So what did Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale do for the Bond franchise? Well, I’m not a huge aficionado or scholar of these films like some so I tend to look at each one on its own as an action adventure piece rather than observe how it fits into the jigsaw legacy of this mammoth series, but there’s no denying that this one kind of broke several moulds before it. After the garish 90’s heyday of Pierce Brosnan (I *love* all four of those films to bits) I feel like they just wanted to bring Bond down to earth a bit, distill the aesthetic into something that cleanses too many gadgets and what have you, cast someone darker and more dangerous and blast out a new trajectory for the character. Good plan.
Casino Royale is not only a splendidly exciting film on its own but the best, most impactful and unique 007 film since 1989’s ruthless and underrated License To Kill. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is an angry warrior who fucks up just like the rest of us and is fallible, not some invincible deity in a tux that can’t get hurt, deceived, betrayed or killed without tangible consequences. An early mission sees him tasked by Judi Dench’s then immortal M to infiltrate a high stakes poker game in some swanky French locale and gain information on dangerous arms dealer and terrorist Le Chiffre, played by vicious, predatory Mads Mikkelsen in one of my favourite Bond baddie portrayals. As if he isn’t in enough over his head, he meets the beautiful but equally dangerous Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the most unique Bond girl since… who knows when. I love that she’s a self aware human being who has her reasons for falling into bed with him instead of just being a pair of tits with a voice as seen in countless entries before. Green has sex appeal for days but what makes her special is that way her eyes smoulder with a fierce independence and unpredictability, making her one of the most fascinating characters the whole franchise has to offer. Also supporting them is the great Giancarlo Giannini as a mentor of sorts for Bond, Jeffrey Wright as CIA operative Felix, Catarina Murino, Isaach De Bankolé, Jesper Christensen, Sebastian Foucan, Tobias Menzies, Richard Sammel, Tyrone the silly fat bastard from Snatch, Russian character actress Ivana Milicevic and Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson of all people, if you look real close.
In terms of scope and staging, this is a kind of unique 007 film because it shirks the standards and ducks expectations. It opens with a spectacular chase like any other in the franchise, which is a monumental sequence in terms of stunt work. But much of the film is spent in the ornate casinos of France and a lot of the action is the casual intimidation and cerebral mind games that go alongside the poker match. There’s nothing quite like Craig and Mikkelsen sat opposite one another in tuxes, Mads bleeding out of his sinister looking dead eye and Daniel smirking at him like he wants to rip his head off, while Green looks on and let’s her ulterior motives simmer on the back burner for later. Cinematographer Phil Meheux takes full advantage of these rich, lushly production designed interior shots as well as the gorgeous outdoor rim of the Mediterranean that we get to see quite a bit of. My only real complaint is a third act that feels like it barrels in from another film; that’s not to say it’s bad or doesn’t work, it’s just a tad unwieldy with the landing and threw me off in terms of tone or climax but I suppose that could have been the intention. I’ll just say that this thing ends in the last possible way you’d expect from a 007, feeling fresh, raw and off the rails in a beautiful fashion that doesn’t tread the beaten path of so many before, but blazes out its own tragic, violent conclusion that will claim a piece of Bond’s soul but add much needed spirit to this series as a whole. Great film, and my second favourite Bond of all time after 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.
Those learning the craft of film-making nowadays shall have little to no experience with cutting film the old fashioned way. True – it was timing consuming, sometimes messy and fraught with peril – depending on your mastery. It was, however, also romantic. The trims at your feet, the smell of celluloid, the tactile nature of editing a movie . . . one splice at a time.
Mick’s a gentleman, aside from being and exceptional craftsman, and please do check out all the great work he is doing over at his family owned and operated venture Sprocket Rocket Soho. Mick is continuing to contribute, educate and bring together all those with a passion for telling stories via the moving image.
Lasse Hollstrom’s The Shipping News is two thirds of a great movie, but unfortunately has a first act which introduces it’s main character in the most heavy handed of ways, and sort of shoots itself in the foot. It helps that the rest of the film is lovely, but it takes some time to get the sour taste out of your mouth. Kevin Spacey is Quoyle, a meek milquetoast dude who has spent his entire life moping and whining, constantly being walked all over and never standing up for himself, starting right from his childhood relationship with his father (Jim ‘sippy poo’ Lahey, the glorious bastard). He’s so pathetic and such a loser that one wonders where can you go from here, and why did Spacey choose to start his arc at such a sad extreme, instead of livening it up a bit? By chance (and I mean chance) he marries Petal ( half mad Cate Blanchett), a wayward woman-child with barely an ounce of sanity or sensibility in her, and has a daughter with her. She runs off to a tragic self inflicted end, and he is left to raise the girl. Suddenly he receives news that a relative has passed in a small coastal fishing village his ancestral home of Newfoundland, so he packs it in and the two of them head on out there to begin anew. From there it’s an awakening for him, and bit by bit his character becomes believable and tolerable, two traits that were simply not there up until this point. He meets a long lost relative (a salty Judi Dench), befriends a local gal (Julianne Moore), starts working for the gruff local newspaper magnate (Scott Glenn, wonderful) and essentially finds a self within him that he never had before, a life to fill the pointless void he’s lived in for his whole existence so far. The town is charming, the atmosphere authentic and the acting terrific, including Rhys Ifans and the late great Pete Postlethwaite. I just wish the first act could have measured up to the rest and not stuck out like such a misplaced and noticeable sore thumb. Hallstrom has an ear for intimate, rural set family drama (check out An Unfinished Life with Robert Redford fpr his best work), and for the most part, this one delivers the goods.
Notes On A Scandal shines an unblinking and often bitterly tainted spotlight into what makes people tick, how they interact with one another and what a slap in the face it can be when you see what they really think and feel, independent of how they may carry themselves in public. Judi Dench is acid personified as an older woman and veteran teacher at a local high school, who’s ranks have recently been joined by a younger art instructor (Cate Blanchett). Dench is jaded, her only friend being her cat Portia, and has an insidious habit of keep a diary in which she writes down prickly little barbs about everyone and everything around her, often cruel and judgmental in nature. She takes a shine to Blanchett, who is married to a much older and renowned man (the excellent Bill Nighy) and has every vibrant thing in life that Dench is bereft of, left with the vacuum of her own empty existence. She envies, aspires to and resents Blanchett’s existence, and pours a malicious cocktail of verbal attacks into her journal, safe in the knowledge that it’s just as personal and private as her own thoughts, and that she’ll never be found out. Or will she? I’ve lived long enough to know that secrets you try to hide have a way of working their way to the surface, becoming known and hurting those you love or try to connect to. Speaking of secrets, things get incredibly complicated when Blanchett gets caught up in a torrid affair with a teenage boy she teaches, lured in by lust’s song and deaf to consequence, which is something that befalls us all more than we’d care to admit. Dench thinks she can use her knowledge of the affair as leverage to get what she wants, which she may not even be sure of at all, beyond it obsessively involving Blanchett. The two of them are dynamite as two sides of the many faced coin of ambiguity. The human behavior in this film somewhat defies the usual story structure and parameters of character we are used to in film. Decisions are arbitrary, ugliness is exposed, people are contradictory and confused in a way that leaves them stranded without beats to fall back on with their work. High praise is deserved to a piece this honest and willing to explore these places.
David Twohy’s Pitch Black was a dank, murky horror sci fi that took place inside a claustrophobic killing jar, all the action unfolding on one planet, and over a short amount of time. With The Chronicles Of Riddick, he lifts the lid off that jar, unveiling more planets, characters, creatures and broadening both the scope of what is seen visually and what takes place in the story. What began as a simple human vs. monster survival tale crystallizes into a full blown operatic space saga, and I loved every minute of it. Now there are a lot of people who hate it, and fine for them if they want to live inside such negativity. I was sold after the intro, in which a snarky, canine – like bounty hunter (Nick Chinlund) chases a haggard looking Riddick a across the bizarre, jagged face of a planet that would make the asteroid from Armageddon sweat. This film takes place sometime after Pitch Black, the few survivors scattered across the galaxy. There’s a price on Riddick’s head, which Toombs (Chinlund) intends to collect. Riddick unwittingly wanders into the path of something far more dangerous in his evasive efforts: a powerful, fascist master race known as the Necromongers are cutting a swath through the known universe, converting or killing anyone they find. They are led by the “” (Colm Feore), and commanded by Lord Vaako (another badass character for Karl Urban to another do to his rogue’s gallery), a nasty piece of work who is futher soured by his insidious wife (Thandie Newton). Riddick has encounter with them, as well as an old friend from former times (an all too brief Keith David) and is taken far and away, to a dangerous prison on a planet called Crematoria, where the wrecking ball of a sun fries everything on the surface every half hour or so. It all happens fast (and furious hehe), in a somewhat rushed frenzy of sci fi action, cool effects and surprisingly vicious antics for a PG-13 flick. Diesel was born to play Riddick, a growling night wolf of an antihero and endlessly watchable. There’s all sorts of half Cooke ideas running around, some fun and others left unexplored. There’s a prophecy involving the Purifier (Linus Roache) who has ties to Riddick’s tragic past and the fate of his race, a strange elemental (Judi Dench looking confused), another person from his past (Alexa Davalos) and other intrigue involving Urban. Best to sit back and let it wash over you like the fun it is. Chinlund is hilarious as Toombs, the only character who seems to have wandered in from inner city L.A., a wide ass prick with a hate streak for Riddick and that old school charisma that carries scenes. The set pieces are exhilarating and make up for the plot which is at times spread too thinly, but never hurts the film. I love it, watch it all the time, let the haters sulk… more for us.
GoldenEye is the very finest hour that Pierce Brosnan had as James Bond, both as a film and in terms of what he gets to do as the character. It’s my third favourite Bond film of all time and stands as one of the most exciting ventures the series has seen to this day. It definitely falls into a campy style, but one that’s removed from that of the original Bond films from way back when, one that’s all its own and decidedly 90’s. It’s also got one of the strongest and classiest villains of the series, a man who is in fact an ex agent himself which was a neat switch up. Brosnan is so photogenic it’s ridiculous, whether dolled up in the tux or careening through a valley in a fighter jet. He just looks so damn good as Bond, and I sometimes wish he’d gotten a fifth crack at the character. Here we join up with 007 on a mission gone wrong, where he is ambushed and his partner Agent Alec Trevelyan a.k.a. 006 (Sean Bean) is killed, or so he thinks. 006 is in fact alive and well, with a few gnarly facial scars and a new nasty attitude. He puts Bond through a wringer with a diabolical scheme to hijack a Russian nuclear space weapon and do all kinds of lovely things with it. Bond teams up with the survivor of a decimated Russian research centre, a beautiful scientist named Natalya (Isabella Scorupco) who inevitably ends up in his bed. It’s slick, it’s stylish, it’s sexy and everything a Bond flick needs to be. 006 has a dangerous asset in Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a lethal assassin whose weapon of choice are her thighs which she employs with the crushing power of two Amazonian pythons. Janssen plays the role with ferocious relish and the kind of enthusiasm that hadn’t been seen in a Bond villainess since Barbara Carrera in Never Say Never Again. Bean plays it ice cold, letting restraint and calculated malice steal the scenes as opposed to flagrant mustache twirling. I always thought he would have made a cracking good 007 as he has so much residual danger to his vibe from playing many heartless bastards in his career, but perhaps in another life. One of my favourite characters to ever hang out in a Bond flick shows up here, a cranky but lovable russian general named Valentin Zukofsky, played by the awesome Robbie Coltrane, an actor who really, really needs to be in more stuff. His few short scenes are the stuff that makes a piece timeless, and I wish we’d gotten to see more Valentin and more Hagrid elsewhere in the franchise. There’s the usual suspects like Judi Dench as M and Desmond Llewellyn as a crusty Q, and a host of other actors including Joe Don Baker, Tchecky Karyo, Minnie Driver and the irritating Alan Cumming who singlehandedly ruins scenes with his hammy preening. The film thunders along with furious energy and nicely paced action sequences, including a chaotic tank chase through the streets of Moscow and a stunner of a climax set atop a giant satellite dish. As Bond films go, you can never go wrong with this one.