Sunday, January 31, 2010
January report card
de la Iglesia: 6%
... which adds up to 98%, meaning either it can't count or it's a sexist bastard and it's hidden the 2% that someone's ponied up for Mira Nair.
And now I've done criticising the machine, I'll lob a couple of brickbats in my own direction: despite my best intentions (as expressed in my New Year's Day post), I've let the Hellraisers series slide for another month, and clocked up only one post each in the Personal Faves and Work Sucks projects. Meanwhile, I'm five movies into Operation 101010, covering four categories. 95 movies still to go.
Less talking in class. Must try harder.
Saturday, January 30, 2010
Category: biopics / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 5 of 100
If you know even the slightest thing about Sylvia Plath, you'll know how this one ends. In case you don't, a SPOILER ALERT applies for the next couple of paragraphs.
In 1963, after separating from Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath committed suicide. Feminists and Plath supporters spent the next three and half decades laying the blame categorically at Hughes' door. Hughes kept his silence until 1998 when, just before his death, he published 'Birthday Letters', a 200-page collection of poetry examining his relationship with Plath from their initial meeting at Cambridge to the aftermath of her death. Five years after Hughes's passing, director Christine Jeffs made 'Sylvia', from a screenplay by John Brownlow. I would say that a storm of controversy greeted the film's release, except that a teacup would easily have contained said storm; or, to put it another way, the controversy was out of proportion to the amount of people who actually saw the film.
Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, weighed in by denying the filmmakers access to her mother's poetry (there are a couple of brief snippets from 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Daddy' and that's your lot), and excoriated the project in a poem of her own entitled 'My Mother': "Now they want to make a film / For anyone lacking the ability / To imagine the body, head in oven, / Orphaning children". It is worth mentioning that, while the film shows Plath's preparations for the suicide, the act itself occurs offscreen. This negates her assertion that Plath's suicide is the filmmakers' sole motivation.
'Sylvia' is a bloody difficult film to write about. On one hand - as a piece of filmmaking - it strikes a fine balance between the raw emotionalism of Gwyneth Paltrow's central performance and Christine Jeffs' controlled direction (kudos to her for resisting obvious melodrama, judgementalism or proselytizing); it succeeds in evoking a period of time and establishing a sense of place both in its English and American locations; and it truncates the seven years of Plath and Hughes' turbulent relationship into a carefully paced hour and three quarters, the timeline never becoming confused or elliptical. On the other hand, the film never fully gets to grips with Sylvia Plath the writer. And like most artists, Sylvia Plath defined herself by her art.
I've read more than one review which has seized on this shortcoming to write off the film entire. Which is unfair. It's a failing common to almost every film I've seen about writers, either factual ('Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle'), fictitious ('Barton Fink') or somewhere in between ('Shakespeare in Love'): the act of writing is solitary, time-consuming and entirely uncinematic. In fact, the only film I can think of that gets anywhere close to the reality of it is 'Naked Lunch'. There's just something about Peter Berg's typewriter morphing into an anus and talking back to him that communicates David Cronenberg's understanding of the process. But with a rectally-configured Olivetti presumably as unavailable to her as Plath's original poetry, Jeffs uses what she has and structures pivotal scenes around Plath's inability to create, empathetically tapping into her frustration as an idyllic summer at Cape Cod turns into a barren wasteland defined by writer's block.
"I'm dried up," Plath complains at one point, making it sound as much like infertility as a blip in the creative cycle. Things aren't helped by Hughes (Daniel Craig) wandering in from a ramble through the countryside and announcing "Got a poem, a good one," for all the world as if he'd just found it lying there in the woods. Fertility was as important to her worldview as literature (her 1961 poem 'Barren Woman' is a paranoid fantasia on the maternal instinct denied), yet the conflict between motherhood and the howling malevolence of her muse is made brutally plain in the climactic scenes where, estranged from Hughes, she struggles to reconcile her responsibilities to her two young children with the furious onset of ultimately self-destructive inspiration which resulted in the 'Ariel' poems.
Frieda Hughes' refusal of access to Plath's works is both a curse and a blessing. It robs the 'Ariel' sequence: instead of the viewer experiencing the onrush of Plath's most nakedly powerful and imagistic poetry (from the title poem: "Statis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances"; from 'Edge': "The moon has nothing to be sad about / Staring from her hood of bone. / She is used to this sort of thing. / Her blacks cackle and drag"), Jeffs is coralled into presenting a fairly bland montage of Plath scribbling away, her pen chittering across the paper as if part of an experiment into automatic writing, the poet occasionally jerking back from her desk, face contorted in a mask forged equally from the ecstasy of creation and the desperation behind it. Elsewhere, though, Jeffs rises to the challenge, raises her game and gets round the ban on Plath's poetry by transposing certain of Plath's poems (most notably 'The Moon and the Yew Tree' and 'Burning the Letters') into images.
Cinematographer John Toon does sterling work: the glorious seascapes of Cape Cod as captivating and full of light as the dingy rooms of Plath's London flat (her last address) are cramped and heavy with shadows. Gabriel Yared's score is sensitive and seldom intrudes. Jeffs directs with clear-sightedness and compassion; indeed, the film is even-handed in its portrayal of Plath and Hughes' failing marriage. Hughes' infidelity is raked over but not at the cost of demonising him. Jeffs and Brownlow don't shy away, either, from demonstrating that Plath herself wasn't the easiest person to live with.
The performances are what make the film, though. Daniel Craig makes a convincing Hughes, capturing the poet's earthiness, working class background and fierce dedication to his art. Jared Harris achieves a dignified and sympathetic characterisation of influential literary critic and early Plath champion Al Alvarez. Blythe Danner - Gwyneth Paltrow's mother - plays Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother, and imbues the role with a crystalline sense of the dispassionate, her few scenes suggesting the outwardly privileged but emotionally unstable childhood from which Sylvia Plath's neuroses developed.
But the defining performance is Paltrow's. I've always liked Gwyneth Paltrow, despite the proliferation of bland movies on her CV and the airy-fairy new-age guff on her Goop website, and I don't think I've ever seen her turn in such powerhouse work as she does in 'Sylvia', notably in an almost unbearable dinner party scene where Plath's slow-burn jealousies and insecurities finally come hissing to the fore. If Joe Pesci's Tommy de Vito in 'Goodfellas' had been a poet not a gangster and done his violence with words instead of guns and fists, the intensity could hardly be more shattering. Paltrow nails Plath's look, voice and mannerisms. In this and a handful of other scenes she also nails Plath's inner demons and the effect is darkly compelling.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
... and stole the show as an educationally-challenged glamourpuss in 'An Education'.
'An Education' is one of those films I probably wouldn't write about on The Agitation of the Mind: I didn't feel passionate enough about it spend an hour or so putting together 800 words, nor was it so bad that the urge to subject it to a 'Twilight'-style sarcasm-fest proved irresistible. 'An Education' is a perfectly watchable little souffle of a film: it's light and airy and looks quite appetising as it drifts across the screen. But the moment the fork of critical appraisal hoves anywhere near - poof! - it disappears in a cloud of its own insubstantiality.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
All the Colours of the Dark
Category: gialli / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 4 of 100
Check out the image above. Off-kilter composition, bottle of J&B, Edwige Fenech. Yup, we’re in giallo territory.
‘All the Colours of the Dark’ is one of five terrific gialli Sergio Martino directed between 1971 and 1973, following on from (and reuniting the stars of) ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ and the magnificently titled ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’.
Fenech stars as Jane Harrison, the increasingly harassed and distressed partner of London-based pharmaceutical rep Richard Steele (George Hilton). Still plagued with nightmares about the murder of her mother many years previously, Jane is also recovering from the trauma of a car accident (an incident for which it seems Richard is blameworthy) which caused the miscarriage of her baby. Richard favours prescription drugs to treat her nervous condition, while her sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro, appearing under her Susan Scott pseudonym) is keen for Jane to enter therapy with the psychiatrist for whom Barbara works.
To make matters worse, the piercingly blue-eyed killer from her dreams – a man with rather phallic tendencies to knife-wielding – seems to have stepped living and breathing into the real world. Jane’s already fragile condition deteriorates as he begins stalking her, following her on the Underground, keeping sinister vigil outside her apartment building.
Martino establishes a ‘Rosemary’s Baby’-style atmosphere of mounting dread from the outset, probing his heroine’s borderline hysterical mental/emotional state as effectively and unremittingly as Polanski did in his classic of the macabre. The influence of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is writ large, but it’s to Martino’s credit that ‘All the Colours of the Dark’ comes across as more than just a knock-off or a cash-in.
Martino gets the ball rolling with a zonked-out dream sequence structured around quasi-Freudian imagery that mirrors Jane’s state of mind. Many more dream/fantasy/paranoia sequences will follow, Martino segueing between Jane’s inner world and the (supposedly) real one with such sneaky aplomb that, for much of the film’s hour and a half running time, he maintains ambiguity as to whether everything we see is simply a product of Jane’s troubled mind. (Lucio Fulci achieved a similar effect, albeit using a different cinematic bag of tricks, in ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ made the year before.)
If proof of Jane’s mental turmoil were required, it’s provided by the scene on which the film entire hinges. Panicked after a perhaps-real-perhaps-imagined appearance of the stalker, Jane seeks solace from her alluring but mysterious neighbour Mary Weil (Marina Malfatti).
Jane: I'm sure someone is chasing me, someone coming very deep from my childhood. Do you believe in that sort of thing?
Mary: I believe in a lot more .. I had my problems, too. Not as serious as yours, but I got rid of them.
Mary: Do you know what a black mass is?
Jane: You're scaring me.
Mary: It makes sense to be afraid sometimes. You have to find it and it'll disappear.
At this point, ‘All the Colours of the Dark’ could easily have lurched into the realms of the risible, the carefully established atmosphere and giallo tropes swamped by this explicitly horror/supernatural-themed narrative development. And, it has to be admitted, Martino’s staging of the black mass/orgy does come close to parody. Bruno Nicolai’s wordless vocal score is unintentionally hilarious while actor Julian Ugarte’s portrayal of the cult leader is less high priest than high camp.
Yet somehow Martino manages to fuse the disparate elements into a decently-paced and never less than entertaining hybrid. He makes good, non-touristy use of the London locations and conjures as many striking compositions and memorable set-pieces as you’d expect from a giallo, culminating in a vertiginous rooftop chase.
Fenech turns in a full-throttle performance as a woman in meltdown. Navarro and Malfatti add to the glamour quotient, even if their performances prove somewhat by-the-numbers. Hilton is dependable, but badly dubbed in the English language version. (Subject of which: the Shriek Show DVD release, while presenting a beautiful anamorphic transfer, suffers from murky sound that renders entire chunks of dialogue nearly indecipherable; fortunately, an Italian language/English subtitles option is available.)
‘All the Colours of the Dark’ arguably stops short of being one of the all-time great gialli, though. It flags a little towards the end. The fantasy vs. reality riff is recycled perhaps once too often. The eleventh hour inclusion of an exposition-spouting police inspector is arbitrary even by giallo standards. A just-as-eleventh-hour subplot involving an unexpected inheritance threatens to steer the mystery from the esoteric to the mundane. More annoyingly, a flashback to a crucial but initially overlooked clue requires a cheat on Martino’s part.
Still, these are relatively minor gripes and gialli often rely on endings that are abrupt, arbitrary or outright baffling (even such richly atmospheric, slow-burn entries as ‘Who Saw Her Die?’ and ‘The House with the Laughing Windows’ register high scores on the WTF-o-meter. ‘All the Colours of the Dark’ sees its prolific and versatile director on good form and gives the achingly gorgeous Fenech one of her best-remembered roles.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Rise: Blood Hunter
Category: Impulse buys / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 3 of 100
It was £3.00 (about $4.85).
It looked like an unapologetically trashy horror flick.
Decent eye candy quotient: Lucy Liu, Carla Gugino, Cameron Richardson.
The ‘18’ rating promised a more full-blooded vampire flick than the norm. A couple of clips I’d seen on the internet hinted at a lesbian vampire subtext (hey, it works for Jess Franco and Jean Rollin!) The basic premise – journalist uncovers a society of sexually motivated vampires, is turned into one, enters their world, then goes all out for vengeance – promised a down ‘n’ dirty, fast-moving, gory, sexy horror thriller.
… I expected ‘Rise: Blood Hunter’ to deliver the aforementioned down ‘n’ dirty, fast-moving, gory, sexy B-movie thrills. Instead, the film juggles horror, revenge movie and mystery thriller tropes, strives for character study and suffers from uneven pacing, scenes that juxtapose awkwardly and characters who are invariably dour and unenthralling. Bishop and Eve – ostensibly amoral, sexually predatory sensualists who enjoy the pleasures of the flesh and then go straight for the blood vessels underneath – fit the blueprint for seductive, sinister and deliciously appealing villains, and one scene in particular veers close to the provocative and darkly erotic direction I anticipated Gutierrez taking. On the whole, though, the villains are underused, particularly the potentially fascinating Eve.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Wings of Hope
Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 2 of 100
On Christmas Eve 1971, just hours after her graduation and attendance at the prom, 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke boarded a LANSA flight to rejoin her father at the biological research post he operated in the jungles of Peru. Koepcke's mother was with her; one of the officially listed 95 victims when the plane (whose mechanics, it transpired, were only experienced in working on motorbikes and whose pilots' licences were not in order) crashed deep in the jungle.
LANSA already had a poor reputation. An earlier crash Cuzco had revealed that 106 people were on board, ten more than the maximum. Koepcke recounts that it was with some trepidation that she took the flight. Due to non-availability of aircraft, only one of two scheduled flights left that day. Herzog remembers that those who did get to fly out seemed relieved. Herzog, you see, was there. He was due to fly out to the jungle to shoot 'Aguirre Wrath of God'. Previous flights while location scouting had brought Herzog into contact with some of the crew members who died that day. Herzog caught a subsequent flight and filming commenced. It later transpired that he and Klaus Kinski were making their first collaboration just "a few rivers away from Juliane as she was fighting for her life".
'Wings of Hope', Herzog says, is a film that lay dormant within him for a long time because of this reason. Despite the coincidence, though, Juliane Koepcke's participation was not necessarily guaranteed. In the seventeen years that had elapsed since the crash, the eminently pragmatic Koepcke had sought anonymity in an attempt not just to live a normal life but to define that life by her work as a scientist and not her unwanted fame as the sole survivor of a disaster that claimed over a hundred lives. She had already evaded unwanted media attention and been the subject of a cheaply and quickly shot adventure film* by the time Herzog approached her.
"Juliane is a scientist, very straight-talking and clear-headed, and the only reason she survived her ordeal was because of her ability to act methodically through those absolutely dire circumstances" ('Herzog on Herzog', p.270). And as low-key as her description of events is, there is no doubt hers is an incredible tale of survival. The crash occasioned the biggest search-and-rescue mission that had then been undertaken in Peru. It was called off after ten days. Juliane Koepcke emerged from the jungle two days later. Herzog's understanding of Koepcke's "clear-headed ... methodical" character was behind his decision not to incorporate too much stylisation into the documentary.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
PERSONAL FAVES: Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 1 of 100
As a documentarist, Werner Herzog has produced a body of work as striking, challenging and original as any of his feature films. This is the man who used cinema (a visual and aural medium) to explore the world of a blind and deaf woman in 'Land of Silence and Darkness'; who, in 'Grizzly Man', crafted the found footage of an egomaniacal narcissist into something powerful, profound and unsentimental; who made the eccentric, quietly subversive 'Encounters at the End of the World' on the Discovery Channel's dime.
Approaching a Werner Herzog documentary, it's a good idea to put aside any preconceptions of what a documentary is ... or should be. "Cinema verite," Herzog famously declared, "is the truth of accountants." Simply recording events as they happen in front of the camera gives you about as much chance of getting at the truth of something as the doomed penguin in 'Encounters at the End of the World' has of flying to the moon. Although if that penguin did fly to the moon, you can bet Herzog would already be there, as philosophical and unruffled in a space suit as he is mired in the jungle or being shot at during an interview, ready to capture the moment.
Herzog's approach to the documentary form - indeed, to film in general - is to find what he calls "ecstatic truth". There's an example of this not five minutes into 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly', arguably one of Herzog's most compelling documentaries. His subject is German-born American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler. A boy in post-war Germany, haunted and inspired in equal measure by a memory from the war years of an American plane passing so close to his house that for a split second he locked eyes with the man in the cockpit, Dengler emigrated to the US, gained citizenship, joined the air force and was deployed to Vietnam. He had no concept of the geography or the politics of the conflict. He knew nothing - would only realise after harsh circumstances gave him a brutally different perspective - of the sufferings and hostility that were cloaked by the foliage of the jungle.
Dengler's participation in the war lasted for all of one mission. Shot down over Laos, he was captured by the VC. A forced march through the jungle brought him to a prison camp. He slept with his feet locked in place between blocks of wood, his hands shackled to those of the POWs to either side of him. Use of the latrine was a once-a-day luxury. Beaten, emaciated, stricken with dyssentry, men endured their own filth. Their captors evinced ferality but demonstrated an instinctive understanding of how to psychologically demoralise prisoners; break them down; rob them of hope. Dengler, a man for whom the wellspring of optimism evidently never even threatened to run dry, determined to escape. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...
Herzog begins the documentary with the Dieter Dengler of 1997, a Dieter Dengler in late middle age: expressive, affable, a genial host (he opens his doors to Herzog and his crew as if they were old friends) and an interviewer's dream in his candidness and eloquence. Herzog films him driving along an isolated stretch of road in a beautifully preserved 1960s roadster. Dengler pulls up outside of his house, hops out of the car and closes, opens and closes the driver's side door. He does the same thing with the front door to his house. "This may be strange to some people," he says, almost sheepishly, "but to me it's very important, this freedom to be able to open or close a door."
At the other end of the scale, how many documentaries have you seen where the subject revisits the scene of an emotional or traumatic event, where the camera keeps rolling as said poor unfortunate, emotionally devasted by the renewed cascade of memories, gets all choked up and turns away as the words fail them and the tears start? It's an easy result, a cheap shortcut to the emotional engagement of the audience.
Monday, January 18, 2010
In for a penny, in for a hundred movies
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Saturday, January 16, 2010
This is when The Strangers conduct their experiments. This is when the city morphs and changes and things are rendered different. This is when an ordinary joe working a dead end job might wake up in an elegant townhouse to a life of luxury. For a while, at least. Until Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) turns up again and selects a syringe from his medical bag. And with that injection, a new life, a new personality, a new set of memories.
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a state of panic. He finds himself in a dingy apartment, immersed in a bathful of tepid and discoloured water. He remembers nothing. A suitcase embossed with the initials K.H. and a postcard from a coastal resort are the only clues he has to who and where he is.
A phone call alerts him to a matter of greater concern: he's a wanted man. He goes on the lam. Hassled by the cops, he's helped out of a tight spot by accommodating call girl May (Melissa George). She's sultry and voluptuous, but she's not the woman in the photograph in John's wallet. And besides, the dead girl in the apartment he's just fled suggests he might be a danger to her. He leaves.
Murdoch's wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is approached by Dr Schreber and Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt). A nightclub singer whose repertoire of torch numbers reflects the pain of her break-up with John, she believes she can offer little or no help to either man.
The doctor and inspector have different agendas. Schreber has been assisting The Strangers in their experiments. He has a paid a price but inveigled himself into a position which even The Strangers have underestimated his potential to exploit. Bumstead is doggedly investigating a series of murders. His colleague Detective Walenski (Colin Friels) has been driven insane. But not, as Bumstead might think, by the case.
Alex Proyas's genre-bending cult classic predates 'The Matrix' by a year in its fusion of sci-fi and film noir tropes. It belongs equally to strands of cinema encompassing the innocent-man-accused chase thrillers of Hitchcock and the dystopian cityscapes of Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'. Its mise-en-scenes abound with clues and symbols, its narrative unravelling through a maze of shadowy streets, dark doorways and confined spaces. Its protagonists conform to genre stereotypes (as The Strangers mean them to) but wear their humanity with a sense of hard-won of pragmatism. Bumstead is a journeyman copper who goes looking for facts and uncovers the truth. Emma has the look of a smouldering femme fatale and the heart of a romantic heroine. John is a confused innocent, lost and alone, with more power than even he realises.
'Dark City' is a low-key character piece realised on an epic scale. It found little favour at the box office, whereas the Wachowski brothers' adrenaline rush of high-wire stunts and Philosophy 101 made a killing. I don't begrudge 'The Matrix' its success - its terrific entertainment and holds a place in my affections which not even the leaden and pretentious self-indulgence of the sequels can dislodge - but I prefer 'Dark City'. It doesn't want to be cool and iconic and kick-ass. Its happy to stick to the shadows in a rain-wet and neon-drenched alleyway. Its images are darker and resonate longer in the memory. Did I mention that it predated 'The Matrix' by a year? Its poetic and haunting final image predates 'Requiem for a Dream' by two.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
How to kill a vampire: garlic, stake through the heart, franchise reboot …
In terms of adaptations, ‘Twilight’ (directed by Catherine Hardwicke) appeared in 2008. It earned poor reviews, including a scathingly sarcastic one on The Agitation of the Mind. The “twi-hards” lapped it up.
‘New Moon’, with Chris Weitz taking over directorial duties, came out late last year and despite promising my readership that I would subject it to a similar satirical savaging, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it. Reviews were no better than ‘Twilight’ and its IMDb rating is lower. None of which really mattered, since the “twi-hards” once again lapped it up.
‘Eclipse’, with David Slade helming, is on course for a summer release. I’m confidently predicting bad reviews and hysterical “twi-hard” response.
Now, to my way of thinking logic would dictate going straight into pre-production with ‘Breaking Dawn’ while (a) the principle cast can still almost get away with playing teenagers and (b) the “twi-hards” are still interested.
But no, Summit Entertainment have scrapped plans to film ‘Breaking Dawn’ and concentrate instead on rebooting the franchise. Which immediately raises the question: is ‘The Twilight Saga’ a franchise? With only four novels to go at in terms of source material and only two films thus far released, surely it is (as the catch-all title suggests) a saga.
Moreover, aren’t franchise reboots traditionally undertaken when a longstanding series has become moribund and is in need of reinvention, ie. ‘Batman Begins’ or ‘Casino Royale’? Summit haven’t even been able to gauge the box office performance of ‘Eclipse’ yet. Sure, ‘Twilight’ and (from what I’ve heard tell) ‘New Moon’ are lousy examples of the filmmaker’s art, but they’ve proved profitable and the “twi-hards”, as much as I take the piss out of them, seem genuine in their love of both the books and the movies. They’ve made the films successful; the least Summit Entertainment could do is finish what they started and film the last instalment of the saga before going back to the drawing board and reinventing it.
Which raises the question: how exactly does one reboot a high school vampire romance saga. Over to the VP of Summit Entertainment:
“We feel that the series should appeal to a newer generation. We’re pleased that the Twilight saga has reached a number of fans, but we want to expand on that fanbase by putting Bella and Edward in middle school. We also would like to make a grittier, more contemporary take on vampires.”
Now, I’m a limey and I’ll freely admit I don’t have the first clue about the US school system. But middle school? Doesn’t that imply the characters will be younger than in the current films? And how does retarding the protagonists’ ages sit with “a grittier, more contemporary take”? Did somebody go see ‘Let the Right One In’ then walk into a production meeting next day and say “Hey, guys, I’ve got this awesome concept”?
And how does this bode for the future? Can we expect a really down and dirty ‘The Addiction’-meets-‘Near Dark’-stylee incarnation of ‘The Twilight Saga’ when it gets its 2020 reboot and they set it in a toddlers’ playgroup?
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Quantum of Solace
I blogged a short review of 'Casino Royale' on The Agitation of the Mind a couple years ago. Not one of my more in-depth pieces. I didn't tread any new critical ground in focusing on how Martin Campbell achieved his second re-boot of the franchise following Pierce Brosnan's first (and best) outing, 'Goldeneye'. I trod even more foot-worn critical ground in praising the stripping away of cliches (no gadgets, absolute minimum of smart-arse one-liners) and Daniel Craig's performance as getting back to the Bond of the novels, a Bond who acts rashly and makes mistakes. I concluded:
'Casino Royale' put the series right back on track in fine style, the ending pointing towards the next film ... which has been saddled not only with an unwieldy title ('Quantum of Solace') but Marc Forster as director.
When I wrote that, I had yet to see a Marc Forster film that was anything more than average. In particular, I'd found 'Monster's Ball' and 'Finding Neverland' hugely overrated and deeply flawed in their execution. The signs were not good. Hence that "oh bollocks". (For the record, I have still yet to see a Marc Forster film that is anything more than average.)
'Quantum of Solace' hit the cinemas on a tsunami of hype and I did what I generally tend to do when a film has been hyped beyond all reasonable expectations: I stayed away. Reviews were mixed. And not in a some-people-loved-it-some-people-hated-it way. They were mixed in a some-people-hated-it-some-people-were-totally-indifferent way. The general consensus was that it lost the ground 'Casino Royale' had gained.
I picked up the DVD for a song a month ago, but even then I felt no compunction to watch it immediately. The Christmas and New Year holidays came and went. It remained unwatched. Then I came across an article on the net last week speculating whether Sam Mendes was on board to direct the next Bond film or just as a consultant and I groaned inwardly. Don't get me wrong: 'American Beauty' - belter; 'Road to Perdition' - handsomely mounted; 'Jarhead' - moments of brilliance. But nothing in the filmography that says "hey, you know what, that Sam Mendes bloke has got Bond movie director written all over him". I shook my head and thought, Great, first Marc Forster and now Sam Mendes ... and then I realised that I hadn't yet given Forster the benefit of the doubt.
On 'Quantum of Solace' went.
Full disclosure: this review is based on one viewing and I will freely own up that I made the mistake of not double-billing it with 'Casino Royale'. 'Quantum of Solace' is the only Bond film thus far which functions as a direct linear sequel, quite literally kicking off minutes after the iconic final scene of 'Casino Royale'. And herein lies the key to my problems with the film. 'Casino Royale' was directed by a man who understood what makes the Bond movies popular; a man who knew which elements still worked and which had ceased to appeal. Thus in 'Casino Royale', no Q (let's face it, for all that the last Brosnan outing set up John Cleese as Q Version 2.0, no-one could replace Desmond Llewellyn) or Moneypenny (the character was rejuvenated in 'Goldeneye', her almost-relationship with Bond taking on a spikier undertone, only to regress to embarrassing lovelorn simpering by the time 'Die Another Day' limped onto the screen); no gadgets; a blunt and gritty pre-credits sequence (in black and white, to boot!); and the obligatory vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) ordered not as a matter of course but as a delaying tactic while Bond assesses his opponents in a baccarat game. However, Campbell still delivered the cars, the girls and the action scenes, but brought all of them up to date: the current Aston Martin looks cooler than even the DB5 that weakened the knees of petrol-heads everywhere in 'Goldfinger'; Eva Green walked away with the honours of Best Bond Girl Since Honor Blackman, her characterisation of Vesper Lynd being just that - a characterisation - and not mere set decoration (moreover, the script gave Bond and Vesper a genuine romantic connection rather than the default womanising of so many other 007 outings); and the action scenes were all that we expected of the franchise, but ramped up by the inclusion of an exhilarating free-running sequence.
It's mid-2006 and 'Casino Royale' is in post-production. The powers that be an EON Productions decide the follow-up will be a sequel, thus building on the Bond-Vesper relationship, the theme of betrayal and leaving the path open for the next production to be a hard-as-nails revenge thriller. The story is based on an original idea by producer Michael G. Wilson and shifts the focus of the villain/nemesis from terrorist funds (the plot dynamic of 'Casino Royale') to environmentalism and water supplies. Roger Michell was approached to direct but with no script available refused to commit. The 'Casino Royale' screenplay was by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with a bit of polishing courtesy of Paul Haggis). Purvis and Wade were re-engaged to work up Wilson's concept. With 'Casino Royale' proving a commercial and critical success, the heat was on to get its still-untitled successor into production. The impending writers' strike further redacted the production schedule. Purvis and Wade essentially wrote the first draft under the gun. Forster came on board as director, citing that he'd been impressed enough by 'Casino Royale' to agree. Nonetheless, he felt that film was overlong and wanted 'Quantum of Solace' - the title now having publically been confirmed - to be shorter, tighter and faster. Forster, Wilson and Haggis heavily reworked Purvis and Wade's script. Anyone sensing a too many cooks/spoiled broth ratio here? It gets worse: during filming, Forster engaged Joshua Zetumer (a writer of spec scripts who, at this point, had yet to see any of his work put into production) to undertake rewrites on a day-to-day basis depending on however Forster and the actors' ideas on any given scene may have changed. (A casualty of this approach was that Felix Leiter [Jeffrey Wright] had his timely and intriguing subplot reduced, a damned shame given that Wright's performance in 'Casino Royale' revivified Leiter in much the same way as Craig made the character of Bond his own.)
- The opening car chase - there were those who carped that the editing renders the sequence difficult to follow, but - really - where's the difficulty in man-in-Aston-Martin is being chased/men-in-other-cars are doing the chasing? Cutting it together as jarringly and viscerally as he did is, for me, one of Forster's better decisions.
- M (Judi Dench) in a more prominent role. Forster has said that Bond and M's relationship is possibly the most interesting, M being the only woman in his life with whom there isn't a sexual element. (Besides, anything that gives us more of the magnificent Dame Judi is to be celebrated.)
Leiter's morally compromised presence, his superior facilitating a shady agreement between the CIA and a tin-pot dictator, resulting in Leiter being faced with a decision that is potentially antithetical to his relationship with Bond.
- The idea of villain Dominic Greene (Matthieu Almeric) being just as much a puppet as Le Chiffre in 'Casino Royale', the real powerbrokers of the sinister Quantum organisation still shadowily out of reach.
- A Bond girl - Camille (Olga Kurylenko) - as driven and determined as Bond himself, who fulfills a role beyond set dressing or romantic interest.
- Bond as little more than a British-accented Jason Bourne. He's presented as a brutally efficient, coldy unhesitating killing machine, with none of the suaveness or ironic detachment that defines the character.
- At least two hand-to-hand fight scenes that have Bond and his antagonist similarly clad, shaky compositions and blink-and-you'll-miss-it editing not helping in identifying exactly who is beating up on who at any given moment.
- The perfunctory introduction and borderline insultingly writing out of Agent Fields, the eminently likeable Gemma Arterton denied any real opportunity to develop what could have been a highly memorably character.
- The entire narrative is centred around Bond's pursuit of revenge, but his showdowns with Greene and, in the moribund coda, the man who betrayed Vesper are singularly lacking in catharsis or finality.
- "I've answered your questions about Quantum," an at-Bond's-mercy Greene blubbers near the end. What questions? Did a scene get cut? Are EON merely playing coy until they've worked out the plot points of the next movie? Fuck's sake, give us something!
- Forster's curious decision, given how down and dirty he's tried to make this installment, to render each location title card in drastically different, almost comic, lettering so that the film is riddled with establishing shots that come across as parodic.
Likewise, Forster's morose determination to make 'Quantum of Solace' as un-Bond-like as possible (no suave or debonair moments, no gadgets, no banter, even Bond's steadfast ally Leiter depicted as politically and morally compromised) seems at odds with his explicit referencing of 'Goldfinger' and 'Casino Royale' in scenes that could be considered homages if they weren't such shot-for-shot steals.
At best, Forster tries too hard. The first half hour of 'Quantum of Solace' comprises a checklist of action series - some edited pulsatingly, some confusingly - after which a very convoluted and disjointed narrative is introduced and the pace slows badly. The shortest of the Bond movies at 102 minutes, it seems longer. The finale, ironically, is rushed.
Maybe I'll warm to 'Quantum of Solace' a little more on a second viewing. Maybe watching it straight after 'Casino Royale' will help in corralling the peregrinations of its narrative. Or maybe it'll just throw the directorial approaches of Campbell and Forster into even harsher relief. Whatever; the fact remains that it proved one of the most theatrically successful 007 movies. So it's a given - as borne out by the current slew of Sam Mendes speculation - that James Bond will return. This time around, though, I have no expectations.