Archive for December, 2010

2300 year-old quote

Posted on December 20th, 2010 in Blah | No Comments »

I’m aware that this is not exactly new, but it’s new to me.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Epicurus (341BC – 270BC)

Merry Christmas everyone!

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).