Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (2012) movie poster

director Sam Mendes
viewed: 11/22/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

It had been four years since the last James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), an eternity perhaps for a true Bond fan.  A blink of an eye for me.

Quantum of Solace had squandered the freshness of Daniel Craig and the re-boot of the franchise with Casino Royale (2006), so I wasn’t all that bothered this time around either.  But come the holiday and feel like seeing a movie and there is not much out there that is all that fun.  Bond is fun, right?  Action.  Girls. Spy gear.

Skyfall disappointed dyed-in-the-wool fans looking for all the bling of the traditional Bond film.  It’s a much more sombre picture.  He gets a couple of girls, but he gets shot, he’s not fit for duty, starts drinking, and even his powerful boss, M (Judi Dench) is under siege from both the villain of the film and the government itself.  This Bond film has its fill of mommy issues and aging and dying.

But it’s actually pretty darn good.  I guess I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.

It opens with a classic sort of set piece that has Bond chasing a villain on motorbikes across the rooftops of Istanbul.  But then he gets shot, gets declared dead.  And it’s not til the film’s bad guy Raul Silva, the terrific Javier Bardem, chewing scenery with savor, shows up that Bond bobs back to the surface.   Silva is a former agent who worked for M, a favorite, who was left hung out to dry (like Bond is when he gets shot in the beginning).  Only Silva goes a bit crazy after he fails to die from a cyanide capsule hidden in his tooth.  And gets disfigured is a pretty stunning way.  He is a damaged being with heightened Freudian needs from his mama, M, who notes that orphans like Bond and Silva make the best agents.

The film’s finale is a siege on Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall, in Scotland, just him, M and Albert Finney (it’s always nice to see Albert Finney) against Silva and a gang of thugs.  True, this feels like a different kind of film than a Bond film.  But I have to say, it’s pretty good.  The only weird part, while the film and Silva try to draw parallels between their relationships with M “Mum” Dench, Bond is the eternally emotionless cipher…until…well, here is a spoiler that you’ve probably already heard: M dies.  Bond cries.

So, maybe it’s not your mum’s Bond.  But it’s entertaining stuff.

Quantum of Solace

 

Quantum of Solace (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Marc Forster
viewed: 11/18/08 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

After “rebooting” (as they call it nowadays) the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale (2006) with British hunk Daniel Craig as the fittest Bond ever, and with a coherent, engaging film, this lame follow-up seems even more of a squandering than it would have before the last film.  I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews of this film saying all kinds of different criticisms, many contradicting one another on what went wrong here.  I can tell you.  It’s chaos.

From the opening sequence, a car chase through a tunnel on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea (great location), the film flashes cut cut cut cut cut like a conniption fit rather than an action sequence.  I dare you to have actually followed every specific bing-bang-boom that goes on.  It goes by so fast that your mind can’t capture it, can’t make sense of all the crashing and shooting and explosions.  But it’s not just the action sequences that are cut up this way, the whole film rarely allows a shot to last more than a second or two, even in scenes that are primarily dialogue between two characters.  It’s hyperactive.  It’s mind-numbing.

Director Marc Forster, whose reputation has been built on a lot of films that I have never seen (Monster’s Ball (2001), Finding Neverland (2004), and Stranger Than Fiction (2006)), bears a lot of the responsibility for the unintelligible mess.  If I was involved in the stunts and the production of the action sequences, I would want his head on a pole.  It looks like they did some cool action stunts, but you can barely keep up with each flash of a moment in the editing.  I couldn’t often tell if Bond was shooting or the guy was shooting at him in one chase scene.  It was aggrevating.  I found myself counting out the seconds between each cut in the non-action sequences and rarely reaching six before “rebooting”.

Craig still casts a compelling figure.  And most of the way along the film, some of the overall story moves along.  In the end, the film achieves a place of averageness.

It left me yearning for something like Le Cercle rouge (1970) which featured these long, silent sequences drawing out a bank heist, or some more lingering long takes, allowing the actors to act and the action sequences to make sense.  All the chaotic editing doesn’t intensify the experience of the action, it just confuses it.

I remember in an early film class a teacher showed us two films of the dancer Josephine Baker to show how editing can be less effective than a long take.  In one, just a long, unedited take of Baker’s crazy physicality bending and whipping around like nothing you’ve ever seen, the impressiveness of her, her being, her actuality and physicality.  The other, edited, shot from one angle then the next, with close-ups and everything, completely lost the sense of what she was actually doing, the wonder of her performance became muddled in the mix.  At least it wasn’t edited like a hyperactive trigger-finger.

There is not a quantum of solace to be had.  Which is too bad because Daniel Craig is most definitely “the man” and Judi Dench is good too.

Never Say Never Again

 

Never Say Never Again (1983) movie poster

(1983) dir. Irvin Kershner
viewed: 08/12/07

Part two of my little television broadcast James Bond/Sean Connery double feature, care of Mexican television.  These movies were broadcast en Ingles con subtitles.  This was an interesting film to show in contrast with Dr. No (1962) being Connery´s reprisal and final portrayal of James bond versus Dr. No `s first appearance.

Directed by Irvin Kershner, who delivered the best of the Star Wars series with Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and noted to be the only director to do both Bond and Star Wars, this film is entertaining and campy, but no great shakes.  The film is steeped in what became the cliches and requisites of all Bond films.  Like so many Hollywood franchises, the movies feel somewhat rote in their features of “Bond girls”, cheesy theme songs, and exotic locales.  Paint by numbers stuff.

Actually, the film is very interesting in contrast with Dr. No because it is also about Bond´s virility.  Connery, now in his 50`s is still a very sturdy, handsome fellow, but the first thought in looking at him is that he´s an older gentleman.  He is no longer the pulse-charging thrill of a hunk that he was.  The film is an interesting play on his masculinity and aging.  At first, Bond´s new “M” instructs him that he is over the hill and needs to stop eating red meat, drinking vodka, and to take care of his “free radicals” and sends him to a health spa.  Many gags revolve around colonics and his manhood.  Connery plays it up quite admirably, getting at least five babes into the sack and saving the world in a number of less-fashionable clothing items than his previous years.  Those sweatsuits are vile.

The worst of the clothing disasters are worn by Barbara Carrera, who plays Fatima Blush, the villainess, who also manages to bed Bond.  Those outfits really give the 1970`s a run for their money with out-and-out badness.  At least her hair looks okay.

I´ve read that this film is a re-make of Thunderball (1965), which was really due to a rights issue regarding the character that allowed for two dueling Bond films to appear in 1983, Connery´s Never Say Never Again against Roger Moore´s Octopussy.  Who knows?

Again, virility.  I am sure that it´s been written about to the Nth degree so I won´t go into it deeply, but it is an interesting middle-aged, semi-mid-life-crisis Bond.  Of course, the crisis is for the perception of the man and his abilities.  Bond never doubts himself, which is all part of his masculinity and machismo, and as he says to the villain, “I never lose”.  Of course not!  The hero never loses!  Especially the most macho, sexy, virile hero in American cinema.  Especially not the 1962 version of Connery, and to his credit, he still looks great in 1983.  But the thought that every young thing with a funny name just sees him and wants to make love to him…it gets a little hard to swallow.

Dr. No

 

Dr. No (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Terence Young
viewed: 08/12/07

Kicking back on holiday in Mexico for me isn´t always about seeking out the beach or trying to cull the amount of culture that I can lay my hands on.  Vacation is also about relaxing and chilling out.  And when I stumbled on the showings of two James Bond flicks yesterday, the initial one, the initial Sean Connery film, Dr. No, and titillated by the fine opening sequence of colorful silhouettes dancing, I was drawn in.  I often note here that I rarely watch broadcast television versions of films, but here is the latest exception.  Shown on a channel called Golden, they only broke once for commercials and besides not being letter-boxed, was probably pretty good as far as these things go.

As I have also noted here briefly, I am not a dyed in the wool Bonds fan.  But this movie is pretty much the stuff.  Iconic moments, such as the initial introduction of the amazing Sean Connery, cigarette dangling laconically from his lips, utters the initial quotable quote: “Bond. James Bond.”  and Connery himself, pure masculinity and suavity circa 1962 (and still) just exudes sexuality, machismo, and coolness.  Is there anyone more suave and alluring?  Doubtful.

The film has several peak moments as this and plays along pretty doggone fun throughout, though occasionally slower than one might be used to.  Another key peak is the iconic guitar riff, James Barry’s “James Bond Theme”.  That riff still just kicks ass and the musical score is fresh and fun.  Still the film is all about Connery, all about masculinity, all about sexual roles and ideals, and the narrative is really the background to this lustful portrayal.  Women are all just willing sex objects.  Well, more than objects…they function physically as well.  They are also interestingly intended to read as multicultural, too.

Connery though carries this film with his charisma.  He is virility embodied in man, handsomely good-looking, aesthetically built, and clever and strong.  He is Superman.

The sexual mores played out here are for the original Playboy generation.  And while there is much to critique in it, one also continues to react to it with the same allure and awe that made these images enduring.  I want to go back in time and swill vodka martinis with the guy and go for a roll in the hay with these sex toy dames (okay, I´m exaggerating for impact here, but you get my point.)  This film is pure.  Pure ideology.  Pure snapshot of the period.  And Connery…he is truly the man´s man, the ubermensch, el rey de cine.

Casino Royale

 

Casino Royale (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Martin Campbell
viewed: 01/06/07 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

Surprisingly gritty yet slick entertainment, I have to say.

I have never been a true James Bond aficionado, though if I ever got around to reading Ian Fleming, that could change, I suppose.  I, like so many others, have always preferred the Sean Connery films to others, and actually have been increasingly dissatisfied with the more recent films featuring Pierce Brosnan.  The problem with the Bond franchise has been that it was based on something that has become increasingly outdated, and as a result, the producers and writers have continued to try and modernize the character and the villains and the situation, while retaining some air of the originals.  All while trying to accomplish this, the films have become paint-by-numbers overall, with off-beat villains, sexy “Bond girls”, and big action set-pieces in exotic, romantic locales.  All of this while trying to modernize the inherent sexism and the changing landscape of who the bad guys are since the Cold War ended.

I had been hearing about this idea to go back and make Casino Royale, the first of the Bond novels since it hadn’t gotten a “proper” cinematic treatment and it offered a chance for reinvention.  When Quentin Tarantino was associated with it, it seemed very promising.  There is so much media hype over this franchise, it’s crazy.  All the “controversy” over the casting of Daniel Craig was annoying.  Clearly, I am not a part of the fan club that cares that deeply.  But I had seen Craig in 2004’s Layer Cake and had seen the possibilities of his rough yet steely Steve McQueen-like charm and looks.

All that said, this movie was really pretty excellent, much better than I anticipated even though I had heard many a solid word-of-mouth recommendation on it.  Craig is a compelling hero, with his toughness yet very physical manner, and the variety of action pieces.  Much of the over-slick pretension of the films: the gorgeous settings, women, technology, cars, suits, everything…somehow in this film seem much less like gloss, but fitting wardrobe and environments for the action and narrative.

The film’s first major action scene has little flashes of the over-the-top sequences, but is also much more physical and muscular.  I mean, could one see Roger Moore doing these stunts?  Or any of the past Bonds except perhaps Sean Connery?  The sequence is a chase over a building site with a great deal of running and climbing that reminded me a good deal of the action in District B13 (2004), whose primary quality was the influence of the European martial art, Parkour, and the amazing David Belle who performed the leaping and climbing and fighting.  While a lot more over-the-top than that, the sequence stayed grounded in the tough fight sequences.  The action throughout carried a lot of that.

But even the romance and the villains,… the Bond cliches that tend to annoy me all worked so well here.  I guess that I’m still trying to fathom why, but it was great.  The villain, Le Chiffre, with his blood tears, the sinking Venetian building, the race on the tarmac to save the airplane…  Man.  This is an excellent action film, probably one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time.  And the play that the film uses with the Bond standards, while I wouldn’t call it “fresh”, I would say that it felt less pandering and somehow more unified.  Really, I was surprised.