Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Agony and the Ecstasy


Produced to be one if the great “prestige” pictures of 1965, The Agony and the Ecstasy must have seemed like a sure bet.  The film was partially based on a best-selling novel by Irving Stone, epics were still doing good box office (and winning lots of awards) and the director was Sir Carol Reed, who had directed the classic post-war thriller The Third Man.  The cast included one of the biggest stars of the period, Charlton Heston, and Rex Harrison, fresh off his big Oscar win for the blockbuster musical My Fair Lady.  

But The Agony and the Ecstasy was only a mild box office success, and while it did pick up a few Oscar nominations, it really failed to make much of an impression and remains largely forgotten today.  Which is a shame, because while flawed, The Agony and the Ecstasy has a lot to offer and deserves to be remembered.  

The Agony and the Ecstasy tells a story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, or rather how Michelangelo (Heston) was forced to paint the Sistine Chapel by Pope Julius II (Harrison).  But the film is about much more than that.  This is a battle of the wills between two iron-willed men; it’s also a depiction of the violent politics of the Renaissance Era Papacy, which in many ways was more like an independent kingdom than a religious institution.  

I think one problem with The Agony and the Ecstasy is that it might be a bit too wrapped up in its own importance.  Or putting it another way, knowing the story lacks any major battles or exciting set pieces, the movie doubles down on its own “importance.”  This becomes obvious almost immediately because the film actually begins with a 10-minute documentary explaining why Michelangelo is so influential to art history and why we should all pay attention once the movie starts.  That’s, uh, not a good sign of things to come.  And sure enough, the movie is dense with “important” moments.  Audiences don’t like to be lectured to.  That’s not why we go to the movies.  That’s what school is for.  

And yet, I also admire the movie for trying to tackle complicated subject matter without dumbing it down for the audience.  It is fascinating to me that there was an actual warrior Pope who led armies into battle in the 1520s.  And the acting from Heston and Harrison is truly superb.  Michelangelo is not a painter, and he doesn’t want to do this painfully difficult project, but he still digs his heels in to create a masterpiece, one incredibly slow step at a time.  Julius II wants a monument to the glory of God and also to his own rule as Pope, but would like for it to be finished cheaply and quickly, and certainly before he dies.  He chafes under Michelangelo's arrogant and slow progress.  And when the two start arguing, the film elevates into a thing of beauty.  There are few actors who can dominate the screen with such righteous fury as Charlton Heston. Whether you like him or not, it’s hard to deny that he commands the screen. It takes a special kind of actor to take Heston’s punch and punch back just as hard (see Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments), but Rex Harrison rises to the occasion.  But there is one big difference between the confrontations in the The Ten Commandments and The Agony and the Ecstasy, and this is where I applaud Heston as an actor - Michelangelo can’t win.  He can be stubborn, scream and try to intimidate, but in the end, he has to lose, and Heston understands that.  The Pope always has to win, and it needs to be believable.  And in the middle of their endless bickering, Heston knows the exact moment when to wilt before Harrison’s authority.  Sometimes he even slouches over and pouts like a toddler, which is a hilariously perfect acting choice for the character.

I know I am talking a lot about these arguments between Michelangelo and Julius, but there is a reason.  These scenes are where the heart of the movie lies, it is when the film truly soars, and everything else just pales in comparison.  Unfortunately, when Harrison and Heston are not on screen screaming at each other, the movie largely falls apart.  Michaelangelo has an odd love story with a DeMedici countess (Diane Cilento, Hombre) who clearly loves the conflicted artist who could never love her back (because of his obsession with his work, the movie states, clearly skipping over the fact that Michelangelo was most likely gay). And Pope Julius finds himself arguing about Italian politics that are never fully explained and would require a PhD to fully decipher.  The movie tediously plods along, waiting to be shocked back to life by another Heston-Harrison fight.  

Since the movie is wrapped up in its own importance, it also tries too hard to inspire – with sometimes laughable results.  In what is supposed to be a high point of the film, Michelangelo climbs through the Italian Dolomites, looking to escape from his commission to paint the ceiling.  And then he looks into the sky as the sun is rising and in the shape of the clouds he sees God touching Adam's finger - the image that is to become the centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel.  And he is divinely inspired in a moment that is supposed to be transcendent and beautiful, and just ends up being laughably bad. I understand that this was the 1960s and special effects have come a long way since then, but those clouds look silly in any decade. It's an over-the-top moment that is made even more over-the-top by overwrought music and then just to top it all off, Michelangelo starts narrating passages from the book of Genesis for the audience. It's all supposed to be grand and important, but it is trying so hard. The movie so wants this moment to bring tears to audience's eyes...it wants it SO BAD!  And it is completely ineffective.  

The movie doesn't need to try that hard. It needs to take advantage of its assets - in this case, Heston and Harrison. There is a moment of transcendent beauty in The Agony and the Ecstasy, but it is a smaller moment, a moment of quiet tranquility when Michelangelo and the Pope quietly look at the great ceiling together by candlelight.  The Pope's simple question, "Is that what he looks like to you?" leads to reflection on the true nature of God and eventually to grudging acceptance and mutual understanding between the two men. It's a short scene, with beautifully restrained music and a remarkable portrayal of two men who act like giants but are now realizing their own insignificance before God. It might be the best scene in the film, and it doesn't need to act "important" to move the audience.  

I am sure there would be more to say about  The Agony and the Ecstasy, but I feel it would get repetitive.  Whenever Heston and Harrison share the screen, which is admittedly a lot of the movie, this film could be considered a classic. But the rest of the movie just can't equal these scenes and knocks the whole thing down a peg. I would still absolutely recommend it because during the moments when the movie is flying, it truly does soar.  

MVP:

Spoiler Alert!  I am about the ruin the beginning of The Agony and the Ecstasy.  The film begins with a battle over a small Italian city.  Underneath a barrage of cannon fire, one army advances to the town, led by an imposing knight in black armor, who slashes his way through his enemies and down the narrow streets of the city.  The army converges on the central plaza of the town, and quickly realizes that all resistance has ended.  The battle is won.  The black knight surveys his victory and stands before his men. Attendants race up, take off his helmet and then place the papal robes over his shoulders.  His army bows, and the Pope blesses his men for the victory they have just won.  This is Pope Julius II.
  
Now, that is an entrance.

And the scene is a clear example of the complexity of Pope Julius II as a character and Rex Harrison’s performance.  It would have been easy to play Julius as a corrupt and violent man concerned only with his own legacy.  It would have been just as easy to play Julius as a just and holy warrior of God.  Julius is an interesting because he is both.  His character is full of contradictions. He has just led an army into battle, but he celebrates with a genuine blessing for his soldiers and granting forgiveness for the sins they have just committed to win.  But at the same time, the cause of this war has nothing to do with religion.  It was just a small piece of the political struggle for 16th Century Italy that included the Papal States, France, Venice and the Holy Roman Empire.  He is not fighting for the glory of God; he is fighting to maintain domination over central Italy and the tax and land resources that supply his power base. He understands that the Papacy of the time was in many respects a political entity just as much as a religious one, and he sees himself as just the man for these complicated times. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but I think Rex Harrison triumphs in the part. I don’t doubt for a second that his Julius II is a man who loves God. He is having the Sistine Chapel painted for the glory of God, after all. But he is also a man of the world who is not above selling church offices, bribery, bullying, lying, stealing and launching wars, and committing all sorts of corrupt acts in order to maintain power.  Rex Harrison plays all these complex shades to the hilt, displaying more range than I’ve seen from him before. I’ve always liked Rex Harrison, but feel his diverse talent has been a bit overshadowed by the iconic status of his most famous role, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.  But it is worth exploring his other work.  He was a terrific actor, and he is just brilliant in this role.  Forget about Higgins. Harrison's finest performance is in this movie. He's the clear MVP.  


BEST LINE: 

Michelangelo (showing Julius II his plans for the Sistine Chapel): You see, I couldn't give you something mediocre...even if it is what you asked for."


TRIVIA:

The mountain quarry where Michelangelo flees when he is seeking "inspiration" for the Sistine Chapel is the actual Carrara in Tuscany.  Carrara was close to Michelangelo's hometown and was the source of all the marble for his sculptures.  





Sunday, January 7, 2018

James Bond: The Wrap-up



Wow, so it took a lot longer than expected, but we have finally gone through all the Eon-produced Bond films. Of course, as a new film is released, I will be sure to promptly review it and rank it in its proper place.  And someday I would like to review the "unofficial" Bond films, such as Never Say Never Again and 1967's Casino Royale, but I think it is a time to take a short break from our British super spy!

Watching all the films again, in order, was truly a fascinating experience.  For better or worse, the franchise changed with the times, accurately judging the latest fads that audiences were into and capitalizing on them.  Sometimes that meant you were getting lean and hungry spy thrillers, and sometimes that meant James Bond was going to space!

This flexibility is also what allowed the franchise to survive longer than any other.  Historically, most film series would chug along until the studios felt the audiences had lost interest, and then they would be put out to pasture.  Bond was different.  When Cubby Broccoli felt the audiences tuning out, he would tweak the formula to get them back in.  We see this phenomenon more often today, as old franchises are rebooted for modern sensibilities. But Eon Productions was ahead of the curve; they’ve been playing this game and playing it well for over half a century.

First things first, here is my final ranking to all the Bond films, as well as links to their individual reviews.  I don’t feel entirely confidant about the middle of the list, as some of these films really shift in their spots depending on my mood.  But I am confident about the films that are in the bottom, and even more confident about Casino Royale being at the top. It really is that terrific.

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

I also wanted to rank the actors who played Bond themselves.  I have already spent some time going into this, but thought it would be important to official rank them here at the end.  The good thing is that I feel the Bond producers have almost always hit the mark with their lead character, only having missed the target once.  I truly do not like Lazenby as Bond, even though I have liked him in other films.  The rest of the performers playing the iconic role have been excellent choices – though only two have been the perfect package.


1. Sean Connery – the first, the best, the man who made Bond what he is.  Connery perfectly embodied all the elements that Bond needed – he was ruthless and believable as both a spy and a warrior, he was charming and debonair, he could handle a good pun and was completely at home flirting with the ladies. He is universally considered the best, and for a good reason.

2. Pierce Brosnan – the man born to be Bond.  He is the only other actor who I feel really embraced all the different elements of the character.  I do feel that he took a different approach to the character, however. As mentioned in earlier reviews, I always felt that Connery was a fighter who taught himself to be a suave man of the world.  Brosnan seems to me to be the opposite.  He was a charming and roguish prep school kid who then learned how to fight.  However you come into the role, I still feel these are two actors who most embodied everything Bond could and should be.  People discount Brosnan sometimes because his movies were not the best (and two of them are close to the worst), but they should really revisit those films just to observe Brosnan himself.  He truly was born to play the role.

3. Daniel Craig – another bruiser who became debonair, like Connery. I do feel Craig is terrific. No actor has so fully embraced the flaws in Bond’s character, especially his arrogance, as Craig has.  His Bond is not a role model.  He has deep rooted problems. Craig is dangerous and is excellent in action mode. Admittedly, I don’t think he is as strong in the lady and comedy department. While part of this is because his films are more serious, he has had some opportunities to show off Bond’s lighter side.  And he is fine at it, just not remarkable. Can he nail the one-liner like Connery, Brosnan and Moore?  Sometimes he can, but sometimes the jokes fall a bit flat. And his Bond is also missing one important component – Bond has a certain joie de vivre.  He genuinely enjoys his work.  Craig’s Bond really seems to hate it, which might be why he tries to leave MI6 every single movie. I know that is a character decision and not necessarily the fault of Craig’s performance, but on the other hand, good producers also know to play to their actor’s strengths. Creative teams see what their actor is good at and they build around it to reinforce those strengths.  And Craig’s brooding anger is a huge asset that you can build around.  It just doesn’t necessarily vibe with a character who just loves being a spy.

4. Roger Moore – talk about someone who loved being a spy! Moore was the perfect Bond for the 1970s. He could play up the absurd, and was terrific at delivering a pun.  And his flirting with the ladies was always entertaining.  Look, could anybody in real life get women to swoon the way Roger Moore’s Bond did?  No, absolutely not. It is completely unrealistic. But in the context of the insane world that Roger Moore’s Bond inhabited – with its iceberg submarines and hovercraft gondolas – yes, I absolutely believe all of these women wanted to sleep with him. Yes, the world was crazy, but Moore’s Bond was in on the joke and winked at the audience through seven movies. Could I take Moore seriously as a dangerous spy?  Not really, though he had his moments.  Were Moore’s fights sometimes clunky and not particularly exciting?  Definitely.  Moore was better at throwing a quip than a punch.  But it is hard to deny that the man was having fun, and we were having fun with him.

5. Timothy Dalton – Dalton was the polar opposite of Roger Moore. Until Daniel Craig arrived on the scene, Dalton was easily the most serious Bond, and certainly the most dangerous.  In fact, if you were to think about which Bond actor fits the mold of a real spy, I would pick Dalton hands down.  I totally believe Dalton as a Cold War superstar, whether it is assassinating KGB agents and stopping heroin smuggling in Afghanistan.  Where he faltered was the other part of Bond's character.  He wasn’t particularly funny, and his romantic scenes always seemed forced. I do understand the producers wanted to tone down Bond’s promiscuity as the headlines of the late 1980s were dominated by the AIDS crisis.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Dalton’s Bond just looks uncomfortable with the ladies.  He just doesn’t want to be there.  He’s acting like he is begrudglingly sleeping with these women because he knows it is expected of him, and he would really rather be off somewhere else, beating up some bad guys.  Dalton’s Bond is a complete stick-in-the-mud (which Craig is sometimes guilty of).  He does enjoy himself like a true Bond should (look at the sheer pleasure he gets from sliding down the side of a mountain on a cello case in The Living Daylights).  But he only seems to be happy when he is in the thick of the action, which I feel is only half the equation.

6. George Lazenby – the only terrible Bond. I like all the other actors who have played Bond.  They may have some flaws, but I enjoyed all of them and thought they brought something cool to the role.  But I really do think Lazenby is awful.  And it is nothing against George Lazenby himself.  I’ve seen him in a few other movies and he is fine.  I think he is downright hilarious in his cameo appearance in Kentucky Fried Movie.  But as Bond, I just think he is dull and flat.  Maybe I can give him a pass because this was his first movie and he just didn’t know what he was doing yet.  Maybe if he had accepted that multi-picture deal, he would have grown into the part and developed into a worthy 007.  But in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s just dull and I feel he brings the whole picture down with him.  I don’t believe him as a dangerous spy for a second, he’s not particularly suave or charming, he can’t really deliver a joke, his romantic scenes with Diana Rigg seem forced (apparently, the two actors didn’t like each other very much).  I will say that the man clearly knows how to throw a punch.  So I guess there’s that.

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s go into a few other iconic Bond “elements” that I didn’t really get into during my reviews. There are a lot of pieces of the James Bond formula, aspects that have now become just as iconic as the character himself, and it would irresponsible for me not to mention them!


Best Bond Song:

The Bond films are now famous for their opening credit songs. As every new film goes into production, people wait with anticipation to see which artist has been Selected for the opening credits.  It’s a brilliant marketing ploy to build buzz, sell soundtrack CDs, and potentially bring a new audience to your movie. Seriously, how many hardcore Adele fans do you really think would have seen Skyfall if she hadn’t performed the opening number?

Just like the films themselves, the Bond songs have kept up with the popular trends of the day, and a number of huge hits have come out of the franchise. I generally prefer the brass-heavy or faster-paced songs, but the franchise is just as well known for its slower ballads.  There are some truly great songs in the canon: Diamonds are Forever, You Know My Name, Skyfall, Goldeneye and A View to a Kill - the last of which gets a special nod because the first 20 seconds are the coolest James Bond has ever sounded.  The whole song is good, but those first 20 seconds...brilliant!

But in the end, these songs (except for the aforementioned 20 seconds) are just honorable mentions. There are two true titans of the franchise, two songs are so good they need to be separated from the rest of the pack. These songs are not just the best Bond songs, but should be considered among the best songs written for any film ever.

Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die is so dynamic and thrilling that it was used as the soundtrack for the entire film, and was somehow perfectly appropriate for both the love and action scenes.

And then there is Goldfinger – the perfect Bond song- full of towering brass and featuring the titanic vocals of Shirley Bassey.  This was also the first time that the song was dedicated to the villain of the film, which I think is just hilarious.


Opening Title Sequence:

For better or worse, the franchise has also become famous for its elaborately designed opening credit sequences, popularized by the late, great Maurice Binder.  Stylized and always heavily symbolic, these opening title sequences ranged from octopus tentacles engulfing the screen to footage of the characters projected on gold-painted belly dancers (and yes, it is just as weird as it sounds).  The title sequences were probably most famous (and infamous) during the Roger Moore years when they truly went off the rails – often featuring blue-tinted nude silhouettes dancing, bouncing on trampolines, swinging off of giant gun barrels (with the guns often serving as the ultimate phallic symbol). They are bizarre and often unintentionally funny, but I wouldn’t call them good, necessarily.

For the best title sequence, I am going to have to go with Goldeneye – it features all the hallmarks of the Bond title sequences (tinted colors and silhouetted dancers), but they are dancing on top of crumbling monuments of Cold War Russia – and in some cases, smashing these monuments apart with giant hammers.  What is a perfect symbol of the uncertain era that Bond is about to enter – a chaotic new world where it isn’t always as clear who the good guys and bad guys are.  It’s pretty brilliant.



Best Pre-Credits Sequence:

Bond was also the first franchise to feature a pre-credits tease, a little mini adventure for audiences to enjoy before the film actually gets started.  Sometimes these pre-credit sequences are connected to the main plot, sometimes they are completely random.  But you can always count on a Bond film to start with one.  There have been a number of truly superb sequences, including the stylized black & white scene in Casino Royale where a newly minted 007 gets his first kills.  But for my money, you have to go back to Goldfinger for the best.  This short adventure is Bond at his most iconic – everything we know about Bond’s character and the formula that has served is his character so well for decades is featured in this tight 5-minute sequence.

Bond sneaks into the villain’s base in a wet suit, plants some explosives and then peels off his wet suit to reveal a tuxedo underneath so he can go to a swanky night club nearby.  We have some sneaky spy work, a few well-choreographed fights and even some spare time to make out with the local belly dancer.  And who can forget Bond giving one of his best Bond puns.  After electrocuting a bad guy at the end of a fight, he looks around in disgust, mutters “shocking” to himself and walks out.  If there is a sequence that manages to literally define everything Bond is about in under 5 minutes, this is it.


Best Bond Villain:

I know the answer is supposed to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  As the leader of SPECTRE, Blofeld is Bond’s ultimate nemesis and has plagued him for multiple films.  But honestly, I feel the franchise has always sort of missed the mark with Blofeld.  He was at his most terrifying and powerful when he was not seen, when he was just a faceless, intimidating voice in a Board Room full of villains.  As soon as he started appearing in the films, he somehow became less scary.  Whether it was Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, Donald Pleasance or Christoph Waltz, I never thought Blofeld was a truly credible threat.  Instead, Blofeld’s henchmen were always more menacing – Dr. No, Red Grant, Fiona Volpe, even Mr. White and Silva in the Craig movies (following the logic that both worked for SPECTRE).  But they all pale in comparison to the greatest henchman in the Bond movies, and maybe in any movie: the unforgettable Oddjob


I have loved Oddjob, played by Hawaiian actor (and Olympic medialist!) Harold Sakata, ever since I saw him crush those golf balls with his bare hands in Goldfinger.  The guy doesn’t have a line of dialogue, but his silence, with that “I am better than you” smirk permanently plastered on his face, is sublimely and menacingly perfect.  I love that he has an unbelievable weapon (a killer hat he throws at people) that is somehow made believable by his badassness.  And I love that Bond truly cannot defeat him.  He just can’t.  Oddjob mops the floor with him.  In order to win, Bond has to cheat.  I’ve always loved that.  So for me, this really isn’t a difficult choice.  Oddjob is my favorite villain, hands down.


Best Bond Stunt: 

The franchise has also become famous for its stunt work.  Lately, thanks to the vast improvements in digital effects, Bond's stunts have become a bit less flashy.  But back in the day, there was a lot of buzz about the next big stunt - whether it was the record setting bungie jump in Goldeneye or the 18-wheel tractor trailer that pops a wheelie in License to Kill...or the entire winter sequence in For Your Eyes Only that is more imaginative and stunt-laden than most chase scenes today.

But there are a few amazing sequences that rise to the top.  Here are my picks for top three stunts in Bond history below:

Coming in at #3, is The Spy Who Loved Me.  While the franchise had employed a lot of fantastic stunt work in the past, this is the film where they really said, "hey, audiences, guess what?  We are about to blow your mind!"  And when James Bond skies off that mountaintop (another record-breaking moment for the franchise) and deploys his Union Jack parachute, audiences were given one of the most iconic stunts in movie history.  And minds were indeed blown!


Then at #2 - we have what is easily the best car stunt ever, featured in Man with the Golden Gun.  This stunt is important in movie history because it was the first stunt to ever be conceived and calculated with a computer program.  There was some debate among my friends about whether this stunt was real or not, but I assure you it was.  This was an actual car with an actual driver, a driver who thought he was going to die, and who refused to do a second take when the first take miraculously went off without a hitch.  So enjoy this awesome car stunt.  I urge you to watch this with no sound, because the stupid slide whistle pretty much ruins the whole thing!


And now, at #1, the best stunt in James Bond history!  The cargo net fight in The Living Daylights.  Sure, in the tighter shots, this is Timothy Dalton fighting in a studio.  But for the wide shows...those are literally two stunt men hanging off the back of a cargo plane...this is an incredibly dangerous and awe-inspiring stunt once you realize what those stunt men are actually doing and how life-threatening it is...well, I'll just let the video do the rest of the talking:




Best Bond Girl:

Last but not least, the Bond Girl has become an enduring and iconic part of the franchise. The Bond Girl has become such a key ingredient of the franchise that there is actually an entire documentary about the phenomenon (Bond Girls are Forever).  It’s an exclusive club – though in fairness, these actresses were often given nothing to do except to look pretty and get rescued.  There is certainly a lot of sexism in these films, and watching how many of the female characters are treated, especially in the older films, can at times be uncomfortable.  But there are also a lot of empowered and progressive Bond Girls – badasses like Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), Xenia Onatopp (Framke Janssen), Tracy (Diana Rigg), and Agent Mai (Michelle Yeoh) who go toe-to-toe with Bond and serve as equal partners or powerful villains.

So who is the best Bond Girl? I know I am supposed to say Ursula Andress in Dr. No.  She was the first, and she has that famous entrance as she walks out of the ocean with a knife in her belt, like some sort of armed Venus de Milo.  It's an iconic moment, and rightly so.  And for that beach walk alone, she probably should go near the top of the list.  But I would never put her at No.1 because after that iconic entrance, she kinda…doesn’t do anything.  She’s just there, serving no purpose and adding nothing of value (except for her looks, of course).  So who would I pick in her place?
 
It's also tough to choose just one because the Good Bond Girls and Bad Bond Girls are so different and hard to compare to each other.  So I will pick a favorite in each of the three categories.

For the Bad Bond Girl, I love Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) from Thunderball, one of the few truly dangerous villains in Bond’s rogue’s gallery. One could argue that she is actually smarter than Bond; she’s almost always one step ahead of him.


For the Good Bond Girl, I would say Vesper Lynn (Eva Green) is terrific in Casino Royale; she is the one Bond Girl that I honestly believed the character could fall in love with.  Her arch in that film is positively heart-breaking.


But wait, I hear you say, you mentioned three categories. Was that a typo?  Definitely not!  There is of course the important third category, the Bond Girl That I Would Most Likely Fall In Love With...and that is without a doubt Solitaire from Live and Let Die, played by Jane Seymour.  Because it is Jane Seymour.  And...well, yeah, there really isn't much else to say about that.  It's Jane Seymour.



So there we go.  That’s it.  This series of reviews is over!  This has been a fun experiment, and while I hope you enjoyed revisiting this franchise as much as I did.

But I’ll be honest, I do look forward to reviewing other films again!

Until next time…

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.