The Locked Down Monthly Review of April 2020

In 2002, Blue got the city on lockdown.
In 2020, Boris Johnson got the country on lockdown.
Your move, noughties boy bands.

One thing this stressful time has been good for is my film viewing. After a 2019 that saw some of my lowest months in years — indeed, ever — I’m pleased to say that April 2020 is a record breaker:

100 Films has a new Best. Month. Ever!


#59 Rang De Basanti (2006)
#60 The Kid (1921/1971)
#61 The Three Caballeros (1944)
#62 Stop Making Sense (1984)
#63 Burning (2018), aka Beoning
#64 The Karate Kid Part III (1989)
#65 Aniara (2018)
#66 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
#67 The Diamond Arm (1969), aka Brilliantovaya ruka
#68 I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
#68a The Devil’s Harmony (2019)
#69 The Next Karate Kid (1994)
#70 Never Too Young to Die (1986)
#71 It Chapter Two (2019)
#72 Andrei Rublev (1966)
#73 Dune: The Alternative Edition Redux (1984/2012)
#74 Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
#75 K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
#76 Near Dark (1987)
#77 The Thin Red Line (1998)
#78 Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
#79 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
#80 6 Underground (2019)
#81 The Secret Life of Pets 2 3D (2019)
#82 Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)
#83 Long Day’s Journey into Night 3D (2018), aka Di Qiu Zui Hou De Ye Wan
#84 End of the Century (2019), aka Fin de siglo
#85 Men in Black: International (2019)
#86 The Sheik (1921)
#87 The Son of the Sheik (1926)
#88 Extraction (2020)
#89 The Wedding Guest (2018)
#89a The Escape (2016)
#90 Ready or Not (2019)
#91 Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
#92 The Two Popes (2019)
#93 Ice Age: Continental Drift 3D (2012)
#94 The Lunchbox (2013)
#95 Zatoichi in Desperation (1972), aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue
#96 Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Aniara

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Dune: The Alternative Edition Redux

Jumanji: The Next Level

Ready or Not

The Lunchbox

.


  • I watched 38 new feature films in April.
  • As I said at the start, that’s my most ever in a single month, beating the previous record holder (May 2018) by four films. That’s noteworthy because May 2018 is only one film ahead of the month that’s now in 3rd, which is only two films ahead of the month now in 4th, which is only three films ahead of the months now in =5th. So, four is a pretty healthy margin.
  • Obviously, as my best month ever, April is going to smash any comparisons I care to make. So let’s start with the only thing it wasn’t guaranteed to do, but it has done nonetheless: #96 is the furthest I’ve reached by the end of April (next best is #90 in 2018).
  • Averages: it increases April’s average by two whole films, from 12.8 to 14.8; increases the rolling average of the last 12 months from 13.3 to 14.8; and increases the average for 2020 to date from 19.3 to 24.0. If I maintained that average until December, 2020 would become my biggest year ever (but things never work out like that).
  • It’s my 21st month with 20+ films, and my 4th month with 30+ films.

Alright, now some notes on the films within those 38…

  • Back in February, I noted that I’d somehow never seen a film from 1932. That’s now changed, thanks to I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Now, since the year of the first feature films being produced in the UK and USA (1912), there are only four years from which I’ve not seen at least one feature-length film: 1912, 1914, 1915, and 1923. I have at least one title picked out from each of those years that I could use to settle this matter, so I ought to get on with them…
  • I’ve seen David Lynch’s Dune before, but it was over 20 years ago and it was the theatrical cut. The fan edit I watched adds material from a longer TV cut and deleted scenes, plus generally rearranges and rejigs stuff, so I figure it must be substantially different enough to count as new.
  • Having watched 92% of the alphabet in January, February, and March, only X and Z remained — with the latter now claimed by Zatoichi in Desperation. X will go whenever I get round to watching Dark Phoenix — I think that’s literally the only X film I have in my collection or on Netflix/Amazon/etc.
  • This month’s Blindspot films: Andrei Tarkovsky’s biopic of 15th century religious icon painter Andrei Rublev. I found it as dry as that sounds. Also, from my ‘overflow’ list, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which I was also underwhelmed by. I knew it would be more Malickian than your typical war movie, but still, something about it didn’t connect with me.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Aniara, End of the Century, It Chapter Two, Rambo: Last Blood, Ready or Not, and The Secret Life of Pets 2, plus The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (see Rewatchathon). That’s a record haul, besting the five failures I watched last April. It was driven by most of those being time-limited Amazon rentals.



The 59th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
How to define “favourite”? On the one hand you’ve got something like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which is a weighty and still-pertinent condemnation of the American justice system. On the other, something such as Jumanji: The Next Level, which is just a whole lot of fun. More tickling my fancy in the former camp is Aniara, about the psychological strain of being stranded in space with little hope of ever returning home, some of which feels very pertinent to our current world situation (I know we’re all at home rather than far from it, but the cooped up with no hope of escape… yeah). And in the latter camp, Ready or Not is a deliciously gonzo horror-comedy, which didn’t quite push as many buttons as I’d hoped but is still massively entertaining. On balance, bearing in mind its unexpected timeliness, Aniara takes it.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This is a more straightforward category… although, personally, I included Andrei Rublev on my shortlist, which is a Highly Acclaimed Movie (just check out how many Greatest Ever lists it’s on), but it bored me senseless. Still, it did have some parts I admired — I’m not sure I can say the same about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Actually, that’s not strictly true: Christopher Reeve was always perfect as Superman; but the film definitely lets him down.

Best Musical Discovery of the Month
I’d never consciously listened to Talking Heads before I watched Stop Making Sense. I recognised exactly two of the songs during that concert movie, and one of those I know best from a cover version. While I wouldn’t exactly call myself a convert to their music, I liked most of it well enough, with opening number Psycho Killer my favourite. In fact, I preferred the live version in the film to the original recording. Maybe it’s just because I heard that take first, I dunno.

Best Audition to Be James Bond of the Month
It never even crossed my mind that the skinny kid from Slumdog Millionaire could ever be considered for Bond, and I bet it didn’t yours either. It was David Ehrlich’s Letterboxd review of The Wedding Guest that first flagged up the idea for me, and, having seen the film, I can see what he means. Dev Patel as James Bond… it’d certainly be different.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
The second half of last month’s TV review sat pretty atop the chart for most of the month (the Doctor Who half, meanwhile, wasn’t even close), but then Extraction came barrelling through my stats like Tyler Rake through an overcrowded Indian apartment block. Five older TV posts topped it overall, but it was by far my most-viewed new post.



The name’s Connery, Sean Connery.

Yes, there’s a distinct theme to this month’s rewatches. It wasn’t deliberate… well, not at first. Once I noticed it, obviously I had to maintain it.

#15 Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
#16 The Avengers (1998)
#17 The Rock (1996)
#18 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

…and, if you want to take it further, you could argue they’re all movies where Connery returned to the role of James Bond. Sure, Diamonds Are Forever is the only one where that’s literally true, but there’s long been a fan theory that Connery’s character in The Rock is Bond under a pseudonym, and in The Avengers he plays an innuendo-spewing former British secret agent turned villain. As for LXG… yeah, okay, the idea runs out there.

When I included The Rock in my 100 Favourites, I only rated it 4 stars. Now I feel like a fool — it’s easily a 5. Some thoughts as to why on Letterboxd. Mind you, that kind of thing cuts both ways: when I finally got round to rewatching Face/Off 18 months ago, I discovered I didn’t enjoy it as much as I used to, and if I’d done that before publishing 100 Favourites then I might’ve dropped it from the list entirely. I intend to update my favourites list someday, but I think I need to do a good deal more rewatching before then.

My rewatch of LXG was prompted by this defence of the film. While I wouldn’t call the movie a masterpiece, I do generally agree with that article — the film has its moments (many of them thanks to Dorian Gray), and it’s certainly no worse than many other ’90s/’00s Hollywood blockbusters. Quite why it provokes such vitriol from anyone but fans of the book is beyond me. (Book fans have every right to be disappointed, because the film sanitises and Hollywoodises the concept. That said, as a fan of the books myself, I’m happy to take both forms as differing executions of the same idea.)


This may be the biggest month in 100 Films history, but there was still plenty of stuff I failed to watch. Nothing in cinemas, obviously (though Trolls World Tour did get released direct to premium streaming, and consequently looks like it might change the world), but the other avenues for film viewing offered more than enough alternatives.

For starters, Netflix completed their Studio Ghibli lineup with Howl’s Moving Castle (the only one I’d seen), From Up on Poppy Hill (which I own on Blu-ray), Ponyo (also on Blu-ray), When Marnie Was There (also on Blu-ray, jeez!), Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart, and The Wind Rises. On the new films front there was CG animation The Willoughbys, which looks vaguely interesting, and for (relatively) recent releases they mustered the remake of Child’s Play. They also added the second Maze Runner film, The Scorch Trials. One day the whole trilogy will be available somewhere and I’ll give them a shot.

Amazon actually had more to offer in terms of recent acquisitions, though the quality level is dubious — I’m talking of films like Angel Has Fallen (the second sequel to the less-good “Die Hard in the White House” movie), Playmobil: The Movie (a rip-off of The LEGO Movie that wasn’t as well received), 21 Bridges (which received middling notices), and The Current War (presumably in its director’s cut form, for which the most positive comment Rotten Tomatoes can muster is “a significant improvement over previous versions”). Additions from the archive include a handful of Hong Kong actioners, led by the appropriately-titled Police Story: Lockdown (the sixth film, and second reboot, in the Jackie Chan action franchise), plus unofficial prequel The Legend is Born: Ip Man (I believe Ip Man 4 is also now available to rent over here), and Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist (a version of the story from Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury and Jet Li’s Fist of Legend).

Also new to Amazon was medical disaster movie Outbreak, which was already on Netflix; and they both added Contagion, after everyone was talking about it last month. I noticed it still made it into Netflix’s UK top ten, though.

Over on Now TV, sequel-cum-reimagining Four Kids and It caught my eye because I remember enjoying the BBC’s 1991 adaptation of the original book when I was a kid, but this new one didn’t seem to go down terribly well (though the British critics collated by Rotten Tomatoes have got it to 61%, which counts as ‘fresh’). Other recent films now on Sky include Ma and Tolkien.

Finally, I went a bit potty in Blu-ray sales again, this time mostly at Arrow, picking up a couple of Vincent Price horrors, Tales of Terror and Tower of London; a couple of artier titles from Second Run, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Ikarie XB 1; Third Window’s double-bill of The Whispering Star and The Sion Sono; and some Westerns and noirs and noir-Westerns that include The Ox-Bow Incident, My Name is Julia Ross, and Terror in a Texas Town. The latter pair were directed by Joseph H. Lewis, whose So Dark the Night I enjoyed last month, so I also bought his Gun Crazy in its HMV-exclusive edition, paired with their edition of Out of the Past in their 2-for-£25 offer. Meanwhile, Eureka tempted me with new releases, namely Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Masters of Cinema titles Rio Grande, Kwaidan, and their second box set of Buster Keaton features, which includes The Navigator, Seven Chances, and Battling Butler. International travel may be closed to humans, but it isn’t to Blu-rays, as evidenced by my imports of 3-D Rarities Volume II (which includes Mexico’s only 3D film, swashbuckler El Corazón y la Espada) and A Boy and His Dog (which I look forward to rewatching in good quality, unlike the print I saw on Prime Video a few years ago). I tried to resist the UHD upgrade of The Elephant Man, but then I saw the PQ comparisons and the limited-edition pop-up packaging (damn my love of a cardboard gimmick!) and caved.

And, inevitably, I did purchase The Rise of Skywalker, in 3D. You know, I’ve never got round to rewatching The Last Jedi. The idea of pairing them up as a double bill should be the most natural thing in the world, but instead it feels like a bold experiment in combining chalk and cheese. Still, I might try it sometime.


Barring any unforeseen circumstances (though, at the minute, who can accurately foresee anything?), I should definitely pass #100 early next month. As for my new-goal-I-keep-half-forgetting of #120, well, that’s within reach too. And then…

In my final monthly review of 2019, I mentioned that “it’s entirely possible [2020 will] be the year I reach #2000”. Now, it’s all but certain that it will (unforeseen circumstances, remember). If May gets to 35 films (which, before this month, would’ve been a record for biggest month ever), that’ll be 100 Films’ #2000! Is it likely I’ll achieve two such huge months in a row? Funnily enough, the last couple of times I’ve set a new “best month ever” it’s been immediately beaten by the very next month: September then October in 2015; April then May in 2018.

No pressure, May 2020…

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.

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.

Merry Christmas, Internet

I was going to post my review of The Force Awakens today, but I’ve had a grotty cold and haven’t felt like writing it.

Er, I mean — Merry Christmas! Glad tidings to all! It’s the most wondrous time of the year!

100 Films HQ, today.

100 Films HQ, today.

This is what happens when you meet all the family, then all the other family, then go shopping, then to a crowded cinema (i.e. spending time in confined spaces with lots of strangers and their germs), and then stand around in the cold and rain at Longleat for two hours.

Longleat was good, though.

Longleat was good, though.

Anyway, I hope you’re having a nice day. I’m off to debate whether to bother making Christmas lunch or just leave it for tomorrow (because it’s just the two of us and the dog, and precisely none of those people are bothered whether we have The Big Meal today or on another day when I’m feeling more like it).

Marty McFly, in the TARDIS, under our tree, yesterday.

Marty McFly, in the TARDIS, under our tree, yesterday.

Oh, and if you’ve not heard it already, don’t bother with Radiohead’s Spectre theme, it’s rubbish. (But because I know I’d want to hear it even after someone gave me that advice, here’s a link).

Merry Christmas!

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

2015 #184
Christopher McQuarrie | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English, Swedish & German | 12 / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Rogue NationIt’s an overcrowded year for spies on the big screen (as previously discussed), so I imagine Paramount were very glad they were able to make the last-minute decision to pull this fifth Mission: Impossible movie forward from its original post-Spectre release date to a summer debut, before audiences perhaps felt the genre was played out. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: for my money, Rogue Nation is the best James Bond movie released in 2015.

Beginning a year or two on from the last Mission, we find IMF’s star agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) investigating the Syndicate, a shadowy terrorist organisation that may not even exist. Hunt finds proof when he’s kidnapped by the Syndicate, escaping with the help of one of their operatives, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Unfortunately, this is the moment when Washington politicking by CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) sees the IMF shut down. So, naturally, Hunt goes on the run, determined to find and eliminate the Syndicate.

Rogue Nation has a nicely straightforward yet nuanced espionage-y plot, though its hard to accurately summarise its inciting incidents without giving too much away. Suffice to say, it’s not long before Hunt is reuniting with former IMF teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Luther (Ving Rhames), as well as forming an off-and-on alliance with double (or triple?) agent Faust. They’re aligned against the Syndicate, led by the excellently named Solomon Lane. He’s played by Sean Harris, on fine form as a very still, very quiet, very bespectacled villain. Even though you know the heroes are going to win, it becomes hard to see how they’re going to manage it, so powerful and threatening is Lane.

Crazy stuntsObviously this uncertainty is also thanks to the story constructed by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. Some automatically dismiss the plots of the Mission films, saying they’re just an excuse to link some death-defying stunts performed by Mr Cruise. Although there may be an element of truth to that, I don’t think this is a bad storyline by any means. As I said, it’s fairly straightforward (there’s no mole in IMF! Hurrah!), but the intricacies keep it engrossing and keep you guessing. And anyway, the action sequences it ties together are first-rate. You’ve pretty much seen the opening plane stunt in the trailer — heck, you’ve seen it on the poster — but it’s still a thrilling opener. Then there’s the opera sequence, a massive logistical challenge for the filmmakers that they’ve crafted to perfection, making one of the most effective and memorable spy sequences for a long time; arguably, ever. There’s a rich pedigree of such scenes set in theatrical spaces, be they by Hitchcock or even in otherwise-poorly-regarded Bond films, but Rogue Nation’s sits proudly alongside them.

Unsatiated by creating two iconic scenes, McQuarrie and co set about offering even more: there’s an underwater sequence where Hunt has to hold his breath for fully three minutes while diving, replacing an underwater computer chip, and escaping; there’s a crazy car-vs.-bike chase through the backstreets of Casablanca; that’s followed by an equally manic bike chase along the motorways and windy cliff roads of Morocco… If the climax — a runaround through the foggy streets of London — feels a little underwhelming by comparison, it’s through no fault of its own. In my Ghost Protocol review I discussed the Mission films’ consistently lower-key finales, and Rogue Nation is no exception, although I’d contend the sequence works well enough that it’s still one of the franchise’s most effective climaxes.

Team improbableAs alluded to above, this is probably the most globetrotting Mission film yet: it starts in Belarus, before taking in Washington D.C., Cuba, Paris, Vienna, Casablanca, and London. It’s things like this that lead me to describe it as a James Bond film. There’s also the balance of a serious plot line with plenty of humour, the use of outlandish just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, and the fact that the series can’t retain a female cast member for more than one film (though that last one isn’t a positive). For all the effort Spectre made to bring classical Bond elements back into the fold, Rogue Nation arguably feels more like a classically-styled Bond movie. It’s not a faultless like-for-like comparison — one of Rogue Nation’s best points as a Mission movie is that the whole team are necessary to complete the mission, a defining factor of the TV series that many felt went awry in the movies, with their focus on Cruise — but the almost-indefinable sensation of this experience is Bondian. It’s not stealing that style, though: considering Ghost Protocol had it too, and Craig-era Bond has abandoned it for a ‘classier’ action-thriller mode, it’s something the M:I series has come to own.

Indeed, of late the Mission films have come to feel more like a series than they did previously. It’s now quite well known that every Mission film has a different director, a conscious choice on the part of star/producer Tom Cruise to give each film a unique flavour. To be honest, I’m not sure how well that’s worked. M:I-2 drips with John Woo’s personal style (to the distaste of many, as it turned out), and I suppose the first film is pretty Brian De Palma-y, but since M:i:III things have got distinctly less distinctive. That was helmed by J.J. Abrams, whose only stylistic point is “lens flare”; and it was his first feature, so he didn’t even have that yet. The fourth film was by Pixar’s Brad Bird, making his live-action debut. This fifth isn’t McQuarrie’s first film, at least, but it is only his third, and the first was 15 years ago and I’m pretty sure no one remembers it. Now, none of these chaps did a bad job — far from it, as Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are among the series’ best instalments, perhaps even the two very best — but I think you’d be hard pushed to tell the last three films came from different creative brains.

InterrogationSo on the one hand the recent news that McQ (as current regular collaborator Cruise calls him) is returning to write and direct the sixth Mission is a shame, because it breaks a twenty-year rule; but on the other, I’m not sure it matters. Plus, by taking on the dual role of sole writer and director, you could argue McQ’s Missions are the most auteur-y of the lot, even in spite of the lack of a terribly unique visual style. Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that I was a little disappointed when it was announced there wouldn’t be a sixth director for the sixth film, because I always thought that was a neat idea; but as the idea hasn’t actually had much effect, who better to ask back than the man who wrote and directed arguably the best Mission: Impossible film of them all?

Perhaps that’s because (according to Abrams in one of the special features) McQuarrie wanted this to be a sort of “greatest hits” for the M:I franchise. He’s done that pretty subtly — you don’t feel like you’re watching a string of ripoffs from the first four — but he has done it, with sequences and locations that recall the previous films, and some nice hidden Easter eggs for the hardcore, too. Technical attributes are equally up to scratch, with some lovely lensing by Robert Elswit. He shot most of it on 35mm film and it pays off, with an indefinable classy quality. The score is by Joe Kraemer, who I’d not heard of before, probably because the main thing he’s done is score both of McQ’s previous films. No matter, because his work here is top-notch, and certainly the most memorable Mission score I can, er, remember. Wisely, he’s taken the iconic main theme as his starting point, also used Lalo Schifrin’s other beloved M:I piece, The Plot, and mixed recognisable motifs and elements from these throughout his own compositions. It works marvellously, and helps contribute to not one but two of the best title sequences the Mission films have yet had. Yes, two, in one film. It feels kinda greedy, but I enjoyed it — when you’ve got a theme that good, why not highlight it twice?

Obligatory photo of Rebecca Ferguson in that dress with those legsThe cast are liable to get lost among all the grandiose goings-on in a film like this, so its a testament to the skilled team that’s been assembled over the past few movies that they absolutely do not. Cruise is Cruise — surely by now you know whether you like him or not. I always feel like I should dislike him, especially given his crazy real-life religious views, but on screen I find him very entertaining. Rogue Nation is no different. Hunt is on the back foot for a lot of the film, and Cruise is at his best when he’s playing someone who’s almost the underdog. He’s also a more talented comic actor than he’s normally given credit for, and that glimpses through here too. Most of the time comedic duty is handled by Pegg, of course, who provides a good foil as Hunt’s sidekick for much of the film. More surprising, perhaps, is the amount of humour Jeremy Renner brings. It’s much less obvious, dryer and more sarcastic, so the contrasting tone is fun. He’s paired with Ving Rhames for a long stretch, who returns wholesale after sitting out Ghost Protocol but for a cameo. The pairing may come up just short of feeling inspired, but nonetheless makes for an entertaining change. Elsewhere, Baldwin offers a neat, not-too-clichéd turn as the CIA ‘villain’, while Tom Hollander pops in for a funny cameo-level turn as the British Prime Minister.

But the real star of the film is Rebecca Ferguson, marking the second male-led action franchise this year where the movie has been stolen from the male hero by the female ‘support’. (The other, of course, is the much-discussed Furiosa in Fury Road.) Ilsa Faust is a fantastic character, whose allegiances are regularly questioned — every time you think you have her pinned down, something changes. She’s an immensely capable agent, but Ferguson also finds her vulnerable side when needed. She’s no damsel in distress — far from it — but she’s not just a cold man-but-with-boobs action heroine either. (Incidentally, it would’ve been very easy to illustrate this review with half a dozen pictures of Ferguson being awesome. But I resisted. Though I should’ve made room for this.) As an action movie leading man, and a producer who can shape the film how he wants, it’s to Cruise’s credit that he allows everyone else to share so much screen time — and to save him on more than one occasion too — and especially so when one of those characters is pretty much stealing the limelight out from under him.

Mission acceptedAs the fifth film in a franchise that has always carried a slight “pretender to the throne” air, Rogue Nation should feel played out and tired. Instead it seems fresh and invigorated, with a spot-on tone, likeable and fun characters, a real sense of jeopardy and menace (missing in so many modern action films), and some of 2015’s very best action scenes — and in the year of Fury Road, that’s really saying something. McQuarrie has already spoken about learning lessons from this so he can make the next one even better. I find that hard to imagine, but that’s his mission, and I choose to accept it.

5 out of 5

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

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 New-Look Monthly Update for June 2015

Say hello to the new-look, bigger-than-ever 100 Films monthly update! Well, partially new look — much is the same, but there are some exciting new regular categories, and image-header-things. I had some ideas; I’ve introduced them all at once. (They excited me, anyway.)

First new regular: a contents list!


What Do You Mean You Haven't Seen…?

Just one WDYMYHS film watched this month (so I’m still two behind) — it’s Martin Scorsese’s beloved boxing biopic (that I should’ve watched in 2013 but failed to), Raging Bull. I would make a brief comment on what I thought of it, but we’ll come to that in the Arbies…


June's viewing

Kingsman#75 Changing Lanes (2002)
#76 Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
#77 The Expendables 3 (Extended Version) (2014)
#78 Ladyhawke (1985)
#79 Now You See Me (2013)
#80 The Interview (2014)
#81 Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
#82 Superman vs. The Elite (2012)
John Wick#83 Rush (2013)
#84 Whiplash (2014)
#85 Meet the Robinsons (2007)
#86 Before Dawn (2012)
#87 The Guest (2014)
#88 Raging Bull (1980)
#89 John Wick (2014)
#90 Fury (2014)


Viewing Notes

  • Meet the Robinsons is the 47th official Walt Disney Animated Classic, and the 39th I’ve seen. 15 to go…
  • I have a whole new format and I make this entire section look pointless with one “oh, by the way” bit of trivia, which is less than I normally have to say here, I feel. Ah well, what can you do?


Analysis

2015 continues apace with 16 new films watched this month. That smashes the June average of 7.14 — indeed, reaching #90 singlehandedly drags it up over a whole film, to 8.25. It’s the highest June ever, which also means it’s the 8th month in a row to beat last year’s equivalent (June 2014 had 11). It’s the 13th month in a row in which I watched more than 10 new films, and is tied with January as both the highest month of 2015 and the third-highest month ever (also tied with May & August 2010). That means that, at 2015’s halfway point, its monthly average is exactly 15.

Most excitingly of all, however, is that I’m now all but guaranteed to reach #100 in July. I’d have to fail my ten-films-per-month goal not to, and I’ve been doing really well with that so have plenty of incentive not to let it slip. More on what reaching #100 in July ‘means’ next month (hopefully!)

Over in Prediction Corner: assuming I uphold my ten-per-month minimum, this year will reach at least #150, which would be my best year by some 14 films. In other words, we should know if 2015 is a new Best Year Ever by November at the latest. (Unless I mess up ten-per-month but then still pass 136 in December, of course.) Meanwhile, in the world of averages… well, we’re halfway through the year, so such a prediction would see my tally exactly double, clocking in at a quite extraordinary 180. (Extraordinary for me, anyhow — stow it, you “365 films in a year” people!)

I’ve been posting these regular monthly updates for over five years now, and in all that time they’ve been very much focused on numbers and stats — how many films have I watched, how does that compare to the past, what does it suggest for the future, etc. And that’s fair enough — as progress reports, it’s kinda their point to report my progress. But I’ve decided it’s about time to introduce some opinion into the mix, to liven things up a bit. So I proudly present…


The Arbies
The 1st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

So named because what I watch in any given month is pretty arbitrary, so the pool of contenders is a total whim rather than a genuine competition. Plus, each month two of the five categories are going to be arbitrarily chosen, just to compound the point. You’ll get the idea as we go along.

That’s Arbie on the right, by-the-way. In case that wasn’t obvious. (Turns out Arbie is also the name of the mascot of the Royal Bank of Canada. I don’t think anyone’s going to get us confused though, so on I go.)

For June 2015, the awards go to…

Favourite Film of the Month
I watched a number of very good films this month, several of them strong contenders for my year-end top ten, but when it came to the crunch there was a clear winner here: as anyone who read my review yesterday likely suspects, it’s The Guest.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Although there were a couple of weak and/or disappointing movies amongst my viewing this month, and some I certainly liked less than this winner (or, rather, loser), for the greatest discrepancy between “expectation” and “what I actually thought of it”, this goes to Raging Bull.

The Most ’80s Soundtrack You’ve Ever Heard
Most months The Guest would have this sewn up, but oh no, not when Ladyhawke’s around. Can you imagine anyone doing a fantasy movie without a Howard Shore-esque orchestral epic soundtrack nowadays? Me either. In the ’80s, on the other hand… well, they sure did love their synthesisers.

Most “Oh, I Didn’t Know They Were In It” Cameo Appearance
If all you’ve seen of John Wick is the Keanu Reeves-centric posters, it’s probably riddled with moments such as these. Me, I somehow knew most of them, so this award goes to Jason “should’ve played James Bond at some point” Isaacs popping up in Fury as some kind of commander for a little bit. The Blu-ray has nearly an hour of deleted scenes; to my surprise, “the rest of Jason Isaacs’ role” doesn’t seem to be among them.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Because if I didn’t limit it to new posts, this would be Harry Potter every month (across 2014 and 2013 (the year they were first published), my reviews of Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets accounted for 33.5% of all my page views).
This month: thanks primarily to being retweeted by a Keanu Reeves fan twitter, the victor is Man of Tai Chi.


from around the blogosphere…

I am shockingly bad at getting round to reading other people’s blogs, and when I do it’s often in fits and starts (as anyone who’s ever received half-a-dozen ‘likes’ from me on things they posted a month ago can attest). In the interest of being a better human being, then, I thought I’d start collating particularly interesting pieces from elsewhere and share them here, for whatever that’s worth.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason to my choices, just a handful of pieces that struck a particular chord for me this month. For one thing, there’s a pair of coincidently-thematically-similar pairings from the same two blogs. One of those is up first:

1976, the year it all started… @ the ghost of 82
ghostof82 tackles the emotions of what makes us love movies in the first place, through his own experience with Jaws in ’76.

Jurassic Park (1993) @ Films on the Box
Mike touches on a similar topic from a different angle: how films that are cinema-defining for a generation can appear to those outside said generation.

Evangelion June 22, 2015 @ Heather Anne Campbell
Monday 22nd June 2015 was “Evangelion Day”, the day on which the first episode of anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place. In this write-up, Heather Anne Campbell explains what the series means to her and, in the process, outlines some of the reasons it’s so good and has endured for so long.

Ten of the Best – Noir Directors @ Ride the High Country
Whenever I read Colin’s blog I come away with a raft of new films I want to see. You can only imagine how many got added to my list after this well-considered overview.

Miracle Mile (1988) Review @ Cinema Parrot Disco
Who doesn’t love stumbling across something they’ve never heard of that turns out to be right up their street? No idea if I’d like Miracle Mile, or even if/when I’ll have a chance to see it, but table9mutant’s review has me suitably intrigued. And is it just me or are the ’80s everywhere at the minute?

Movies Silently’s Top Ten Talkies @ Movies Silently
Talking of, a) recommendations, and b) the ’80s, silent cinema doyenne Fritzi took a detour from her regular stomping ground with this list (technically from last month, but rules were made to be bent). Any list of favourites that includes Mystery Men is a good’un in my book, but the aforementioned ’80s recommendation is her #2 choice, medieval fantasy Ladyhawke. As you may’ve noticed above, it even managed to find its way to the top of my “must watch” pile (a rare feat). Full review in due course, but for now suffice to say I very much enjoyed it. I even thought the score had its moments.

RIP Christopher Lee @ Films on the Box
Finally, the second pairing I mentioned, on a sadder note. First, Mike pays fitting tribute to one of the great screen icons.

Remembering the Music of James Horner @ the ghost of 82
Last but not least, a personal tribute to composer James Horner.


Reviews


Archive Reviews


5 Iconic Music Themes

Film music has changed a lot down the years, but it’s been a pretty constant important element. Plenty of it is forgettable background noise, but some stands out so much it becomes famed in its own right. I recently re-watched the original Star Wars trilogy, inspiring this month’s top five: three film themes — plus two from other mediums — that, to me, are some of the most iconic of all.

  1. Doctor Who by Ron Grainer
    Doctor WhoDiddly-dum diddly-dum diddly-dum ooo-weee-ooo… For generations of British children, that’s the sound of Saturday night adventure. I guess to some people it’s just a children’s TV theme, but they’re wrong: it was a genuinely pioneering, important example of burgeoning electronic music (honestly). As a composition it’s surprisingly versatile: Delia Derbyshire’s original arrangement is still chillingly unsettling 52 years on; Murray Gold’s 2005 version (arguably perfected in the Series Four version) is an equally-perfect orchestral blockbuster.
  2. Star Wars (Main Theme) by John Williams
    Star WarsDooo-dooo dododo-dooodo dododo-dooodo dododo-doo… You could probably fill this list twice over with John Williams compositions — Indiana Jones, Jaws, Superman, Jurassic Park, more recently Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, and so on — but undoubtedly the most iconic of them all is his main theme to George Lucas’ space-fantasy saga. Running it a close second is the same series’ Imperial March, perhaps the greatest villain’s theme ever. All together now: dum dum dum dum-dudum dum-dudum…
  3. James Bond Theme by Monty Norman
    Casino Royale teaserDang da-dang-dang da-da-da dang da-dangdang da-da-da daa-daa da-da-daa… A 53-year-old surf rock tune should by all rights be horribly dated, but I guess true cool endures. While the version used in the films has barely changed, there are an abundance of variations for trailers, etc. My personal favourite is the one created by Pfeifer Broz. Music for the Casino Royale trailer in 2006. The climactic use of a choir is one of those “how did it take someone 43 years to think of this?!” moments.
  4. The Fellowship Theme by Howard Shore
    FellowshipDooo-dooo dododooo, do-do-doo do-do-doo do-do-doo do do doo… The only one here that isn’t a title theme, but it’s indelibly part of the Lord of the Rings franchise — it has no reason to appear in The Hobbit trilogy, but I spent most of those eight hours missing it. It reoccurs throughout the trilogy (of course it does), but perhaps the purest version can be found in The Ring Goes South from the Fellowship soundtrack. “Only Peter Jackson and Howard Shore can make 9 people walking past a rock look epic.”
  5. The Secret of Monkey Island by Michael Land
    The Secret of Monkey IslandDoo-doo dodododo-doo do-do-do-doo… I’m certain this will be less familiar than any of the above to most people but, honestly, to me (and, I think, many other people who played the LucasArts games) it’s as iconic as anything else I’ve mentioned, including all of those other John Williams ones. The original was rendered in the style of its era — a digital MIDI thing — but it endured throughout the series and was transformed into some lusher orchestral versions. Try the version from the 2009 special edition, for instance.

I’m already full of incredulousness at myself for leaving out Indiana Jones. Or Back to the Future. Or Mission: Impossible. And it may’ve been composed by committee, but I love the main theme from Pirates of the Caribbean (find it cleanly in the first film’s He’s a Pirate). And if we’re allowing TV themes, what about Games of Thrones? I mean, this is pretty much what I hear every time I watch the show. And also… oh, we’ll be here forever. What are you favourites?


Next month…

#100! Probably. Hopefully.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2015 #76
Matthew Vaughn | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15* / R

Kingsman: The Secret ServiceThe team behind Kick-Ass bring that same reverent irreverence to the spy genre in this comedy-action-thriller that aims to bring the fun of ’60s/’70s spy-fi back to a genre that’s become oh so serious.

Developed alongside the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s film casts Colin Firth as Harry Hart, an agent for an independent intelligence operation, Kingsman, who recruits council estate kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen comrade, into the group’s elite training programme. As Eggsy battles tough training challenges and the snobbery of his Oxbridge-sourced competitors, Harry investigates suspicious tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is secretly kidnapping people of importance and publicly giving away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet, but for what nefarious purpose?

There are several things going on in Kingsman that make it a uniquely entertaining proposition, especially in the current blockbuster climate. Part of the setup is “My Fair Lady with gentlemen spies”, as chavvy Eggsy is reshaped to be an old-fashioned besuited gent, inspired by the story of how Dr. No director Terence Young took a rough young Scottish chap called Sean Connery under his wing and taught him how to dress and behave as a gentlemen in preparation for his star-making role as the original superspy. It’s one of those ideas that you wonder why no one thought of developing into a fiction sooner. It could have come across as datedly classist, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman nail it as a 21st Century character arc: being a gentlemen is not about speaking correctly or lording it over the lower classes, but about a universal level of good behaviour, politeness, and doing the right thing. It successfully and acutely dodges any potential accusations of classism.

Classy mealAn even bigger part of the film’s triumph, and what likely led it to over $400 million worldwide in spite of its higher-than-PG-13 classifications (it’s Vaughn’s highest-grossing film to date, incidentally; even more so than his X-Men instalment), is that it takes the ever-popular James Bond formula and brings it up to date. However much you might love Casino Royale and Skyfall (and I do), the Bourne influence is undeniable. They’re not Bond movies in the same mould as the Connery and Moore movies that established the franchise’s enduring popularity around the globe; they’re modern thrillers, faithful in their way to Ian Fleming’s creation, but also zeitgeisty. Vaughn and co have looked at the DNA of those ’60s and ’70s Bond classics and given them a fresh lick of paint. So we have just-beyond-possible gadgets, a megalomaniacal supervillain, complete with epic mountain base, his own personal army, a physical tic, a uniquely-gifted almost-superhuman henchwoman, and a tongue-in-cheek tone that isn’t all-out spoof but lets you know no one believes any of this could actually happen and that’s OK.

Despite the overall tone of modern blockbusters, I don’t think the appetite for movies like this ever went away; or if it did, it quite quickly made a resurgence: a similar itch has been scratched in recent years by superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones. Audiences — or, perhaps, studio execs — seem currently more ready to accept outlandish action sequences, melodramatic stakes, and an occasionally-humorous tone if they were dressed up in colourful suits and pitched in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, A little swimrather than the supposed real-world universe of spy movies. What the worldwide success of Kingsman proves is that audiences don’t need the set-dressing of superpowers to accept an action movie that’s less than deadly serious. It’s a place I don’t think the Bond movies could go anymore — not without accusations of returning to the disliked Moore or late-Brosnan films — but it’s one many people clearly like, and Kingsman fulfils it.

Another clever move by Vaughn and co was to aim it at adults. Every blockbuster is PG-13 these days to keep the box office high, but Kingsman shows you can cut loose and still make good money. By specifically setting out to make an R-rated version of the classic Bond formula, everything gets ramped up to 11. On the one hand, that earns the controversy of That Joke in the final act (as Vaughn has said, not wrongly, it’s a variation on the classic Bond film finale; Mark Strong’s Merlin even closes his videoscreen, Q-style), but on the other it allows for crazed action sequences. The (faked-)single-take church massacre has to be seen to be believed; a highly-choreographed orgy of violence that is a marvellous assault on the senses, demonstrating the benefits of clear camerawork and highly-trained professional stunt- and effects-people over fast-cut close-up ShakyCam handwavery. Later on, a certain sequence set to Land of Hope and Glory would be inconceivable in any other movie. Things like this perfectly demonstrate why the world needs these less-than-serious kinds of film: they let creativity loose, crafting moments and sequences that are exciting, funny, unique, and memorable.

The first rule of Fight Church...Criticisms of the film tend to pan out to nought, in my opinion. Is there too much violence? There’s a lot, certainly, but part of the point of that church sequence (for instance) is just how long it goes on. Other excellent action sequences (the pub fight you might’ve seen in clips; the car chase in reverse gear; the skydiving) aren’t predicated on killing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s baseball-capped lisping billionaire is a perfect modern riff on the traditional Bond villain, not some kind of attack on Americans or people with speech impediments. Some have even attempted a political reading of the film, arguing it’s fundamentally conservative and right-wing because the villain is an environmentalist. Again, I don’t think the film really supports such an interpretation. In fact, I think it’s completely apolitical — just like its titular organisation, in fact — and such perspectives are being entirely read into it by the kind of people who read too much of this kind of thing into everything.

If there’s any fault, it’s perhaps in an overabundance of ideas. One fewer training sequence might’ve been better — but then, which would you lose? Based on the trailer, some scenes were cut as it is (sadly there’s no deleted scenes section on the Blu-ray), and the film doesn’t really outstay its welcome. For me, it wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall revolutionary as Kick-Ass and, when we have actually had lighter-toned action films in the past few years, it doesn’t reconstruct its genre quite as much as Vaughn and Goldman’s adaptation of Stardust did for fantasy.

Secret SocietyNot everything hinges on being wall-to-wall groundbreaking, though, and Kingsman has so much to recommend it. It ticks all the requisite boxes of being exciting and funny, and some of its sequences are executed breathtakingly. The plot may move along familiar tracks — deliberately so — but it pulls out a few mysteries and surprises along the way. There’s an array of likeable performances, particularly from Firth, Egerton (sure to get a lot of work off the back of this), Jackson and Strong, and Sofia Boutella’s blade-legged henchwoman is yet another why-has-no-one-done-that great idea.

I’m more than happy for the Bond series to carry on down its current, serious-minded path, but I’m ever so glad Kingsman has come along to provide the level of pure entertainment and unabashed fun that series used to do so well. If they can keep this quality up, may there be many sequels.

5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, and the US tomorrow.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

* During editing, the BBFC advised the film would receive an 18 certificate unless changes were made. The submitted version was classified 15. Normally such edits are applied globally (despite what some websites like to claim), but this has been a less clear case: vastly different running times were posted by the BBFC and their German equivalent, but Vaughn stated in an interview that nothing was cut for the UK. Now, the UK and US Blu-rays have identical running times, so it seems likely he was (unsurprisingly) telling the truth. Another “the UK version is cut!” storm in a teacup? Yessir. ^

March 2015 + Best Bond Beginnings

We’re a quarter of the way through the year — but with the #25 milestone passed last month, how far ahead have I forged?

Also this month: some quick thoughts on the best James Bond pre-titles sequences. Which is your favourite?


March’s films
Grosse Pointe Blank
#30 Alois Nebel (2011)
#31 Godzilla (2014)
#32 Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
#33 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
#34 Violet & Daisy (2011)
#35 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
#35a The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Extended Edition) (2013/2014)
Mad Max 2#36 The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
#37 God Bless America (2011)
#38 Videodrome (1983)
#39 Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
#40 Looper (2012)
#41 Valkyrie (2008)
#42 Mad Max 2 (1981), aka The Road Warrior
#43 Tarzan (1999)
#44 Empire of the Sun (1987)


Viewing Notes

  • This is the third month in a row where I’ve watched 16 films, all in. Weird.
  • Several I’ve been meaning to get round to for years were ticked off this month: Alois Nebel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Looper. All thanks to TV premieres.
  • It’s a complete accident that I left it a year to the month between watching Mad Max and Mad Max 2. Both were on Now TV, which I’m ending my subscription to imminently, so the third may crop up among April’s films.
  • No WDYMYHS film this month. Two in April, then.


Analysis

A grand total of 15 new films watched this month brings with it a few interesting observations. For one, this is the first time (since such records began) that January is the largest of a year’s first three months. That doesn’t really signify anything, just one of those random correlations (which has now been broken).

2015’s is the second largest March ever, and the fifth month in a row to improve on the same period from the year before. Plus it’s the tenth month in a row to have a final tally over ten. Regular readers will know my goal for this year is to have a run of 12 months that each exceed that figure, so I’m 25% of the way there. Meanwhile, the average total for January and February was 14.5, so by just tipping over that in March, the year-to-date average rises to 14.67.

2015 is clearly shaping up well on the whole. #44 is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of March, with second place being a three-way tie between 2010, 2011 and 2013 at #38. As ever, all indicators must be taken with a pinch of salt: last year (my highest year ever, lest we forget) I was actually running behind schedule until the last day of March; conversely, in 2012 I’d made it to #34 by the end of March, a full ten ahead of schedule, but still finished the year with just 97 films viewed.

Nonetheless, it’s prediction time! Never say never, but with the halfway point already looming next month, I feel 100 films is a fairly comfortable expectation this year (famous last words…) So, if I ‘merely’ manage to maintain my monthly ambition of ten-a-time from here on out, 2015 would make it to #134. That’d be my second-best year ever, so not to be sniffed at. If the current average (14.67, in case you forgot) holds, that would see me reach #176. Considering my previous best is 136, that’d be quite extraordinary. I live in hope.


This month’s archive reviews

Continuing apace, with 28 reposts this month.


Best James Bond Pre-titles

The past week has brought us both the first trailer for October’s 24th James Bond film, Spectre, as well as the news that it will feature the largest pre-titles sequence the 53-year-old franchise has ever staged. What better time to revive my “list of 5” format and look back at the finest examples of one of 007’s defining features, then?

Keeping the British end upExcept, goodness, I couldn’t get it down to just five! From Connery alone you’ve got ‘Bond’ being bested in From Russia with Love, the iconic jetpack in Thunderball, and the trend-setting mini-adventure from Goldfinger. As the series rolls on there’s The Spy Who Loved Me and its parachute, Moonraker’s free-fall fistfight (you couldn’t do that today — everyone would assume it was CGI and it’d have no magic), and the perfectly staged training-exercise-gone-wrong from The Living Daylights. The Brosnan era really kicks in the action, first with another peerless mini-adventure in GoldenEye (and the bungee jump…!), then increasingly expansive and suitably witty openers to both Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough. Finally, the Craig era tipped the whole shebang on its head with Casino Royale’s moody black-and-white quickie, and Quantum of Solace’s attention-demanding car battle. Skyfall may have moved back towards the Brosnan mould, but it’s an exceptionally well done one.

That’s 12 and I don’t even know where to start paring back, at least as far as my personal favourites go.

We can all agree A View to a Kill and its use of California Girls is the worst, though, right?


Next month on 100 Films in a Year…

A third of the way through the year… but halfway to my goal?

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.)