Dench is marvelous and here we get to see a different side of her and her relationship to 007.

The big baddie this time is none other than Javier Bardem. He plays Raoul Silva, a psycho former MI6 agent with a rather large grudge against M. Bardem is deliciously villainous and once he makes his appearance the movie’s intensity amps up. Unfortunately he doesn’t show up until well into the film. Now that’s not a knock on the first part of the movie. But I wanted more of Bardem and I couldn’t help but feel that they could have built up the character and his motivations more in the early parts of the movie. Some of the movie’s best moments feature Bardem. There is a tense first meeting between Bond and Silva that you can’t take your eyes off of. There’s also a fantastic “Silence of the Lambs” styled exchange between Silva and M that sets the table for what’s to come later in the movie. It’s one of my favorite exchanges in cinema this year.

Another new addition to the cast is Ralph Fiennes. He places an ex-military man and current government intelligence official who regulates MI6. Fiennes is rock solid, as you would expect. Albert Finney also has a fun role as an old family friend of Bond’s and Ben Whishaw steals several scenes as Q, the gadget granting quartermaster. All the performances are good and this is probably the best overall cast in a Bond movie yet. They are helped by a crisp, intelligent, and perfectly paced script that pulls absolutely everything out of these characters. And the screenplay knows how to be respectful of the franchise while also having fun with it as well. There are several good laughs but for the most part this is the same serious, no-nonsense Bond that we got in the last two films and I’m thankful for that.

There are several other things that worked incredibly well that I could mention, most notably Roger Deakins brilliant camera work, the wonderful editing by Stuart and Kate Baird, and Thomas Newman’s perfect score. But not everything worked that well. The Bond girls have become almost as popular as 007 himself. But with the exception of the unconventional M, these Bond girls are bland and for the most part forgettable. Now Naomie Harris is fine as a fellow MI6 field agent who holds her own with 007. She has some really good scenes when working in the field, but she also has a couple of almost obligatory flirt scenes with Bond that didn’t work as well for me. Then you have BĂ©rĂ©nice Marlohe who certainly looks the part but disappears almost as soon as she arrives. Also, I know Bond is a ladies man. But there are a couple of scenes featuring out-of-the-blue “romance” that are thrown in just because its expected from the character. Never mind that they clash with the tone and pacing of the story. Both are scenes that were poorly conceived and I could have done without them.

While these few flaws may keep “Skyfall” from being a perfect movie, they don’t stop it from being great movie. More importantly, the Daniel Craig era of 007 movies has won me over to the point that I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment. There has been a lot of internet buzz lately over who may be the next 007. But for my money Craig has earned the position for as long as he’s willing to take it. And as long as the studio is willing to surround him with a fine supporting cast, intelligent writers, and sharp directors, the possibilities are endless for this iconic character. One thing is for certain, I’m now officially a Bond fan and “Skyfall” only cemented that. Bring on oo7 #24!