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James Bond has graced our movie screens for 50 years. From the moment Dr. No was released in 1962, Bond was a hit, and with good reason. Although his appeal certainly reaches further than such a small demographic, he’s the type of suave, sophisticated, fearless ladies man that all guys want to emulate. Despite some sizable bumps along the way (the series is like a roller coaster ride in terms of quality), Bond has hung around for what is now 23 films and if Skyfall is any indication, he won’t be going away for some time. While it doesn’t quite reach the lofty grandeur that many are claiming it does—this is certainly not the best Bond movie ever made—it’s a step in the right direction.

What Skyfall does is take a franchise that has been known to go off the rails occasionally and grounds it in reality. It’s a darker, grittier and more realistic picture than many of its series brethren and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t feel so much like a popcorn movie like some of the cheesier Bonds do. It instead feels like a drama driven action film with real meaning because the impending danger is more focused. No longer is there an evil entity ludicrously hell-bent on destroying the world. In Skyfall, the evil villain, Silva, played wonderfully by Javier Bardem, is destroying Bond’s world from the inside out rather than as a whole. A cyber terrorist, Silva is cool and calm and he has no intention to rule the world. His intentions are more personal and the consequences of his actions are felt. He happens to have a list of every MI6 agent and is releasing their identities to the world every five days, resulting in their deaths. For every day that goes by in the film, an agent is lost, so the stakes feel higher, despite the narrative reduction from world domination to personal vendetta.

The film, when inspected closely, reveals that it truly is a Bond film, never really deviating from the tried-and-true formula all that much. If you’ve ever seen a Bond film before, you know what to expect—conspiracy, espionage, double crosses and the like—but what matters is how well these aspects are carried out. Luckily, Skyfall contains some of the best executed and most thrilling action scenes this side of The Dark Knight Rises. It’s opening is outstanding, recalling the Casino Royale on foot chase (but this time on bikes) in all the best ways, failing to live up to its predecessor only due to obvious doubles and occasionally spotty CGI, but it’s stand-out moment comes in a Tokyo high rise where the walls are made of glass. As Bond sneaks up on an assassin readying for the kill, digital images dancing in the background, reflecting off the surfaces around them, a silhouetted fight breaks out in front of those very same images and it’s absolutely beautiful to watch. Framed by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, the man behind True Grit and nearly every Coen brothers movie, Skyfall is perhaps the best looking Bond movie to date. Unfortunately, the visuals surpass its narrative ambition.

Relying on the same old Bond tropes we’ve come to expect really wouldn’t be a big deal (he’s been around for 50 years for a reason) were it not for the way the film sets up certain events, but then doesn’t follow through on them. An example of this comes most notably about halfway through the film. Silva has just escaped from MI6 and is on his way to a location holding many high profile targets, one of whom is vital to the Bond series. The film intercuts between the approaching Silva and the high profile target arguing over the safety of the nation and the necessity of MI6. The way this sequence is edited sets up a dramatic ending, one that could have shaken things up a bit and given the film an unexpected emotional weight, but the film seems to chicken out in doing it. Those aware of the way films are constructed will find this sequence baffling.

The ending is a disappointment as well. It builds and builds with scenes of intensity and excitement only to end with a poof rather than a bang. But on the whole, Skyfall is terrific. Daniel Craig has never been better in the famous role and the film’s willingness to bring the series back to a reasonable belief level is more than welcome (when Q, played by Ben Whishaw, hands Bond his new gadgets, they consist of nothing more than a radio tracker and a gun—they don’t “chip out for exploding pen” types of gadgets anymore, Q explains).

Despite some issues, this is the Bond movie Craig will be remembered for, due almost entirely to the fact that it nails who and what Bond is (and even highlights his vulnerability). Its stumbles are still there, however; they just come from elsewhere. Because of those stumbles, this is not the best Bond movie ever (Goldfinger still holds that spot), but when a movie is as stimulating as this, such hyperbole is to be expected.

Skyfall receives 4/5



Here in America, we aren’t treated to many foreign films. Unless you venture out to an art house theater, you’re not likely to find one, but unfortunately, art house theaters are few and far between, usually resting in large cities. I saw more movies than I could count last year, yet only one, I Am Love, was non-English speaking. In my review for that movie, I hypothesized that people would love it simply because it is foreign, something lots of smug filmgoers who reject anything Hollywood has to offer seem to do. I personally found the movie a sluggish bore, but it only took one more foreign film for me to join the smugness. Hailing from Mexico, Biutiful is one of the most intellectually provocative, interesting and, yes, beautiful movies to be released in quite some time.

While not as simple as this sentence suggests, Biutiful is, at its core, a character study of a man named Uxbal (Javier Bardem) who has just found out he is dying from cancer and only has a few more months to live. He is struggling with the idea of mortality, much like Michael Douglas in Solitary Man. However, he, unlike Douglas, knows what happens after you die. He has a special ability to see and communicate with the dead and knows for a fact that the afterlife exists. Because of this, he isn’t afraid to die. Rather he’s afraid of leaving his two children behind without him. Their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is trampy and bipolar and isn’t there for them when they need her. His brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández) is also unreliable and is actually sleeping with Marambra behind his back. With nobody he trusts, he fears what will become of his children.

That’s the beauty in Biutiful. It’s a character study about Uxbal, but his thoughts are not about him. They are of others. Although he can be a bit ill-tempered in certain situations, sometimes even towards his kids, he is generally a kind man, or at least he thinks he is. What he does is find people jobs, mostly illegal ones where they are stuck on the streets peddling pirated DVD’s and cheaply made handbags, but then he takes a cut of their money. He thinks he is helping those people when he is actually exploiting them. Much like his reflection in mirrors, what's looking back at him isn't necessarily what he sees.

Still, Uxbal tries to make things right before he dies, not only with his family, but also with those around him. He’s a man who has done some bad things, but you never consider him a bad man. Rather than hate him, you feel sorry for him. Even his kind deeds don’t produce the best results and as the movie progresses, he faces so many problems that his impending death is the least of them. Bardem creates a sympathetic character out of Uxbal and his performance is grand. The bottom line: he deserves that Oscar nomination.

Despite the engrossing, challenging material, Biutiful is too long. Running at nearly two and a half hours, it wears out its welcome by the end thanks to some unnecessary subplots, including one about two gay Chinese men that serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever to the overall story.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, directing his first Spanish language film since 2000’s Amores Perros, brings a keen eye to Biutiful. It’s beautifully shot with a beginning and ending set in a peaceful winter landscape that brings its themes full circle. Biutiful and the characters in it are many things: dark, yet hopeful; hateful, yet loving; self indulgent, yet caring; cruel, yet regretful. It’s a movie that takes multiple viewings to fully wrap your head around and its thematic complexity makes it an absolute must see.

Biutiful receives 4.5/5