Saturday, November 4, 2017

Spectre


A few post ago in my Quantum of Solace review, I mentioned how the Bond franchise seems to have trouble stringing two great films together (with the exception of the early Connery films). In the case of Quantum, I believe there was a perfect storm situation of a rushed production schedule, an unfinished script due to the writers' strike, and unfair expectations after the greatness that was Casino Royale.  The film has its problems, but it is not awful.  It certainly doesn't make me angry,  Spectre is technically a better movie than Quantum of Solace,  but it makes me angry.  Very angry.

What a missed opportunity this movie is.  After four decades, Eon Productions finally got the rights back to James Bond's greatest nemesis, SPECTRE, and its nefarious leader Ernst Blofeld (read why they didn't have the rights in my For Your Eyes Only review!). Sean Connery's Bond spent most of his career fighting against SPECTRE in some pretty spectacular films, and it was really exciting to hear that Daniel Craig would be continuing that fight.

Immediately, there was a small problem to deal with. With Casino Royale, the production team introduced Quantum as a surrogate for SPECTRE.  It was an international organization that was hellbent on total domination and so secret that not even MI6 knew of its existence.  For two films, they carefully cultivated the power of Quantum.  So now that the franchise got SPECTRE back, they had to figure out the question, "how can Quantum and SPECTRE both exist?"  The odds of there being another top secret international organization that is hellbent on total domination and is so secret that not even MI6 knows of its existence would be hard to believe.  This issue had to resolved, and they came up with a simple answer for this.  Quantum is actually just a subdivision of SPECTRE.  It's a simple idea, but borderline genius. If Quantum is that powerful and it's just one piece of SPECTRE, then WOW, SPECTRE must be astronomically powerful.  That's a good threat for Bond.  Sadly, this is one of the few truly good ideas in the movie.

Sigh, let's get started.

Bond has gone a bit rogue again, as he tends to do when Daniel Craig is playing him, and much to the chagrin of his new M (Ralph Fiennes).  The opening scene involves an unsanctioned and brutal assassination in Mexico City that drives M bonkers. Just like in the beginning of Casino Royale, Bond has gone and made a big scene, bringing attention to MI6's operations and making British intelligence look bad on the world stage.  The timing is particularly bad. MI6 is under attack from an independent global intelligence agency led by Max Denbigh (Sherlock's Moriarty, Andrew Scott) which wants to combine all the world's spy networks into an international Big Brother called Nine Eyes. With Nine Eyes eavesdropped on every conversation in the world, there really is no need for national spy programs like MI6, and certainly no place for field agents like 007.  And now Bond's shenanigans have given Denbigh more ammo to try and dismantle MI6 for good.  Why would he do such a thing?!

Well, it seems that before she died in Skyfall, the previous M (Judi Dench) sent James Bond a recording saying, "hey, if I ever die, I want you to go kill this guy."  She doesn't give any explanations, but Bond leaps into action anyway. Although he is put on disciplinary leave after Mexico, he continues to investigate the background of his target, following the trail to discover the most insidious and nefarious evil organization of all time - the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, otherwise known as SPECTRE! 

Look, right off the bat, I don't want to say the film is all bad.  It's not.  Most of the same team from Skyfall returns, including director Sam Mendes, writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, and composer Thomas Newman.  Director Roger Deakins sat this movie out, but was replaced by the skilled Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk) who fills in admirably.  The film looks good and is well constructed, as it should be with this group of professionals steering the ship. But even with this group, it just seems like something is missing. Everything is done well, but it just lacks the fire and the passion that made Skyfall so entertaining.  It's almost as if Spectre is just going through the motions.  Which is surprising to me because this is an important film.  They are re-introducing Bond's greatest enemy.  Shouldn't they be pumped?

In terms of plot, there is some interesting stuff going on here. There are some good sequences, including a solid scene in Rome when he attends his victim's funeral and rescues (and then, uh, sleeps with) his widow Lucia, played by Monica Belluci (Matrix Reloaded), who is the oldest Bond girl in franchise history at age 51, and still easily one of the most beautiful.  His trail then takes him to Switzerland where he needs to get information from the Madeleine Swann (Leá Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color), the daughter of Casino Royale's villainous Mr. White (Jesper Christensen).  It's all intriguing, if not terrific.  But I was still going to give the film the benefit of the doubt.  There was enough good stuff in there that I could safely give it a positive review as long as they stuck the landing.

And they don't.  They really, really don't.  They don't even come close to landing on their feet. No, Spectre falls flat on its face and shatters into a thousand pieces.

It's spoiler time!

The real problem comes when we are finally introduced to SPECTRE and its leader Blofeld.  Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is ideal casting for this villainous character and he does what he can with the role, but they really weigh him down with utterly ridiculous plot details.

Our first big twist that makes no sense is that Blofeld is really Bond's lost lost foster brother. After Bond's parents were killed, he was taken in by a new family, the Obenhausers.  The son, Franz, was so infuriated that he now had a foster brother that he killed his own father, faked his own death, renamed himself Ernst Blofeld and then went on to create the most far reaching and powerful criminal organization the world has ever seen.  WHAT?! The idea is just plain stupid.  And it also undoes something I really quite liked about the Bond vs. SPECTRE struggle, starting all the way back with Dr. No.  SPECTRE is all powerful and can do anything, but this knat, this annoying "policeman," as Dr. No calls him, just keeps mucking everything up for them.  I thought that was kind of cool.  But that is undone by tying SPECTRE's origin with Bond's.

Look, I understand what they are trying to do - the idea of two brothers whose fates are intermingled - but one destined for good and the other for evil - is an ancient, almost mythic story trope.  First of all, the plot device is completely unnecessary.  Everything doesn't need to be interconnected in movies today.  It's perfectly okay to have a good guy and a bad guy who didn't know each other before the events of the movie.  Secondly, this story device ruins SPECTRE as a villain.  SPECTRE works when it is the all-powerful and mysterious organization that has its fingers in every country and and is an insidious corrupting influence on everyone.  That is what makes it an effective and scary opponent.  As soon as you reduce that to an annoying teenager who was jealous that his daddy liked Bond more than him....well, shit, they just ruined SPECTRE permanently.

The film is not helped by the fact they they then try to retcon the events of the first three Daniel Craig films into some sort of grand master plan that Blofeld had been scheming about for apparently decades.  "I am the author of all your pain." Blofeld tells Bond, taking credit for everything, including the death of Vesper (never mind that Vesper killed herself. Sigh.).  As soon as you start thinking about what this master plan means the more you realize it is utterly absurd. You think Silva's plan in Skyfall was complicated?   Well, Blofeld's master is even more of a long con!  Let's take Casino Royale, for instance.  Can we imagine Blofeld explaining this to his minions?  "Okay, team, I have a plan. I want Bond to feel bad so I am going to make his girlfriend feel so guilty about betraying him that she is going to kill herself.  But first he needs a girlfriend.  So how about I engineer a card game that Bond will need to enter, and then I can have one of the women I have blackmailed into joining my cause to put up the buy-in money.  But how do I engineer a card game?  Oh, I know, there is a banker in my own organization. I will convince him to steal money from one of my own clients and try to blow up a plane, and I know Bond will stop him from blowing up said plane. Once that happens, the banker will naturally decide that a high stakes poker game is the way to repay the client's money, and Bond will surely enter that game, get the buy-in from our double agent, promptly fall in love with her, win the poker game, get captured and tortured by my people - but I won't let him die here. Oh, no, I will send Mr. White in to kill the banker and free Bond so I can "author more pain" for him in the future." And then my double agent will feel so guilty that she will kill herself, and Bond will be sad.  That is my master plan, muwahahahahah!"

Though SPECTRE does not explicitly say all of that, this is the bullcrap they are expecting us to accept.  Once you think about what Blofeld is implying, your head will hurt. There is suspension of disbelief, I get that, but this is just absurd and makes no sense whatsoever.

There are also other problems with this film, mostly in the second half...

I don't buy the love story for a second.  Madeleine Swann is an acceptable Bond girl, and Lea Seydoux puts in a fine performance, but I don't believe Bond falling in love with her, and I absolutely do not think Bond would ever leave MI6 for her, like he does at the end of Spectre.  Bond's love for Vesper in Casino Royale felt real and earned, and I do think Bond would have retired for her.  But his relationship with Madeleine is forced and exists merely for the plot.  They fell in love because the script told them to, and not for any reason that makes any real sense. 

And then there are little things that bother me about the movie - issues that ordinarily wouldn't be that big of a deal, but are more evident and noticeable because the rest of the film is crashing apart.  In a way, the terrific cast sort of ends up hurting the film because it leads the production team into making some unnecessary storylines.  With Fiennes, Harris, and Whishaw in the cast, they are desperate to find something for them to do, so the pointless subplot with Denbigh is created, and we have the MI6 characters running through London like the Scooby Doo gang trying to get Nine Lives shut down. Ridiculous. 

Another thing that is annoying is how the film's plot gets moving in the first place.  Why would M leave a video to tell Bond, "If I am killed, then I need you to kill this guy and go to his funeral."  Why would she do that?  Why this covert mission after her death when it seems to be a perfectly viable threat to deal with when she was alive?  And how would she even know about SPECTRE?  The amazing thing about Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace is that the organization is so entrenched that MI6 didn't even know about of its existence.  If M had no idea Quantum existed, then how would she know about the even more secretive SPECTRE???

And now I am going to get petty and point out a small thing!  Just as in Skyfall, attempts at humor generally clash with the darkly serious tone of the film.  Admittedly, sometimes the jokes do pay off (I like Bond's visit to the health clinic), but one attempt at humor downright ruins the best sequence in the movie, when Bond has a vicious fight in a train with Blofeld's henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy).  Bautista is a terrific and imposing presence, and the fight is expertly constructed until its final moments when the entire theater rolled their eyes because of a pointless gag.  What a waste.

This whole movie is a waste.  And that is why it made me angry.  Eon Productions had SPECTRE back after decades.  They were riding a wave of good will after the massive success of Skyfall.  They didn't rush this film.  They had time to make it right.  And the result is infuriating.  There have been other bad Bond films, but you can bounce back from them.  Just ignore them and move on.  With Spectre, that isn't quite that easy.  By introducing Blofeld the way that they do, they have ruined Bond's greatest enemy and done permanent damage to the franchise.  And that's just unforgiveable.



RANKINGS:

What to do, what to do. As I mentioned, Spectre really isn't that bad for a large portion of its running time.  There is good material in here.  But when it blows up, it does so in an epic manner, and the final result is a film that is absolutely infuriating.  So what does that mean?  My heart wants to put the film at the bottom of the list, but my head can't objectively allow me to do that.  I just can't in good conscience put this near View to a Kill.  But I can't rank it that high because I truly believe this film damaged the franchise.  I think I am going to have to put it around Die Another Day - interestingly enough another Bond film that starts with promise and then collapses spectacularly.  Ultimately, what makes the decision for me is this - if a gun was pointed to my head and I was being forced to watch Die Another Day or Spectre, which one would I pick?  Die Another Day is just stupid.  The movie would finish and that would be the end of it.  Spectre's flaws would linger.  So therefore, I will put Spectre right below it.  That's goes to #19.

1. Casino Royale
2. Thunderball
3. From Russia With Love
4. Goldfinger
5. Skyfall
6. The Spy Who Loved Me
7. Goldeneye
8. The Living Daylights
9. Dr. No
10. Octopussy
11. For Your Eyes Only
12. Tomorrow Never Dies
13. Live and Let Die
14. License to Kill
15. Man with the Golden Gun
16. Quantum of Solace
17. Diamonds are Forever
18. Die Another Day
19. Spectre
20. The World is Not Enough
21. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
22. Moonraker
23. You Only Live Twice
24. A View to a Kill



BEST LINE:

Mr. White: You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond. 


TRIVIA:

It would be hard for me to mention Spectre without bringing up the Sony script hack. In 2015, hackers broke into Sony's email systems and released to the public thousands of emails from company executives, many of which were embarrassing to the executives or to the company itself. One of the topics the executives were concerned about was the script to Spectre.  It sounded like the studio had some real problems with the script, especially the last act.  The script itself was eventually leaked online, too, and people who read it had the same complaints.  Production was going to start soon, but there was a scramble to rewrite the finale, which might explain why the climax seems a bit choppy.  But tweaking the ending was never going to resolve the underlying problem this film has.  It makes me wish the script leak had happened earlier.  Maybe there would have been enough time to rewrite the whole darn thing. 


MVP:

I did debate myself on this one.  Daniel Craig is excellent, as always.  He really is a terrific Bond and he is always watchable.  But I think the winner of the MVP is going to go for the second time to the Director of Photography.  I was very disappointed when Roger Deakins didn't return, but I am a fan of Hoyte van Hoytema's work.  He keeps the film stylish, giving each location an unique look and feel - compare the dry haze, overly bright Mexico City to the dark saturation and lushness of Rome at night.  That sequence in Rome is particularly well filmed, especially the scene where Bond saves Lucia, which is truly a highlight.  In the end, I think the choice is clear.  Hoytema gets my MVP. 






Sunday, September 24, 2017

Skyfall


The James Bond series has powered through the decades, exciting and frustrating audiences with many peaks and valleys.  It seems the franchise has been riding a roller coaster, with as many highs as there were lows, and a whole lot of chugging along the middle.  Daniel Craig's first film, Casino Royale, was undoubtedly a high. but its follow-up Quantum of Solace was definitely a step the in wrong direction.

...And then came Skyfall, which is arguably James Bond at its peak.  Based on the stats, Skyfall is probably the most successful Bond film to date.  The movie grossed $304,360,277 in the U.S. box office and cracked $1 billion worldwide, making it the biggest box office hit of the franchise.  Even with inflation accounted for, Skyfall ranks third on the list behind Goldfinger and Thunderball.  The movie was nominated for five Oscars, winning two of them.  Rotten Tomatoes' aggregation of critics (as of June 2017) marks Skyfall as the best of the series.  In short, the movie was a monstrous critical and audience favorite.

Is Skyfall really that good?  Well, no.  It's good, but it's not THAT good.  But I wanted to start with this point because there is no denying that the film became a bit of an phenomenon, taking the world by storm, and being hoisted up into a rarified atmosphere - this was the Bond film that was getting touted as a potential Best Picture nominee, after all.  And when a genre film crosses over into that sort of critical conversation, it's just a fascinating thing to think about.  

It is really interesting to consider why the world responded the way it did.  I think there are a couple of elements at play here.  For one thing, Eon Productions learned a lesson from the frenzied pace of Quantum of Solace, which just seems like it was a rush job from the very beginning to capitalize on the success of Casino Royale.  They took their time with Skyfall, and took a full four years to make sure they got it right.

The slower pace actually could apply to the film itself, too!  Skyfall is more of a slowburn. It's measured, calculating, and builds to its action sequences instead of charging from explosive set piece to explosive set piece without anything inbetween.  It's just a really well constructed film.  Which I suppose is what this all comes down to.  Skyfall is just an incredibly well made movie and deserved to be a massive hit.

And it makes sense when you look at the team they put together.  Maybe critics were pre-disposed to like the movie because the esteemed Sam Mendes was brought on as director.  An Academy Award-winner for American Beauty, Mendes also directed Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition, and Jarhead, making him one of the best critically well-regarded filmmakers to ever step into the Bond director's chair.  And the production team Mendes put together was top-notch.  He brought back the superb editor Stuart Baird, who had also edited Casino Royale (as well as Superman, Lethal Weapon, Gorillas in the Mist, and a bunch of other films).   He also brought onboard Thomas Newman as composer, an unusual choice as Newman usually sticks with drama (The Shawshank Redemption) or animated films (Finding Nemo).  And while I do miss David Arnold, who had worked on the previous five Bond films, I have to say that Newman produced a stylish and exciting action score for his first Bond film.  To round out the music end of things, the award-winning singer Adele was hired for the title song, and she wrote a booming powerhouse of a song that reminds me of the classic days of Shirley Bassey.  Sam Mendes has always had an eye for the visual, and his movies always look brilliant.  For Skyfall, he returned to the master of light, Roger Deakins, who had shot Jarhead (as well as most of the Coen Brothers' movies).  I'll talk about the result more later, but Deakins' photography in this film is brilliant.  As far as the writing team, the usual Bond writers Neal Purvis and  Robert Wade were joined by John Logan - who is admittedly a mixed bag for me personally. Good John Logan wrote Gladiator, Hugo and Aviator.  Bad John Logan gave us Star Trek: Nemesis and The Time Machine.  But I am happy to say that Logan is firing on all cylinders here.

So with that pedigree of talent added to the well oiled machine that is Eon Productions, is there any doubt that Skyfall would have been good?  Were critics slapped silly by the sheer amount of talent involved and committed to liking the film before it even came out?  Maybe.

The story is certainly not original.  In the film's opening scene, a hard drive containing the identities of all the British undercover agents is stolen, and Bond is now on a mission to get it back.  We've seen this storyline before, but this time it is only an entry point for the true narrative.  The culprit is former British agent Silva (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men), who has targeted MI6 and specifically his old boss M (Judi Dench, Philomena).  He could not care less about the hard drive.  It's just a means to an end.  And that end needs to involve M's death.

Skyfall's ride truly is entertaining, with some stunning set pieces.  From the shadows and neon beams of Shanghai to the komodo dragon sequence in the Macao casino to a thrilling firefight during a government oversight hearing, there are several thrilling and memorable set pieces in this movie. Javier Bardem is a brilliant villain - witty, charming, a bit insane, and truly the other side of the coin that is James Bond.  And Bardem's performance is full of just bizarre acting choices that aren't just entertaining; they are right for the character.  He is a top five villain for me.  Other newcomers include Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) as a government officer trying to reign in MI6, Naomie Harris (Moonlight) as the new Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw (Perfume) as the new Q, Bérénine Marlohe (Twin Peaks) as the femme fatale who works for Silva, and the legendary Albert Finney (Tom Jones) as the groundskeeper of the old Bond Family estate - the film's namesake, Skyfall.  Now that is one hell of a cast.

So, yes, Skyfall is a really good film, but with the amount of talent involved, it had better have been! But we should be clear here - this is not the best Bond film.  Even if in many ways it was the most successful, and a high water mark for the franchise, the film has its flaws and has been fairly criticized by a lot of people.  I should warn you I am getting into SPOILER territory here.

The problem with Skyfall is that it kind of starts to fall apart the more you think about it.  The movie is so stylish and so well put together that it is only when you step back that you start to see the cracks forming.  Silva's revenge plot is INSANELY complicated.  It involves getting captured on purpose and having his equipment confiscated, knowing the exact moment that Q will try to access said stolen equipment, which will then infect MI6 with a virus.  Silva will then escape, knowing that James Bond will follow him because he planted explosives ahead of time in the exact tunnel they will be running down. This explosion will then send a subway train that Silva knew would be driving by at that exact instant hurdling towards James Bond's head.  Outside the subway station, henchmen walk by a door at the exact moment Silva gets out of the tunnel (such impeccable timing!) and give him a police officer's uniform so they can walk to a government committee hearing where M is being questioned and assassinate her.  That plan...is really complicated and even writing it gives me a bit of a headache. Suspension of disbelief is a crucial part of any movie-going experience, and Skyfall doesn't just flirt with that line; it hulks out and shatters it.  The highest compliment I can give the film is that it is so well made that instead of yelling at the screen, you sit back and enjoy the ride.  It's only later that you say, "Wait, what?  WTF?!!?"

The movie also falls flat when it comes to the comedy.  The producers talked about injecting some comedy into the proceedings to lighten the tone.  Well, they fail at that.  When the film is as dark as this, any comedic moments stick out like a sore thumb.  Better to not even try.  And it's not that Daniel Craig can't perform comedy; Casino Royale has some big laugh out loud moments.  But the tone of this film just clashes with the comedic bits they try to sprinkle in.

The more I think about it, the more I dislike the ending, too.  Bond does kill Silva, but not before the villain mortally wounds M.  Which means, wait a minute, the bad guys win?  Silva doesn't want to conquer the world and seems perfectly willing to die as long as he can take M down with him.  In fact, he almost prefers to die so he doesn't have to deal with this annoying world any more.  And that is exactly what happens. He and his private army are destroyed but he kills M in the process...so he wins.  And James Bond loses.  Which is an interesting development if that was the plan going in, but I really don't think it was.  I think the studio really thinks Bond came out of this film as the winner, but nothing could be further from the truth. Bond loses. And the whole thing is really an unceremonial way to dispose of the terrific Judi Dench, who is arguably the coolest M the franchise has ever had.   They should have just let her retire gracefully.

Do any of these complaints ruin the film?  Absolutely not.  This is a stylish, expertly made thriller and it really does rank among the best of the franchise.  But these are the moments that pull it down, making it less than its reputation.  It's in the upper echelon, but it is not the top dog, no matter what the stats say. 

The one other thing I wanted to mention is that I love how this film sets up the franchise for additional installments.  Ralph Fiennes slips seamlessly into the role as the new M, we have a new Moneypenny for Bond to flirt with and a new Q for Bond to frustrate.  The new MI6 offices closely resemble the spy headquarters during the Connery and Moore eras.  The franchise was perfectly propped up, brimming with confidence and energy and ready to conquer the future.  Shame that future would bring us the pain that is Spectre.


RANKINGS:

As I said, Skyfall really is among the best of the franchise.  But a few of those problematic plot developments really knock it down a few spots.  It's not Casino Royale, which is almost perfect, nor perfect embodiments of the Bond formula like Goldfinger or Thunderball, nor is it as solidly and cleverly plotted as From Russia With Love.  But it is easily better than just about everything else.  It's a worthy entry into the Top Five.

1. Casino Royale
2. Thunderball
3. From Russia With Love
4. Goldfinger
5. Skyfall
6. The Spy Who Loved Me
7. Goldeneye
8. The Living Daylights
9. Dr. No
10. Octopussy
11. For Your Eyes Only
12. Tomorrow Never Dies
13. Live and Let Die
14. License to Kill
15. Man with the Golden Gun
16. Quantum of Solace
17. Diamonds are Forever
18. Die Another Day
19. The World is Not Enough
20. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
21. Moonraker
22. You Only Live Twice
23. A View to a Kill


MVP:

This one is easy.  Roger Deakins performs a miracle with his brilliant cinematography in this film. Whether it is the cool blues of Shanghai or the burnt oranges of Macao, Deakins' use of color and light is a joy to behold.  His camera movement is just superb.  I'm singling out the silhouette fight in the Shanghai skyscrapper, which is a brilliant exercise in lighting and camera movement - easily the best sequence of the movie and possibly the entire Craig run.  It's a stunning couple of minutes. Deakins' work in this film easily makes Skyfall the best looking Bond film ever made.  He deserves MVP for that alone.  But I would take it even further than that.  I think Skyfall is probably the best looking action film I've ever seen.  Ever.  Find me something that looks better.  I really don't think you can.

From that perspective, how could he NOT get MVP?!?

It is a infuriating to me that he lost this Oscar!


BEST LINE:

Silva (to Bond): What is this, if not betrayal?  She sent you off after me, knowing you're not ready, knowing you would likely die.  Mommy was very bad.  


TRIVIA:

The role of the Bond family groundskeeper Kincaid was originally written for Sean Connery.  The plan was to coax Connery out of retirement for the role.  Watching the film, you can just tell it was conceived with the iconic Scot in mind.  But in the end, they opted not to go that route, casting Albert Finney instead.  They thought Connery, the first and best Bond, would distract audiences and take them out of the film.  And they are absolutely right.  It probably would have hurt the movie.  But from a fan's perspective?  Damn, that would have been so cool!!!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Quantum of Solace


Watching all the Bond films again in a row has been an interesting experience for so many reasons. As I have already mentioned, it is amazing to watch the franchise change with the times; it's adaptability allowing it to remain current and fresh to audiences.  While that does mean that many of the films do not age very well, they do still serve as fascinating time capsules to the pop culture of the day.

Unfortunately, another trend that I have noticed is a more negative one - the seeming inability to string together two home runs in a row.  With the exception of Sean Connery's triumvirate of awesomeness (From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball), the franchise has never been able to follow up an awesome movie with another awesome movie.

On a certain level, you can say it is a problem of expectations.  If a film is so completely amazing, people are bound to be disappointed by its sequel.  There is some truth to that.  But there is also no denying that these sequels are completely inferior to the films that preceded them.  So in the Bond series, if we look at my favorites - excluding Connery's trio, of course - this is what we have:
  • Thunderball followed by the atrocious You Only Live Twice, which is in my bottom 5
  • The Spy Who Loved Me followed by Moonraker, which is also in my bottom 5
  • Goldeneye followed by the average Tomorrow Never Dies
  • Living Daylights followed by the underrated, but still ultimately unsuccessful License to Kill
  • Soon to be reviewed Skyfall followed by the soon to be reviewed and very infuriating Spectre
  • And of course this brings us to this review because Casino Royale, the best Bond film ever, was followed by the dashed together, haphazard Quantum of Solace 
It's a shame because Quantum of Solace had a lot of interesting things going on with it.  For one thing, this is the first direct sequel in franchise history.  We immediately pick up where Casino Royale left off, with Bond having captured the man he thinks is responsible for his lover Vesper's death, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, Melancholia).  When Mr. White escapes, Bond and MI6 suddenly discover a massive threat that their intelligence sources shockingly never knew about - a multinational terrorist organization called Quantum.  Bond continues to investigate Quantum, leading him to the mysterious business man Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) who is up to no good in Bolivia.  It seems a military coup is in the works, and Quantum wants to be right in the middle of it in order to make a massive profit.  Business, it seems, is booming.

But things are not going smoothly for MI6.  Bond seems to be letting his emotions get the better of him, and his desire to avenge Vesper's death is putting the mission in danger.  Matters aren't made any easier by a woman he keeps crossing paths with, Camille (Olga Kurylenko, Centurion), who has a revenge mission of her own.

I have very mixed feelings about Quantum of Solace.  It's not as bad as its reputation, but is still a bit of a mess.  The whole film has a frenzied, rushed pace to it - I know the producers wanted to get a film in theaters as quickly as possible after Casino Royale, but this flick really needed some more time to germinate.

There are a number of problems with the Quantum of Solace, but I think you have to start at the top of the chain with director Marc Forster.  He's not a bad filmmaker, and he has made a lot of truly solid films - Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite RunnerMonster's Ball - you will notice that none of these are action films.  He is clearly out of his element here, with no idea how to put together a decent action sequence, instead relying on the jerky camera work and lightning quick over-editing that was all the rage in the late 2000's (thanks to the Bourne films). The earthquake cam and editing are so quick, you really have no idea what is going on - and that's the best possible reaction. The sequences were jumping around so much that a few people I know got headaches!  I really feel bad for the stunt team.  They really seem to have constructed some amazing stunts, especially during the car chase through the Italian mountains in the film's opening scene.  Shame we can't see what is going on; I feel all their hard work really went to waste!

(As a bit of a tangent, I will give Forster some credit where credit is due.  He seems to have learned from the experience because the action sequences in World War Z, which he directed more recently, are much more entertaining!)

Back to Quantum of Solace...it might be weird for me to say this, but...there is actually too much action!  The film starts with a frenetic car chase, and then there are maybe two or three lines of dialogue before another frenetic fight during Siena's Paleo celebration...then another line or two of dialogue as James Bond goes to Haiti to do awesome spy stuff, but instead gets into another frenetic fight in a hotel room, followed by a short car ride and an introduction to Camille, that is followed by a frenetic boat chase.  And then I looked over at my friends and said, you know it's only been 10 minutes, right?  A frenetic 10-minutes...

While the film does settle down a bit after that, it still barrels forward at a breakneck pace, wasting the potential of a game supporting cast (which includes Gemma Arterton, David Harbour and the return of Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter).  The climatic battle at a fancy hotel powered by unstable hydrogen fuel cells in the middle of a Bolivian desert, is just ridiculous.  I make a point of mentioning those unstable hydrogen fuel cells because they sure do in the film, in one of the most telegraphed lines in franchise history.  Gee, I wonder if someone is going to hit those unstable hydrogen fuel cells?

But at the same time, Quantum of Solace in no way deserves its reputation as a piece of crap.  It's not downright awful.  And I have to give them a bit of a pass because they never did finish the script thanks to the Writers' Strike.  They had a draft, but it was very bare bones, and Daniel Craig and Marc Forster found themselves doing a lot of rewriting on the spot...often making up things as they were going along.  If that is not a good way to start, they also had problems on the tail end with almost impossible deadlines loomed.  The film was edited in only 5 weeks, when feature films generally can take 12 or 14 weeks to finish.  So that explains a lot, and I am willing to give them a bit of a pass for making the best of a bad situation.

And there is actually a lot of really cool stuff in the film.  The acting is all quite good.  I even liked Amalric as Greene.  I know some people complained about him because he wasn't a tough enough villain, but he wasn't supposed to be.  He's a businessman, and I am fine with the way his storyline plays out.  I also like a lot of individual sequences - the scene at the opera house, for example, is downright brilliant as Bond finds a clever way to spy on a meeting of Quantum's inner circle. It's probably the most "Bond" thing Daniel Craig has done during his entire run with the character!

I even don't mind the story.  With SPECTRE still out of reach because of legal reasons, the franchise re-introduced a new super organization for Bond to battle, and I think over the first two films of Daniel Craig's run, they did a excellent job of doing just that.  I like the fact that Quantum is not about conquering the world.  They just want to control it like any big corporation does.  It's just business.  And that's a neat idea that plays out well here.

But the film's greatest strength is the dramatic arc of the Bond character.  Quantum of Solace continues where the character left off in Casino Royale, still learning to become the James Bond we've known since 1962.  By the end of Casino Royale, he has the humor, the fashion, and the skills he needs...but he still has this blistering open wound from Vesper's death, and until that is healed (or at least scabs over), he can't become the man and super spy he is destined to be.  Quantum of Solace gets him to that point - and hammers it home with a terrific final scene that ties everything back to the previous film.

Anyways, this all means that Quantum of Solace needs to be in the middle of the pack somewhere.  A lot of people loathe the film, but I think that is just hangover after the drunken heights of Casino Royale. The expectations were just too high.  It's certainly not great, but it never sinks to the level of a Moonraker or Die Another Day.  There is a lot of really good stuff in here.  I just wish they had been given more time to think it all through and develop it in the way the material deserved.


RANKINGS: 

So, where should I rank this?  Well, it definitely should be in the middle somewhere...I feel it probably needs to be in the mid-teens...before the movies become unforgivably bad.  In a way, it fits in very nicely with Man with the Golden Gun, another film that had so much wasted potential.  I think I will settle it in right after that film.  Golden Gun narrowly edges it because at least when it is bad, it's funny, whereas Quantum is a rather joyless affair.


1. Casino Royale
2. Thunderball
3. From Russia With Love
4. Goldfinger
5. The Spy Who Loved Me
6. Goldeneye
7. The Living Daylights
8. Dr. No
9. Octopussy
10. For Your Eyes Only
11. Tomorrow Never Dies
12. Live and Let Die
13. License to Kill
14. Man with the Golden Gun
15. Quantum of Solace
16. Diamonds are Forever
17. Die Another Day
18. The World is Not Enough
19. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
20. Moonraker
21. You Only Live Twice
22. A View to a Kill


MVP:

This one is easy.  Remember when I was talking about Bond's character arc up above?  The script does the best it can with this theme, but really the heavy lifting is done by Craig.  He takes this under-developed movie and puts it on his back, marching through the beats like a true professional. He's hands down the best thing about the film.  This is an easy award to give.

Though I am tempted to give the MVP to the theme song.  But not the official title theme written by Jack White and gracing the film's opening credits.  Nope, I mean a proposed title song that was released on YouTube shortly after the film's cumbersome title was announced.  It's brilliant.

For some reason, YouTube won't let me embed the link in this blogpost, so I am copying and pasting the link here.  Enjoy! https://youtu.be/h6CoNUE5Zho


BEST LINE:

James Bond (interrupting the opera house conversation): Can I offer an opinion?  I really think you people should find a better place to meet.


TRIVIA:  
Well, here's a weird one.  Can you imagine Al Pacino in a Bond film?  He was approached about appearing in Quantum of Solace and the idea was floated that he could serve as Quantum's equivalent to SPECTRE's Blofeld.  That would have been odd.  Pacino was also interested in taking the role of the Bolivian general in league with Quantum.  That would have been even more odd!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Casino Royale


After the absurd insanity of Die Another Day, Eon Productions found themselves at another crossroads.  Die Another Day had been one of the most financially successful films in the franchise, but I suspect that Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson had a similar feeling that the late Bond patriarch Cubby Broccoli had following the insanity of Moonraker in 1979, which had also been a huge hit. There comes a point when you reach the limit and you can't get any bigger.  Sometimes you have to come back down from space and return a little bit of gritty realism to the proceedings.  The question is, what do you do with Pierce Brosnan?  The actor's tenure as the character had been wildly successful, and he probably had one more film in him.  And yet...after surfing on a tsunami and driving around in that invisible car, would audiences be able to take Brosnan seriously in a darker Bond film?  Eon certainly didn't think so.  Nope, it was time to start from scratch and recast the part.

There were also more thoughtful considerations at work - Bond's future.  I keep harping on the fact that Bond's longevity is largely due to careful tweaking and revising of the Bond formula to suit the times.  The 1990s were all about the over-the-top action film, and the Bond films jumped on the train, producing some massively huge explosions along the way.  But the extravagant 1990s were being replaced by the more dour 2000s.  It was a darker time, with fears of terrorism and economic disasters filling headlines.  Actions films picked up on the mood, trending darker, and casting suspicious glances of our own governments.  And while Die Another Day had been a bigger hit financially, critics and audiences much preferred the darker and more paranoid franchise that launched that same year - Matt Damon's Bourne Identity.  As always, Eon Productions saw where the future was heading and embraced it.

The sad irony of the whole affair is that Brosnan had been asking for a darker, more serious Bond for quite some time.  And now that the franchise was finally willing to go back in that direction, they decided to recast the part!  As always - and as mentioned in the Trivia section of this review - recasting was huge news.  Eventually Eon Productions settled on Daniel Craig, a British actor best known for Matthew Vaughn's excellent Layer Cake.  Reaction was...not good.  Craig just didn't seem right for the role.  He wasn't good looking enough.  He was blond.  He looked a bit too much like a rough-and-tumble rugby player (which to be fair, he was).  Before he had even been formally introduced, snarky fanboys were calling him James Bland instead of James Bond.

But Broccoli and Wilson knew their man.  And they had a plan.  And Craig was the perfect actor to take the character in the direction they wanted to go.  But more on that later.

While the casting was hogging most of the publicity, the producers actually had an interesting idea up their sleeve.  Only this time, they weren't following a trend, they were about to lead it.  Recently, they had finally secured the rights to Casino Royale, the very first Bond book Ian Fleming had ever written.  Someone at the studio thought it would be a good idea to not only recast, but to effectively reboot the series and show Bond on his very first mission.  Audiences could learn how Bond became Bond!  And all those origin/reboot movies that were to come down the pipeline over the next decade - from the good (Batman Begins) to the atrocious (Robin Hood) - had Casino Royale's success to thank for their existence.

I personally had my doubts.  I was skeptical of Craig.  I really liked him in Layer Cake, but he didn't seem suave enough for Bond.  Plus, I had my heart set on Clive Owen (Children of Men) to take the role.  And I didn't want a reboot.  I had no interest in seeing how Bond become Bond.  I didn't care what made him tick.  I just wanted to see him kick butt, seduce women, and take on megalomaniacal villains.  I was admittedly very worried about Casino Royale.

And how wrong I was...

Let's get some plot out of the way, shall we?  Casino Royale takes us back to Bond's very first mission as a 00 agent.  He is a bit rough around the edges still, a bit less suave than we are used to, and he is certainly more arrogant than confident at this point in his career.  But he's learning.  And while on a mission in Madagascar, he kills...well, maybe I'll stop there.  Casino Royale's plot is complicated.  It's not confusing, but it is complicated, dense and difficult to describe in a short paragraph.  And that's a good thing.  Because I think the less you know going into the film, the better. And enjoying the twisty turns without knowing where the road is going is half the fun.  Let's just say Bond is hunting some serious terrorists, the bad guys lose a lot of money and the way they decide to recoup their loss is by staging a high stakes poker game in Montenegro.  Bond is the best poker player MI6 has, so he is sent in to win the game.  Along for the ride is Vesper Lynn (Eva Green, The Dreamers), the British Treasury agent who is in charge of watching the money Bond needs to buy into the game.

Okay, so let's review this movie.  Damn, is it good.  Like, seriously good.  Casino Royale made a lot of top ten lists in 2006, and it is easy to see why.  Director Martin Campbell returns to the director's chair and for the second time ushers in a new era for the character (he also helmed Brosnan's successful debut, Goldeneye).  He keeps the plot moving along, respecting the material and never allowing the film to get hokey.  He also stages some of the most exciting action sequences of the entire franchise.  In fact, everyone is coming in at the top of their game.  Cinematographer Philip Meheux's gives the film a gorgeous look, and composer David Arnold composes what is easily his best Bond score - and without a doubt the best Bond score not written by the master John Barry.  The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis successfully translates Bond to the new, darker era - stripping away enough of the formula while still giving us hints of the man we all know Bond will eventually become.  And the cast is terrific.  Eva Green, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Jeffrey Wright - there is literally no weak link in this bunch.  I would even rank Eva Green among the top of the Bond girls.  She is a fully realized character, a beautiful and tragic figure who is absolutely integral to the plot and whose influence will clearly impact Bond for the rest of his life.  She's easily one of the top Bond girls of the entire franchise.

And then there is Craig.  He very quickly won audiences over with his grittier and darker take on the character.  A few people still complained that he wasn't suave enough.  And they are correct.  But that's the point.  This Bond is not Bond yet.  He needs to learn to become that Bond.  And I can very easily see Craig's Bond evolving into Connery's Bond that we were introduced to back in Dr. No. Connery was suave and witty, but I always got a sense that he taught himself to be a gentleman. Brosnan, Dalton and Moore seemed to be the opposite - gentlemen who taught themselves to fight. Craig is a Bond very much like Connery.

Critics of Craig's run with the character also complain about one other thing - the lack of humor in the Craig movies.  And that is a valid criticism.  There are some chuckles in Skyfall, but Quantum of Solace is almost completely devoid of humor, and Spectre's attempts at humor are forced and out of place.  But Casino Royale is actually quite funny.  It's not laugh out loud humor, of course, and it is all organic within the plot, but Craig's Bond is just as witty as the character has always been.   I think that has been forgotten as time has passed.

Anyways, I'm not sure how much more I can say.  I'll get into spoilers in the rankings below.  But rest assured, this is a great movie.  It's not just a great Bond movie.  It's just a great movie plain and simple.

RANKINGS:

Okay, it's spoiler time!  This is a weird place for me to be right now...look, Sean Connery was the best Bond.  He has the true classics under his belt, the movies where the Bond formula was created and perfected. But...but...Casino Royale is really good.  I mean, really, really good.  But it can't be the best.  It can't, can it?  The best has to be one of the classics, right?  It has to be Thunderball or Goldfinger or From Russia With Love.  It HAS to be.

Well, it's not.  I feel almost embarrassed to admit it, but Casino Royale is objectively the best Bond film.  It really is. .

Look, people who say it doesn't really feel like a Bond film are wrong.  Casino Royale may not have a lot in common with how we've come to know the character over the last few decades, but the movie feels an awful lot of like From Russia With Love and Dr. No.  And even if it is more realistic than most of the films in the franchise doesn't mean that it isn't Bond.  And it doesn't mean that the formula isn't teased - we have a gadget (why is there a random defibrillator in the car?), we have the Bond girls, the one liners, the fancy clothes, the big brassy music and extravagant locations.  Make no mistake, this IS a Bond film.

And yes, the Bond character himself is a bit different, but that is part of the point.  This movie is how he becomes Bond.  He's not really Bond yet.  That's why in the chase sequence in the beginning of the film, he's barreling through drywall and using his brawn instead of his brain.  As M calls him, he's "a blunt instrument."  Compare that to the Bond we see at the end who ambushes Mr. White with the precision of a surgical strike.  This movie is about how the character gets to that point.  And to emphasize that theme, the famous Bond music never plays once in this movie - not once - until the end.  In that final sequence, we are actually introduced to the Bond we've known for the last five decades...he gracefully steps up in a perfect suit, machine gun in hand, utters those immortal words, "I'm Bond.  James Bond." and the iconic theme music plays at last.  It's a helluva entrance.

I honest can't think of any valid argument about why Casino Royale wouldn't be the best film in the franchise.  Some people might complain that poker replaces baccarat in the big card game - though I would argue that nobody knows what the hell baccarat is any more, so this is probably a good switch. But other than that, there's really not much not to like.  I understand nostalgia comes into play.  Or love of the character that we grew up with.  Emotionally, I have difficulty putting Casino Royale on the top.  But objectively, I'm not even sure it's a close call.

This movie is just firing on all cylinders.  When you compare it to the other films in the franchise, it measures up or exceeds them in almost every category.  Among the other things I've already mentioned, it also has one of the best pre-credit sequences.  It has several of the best fight scenes - that chase scene in the opening is one of the most exhilarating of the entire franchise and the Miami Airport sequence is an absolutely brilliant set piece that just stands above the rest of the franchise. And of course, we are given a classic "Bond Moment" at the end of the film.



I still feel weird saying this because I should be pointing to one of the classics.  But Casino Royale is No. 1.

1. Casino Royale
2. Thunderball
3. From Russia With Love
4. Goldfinger
5. The Spy Who Loved Me
6. Goldeneye
7. The Living Daylights
8. Dr. No
9. Octopussy
10. For Your Eyes Only
11. Tomorrow Never Dies
12. Live and Let Die
13. License to Kill
14. Man with the Golden Gun
15. Diamonds are Forever
16. Die Another Day
17. The World is Not Enough
18. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
19. Moonraker
20. You Only Live Twice
21. A View to a Kill

MVP:

For me, this is an easy one.  For the second time in a row, the Bond franchise turned to Martin Campbell to introduce a new actor to the role. Campbell's Goldeneye is one of the best of the franchise, but he managed to top that.  When you direct the best film in franchise history, it's pretty obvious who should get the MVP.  Director Martin Campbell - this award is yours!

BEST LINE:

We get a classic one-liner during the intense poker scenes in the second half of the film.  After discovering he's been poisoned, Bond leaves the card game, and manages to get himself an antidote and then fights off cardiac arrest with Vesper's help.  Instead of going to the hospital, he straightens himself back up and returns the game, nonchalantly quipping as he takes his seat:

James Bond: I'm sorry.  That last hand nearly killed me. 

TRIVIA:

Whenever there is a new actor in the role, I like to focus on the casting in the Trivia.  Casting the new Bond is always a difficult task.  There is so much pressure to get the casting right.  I have some friends who still dislike Craig in the role, but we'll just have to agree to disagree.  He's won me over. And he is the first actor to be nominated for a BAFTA Award for playing the part, so that's pretty telling, I think.

But other actors were in the mix.  Ewan MacGregor and Gerard Butler were both in the running at one point, and the producers loved Henry Cavill, who was considered too young for the part (he was only 22 at the time).  Sam Worthington even auditioned at one point.  But it seems the team were really onto Craig from the beginning.  They mentioned the part to him early in the process and he turned it down.  It was only several months later, when he read the script, that he agreed to jump onboard.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

Die Another Day


So now at last we come to the end of Pierce Brosnan's mixed tenure as James Bond.  Today's review is Die Another Day, or as I like to call it, "The Tale of Two Bonds."

"It was the best of Bonds, it was the worst of Bonds."

Yeah, let's just say this is a weird one.  Die Another Day is loathed by most people; many even consider among the worst of the franchise, if not THE worst of the franchise.  An emphasis on explosions, dodgy CGI and invisible cars were all symptoms of everything that was considered bad about the Brosnan era.  And half of the film really is that bad.

Unfortunately, it is the second half of the film, so people leave the movie with the bad taste in their mouths.  But the judgement on this film is not really fair, because the first half is actually not that bad. Actually it's pretty darn good.

And to be honest, Eon Productions needed Die Another Day to be good. Not only was the film the 20th in the franchise (which is quite a milestone), but 2002 was the 40th anniversary of Dr. No, the first film in the series, and the 50th anniversary of when Ian Fleming published the first novel.  The best way to celebrate such an achievement would be to go big and create one of the best films of the franchise.  Die Another Day even pays homage to all every single film that came before it - ranging from cute gadget cameos (Thunderball's jet pack) to Halle Berry's memorable recreation of Ursula Andress' first appearance in Dr. No. At one point, Bond even picks up a book called "A Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies."  Ian Fleming, an avid birdwatcher, quite enjoyed the book - so much so that he decided to borrow the author's name...that name was James Bond.

Even separate from the multiple anniversaries, there was a tremendous amount of pressure to make Die Another Day good.   The World is Not Enough was financially successful, but the criticism from both fans and critics was harsh and there were lessons to be learned.  There were also actors like Vin Diesel who declared the age of the well-tailored super spy were done.  It was a new generation and Bond wasn't awesome enough. He put his money where his mouth was by producing and starring in the extreme sports/super agent movie, xXx, which literally kills off a tuxedo-clad secret agent in its opening scene. xXx was a big hit, and I remember hearing rumblings that maybe Bond was no longer "cool enough."

So, yeah, I think the pressure was on to make Die Another Day the biggest and the best.

The movie gets started on a strong note and finds Bond going undercover as an arms dealer in North Korea.  He plans to assassinate a rogue military chief named Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) and his henchman Zao (Rick Yune), but somehow Zao is tipped off that the arms dealer is really a British agent and a fierce gun battle ensues. Immediately the action sensibilities of the director are felt, with Lee Tamahori (The Edge) delivering a knockout opening fight that is well-staged and exciting.  I felt like we were back in good hands again after the bland action of the previous film.  Bond gets his man, killing the colonel and wounding Zao, but is captured by the North Korean army.  And then something interesting happens.  Bond doesn't escape, nor is he rescued.  He is disavowed by MI6, thrown into a dark prison cell, and tortured with scorpions for over a year.

That was unexpected!  And already infinitely more interesting than anything in the previous film. Bond is eventually released in a prisoner exchange, and then goes off the grid to find out who betrayed him and avenge himself of Zao. The travelogue nature of the franchise takes him to Hong Kong (for a fantastic sequence with his Chinese intelligence counterparts), then to Cuba, where he meets American agent Jinx (Halle Berry), and then back to England, where the trail leads to billionaire philanthropist Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) and his assistant Miranda Frost (Rosemund Pike).

There is a lot of exciting material in the first half of the Die Another Day.  It may not be perfect - Madonna's title song is atrocious and the scene where Bond and Jinx first meet is a terrible attempt at sexual flirtation that just comes across as creepy.  But all in all, we have some exciting material in the first half: Bond's anger over being disavowed, that Hong Kong sequence, Bond actually doing genuine spy stuff in Cuba, and an over-the-top but very entertaining sword fight. While watching the movie, a friend of mine who had never seen it, turned to me and said, "This is actually pretty good.  Why does everybody hate this movie?"

And then we hit Iceland.  And everything changes.

EVERYTHING.

Get ready for some spoilers below while I rant about the things I don't like about this movie. And it starts with that invisible car.  Look, I like the Bond gadgets.  There are some really cool ones out there, and it is an important part of the Bond formula.  But the invisible car brought us deep into futuristic sci fi territory and in a very stupid way.  And things get worse from there. 

Bond goes to a hotel made entirely of ice to see a demonstration of Gustav Grave's new satellite.  An ice hotel sounds cool, but it's really not.  He tries to sneak around to see what Graves is really up to, but needs to be careful because Miranda Frost is watching him closely.  Plus, Jinx is staying at the hotel on her own secret mission, though she basically just spends her time finding new ways of getting herself captured.  Bond eventually rescues her during a fight that involves over a dozen lasers in what was an attempt at honoring Goldfinger's laser sequence, but turns into an exercise in hyperactive stupidity.

It is almost like the first half and second half of the film were made by different directors, or as if the team didn't have faith in the first half of the movie and doubled down on what they thought was "cool" in the second half.  So the film is full of moments where the film speed is cranked up because that is what the "cool" movies were doing.  And let's have a whole lot of CGI!  Who cares if Bond is known for its awesome real-life stunts.  Kids today think CGI is "cool!"   I know, let's have Bond surf on a tsunami wave!!!!!  That will be amazingly "cool!"  For the record, even Pierce Brosnan thought surfing on the tsunami wave was ridiculous...

It's just bizarre because the first half of the film is so solid, while the second half is just a mess.  I didn't even get to the worse part where it is revealed that Gustav Graves is really the rogue North Korean soldier Colonel Moon!  That's right, in an extreme example of Hollywood whitewashing, he had an operation to literally make himself white.

The finale of the film includes a giant laser, an electric exo-skeleton battle suit, some of the worst one-liners of the series and a random appearance by Michael Madsen whose tiny role in this film amounts to sounding grumpy, barking orders and getting put in his place by Judi Dench.

Look, is the second half of the film all bad?  I guess there are small moments that work. I like Rosamund Pike, who I think is a solid Bond girl with a great accent and fun sword-fighting skills.  I just wish she were in a better movie.  Because by the time the credits roll, you really can feel it in the pit of your stomach, Die Another Day is just awful...and a terrible way for Brosnan to end his tenure as the character.

That said, at the time, I was still rooting for Die Another Day to beat the xXx in the U.S. box office.  Bond is the once and future king of the action film, and I didn't appreciate Vin Diesel's trash talking.  Die Another Day was a big hit, and made $160 million in the box office. XXX made $143 million.  So while that is not a beat down, I hope it at least showed Vin Diesel that Bond was still "cool" enough to win the box office war.

RANKINGS:

So where do I put Die Another Day?  What is fair?  It's too easy to say, "well, the first half is good and the second half is bad, so put it in the middle."  I can't do that because the second half is SO bad, it drags the whole movie down with it. It's an albatross that unfairly still weighs down people's opinion of Pierce Brosnan's tenure even to this day.  There is enough in this movie that I like that I just can't in good conscience put it with the worst of the worst, but I will put it right above that.  I think right under the stupid, but entertaining Diamonds are Forever is a good place for it...

1. Thunderball
2. From Russia with Love
3. Goldfinger
4. The Spy Who Loved Me
5. Goldeneye
6. The Living Daylights
7. Dr. No
8. Octopussy
9. For Your Eyes Only
10. Tomorrow Never Dies
11. Live and Let Die
12. License to Kill
13. Man with the Golden Gun
14. Diamonds are Forever
15. Die Another Day
16. The World is Not Enough
17. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
18. Moonraker
19. You Only Live Twice
20. A View to a Kill

MVP:

Of course, I am tempted to say Rosemund Pike, whose icy performance makes for a memorable Bond girl.  But I might be biased because I just happen to like Rosemund Pike, in general!  I wish I could say Halle Berry, who is a great actress, but this film goes out of its way to give her the worst dialogue imaginable.  No, in the end, the true MVP is still Pierce Brosnan in his final hurrah as the character.  He is excellent throughout the film and always professional - even during the most embarrassing moments.  People look back on the Brosnan years with disdain now.  They were all hits, but they were products of an over explosive and indulgent time period, and even though they were all successful at the time, fans generally roll their eyes at the movies now. It's not fair because I think that without a doubt Brosnan was the best Bond since Connery.  He was born for the role.  The movies just let him down.  With the exception of Goldeneye, they never lived up to the potential that he brought to the role.  And there is no better example of that than Die Another Day, a film with so much promise that utterly wastes an MVP performance by Brosnan.

BEST LINE:

It's all in the delivery...a fun one-liner delivered in the classic John Cleese style.

James Bond: You know, you're cleverer than you look.

Q: Still, better than looking cleverer than you are.


TRIVIA:

Following the success of Die Another Day, there were plans for a spinoff movie featuring Halle Berry's Jinx character.  Unfortunately, the studios pulled the plug after a few other female-led action films like Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle failed at the box office.  That's a shame.  While I would have preferred a spin-off with Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin from Tomorrow Never Dies, I do think Barry could have carried the film.  Any problems with the character in this movie were not her fault, so I would have liked for her to have a second chance!










Sunday, January 15, 2017

The World is Not Enough


The World is Not Enough

In 1995, Goldeneye resurrected the 007 franchise, and the next film Tomorrow Never Dies showed that it would be alive and well for the long haul.  The world belonged to James Bond once again.  I wish I could make some cool pun here about the world not being enough for Bond because he was about to ascend to greater heights.  But alas, the opposite is true because everything was about to come crashing down.  The world, so to speak, was about to collapse.

Creatively, at least.  I'll just lead with the fact that The World is Not Enough was a huge hit, and the most financially successful film to that point (not adjusting for inflation, of course).  The studios had to have been happy with the film's performance, but that doesn't change the fact that very few people actually liked it.  The World is Not Enough is a stinker, plain and simple - a dull, plodding film with multiple missed opportunities that could have truly elevated it into something cool.

But let's not dwell on the bad quite yet.  This movie has so few good qualities that I can actually list them easily!  Here we go:

The basic premise is actually solid.  After wealthy oilman Sir Robert King is assassinated, Bond has to solve the murder and also protect King's daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau, Braveheart).  The number one suspect is a vicious anarchist named Renard who had kidnapped Elektra years before. Elektra managed to escape and Renard was subsequently tracked down by British agents and shot in the head.  He somehow survived and was now coming back for revenge on his former captive.  It sounds fairly basic, but on paper it's a solid plot, especially when you tie in the interesting politics behind Sir Robert King's attempts to build a pipeline in Azerbaijan.  There is some intriguing material here that they fail to capitalize on (more on that later).

What else is good?  Pierce Brosnan is good, but then he always is.

The title song, by Garbage, is a great song.

The cinematography is nice.  Adrian Biddle (who shot V for Vendetta and Aliens, and was Oscar nominated for Thelma and Louise) is a true pro and the film looks great.

There is a heckuva good scene late in the film, which I'll also come back to later.

What else is good?  Out of all his Bond films, this one gives Pierce Brosnan his best wardrobe.  He has some incredible suits in this movie, especially the white suit with the blue shirt that he wears during the climactic fight.  Wait a second, is this movie so bad that I am more interested in Brosnan's tailor than I am in what is happening onscreen?

Well, yes.  Yes, it is.  I can't think of anything else I liked in this movie.  And I am trying really hard. To be fair, it's not like the rest of it is outright awful.  It never approaches the stench of A View to a Kill, for example, but there just isn't that much to like.

I think the problem starts with the director, Michael Apted, who is actually a fine filmmaker.  He directed the fascinating Up series of documentaries and several solid dramas, including Nell, Coal Miner's Daughter, and Gorillas in the Mist.  If I were a producing a drama, he'd be on my list of potential directors. But I would be leery about hiring him for an action film, much less a Bond film. And as expected, he seems out of his element here.  The action scenes are just completely stale, and lacking of any sort of momentum, tension or excitement.  They are all just BLAH, as if no one had any interest in making them exciting at all.  Which doesn't surprise me because Apted seems to have zero interest in action films (this being the only one on his filmography).  When I watch The World is Not Enough, I just keep scratching my head because I can't figure out why they hired this guy.  I can only imagine Eon brought him on board to help with the female characters - but if he is able to add some degree of strength to Elektra, he completely fails with Dr. Christmas Jones, who is one of the worst Bond Girls of all time.

Let's move on to her for a moment, shall we?  About halfway through the movie, James Bond runs into a nuclear physicist named Dr. Christmas Jones, played by Denise Richards (Wild Things).  Look, no one should take Bond films too seriously.  These movies are often absurd, but this casting decision just jumped the shark.  And this is not me being a film snob.  When Richards was cast as a nuclear physicist, the entire world gasped a collective "WTF?!"  Maybe in the crazy days of Roger Moore, she could have pulled his off.  But The World is Not Enough is a darker film, and for the most part attempting to be more serious, and Richards just looks lost.

In the end, I think the biggest problem with The World is Not Enough is that it is a film full of missed opportunities.  SPOILER TIME!  The villain Renard has some real potential.  When he was shot in the head, the bullet severed the nerves that cause him to feel pain.  So you can hit him, punch him, stab him, shoot him...makes no difference to him.  He can't feel a thing.  That is a neat concept, and a worthy character trait for a Bond baddie, and the movie does...absolutely nothing with it.  There are so many cool things they could have done with this idea.  Instead, the only time they really go into any depth into Renard's special ability is in badly written love scene full of psychoanalytical malarky, where he laments that while he physically feels nothing, emotionally he still feels SOOOO much for the love of his life, Elektra King.

Yep, that's right.  The woman he kidnapped, Elektra King, who actually turned the Renard over to her side by seducing him and then cooking up this master plan to kill her own father, is the true villain of the film.  This is an interesting idea - there are hints, a few throw-away lines, about hating her father.  Her mother had been from Azerbaijan, and Elektra always hated the fact that her father seemed to be stealing the legacy of her mother's people, an interesting statement on British Imperialism.  There is a lot more they could have done with this idea - killing her father (a symbolic representative of the Western world that she feels raped her homeland) was only the first step in striking at Europe itself.  That is a goal that could have made Elektra truly scary, but it is a motivation only lightly hinted at.  Instead, her primary goals seem to involve blowing up rival pipelines and destroying Istanbul - oh, and most importantly, getting back at daddy for not doing enough when she was kidnapped.  Can't forget that.  That's her character's defining trait, according to this movie, not all the interesting politics and the struggle over her cultural heritage.  Sophie Marceau does what she can, but she isn't particularly well-written, and there is only so much she can do with the role.  You do end up liking her performance by the end of the film...but I think it is because of the strength of one fantastic scene, and also because even in her worst moments, she is miles beyond Denise Richards.

What else was a wasted opportunity?  Why did they have to kill Robbie Coltrane's Zukovsky?  This was his second appearance (after a memorable turn in Goldeneye), and he could have really been a fun recurring character.  Instead, he's killed off, and in ridiculous fashion, too.  What a sad ending to a character with so much potential.

You know what?  I'm done.  I can complain about this movie for hours.  Look, it's not as bad as Bond at its worst.  But it's also not any good.  Ugh, I'm done.  All the good will Brosnan engendered because of Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies was at risk.  For me, at least, a lot was riding on his next film.  Would Die Another Day deliver?

RANKINGS:

What to do, what to do.  I really don't like this movie, but it's definitely not as bad as the worst of the worst of the franchise, though it is close.  Maybe it's the best of the worst?  If that is the case, I should put it right below Diamonds are Forever, which isn't a particularly good film, but one that I still enjoy...

1. Thunderball
2. From Russia with Love
3. Goldfinger
4. The Spy Who Loved Me
5. Goldeneye
6. The Living Daylights
7. Dr. No
8. Octopussy
9. For Your Eyes Only
10. Tomorrow Never Dies
11. Live and Let Die
12. License to Kill
13. Man with the Golden Gun
14. Diamonds are Forever
15. The World is Not Enough
16. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
17. Moonraker
18. You Only Live Twice
19. A View to a Kill


MVP:

This is an easy one.  I could say Brosnan, who puts in his usually reliable performance, or Garbage, who performed a really terrific Bond song.  But instead, I am going to give the award to a specific scene - the one truly great scene in the film.  Near the end of the movie, Bond is captured and strapped to an old Byzantine torture device, one that will eventually break his neck as Elektra slowly turns a wheel - which she does, while straddling Bond very suggestively.  It's an odd sequence - sensual yet dangerous, sexy yet deeply disturbing...the more you think about it, the more uncomfortable you are about what Elektra King is doing to Bond.  Is she trying to arouse him while she is killing him?  It's a strange scene, and absolutely one of the only moments in the film that crackles with any sort of energy or excitement.  It's well-written, well-directed, and well-acted by Marceau and Brosnan, and it's easily the best part of the movie.  Shame Zukovsky shows up and ruins the scene and then dies a ridiculously death that sends the entire film spiraling down from really bad to almost unbearable to watch.

BEST LINE:

Here is a nice pun in the aforementioned torture scene...and what Bond intends as his last words before Elektra turns the screw one final time to break his neck.

James Bond: You meant nothing to me.  Just one...last...screw.


TRIVIA:

When the real MI6 learned that the film would shoot a scene around their headquarters, they immediately moved to block it because of the obvious security concerns.  But the nation's Foreign Secretary Robin Cook stepped in, saying, "After all Bond has done for Britain, this is the least we could do for Bond."

I thought that was pretty cool!





Sunday, December 11, 2016

Tomorrow Never Dies


Tomorrow Never Dies

Sometimes I wonder if Goldeneye should be viewed as a minor miracle. After License to Kill, the franchise seemed lost. I’ve already written how that movie is unfairly blamed for the series’ near demise when the culprits were really a combination of bad luck, legal woes and the fact that many of the principal creative forces either moved onto other projects, retired or passed away. But Goldeneye brought Bond roaring back. The film was a critical and box office hit and got people excited about the character again. With Brosnan a huge hit with audiences and young enough for a good run of films, it looked like smooth sailing was ahead for the iconic franchise.

Unfortunately, I believe a strange period of stagnation was about to kick in. Every film under Brosnan’s tenure was very successful, but time has not been kind to them. It’s sad to say the films never lived up to the potential that Brosnan had, but it's true. And most people I ask look back on those films and say, “Ugh, Brosnan. Those films were terrible…except for Goldeneye, of course.” Which is actually not fair to Tomorrow Never Dies, which is actually not that bad. The cracks are beginning to form, but overall it is a perfectly fine entry to the franchise.

Ambitious media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce, Game of Thrones) is launching a new 24-hour news network, and needs a great hook to snag audiences away from the other networks right out of the gate. What better news story to grab viewers’ attention than a war?  He is able to get his hands on tech expert Mr. Gupta who has a ‘Global Positioning System’ and then starts wreaking havoc with Chinese and British military guidance systems in order to increase tensions between the two world powers. For good measure, he sinks a British warship and makes it appear as if the Chinese launched the attack. The ‘Chinese massacre of British sailors’ is a good story that explodes in the press, but British intelligence is immediately suspicious because Carver’s news outlet had the scoop hours before any other station heard about it.  Bond is set in to investigate – a search that is at times both helped and hindered by a Chinese agent Wai Lin (the always super cool Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

In general, there isn’t that much to say about this movie. It is mostly perfectly fine. The acting is generally good. Brosnan and Yeoh are both great, and share a fun chemistry together.   It is interesting to point out that Agent Wai Lin almost got her own spinoff movie, and I would have welcomed that. Yeoh is a terrific Bond girl – looking comfortable with the spy work and certainly kickass in battle. Some of my friends complained about Jonathan Pryce as the villain, but I thought he was fun as the crazed media mogul. And I am happy the franchise tried something different, poking fun at our obsessive “everything now and all the time” media culture instead of settling for your standard megalomaniacal villain bent on world conquest. The same media obsession that drives Carver in this movie has only grown worse thanks to the explosion of the internet and social media, so let’s give the movie some credit for playing with that idea two decades ago.

The rest of the team does an admirable job. After flirting with a synthesized score in Goldeneye, the producers hired David Arnold (Stargate) who gave us a traditional, brass-blaring, old school Bond score. It's definitely good stuff. The movie looks really good, too, with Oscar-winning Director of Photography Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) behind the cameras. Director Roger Spottiswood (The Sixth Day) does a fine job balancing the humor and action, and he actually stages one of the better sequences of the Brosnan years – when Brosnan is trapped by a master assassin named Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli) in a hotel room while a small army of thugs try to break into his car in the neighboring garage. A perfect combination of thrilling, suspenseful and genuinely funny, it is hands down the best sequence of the film.

Unfortunately, there are just as many things to complain about in Tomorrow Never Dies. After the encounter with Dr. Kaufman, the movie heads downhill. It’s not a steep dip, but certainly a steady decline. There is a motorcycle chase through Saigon which is entertaining enough, but should have been much better considering they are being chased by a helicopter. And then the movie continues to get steadily worse and worse until it devolves into your standard fare action movie by the end…and not even really a good one. It’s more like one of those direct-to-video flicks that Steven Seagal and Jean Claude van Damme are churning out these days. It’s just…unremarkable. I’m not opposed to big action finales in the Bond films, but this one just smacks of the “we need to be bigger and louder” mentality that has plagued a lot of action films in the 1990s. I suppose it is another example of Bond changing with the times, which has always been the franchise’s strength. But while the explosions kept the character relevant (and may have put butts in the theaters), I think the films took a creative step backwards. The spy work was becoming more and more subpar (and occasionally even bordering on ridiculous) and was turning into just a means to get to the next explosion.

There are a few other things to complain about – Teri Hatcher is wasted as the second Bond girl, Carver’s wife Paris, and the super big thug of the film, Stamper (Gotz Otto) is about as bland a super thug as you can get. But all in all, I don’t want to sound too negative. I really should emphasize that Tomorrow Never Dies is actually fairly entertaining; but we are beginning to see the cracks that are about to form into the earthquakes that are The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. Ugh, I hate those movies.

Oh, I can't end the review without mentioning one of my favorite things!!!  I need to comment on how the film dates itself.  I love that Mr. Gupta's secret weapon is a Global Positioning System...as in a GPS.  Every time he unlocks his special box and pulls out this cumbersome device, I look over at my phone and think, "wow, with my phone, I can reroute the guidance systems on Chinese jets.  Who knew my iPhone had that much power!  This isn't a criticism of the movie, and I am sure that in 1997, we were all in awe of this magical GPS device.  But damn, if it doesn't date the film when we're watching it now. It's actually pretty funny!

RANKINGS:

This is a bit tricky, actually.  And full disclosure, I think nostalgia is going to interfere with an objective opinion on this one.  I know that this movie belongs in the middle of the pack, but where is the question.  Is Tomorrow Never Dies a better film than Octopussy, For Your Eyes Only and Live and Let Die?  Yeah, it very well could be.  But I would definitely watch those three before I put in Tomorrow Never Dies, so that makes the ranking tricky.  I think in the end, I will put it right above Live and Let Die.  There are so many things I love about Roger Moore's debut, but unfortunately there is also so much stupidity in there that I could not in good conscience put it above Tomorrow Never Dies, whose sins are less...well, let's call them painful.  So Brosnan's second effort will come in at #10.

1. Thunderball
2. From Russia with Love
3. Goldfinger
4. The Spy Who Loved Me
5. Goldeneye
6. The Living Daylights
7. Dr. No
8. Octopussy
9. For Your Eyes Only
10. Tomorrow Never Dies
11. Live and Let Die
12. License to Kill
13. Man with the Golden Gun
14. Diamonds are Forever
15. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
16. Moonraker
17. You Only Live Twice
18. A View to a Kill

MVP:
This is an easy one. While I really liked the addition of Wai Lin to the franchise and wished she had joined Bond in a few more adventures, this is still Brosnan’s party.  As I mentioned in my Goldeneye review, he is really the first Bond since Connery who is believable in all the character traits that personify the character.  The man was simply born to play Bond. And he is terrific here. It's an easy pick for MVP.

BEST LINE:

Miss Moneypenny: You always were a cunning linguist, James.

TRIVIA:

I couldn't pick just one!  Tomorrow Never Dies has a bunch of fun trivia connected to it, and I really couldn't decide between these three.

1. Did you know Anthony Hopkins was actually cast as Elliot Carver?  But the production was so chaotic, with script rewrites happening daily, that he walked after only a few days on the production. He opted to make Mask of Zorro instead, directed ironically by Goldeneye's helmer, Martin Campbell.  Good choice, too.  I love Mask of Zorro and think Hopkins is fantastic in that role!

2. Before filming the motorcycle chase, the director pulled Pierce Brosnan aside and told him he was supposed to drive the bike.  He then pulled Michelle Yeoh aside and told her the same thing. The result can be seen on camera, as both agents run to the motorcycle and try to climb on at the same time.  Their bumbling confusion is real, and reinforced the idea of Agents Bond and Mai Lin always trying to outdo each other.  It also ended up being one of the more amusing parts of the movie.

3. For the first time in movie history, a film made its budget back entirely in product placements! There were so many sponsorships in Tomorrow Never Dies that the producers made a profit before the film even hit theaters.  That's pretty fascinating, and shows the power of the Bond Brand.  Can you believe the franchise was this powerful when less than 10 years earlier the industry was ready to declare it dead?