No Time to Die (2021)

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2021 #170
Cary Joji Fukunaga | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English, French, Italian & Russian | 12A / PG-13

No Time to Die

Britain’s most famous secret agent is Craig, Daniel Craig for the final time in the 25th James Bond film. It’s also the fifth and (presumably) final instalment in an ongoing narrative within the series; the kind of internal continuity never before attempted in the franchise’s 59-year history. Sure, there have been some hints at continuity in the past — Connery’s Bond was almost always up against some agent of SPECTRE, and Diamonds Are Forever is technically a sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — but never to this degree, and never with such keenly-felt emotional effects on our hero.

Much fuss has been made in some quarters of Quantum of Solace being the first true sequel in the Bond canon, because it very much continues storylines from Casino Royale. If that’s the case, No Time to Die may be classed as the second such sequel, because it picks up on various hints and threads left dangling in Spectre and weaves them into its narrative. (You could also argue Spectre is a “true sequel” for the way it tries to tie together the entire Daniel Craig era, but I think No Time to Die is even more directly connected to its immediate predecessor.) All of this is primarily of note to fans of the series, mind, because it marks a change of form for this particular series. In the wider world of film franchises, that kind of continuity is nothing new. For all that it’s been a massively-popular trailblazer over the past six decades, the Bond films can be surprisingly reactive, often seeking to incorporate things that are successful in the wider filmmaking space — witness Moonraker coming on the heels of Star Wars, or Casino Royale and (especially) Quantum incorporating styles and techniques from the Jason Bourne films. All of which is really just to say that Bond is not some monolithic island unto himself — these films exist in context, just like any other.

Bond's in the spotlight

Perhaps the single most influential trend on No Time to Die is one for closure. Once upon a time, heroes carried on having adventures forever — whatever challenges they faced in one tale, they overcame and ‘rode off into the sunset’ ready to go again. Not nowadays. When Christopher Nolan decided to give Batman an ending to complete his trilogy in The Dark Knight Rises, it was seen as a radical move; an exception to the rule, just for this special case. Now, it’s de rigueur — look at Marvel bothering to wrap-up the stories of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in Avengers: Endgame, for example. They could have had these guys toddle off only to come back with an unexplained new face, just as has happened throughout movie franchise history, but instead they pay off the audience’s investment by giving them an ending. Spectre sort of did this, giving Craig’s Bond an ambiguous conclusion where he sort of seemed to retire and drive off with the girl. But that kind of ambiguity doesn’t cut it nowadays, and so No Time to Die finds that, yes, Bond did retire, but now he’s pressed back into service so we can get a more definitive fullstop on his story.

To discuss the specifics of that ending would be to get into spoiler territory, of course, which I’m not going to do here (the film is out in most regions now, but won’t hit some markets until much later in the year; and I can understand if some people are still reticent to return to cinemas and so will wait for a home release. It’s fine — there’ll be plenty of time to talk about the ending in month and years to come, because it is, again, no spoiler to say this is an ending that will be discussed for a long time, one way or another). What I will say is that I, personally, wasn’t wholly convinced by it. I don’t know if it was the right move. I’m not entirely sure how it makes me feel. Others may have a more definitive reaction — I haven’t sought out other people’s specific thoughts, and they’re hard to stumble upon because everyone is (rightly) avoiding spoilers. That said, the mostly positive reception, from both critics and regular viewers, suggests that it’s not an outright problem — maybe people mostly love the finale, but even if they don’t, they’re like me in thinking it doesn’t undermine the quality of the rest of the film.

The new 007

And quality is in abundance throughout No Time to Die. When it emerged that it ran nearly two-and-three-quarter hours, some were concerned that was far too long for a Bond film, especially after Spectre’s two-and-a-half hours was deemed a slog by many. Such concerns prove unfounded, because No Time to Die moves at a solid lick throughout, never feeling its length — like all the best movies, whether they be 80 minutes or four hours, it’s just as long as it needs to be. In many ways it’s your standard Bond fare: there’s a nefarious villain out there planning to do something evil on a massive scale, and Bond is roped in to stop them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And yet, the Craig era has tried to ‘fix it’. Casino Royale consciously dismantled the Bond formula, riffing on some of its famous tropes rather than including them properly (cf. his response to “shaken or stirred?”), but the subsequent films have sought to rebuild the style we knew and loved. It’s arguable whether they truly have returned Bond to his previous ways — every one of these movies subverts ‘the Bond formula’ in some way, large or small — but I think No Time to Die might be the closest. That’s not a criticism.

Certainly, it has enough new going on to not feel like a throwback. Some of that is surface level, like the new 00 being a Black woman, played perfectly by Lashana Lynch. It’s an important bit of progressiveness, for sure, but in plot terms, replace her with a white man and everything still functions the same. Again, I don’t feel like that’s a criticism — sometimes the devil is in the details, and details matter. “Making that character a Black woman instead of a white man doesn’t affect the plot” is a reason to make such a change, not an argument against it. Conversely, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann somewhat upends the traditional Bond girl role by having a secret past that has significant bearing on both the plot and Bond’s emotional state. The former may not be so new (there have been Bond girls with secrets in the past), but allowing Bond to actually have emotions, and be challenged by them, is very much a Craig-era phenomenon. Again, you can find specific examples of this throughout the series — OHMSS is the biggest example, but you could argue Brosnan’s Bond is affected by Elektra in The World Is Not Enough — but it’s never been done with such consistency, such centrality, as in the Craig era.

Can anybody find him somebody to love?

Aside from all this borderline-groundbreaking stuff, No Time to Die serves up a load of traditional Bond thrills. There are exotic locales, beautifully lensed by Linus Sandgren — he may not be as big a name as Roger Deakins, but his work makes this rival Skyfall for prettiest Bond film. There are epic action sequences — the series may have lost its rep for outrageous done-for-real stunts to Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible-funded death wish, but it can still pull together an outstanding car chase or shoot-out. The pre-titles in Italy; a party in Cuba; a chase through Norwegian woods — all could be franchise highs in the set piece department. And the production design, by series newcomer Mark Tildesley, harks back to Bond of old too, not least in the villain’s island lair. Oh yes, the villain has his own island — proper old-school Bond.

Said villain is Safin, played by Oscar-winner Rami Malek. He’s not bad by any means, but he’s weirdly miscast (it’s not obvious until you think about it, but the character is meant to be 20+ years older than the actor) and he has little to do: Bond’s on his trail for most of the film, only confronting him in the final act. Maybe that’s not so different to many older Bond films either, but it’s out of place in the Craig era, where most of the villains have directly challenged Bond throughout the movie. Still, while he may not hit the highs of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre or Javier Bardem’s Silva, he’s slightly less “villain by numbers” than Christoph Waltz’s disappointingly underwhelming turn as Blofeld, and more memorable than Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene (not the actor’s fault, I don’t think — Quantum tried so hard to keep Bond grounded and he suffers for that). In fact, he’s such a Macguffin of a villain that I’m not even sure of his motivation — I get how he intends to do A Very Bad Thing (the mechanics of it are very important, for several reasons), but I don’t recall the film ever bothering to tell me why.

Old school Bond

It’s this kind of little niggle that loses No Time to Die its edge. Make no mistake: this is an immensely entertaining Bond film. I haven’t even mentioned some of its other highs, like all-too-brief supporting turns from Jeffrey Wright, returning as Bond’s CIA chum Felix Leiter, or Ana de Armas as a rookie agent who, it turns out, is as skilled as she is gorgeous, but is most memorable for being the most amusing part of the film — you’ll wish she was in it more. For all that, I foresee the film settling in as a well-liked entry in the series, and I’m sure it will cement a reputation as the greatest last-Bond-film for any actor (its only real rival in those stakes being Licence to Kill, which barely counts as it was only Dalton’s second). But, on the flipside, it doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights of Casino Royale or Skyfall. Is that a problem? Nah. Not everything has to be “the greatest ever” to have merit.

4 out of 5

No Time to Die is in cinemas everywhere (except Australia and China) now.

Casino Royale (2006)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #18

Everyone has a past.
Every legend has its beginning.

Country: UK, USA, Czech Republic & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 144 minutes
BBFC: 12A (cut, 2006) | 15 (uncut, 2012)
MPAA: PG-13 (cut)

Original Release: 14th November 2006 (Kuwait)
UK Release: 16th November 2006
US Release: 17th November 2006
First Seen: cinema, 16th November 2006

Stars
Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Eva Green (The Dreamers, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)
Mads Mikkelsen (Valhalla Rising, The Hunt)
Judi Dench (Iris, Philomena)
Jeffrey Wright (Shaft, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Director
Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Green Lantern)

Screenwriters
Paul Haggis (Crash, The Next Three Days)
Neal Purvis (Die Another Day, Johnny English)
Robert Wade (Stoned, Skyfall)

Based on
Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.

The Story
British agent James Bond, newly promoted to exclusive double-oh status, investigates a terrorist plot that leads him to Le Chiffre. Banker to the world’s terrorists, Le Chiffre has managed to lose a lot of his clients’ money, and intends to win it back in a high-stakes poker game at the eponymous establishment. Bond is charged with joining the game and bankrupting the banker, with treasury employee Vesper Lynd along to keep an eye on the money and off Bond’s perfectly-formed arse.

Our Hero
“James before he was Bond,” as the awful US tagline went. Daniel Craig instantly disproved the not-that-numerous-but-certainly-vocal critics (remember all the “Bond isn’t blond” rubbish?) by being perhaps the most convincing actually-is-a-highly-trained-agent Bond since Connery.

Our Villain
Le Chiffre, a total banker. Fond of poker, bleeds from his eye, brilliantly played by Mads Mikkelsen, who has deservedly gone on to many other things, no doubt some wholly due to this.

Best Supporting Character
Eva Green is Vesper Lynd, a woman so remarkable that Bond names his personal Martini recipe after her. He also falls in love with her. Considering the rest of the Bond canon, that’s not likely to end well.

Memorable Quote
“I’m afraid your friend Mathis is really… my friend Mathis.” — Le Chiffre

Memorable Scene
At dinner on the train to Montenegro, Bond meets Vesper for the first time. They verbally size each other up. She wins. “How was your lamb?” “Skewered. One sympathises.”

Write the Theme Tune…
Easily the best Bond theme of the Craig era (though I like the QoS one more than most, and my main objection to Adele’s is that it’s about a flying baby horse and its receptacle for bread waste), You Know My Name was co-written by the series’ regular composer since the mid ’90s, David Arnold. That meant he could integrate the tune into his score, which was a Good Thing.

Sing the Theme Tune…
Far removed from Bond’s Bassey-imitating default style, the slightly gravelly sound of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell (the first male vocalist on a Bond theme for nearly 20 years) helped indicate the series’ harder, manlier new direction.

Technical Wizardry
After four films of honing the Maurice Binder “naked silhouettes” style, title designer Daniel Kleinman cuts loose with an array of inventive playing card-based imagery. The most original Bond title sequence since at least Thunderball and, by being so atypical, the most unique of them all.

Truly Special Effect
Chasing after a kidnapped Vesper in the middle of the night, Bond suddenly sees her in his headlights, tied up in the middle of the road. He swerves, his Aston Martin crashes, and barrel rolls… seven times. The stunt team set a world record with that, which (despite Fury Road’s best efforts) is still unbeaten a decade later.

Making of
James Ferguson, a doctor from Aberdeen, came up with the idea for the scene in which Bond is poisoned and then remotely diagnosed by experts at MI6 HQ in London. Ferguson, a Bond fan, was retained as medical adviser for future Bond films.

Previously on…
Casino Royale was adapted for TV in 1954, starring the great Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, and its title (and little else) was used for the awful 1967 Bond spoof. This version is the 21st in the canonical James Bond film series, and the first time that series has performed a reboot: the film opens with Bond attaining his famed double-oh status, something we’ve never seen before.

Next time…
Daniel Craig’s second outing, the somewhat misunderstood and underrated Quantum of Solace, was the first direct sequel in the Bond canon, picking up on various plot threads from Casino Royale and even resolving a few of them. After Craig’s third, Skyfall, went off on its own, last year’s Spectre tried to tie together the entirety of Craig’s era, with mixed success. Beyond that, James Bond will return indefinitely, though Craig may not.

Awards
1 BAFTA (Sound)
8 BAFTA nominations (British Film, Actor (Daniel Craig), Adapted Screenplay, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Visual Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
4 Saturn nominations (Actor (Daniel Craig), Supporting Actress (Eva Green), Writing, Music)
2 World Stunt Awards (Best High Work, Best Stunt Coordination and/or 2nd Unit Director)
1 World Stunt Awards nomination (Best Fight)

What the Critics Said
“I never thought I would see a Bond movie where I cared, actually cared, about the people. But I care about Bond, and about Vesper Lynd, even though I know that (here it comes) a Martini Vesper is shaken, not stirred. Vesper Lynd, however, is definitely stirring, as she was in Bertolucci’s wonderful The Dreamers. Sometimes shaken, too. Vesper and James have a shower scene that answers, at last, why nobody in a Bond movie ever seems to have any real emotions.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“While there is very much a dramatic and sensitive undercurrent to this Bond film, Casino Royale doesn’t shortchange the audience on action. From Bond chasing a skilled free runner enemy to a brutal staircase battle, Casino Royale delivers a harsher and bleaker sense of violence that had been missing from some of the predecessors and not seen since Timothy Dalton’s dark turn in Licence to Kill.” — vinnieh

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before Quantum of Solace was released in 2008, I wrote that Casino Royale was “a damn fine Bond film, returning to Fleming and resetting the character without losing anything truly essential about the franchise. […] this one’s up there with the very best, not just of Bond but of action-spy-thrillers in general.”

Verdict

In the early ’00s, it didn’t feel like the Bond series was in need of a reboot. Die Another Day had been a huge hit at the box office and gone down pretty well with critics (no, really, it did), and Brosnan was all set to do a fifth (though, considering his age, likely final) film as Britain’s top secret agent. Then Bourne happened, shifting the playing field of the spy-action genre, at the same time as Bond’s producers finally regained the rights to Fleming’s very first Bond novel. For the first time in the series’ 40-year history, they decided to reboot.

What Casino Royale does skilfully is acknowledge the changes brought by Bourne, but adapt them to Bond’s slightly more classical style (something Quantum of Solace fumbled). At the same time, it acknowledges and frequently subverts that Bond formula (“Shaken or stirred?” “Do I look like I give a damn.”), the antithesis of DAD’s uber-referentiality. In itself, it took Fleming’s relatively slight novel, with its lack of action by modern blockbuster standards, and expanded and modernised it effectively to fit current tastes. The result is arguably the best Bond movie ever made.

#19 will be… the last days of the human race.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Spectre (2015)

2015 #168
Sam Mendes | 148 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Regular readers will remember I shared my spoiler-free thoughts on Spectre when it came out. Consequently, this review contains major spoilers, of the “if you read this you will know every twist that happens in the movie” variety.

The 24th official James Bond movie had a funny old ride on its cinema release a few months ago. It started well, with near-universal praise from UK critics; audience reaction was more mixed but erred towards the positive; then US critics tore into it, and US audiences (as usual) followed suit. The latter seems to have become the more accepted view, with the consensus seemingly that it’s decent enough, but a definite step down from the high of Skyfall and a middle-of-the-road instalment in the context of the entire series.

Spectre sees Bond (Daniel Craig) charged by dead-M (a Judi Dench cameo) with tracking down an assassin, as a way in to a secretive organisation that Bond’s other recent nemeses seem to have been a part of. While new-M (Ralph Fiennes) is distracted in London dealing with MI5 upstart Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his dubious information-sharing plan that will make MI6 obsolete, Bond follows a trail of breadcrumbs to Rome, Austria, and Africa as he attempts to track down the organisation’s leader (Christoph Waltz).

That’s the foreshortened version of the plot, because much of Spectre plays like a detective movie: Bond uncovers clues that send him in new directions moving closer and closer to his goal. Where this falls down is there’s no mystery for him to unearth, at least not to the audience. We (and he) know this secret organisation exists, and we also know who’s in charge — it’s pretty hard to have not heard that Christoph Waltz is playing a Bond villain. So what twist does the film wheel out to keep this worthwhile? Is Waltz actually a front for the real villain? No. Perhaps there will be an incredible reveal about who Waltz’s character really is? Well…

Spectre, to put it bluntly, pulls a Star Trek Into Darkness — and considering writer Damon Lindelof recently admitted they’d messed up the reveal that (spoiler!) Benedict Cumberbatch was actually Khan (and J.J. Abrams admitted they’d messed up the film more generally, but that’s another issue), it’s a shame Spectre tried to repeat the same trick. So yes, as everyone predicted since the day he was cast, Waltz is playing Blofeld. The problem is, the film plays this as a twist/reveal, but it’s not a revelation to the characters, only to the viewer. In this interview with Empire magazine, director Sam Mendes says that not revealing Blofeld’s identity to the viewing public in advance was important because it’s a detective story and Bond doesn’t know the identity of the ‘murderer’, and we shouldn’t know before Bond. Which is poppycock, frankly, because the name Blofeld means nothing to Bond — the revelation for him is that his deceased childhood acquaintance is, a) alive, b) has become a super-villain, and c) has spent the last few years deliberately toying with Bond because of some childhood grudge. That’s why it’s just like the Khan ‘twist’: it means absolutely bugger all to the characters, but it does mean something to the audience. I’m certain there were ways to handle it in-film to make it work both ways — to make it a twist that Oberhauser is also Blofeld — but they don’t pursue that option even a little bit. And of course we all knew anyway, so it feels even sillier. If they’d played the “someone else we’re keeping secret might be Blofeld” game — if there’d been some misdirection to make us thing Denbigh would be unmasked as the big man behind it all — maybe it would’ve worked. But they didn’t.

For me, this is the point where the whole film went off the boil. It occurs at the start of a torture scene, which I thought was an over-complicated wannabe-Casino Royale sequence that consequently doesn’t work, and provides the gateway to an underwhelming final section in London. It seems the film’s third act was always a problem — if you read about what was revealed by the Sony leaks (in this coverage, for example), it’s clear the film entered production with the climax still not nailed down, because no one could quite agree on it. From that article, it indeed sounds like most of the film remained the same (or at least near enough), but the third act has definitely been re-worked, albeit retaining the same general thrust. I still don’t think it works. There’s too much of M, Q and Moneypenny sat in an office trying to stop a man typing something into a computer (more on this in a minute), while Bond is busy running around a building and shooting at a helicopter. Personally, I’d’ve thrown it out and started again, but I guess they’d run out of time, and maybe it was better than the alternative.

The leaked draft also ended with Bond executing Blofeld, shooting him in the head at point blank range. The studio thought this callous. In the finished film, he spares him, the movie justifying this as Bond rejecting his former life as a government assassin to go off and be with the woman he’s fallen completely in love with in the last three days. Was it Sony’s note that changed Blofeld’s fate, or a desire to keep Bond’s Moriarty in play for future instalments? I guess we’ll find out once Bond 25 starts ramping up. I wouldn’t mind seeing a good deal more of Waltz in the role. In Spectre he’s almost entirely constrained to the third act, thanks to that attempt at a twist; now he’s been established, surely next time they can let him loose across the entire movie? Reports indicate the return or otherwise of Waltz will hinge on Craig’s decision about returning (despite ‘news’ to the contrary last week, this seems to still be up in the air), so we’ll have to wait and see on both fronts.

Back to the issue of M, Q and Moneypenny. I’ve seen critics of the film assert that it was a mistake to cast actors of the calibre of Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw only to give them so little to do. This tickles me a little, because if anything I thought they played too large a role. All three have their place within a Bond narrative, and that place may have changed somewhat over the years (particularly with regards to Moneypenny), but it feels like we spend as much time with them saving the day as with Bond. This isn’t Mission: Impossible — it isn’t a team effort. Is it realistic that a lone agent goes around saving the world? No, of course it isn’t, and it never was; but the point of Bond has never been realism. And besides, the reason you cast quality actors in minor roles is so they can pop in for a day or two and make their one scene exceptionally good. Bulk their part up if you’ve got a story to tell, by all means, but don’t shoehorn them in just because you’ve got them. For my money, Spectre is too much doing the latter.

I could go on and on about a Bond movie (as anyone who’s read my 5,000 words on Skyfall will know), and obviously there are whole swathes of the film I’ve not touched on (the girls, the gadgets, the titles, that bloody song, the action sequences, the emptiness of Rome’s streets), but for now I’ll finish off with some more thoughts on that Mendes interview. (If you’re interested in “why we did that” behind-the-scenes stuff, do read the whole thing — there’s more interesting stuff there than I’m going to mention.) For starters, he reveals that the memorable opening “single take” is actually four shots stitched together, and challenges you to spot the cuts. It’s a fantastic opener, but, to be frank, I don’t think the transitions are that hard to ascertain. (From memory: there’s definitely one as they enter the building, another before they enter the hotel room, and the third is somewhere around when Bond climbs out the window onto the rooftops).

Despite the Sony leaks, Mendes thinks Bond killing Blofeld was never an option. He says it’s “sewn into the fabric of the film” that the story takes a man who kills for a living (and states as much at one point) to a position where he chooses not to kill. See too: M saying a licence to kill is also a licence not to kill; and the idea that, to Blofeld, being exposed and incarcerated is worse than being killed. This is a thematic thread the film arguably gets right, though sending Bond off to a “happy ending” seems a risky strategy when it comes to luring back a leading man they hope to retain but who may prefer to leave. Or perhaps they’re just planning to go On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on us. Mendes also says the ending was deliberately written as a way for Craig to leave, intending it to be an in-film conclusion that would serve as an exit if he chose not to come back, but which was also open enough that he could return without it being implausible. Time will tell which it will be.

As I mentioned in my ‘initial thoughts’ piece, it takes time and repeated viewings to settle a film into a ranking among the Bond pantheon… but it’s no fun just waiting, so let’s have a crack now. The broadest way of categorising that is, “is Spectre top ten material?” As a widely divisive Bond film, everyone’s going to have a very different opinion (when don’t they?), but when I tried to list my top ten Bond films for the sake of comparison, I got easily into double digits before I began to consider Spectre. Maybe I’m being too harsh now — I did fundamentally like it for most of the running time, but there are niggles throughout and the last couple of reels left a sour taste. For a film that should build on the excellence of Casino Royale and Skyfall, as well as finally fulfil a decade-long promise to restore more “classic Bond” elements to the franchise, it wasn’t all it could’ve been.

4 out of 5

Spectre is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.

I saw Spectre days after the eager-beavers but still before some people, so here are my spoiler-free thoughts

It’s been quite the year for spies on the big screen: mega-success for Kingsman, high praise for Mission: Impossible 5, comedy from Spy, the TV-ish thrills of Spooks, and you may’ve missed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — based on its box office, most people did. But now we come to the biggest of them all: Bond. James Bond.

Chances are, if you’re interested in a review of the 24th Bond movie you’ve already read one. Several, probably. Nonetheless, as both a blogger and a Bond fan who saw the series’ latest instalment this afternoon, I’m compelled to throw some of my initial spoiler-free thoughts out there. Plus, in places, commentary on those other reviews.

For starters, if you have read any other reviews, you’ll know it begins with a helluva pre-titles sequence; perhaps the only part of the film to have attracted unqualified universal praise. A big opening action scene has become one of the series’ most iconic elements, and Spectre contends (against stiff competition) to be considered the best yet. Too stiff, in my view. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic opener, with one of the entire series’ best shots, but the very best of them all? That’s just hyperbole because it’s the newest.

It leads into the title sequence — another of the series’ most famed elements, of course. No details, because I know that I wouldn’t want anyone to spoil it for me, but I thought it had some strong imagery without being amongst Daniel Kleinman’s very best work (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, Skyfall). Sam Smith’s insipid song is slightly less irritating in context.

Most reviews will also contain a version of one of these two comments: either, “they’ve finally brought back the classic Bond formula, but integrated into the Craig-era style — how wonderful”; or, “they’ve merely brought back the classic Bond formula, albeit in the Craig-era style — what a regression”. You only have to look at the Rotten Tomatoes pull quotes (at the time of writing — these will surely change once US critics oust UK ones from the front page) to see this played out. It’s true that Spectre is much more like one’s idea of a “classic Bond film” than any of Craig’s previous films were, but it didn’t strike me quite so much as it clearly struck others. As to whether that’s a deliberate filmmaking choice which has succeeded beautifully, or a case of lazily falling back on (or being unable to escape) the series’ tropes… well, your mileage — and appreciation — will vary. Considering both Craig and Mendes have mentioned in multiple interviews that they were deliberately bringing back more of the familiar Bond elements (something Craig had been hoping to do gradually ever since Casino Royale jettisoned most of them; indeed, I believe he’s mentioned it regularly since that time, too), I think we must conclude it was a deliberate decision. So the question becomes: do you approve of that decision? If you didn’t like Bond pre-Craig, or think the time for such things has passed, then probably not; if you’re a fan of the series as a whole, however, it may be a welcome return for some recently-absent familiarities.

For all its modernism, there’s one aspect which the Craig era has always had in keeping with earlier Bonds: the casting of the villain. After the Brosnan era gave us Brit Sean Bean, Brit Jonathan Pryce, Brit Robert Carlyle, and Brit Toby Stephens (even if some of them were playing foreigners), Craig’s films have stuck to the older formula of casting a respected/famous European: Dane Mads Mikkelsen, Frenchman Mathieu Amalric, Spaniard Javier Bardem, and now German “European actor du jour” Christoph Waltz. The double Oscar winner is on fine form at times, but there aren’t quite enough of those times. Again, without aiming to spoil anything, I’d say he’s not so much underused as misused.

Action sequences are naturally fantastic, the best coming in the alps. Thomas Newman’s score is as bland and unmemorable as his work last time, while Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is strong, but not quite as striking as Roger Deakins’ in Skyfall. According to most reviews, M has the best line and biggest laugh. I have to say, I’m forced to guess which that line is, because neither of the two contenders I’d put forward provoked much response in my screening.

The real downside comes in a muddled third act, which suggests the Sony leaks were right: either this is the one they criticised for not being good enough, or it’s the written-during-production replacement. Either way, it feels off the ball. Further discussion next time…

I must also mention that Madeleine Swann’s name is a reference to Proust, because I believe it’s beholden on every reviewer to point this out to make sure you know they got the reference. Well, I did too. Now I want a cake. And if you’d like to watch someone eat a Madeleine, check out Blue is the Warmest Colour. (Too far?)

Oh, and I must get in a pun along the lines of, “what were you exSpectreing?”, or “we’ve been exSpectreing you, Mr Bond”. I guess mine should be, “I exSpectred something more.”

My spoilersome full review of Spectre is available here.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

2014 #134
Steven Spielberg | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | PG / PG

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn1981: Steven Spielberg reads a French review of his movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. His high-school-level French serves him well enough, although there’s repeated use of one word he doesn’t know: Tintin.

25 years later: Spielberg has been struggling to make a film version of Hergé’s character for quarter of a century. While developing a live-action version that would feature actors under heavy prosthetics so as to resemble their comic book counterparts, he realises Tintin’s famous dog, Snowy, will need to be computer generated. He reaches out to Peter Jackson and Weta, fresh off their ground-breaking work on The Lord of the Rings. Their test footage is so successful, it gives Spielberg another idea…

2011: after 30 years, Spielberg finally brings the boy reporter to the big screen as a motion-captured animation. Reviews and public reception are mixed, particularly in the US, but they’re all daft because The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is bloody brilliant.

Combining events from three of Hergé’s original albums, the story sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchase a model ship that is highly desired by the mysterious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). A riddle hidden inside the model sets the ever-inquisitive reporter on a quest to find out what nefarious deeds Sakharine is planning, along the way bumping into drunkard Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who holds the key to the entire mystery. Cue a globetrotting adventure that, yes, is very much in the Indiana Jones mould.

Tintin and HaddockApparently some Tintin purists weren’t so keen on the actual adaptation — elements of The Crab with the Golden Claws have been mixed in to a plot primarily taken from The Secret of the Unicorn, the sequel/second half of which, Red Rackham’s Treasure, is reportedly used sparingly. Plus, in the original tale Sakharine is a minor character who wasn’t responsible for much, apparently. As someone who’s only read one of those three volumes, and even then not since I was young, such things didn’t trouble me. What superstar screenwriters Steven “Doctor Who” Moffat, Edgar “Cornetto trilogy” Wright and Joe “Attack the Block” Cornish have captured is the spirit of Tintin: an engrossing mystery-adventure, laced with gentle satire and smidgens of slapstick comedy, but with real stakes and peril too.

A talented cast are up to the task. Bell adopts a posh-ish accent for the titular hero, and while some of the accusations of blandness aren’t wholly misplaced, he’s plucky and determined enough to make for an appealing lead. The king of mo-cap, Serkis, is able support as Haddock, while Craig makes for a very effective villain — I hope his post-Bond career, whenever that arrives, sees him playing villainous roles more often. Interestingly, it was his mannerisms that have survived the animation process the most. I mean it in an entirely non-critical way when I say every other character could have any actor behind the mo-cap baubles, but Sakharine’s face and body move with all the recognisable movements and expressions of his actor.

Of course he can't talk, he's a dogThe slapstick is mainly hoisted by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the physically-identical Thomson and Thompson — a true advantage of animation, that. I imagine some find their parts tiresome because of their inherently comic role, but they’re likeable versions of the characters. Even more joyous is Snowy, though. Well, I would like him, wouldn’t I? His internal monologue, such a memorable part of Hergé’s books, is omitted (as it is from every film version to date, I believe), but he’s full of character nonetheless. Some of the best sequences involve Snowy running in to save the day. I don’t think they quite got the animation model right (the one glimpsed in test footage included in behind-the-scenes featurettes looks better, for my money), but his characterisation overcomes that.

Bit of an aside, but I think there’s something notable about almost everyone mentioned so far: Moffat, Wright, Cornish, Bell, Serkis, Craig, Pegg, Frost… All British. I know that’s because we’re awesome ‘n’ all, but I think it’s also indicative of Tintin’s status in the English-speaking world — which more or less boils down to “unknown in America”, but also “pretty darn popular in Britain”. At least Spielberg, the man who wanted to cast an American as Harry Potter, seems to know this (further evidence: they’ve hired another British screenwriter for the sequel). For whatever reason, Tintin has never clicked in America, while the books remain very popular over here. It therefore feels like there’s a better chance for the films’ fidelity by using Brits (who have the correct tone and style almost ingrained) than by using people coming to the stories entirely for the first time, and perhaps bringing a more generic blockbuster sensibility. On the other hand, this might just be a horribly xenophobic way of interpreting a coincidental appearance by so many Brits in key roles — after all, Tintin’s Belgian, so it’s not like using Brits is “true to source”.

Action directionOf course, one very important person is neither British nor Belgian: Spielberg. The screenplay’s balance between peril and comedy is spotlessly enhanced by his peerless direction. In a world stuffed to the gills with lesser blockbusters that palely imitate the groundwork Spielberg and co laid in the ’70s and ’80s, work like this should remind people why he’s still the master of the form. The film is shot with an eye for realism (so much so that some viewers have been convinced it was filmed on real locations with real actors, with some CG augmentation for the cartoonish faces, of course), which helps lend a sense of plausibility and also genuine jeopardy. It’s easy to get carried away when working in CG animation, but often the most impressive works are ones that behave as if they’ve been shot largely within the limitations of real-world filmmaking technology.

That said, Spielberg isn’t afraid to make use of the freedom afforded by working in a computer-generated realm when appropriate: there are some spectacular individual shots, the most obvious being a single-take chase sequence down a hillside through a town. Even better are some of the transitions, which would be literally impossible to realise in live-action — without resorting to effects work, anyway. They’re hard to accurately describe, especially without ruining them, in part because each instance is different; but they do all look incredible, and, again, serve the story rather than being flashy for the sake of it.

It always went ok on Flight Simulator...The tone on the whole is resolutely PG — actually, like many an action-adventure blockbuster used to be before everything went slightly darker and PG-13. So, for example, Tintin wields a gun on occasion, but never at another human being. The focus is on the story, which happens to lead to some adrenaline-pumping sequences, rather than a lightweight excuse to link together a bunch of punch-ups and chases. Ironically (though, for anyone who knows what they’re talking about, entirely expectedly) this makes the action all the more exciting. It also mean there’s a lighter touch than many current blockbusters offer; a greater presence for humour, including among the action. I guess that’s not fashionable these days, when everyone’s become so po-faced about their big-budget entertainment. However, with the likes of Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy proving immensely popular, perhaps the tide is turning, and maybe the still-on-the-cards Jackson-helmed sequel will find itself better received because of that.

I genuinely don’t understand the muted reaction to this first Tintin, though. It perhaps shows where blockbusters have gone awry in the last decade or two, and perhaps the incidental disdain animation is viewed with among some — I wonder: if the same movie had been produced in live-action, would some of those critics have been better disposed to it? I don’t think it would have actually been a better film, and perhaps it would even have been slightly worse (some of the visual impact would be lost), Herge's Adventures of Tintin!but some viewers would have seen it (even subconsciously) as more of a “real movie”.

As I said at the start, those people are Wrong. The Adventures of Tintin is a fantastic adventure movie, and should prove to anyone who doubted Spielberg after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that, when it comes to globetrotting action-adventures, he’s still the man to beat.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is on BBC One today at 4:25pm.

It placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

My Quantum of Solace Film Season

In case you’ve somehow failed to notice, Quantum of Solace, the 22nd official James Bond film, hits UK cinemas this Friday. I’m more than a tad excited (and considerably annoyed that I won’t be able to make it to the first screening in my area thanks to a seminar), and to celebrate I’m having myself a sort-of mini-ish film season-thing. Which I have dubbed My Quantum of Solace Film Season. You might’ve guessed that from the post’s title.

The selection process is quite simple: one film a day, each representing a different key member of QoS’s cast, plus one for director Marc Forster; and, to comply with this blog’s normal rules, all films I’ve never seen before. Well, that was the idea, but as with any good plan some changes have had to be made — there’s no film for Judi Dench, for example (well, other than a certain already-seen previous entry in the franchise), and I initially forgot Daniel Craig. Ha! Luckily I could switch him in for Jeffrey Wright by virtue of the fact they both appeared in The Invasion. Then there’s a double bill to try to get (almost) everyone in, and a film I’ve seen before too. “Oops.” (It was also entirely unintentional that all but the first and last films are from 2007.) Naturally, things come to a close with QoS itself on Friday, so thanks to only having thought of this plan yesterday my time to watch things is rather limited.

Anyway, you don’t really care about all that. Here’s the schedule:

  • Sunday 26th October: The Director
    Marc Forster’s Stay.

  • Monday 27th October: The Villain
    Mathieu Amalric (‘Dominic Greene’) stars in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

  • Tuesday 28th October: The Girls
    A double bill for Bond’s two new women. Gemma Arterton (‘Agent Fields’) stars in St. Trinian’s, followed by Olga Kurylenko (‘Camille’) in Hitman.

  • Wednesday 29th October: The Spies
    Daniel Craig (‘James Bond’, donchaknow) stars — with support from Jeffrey Wright (‘Felix Leiter’) — in The Invasion.

  • Thursday 30th October: The First Part
    As has been (very) widely reported, QoS is the first Bond-sequel, starting within an hour of Casino Royale’s climax. As such, it seems only appropriate to watch the preceding film the night before. (I’ve seen CR several times but will be reviewing it anyway, in light of having seen QoS, if that makes any difference.)

  • Friday 31st October: The Point
    Ba-da, dum… ba-da, dum… ba-da ba-da-da! Phonetic renderings of iconic theme tunes aside, Bond is back! Hurray!
  • The exact order is subject to change depending on how readily I can get hold of the films (I only own two of the six), but that’s the plan. Last time I tried to watch a film a day I failed miserably, so we’ll see how this goes. (Incidentally, reviews won’t appear on the said days, or even follow shortly behind — check out my ‘coming soon’ page to see how backed up I am with reviews.)