Tag Archives: Ben Withshaw

Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake

Layer Cake is a British gangster flick whose posters say ‘from the producer of Snatch and Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’ and indeed director Matthew Vaughn did work on those sub-genre defining films but it’s a bit of a sneaky ploy to splash that across the poster because this film is galaxies away from those two in terms of tone, style, pacing and overall fibre of content. Guy Ritchie’s Brit crime films (which I adore) are akin to Wonka’s factory all colour, swirl and flash but this one exists in something more like an upscale steakhouse and provides solid, grounded content to digest and work over later on. That’s not to say it isn’t without flair or flourish, there’s a lot of propulsive mayhem, cheerful dark humour, peppy British dialogue and menacing extreme violence but it just somehow feels… more down to earth.

Daniel Craig is a London coke trafficker credited simply as XXXX, a wry gesture that hits the mark because this guy, although far from anonymous, could be any one of us: a strait-laced, level headed dude who thinks he can tread around dangerous waters without getting his feet wet. Well there be dragons in those waters, dragons who have big plans for him in the form of various London underworld figures from brain dead, peacocky underlings to Machiavellian figureheads of immense, baroque and frightening power. His operation is funded and mother goosed by a wealthy thug called Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham in a study of pigheaded volatility), who scoffs at Craig’s plans of early retirement and tasks him with two seemingly simple tasks: 1) mediate a sizeable ecstasy transaction that is in danger of flying off the rails and 2) babysit the wayward druggie daughter of his own boss Freddie Temple (Michael Gambon basically playing the devil to the point of self referential glee), a man with whom you never want to fuck. Of course neither of these errands are cakewalks and things begin to viscously spiral spectacularly out of control in ironic, deliciously karmic fashion until it ain’t readily clear who’s betraying who, who wants what and who is simply wandering about in a narrative haze wondering what they did to deserve such a conniption fit of cacophonous roundabout shenanigans.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is an overly confusing or messily told tale because it’s not, it makes perfect and clear sense (like all these mad dash crime flicks) if you’re paying rigid attention or spin it through the DVD player more than once, it’s just refracted through a stylistic prism whose purpose is to befuddle, but that’s half the fun. Craig’s character is a terminally busy guy once things all kick off, so much so that not even getting to third base with a gorgeous lady friend (Sienna Miller) can stop him getting hauled out the door back to work (been there). He’s a smart guy in a sea of other guys who are either way smarter than him or way dumber, both species proving equally as dangerous. There’s his two mates Clarkie (a boyish Tom Hardy) and Morty (George Harris is superb) who race to keep up, Jimmy’s hotheaded righthand man Gene (Colm Meaney, who can’t sit still for two seconds, love his energy), one very angry Serb (Marcel Iures), a dirty cop (Dexter Fletcher) who comes in quite handy and all manner of other cretins and oddballs for our hero(?) to contend with. At the end of it you kind of sit there, in a daze and in the dust, wondering what kind of speeding locomotive just hit you, and kind of wishing it would turn 180 degrees on the tracks and come back for more as it was so much fucking fun. And the end? Well, let me just say that no American studio film would have the balls to pull a stunt like that and I was admittedly stung by it at first but when you think back to what kind of lifestyle Craig’s character leads, who he associates with (on purpose or by circumstance), his profession and exactly the kind of thing all these seasoned criminals warned him of, it makes sense as a sort of brutally poetic final thunderclap to his arc. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Sam Mendes’s Skyfall

What are the key ingredients in a Bond film? Chase sequences. Gadgets. A sexy chick, maybe two or even three per film. A flamboyant, megalomaniac asshole bent on world domination or some other far flung quest for global chaos. Flashy cars. Admirable stunt work. Cringy one liners. What else? Not much, unfortunately, and it’s these formulas, mostly stuck to like a well worn blueprint throughout the franchise that have made me a self proclaimed Bond non-fan, aside from a few specific entries. That changed when the Daniel Craig iterations came along, thoughtful, self aware reworking that peaked with Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, which is arguably the best in the whole canon, and definitely my favourite. For the first time there’s thought put into 007’s arc, a personal backstory, connections to others that are rooted in emotion and a refreshingly intelligent script that both calls loving attention to and subtly sends up the franchise tropes. Craig’s Bond is an implosive, haunted warrior whose quips are never cavalier or cheeky, but feel rather sardonic with a touch of sadness. What made him this way? Well, a solid career of killing people and having extreme bodily harm inflicted upon him I’d imagine, the effects of which are readily apparent on his rough hewn frame and weary expression like never before in the franchise. The cryptic title of the film also calls back to his past, never thoroughly explored but hinted at just enough to accent the character. Then there’s the villain, a blond dye job piece of work named Silva, given the devilish, over pronounced charisma of Javier Bardem, who handles the dangerous monster, playful joker and petulant brat aspects of the character in harmonized synergy for a scene stealing and franchise best Bond baddie. Although admittedly a power-mad despot like any other, Silva’s ultimate endgame is something far more personal, which makes for a stronger character than some freak who just wants to blow up the moon with a laser. Most of the characters here shirk the standards and become something more than their allotted archetypes. Judi Dench’s hard-nosed M takes centre stage as not only the steely shot caller behind the desk but as a well rounded character whose choices behind said desk come back to haunt her. Ralph Fiennes’s salty aristocrat Gareth Mallory proves more resourceful and intuitive than that perfectly tailored suit n’ plummy accent would let on. Naomie Harris’s badass Eve is a cracking field agent with the wits and charisma to match Bond, and Ben Withshaw’s Q gets to intone more than simply the function of a few well placed, elaborate gadgets, of which there are indeed few, if any on display here. The only one who remains squarely in the imprint of past 007 films is Bérenicé Marlohe’s sultry but short lived Severine, who almost proves unimportant to the plot beyond obligatory eye candy and could have been left out. Pretty much everything works here, and better than it has for any prior Bond film, particularly the clever, wry dialogue, emotional element and iconoclastic trailblazing. Roger Deakins makes visual poetry yet again with his camera, from the neon soaked skyscrapers of Shanghai to the floating lantern casinos of Macau to the comfortably rain streaked brick of London, this is one flat out gorgeous film to look at. Couple the technical prowess with that oh so weighty, thoughtful script, Craig’s craggy and well worn warrior Bond and the fresh feeling rogues gallery of characters around him, not to mention Adele’s heart-stopping original song and you’ve got something truly special and elevated from any other 007 film out there. Oh, and the courtroom scene where M quotes Tennyson? Bloody time capsule worthy.

-Nate Hill