Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

2017 #125
Matthew Vaughn | 141 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Critics, eh? There’s a lot you could say about them, both individually and en masse, but right now I’m concerned with the fact they’ve given Kingsman: The Golden Circle a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 50%.* More than that, many have gone further: I’ve read one-star reviews from several major outlets. Audiences disagree. On IMDb it’s got a very respectable 7.4 (just a few points down from the much better-received Wonder Woman, for comparison) and it topped the box office this past weekend, beating the latest LEGO movie in the US and almost doubling the first film’s opening weekend in the UK. Well, I’m definitely an audience member rather than a critic. In fact, I’m still weighing up the possibility that The Golden Circle might be even better than its predecessor.

I’ll return to both the critics and the two films’ relative merits later. For now, the obligatory plot summary: a year on from the events of the first movie, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a fully-fledged Kingsman agent and is dating Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). An encounter with former wannabe-Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) sets Eggsy on the trail of Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drugs kingpin with a ’50s Americana fetish and a plan for global domination. Eggsy and tech whizz Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to the US of A to team up with their sister organisation, Statesman, in a bid to stop Poppy’s nefarious scheme.

Magic us out of this one, Merlin

That’s the coy version of things — more coy than the trailers, certainly, which brazenly gave away major developments and revelations. (You’ll note my summary’s shortage of big-name stars, for example, who have been plastered all over the advertising.) Director Matthew Vaughn even asked the studio not to reveal one thing in the marketing — namely, that Colin Firth was back — but they went ahead and did it anyway. I know they had a movie to sell, but I’m not convinced they needed to ignore him on that. Actually, that connects to my first complaint about how critics have treated the film: those one-star major reviewers seemed to hate the film so much that they were happy to spoil bits left, right, and centre. No such disregard for the audience here (though there will be minor spoilers, if you’ve not seen it yet). Nonetheless, if you were one of those people who seemed to find the first film’s anal sex joke to be the most heinously offensive sin committed by cinema since The Birth of a Nation, maybe read a couple of those reviews for a benchmark if you’re undecided about seeing this sequel — it may also offend your delicate sensibilities for reasons I can only vaguely comprehend.

To me, The Golden Circle represents a commitment to being purely entertaining. It’s consistently funny and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The action sequences are crazily hyperkinetic to the nth degree. It mixes in all the classic spy movie shenanigans, like far-fetched plots and cool gadgets and exotic locales; but it also works to subvert, expose, or develop some of those things. Beyond that, however, it has surprisingly good character work for what could’ve been a mindless comedy shoot-em-up. I mean, Merlin’s arc… well, i said no spoilers. But the film also makes time to be concerned about Eggsy’s relationship and how his work might affect it. It’s almost a good subversion of the gentlemen-spy sleep-around stereotype, though the Glastonbury sequence rushes through that rather than meaningfully deconstructing it (more about that already-infamous scene later).

The Lepidopterist

Then there’s Harry’s return — not just a pleasant surprise, but an emotional minefield for our other heroes, who were still coming to terms with his demise. Now, some critics reckon that Harry’s revival lowers the stakes for the rest of the movie. Well, only if you choose to disregard the details of his return. OK, yes, there’s now a safety net in some scenarios; but a gel that slows the effect of a headshot isn’t much use if, say, you get blown to pieces. Also, the idea that Harry was “very much dead” is actually an assumption that’s not wholly supported by the first film. I mean, obviously it was implied that Harry is very much dead — that was the point at the time — but watch it again: you don’t actually see much detail of what happens, other than that Valentine shoots him somewhere in the head and he collapses to the ground. The scene ends almost immediately. Vaughn and co use this to their advantage, having the Statesman turn up with seconds of the shot being fired. Yeah, it’s still implausible, but then I don’t think people’s heads explode in choreographed light shows either, and that was a big part of The Secret Service.

Comparisons to that previous movie abound in other reviews, I guess because it went down well while this one, which is ostensibly more of the same, hasn’t. Also, to be fair, because the film itself is constantly making such references too. Consequently, some critics are focused on the idea that what The Golden Circle lacks is the freshness of the original. Well, personally, I enjoyed the first one more when I re-watched it a couple of days ago than when I first saw it back in 2015, so the “I’ve not seen that before” factor is not its defining quality for me. Nonetheless, this is the kind of sequel that’s somewhat derivative of its own predecessor, with many riffs on stuff you’ll remember from before. The most regularly repurposed is the famous church fight, though I’d argue that it’s taken the style of that sequence and then applied it to several more in this film, rather than merely producing an outright copy of what came before — something I would (and did) accuse, say, X-Men: Apocalypse’s Quicksilver sequence of doing (even though it tried to find fresh angles on the same basic concept).

Skipping rope in the snow

One particular way that half the action sequences feel like they’re deliberately riffing off / ripping off that church fight is that they’re set to pop songs, and often unexpected ones. It may be repeating a trick, but this use of music is consistently entertaining — I mean, hasn’t Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting always wanted a fight set to it? And the country-fied cover of Word Up for the finale is bang on. That’s not to mention the score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson. I always liked the main theme from the first film, which is carried over here, along with effective action cues (for those times it goes without a pop song) and a neat integration of melodies from John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. That song is used to very particular effect at one point, and, listening to the soundtrack while writing this review, the bit of Mark Strong singing it that’s included did actually leave me with a little something in my eye — again, not what you expect from a film like Kingsman. Though I must clarify, that is due to the memory of the film, not the quality of Mr Strong’s singing, which is certainly… Scottish-accented. Something I didn’t notice particularly when watching the movie (and why would you on a first viewing?) is that those melodies are there right at the start, played on bagpipes and segueing into the opening theme. Cheeky foreshadowing beggars.

While there may be some dimension of merit to some of the criticisms I’ve referenced so far, others merit mention only to be ridiculed. I mean, one critic slagged off the fact that most (but not all) of Poppy’s scenes take place in one location, which must be the most ludicrous factor contributing to a film getting one star that I’ve ever read. Relatedly, that the big-name new cast members are given less focus than the returning characters seems to be a recurring sticking point. Well, what do you expect? In fact, what do you want? It’s like thinking the solution to Quantum of Solace’s woes was to spend less time with James Bond and more with Agent Fields. Plus, surely the fact that some prominently-billed new names turn out to be glorified cameos is more to do with the marketing overhyping them — as you do when you’ve got genuine movie stars in your movie — than the film itself fundamentally underserving them. Sure, I’d like more of Channing Tatum’s character too, but hey-ho; and it’s not like his limited screen time isn’t put to memorable effect, several times over. The same can be said for Julianne Moore and, arguably best of all, Elton John. They may reuse the same Elton gag a couple of times too often, but on the whole he has a surprisingly effective part to play. On the other hand, after “more Halle Berry” was something that eventually undermined the X-Men films, I’m fine with her role being kept to a minimum. Still, for everyone who wished for more of Tatum and co, there are already rumours of an extended cut coming to DVD and/or Blu-ray. Oh, but those critics moaned about it already being too long. There’s no pleasing some people…

More Tatum, less Berry

There is perhaps a case to be made that the film has bitten off more plot than it can comfortably chew. I’ve already said that some sequences feel a little too hasty, and there might be one big set piece too many — I assumed the film was about to head into its final act, before remembering we hadn’t had all the snowbound set pieces from the trailers yet. Personally, I didn’t mind this additional length — at no point did the film bore me. I’ll be more than happy if that extended cut does materialise. Perhaps the paciness despite the length is what led many critics to call it out for having too complex a plot, an accusation I find somewhat implausible. I can only assume they weren’t expecting to think at all and so almost literally turned their brains off, because this isn’t some intricate thriller, it’s a big action spy movie that moves pretty linearly from plot point to plot point. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And if you want to go the other way and overthink the film, some people do get very het up about what the political messages and affiliations of these two movies may or may not be. Now, I’m not going to argue they don’t have a political dimension — that would be a patently ludicrous position to take, given how much they both allude to real-world issues like climate change and the drug trade — but, allowing for that, I don’t think the films care what their political allegiance is. That’s how some people can manage to read a movie in which the working-class hero blows up the world’s conspiring elites in order to stop the common folk from massacring each other as nothing but a right-wing fantasy, and how other people can manage to read a movie in which an unaccountable intelligence organisation gentrifies a lower-class kid to make him worth something, before blowing up an environmentalist and President Obama, as proletariat wish-fulfilment. Both of those describe The Secret Service, but there are elements in the sequel that have the same effect — this time, it’s your stance towards the war on drugs and how we deal with addicts that is being prodded.

View to a kill

All of that said, the more I’ve thought about the film afterwards (as you do, especially if you’re going to, say, write a review for a blog or something), the more some issues do begin to become apparent. While I don’t inherently object to the Glastonbury sequence (I’d wager it in part exists as another way for Vaughn to thumb his nose at critics of certain parts of the first movie, and he got ’em too), I do think there were cleverer ways to handle it. Vaughn has said that sequence is meant to be about having to do something you don’t want to do for the sake of your job, but that doesn’t wholly explain the teenage smuttiness of how it plays out. I mean, wouldn’t it be funnier if Eggsy felt he had to stick to his principles and find a way to clumsily shove his finger up Clara’s nose? Then phone Tilde back: “It’s okay babe, I only put it up her nose.” “You did what?!”

So yeah, it’s not a perfect movie. But, at least while it was on, I was having way too much fun to care. If you’re the kind of person who found something (or lots of things) about the first movie offensive to your moral fibre, chances are slim that you’ll like this sequel. Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who misses ’90s lads-mag culture, you’ll bloody love it, mate. For those of us somewhere on the (very broad) spectrum between those two points, other reviews make it clear that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it was very much to mine. The niggles I’ve mentioned have led me to give it a lower score than the first film, but I reserve the right to change my mind as soon as I get a chance to rewatch it — I can envision myself ultimately revisiting The Golden Circle more regularly than The Secret Service.

4 out of 5

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas most places now, and in the other places soon.

* At time of writing. It was 49% on Saturday and 51% on Sunday, so it might be different again by the time you read this. ^

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100 Favourites II — The Top 10

And so I reach the pinnacle of my list — my most favourite films I’ve seen for the first time in the past ten years. (Well, if we’re being precise, in the past ten years and three months, but not counting anything from the last three months. But that’s less snappy.)

Over three previous posts I’ve counted down #100 to #11, but here’s the perfectly rounded number everyone loves for a list: the top ten.

#10
Dark City


4th from 2008
(previously 3rd | original review)

Before The Matrix there was Dark City, which tackles some of the same philosophical issues as the Wachowskis’ trilogy, only in a less opaque and verbose fashion — and, as I said, did so first. Of course, it lacks the groundbreaking action sequences that made The Matrix such a hit, but as a thoughtful piece of stylish sci-fi noir it probably bests its better-known thematic cousins. I also reckon it’s still a bit underrated… including by me, really, because it’s nine years since I first watched it and I still haven’t got round to seeing the Director’s Cut. (Note to self: fix that.)

#9
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn


1st from 2014
(previously 2nd | original review)

Calling on the same skill set that produced the Indiana Jones movies, Steven Spielberg created an adventure movie that perfectly balances plot, action, and humour. Despite the freedom afforded by crafting the entire thing in CGI (rendered with stunning realism by Weta), Spielberg knows when to hold back and maintain a level of realism, only to cut loose when warranted. The top end of this list definitely skews blockbustery-y — well, it is “favourite” rather than some kind of “objective best” (not that that’d be strictly possible anyway) — but, nonetheless, I think Tintin is a very fine and underrated example of the form.

#8
Kick-Ass


1st from 2010
(previously 1st | original review)

As Watchmen was to superhero comics, so Kick-Ass is to superhero films: taking familiar building blocks from other films and TV series, it deconstructs the genre through a “what if someone tried to be a superhero for real” storyline, asking questions about the glorification of violence and the sexualisation of its characters — all while being a funny and exciting action-comedy. Perhaps it’s having its cake and eating it, and that leads some people to miss the point (some by enjoying it a bit too much, some by thinking it has nothing to say), but I don’t think that stops it being one of the best and most thoughtful superhero movies yet made.

#7
Let the Right One In


1st from 2011
(previously 3rd | original review)

It’s felt like you can’t escape vampires in film and TV for the last couple of decades, but trust a European movie to give them a unique spin, right? So it’s both a coming-of-age-y arthouse-y movie about two 12-year-olds and first love, and a scary horror movie about violent supernatural creatures. It works by not shortchanging either aspect, instead combining them to transcend genre boundaries. So it’s a genuinely touching, emotional and relatable drama, as well as a creepy and horrific fantasy thriller.

#6
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


1st from 2015
(previously 1st | original review)

There’s always been a bit of a ‘wannabe’ air to the Mission: Impossible films, like maybe someone thought it could fill the void left by Bond disappearing post-Dalton, only it took so long to make it to the screen that Bond himself got there first in the shape of Pierce Brosnan. Nonetheless, the series has trundled along… though I don’t want to sound like I’m doing it down too much because I’ve always enjoyed it — the second one made my first 100 Favourites list, even. But Rogue Nation is where M:I finally out-Bonds Bond. Mixing action thrills and a genuine sense of jeopardy with just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, a knowing sense of humour, and a cast full of likeable characters, it’s superb blockbuster entertainment.

#5
Seven Samurai


1st from 2013
(previously 1st | original review)

A phrase like “three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie” is going to conjure up a certain experience in the minds of most viewers. That experience is most probably nothing like Seven Samurai — although it is, of course, a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie. On the surface it’s about a bunch of warriors protecting a small impoverished village that can’t defend itself, and it has a lengthy action-packed climax to deliver on such promise, but it rises above that thanks to its reflective attitude towards its characters and their very existence. No, wait, I said it’s not your typical three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie!

#4
Rashomon


3rd from 2008
(previously 5th | original review)

I’d wager most would rank Seven Samurai higher in the Akira Kurosawa canon, but I give Rashomon the edge because the form of its storytelling appeals to me. It retells the events surrounding a murder from the subjective viewpoint of each of the characters who were there, and of course their accounts differ. Its title has become a byword for such narratives, but there’s more here than just trendsetting plot construction — it’s a fantastically made film, exquisitely shot and magnificently performed.

#3
Zodiac


2nd from 2008
(previously 2nd | original review)

David Fincher’s meticulous true crime thriller may be his best movie — and when we’re talking about the man who made Se7en and Fight Club, that’s certainly saying a lot. It may look like it’s a murder thriller — it is about the hunt for a serial killer, after all — but in many respects it’s more about obsession and addiction, and how such things can come to take over your life. But if you don’t want to ponder that kind of thing, there’s always chills like the basement scene to keep you viscerally engaged. (The slightly-different Director’s Cut is the better version of the film and, if we’re being specific, would be my pick here; but I watched that a couple of years later, so it was the theatrical cut that figured in 2008’s top ten.)

#2
Skyfall


1st from 2012
(previously 1st | original review)

The James Bond films have always been action blockbusters, and more often than not immensely popular and successful ones. Skyfall changed the game though: by hiring Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes it was instantly booted into Prestige Picture territory — and still managed to deliver the most financially successful film in the series’ long history, the first billion-dollar Bond. But box office success is not why Skyfall is #2 on my list. It’s the beautiful cinematography; the way it adds thematic weight to the character without breaking the formula; the sense of Bond’s history without over-explicit reverence — and the way those aspects makes it both familiar and fresh at the same time. Plus it delivers on the action, larger-than-life villain, and one-liners just like a Bond film should. Its artistic success may be a case of the stars aligning and lightning striking (the lacking-by-comparison follow-up Spectre proved that), but Bond has rarely been better.

#1
The Dark Knight


1st from 2008
(previously 1st | original review)

Eight years and three months ago, when I named The Dark Knight my #1 film of 2008, I wrote that “I’m unashamedly one of those who believe The Dark Knight isn’t just one of the best films of 2008, it’s one of the best films ever.” It’s nice to be able to stand by such a brazen assertion. And, having thought long and hard about what I would declare as my most favouritest movie from the 1,283 new ones that I’ve seen in the last decade, I clearly do stand by it. I love superhero movies, I love crime thrillers, and I love epics, so it’s no surprise that a movie which combines all three — and does them all well — would top a list of my favourite movies.

Now: what’s a good list without some statistics?

100 Films @ 10: Favourite Film Series

Once upon a time, sequels were very much a lesser thing, and making more of them only made things worse. Nowadays we’re almost at the opposite extreme: first movies are routinely designed as setup for the better sequel, and never-ending franchises are all the rage.

Today’s top ten ranks some of my favourite movie series that have been part of 100 Films. Here that means a series with four or more movies (three would just be a trilogy, wouldn’t it?) where I’ve watched at least a couple of them during 100 Films’ life, as well as having seen a significant proportion overall. For instance, I’ve seen the two most recent Planet of the Apes films but none of the original five, so I can’t really judge that as a series.

A big factor herein is acknowledging consistency — one or two great films and a bunch of duds should mean exclusion. For example, the Star Wars series has two unimpeachable classics, and at least two more pretty great movies… but that’s only 57% of the Saga, or just 44% if you count the two theatrically-released spin-offs. Considering the lowly quality of the prequels, how much do they drag down the series as a whole?

You may disagree. Let’s take a look…

10
Marvel Cinematic Universe

If we’re talking about consistency here then the MCU has it in spades: consistently underwhelming villains, consistently bland cinematography, consistently unmemorable music… Ah, but they also have consistently likeable heroes, a consistently light tone, and a consistent ability to be pretty entertaining. None of them are really bad (except the first Captain America, which has its fans anyway), a couple of them even push towards a certain degree of greatness, and overall they are — to paraphrase the description of The Avengers by its writer-director, Joss Whedon — not great movies, but they are each a great time.

Best film: Captain America: Civil War
Weak link: Captain America: The First Avenger
Other reviews: Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk | Iron Man 2 | Thor | Avengers Assemble | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy | Avengers: Age of Ultron | Ant-Man | Doctor Strange | + 5 Marvel One-Shots (take a look under ‘shorts’ on my reviews page) and various TV series, including Daredevil season two and Luke Cage season one


9
The Hunger Games

The shortest series in my top ten, this is very much a borderline on my rules — if they’d done the third book as one film, it wouldn’t count. That gives The Hunger Games a certain advantage over the other films here, in that it has one long story to tell across just a handful of movies, rather than trying to refresh itself in some way with each new film. About a group of young people fighting against an oppressive autocratic regime in a future version of America, it’s a future-history of, like, next week. For all the fun of its action theatrics, a series aimed at younger viewers with themes about the dangers of dictators and the potential benefits of and need for a resistance — what some might call “terrorism” — has rarely been more pertinent.

Best film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Weak link: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Other reviews: The Hunger Games | The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


8
The Thin Man

Ostensibly a series of murder mysteries, the reason the Thin Man series is such a joy is that the films are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads, married detective duo Nick and Nora Charles, played with a certain rakish aplomb by William Powell and Myrna Loy. The mysteries themselves are Christie-esque parlour games and there’s a major role for the pair’s adorable dog. Mix all that together like one of the Charles’ favoured cocktails and they make for similarly splendid entertainment.

Best film: After the Thin Man
Weak link: The Thin Man Goes Home
Other reviews: The Thin Man | Another Thin Man | Shadow of the Thin Man | Song of the Thin Man


7
George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ Films

With his low-budget horror film Night of the Living Dead, co-writer/director George A. Romero single-handedly created a whole sub-genre: the zombie movie. Although the form eventually degenerated into a miasma of excessive gore, what makes Romero’s films timeless is the way they use the zombies to reflect something else, whether it be basic humanity or wider sections of society. The first two movies (Night and Dawn) are genre-transcending classics, but if we’re talking consistency then I even have a fondness for the underrated fourth instalment, Land of the Dead, and the rush-produced but not meritless sixth, Survival of the Dead. Even the weakest, Diary of the Dead, has more of interest to say than many of its genre stablemates.

Best film: Night of the Living Dead
Weak link: Diary of the Dead
Other reviews: Dawn of the Dead | Day of the Dead | Land of the Dead | Survival of the Dead


6
Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone

Between 1939 and 1946 Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 14 Sherlock Holmes films, cementing themselves as the definitive screen interpretation of Holmes and Watson for decades to come — some would say forever. Rather than faithful adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, these liberally remix the best bits into exciting new mysteries and adventures. If that sounds familiar from more modern times, it’s because Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are massive fans of the Rathbone/Bruce films, and have never been shy about admitting their influence on how Sherlock adapts the canon. Maybe not one for literary purists, then, but otherwise there’s barely a dud to be found in this entertaining series.

Best film: The Scarlet Claw
Weak link: Pursuit to Algiers
Other reviews: The Hound of the Baskervilles | The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror | Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon | Sherlock Holmes in Washington | Sherlock Holmes Faces Death | The Spider Woman | The Pearl of Death | The House of Fear | The Woman in Green | Terror by Night | Dressed to Kill


5
Batman

You could, not unreasonably, split the Batman movies into multiple sub-series at this point: the four movies from 1989 to 1997, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman’s role in the DCEU; plus the ’66 Batman, animated cinema release Mask of the Phantasm, and, now, the LEGO movies. This ranking encompasses them all… more or less. Certainly the live-action ones since ’89, anyway. Yes, that run of movies contains one of the poorest blockbusters of all time (Batman & Robin), but it’s counterbalanced by one of the greatest blockbusters of all time (The Dark Knight), and several others I’d place in the form’s upper echelons (Batman Returns, Batman Begins, maybe one or two more). I’m one of those people who likes Batman v Superman and sees promise in Justice League and The Batman, too, so long may it continue.

Best film: The Dark Knight
Weak link: Batman & Robin
Other reviews: Batman (1966) | Batman (1989) | Batman Returns | Batman Forever | Batman Begins | The Dark Knight Rises | Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (and its Ultimate Edition) | + 8 animated movie reviews (take a look under ‘B’ on my reviews page)


4
Harry Potter

I rarely classify myself as “a Harry Potter fan” because I know the full extent of obsessiveness you get from die-hard Potheads (as I like to call them. I don’t think anyone else does, but I think we should.) It’s no worse than any other dedicated fandom, I’m sure, but I’m not that extreme. Nonetheless, I’m of the right age to have read the books during my childhood (albeit right at the end of my childhood) and do have a fondness for them, as well as for the film adaptations. This is the perfect list for those, because I definitely feel like they’re more than the sum of their parts: each film is at least ‘good’, but few of them stray toward the territory of ‘really great’ — not individually, anyway. As a whole eight-film saga, though, I think they make for an impressive piece of work.

Best film: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Weak link: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Other reviews: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone | Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban | Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix | Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 | + an overview of the Harry Potter films of David Yates, and also fan edit Wizardhood


3
Mission: Impossible

It’s the second-shortest series on this list, making my following statement comparatively less of an achievement, but still: in my view, there are no bad Mission: Impossible films. They’ve sometimes been given a rough ride down the years, with the first two especially meeting with more than their fair share of criticism, but I’ve enjoyed every one. The most recent is the best, in my opinion, but I don’t think I’d begrudge anyone naming any of the others as their favourite.

Best film: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Weak link: Mission: Impossible III
Other reviews: Mission: Impossible II | Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


2
X-Men

I feel like I’ve written plenty of introductory overviews to the X-Men at this point in my blogging career — about my near-lifelong love for the series; about its relevance to the modern superhero movie landscape; and so on. As with most of these series, not every entry is perfect, but very few of them are outright bad. Even the black sheep of the series, The Last Stand, isn’t all it could’ve been had director Bryan Singer stuck around, but it often gets an unfair rap — it’s not a bad piece of blockbuster entertainment. On the other end of the spectrum, I think the series’ high points are among the very best superhero movies. By the sounds of things the imminent third Wolverine movie, Logan, only continues that tradition.

Best film: X-Men: First Class
Weak link: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Other reviews: X-Men | X2 | The Wolverine | X-Men: Days of Future Past (and The Rogue Cut) | Deadpool | X-Men: Apocalypse


1
James Bond

With 24 films to date, produced across 53 years, the James Bond films are a series like no other (though, in terms of number of films, the MCU will likely surpass it within the next five years). If we’re talking consistency of quality, then there are probably more underachievers here than in any other series in this top ten… but then there are more films full-stop, so what do you expect? Conversely, there are probably more high points too, be it the era-defining action of the Connery films, the lightness of the better Moore movies, the grit of Dalton, the polished blockbusterdom of Brosnan, or the series’ reinvention as prestige pictures with Craig. Indeed, there’s pretty much a Bond movie for every taste (unless you fundamentally object to enjoying the adventures of a government-sponsored killer, of course). At this point the series seems to be inoculated against any obstacle — they are critic proof, box office proof, almost audience proof. Whatever else happens in this crazy, crazy world, you can be sure of one thing: James Bond will return.

Best film: Casino Royale
Weak link: A View to a Kill
Other reviews: Dr. No | From Russia with Love | Goldfinger | Thunderball | You Only Live Twice | On Her Majesty’s Secret Service | For Your Eyes Only | Octopussy | GoldenEye | Tomorrow Never Dies | Quantum of Solace | Skyfall | Spectre

Tomorrow: an elementary list.

100 Films @ 10: Most-Played Soundtracks

For today’s top ten I’ve opened up iTunes, sorted all my songs by play count, and seen which are my most-listened-to cues from film & TV soundtracks. I’m not a great musical connoisseur, really, so because of that and this just being a statistical most-played list, expect lots of exciting action music — especially as this includes plays from when I wrote a blockbuster-style screenplay for one of my university dissertations, so I listened to an awful lot of that kinda stuff then.

Couple of other points: These are all score cues rather than songs that are on soundtracks, because, well, that’s what I chose to do. However, I have included trailer music, but only when it was composed especially for the trailer — nothing from those generic “music for trailers”-type albums. Finally, I’ve ditched repeats from the same album, because I thought this would basically be the track list for Pirates of the Caribbean otherwise. Turns out that wouldn’t’ve been the case, and instead it removed a track from, of all things, Torchwood.

10
Suite from X2

from X-Men 2

I’ve written before of my fondness for John Ottman’s X-Men theme. As this was the only version of it for years, I listened to it plenty. I guess it’ll be supplanted by the version from X-Men: Apocalypse eventually, because the tracks on that album are less ‘cluttered’ with other bits of the score. (As the confusion about X2’s title continues, let me note this: the UK soundtrack album is called X-Men 2 and this track on it is called Suite from X2; the US soundtrack album is called X2 and this track on it is called Suite from X-Men 2.)

9
Wheel of Fortune

from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

From the second Pirates movie, this is the cue from the big sword fight climax — which, as you may remember, includes a runaway water wheel, hence the title. For all his production-line type methods, Hans Zimmer can deliver a very effective action cue.

8
Closing Credits: “Bolero”

from Moulin Rouge

As with much of the music in Baz Luhrmann’s musical, this is a track that suggests a lot of drama, even if it ‘only’ plays over the end credits. I can’t really explain why I like it so much, but I do. For whatever reason I listened to it every day on my way to work when I interned for a summer in New York, which (a) didn’t do its play count any harm, and (b) means I always associate it with riding the Subway, weirdly. As to who wrote it, I’ve got it down as being by the film’s composer, Craig Armstrong, but Wikipedia says Steve Sharples and Allmusic says Simon Standage, so I dunno.

7
This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home

from Doctor Who: Series 3

Murray Gold has been composing all of Doctor Who’s music for over a decade now, which is quite an achievement, especially for a show that so regularly changes its style — week to week, in many respects. My favourite piece of his work is probably his theme for the 11th Doctor, created for series five, but I’ve most listened to this elegiac piece for the Doctor’s home planet from the series three finale.

6
Mind Heist

from the Inception trailer

Braaaam! Christopher Nolan’s film is perhaps most famous for defining trailer music for the next… well, it’s still kinda ongoing, isn’t it? Yet that recognisable cue used in the trailers isn’t actually from the film itself. Heck, it’s not even by the film’s composer, Hans Zimmer (him again!) The story behind it is a mite more complicated, but Zack Hemsey was one of the main people involved in the final trailer, and it was he who put out a track with his version of that work, so here it is.

5
The James Bond Theme

from the Casino Royale trailer

Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme has been re-worked countless times down the years, but this version struck me as soon as I first heard it for one key reason: voices. The final part of the track has the familiar tune accompanied by a choir, I believe for the first time, and it sounds fantastic. It was created by trailer music outfit Pfeifer Broz. Music specifically for the Casino Royale trailer, so you won’t find it on the soundtrack CD, but, of course, it’s still out there to be found…

4
Can You Dig It (Iron Man 3 Main Titles)

from Iron Man 3

Despite their continued success, there are criticisms regularly raised against Marvel’s shared universe movies. One is the weak villains. Another is the painfully generic music. That’s precisely why Brian Tyler’s title theme from the third Iron Man stands out so: it accompanies the ’70s-action-show-style credit sequence with a ’70s-action-show-style reworking of the film’s main theme (which I also quite like, but is much more standard “modern blockbuster music” in sound).

3
Drink Up Me Hearties

from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

More Zimmer Pirates. This is the final cue, accompanying the end credits of the film, and as such is something of a summation of the series’ music. It’s kind of the epitome of modern blockbuster scores, for good or ill.

2
The Chase

from Torchwood

More Murray Gold, here composing with his Doctor Who orchestrator, Ben Foster. This ticks many of the boxes I mentioned at the start: an action cue from my screenwriting playlist. Gold’s Whoniverse music has most often been in the style of modern blockbuster movies, because that’s the feel the show has gone for, but by distilling the essence of that style he has on occasion produced tracks that exceed its big-budget counterparts for effectiveness. This is one such occasion: as fast-paced action tracks go, this is often one of the fastest and actioniest.

1
He’s a Pirate

from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

The creation of Pirates of the Caribbean’s soundtrack is a notorious clusterfuck of composers literally competing against each other to produce something for the Disney movie. Reports vary on what exactly went on, but I believe the long and the short of it is Klaus Badelt wrote the most music that was actually used and so got the credit on the CD. Presumably Hans Zimmer didn’t think the film would be all that big and didn’t care — he certainly took the credit for the sequels’ scores, though. Anyway, this recognisable main theme actually has its roots in another Zimmer score, Drop Zone, as you can hear here. Shocking self-plagiarism, ain’t it? Still, this improved version is the one everyone knows now, and it’s wound up my most-played soundtrack track.

Tomorrow: never-ending stories.

100 Films @ 10: Great Scenes

Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie was simply “three good scenes and no bad ones”. For today’s list, I’m focusing on examples of the former.

There’s no set average for the number of scenes in a feature film, but a good rule of thumb is that a typical movie scene lasts two or three minutes — which means I’ve probably seen in excess of 48,000 scenes as part of this blog. That’s rather a lot to recall, so I’m not presuming to say these ten are the very greatest from that lot. What they are is ten that stuck in my memory particularly, for one reason or another. Even if they’re not the greatest, they are great.

10
The Swimming Pool

from Let the Right One In

The bullies that have plagued young Oskar throughout the film corner him in a public swimming pool and, brandishing a knife, inform him that if he can’t hold his breath for three minutes he’ll lose an eye. They push Oskar under the water. The seconds tick by. Then, we reach the real reason this scene is here: as the shot holds on Oskar underwater, we hear the muffled sounds of breaking glass, then screams. Feet run backwards across the water. Heads and limbs drop into the pool. The water begins to turn red. This could’ve been a brutal action climax like any other, but by staging it in a brightly-lit swimming pool, by not showing us the meat of the action, and by achieving it all in one shot, director Tomas Alfredson creates a sequence of supernatural force that is eerily grounded.

9
The Opening Shot

from Touch of Evil

Long takes are all the rage nowadays, made even easier by advances in digital cinematography and editing, but this hails from a time when they were a bit more special. It remains one of the most famous because of its content: we see a bomb planted on a car, then follow it as its unsuspecting owners drive through the streets. When will it go off? And, beyond that, Welles’ preferred soundtrack — overlapping snippets from multiple sources as the camera moves through the town — helps establish the melting-pot world of the film about to follow.

8
The Train Robbery

from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Another opening scene where the photography is the star. This time, it’s the work of the great Roger Deakins, as a gang of crooks await a train in a forest at night, lit only by the orange glow of lanterns. Then the train itself arrives, its stark headlight throwing sharp relief on the shadowy trees. Deakins himself has said it’s his best work, and who are we to disagree? The effectiveness is only heightened by the slow, deliberate, tension-mounting pace maintained by director Andrew Dominik.

7
The Superfreak Dance

from Little Miss Sunshine

After all the trials and tribulations of the movie, the Hoover family finally make it to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant and little seven-year-old Olive gets up on stage… where she dances a striptease-style routine to Superfreak. It neatly satirises and pillories the ludicrous sexualisation of these beauty pageants. Then the sequence only gains in stature when the officials try to pull Olive off stage early, which ends up with the whole family throwing dignity to the wind and dancing with her — the previously disjointed family finally united.

6
The Tanker Chase

from Mad Max 2

I already discussed this at length in my review, so to quote myself, it’s “an almighty action sequence […] a speeding battle through the outback. It feels wrong to just call it ‘an action sequence’, like that’s selling it short. You get the sense that this is why the movie exists; that co-writer/director George Miller’s goal with the entire rest of the film has been to get us to this point. It’s not just ‘the climax’, it’s ‘the third act’, and it’s stunning — the choreography of it, the editing, the stunts, as dozens of vehicles chase each other, people run around on top of them, jump between them… I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say it must be one of the greatest action sequences ever committed to film.” It’s so good, they later remade it as an entire movie. And if you want to see something equally awesome, here’s the Mad Max 2 scene re-scored with music from Fury Road.

5
The Henley Royal Regatta Boat Race

from The Social Network

You could cut this 100-second sequence out of The Social Network and it would have no impact on the film’s plot, but it would also rob us of one of the most striking sequences in the CV of director David Fincher — and considering his continued visual mastery, that’s saying something. The tilt-shift-style photography came out of necessity, as the sequence was shot just months before the film’s release and they had to shoot the close-ups somewhere else entirely, but it gives the whole thing a unique visual style that, particularly when combined with a version of In the Hall of the Mountain King from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is something very special.

4
The Poem

from Skyfall

Whoever thought we’d one day find moviemaking artistry in the James Bond series? Skyfall isn’t even the first time that happened (see: the opera escape from Quantum of Solace), but the reason this sequence is even better is the way it sums up the film’s themes. As I described it in my review: “Bond races to an inquiry where M is giving evidence, in pursuit of Silva who is intending to finalise his revenge, with the soundtrack sharing only Judi Dench’s voice delivering a reading from Tennyson: ‘though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,’ she says, cementing [the] themes of what the role of the secret service (and, indeed, Britain) is in the modern world; and continues, ‘heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,’ as a weakened, past-it Bond races to her rescue. It’s so perfect it could have been written for the film especially.”

3
The Truck Flip

from The Dark Knight

Pure spectacle seems hard to come across in movies post-CGI, where anything that can be imagined can be created on screen by even relatively small-scale movies. But when you combine the first time a narrative feature film had been shot in IMAX with an incredible stunt performed for real, you’re reminded of the magic of cinema. It’s the most memorable part of a car chase sequence that is exceptionally well executed on the whole, too.

2
The Montage

from Requiem for a Dream

To quote my review: “I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes [at the end]. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.”

1
The Basement

from Zodiac

When I first thought of this idea for a top ten, this was the first thing that came to mind. In it, Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive investigator Robert Graysmith visits the home of a suspect’s friend. The pair are alone in the house, and they both go down into the basement to see something… when Robert hears someone upstairs. Describing this scene does it no justice — it’s one of the most hair-raisingly chilling in screen history.

Tomorrow: New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody talk about… film music.

Raising Arizona (1987)

2016 #164
Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Raising Arizona

Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

3 out of 5

* For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #91

Yesterday is a memory. Today is history.
Tomorrow is in the hands of one man.
Bond. You know the rest.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English, German, Danish, Mandarin & Cantonese
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1997) | 12 (cut more, 1998) | 15 (uncut, 2006) | 12 (uncut, 2012)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 12th December 1997 (UK)
US Release: 19th December 1997
First Seen: cinema, December 1997

Stars
Pierce Brosnan (Dante’s Peak, The Ghost)
Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Michelle Yeoh (Supercop, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Teri Hatcher (Tango & Cash, Coraline)
Judi Dench (Mrs Brown, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Director
Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch, A Street Cat Named Bob)

Screenwriter
Bruce Feirstein (GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough)

Based on
James Bond, a character created by Ian Fleming.

The Story
Secret agent James Bond is deployed to investigate a media baron who is plotting to ignite a war between the UK and China to further his business empire.

Our Hero
The name’s Bond, James Bond. In his second outing as agent 007, Pierce Brosnan has settled comfortably into his interpretation of the hero, a mix of Roger Moore’s eyebrow-raising levity with some of Sean Connery’s slightly harder, man-of-action edge.

Our Villain
Elliot Carver is a megalomaniac media mogul — the owner of the newspaper Tomorrow, who intends to secretly provoke a war in order to boost sales and ratings. James Bond does satire? Kinda.

Best Supporting Character
Wai Lin, a spy who’s investigating Carver for the Chinese. A skilled martial artist, she kicks all kinds of ass. Despite initial mistrust, she and Bond ultimately team up. Lin is arguably one of the first Bond girls who can genuinely claim to be a competent character in her own right. Still ends up sleeping with Bond, though.

Memorable Quote
Admiral Roebuck: “With all due respect, M, sometimes I don’t think you have the balls for this job.”
M: “Perhaps. But the advantage is I don’t have to think with them all the time.”

Memorable Scene
Remote control car, James Bond style: Bond lies in the backseat of his BMW, driving it around a multi-storey car park with his mobile phone, deploying its weapons against a gang of attackers. It was a fun concept back in ’97, but I imagine you could do it yourself with an app now. Apart from the weapons. And the legal implications. So maybe not.

Memorable Music
After the disastrous ‘modern’ score for GoldenEye, music duties were here handed to David Arnold. At the time he had composed the scores for Stargate and Independence Day, but, even more pertinently, he had produced Shaken and Stirred, an album of contemporary-styled covers of great Bond themes. The album was heard by iconic Bond composer John Barry, who then recommended Arnold to producer Barbara Broccoli. Arnold’s score is much more in-keeping with classic Bond music, but given a modern (well, ’90s) flavour. Backseat Driver, the soundtrack to my Memorable Scene pick, is a particularly great action cue. Arnold would become the series’ composer for the next four films, until Sam Mendes chose to use his regular collaborator Thomas Newman for Skyfall and Spectre. With Mendes moving on, perhaps Arnold will be back for Bond 25…

Write the Theme Tune…
Arnold wanted to have a hand in writing the title song and integrate it into his soundtrack, like the great Bond composers of old. To that end he wrote a theme sung by k.d. lang… which plays over the end credits and is titled Surrender, though has a tellingly prominent use of the phrase “tomorrow never dies” in its lyrics.

Sing the Theme Tune…
The producers went with a more marketable proposition for the final opening credits song, however, in the shape of Sheryl Crow, famous for her pop-rock-y hits like All I Wanna Do, A Change Would Do You Good, and Everyday is a Winding Road. In the pantheon of Bond title themes, her Tomorrow Never Dies sits firmly in the middle — it’s not a GoldenEye, but it’s not a Die Another Day either.

Making of
The film was originally called Tomorrow Never Lies, referencing Carver’s newspaper, Tomorrow. Some kind of production mix-up (a typo, a smudged fax — pick your story) led to it being misread as Tomorrow Never Dies, and the new, less meaningful title stuck.

This Category Sponsored By BMW
Apparently Tomorrow Never Dies was the first movie in history to have its entire budget covered by product placement endorsements — that’s over $100 million in advertising. Featured companies include BMW, L’Oréal, Heineken, Dunhill, Ericsson, Omega, Smirnoff, Brioni, Bollinger, and Avis, plus a tie-in game from Electronic Arts.

Previously on…
17 previous Bond films (which are all technically in the same continuity). The previous one, GoldenEye, was the first to star Pierce Brosnan and relaunched the series to mass popularity after a fallow period.

Next time…
Two more Brosnan Bonds, before he was unceremoniously dumped to reboot the series for the first time. With a 25th film now in the works, the series is set to continue indefinitely.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Best Actor (Pierce Brosnan))
3 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Supporting Actress (Teri Hatcher), Music)
2 MTV Movie Awards nominations (Action Sequence for the motorcycle/helicopter chase (somehow it lost to Face/Off), Best Fight for “the fight between Michelle Yeoh and some ‘bad guys’.”)

What the Critics Said
“East meets West, yin meets yang and chop-socky meets kiss-kiss bang-bang in Tomorrow Never Dies, a zippy 007 romp that draws as heavily from the Asian action genre as from the formula that has served the series so well for 35 years. Goldeneye and Pierce Brosnan’s debonair Bond resuscitated the creaky franchise in 1995, but […] Tomorrow, jazzier, wittier and more costly than its predecessor, also comes closer to catching up with ’90s style and politics. […] Hong Kong kung-pow chick Michelle Yeoh, as the cool-headed Chinese agent Wai Lin, proves 007’s equal at kicking post-Cold War butt. The two take on craven communications baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a deliciously exaggerated — or is it? — composite of Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and the late Robert Maxwell. Carver’s not only the most plausible Bond nemesis ever but the perfect one for the current global villain shortage.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Score: 57%

What the Public Say
TND is somewhat underrated. Jonathan Pryce plays a villain who is essentially Rupert Murdoch smooshed together with Ted Turner. His plan isn’t to take over the world so much as it is getting rich by starting a war and then covering it on his news outlets. This just may be the most plausible Bond villain scheme of all times – which admittedly isn’t saying much. […] TND may not be among the best Bonds, but it’s got more going for it than I think it gets credit for.” — Lebeau, Lebeau’s Le Blog

Verdict

I know some of you will be thinking, “how can you leave out Goldfinger / Thunderball / The Spy Who Loved Me / For Your Eyes Only / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill [delete according to personal preference] but include Tomorrow Never Dies?!” It’s true, TND is far from the most popular Bond film, but it was the first I saw on the big screen, and that gives me a certain soft spot for it. It’s not just that, though.

Here’s a thing: one of the criticisms levelled at the film is that it’s just an action movie, lacking the peculiarly Bondian thrills a Bond adventure should have. But if it is “just an action movie” then it’s the best action movie in the Bond series. The pre-titles gunfight at the arms meet, the ‘backseat driver’ sequence, and the motorbike-vs-helicopter chase are three of the finest action scenes in the entire franchise, and that’s without even touching on Michelle Yeoh kicking ass. Couple that with Brosnan still new and confident in the lead role, and Jonathan Pryce nibbling the scenery as a lightly satirical villain, and I think you have a Bond film that is pretty entertaining, even if it’s mainly on an adrenaline-pumping level.

#92 has… a friend in me.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #66

Far up! Far out! Far more!
James Bond 007 is back!

Country: UK & USA
Language: English, German & French
Runtime: 142 minutes
BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | PG (1987)
MPAA: M (1969) | PG (1994)

Original Release: 13th December 1969 (Japan)
UK Release: 18th December 1969
US Release: 18th December 1969
First Seen: TV, c.1995

Stars
George Lazenby (Who Saw Her Die?, Gettysburg)
Diana Rigg (The Assassination Bureau, Theatre of Blood)
Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes)

Director
Peter Hunt (Shout at the Devil, Death Hunt)

Screenwriter
Richard Maibaum (From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Loved Me)

Additional dialogue by
Simon Raven (Unman, Wittering and Zigo, The Pallisers)

Based on
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the tenth James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.

The Story
After James Bond saves the life of Teresa DiVincenzo, her mob boss father offers him information on the location of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who Bond has been unsuccessfully tracking for years. Operating against orders to drop his investigation, Bond goes undercover in Blofeld’s Swiss research facility to find out what nefarious scheme he’s plotting now…

Our Hero
Bond, James Bond, agent 007 of the British secret service. On this mission, he falls in love and gets married — that never happened to the other fella!

Our Villain
Bond’s second face-to-face confrontation with the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., evil mastermind and archetypal uber-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, now played by Telly Savalas. It’s a very good villainous performance, though possibly suffers by coming after Donald Pleasance’s iconic turn in You Only Live Twice.

Best Supporting Character
Contessa Teresa Draco DiVincenzo — aka Tracy, the only woman headstrong, intelligent, and bold enough to tie down international playboy James Bond.

Memorable Quote
“It’s all right. It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world.” — James Bond

Quote No One’s Going to Use in Everyday Conversation Anymore, That’s For Sure
Bond: “I find her fascinating, but she needs a psychiatrist, not me.”
Draco: “What [my daughter] needs is a man… to dominate her! To make love to her enough to make her love him! A man like you!”

Memorable Scene
As M, Q, and Moneypenny sit around wondering where the devil 007 is, a shadowy man drives an Aston Martin accompanied by the Bond theme. (As in we hear it — he’s not got it on the stereo.) To his surprise, he’s overtaken by a woman. A few miles down the road, he sees her car stopped by the beach, and she’s walking out to sea. He runs after her, scoops her up and carries her back to the shore. As she wakes up, we see his face for the first time — and it’s not Sean Connery! But he does say, “My name’s Bond. James Bond.” Then he has a punch-up. A tradition (keeping the new Bond’s face a ‘secret’ until some kind of reveal*) is instantly born.

* Not that this happens in Live and Let Die. Or Casino Royale, really. Oh well.

Write the Theme Tune…
Regular series composer John Barry aimed to help cover for the absence of Connery by making the score “Bondian beyond Bondian”, and this certainly applies to the main title theme: an instrumental number (of which there are only three in the entire series) which is surely second only to the main James Bond theme in its Bondianness. It’s a fantastic action number that sits just as well over the ski sequences as it does the opening titles. (There’s also a great cover version by the Propellerheads on David Arnold’s Shaken Not Stirred album, by-the-by.)

Sing the Theme Tune…
Nonetheless, the film does contain an original song, composed by Barry with lyrics by Hal David, and — most famously — sung by Louis Armstrong in his final recording: We Have All the Time in the World. Considering the 1967 Casino Royale also produced The Look of Love, it was clearly an unusually fertile time for Bond films to produce songs that transcended their origins.

Technical Wizardry
Various methods were used to capture the Alpine action scenes, including camera operators skiing alongside the stuntmen (backwards while holding a camera!), and using Swiss Olympic athletes for the bobsled chase (with the sequence rewritten to incorporate their accidents). Most remarkable, though, was the aerial photography achieved by cameraman Johnny Jordon. To get flexibility to shoot scenes on the move from any angle, he developed a system where he was dangled 18 feet below a helicopter in a parachute harness. Mad.

Looking good, Lazenby!Letting the Side Down
There’s little doubt that George Lazenby is the worst big-screen Bond (though all of those who came after have their detractors), but he’s not actually that bad — he certainly sells the film’s emotional ending in a way I can’t quite picture Connery managing. If he’d stuck around for a few more movies I imagine he’d be better regarded. What really lets him down is his costuming — that frilly-shirt-and-kilt outfit is half the reason people who dislike the film dislike it so much, I swear. (Here it is bigger, if you want a good look.)

Making of
Various stars of The Avengers (the classic British TV series, not the Marvel superheroes) have appeared in the Bond series — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, Patrick Macnee in A View to a Kill (plus narrating loads of the DVD documentaries), and of course Diana Rigg here — all after they appeared on the TV show. The exception is Joanna Lumley, who appears in a small part here a few years before joining The New Avengers. Despite the diminutive size of her role, Lumley spent two months on the production, dubbing the voices of Blofeld’s whole cadre of women using German, Chinese, and Norwegian accents. She also taught the other actresses to crochet, so that was nice.

Previously on…
Five James Bond films starring Sean Connery.

Next time…
After Lazenby pulled out of his contract, Connery returned for Bond’s next adventure. There have been 17 Bond adventures on the silver screen since that, and the series continues indefinitely, with a 25th entry due in 2018 or so. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was adapted for radio in 2014, the fourth of (to date) five Bond radio adaptations starring Toby Stephens as 007.

Awards
1 Golden Globe nomination (Most Promising Male Newcomer (George Lazenby))

How OHMSS Got a Bad Reputation
“I suspect the average filmgoer still believes Lazenby was fired because the movie flopped. Wrong on both counts. OHMSS was not a blockbuster on the scale as Connery’s previous two films, but it was a solid hit. Box-office returns were no reason to fire Lazenby, and he wasn’t fired. He quit. […] OHMSS would go over schedule and over budget and [director Peter Hunt] would continually clash with his producers as well as his star. When OHMSS didn’t prove to be a runaway success, the public would blame Lazenby, but Saltzman and Broccoli and United Artists privately blamed Hunt along with his insistence on creating a tense, serious action film faithful to Fleming. Perversely, the finest film in Broccoli and Saltzman’s series became the model of everything they wanted to avoid in the future. In their desire to run from all that OHMSS represented, they turned the next film, Diamond Are Forever, into the dumbest, sloppiest mess in the series’ history. But Connery had returned so it was another substantial box-office hit, and the producers felt vindicated in their artistically disastrous decisions. The success of Diamonds Are Forever dealt a hit to OHMSS’s reputation. Thankfully, quality cannot go ignored for long and as more people discovered Hunt’s neglected masterpiece, the more admired it has become.” — Jeffrey Westhoff, Culture Spy (that whole piece is excellent, by-the-by)

What the Critics Said
“it is nothing short of miraculous to see a movie which dares to go backward, a technological artefact which has nobly deteriorated into a human being. I speak of the new and obsolete James Bond, played by a man named George Lazenby, who seems more comfortable in a wet tuxedo than a dry martini, more at ease as a donnish genealogist than reading (or playing) Playboy, and who actually dares to think that one woman who is his equal is better than a thousand part-time playmates. […] The love between Bond and his Tracy begins as a payment and ends as a sacrament. After ostensibly getting rid of the bad guys, they are married. They drive off to a shocking, stunning ending. Their love, being too real, is killed by the conventions it defied. But they win the final victory by calling, unexpectedly, upon feeling. Some of the audience hissed, I was shattered.” — Molly Haskell, The Village Voice

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
“Not everybody is wrong about this film, of course. Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan are both fond of this film. As am I. There are problems with this film, to be certain, and the problems do lie (mostly) with Lazenby. […] Having gone with the amateur Bond, they upped the ante for the girl. Diana Rigg was already a star from The Avengers and was perfectly suited to be a Bond girl. [She] is the answer, of course, as to why this film ranks as high as it does on the list of Bond films when Lazenby is so lackluster a Bond. Yes, there are good things in the film beside her – the ski scenes, the bobsled scene (you can tell the close-ups are rear projection but the longshots are real and exciting), the tragedy of the ending. But, for the first 40 years of the series she was the height of the Bond girls and she pulls this film higher than we had any right to originally expect.” — Erik, News from the Boston Becks

Verdict

The history of opinion on OHMSS is a fascinating one: written off as a failure, the series’ black sheep thanks to Lazenby and the less fantastical tone than the films that surround it; then gradually rehabilitated precisely because of that tone, to the point where it’s now almost “the Bond fan’s Bond film” (it certainly still has its detractors, who are either baffled by or in denial of its acclaim in other quarters). The ways it subverts the Bond formula are part of what makes it so memorable, but so are the ways it plays up to it, like Blofeld’s mountaintop base: considerably more plausible than the hollowed-out volcano (it’s a real place, for one thing), but no less incredible. Similarly, there’s an atypical plot, but also incredible action sequences — all done for real, too (well, aside from some iffy back projection). It does have faults that hold it back from being the best Bond movie in my estimation, but it’s up with the series’ best nonetheless.

#67 will be… a Western fairytale.

Spy: Extended Cut (2015)

2016 #106
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

The cinema was blessed — or, depending on your point of view, blighted — by an abundance of espionage-related movies last year (see: the intro to my initial thoughts on Spectre for more on that), and even writer-director/star team Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy got in on the act with this comedy.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who provides desk-bound support for Bond-esque super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed while investigating the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Cooper insists she go into the field to finish what he started. This doesn’t impress experienced agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who goes rogue to deal with Boyanov himself.

Technically speaking, Spy is a spy comedy rather than a spy spoof — a perhaps subtle distinction, but one that does inform the kind of comedy you’re getting; i.e. rather than a send-up that relies on you knowing the material being parodied to get the jokes, this is almost a workplace comedy… just one where the workplace is international espionage. Put another way, less Naked Gun or Austin Powers, more Kingsman with the comedy dialled up higher in the mix.

This is perhaps why it’s sporadically amusing rather than regularly hilarious; on the bright side, it only occasionally slides too far into dull toilet/gross-out ‘humour’. Similarly, it means that there are a handful of fun and/or exciting action beats scattered throughout the film, which you might not expect. They’re typically brief, but — even more surprisingly — there’s a fight between McCarthy and a henchwoman in a kitchen which is a genuinely good action sequence. It’s also surprisingly gruesome. Yes, it’s R-rated, but in the world of comedy that usually just means an overabundance of the F-word. Here we have at least one clear headshot, a dissolving throat, a knife through a hand, and more photos of a henchman’s penis than you ever needed to see. (That last one’s only describable as “gruesome” depending on your personal predilections, of course.)

Apparently Feig is a fan of James Bond and developed, wrote, produced, and directed Spy because he knew no one would ever let him do a real Bond movie. I guess that explains why some of it does work passably well as a genuine action/thriller. Composer Theodore Shapiro does an equally good job of evoking Bond’s musical stylings throughout his score. In my experience most comedies don’t show such consistent commitment in their music. Talking of music: as I mentioned in my June monthly update, there’s a random cameo by Verka Serdyuchka, Ukraine’s Eurovision entry from 2007. That gets the film some bonus points in my book.

The quality of the cast’s performances are variable in ways I didn’t expect. Statham almost steals the film, playing essentially himself — but exaggerated, I’m sure. McCarthy is a solid lead, at her best when sparking off Rose Byrne, who makes anything more watchable. Miranda Hart has a large supporting role as McCarthy’s CIA colleague, but I’m not sure that her strengths are wholly played to. I guess if you like her you’ll like her here (and if you don’t…) Peter Serafinowicz’s lecherous Italian is disappointingly overplayed, however, and I’m not sure why you’d cast ever-so-British Jude Law as a James Bond type and then give him an American accent.

The extended (aka unrated) cut contains almost 10 minutes of extra material, detailed here. Reading that list really demonstrates how some bits were tightened up for the theatrical release. I’d even wager that some parts are the result of improvising to find one good line, but in the extended cut they’ve strung half a dozen of the options together. I don’t think any casual viewer would miss much by sticking to the theatrical cut. That said, despite it running to two hours, I didn’t find it to be too long. It still wouldn’t hurt if it was tighter in places, but I didn’t get that “oh dear God why is this longer than 90 minutes?!” feeling you can get from 120-minute comedies.

Amusing rather than hilarious, but with a pleasing commitment to its genre, Spy isn’t going to tap into the zeitgeist in the way Austin Powers did almost 20 years ago(!), but it does provide a largely entertaining couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Feig and McCartney’s latest collaboration, the Ghostbusters reboot, is in UK cinemas from today, and launches around the world over the coming weeks.

GoldenEye (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #40

You know the name.
You know the number.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English, Russian & Spanish
Runtime: 130 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1995) | 15 (uncut, 2006)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 16th November 1995 (Canada)
US Release: 17th November 1995
UK Release: 24th November 1995
First Seen: VHS, 1996

Stars
Pierce Brosnan (Mrs. Doubtfire, Mamma Mia)
Sean Bean (Patriot Games, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
Izabella Scorupco (Reign of Fire, Exorcist: The Beginning)
Famke Janssen (X-Men, Taken)
Judi Dench (A Room with a View, Notes on a Scandal)

Director
Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale)

Screenwriters
Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardner, Exodus: Gods and Kings)
Bruce Feirstein (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough)

Story by
Michael France (Cliffhanger, The Punisher)

Based on
James Bond, a character created by Ian Fleming.

The Story
When Russian crime syndicate Janus steal the activation codes for a new satellite weapons system called “Goldeneye”, there’s only one man who can stop them using it for nefarious ends: Jack Bauer. Only kidding — it’s Jason Bourne. No, ‘course not — it’s Bond, James Bond.

Our Hero
Pierce Brosnan is Bond, James Bond, for the first time. After the almost-franchise-killing seriousness of Timothy Dalton, Brosnan nails Bond for the nostalgic ’90s: a dash of Sean Connery’s grit, a dash of Roger Moore’s raised-eyebrow humour, a whole lot of suaveness. For a while, the old “Connery or Moore?” question became “Connery, Moore or Brosnan?”

Our Villain
The mysterious Janus, who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be former MI6 agent and Bond’s chum Alec Trevelyan, out for revenge against the British Empire for betraying his family after World War 2, and against Bond for setting the bombs’ timers for three minutes instead of six.

Best Supporting Character
It was a bold choice to cast a woman as M back in 1995, even though she was inspired by the real director of MI6 at the time. Fortunately they cast the inestimable Dame Judi Dench, who naturally made the role her own — so much so that she survived the otherwise series-wide reboot in 2006, and having a male in the part now feels kinda odd.

Memorable Quote
“I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War” — M
(If a single line saved the Bond series, it’s this. In one fell swoop Dame Judi proves that a female M will work, and that this is a franchise aware of the need to drag itself into the present day.)

Memorable Scene
The villains are driving off with the kidnapped love interest. There’s no Aston Martin in sight. Does Bond take another car? Of course not — he takes a bloody tank.

Write the Theme Tune…
Bono and The Edge of U2, hired after…

Sing the Theme Tune…
Tina Turner. According to Wikipedia, “the producers did not collaborate with Bono or The Edge,” hence why (unlike previous Bonds) there’s nothing in the main score that references the title theme. That would rather become the Bond M.O. as the ’90s went on.

Truly Special Effect
The bungee jump off the damn — because it’s not a special effect, it’s real. The Bond series’ legacy of incredible, groundbreaking stunts continues with considerable style.

Letting the Side Down
Éric Serra’s score. Hiring someone to write a very modern (for the early ’90s) score for the newly-relaunched Bond must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time… but it wasn’t. It hasn’t improved any with age, either. Tellingly, after the score was finished the producers had someone else re-score the film’s big action sequence, the St. Petersburg tank chase, with music that sounds far more classically Bondian. Bonus problem: if you had an N64 (like I did), chances are you played GoldenEye the game far more than you watched the film. It too used Serra’s score, meaning I can’t hear it without being transported back to an idyllic adolescence playing blocky video games.

Making of
Pierce Brosnan was originally cast as Bond in 1986, but was forced to pull out when his TV series, Remington Steele, was unexpectedly renewed (according to one telling, that was purely to prevent him playing Bond — they only made six more episodes). Previously, Timothy Dalton had almost been cast when Roger Moore became Bond, and Moore had almost been cast before Sean Connery. Don’t be too surprised if Henry “Superman” Cavill — who was almost cast before the producers settled on Daniel Craig — is taking his martinis shaken not stirred in a few years’ time.

Previously on…
16 previous Bond films (which are all technically in the same continuity). The last was six years earlier, and the least financially successful for 15 years in the US (did alright worldwide, though).

Next time…
Brosnan played Bond thrice more, to increasing box office (if not critical) acclaim. He was due to do a fifth, but then the producers won back the rights to Casino Royale and the rest is history.

Awards
2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Sound)
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure Film, Best Actor (Pierce Brosnan))
2 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Sandwich in a Movie for the submarine sandwich with tomatoes and provolone. It lost to the ham and cheese sandwich in Smoke).

What the Critics Said
“James Bond, the British spy with a taste for the high life and a licen[c]e to kill, comes back in surprisingly hardy and supple form. Gadgets firing, quips racing, libido unfurling, surrounded by a top-notch supporting crew of actors, designers and demolition experts, the new Agent 007 (now played by Pierce Brosnan) delivers whatever Bond devotees could reasonably want, or what newcomers anticipate. […] So much familiarity may lead to contempt in some quarters. But Bond, like Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves, Tarzan, Frankenstein or Dracula, is one of those mythical British pop figures who seem ageless, infinitely adaptable. […] Perhaps the reason is that Bond — as his detractors have always noted — is an adolescent fantasy figure, a Peter Pan popped onto the stage of international espionage. Like Peter, he can’t — won’t — grow up. [He has] caught the world’s imagination because he played out its darker dreams with fairy-tale lightness.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

Score: 78%

What the Public Say
“Rarely in the Bond franchise have directing, acting, cinematography, action, and music come together to create such a stylishly sublime experience. GoldenEye has undeniably earned its now-solidified status as a classic.” — Lukas, Lukas + Film

Verdict

After diminishing box office in the Dalton years, a long gap forced by legal battles, and the Cold War ending in the interim, bringing Bond back for the ’90s was perhaps a bit of a long shot. Fortunately, this fact didn’t escape the makers: there are numerous nods to Bond’s somewhat old-fashioned values (see also: memorable quote), and a whole heap of effort was expended on large-scale action sequences and stunts. Couple that with a solid storyline, several memorable villains, and a “greatest hits”-style leading performance from Brosnan, and you have a series that wasn’t just revived but was set to reach new heights (of box office, if nothing else).

Frankly my dear, #41 doesn’t give… a damn.