Spectre

Posted on October 27th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | 2 Comments »

spectre

Note – this review will contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!

Production of James Bond films has slowed since the 1960s. When the series began, Sean Connery knocked out five in as many years. Roger Moore couldn’t quite keep up that pace, but still managed seven in 12 years. Pierce Brosnan largely managed to evade the legal difficulties which kept Bond off our screens for six years prior to GoldenEye and so starred in four films over a seven year period. Poor old Daniel Craig has taken eleven years to create as many adventures – so each one needs to be worth waiting for.

Prior to sitting down to watch Spectre (at the BFI IMAX at midnight!) I rewatched the previous three movies. Briefly, Casino Royale was slightly better than I remembered – the double-crossing at the end isn’t as confusing as I thought and the mix of human drama and bonkers action works brilliantly. It’s still a shame that the goons who retrieve the cash at the end are so anonymous, and we never meet Vesper’s boyfriend, but it’s basically brilliant. Quantum of Solace was even worse than I remembered – an unfunny, frantic, borderline nonsensical mess of a movie. And Skyfall was every bit as good as I remembered – astonishing action sequences, nifty plotting and fabulous performances. So Spectre had a lot to live up to.

One of the pleasures of Skyfall was the way in which it reassembled the Bond “family” – installing a new more traditionally avuncular M, casting fresh young faces as Q and Moneypenny and returning rogue agent 007 to the fold. Whereas the first two Daniel Craig movies were about the new rookie finding his feet and the third was about a damaged agent returning to the fold, Spectre just has to be business-as-usual, which is potentially slightly trickier to make interesting, although it should make it easier to get straight on with the thrill-ride. It’s disappointing then that early on, we spend so much time replaying tropes from the earlier Daniel Craig movies, Skyfall in particular. Bond is going rogue, again. Bond’s bosses are unable to track his movements, again. The double-0 programme is under bureaucratic threat, again. A shadowy organisation has people “everywhere”, again and so on.

The other major feature of Spectre is its desire to turn the four Daniel Craig movies so far into a coherent saga. Quite why this was felt necessary is not clear to me. Casino wiped the slate clean and started from scratch and everybody loved it. Quantum attempted to turn the Casino villain’s plan into part of a grander conspiracy and everybody hated it. Skyfall totally ignored the previous two films and everybody loved it. How Michael G Wilson and co. drew from this the lesson that what the public wants is for the films to all connect up is anyone’s guess.

The plan starts early with glimpses of Eva Green, Mads Mikkelson, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem floating past in the opening titles – which, by the way, are spectacular, rendering even Sam Smith’s wailing dirge of a theme song acceptable, which is quite a feat. The problem is that reminding us of characters from past adventures is all the movie ever really does to build its multi-part saga. We are apparently meant to think that if Christoph Waltz only mentions Raoul Silva then we will forget that every single thing Javier Bardem does in Skyfall is connected with his being an embittered ex-secret service agent with a personal grudge against M, and we will instead start to remember that his actions were a carefully calculated part of a masterplan being developed by a vast international conspiracy. Sorry, movie. No dice.

The problem is even more significant when it comes to Dominic Greene and the already fairly muddled events of Quantum of Solace. Possibly the Eon team attempted to get back the rights to the name “Spectre” in 2008 so that they could identify the villain’s organisation with that moniker, and when that failed, they used the word “Quantum” instead, tying it in with one of the few remaining Fleming story titles. But we are now meant to believe that the all-powerful, all-encompassing Quantum is itself a mere subsidiary of the even more all-powerful and even more all-encompassing Spectre – Google to the new film’s Alphabet Inc. I for one don’t buy it.

And in fact the problem is even worse because we also have Andrew Scott running around trying to create his own all-powerful and all-encompassing secret organisation – so we have three independent grand conspiracies, all of which overlap and intersect in poorly-defined ways. I long for the days when all we had was one mad man who wanted to blow up the world.

The general feeling that the people trying to stitch these films together haven’t actually watched them recently is compounded when Q makes a tart reference to the mess 007 made of his Aston Martin DB5 in the previous movie, and the beaten-up vehicle is shown undergoing renovations in his workshop. But the point of Bond switching to the DB5 in Skyfall was that it wasn’t a “company car” and therefore MI6 couldn’t track him. And again, when Christoph Waltz chortles that every one of Bond’s women has died – he is apparently forgetting Camille who walks off at the end of Quantum perfectly intact.

So let’s talk about Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser John Harrison Ernst Stavro Blofeld – complete with white cat! Waltz is marvellous in the part, and most of his evil plan makes some sort of sense, although it’s a lot of bother to go to to make one already fairly gloomy agent a bit frowny. But I didn’t really buy his back-story at all. When we can’t see the young James and Franz (and, to be clear, I wouldn’t want to), the notion that they were briefly step-brothers doesn’t really resonate. He’s just another cackling maniac, which is fine – just what a film like this needs in fact – and even better if he can be played by a two-time Oscar winner. So why bother with all this psychodrama if the film isn’t prepared to really commit to it?

But to be honest, as unsatisfactory as all this stuff is, it’s in the margins. When the film concentrates on the present-day storyline instead of dwelling in the past, and when the action starts, it works brilliantly well. The opening sequence, if not quite topping the extraordinary car, train, foot chase in Skyfall, is very rewarding, beginning with a gorgeous long tracking shot – which was no doubt stitched together from half-a-dozen-or-more set-ups, Birdman­­-style, but is still a very, very stylish way to open the movie. Daniel Craig is on blistering form throughout, his wry grimace as the ledge he’s scrambled on to starts to give way beneath him is just perfect, and he continues to absolutely nail the part to the wall. If he does bow out before his fifth contracted film, he will be an amazingly hard act to follow.

Other action sequences also meet if never quite exceeding the high bar set by recent outings. The car chase in Rome, where 007 discovers that not all of the gadgets in the new DB10 are quite up to scratch is very funny and exciting, the plane/car chase in Austria is novel and works very well indeed, and the bone-crunching train fight tops even From Russia with Love. Some of the quieter moments work well too. What a pleasure to see a new version of the Spectre boardroom, also from Russia and others, and – look! – a bonkers villain’s lair in the depths of a crater which blows up absolutely spectacularly towards the end. Monica Bellucci is criminally underused but makes the most of her seven or so minutes of screen time, and Lea Seydoux works miracles with a very thinly drawn character, fleshing out Madelaine Swann into something approximating a real human woman.

The only real disappointment, apart from all my grousing about saga-building above, is the final show-down in London. The chase through the wrecked MI6 works well, but as nice as it is giving Bond a family again, what Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear and Andrew Scott are up to is just far, far less interesting than Bond vs Blofeld. Even the movie seems to lose faith or interest (or both) in the frankly rather artificial count-down associated with the Nine Eyes system, and Rory Kinnear seems to run out of lines entirely about half-an-hour before the end, so he just stands around looking concerned. And it does suggest that not everyone is paying very close attention when the opening action sequence and the closing action sequence both require an out-of-control helicopter, but nobody ever mentions this fact to make it seem deliberate.

So very good, then, rather than great. Casino and Skyfall are, in my view, stone cold classics up there with From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me and GoldenEye. While Spectre is certainly far from being as awful as Quantum of Solace (or A View to a Kill, or The Man with the Golden Gun), it’s stuck slightly in the good-solid entry stakes, both because there isn’t a single action sequence which completely redefines what’s possible, and because some of the plotting is simultaneously overly complicated and somewhat half-hearted.

What’s really important though is that it starts with the gun barrel (for the first time since Die Another Day) and ends with “James Bond will return”. You betcha.

Culture roundup 2012

Posted on December 6th, 2012 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Here’s quick run-down of some recent productions I’ve seen. Be warned, as these reviews are quite late in the day, I’ve been generous in my provision of spoilers…

Five Go To Rehab

To complete my reviews of Comic Strip films, I sat down to watch Five Go To Rehab with some trepidation. The first Comic Strip film, Five Go Mad In Dorset, is as good as anything the team is capable of but the sequel, Five Go Mad On Mescalin, produced just a year later, managed to tarnish the memory of the original, rather than add anything significant to the corpus. With the sole exception of Four Men In A Car, everything from Red Rose of Courage has ranged from disappointing (The Hunt for Tony Blair) to ghastly (Wild Turkey) but the idea of the Famous Five reunited in late-middle-age is a very good one, so I was prepared to enjoy this production for satellite station Gold.

Performances, in general, were great. All four leads look a little chunkier, a little puffier than before, but French and Saunders are as great as ever, Richardson essays a fine line in pop-eyed dementia and Edmondson, given the lion’s share of the plot to shoulder, does a truly excellent job (although his character has been subject to even further revisions since Mescalin when he already bore little resemblance to the person in Dorset).

The execution, as ever, was the problem. The script seems very uncertain about where the comedy lies, alternately presenting fake adventures with real ones, and lazily making not one but two of the main characters secret alcoholics, holed up at the same bizarre rest home. While it’s a pleasure to see Robbie Coltrane reprise his role, mere nostalgia isn’t enough to sustain the running time when the plot is as ropey as this. The appearance of Daniel Peacock at the end re-energises the story considerably and the betrayal of his own children is a great ending, but leaving the Rik Mayall / Felix Dexter storyline dangling is lazy and pointless. Another minor misfire, although not without its incidental pleasures.

Looper

One of the most eagerly-anticipated films of recent years, with a delicious high-concept premise fleshed out by two wonderful stars. Bruce Willis is Joseph Gordon-Levitt from the future and they’re trying to kill each other. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? Sadly, the end result is a somewhat of a mixed bag. I don’t object to Rian Johnson’s cheerfully inconsistent view of time-travel, especially when it produces scenes as heart-stoppingly gruesome and astonishing as Frank Brennan’s horrible demise. Time travel never makes sense anyway, so complaining that it doesn’t make sense in any specific way is slightly pointless, even if a movie is flagrantly breaking its own rules. What’s less forgiveable is the way the movie abandons its delicious premise about half-way through for another movie entirely, one which is rather less interesting and lumbers the plot with double mumbo-jumbo, albeit blessed with two lovely performances from Emily Blunt and six-year-old Pierce Gagnon, who is nothing short of miraculous.

What’s even harder to forgive is the gigantic plot-hole which sits at the heart of this film and which seems to have been rather unremarked upon. As Gordon-Levitt’s character explains via voice-over “Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been. It will be instantly outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. It’s nearly impossible to dispose of a body in the future. I’m told. Tagging techniques, whatnot. So when these future criminal organizations in the future need someone gone, they use specialized assassins in our present, called loopers.” Okay fine, so characters like our hero Joe get instructions to lie in wait for a victim to be zapped back in time, bound and gagged with payment in silver strapped to them, and when they appear, blast them with a shotgun, take the body to a furnace and stash the silver for themselves.

When one of these assassins (“Loopers”) is retired, the future mob sends the old version of them back in time (“closing the loop”). They get extra payment in gold and can retire from this brutal life. That’s one niggle right there – why should not the killing of one’s future self be the first assassination? Why does it have to be the last? But anyway, in one of the film’s most elegant narrative sequences, we see Young Joe fail to execute Old Joe who appears unbound and so escapes. We then apparently flash back to the same scene again, this time watching Young Joe blast Old Joe away when he appears, correctly trussed-up. In a long montage sequence we watch Young Joe celebrate his retirement, get bored, grow old, fall in love, and become Old Joe who eventually has a run-in with the mob who come for him, guns blazing, slaying his wife who is caught in the crossfire. Joe is taken to the warehouse where the time-travel machine is housed, and it becomes his only means of escape and thus, when he arrives in front of Young Joe, he is untied and ready to outwit his younger self. The whole of Old Joe’s motivation from this point on is to prevent his future – the future in which his beloved wife is killed by the mob – from occurring.

But it seems almost inevitable that if you stick clever criminals in a time-machine and send them back twenty-five years that they will find a way of fucking-up whatever you have planned for them. If it is “impossible to dispose of a body” as we are told, then a far better plan would be to shoot unwanted persons through the head and then send the dead body back in time for disposal. Bursting in to Old Joe’s place, firing weapons with lethal force, demonstrates that actually the mob is perfectly happy to kill people in the future. They just prefer to send living bodies back in time, because – well because it makes for a better movie apparently.

Anyway, there’s a lot to enjoy here, but movies that want to play with science fiction concepts like this need to be a bit more careful to deal with these kinds of inconsistencies. I’m not saying it’s Prometheus bad – just a bit sloppy.

Argo

In the hope of getting a jump on my Best Picture Nominees programme for 2013, I went to see Argo, the third film directed by Ben Affleck. Having greatly admired Gone Baby Gone and thoroughly enjoyed The Town, it was with very high hopes that I went to see this, and despite paying a premium to sit virtually around the corner from the television-sized screen, in the very back row of the smallest auditorium at my local Odeon (ugh!), Argo made me smile a lot. Just like The King’s Speech, it’s perfect Oscar fodder. Not a great film, perhaps, but a very, very good one, expertly balancing humour, suspense and character notes; blending a real-life story with a bit of Hollywood sparkle; and tackling big themes without confronting any deeply-held beliefs.

To its credit, the screenplay fearlessly plays fast-and-loose with the truth when it makes for a better film. The two major scenes on which the structure of the movie rests – one of the hostages declaring that the plan will never work, and that same hostage playing his role to the hilt when they are detained at the airport – are complete fiction. So are the most exciting and suspenseful scenes – the “location scout” in the bazaar, the last-minute scramble for tickets and the final runway chase. And for that matter so is the most entertaining character – Alan Arkin’s hard-bitten Hollywood producer.

But none of this matters when the attention to detail is so great and the forward momentum of the plot is maintained so effortlessly. Chris Terrio’s screenplay is brilliantly written and Affleck’s evocation of the period is breathtaking. And Argo probably has the best supporting cast of the year, with John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Richard Kind, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver and any number of other familiar faces joining Affleck in his astonishingly accurate recreation of 1979-80. Marvellous entertainment and an amazing true (or at least true-ish) story of courage and ingenuity, it hardly puts a foot wrong, provided you aren’t expecting a super-accurate history lesson.

Skyfall

This week comes news that Skyfall is the most successful film ever at the UK box office, scooping up in ten weeks what it took second-place contender Avatar eleven months to haul in, and without Avatar’s stereoscopic tax (such movies are not 3D). And a well-deserved achievement it is too. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have accomplished a minor miracle here. Unceremoniously junking Quantum of Solace’s tediously unresolved storyline, the new movie brazenly reinvents Bond, whom we last saw as a febrile and undisciplined rookie, now as weather-beaten and rueful veteran. I adore Kim Newman’s theory which is that between Quantum and this film, all the other 007 adventures have befallen the Daniel Craig Bond. So, having left Dominic Greene to die in the desert, this man has faced Dr No in Jamaica, battled Oddjob in Fort Knox, married and lost Tracey Vincenzo, blown up Hugo Drax’s secret space station, sledded on Kara Milovy’s cello case, been betrayed by Alec Trevelyan and been held prisoner by General Moon in North Korea (inter-alia).

In the amazing pre-credits sequence – just possibly the best-ever – Bond pursues his quarry on foot, by car, on a motorcycle, and eventually on a train, before a badly-aimed bullet from Naomi Harris’s younger agent’s gun sends him plummeting into one of the best title sequences the series has ever produced. From a twenty-first century perspective, many of Maurice Binder’s once-innovative sequences look repetitive and clumsy, with awkward post-production camera moves reducing the gyrating figures to cardboard cut-outs. Daniel Kleinman’s revolutionary GoldenEye titles added a third dimension thanks to modern CGI technology, and gave us a virtual camera able to slide smoothly past surreal vistas with genuine depth. The three subsequent sequences failed to live up to the splendour of his first, but the flat graphic style of the Casino Royale sequence was exactly what was required – utterly different from any previous incarnation, and yet recognisably a continuation of what had gone before. That’s what long-running series like the Bonds need to be, and that’s Skyfall all over – the titles included. Returning to the fold having missed Quantum, here Kleinman’s CGI camera pushes forward, forward, forward, through a landscape with more depth than ever before. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

Returning to the fold, Bond is tested and found wanting, but M nevertheless sends him out on the trail of Raoul Silva who has blown up MI6. Together with the immensely striking Bérénice Marlohe, he tracks Silva down with apparent ease, but must sacrifice his latest girlfriend to do so. The execution of the apparently leading Bond girl within about 20 minutes is another shocking development, another radical departure from established practice, although I have to criticise Sam Mendes or Barbara Broccoli or the BBFC or someone for squeamishness here. Forced into playing a murderous game of William Tell with a bound Sevrine and a shot-glass, Bond shoots and misses, following which Silva wins the game by simply shooting her through the head – but the photographing of this shocking development is so coy that it’s easy to mistake this kill-shot for another poor aim by the marksman and a flinch from the target. A shame, as this moment should have been heart-in-the-mouth stuff. It’s not unusual for James Bond films to begin with a “sacrificial lamb” Bond girl (Jill Masterson, Aki, Rosie Carver, Andrea Anders, Corinne Dufour, Paris Carver, Solange, Strawberry Fields, etc etc) but it’s unprecedented for the leading Bond girl to be executed half-way through the movie, never to be replaced.

No more so than in his interrogation scene, Javier Bardem has tremendous fun with this camply disturbing character, and the revolting jaw prosthesis which he wears. His Lawrence of Arabia style entrance, walking slowly towards camera in a single shot, is also worthy of note – possibly Mendes’ reposte to the frantic cutting of Quantum which helped make that film such an unsatisfactory experience. From here, Silva’s plan becomes increasingly unlikely, but criticising the movie for this I rather think this misses the point. The best Bond films, with the possible exception of From Russia With Love, aren’t spy thrillers at all, they are colossal absurd fantasy adventures. The trick is in balancing the insane on-screen action with enough ballast so it doesn’t just become laughable. Daniel Craig adjusting his cuffs as he lands on the back of that train is perfect. Blofeld evading capture by dragging up (Diamonds Are Forever) is harder to take seriously, and Bond pretending to be Tarzan (Octopussy) is so stupid as to be insulting. Silva trying to kill Bond by chucking an entire tube train at him is hard to take, sure, but the execution is so faultless and the idea so extraordinary, I’m perfectly happy to watch it in delighted slack-jawed amazement – it seems rather dull trying to wonder just what it would take to plan, time and pull-off such an outré method of execution. You might as well complain that the idea of a “licence to kill” isn’t entirely credible.

From here, the film boldly veers off into completely uncharted territory. There’s no particular reason why not, but Bond has never really presented a siege situation before. In film after film, Bond has stormed the villain’s lair at the end, whether solo (GoldenEye, Quantum of Solace) with modest back-up (For Your Eyes Only, Tomorrow Never Dies) or at the head of massive army (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) but never before has he holed-up in a safe house, set traps and waited for the villain to come to him. This splendidly suspenseful sequence both delivers the necessary excitement and catharsis and exemplifies the film’s theme – sometimes the old ways are the best. But the cost is ghastly – Judi Dench’s redoubtable M has paid the ultimate price.

It’s not until the credits begin rolling that I really took on board what had been wrought in the closing moments of Skyfall. This most revisionist of Bonds, as much a reboot as Casino Royale in its own way, has been quietly rebuilding the old Bond before our very eyes. Not just the little nods to previous movies (Bond’s escape on the backs of some reptiles, Q’s caustic reference to exploding pens, Bond telling Eve to stop touching her ear, probably others), but the mythos of Connery, Moore and Dalton movies is being reassmbled. As the screen fades to black, we are back to a patrician and avuncular M with complete if sometimes testy faith in agent 007, whose office hides behind a leather-panelled door, guarded by a spunky Moneypenny and whose payroll includes an enthusiastic gadget man, designated Q – a line-up we haven’t seen since 1989. Welcome home 007. I can hardly wait for your next mission.

The Why of Funny #3: Just-A-Flesh-Wound

Posted on July 12th, 2011 in Culture | 4 Comments »

King Arthur faces the fearsome Black Knight in mortal combat, and through superior swordsmanship, manages to slice his opponent’s arm clean off. Assuming that the fight is his, Arthur prepares to continue his journey, only to be told by the Knight that “It’s just a scratch” and “he’s had worse”. The fight continues until all four of the Black Knight’s limbs are removed at which point, he reluctantly agrees to call it a draw. The pain and dismemberment is presented unrealistically and we feel able to laugh at it, and not withdraw in horror. (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

This theory presents two opposite strategies for dealing with emotion in comedy. The first, and most common, is to minimise emotion – particularly negative emotion – for the simple reason that we won’t laugh if we sense real pain.

Consider again the oldest joke in the world, the king falling over. One additional reason why the old lady falling over is not funny is that there is a much higher chance of genuine injury in the case of the old lady. We are amused by the king’s humiliation much more than his hospitalisation. If the King staggers to his feet and then collapses, his legs bending impossibly under him, and blood spewing from his lips, then all comedy is gone: we are horrified or disgusted. Clowns appear to suffer appalling injuries, but bounce back to their feet again (although they may be very disoriented, to heighten the effect of having their status lowered). Cartoon characters are the apotheosis of this technique, being essentially impossible to kill or even injure severely.

A promotional film made to publicise the James Bond film Thunderball and called “A Child’s Guide To Blowing Up A Motor Car”, showed Dennis Norden taking his young nephew to see a stunt being filmed. At the climax of film, Norden returns the boy to his home and drives away, only to discover that the boy has learned his lesson too well and has rigged the car to explode. After the flames start to subside, we cut to Norden in a hospital bed, covered in cartoony bandages, and a look of mild irritation on his face. Without that final shot, this is a horrific story of an innocence destroyed, a horrible death, a senseless loss of life. With the final shot we establish “only joking”, due to Norden simply having to be bandaged up in order to recover, and in particular due to his emotional suffering being very minor. The comedy sound effects added to shows like You’ve Been Framed, which depict possibly life-threatening accidents, serve a very similar purpose.

John Cleese realised the importance of this, working on Fawlty Towers. Basil can say anything he likes to Sybil provided that the insults never seem to strike home. If Sybil were genuinely to be wounded by Basil’s bitter sarcasm, we would lose all sympathy for him as a character and the engine of the plot would be destroyed – we would no longer want Basil to succeed.

However, as has been noted, characters reacting to events is a major plank of good storytelling, and so the over-use of Just-A-Flesh-Wound, particularly in the form of bathos, can wreck good comic stories. If characters drift through plots where major events take place, and are only minimally affected, the overall effect is brittle, remote and superficial. It lacks the universality of great international comedy, and is very reliant on constant invention. Just-A-Flesh-Wound is generally better suited to sketch comedy than sit-com, when used in this way.

Here’s how Dave Allen brilliantly uses a combination of Just-A-Flesh-Wound and Saw-It-Coming to play with the audience’s expectations and create a classic piece of sketch comedy.

A little girl, playing with her toys in a clearing, is juxtaposed with a Frankenstein-style monster, lumbering through the forest. As we sense him getting closer and closer, we introduce a third character in yet another part of the wood: a mother, calling out for her 7-year-old child. “My baby! My baby! Where is my baby?” Finally, the monster approaches the little girl, who looks up at him with innocent wonderment. He reaches out a hand, and just as he is about to grab her, the mother also bursts into the clearing, rushes over and scoops up… the little girl into her arms. She turns to go and then turns back to the camera and, pointing at the monster, demands to know “Okay, how many of you thought I was going to take him home?” Very slowly, with a crestfallen expression, the monster raises his hand.

Notice that by the end, the whole world of the sketch has been dismantled. In order to dilute and make the threat acceptable (and comic), everything we were being asked to believe in has been removed, including the fact that the “fourth wall” has been broken. This is dangerous stuff for a sitcom, which depends for its success on the audience buying into the story and the characters – although some sit-coms can get away with it (The Young Ones) or even make a virtue of it (It’s Gary Shandling’s Show). What I particularly like about this sketch though, is the flash of genuine emotion at the end and I think that’s why it stuck in my mind.

Which brings us onto the other use of emotional juxtaposition. Whereas over-use of bathos to make dark material palatable can render a sit-com dry and low-stakes, a great many sit-coms rely on exactly the opposite approach to create stories and comedy: picking a low-stakes situation and having the characters over-react. Thus, when Joey Tribbiani reads “Little Women” for the first time in Friends, he doesn’t scoff at it – it reduces him to tears. When George Costanza loses at Trivial Pursuit to a boy in a protective sterile bubble in Seinfeld, he isn’t annoyed, he is enraged (to the point where the bubble bursts!). Taken to extremes, this procedure again can result in a “dry” feeling as the plot disconnects with reality but it has the advantage that the characters are genuinely affected which tends to open up storytelling possibilities, which a lack of reaction shuts down. The hardest version of Just-A-Flesh-Wound to get right is Black Comedy. In Black Comedies, people really do get hurt and die, and the challenge is to make that funny. In classic Black Comedies like Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (wherein the world is brought to nuclear armageddon due to the sexual inadequacies of American generals) the forces are exactly balanced, so the viewer is appalled one moment and laughing the next. Modern American “gross-out” comedy movies exploit this plus Sounds-A-Bit-Rude for most of their effects.

Which James Bond film is best? Part Four: The Modern Era

Posted on December 2nd, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Part three is here

GoldenEye (1995)

w. Jeffrey Caine, Bruce Fierstein; d. Martin Campbell
The one with: him out of Remmington Steele, him out of Sharpe, him out of The Comic Strip Presents, the wonky music, the tank chase
Overview: the radical reinvention which we were promised in 1987 finally materialises. A new Bond, a new M, a new Moneypenny, gorgeous CGI titles, a crackerjack theme song – things are off to a good start. The contrast between this and Licence to Kill couldn’t be greater. The glamour, the fun, the charm are all back in full force, but this film knows how to ring the changes too. Whereas Licence attempted to give us Bond as a rogue agent and fudged it, this film gives us a real turncoat in the form of 006 turned meglomaniacal villain. I still can’t believe that in all the prelease press and TV coverage I saw, in all the interviews and previews, I entirely failed to notice that we hadn’t had the villain introduced to us! The excellent tank chase also kicks off what will prove to be a quite rewarding trend, as for the next half-a-dozen movies, the stunt team attempts to find more and different vehicles in which to stage chases. With a magnificent debut from Judi Dench as M, top-drawer stunts and effects work, an astonishingly assured debut from Irishman Brosnan, and a clutch of bright supporting cast members including Robbie Coltrane, Joe Don Baker, Alan Cumming, Samantha Bond’s spunky take on Miss Moneypenny and Famke Janssen quite beguiling as thigh-crushing Xenia Onatopp, this teeters on the brink of parody more than once, but never quite stumbles over it. Niggles? Brosnan’s hair is too long, and the five o’clock shadow isn’t a good look for him – it was abandoned after this film; Trevelyan’s evil plan makes no sense whatsoever; and the music is horrible, except for the already-mentioned theme song and the tank chase sequence. In general though, this is very assured and entertaining stuff, with a swagger and style which completely eluded the previous movie. As with Living Daylights, a few scenes provide a veneer of emotion which hints at just a little more depth to the character – and that’s all I really need. Takes its title from Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica (really!).
Best for: pre-titles sequence – and that’s really saying something. Despite very stiff competition, this really is the last word in these sequences. The bungee jump off the dam is amazing; the gun battle in the weapons facility is brilliantly shot and combines action, humour and suspense with total control; the final stunt – freefalling after the crashing plane – is totally ludicrous, yet completely convincing; and the sequence sets up the big reveal which, when it comes, re-energises the middle of the film but which here manages not to be too clearly signposted. What a return to form! Hurrah!

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

w. Bruce Fierstein; d. Roger Spottiswode
The one with: all the Asian chopsocky (no, the other one), the climax on the enormous tanker (no, the other one), the remote control car, her out of Desperate Housewives
Overview: By now, the action movie had become a genre and it was films like Lethal Weapon, Robocop, Die Hard, Raiders and their various sequels that the Bond films were being compared to. The problem is that Bond really comes from a different tradition, in theory appealing to a much wider audience, but the crossover with action movies is clear to see. Where the best Bond films differ is that they have a little more plot, a bit more style, a bit more class than the average action movie. In his second outing, Brosnan is even more self-assured and makes the most of his brief appearances in the pretitles sequence (Brosnan himself never visited the location) and manages to carve out a recognisable figure amongst the mayhem, but Spottiswode is determined never to let the pace up for a second – even the briefing from M is delivered in the back of car, screeching through London. The one pause for breath is probably the highlight of the film – Bond, knocking back vodka, waiting for Paris Carver. This is followed by the excellent showdown with Vincent Schiavelli’s eerie Dr Kaufman and the preposterous, but fun remote control car chase. In Saigon, things take a turn for the noisier, and the wall-to-wall gunfire makes it hard to pick out the moments of sly humour, character beats and grace notes, which may or may not be there. What ultimately sinks the film is the terribly shaky performance by Jonathan Pryce, hopelessly miscast as Elliot Carver and with no clue how to combine comic book villainy with any hint of gravitas at all. For sheer excitement and adrenalin, it does pretty much work while it’s on, but as soon as it’s over, there’s nothing left. What is welcome is the arrival of David Arnold, who from now on becomes the Bond composer-in-residence, continuing John Barry’s legacy and unafraid of a drum machine if it’ll help. If only they’d used k d lang’s superb “Surrender” as the theme song instead of Sheryl Crow’s rather anonymous effort. Its title has nothing to do with Fleming or anything else.
Best for: pace. It will likely leave you out of breath, but if you’re in the mood you’ll probably enjoy the ride.

The World is Not Enough (1999)

w. Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Bruce Fierstein; d. Michael Apted
The one with: the world’s least convincing nuclear physicist, yet more skiing, the boat chase down the Thames, Basil Fawlty
Overview: A polar opposite of its predecessor, strong where Tomorrow Never Dies was weak, yet it lacks the coherence, urgency and drive of that particularly kinetic entry. Handing the megaphone to a “proper” director in the shape of Michael Apted, means in turn that he lets the excellent second unit, commanded by Vic Armstrong, take care of the action. More than usual, then, this feels like a faintly uninteresting family/spy drama intercut with an unrelated but highly competent action movie. Another crackerjack pretitles sequence – the boat chase from MI6 to the under-construction Millennium Dome – gets the film off to a good start and Bond’s busted shoulder is an interesting wrinkle, but try as I might I can’t bring myself to really care about Elektra King, Renard and whatever it is they’re trying to do. Even the kidnapping of M seems low-key, perfunctory and without any real resonance or impact. I admire the way The World Is Not Enough tries to take the espionage storylines of From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and bring them up to date; I think it’s a good idea to try and create a Bond girl with more depth who can actually hurt our hero emotionally (Elektra, of course, not Christmas Jones); I think Bond is at home in these exotic European locations – I just remember how underwhelmed I was by it when I first saw it. Even Robbie Coltrane’s Zukovsky is markedly less fun second time around. Its title is Bond’s family motto, according to On Her Maj.
Best for: goodbyes. Q’s farewell is genuinely touching. Who could have known that Desmond Llewellyn would be killed in a car crash months later?

Die Another Day (2002)

w. Neil Purvis and Robert Wade; d. Lee Tamahori
The one with: the hovercraft, Bond goes rogue (no, the other one), Halle Berry, invisible car
Overview: Oh god, where to start? This was the twentieth “official” Bond movie, released in the fortieth anniversary year of the first movie and the fiftieth anniversary year of the first book, and was intended to be a celebration of the entire franchise, with nods and winks to most if not all of the preceding movies. But whereas the previous three films, for better or worse, each had a strong sense of identity, a clear mission statement (make Bond fun, make Bond energetic, make Bond work as drama) this one fires off wildly in every direction it can find. Like Octopussy, it never finds a coherent style or tone, and like Octopussy, some very good sequences don’t make up for some truly appalling ones. Unlike Octopussy, though, which shuffles up its various styles and plots, Die Another Day splits neatly down the middle. The hovercraft chase in the pretitles, while not in the same league as the TWINE boat chase or GoldenEye’s attack on the weapons complex, is fun, novel and shot with Vic Armstrong’s customary wit and verve. Bond’s capture, torture and escape is genuinely shocking and demonstrates both our hero’s vulnerability and his prowess far more effectively and cinematically than that dodgy shoulder in TWINE. Most of what happens in Cuba is fine and the partnership with Jinx is fun. The MI6 scenes are brilliantly nostalgic and effective and John Cleese makes the Quartermaster’s role his own – such a shame he didn’t return. And then Bond leaves for Iceland and the whole film falls to bits in spectacular style. Graves’ dual identity is stupid, the battle of computerised cars is boring and stupid, the CGI ice-surfing scene is unconvincing and stupid, the fight on the plane is confusing and stupid and the invisible car is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Toby Stephens, if anything, is more ill-at-ease than even Jonathan Pryce, Rosamund Pike is a total blank and Madonna’s presence only serves to irritate. Michael Madsen is clearly being set-up as a new returning character, but it was not to be. Once again, time for a rethink.
Best for: fight (found weapons). That fencing scene might be the best fight since the elevator in Diamonds.

Casino Royale (2006)

w. Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis; d. Martin Campbell
The one with: the black-and-white opening, the poker game, black Felix Leiter (no, the other one), Bond’s balls, the unresolved storyline
Overview: As with Timothy Dalton taking over from Roger Moore, most of the creative team remains in place, but the presence of a new leading man reinvigorates everyone. Artfully expanding Fleming’s slender 1952 novel with a new opening sequence setting up the conflict and a new coda which adds additional layers of complexity and emotion, Purvis and Wade create a magnificent debut for this “reimagined” James Bond, with a little bit of a dialogue polish from “proper” screenwriter Haggis, and with the blessed Sir Martin Campbell calling all the shots, not just shooting the dialogue scenes and then going home for an early night while the second unit films the fights and explosions, this is the most complete and coherent Bond film since – well, GoldenEye actually. Michael G Wilson had pitched “young Bond” to stepdad Broccoli many times in the past, but the older producer had always vetoed this on the basis that audiences wanted to see an experienced and capable Bond. But, by joining Bond’s story at precisely the point where he is transitioning from rookie to veteran, Casino Royale manages to have its beefcake and eat it too, with a simply stunning performance from Englishman Craig anchoring the whole thing. On first (and indeed subsequent) viewings Craig make me believe totally that this guy could seriously fuck people up, while actually making me care about his emotional problems. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. The monochrome opening, bereft of over-the-top stunts, is an apparently low-key way to begin, but as a statement of intent it’s compellingly clear. And when the film does explode into action, standards are as high as ever, but tellingly, it’s some of the non-whizz-bang-crash scenes which linger longest in the mind – Bond and Vesper on the train, Le Chiffre “scratching Bond’s balls”, the meeting with Mathis. If I have a quibble, it’s that the constant double-crossing and rug-pulling in the final third pulls me away from the emotional story, which does get a little soapy at times. But really, it’s only in Venice that the three demands of action, plot and emotion get in each other’s way. The rest of the time, it’s to its enduring credit that all three mesh perfectly.
Best for: chase (on foot). The parkour chase is not only hugely exciting, it’s not only fresh and new, it simultaneously defines Daniel Craig as the Bond we know and love and also very much as a new and individual take on the character. Again and again Sébastien Foucan leaps nimbly over some wall or other obstacle, which Bond simply barrels straight through. Rarely before has the character been given such singularity of purpose. At once, instantly Bondian, yet you can’t imagine any of his predecessors doing it in quite the same way.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

w. Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis; d. Marc Forster
The one with: all that oil (no, the other one), Bond goes rogue (yet again), fights in the new Jason Bourne confus-o-cam style, the unresolved storyline (again)
Overview: For the third time running, a new Bond’s stunning debut has been almost completely ruined by trying to turn the second film into an amped-up, all-action sequel in a different genre entirely. This time, not only are we propelled from demented action sequence to demented action sequence as quickly as plot demands allow, but the action sequences themselves are shot so wildly and cut so quickly that it’s rarely possible to decipher what is actually going on. I suspect that some splendid stunts are being performed in the opening car chase and in the scaffolding gun-fight which follows, but it’s hard to say for certain. When it does quieten down, during the opera for example, it’s still more confusing than compelling. Apparently functioning as the middle of a trilogy, this retrofits much of the actions of Casino Royale’s villains as the work of a larger and more sinister organisation, but by the end of the film these plot strands remain unresolved, and with the Bond rights once again in limbo at the time of writing, it seems they will stay unresolved for a while longer. Also of note is the rather distasteful repeated motif of Bond executing people whom M wished to question, consistently written and played almost as if Bond is a character in a fifties sit-com who has eaten his boss’s sandwich. I half-expect Judi Dench to start saying “Why I oughta…” Is it too much to hope for the taking of human life to be given a little more significance? Are we supposed to know who “Yusef” is from Casino Royale and be impressed when Bond doesn’t kill him at the end? I couldn’t care less. It is at least short – at 106 minutes it’s the shortest ever, curiously immediately following the longest ever. The title comes from one of the short stories in For Your Eyes Only.
Best for: sacrificial lambs. The death of Mathis is genuinely affecting, especially when recalling his conflicted loyalties from the previous movie (and I do remember that).

Which James Bond film is best? Part Three: The 1980s

Posted on November 29th, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Part two is here

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson; d. John Glen
The one with: Dr Zarkov out of Flash Gordon, Scaroth out of Doctor Who, crossbow assassinations, the 2CV, lots more skiing, lots more scuba.
Overview: Recognising that, as successful as Moonraker had been at the box office, further developments in that direction would lead to madness, Broccoli reigned the excesses back in and brought Bond back to earth. Taking up near-permanent residency in the director’s chair was stalwart editor and second-unit director John Glen, whose association with the series went back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Similarly moving into the typewriter next to Richard Maibaum was Michael G Wilson, Broccoli’s stepson, who had been hanging around Bond sets most of his life and who would go on to run the franchise with Broccoli’s daughter Barbara. The film begins with the revenge on Blofeld (in all but name) which Diamonds denied us. The scene at Tracy’s grave is the last time the series explicitly maintains the conceit that the chap on the screen is the same as the one who blew up Doctor No’s base in Jamaica in 1962. Following this is a cold war thriller, with occasional flashes of glamour and humour, not all of which work. The 2CV chase freshens up what could have been a lot of repetitive screeching and crashing, but the appearance of Janet Brown as Thatcher at the end is a step too far. Also adding to the sense of a movie drifting away from its origins, this is the first in the series not to feature Bernard Lee as M (he died during preproduction); James Villiers stands in as Bill Tanner. And John Barry’s still not back from his tax exile, so Bill Conti takes over on the music front. Some solid sequences, and never less than entertaining while it’s on, this doesn’t have the guts to give us a really hard-edged thriller, but nor does it sparkle the way that Spy did. Roger Moore’s advancing years now require him to take a paternalistic attitude to an apparently teenage girl who obediently jumps into his bed for a little après-ski, and he doesn’t even get to have it off with Carole Bouquet (thirty years his junior) until the credits are rolling. Insurance wouldn’t even allow him to go underwater, so all of his sub-aqua closeups are shot “dry-for-wet” on a soundstage. Really time to go now, surely? Takes its title (but nothing else) from a collection of short stories, the Fleming novels now having been exhausted, save for the first – Casino Royale – for which Broccoli and co did not control the rights.
Best for: suspense. The ascent up St Cyril’s is genuinely tense and brilliantly staged.

Octopussy (1983)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson, George MacDonald Fraser; d. John Glen
The one with: the trip to India, Q in a hot air balloon, Steven Berkoff, the circus, Fabergé eggs.
Overview: most of the Roger Moore films have a certain tension between wanting to take themselves seriously as spy thrillers (which runs the risk of making them indistinguishable from other spy thrillers) and wanting to give the audience a good time (which runs the risk of double-taking pigeons and the like). However, there is no Bond movie, possibly no movie, more disjointedly lacking in identity than this one. We open with a quite splendid stunt sequence in which Bond cheerfully blows up an airbase somewhere in Latin America. While it is commonly assumed that Bond films open with mini-movies, unconnected with the main feature, only this one and Goldfinger’s genuinely have no connection at all to the main plot. What follows initially is a slab of espionage intrigue surrounding a forged Fabergé egg which is more confusing than interesting. Once we move to India, courtesy of “Flashman” writer George MacDonald Fraser, things take a drastic turn for the worse, with Moore’s smug self-satisfaction now manifesting as patronising parochialism, idiotic jokes like requesting that a ravenous tiger should “si-it” in the manner of TV’s Barbara Woodhouse (she didn’t even train cats for fuck’s sake), or the flute player trilling Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. Then, miraculously, the main threat – driven by Berkoff’s pleasingly unhinged Soviet general – takes hold and we get a really good chase and suspense sequence in an East German circus tent. Although Roger Moore in clown make-up is pretty good shorthand for “Bond films don’t take themselves seriously anymore,” the bomb-at-the-circus scene is played with the kind of deadly earnest that might have benefited other parts of the picture. An attempt has been made to give Moore a leading lady who doesn’t make him look quite so much like a dirty old man – by which I mean she’s 18 years younger than him instead of thirty. Robert Brown takes over as M for this and the next three pictures, and while never doing anything wrong, only makes me miss comfortingly crusty Bernard Lee. That’s this film all over – not much that’s horribly wrong, does feel like a Bond film for the most part, but has been apparently assembled from unconnected bits and pieces left over from previous efforts. That some of these bits are actually quite good doesn’t make the less good ones any more satisfying, of course. More damaging is the general feeling that no-one’s heart is quite in this, and no-one really knows what direction to take the series in now. Time for some fresh blood?
Best for: plot convolutions. Wait, which fucking Fabergé egg is that now?

A View To A Kill (1985)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson; d. John Glen
The one with: The Golden Gate Bridge, Steed out of The Avengers, Christopher Walken, horses
Overview: the same weary team, in front of and behind the camera, staggers out for another miserable canter around a thoroughly well-worn course. From the instant that the moderately impressive snowboard sequence is underscored with the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” you can tell that this is straining for effect rather than effortlessly soaring; thrashing around rather than closing in on its target. The Paris sequences are flat, the horse-doping plotline confusing and boring, Patrick MacNee is wasted, and the San Francisco chase indistinguishable from dozens of similar efforts in contemporary movies and TV shows. Bond himself is reduced to smirking close-ups, stunt men in chunky sweaters, and a cookery demonstration. The final fight on the Golden Gate Bridge is all right, I suppose, but honestly how am I meant to care by this stage? It’s not even the real Beach Boys. Should have been shot in the paddock.
Best for: genuinely nothing. Very much of it is thoroughly poor and while some bits can spastically clamber up to the level of “good” – Grace Jones’s jump off the Eiffel Tower, Christopher Walken’s performance as Zorin, Moore’s partnership with MacNee, each of these is bested earlier in the series (by the ski jump from Spy; Gert Frobe, Donald Pleasance or Michael Lonsdale at least; and Pedro Armendáriz as Kerim Bey, respectively). Many people like the theme song, but it can hardly be called the series’ best. Even the film’s big climax, blowing up the mine, would have been greeted by fans of what were by now being called “action movies” not with happy astonishment but by bored familiarity provided they’d seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which did the same scene far better twelve months earlier.

The Living Daylights (1987)

w. Richard Maibaum, Michael G Wilson; d. John Glen
The one with: the Ferris wheel, the cello case, the Mujahideen as good guys
Overview: Despite one major change in front of the camera, the same writer, producer, director and key supporting cast remain from the previous entries. Lois Maxwell, whose Miss Moneypenny had graced every previous film, is the only casualty other than Roger Moore; she was replaced by the instantly forgettable Caroline Bliss. In comes saturnine Welshman Timothy Dalton, who had reportedly turn the part down in 1969 on the grounds that he was too young (probably rightly, he was 23). This time around, the role had been offered to Pierce Brosnan, but a conflict with the TV series Remmington Steele meant that he was unable to accept it. Dalton signed on the dotted line almost immediately prior to shooting, so Maibaum and Wilson found themselves writing for a generic anybond and not trying to tailor the script to any particular actor’s strengths. Rather remarkably, this approach pays off. It doesn’t hurt that the glamour and globetrotting sophistication has been ramped up, so we are taken to Bratislava, Afghanistan and Tangier, rather than some of the more familiar locales we’ve seen lately. But this movie also balances the tension and wit perfectly. There’s a veneer of emotion in Bond’s attitude to his mission, the girl and his colleagues – enough to give it depth, not enough to be a distraction – the double-crossing plot feels complex enough to be more than an excuse to stitch together a bunch of action sequences, and there’s a comforting nostalgia triggered by things like the return of the Aston Martin, but combined with a freshness and energy that’s been sorely lacking since Moonraker. Good jokes too – as Bond and Kara slide by a snowy border control on a cello-case-cum-sled, waving their passports, Dalton cheerfully brays “we’ve nothing to declare” to the dumb-struck guard. A few niggles – the Pushkin role taken by John Rhys-Davies was intended for Walter Gotell’s General Gogol, part of the Bond “family” since Spy. Bringing in a new character makes it hard to identify with how conflicted Bond feels when told his friend is a traitor. More seriously, there is no properly hissable villain. Joe Don Baker’s Whitaker is introduced too late and has none of the grandiose ambitions of a real Bond villain, and Necros and Koskov are just doing his bidding. A shame, but hardly a major flaw in this, probably the most completely entertaining of all the eighties Bonds. To add to the fun, John Barry returns for a final turn holding the baton and contributes one of his best scores of the series.
Best for: fight scene (aerial). The cargo net fight – a combination of genuine aerial photography, faultlessly matched with a studio set shot with big fans over a painted desert floor – is absolutely fantastic.

Licence to Kill (1989)

w. Michael G Wilson, Richard Maibaum; d. John Glen
The one with: the same Felix Leiter as Live and Let Die, Bond goes rogue, cocaine dissolved in gasoline, Benicio del Toro looking amazingly thin and lithe and young.
Overview: So, the producers think they’ve found a new direction to head in – Timothy Dalton wants to do acting and has a nice line in glowering, and the fans still haven’t shut up about the double-taking pigeon, so we’ll strip back the humour, ramp up the violence and really go for broke. But aren’t Bond movies meant to be fun? Borrowing unfilmed pages from Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die (not for the first time), Bond’s motivation in this movie is having had his best friend Felix fed to a shark while Felix’s new young wife was being raped and killed. Operating outside the purview of MI6, his moral compass seems a little off. The jokey sadism of earlier films has been replaced by a disturbingly psychotic bloodlust, which given the chief villain’s overall scheme seems a little over-the-top to say the least. By this time, the stunt, chase and fight teams have complete mastery over their domains and can make any of these sequences work – so the fight in the bar, Sanchez’s escape and especially the final truck chase are brilliantly executed, and it’s true that the film lacks the disjointed, multiple-personality feel of some of its predecessors. On its own terms, as a one-off story about a slightly unhinged British agent who takes the law into his own hands, it does kind of work. Only the more than usually sustained presence of Desmond Llewellyn’s cuddly Q and the fact that Bond pays no price for his morally questionable actions mars this reading, On the other hand, as a continuation of the story begun in Doctor No, this is unpalatably brutal, lacking in wit and style, with muddy cinematography and it just feels wrong. Possibly the legal troubles, which stalled the franchise for six years following this outing, were a blessing. The first movie not to take its title from a Fleming work, although the phrase had been long associated with Bond.
Best for: chase (vehicular). As mentioned, the truck chase is totally brilliant all the way through.

Next time – the modern era!

Which James Bond film is best? Part Two: The 1970s

Posted on November 27th, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Part one is here.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

w. Richard Maibaum, Tom Mankiewicz; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: Wint and Kidd, Las Vegas, Charles Gray (no, the other one), theme song by Shirley Bassey (no, the other one), the moon buggy chase
Overview: Connery’s back! It’s only been four years since You Only Live Twice but they’ve taken their toll. Noticeably older, greyer and thoroughly uninterested in the whole affair, it’s easily his worst and laziest performance. The only glimpse we get of the old magic is when he steps on the roof of that elevator. On the villain’s side, after a remarkable and indelible portrayal from Donald Pleasance and pretty good effort from Telly Savalas, for the third part of the Blofeld trilogy, for Bond’s revenge for the death of Tracy, for the big showdown, we get a hopelessly miscast Charles Gray, who wanders effetely and ineffectually throughout proceedings and even gets to drag up at one point, as if his mere presence wasn’t already absurd enough. The supposed climax is an appallingly shoddy affair, lumpenly shot, with no wit or style at all. Our last glimpse of this greatest of all Bond villains is this near-incomprehensible slurry on an oil rig. Believe it or not, none of these is the worst crime of this movie. To see what’s really wrong with Diamonds are Forever, you have to look at Tiffany Case and the Las Vegas setting. Bond movies aren’t just chases and punching; they need a bit of glamour, a touch of the exotic. They need sophistication and class to offset the violence. Where Honey, Tatiana, Domino, even Pussy and especially Tracy had had class to spare, Tiffany is brash, crass and totally out of place. Likewise, the Las Vegas setting is overfamiliar, vulgar and no match for the globe-trotting of previous films. Wint and Kidd are fun, but they aren’t onscreen for long. Bambi and Thumper are just ludicrous and the pretitle sequence is cack-handedly shot and edited. I suppose we should be thankful that no major characters are revoiced, but it’s a high price to pay!
Best for: actually, it is best for something. It has the series’ best fight (hand-to-hand). The bonecrunching sequence in the lift is astonishing

Live and Let Die (1973)

w. Tom Mankiewicz; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: all the voodoo, her out of Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman, him off of The Saint, the rigged tarot deck, the fight on the train (no the other one)
Overview: Second time around, they figure out how to deal with Connery’s absence far better. They cast an (English!) actor with his own identity and his own brand of charisma. To avoid comparisons, they avoid or vary the most iconic Bond scenes – no Q, no vodka martinis, cigars instead of cigarettes, Bond is briefed by M in his flat instead of at MI6. And then they stick the new guy into the middle of a blacksploitation movie! Far, far better than the efforts either side of it, Live and Let Die does pretty much work. Some questionable choices – the continually-broadening humour, the awkwardly dated racial attitudes, the weird acceptance of the supernatural, another trip to America – are balanced by some splendid sequences – the back-of-the-crocodiles escape, the final fight with Tee-Hee (derivative but well-staged), the amusing and exciting bus chase and one of the series’ finest title songs (and that’s saying something). Even the Harlem location is made to seem exotic in the way that Istanbul, Japan or Switzerland were (and that Las Vegas wasn’t) largely because Roger Moore’s Bond breezes through it, thoroughly and resolutely English in every move and syllable.
Best for: suave urbanity. Roger Moore would never look or sound better.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

w. Tom Mankiewicz, Richard Maibaum; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: Dracula as the bad guy, mini-me, a flying car for fuck’s sake
Overview: worse even than the dreary Diamonds this is easily the most tedious, least well-constructed and most thoroughly ill-judged Bond of the seventies. Presumably figuring that since Bond-goes-blacksploitation had worked so well, the plan now apparently was to drop him into an Asian chop-socky movie. I guess that might have worked, but it would need to be much better-plotted, far more stylish, have far less Clifton James in it and a much, much shorter boat chase. Live and Let Die spent about twenty minutes zooming around the Louisiana Bayous and the presence there of a redneck sheriff at least made some sort of sense. Reprised here at twice the length and with half the wit, it brings the middle of the movie to a yawn-inducing halt. What bright spots there are are generally obscured by the errors of judgement either side. Even that spectacular corkscrew car-jump has a stupid swannee whistle sound effect over it. The final duel allows Christopher Lee a bit of room to play but the script does him no favours at all. Moore is fine, but when you add the stupidest Bond girl of the whole series (and that’s saying something) then the whole thing pretty much collapses. And did I mention the flying car?
Best for: gadget. That it (the golden gun of the title) belongs to the villain speaks to how poorly-judged all this is.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

w. Christopher Wood, Richard Maibaum; d. Lewis Gilbert.
The one with: agent XXX, Jaws (no the other one), the submarine-eating boat, the sub-aqua Lotus Esprit
Overview: All change! After three movies ranging from uneven to appalling, all with the same key creative personnel, but with producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no longer on speaking terms – something had to be done to stop the rot. Saltzman sold his share of the Bond franchise to United Artists, leaving Broccoli in sole charge. His response to the previous film’s disappointing box office was to secure double the budget and spend three years getting this one just right. It succeeds magnificently. From the jaw-dropping ski-off-a-cliff pre-titles stunt to the final destruction of the Liparus, this successfully balances the humour and the jeopardy, gives the girl something to do, ramps the gadgetry and spectacle way up and brings that glamour and exotic sheen back to the series. When Roger Moore, looking fantastic in his tuxedo, is fighting a man with metal teeth in the middle of the Egyptian desert, you know you’re watching a Bond movie and all is right with the world. I also think that this was Moore’s first time in a tux as Bond and that seems significant somehow. The villain is a bit ho-hum, the plot is basically an underwater rehash of You Only Live Twice (and it’s got the same director), and the Broadway version of the theme song “Nobody Does It Better” over Bond’s final double-entendre is hideous, but these are minor quibbles. Spy proved that Bond in the seventies made sense, and if that wasn’t enough, for about thirty seconds during the “In our business, Anya, people get killed” scene, you can catch Roger Moore acting! The car-turning-into-a-submarine is almost as stupid an idea as the car-turning-into-a-plane in the previous film, but everyone concerned is paying attention this time and they make you believe it. And then make you laugh at it. Masterly.
Best for: stunts. Rick Sylvester, doubling for Roger Moore, skis off that cliff for queen and country.

Moonraker (1979)

w. Christopher Wood, d. Lewis Gilbert
The one with: Bond in space! But also in France, Venice and the Amazon, not to mention falling from 20,000 feet.
Overview: Often-maligned and held up as a grim example of all that went wrong with James Bond, when you actually sit down and watch it, most of it is fine, and some of it is very good indeed. The problem is that the occasional lapses of judgement are genuinely ghastly. The astonishing aerial work in the pretitles sequence is capped off by the crass gag with Jaws feebly flapping his arms; the sumptuous Venice location is defiled by the absurd hover-gondola sequence complete with infamous double-taking pigeon; and then there’s that Star Wars space battle at the end. But if you can swallow the idea of a squadron of laser-toting British troops storming a space station then you’ve got to admit that it’s wonderfully well staged. What I remember as a kid is the feeling of disappointment I got when Sean Connery was prevented from taking off in You Only Live Twice and the unbelievable excitement I felt when Roger Moore made it into orbit! But even if everything from take-off onward is a wash as far as you’re concerned, the earlier sequences have any number of classic moments – the centrifuge scene gives us Moore’s Bond genuinely hurt and scared; the pheasant-shooting scene is taught, grim and witty; the boat chase is commendably brief (and we get to hear John Barry’s 007 theme again for the first time in ages) and the cable-car fight is hugely exciting. Sure, this is the same plot as the previous film yet again, but with many of the plot holes closed, a better leading lady and a far better chief villain. On the other hand, Roger Moore’s suave savoir-faire is starting to seem off-puttingly smug and his hair, closely cropped and neatly parted in 1973, is rapidly heading towards eighties swept-back absurdity. He’s also starting to look a little long-in-the-tooth for all this running-around and punching people. Time to go?
Best for: villainy. Drax is genuinely scary and beautifully played by Michael Lonsdale. Oh! And, best double-entendre, if only for the sheer lengths the script goes to to make it work – “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir!”

Next time – the John Glen years.

Which James Bond film is best? Part One: The 1960s

Posted on November 23rd, 2010 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

As regular readers of this blog (are there such things?) will know, I love a long-running franchise, and I love a list. With no Doctor Who until the Christmas special, I thought I’d turn my eye on that other audio-visual hero of the sixties, played by a succession of British actors, resurrected and suddenly made relevant again in the twenty-first century – James Bond. But which James Bond film is best? Well, all of them obviously. At least, each one is best for something. And before you ask, no the Casino Royale with David Niven and Woody Allen doesn’t count and nor does Never Say Never Again.

Dr No (1962)

w: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather; d. Terence Young
The one with: Ursula Andress coming out of the sea, “That’s a Smith & Wesson and you’ve had your six”, Jamaica, metal hands
Overview: Rarely has a film series started with such confidence, such dash and such style. Connery, while only bearing a passing resemblance to the Bond of the books, instantly inhabits the role, his body-builder’s bulk moving cat-like under director Terence Young’s sheen of sophistication – he’s magnetic. Other elements of the series are also in place right from the start – Monty Norman’s theme tune (arranged by John Barry), the bonkers villain with his mad plan, Ken Adam’s demented set-design, the girl – but others have yet to emerge – the titles sequence starts with the gun barrel but then goes all wonky, the action is a little underbudgeted, there’s no Q and it does take a while to get going. What survives after nearly fifty years is the vitality and opulence. If it looks this fresh today, just imagine how audiences in 1962 reacted. Ursula Andress as Honey Rider is dubbed throughout by Monica van der Zyl.
Best for: Entrance of a Bond girl. In casting, dialogue, camera work, everything, this is iconic.

From Russia With Love (1963)

w. Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood; d. Terence Young
The one with: the gypsy encampment, Kerim Bey, Red Grant, Rosa Klebb and her spiky shoes
Overview: Free of the excesses of the later efforts, but even more confident than its predecessor, this is probably the only Bond film which really functions as an espionage movie, easily the best of the 1960s, and possibly the best one ever. Scene after scene is both iconic and brilliantly-staged – the pretitles unveiling of not-Bond, Rosa Klebb’s knuckle-duster-assisted selection of Red Grant, Robert Shaw as Red Grant, the often-imitated but never equalled train fight, and the first love scene between Bond and Tatiana – still being used to audition new Bonds and new girls twenty-five years later. While it doesn’t have the wall-to-wall action of many later films, what makes this movie succeed is that the spy stuff is genuinely gripping, but when it goes for action it really delivers. Daniella Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova is dubbed throughout by Barbara Jefford.
Best for: Best friends. Kerim Bey is just perfect.

Goldfinger (1964)

w. Richard Maibaum, Paul Dehn; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: The golf game, the Aston Martin, Oddjob, Shirley Eaton covered in gold paint. “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”
Overview: Only three movies in, and the template is pretty much set. Gun barrel, pretitles sequence (this is the one where Bond unzips the wetsuit to reveal the white tuxedo), wobbly graphics over wailing song, villain, sacrificial lamb girl, chase, new girl, villain’s plan, villain’s plan foiled, tah-dah! Q and John Barry, introduced in the last film, are now permanent residents and the action sequences and gadgets reach a new deliriously over-the-top level with the introduction of the Aston Martin. Yet for all the iconic images which dominate it; for all that the villain, henchman and girl set the template for all the films that follow, actually as two hours of cinema it’s not perfect, thanks to a rather static middle third during which Bond is locked up and inactive. Gert Frobe as Goldfinger is dubbed throughout by Michael Collins.
Best for: Theme song, obviously.

Thunderball (1965)

w. Richard Maibaum, John Hopkins; d. Guy Hamilton
The one with: all the underwater stuff. No, not that one, the other one.
Overview: Oh dear. What went wrong? Goldfinger’s Aston Martin is replaced by a fairly risible rocket pack (although genuine – albeit fantastically limited in range), Honor Blackman’s stunningly self-assured Pussy Galore is replaced by the dull and whiny Claudine Auger – dubbed throughout by Monica van der Zyl again, Gert Frobe’s charismatic villain is replaced by the anonymous and bland Adolpho Celi – dubbed throughout by Robert Rietty – and the lush, witty and tense final showdown at Fort Knox is replaced by an awful lot of slow and murky underwater photography, and a hamfistedly back-projected and undercranked boat chase. It’s not all bad news – the opening scenes at Shrublands are fun (although it doesn’t feel like the movie’s started yet) and Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe is wonderful, but to modern eyes most of this looks ponderous and clumsy. Audiences at the time didn’t seem to mind – adjusted for inflation it’s the most successful Bond movie ever by quite some way.
Best for: death of the villain’s number two (you can’t really call Fiona a “henchman”) – “Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead…”

You Only Live Twice (1967)

w. Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl); d. Lewis Gilbert.
The one with: the base in the volcano, Donald Pleasance as the scarred and cat-stroking Blofeld trying to start World War III (no, not that one, the other one).
Overview: With new occupants in the writer’s and director’s chairs, this movie also sees the first time that the Fleming novel of the same name is almost totally abandoned. Novellist and short-story writer Dahl, just embarking on his career as a children’s writer, contributes his only Bond screenplay and it represents the last piece of the Bond puzzle. All future movies will attempt to recapture fond memories of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, or will be attempting to reinvent the series in some way. To be fair, many of these attempts are wildly successful, but the period of heady discovery ends here, with Blofeld’s fantastic underground lair. When people spoof Bond, reference Bond or reuse the archetypes, more often than not it’s this film they’re thinking of, not least because the basic plot (in the sense of storyline and in the sense of evil plan) is recycled half-a-dozen more times after this. What’s sometimes forgotten is – as with Goldfinger – how sluggish much of the middle is. Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka is dubbed throughout by Robert Rietty again.
Best for: villain’s lairs. How do you top a volcano?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

w. Richard Maibaum; d. Peter Hunt.
The one with: all the skiing. No, the other one.
Overview: Connery quits! In response the series firstly attempts to test the theory that it doesn’t really matter who plays Bond, and secondly returns to adapting novels rather than inventing bonkers plots to stitch together stunt sequences. Neither proves to be a wholly satisfactory experiment. George Lazenby, supposedly cast because he moved so beautifully, looks stiff and awkward, sounds ghastly (and is himself unfathomably dubbed by George Baker when supposedly impersonating Sir Hilary) and never convinces. Opposite him, Telly Savalas is surprisingly good as Blofeld – but not as good as Pleasance and because it’s such a faithful adaptation of the book, they just ignore the fact that Blofeld knows perfectly well what Bond looks like because he met him Japan. Then, there’s Diana Rigg. The Bond people have gone Avengers shopping again and come up with a stunning performance from the erstwhile Emma Peel. With Rigg on the screen, it’s almost possible to forget about Lazenby. In widescreen, the film looks amazing, but many of the chases and fights go on too long (the bobsled run lasts about a week), that awful undercranking is back and there’s that ghastly line at the end of the pretitles sequence. On the other hand, the love story actually works, so does the espionage stuff, and the ending is absolutely stunning in every way. Much of it is the best the series ever managed, much else is dated and clumsy. It’s also almost the longest Bond movie, running well over two hours (only the 2006 Casino Royale is longer) and it’s in desperate need of a trim. As well as Lazenby, Gabriele Ferzetti as Draco was dubbed by David de Keyser.
Best for: genuine emotion. But is that what you want from a Bond film?

Next time… Roger Moore and the seventies!

False Reincorporation

Posted on March 9th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | 2 Comments »

When a storyteller of any kind begins a story for an audience, it is understood between them that the story will make sense and have a point. Some stories lack cause and effect and so don’t make sense: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in. I actually put a rhino in it. And then fell off the balcony.” This is suprising but not coherent.

Some make sense but have no point: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in, but it was the wrong colour so I took it back”. This is coherent but unsuprising – the effect is not interesting.

In each case, some element of cause and effect is missing.

When elements from earlier in the story are reincorporated, there may or may not be cause and effect.

Star Wars. The Force is SHELVED (disregarded) while Luke makes his attack on the Death Star, but then MEMORIES of Ben CAUSE Luke to turn off his aiming computer and fire the winning shot using just the Force – which proves to be successful. Cause and effect all present and correct.

However, Han Solo is also SHELVED – he has opted out of the mission – only to be REINCORPORATED when he suddenly show up in time to blast Darth Vader’s ship and allow Luke to make his final run unmolested. What caused Solo to return and at that exact moment? Well, it’s far from clear, but because it’s a reincorporation, you get a pass. The CAUSE is the storyteller. A random pilot showing up out of nowhere just isn’t satisfying.

So, the understanding between storyteller and audience contains another detail, which is an extension of the first. “I include elements in this story for a reason.” Trouble is, audience members get wise to this. When the director includes a bloody big close up of a spike during a fight scene, and for no obvious reason, the audience *knows* that the bad guy is going to get that same spike in the face pretty shortly. When James Bond gets a certain gadget from Q, you’re waiting and waiting for him to use it in the field. If he never used it, you’d be disappointed. Once he does. you relax.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but what do you do if you want to suprise an audience? Bringing in something arbitrary, especially at the end is what audiences generally call a “cop out”. If at the end of the Wizard of Oz, Glinda says “just hold a cat above your head and say ‘fiddlesticks’ three times and you’ll be home in a jiffy”, that would be nonsense. It’s the ruby slippers (silver in the book, but this is the movie) on Dorothy’s feet the whole time which have the power to get her home, BUT WE DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING.

So, how do you hide your suprises in plain sight? Plenty of ways. John Cleese has said that in writing Fawlty Towers, he and Connie Booth would bend over backwards to make the set ups as funny as possible. That way the audience would remember but not analyse.

More subtly, the Ruby Slippers have already played a role throughout the Wizard of Oz. It’s the presence of the slippers on Dorothy’s feet which antagonises the Wicked Witch in the first place, and her desire to posess them causes her to try to kill Dorothy. Because they’ve already played a part, they aren’t hanging around like an as-yet-unused Bond gadget.

Now consider the last film I happened to see: 16 Blocks. Not a masterpiece of screenwriting by any means, but solidly constructed nonetheless. The movie begins with Bruce Willis trapped on board a bus, apparently believing that the end is near, dictating his last will and testament into a dictaphone. The movie then flashes back to earlier that day and over the next hour or so, we see the events which brought him to the bus. When one of the passengers drops a dictaphone and Willis scoops it up we think “well, I know what that’s for” and we feel very pleased with ourselves. But there’s still a good 40 minutes or so to go before the end.

30 minutes later, Willis has a verbal showdown with antoganist David Morse, during which they both articulate their moral positions. Willis then turns himself in as a witness against his fellow cops and in the courthouse, an attempt is made on his life and he falls to the floor. The dictaphone falls out of his pocket and begins to play… David Morse incriminating himself.

The POINT of the dictaphone is NOT to be reincorporated on the bus, it’s to be reincorporated in the court room. But unless Willis has a reason to pick it up on the bus, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Willis has NO REASON to pick it up on the bus, he doesn’t even get to finish his last will and testament, but the structuring reassures the audience that that loose end has been tidied away and we don’t need to look out for it anymore. We’ll sure as hell remember it when it comes up again though. This is a FALSE REINCORPORATION.

Another example, from The Incredibles. In a flashback early in the film, we see Mr Incredible pestered by his biggest fan, Buddy. Later in the flashback, Buddy is reincorporated during Mr Incredible’s attempt to defeat bad-guy Bomb Voyage and his further pestering is seen as being responsible for the anti-superhero law suits which have condemned Mr Incredible to a life of tedious office-work. The audience knows why Buddy was introduced, and has seen him reincorporated. The tick him off their list of things to worry about. The other shoe has dropped.

When, later in the movie the villain Syndrome is revealed to be Buddy all grown-up and hell-bent on revenge it’s hard therefore to see it coming. The first, false, reincorporation hides the second.

Maybe you’re smarter than me and you saw both those twists coming. Fair enough, some of the audience will often be ahead of the storyteller, and that’s just a fact of life. But I believe FALSE REINCORPORATION is an excellent substitute for both Obvious Set-ups and Cheap Suprise if you want to catch at least some of the audience unawares without them feeling cheated.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.