SPECTRE (2015)

SpectrePosthumously ordered to Mexico by the previous M (Judi Dench) to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret organisation that connects Quantum and the deceased cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). He infiltrates a meeting of SPECTRE in Rome, following a tip-off from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), where he is introduced to the group’s leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is dispatched to take care of Bond, stalking him all the way to Austria — to the workplace of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who 007 has promised to protect in exchange for Oberhauser’s location. With Bond AWOL, and both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) suspected of aiding and abetting his illicit investigations, M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in conflict with C (Andrew Scott), who wants to disband the 00 programme as part of a controversial reform of the secret service that will see MI5 and MI6 merged to form a Joint Intelligence Service.

The James Bond film series is a mess, and always has been. Spanning over fifty years and twenty-four movies it has seen the lead role re-cast, the creative team replaced, and the narrative revised so often that James Bond now exists more as an icon than a character. It is this iconography that holds the series together, so that a Bond movie is as identifiable for containing a Bond girl and a Bond villain as it is for featuring Bond himself – heck, the main character has to introduce himself at the outset of every movie just so that the audience knows who is on this particular occasion supposed to be playing him. This formula has produced a number of memorable adventures, but the repetitiveness has made it predictable and over time this has rendered it rote. There is no character development, no narrative progression, no end in sight, just an apparently endless succession of explosions and innuendo that can sometimes stimulate but can rarely satisfy.

It is for this reason that Sam Mendes’ Skyfall — EON’s twenty-third production — was such a success, both critically and commercially. Tasked with celebrating fifty years of Bond, Mendes was really the first director to sit down and think about who the character is or where the series might be going. Even the fact that he was ostensibly operating in a rebooted timeline barely two films old couldn’t stop him from producing the most engaging and comprehensive Bond movie in decades — one that was both emotionally resonant and culturally significant. Skyfall simultaneously operated both within and outwith the series’ established continuity, referencing previous adventures while reinstating fan favourite characters who were nevertheless unknown to Bond. This allowed Mendes to comment on or even slyly mock established tropes while also hitting all of the usual marks. It was at once a standalone adventure and a distillation of everything the series stood for; in many ways it was the definitive Bond movie, and may either have been used to bring one of cinemas longest running sagas to a triumphant conclusion or stand it in good stead to see out the rest of the century.

Obviously, there was little chance that Sony was going to retire one of its most celebrated and lucrative tentpoles, and the existence of SPECTRE shows that of the two options it was going to go with the latter. To the film’s credit, it approaches the idea that James Bond has to adapt to survive head on: Andrew Scott’s character explicitly questions the relevance and validity of the 00 programme in the 21st Century, and spearheads a Joint Intelligence Programme that favours surveillance over espionage. Unfortunately, however, it stops at lip-service, and rather than reach for new horizons the film — as its name suggests — resurrects an organisation that hasn’t been seen onscreen since 1971 to concern itself with instead. Mendes, who after much convincing agreed to return for SPECTRE, is clearly aware of his film’s shortcomings, but having killed M off at the end of Skyfall he is no longer able to refocus attention away from narrative inconsistencies and onto the characters. He overcompensates, contriving to retcon a shared history between Bond and his latest antagonist, but it is neither as convincing or as compelling as the relationship he once had with M. Realistically speaking SPECTRE may only be as incomprehensible as half the other films in the series (it’s certainly as stylish), but after Skyfall it feels all the more inconsequential.

In an age of shared universes and multimedia storytelling, Bond really is beginning to show his age. Like Skyfall, SPECTRE may continue to mirror and directly reference past events (though a fight on a train and a video tape labelled Vespa barely registers as fan-service at a time where Marvel is cross-pollinating between sub-franchises and Fox is commissioning films with the express intention of reinstating some semblance of continuity) but it doesn’t have the same focus or sense of purpose as its predecessor — it confuses matters when it should be clarifying them. Rather than use Skyfall as a jumping off point for new adventures or dynamics, SPECTRE feels more like an epilogue, an after-party, or perhaps just a hangover. The franchise hasn’t been renewed, it’s outstayed its welcome. The suitably stand-out Day of the Dead sequence might have been more than a prelude; it may have been a premonition.



Guest Post: Skyfall (2012)

For fifty years now, 007 has entertained us with his antics, action and not just a little bit of skirt-wrangling. Skyfall sees Daniel Craig take on the role of Bond for the third time and promises to deliver another hefty dose of explosions, breath-taking locations, strong Bond-trademarked musical scores, suspense and crazy villains. All the reasons we keep coming back for more!

But did the much anticipated (and much delayed) Bond number 23 live up to my high expectations? Read on to find out.

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Everything he touches withers and dies (2008)

Attacked during an interrogation by a member of a mysterious organisation who had been posing for years as M’s bodyguard, James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases the traitor through the streets of Sicily, eventually overcoming and killing him. Discovering marked banknotes in Mitchell’s apartment, Bond is lead to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), an environmentalist showing undue interest in an apparently unremarkable area of the Bolivian desert. Saving Camille (Olga Kurylenko), his ex-lover, from an assassination attempt, Bond goes off the grid leaving M (Judi Dench) with no choice but to react — first dispatching Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) to bring him in and then cancelling all of his credit cards. Reuniting with Camille, Bond follows a tip to the Atacama desert where he discovers Greene’s plans while Camille seeks revenge for her parents’ murders.

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Christ, I miss the Cold War (2006)

Having recently earned his 007 status, James Bond (Daniel Craig) sets off for Madagascar where he kills an international bomb-maker and — through a text message on the man’s phone — makes a connection to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a terrorist financer wanted by MI6. Following the trail to Miami airport, Bond foils the attempted destruction of a prototype plane, costing Le Chiffre millions that he had previously invested in shares. Entered by M (Judi Dench) into a high-stakes poker game that the banker had organised in order to recoup his losses, and aided by accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Bond attempts to win the game so that Le Chiffre has no option but to seek asylum in exchange for information.

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FILM NEWS: Mendes shows off Skyfall while Craig shows off his issues

While this blog’s dealings with 007 are usually limited to last minute, end-of-month contributions to Incredible Suit‘s franchise-spanning BlogalongaBond, I could’t help taking to the keyboard with news that the first teaser for twenty-third instalment Skyfall is now online.

The film, which already looks infinitely better than 2008’s unintelligible Quantum of Solace, sees aspersions cast on James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) loyalty to M (Dame Judi Dench) when secrets from her past come to light. The footage itself can be seen below:

Taking in Turkey (the setting of the film’s pre-titles sequence), Japan, the highlands of Scotland and MI6’s headquarters in London, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall also stars Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny Eve and Javier Bardem as the film’s primary antagonist, “more than a villain” Raoul Silva.

Anyway, you didn’t bring your eyes all the way here for words; no, you’re here to watch the back of Bond and M’s heads as they stare at a hill. All yours!

I suppose this means that the end is sight. With 16 Bond films down and only the Brosnan and Craig eras to go, it really doesn’t feel as though we have long to wait at all. In the meantime, however, you can expect my Golden Eye review in the next few days.

Skyfall is scheduled for release on 26 October, 2012.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Driven near-mad by the continuation of a tradition which should have ceased with her disappearance, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) in a last-ditch attempt to determine the identity of his great-niece, Harriet Vanger’s killer – someone who Henrik believes to be a member of his own warring family. Promised information which might help to clear his name, Mikael takes on a research partner to assist him in solving a case which has baffled the local authorities for 40 years. Before she can bring her unparalleled abilities to the table, however, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) must overcome troubles of her own.

David Fincher’s re-adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo gets off to a promising start. Kick-starting proceedings with a Bond-esque opening number brought to life by a CG river of shape-shifting metal, the film’s title sequence is quite something to behold, hinting at the darkness to come while also foreshadowing elements of the following instalments: The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest. Alas, the creativity and ingenuity displayed in said sequence sets the bar too high, and Fincher spends the rest of the movie trying to deliver on his initial promise, one which at times seems directly at odds with his source material.

Let’s get one thing straight: I have nothing against remakes. Indeed, given the right circumstances they can even play an important role in the filmmaking process. Gore Verbinski, Zach Snyder and Marcus Nispel, to name but a few, all honed their craft helming remakes of horror classics, each franchise diluted by a stream of lesser sequels, and practically calling out for another lease of life. While the results might themselves have failed to recreate the same success as the originals, they at least updated the stories for contemporary – and often foreign – audiences; nobody wanted to see A Nightmare On Elm Street 25, but there was still undoubtedly an audience for a new take on the original premise.

Enter David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Now, Fincher is not some filmmaking hack in need of a guaranteed hit, nor is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo an outdated work plagued by diminishing returns. Both are respected, and both are better than this: a needless, and ultimately thankless attempt to pander to an ignorant American audience. Attempting to justify his reimagining’s existence (it’s not a remake, but a new interpretation. Apparently), Fincher and his screenwriters have bent the narrative out of shape – shifting focus from the central mystery to the relationship between the two lead characters – and in so doing have birthed something misshapen and unwieldy.

Attempting to stay true – if not truer – to Stieg Larsson’s source novel, the filmmakers have reassigned emphasis, re-inserted plot points and rejigged the narrative in a bid for distinction. Importantly, however, they have not relocated the action, instead opting to once again set the narrative in and around Stockholm. As such we have a story which – although just 6 minutes longer – feels almost glacial in pace, a mystery which any perusal of the film’s casting will solve in an instant, and characters who speak English (even when both onscreen are Swedish) for no apparent reason other than to ensure that audiences need not read subtitles – no doubt the reason that they ignored director Niels Arden Oplev’s superior original in the first place.

Not that I was a particularly huge fan of the story the first time around. A minimalist screenplay, ludicrous plotting and disappointing dénouement robbed even the original from a place in my list favourite movies of either year. While Rooney Mara may excel as Lisbeth Salander (no small ask for such a strong and iconic character) and Daniel Craig may finally find a role suited to his talents in Mikael Blomkvist (a name which is not so suited to his accent), there is nothing on display to suggest that this is anything more than just the same story, the same flaws, repeated in the hopes of securing a wider audience.

Inexplicably paced, poorly judged and utterly pointless, Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a competent but wholly unnecessary retread of ideas formulated better elsewhere. Despite capable performances, stylish direction and a killer opening sequence, this film ultimately makes little or no case for its existence.

Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

An unnamed Bond-alike (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with no knowledge of who he is or where he came from – though he is nevertheless able to recall the word “English”, some nifty combat moves and something about a woman and some gravity-defying gold. Anyway, he’s hurt and therefore forced to take refuge in a small village called Absolution, where he quickly catches the eye of the enigmatic Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) and fist of curmudgeonly cattleman Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Accused of stealing Dolarhude’s gold, Jake Lonergan (turns out he wasn’t so nameless after all) is vindicated when the culprits reveal themselves to be none other than an alien force intent on capturing the natives and stealing the planet’s gold. AND THEN!

Not many movies these days benefit from the the automatic boost of having Harrison Ford chewing his marbles as part of the cast. It’s an easy A, a golden ticket, a God-damn Sankara stone. Just look at how much the guy’s mere presence elevated Morning Glory (lots). Naturally then, Jon Favreau wastes him – the one man alive who could have brought any gravitas to a film about gold-snatching aliens; and yes, I’m including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – instead deciding to point his camera at Old Expressionless and Plot Device #4 (dutifully reprising her role from last year’s Tron: Legacy). Ford is the best thing in Cowboys and Aliens by a good Kessel Run, and this is coming from someone who loves hummingbirds.

You see, you’d think that a high concept like Cowboys and Aliens would be substance enough for one movie – or graphic novel, for that matter- but no; Favreau has merely truncated the film’s much more representative, but much less wieldy title: Cowboys and Aliens and More Aliens and Convenient Phoenix Metaphors and Indians and Sam Rockwell and God and a Hummingbird. It really is “And Then” moviemaking at its worst, a relentless slew of ludicrous plot points clunkily held together with the kinds of contrivances which sink much, much better movies, often starring much, much less Harrison Ford.

It’s not even funny. Taking itself even more seriously than a Brothers Strauss directed Aliens vs. Predators movie,  Jon Favreau has clearly taken criticisms of Iron Man 2‘s levity to heart. Gone are the warm characterisations, the relatable relationships and the unashamed, infectious sense of fun, sorrily replaced with sand and not much else. Sand and cowboys and aliens. The best line, a welcomingly self-effacing “this is ridiculous”, is too little too late, the faux machismo forced down the audiences’ throats with all the finesse of a tomahawk, but little of the substance. What’s the point in strapping an alien weapon to a grumpy cowboy and hiring thirty people to spend ten months at a computer screen tirelessly forcing pixels together if you can’t at least have a good laugh about it after? Who is supposed to care about the outcome?  Not me, apparently.

I’m not asking for a Jar Jar Binks or a nice, friendly group hug. You an keep the grue, the poorly rendered creatures, Olivia Wilde; just throw me a bone – a big, we-know-how-stupid-this-sounds inscribed bone. I need something if I’m to happily turn a blind eye to the shoddy FX, the pervasive plot holes and the required suspension of disbelief that cowboys might stand any sort of chance against a battalion of extra-terrestrial, gold-mining crickets. An underused Harrison Ford just isn’t enough.

Casino Royale (2006)

Following Die Another Day‘s misjudged introduction of the invisible car – the 007 equivalent of bat nipples – it was clear to most that Bond was in need of an overhaul. Deciding to go darker – because, come on, that’s what everyone was doing in 2006 – in an attempt to hijack the Jason Bourne following, the producer’s dropped Pierce Brosnan’s personality in favour of Daniel Craig’s swimming trunks and went back to basics with Casino Royale – the source novel previously adapted for television out of EON productions recognised canon.

Having foiled Le Chiffre’s plans to destroy a prototype airliner, causing the banker a considerable loss, Jason Bourne James Bond (Craig) is ordered to Montenegro where he is to re-engage Le Chifre (Mads Mikkelsen) in a poker match. Desperate to recoup the money he needs to appease his machete-wielding clients, our resident baddie soon resorts to a series of unsuccessful murder attempts to try and break up the hours and hours of ass-crampingly dull poker. More poker. More poker. Casino Royale is eventually given a third act shot of adrenaline as Bond wins the poker tournament and takes Le Chiffre’s vendetta, and his latest love-interest (Eva Green), to Venice.

Treading the fine line between dark and Dark Knight, delivering a movie with just enough humour and humanity to offset the new Bond’s relative lack of character, the film is nevertheless bogged down with a disappointingly disengaging plot. Lagging notably in the middle while Bond plays poker and the supporting cast explain poker, a few smug one liners pepper the ‘action’ as if to remind audiences that they are in fact watching a 007 movie. Even I, who would take Mr. Freeze’s puns over Christian Bale’s growl any day, found myself warming to the franchise’s new direction by movie’s end, sufficiently entertained during the movie’s final act to forgive the shuffling and glancing that came before.

Although resolutely reimagined, Casino Royale is still infused with a number of the franchise’s trademark tropes. Judi Dench returns as M to steal scenes and deliver the movie’s most memorable lines – just at home with the new serious tone as she was with the campier elements of the series’ predecessors – providing a much needed through-line for audiences. The villain is suitable snarley and the Bond girl sultry, retaining enough conventions to – after considerable scrutiny – distinguish this from a decidedly less by-the-numbers Bourne movie.

Competently acted and pleasingly visceral – ropes have never been so evil – Casino Royale successfully regenerates Bond for a post-9/11 age. The tone established and the poker game mercifully over, the scene is set for a sequel to show the new 007 in a more flatteringly entertaining light.