James Bond Overdose Part 24 – SPECTRE (2015)

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Welcome back to James Bond Overdose. The powers that be have seen fit to grace us with yet another entry in the Bond canon, and let me tell you, the wait has been worth it. SPECTRE is a gorgeous throwback to the classic Bond we all know and love, full of nods to previous Bond films, but presented in new and startling ways that really work well.

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James Bond Overdose Part 23 – Skyfall (2012)

We made it! It took six months, but we finally made it to the end of James Bond Overdose. (“And there was much rejoicing” “yaaay…”). Now we just have to wait another six months for the release of SPECTRE, which looks pretty magnificent.

Skyfall, to put it mildly, is incredible. After the shaky interlude that was Quantum of Solace, I’m glad Bond has been put back on track. Bringing in legendary director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) was a brilliant decision. This is probably one of the most visually beautiful movies in the Bond canon. And it’s also one of the most emotionally grounded. We saw Bond’s persona being shaped in the previous two films, but in this one, we really get to see past the forging of a “blunt instrument” and get inside his head. It’s a more restrained Bond film, as a result, hearkening back to From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in terms of tone.

When James Bond (Daniel Craig) is shot and presumed dead on a disastrous mission in which crucial information pertaining to the secret identities of NATO’s undercover agents is stolen, the British government begins to put pressure on MI6, believing that M (Judi Dench) has lost control of her department. The new Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) wants M to retire, but she’s not finished yet. An outside force seems to be targeting her specifically and she intends to uncover their identity before more people get killed. Aided by a damaged and recovering Bond, and the brilliant-but-prickly Q (Ben Whishaw), M is able to trace things to the mysterious Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who has a vendetta against M for what he calls her “past sins.”

The plot is pretty straightforward and almost simplistic when you think about it. The “fate of the world” isn’t at stake. It’s much more personal than that. What makes this one work so well is that it really focuses on character. We get a bit of insight into Bond’s inner workings, but not so much that it undercuts the character. Bond works best when he’s channeling his rage and pain into constructive (or explosive) actions. He doesn’t think too much; he acts. As such, we don’t really want to know what he’s thinking at a deep level. We just want to know that he is thinking. And Skyfall works very well in that respect.
 
The closest we get to real insight into Bond’s head is in the opening credits, which are gorgeous and bizarre. The first time I saw this movie, the opening credits threw me for a bit of a loop. The sequence looks more like a Tim Burton art piece, filled with blood rain, skulls, graveyards, and wildly spinning shadows in gloomy rooms filled with stone columns. Through this nightmarish landscape, 007 staggers and drifts like a shade trapped in the underworld. Daniel Kleinman, who’s back after being absent for Quantum, once again gives us a brilliant opening credits sequence that ties in with the plot of the film. Much like how Die Another Day‘s presents an artful portrait of an extended period of torture and its effect on Bond’s psyche, this one follows Bond after he had just been shot, beginning with his floating body being pulled into a whirling vortex in the riverbed. He’s literally being dragged down into a Dante-esque hell where he wanders, lost and terrified, through landscapes that recall both his painful past and his explosive future as he makes his way painfully back up to the world of the living. It’s very different from anything we’ve seen in a Bond film before, and I can see how many folks were turned off by the sheer unsettling horror of the sequence, but I personally think it’s just perfect. 
 
And Adele’s Oscar-winning theme song just makes everything that much better, beginning with a gentle piano intro that recalls the bouncy lightness of Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better,” the song then grows into an overwhelming orchestral explosion of oppressive chords and wailing brass that would make John Barry proud. I could go on and on about this sequence, but I’ll leave it at that. Long story short, this may be one of my all time favorites. Daniel Kleinman is a visual genius and I hope he’s able to come back for SPECTRE.
 
Along with Bond, Skyfall also gives M her chance to really shine. She’s been a big player in the rebooted Bond continuity, but with this one, she gets to really feel like a main character instead of a supporting one. In many ways, she’s the protagonist of this whole thing. Bond is more like the rogue T-800 in Terminator 2, charged with protecting her against the maniac who’s trying to kill her. I love how much M is humanized in this one. It makes her so much more complex to see her making difficult decisions such as ordering Moneypenny to take the shot that ends up hitting Bond in the pre-credits sequence. As we get further into the story, we see that she is just as human as anyone else and is far from perfect. It’s Bond we go to see every time a new film comes out, but this one really hammers home that Bond is a weapon and it is M who wields that weapon. The implications of such a relationship is what really gives this story its power since we also see what happens when such weapons are misused and fight back.
 
Bond fans also should be delighted to see some familiar names back in the credits, namely Moneypenny and Q. Naomie Harris plays the Moneypenny (first name Eve) role well. She’s an enthusiastic, take-charge agent (who is nearly as reckless as Bond himself, especially during a high speed chase) faced with the realization that she’s much happier avoiding situations where she might end up being ordered to shoot her friends. In today’s cultural landscape, I can tell that the concept of a female agent who decides that she’d much rather be behind a desk might ruffle some feathers, but it’s her choice, and I think the character is still well developed. 
 
That gold dress says, “I can handle any childish innuendo you try to hurl my way, Bond.”
As for Q, they went in a completely different direction with the character, and I couldn’t be happier. No one could adequately step into Desmond Llewelyn’s legendary (probably exploding) shoes, and so I like how they completely redid the character. Ben Whishaw is a favorite of mine, and his take on Q as a 30-something genius with an old soul is just beautifully done. I may be biased because anyone who uses the word “vexing” correctly in casual conversation instantly gains about a zillion win points in my opinion. He’s like Captain Picard and Sherlock Holmes and all those computer nerds in The Social Network were combined to create a reserved, wry, dryly sarcastic computer whiz who has excellent taste in clothing and tea. I just absolutely love him, and eagerly await to see how his character is developed later on.
 
And here’s a picture, because of reasons.
 
As for the villain, Silva is more unsettling than threatening. Javier Bardem does a smashing job of bringing the character to life, but it’s clear the writers had to give him an almost superhuman ability to manipulate events in order to really make him a threat to the security of MI6. In particular, a magnificent Houdini-esque escape strains credulity, but no more so than Bond’s miraculous recovery from being shot and “drowning” in the pre-credits sequence, so it’s alright to let it slip. What makes Silva compelling is just how strange he is. He’s a similar character to Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye, but while Sean Bean’s character has a slick exterior and a damaged interior, Silva just looks damaged. His insanity shows through his eyes in every scene, and his oddly blond hair gives him an almost sleazy air. He just looks like deviance personified, which makes him incredibly creepy (and that’s hard to do, because normally Bardem is a dashingly handsome gentleman with a rakish smile that won’t quit).
 
I’m not lying
He may not feel much like a threat in the grand scheme of things, but as a complex, damaged soul with an obsessive fetish for revenge, he’s beautifully realized.
 
I was going to gush some more about the cinematography, but I don’t want to go on for too long, so I’ll just say that I have never seen a jellyfish used to such spectacular effect in a fight scene before. Ok, ok, I’ll go away.
 
Random Observations
-Even though this one doesn’t start with a gunbarrel, the first shot feels gunbarrel-y
-It’s cool that Bond is using that big tractor thing as a weapon, but I’m curious why the bad guy just stands there looking surprised. he could easily run away…
-I heart Ralph Fiennes so much. My favorite roles of his are The Constant Gardener and In Bruges, and I get the feeling that those two extremes were combined to create the Mallory character. Antagonistic…but likable.
-Scorpion drinking games = nope. 
-Bond gets scruffy, but unlike Pierce Brosnan doesn’t go for the Caveman Jesus look. 
-“Were you expecting an exploding pen?” Well…yeah, Q, we were, but we won’t hold it against you.
-I was a bit worried about Thomas Newman doing the score. I adore his work on Finding Nemo and American Beauty, but it always felt too contemplative to work for a Bond film. I was wrong. His score is magnificent and a worthy successor to David Arnold’s previous Bond scores.
-The komodo dragon pit is a bit silly…but it does feel like a classic Bond nod.
-Judi Dench quoting Tennyson. Just marvelous.
-They’re all getting ready with the weapons in preparation for Silva and M is all, “I’ll sit in here by myself and make frag grenades.” I love that woman so much.
-Sam Mendes really knows how to shoot an explosion.
-I squee every time I see that leather door into M’s office in the final scene. And Moneypenney is at her desk, and the hatrack is there, and it just makes me so happy. M’s office is just the way we saw it when Sean Connery and Bernard Lee were just beginning to get used to one another. *nerd moment*
 
And now we wait for SPECTRE.
 
In the meantime, catch up on my personal favorites from each era in preparation!
 
Sean Connery
From Russia with Love – The quintessential Bond film, Connery at his finest
Thunderball– Wonderful cinematography, a brilliant score, and my favorite Classic-era Bond film
 
George Lazenby
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – This one wins by default, but it has a great score, excellent action sequences, and a great leading lady with the incomparable Diana Rigg.
 
Roger Moore
Live and Let Die – Well-written and fun, this one is potentially quite dated, but the great action sequences make up for it.
The Spy Who Loved Me – Roger Moore at the top of his game. A wonderful plot, a huge scope, and the fabulous XXX gives 007 a run for his money.
 
Timothy Dalton
Licence to Kill – darker and more brutal than its predecessors, this one explores what happens when Bond gets really really angry.
 
Pierce Brosnan
GoldenEye– my all time favorite Bond film, slick, fun, and perfectly plotted with a wonderful cast.
Tomorrow Never Dies – A fun, fast-paced Bond romp that, while not as serious as Goldeneye, never fails to entertain. Plus, Michelle Yeoh is the best.
 
Daniel Craig
Casino Royale – an excellent reboot with a beautifully written script, showing us a less refined Bond.
Skyfall– and, well, you just read why I like this one. So, no need to repeat that.
 
See you next week!

James Bond Overdose Part 22 – Quantum of Solace (2008)

This entry in the series isn’t great, but it didn’t stand much of a chance, seeing as how production on this movie began concurrent with the huge Hollywood writer’s strike of 2007-8, which means there were no scriptwriters present for rewrites or polishing. The crew was working with essentially a rough draft, and rough it is. Daniel Craig and director Marc Forster worked on turning the script into something coherent, at least, but polished and satisfying it is not.

Continuing where Casino Royale left off, James Bond (Daniel Craig) continues to uncover Mr. White’s mystery organization, following (and killing) lead after lead until he eventually meets wealthy philanthropist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who seems to be highly placed within a powerful and secretive crime organization known as (no, not SPECTRE; that would have made sense) Quantum. Teaming up with Greene’s ex-lover Camille (Olga Kurylenko), Bond attempts to take down Quantum and get some sort of closure after the death of Vesper.

Re-watching it, I was surprised at how completely flimsy the plot is. It’s literally “Bond learns about Quantum and then lots of things explode at the end.” There’s not much else. The one thing that redeems this film slightly are the non-plot moments, especially between Bond and M (Judi Dench). A good deal of Bond’s angst in this film is not the result of Vesper’s betrayal, but an early attempt on M’s life by a Quantum agent. Even when she’s furious at him for his reckless behavior, you can tell that she’s growing to understand how his mind works. In the previous movie, he completely baffled her and it was really only her sense of duty to take care of him that kept her from having him shot. In this film, Bond is less of a mystery to her. By the end, he’s a loyal agent whose trust she has earned completely and vice versa.

It’s a shame the rest of the script is so shaky. Haggis, Purvis, and Wade clearly could have given us a worthy successor to Casino had they stuck around. But no matter how many good moments this one has, it just never gels. I find myself wondering how much of that was also the fault of the director, Marc Forster. Many folks complain about the over-reliance of frantic editing and shaky camera work, and I agree. The first scene, the high speed chase, is dizzying. It has some great moments, but there’s no moment to really go “whoah!” since everything is gone in the next quick cut. Remember in Casino when Bond’s Aston Martin flipped a zillion times and the camera was as still as a shocked bystander while that beautiful car spun over and over? You don’t get that here. There’s one lovely moment where Bond and a fellow he’s grappling with fall down through a glass ceiling and the camera, looking straight down, falls with them, going through the ceiling after them. It’s heart stopping and impeccably shot, but there aren’t many other moments that really stand out the way that one does.

As for the music, David Arnold’s score is beautiful. The opening credits theme, on the other hand…is not good… I feel like, had either Jack White or Alisha Keys sang the song solo, it would have been better, but making it a duet just kills it, especially since both sing in the same register, which makes for some atrocious the-cat-is-screaming-on-the-back-porch moments. The lyrics at one point are literally “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” all done in shaky harmony. The jazzy instrumentation is cool, but the vocals just make the whole thing awkward, which is sad. The credit animation, done by graphics company MK12, is pretty cool and surreal in a Salvador Dali-esque way. Roiling sand, recumbent women, astronomical charts, and a 70’s-inspired aesthetic make for a dizzying but fun sequence that is marred only by the wailing music. I love the entirely of the Bond theme canon, but this is the only one I actively dislike. Womp womp.

But anyways back to the movie itself.

In terms of plot, the characters don’t have a good framework in which to inhabit; however, the characters themselves are pretty good. I think Camille is an able female lead, especially since she seems to hearken back to classic Bond gals like Domino from Thunderball or Melina from For Your Eyes Only in that she is a damaged woman with a vendetta who is only really with Bond because he can help her get revenge on those who wronged her. She’s steely and strong and is only a damsel in distress at believable moments. The character is so closed off, the audience isn’t really offered much insight into her inner workings, but she feels like a fully realized character nonetheless.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). but I really love how he and Bond are able to find a sort of reconciliation after Bond wrongly accused him of being a traitor in the previous film. The two have some really great moments together.

I’m a bit less taken by Dominic Greene. He’s interesting in that he’s a slimy, two faced creep, and does it very well, but he just doesn’t seem smart enough to be highly placed within an organization like Quantum. I do like that he’s not really all that menacing; he strikes one as the nerdy genius who has no social skills, but can plan a government’s destruction in an evening. But someone like that wouldn’t make the silly mistakes Greene makes. I get the feeling this was another casualty of the writer’s strike. They establish the character well, but then don’t know how to get him from point A to point B, so they have him just temporarily make bad choices to speed things along.

But despite its potential, it just never comes together. The climax of the movie (no spoilers) is literally just “Bond confronts Greene while lots of things conveniently explode.” It’s visually cool, I guess, but it just feels like the script at that point was “Somehow, Bond meets Greene and they have a cool fight, because, I dunno.” It’s just kind of blah.

But that’s ok, because after this, we get the masterful Skyfall, which sends us heading towards the upcoming SPECTRE. So this is only a temporary dip in the road.

Random Observations
-no gunbarrel at the beginning *twitch*
-My single favorite M quote of all time, “When someone says ‘We’ve got people everywhere,’ you expect it to be hyperbole! Lots of people say that. Florists use that expression. It doesn’t mean that they’ve got somebody working for them inside the bloody room!”
-A boat chase! We got one in The World is not Enough, but this one really feels like a proper boat chase a la Live and Let Die.
-Poor Felix. He looks so miserable in all his scenes, having to put up with being paired with that corrupt dude. I do like how we get much more Felix in this one since Jeffrey Wright really needs more time to shine and be as awesome as we know he is.
-I loooooove the Tosca sequence!
-Fields is sort of a throwaway character, but her Goldfinger-esque death is very striking
-The desert hotel is beautiful, but it’s literally a million miles away from anywhere. Who in their right mind would visit it??
-Ok ok, now we get a gunbarrel sequence. It feels awkward at the end, though…

See you next week as we wrap this whole crazy James Bond Overdose thingy up with Skyfall! See you then!

James Bond Overdose Part 21 – Casino Royale (2006)

I will admit, right away, that I didn’t much like this one when it first came out. I have since changed my tune.

This is a much more intelligent Bond, and one that does not pull any punches. Its intelligence and brutality is a complete 180 from the cartoonish silliness of Die Another Day, which is probably why my initial reaction was to recoil. It’s like going from a basement into sunlight and going “AAAAUGH, MY EYES!” Well, my eyes have adjusted, and it’s safe to say that this one is one of the better entries in the whole series, one that is bold enough to start the story over from a new beginning while still retaining a thematic continuity with the rest of the series.

In this, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is sent to investigate an expansive crime organization whose leaders MI6 have been unable to pin down. Following lead after lead, Bond eventually finds a tie to the shady Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who manipulates stock prices with acts of terrorism to accumulate a tidy profit. After Bond foils Le Chiffre’s latest plot, the banker organizes a high stakes poker game in Montenegro, hoping to win back the money necessary to pay back his investors. Hoping to uncover clues as to the nature of the organization Le Chiffre is helping to finance, MI6 gets Bond a seat at the poker table and sends Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British Treasury agent, to keep an eye on Bond in case he loses.

Interestingly, the plot is a lot of set up (punctuated by some pretty insane action sequences) followed by a twisty turny final act in which everything goes nuts. It’s much like From Russia with Love and The Living Daylights, in which a great deal of the tension lies in what everyone thinks is going on versus what is actually going on. It’s wildly complex, but not in the awkward way that The World is Not Enough is. It feels more intelligently planned out. It took me multiple viewings before I fully figured out what was going on, but that’s a good thing. Whereas World adds complexity just for the sake of it, Casino‘s plot complexity stems from narrative necessity, making multiple viewings worthwhile as you notice elements you didn’t before.

Now, this is the first outing for Daniel Craig as Bond, and I think he does a great job. Many like to draw connections between Daniel Craig and Sean Connery, and I can see that in their dark humor, blunt physicality, and effortless charm. Plus, Craig can be seen as a believable antecedent to Connery. He’s less refined, but can be when given the right dinner jacket, and his sense of humor, fledgling though it is, is just as biting and sarcastic when it needs to be.  But it’s completely plausible to see one as a precursor to the other. And Craig will only get better as he goes.

Another thing that sets this one apart from previous entries is the action sequences. We’ve seen great action sequences before, like the tank chase in Goldeneye or the underwater battle in Thunderball, but this one really does a good job of making them genuinely tense as opposed to simply exciting. The parkour-esque chase in the beginning, the airport chase/fight, and the fight inside the collapsing Venetian building all move with such a brutal swiftness that they feel more real and less choreographed. Part of it is Craig’s juggernaut physicality (he literally just smashes through a wall at one point without the aid of any tools), and part of it is the fantastic direction. We’ve seen Martin Campbell before since he directed GoldenEye, and we’re SO glad he’s come back, because he’s only gotten better in the years since (I’ll even forgive him for directing Green Lantern (2011) because of this movie). Everything is crystal clear and razor sharp and he doesn’t rely on frantic editing to add an artificial sense of tension. It’s just beautiful work.

The music is back in top form here. David Arnold’s brilliant score feels like an integral and essential part of the story much in the same way that John Barry’s scores for Thunderball, From Russia with Love, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service did. It’s big and bold and more than makes up for the timid and un-memorable scores for The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. And the opening credits are completely mind-blowing. I love Chris Cornell’s theme, especially the more orchestral-flavored version they use in the movie. It’s artfully crafted, sexy, and really catchy.

The title animation, which creates a surreal world based on the intricate designs of playing card art, is another winner for designer Daniel Kleinman (no longer “Danny Kleinman” as he was for Die Another Day). The focus is on Bond and his beating of overwhelming odds, so there aren’t any naked women in this one, but that’s okay. They would have seemed out of place in this particular sequence, since Bond isn’t really the Bond we know and love yet. I also adore how the sequence evolves out of the gunbarrel sequence, as if to suggest that this scene is what those other shots are stylized representations of. The complete gunbarrel sequence will show up in later entries, back the way it was, but the idea that this is the “first” gunbarrel is pretty cool.

I do also want to mention the actors, namely Le Chiffre and Vesper. Mads Mikkelsen is such an odd fellow that I’m not sure if they could have gotten anyone else to play this role. Might I remind you that the man is currently playing Hannibal Lecter on TV. Le Chiffre is such a wonderful character because you go from feeling bad for him to being terrified of him to loathing him. He plays the weak, frail, nervous card only to throw off Bond and those of his enemies he wants to underestimate him, but when he goes into full villain mode, he’s brutal. And so we as audience members can’t really decide if he’s a sympathetic villain or if it’s all an act.

When it comes to Eva Green, I think she really holds her own against Bond in conversation. I think, knowing the full story about her character really makes repeat viewings of the movie that much more interesting, especially when you see her veneer crack every now and then, revealing a terrified woman who doesn’t really have as much of a handle on things as she lets on. The character is fantastically put together. And, especially when placed alongside Tracy from OHMSS, you really see a pattern. Bond is attracted to any and all women, if it means he can get something from them, but when it comes to the women he’s fallen in love with, both were somewhat unstable, challenging, intelligent women who really mirrored all of Bond’s own insecurities about himself, especially his absent parents. I think Green does a bang-up job with the character, especially in their first meeting on the train where the verbal wit is flying at breakneck speed and neither party cracks so much as a grimace. She also seems to be a modernized version of Andrea Anders from The Man with the Golden Gun, composed and elegant, even if she has the potential to completely fall apart at any moment.

I also wanted to mention M. Having Judi Dench continue playing the same character even though the series was rebooted seemed like an odd choice (even though she does a brilliant job). But after watching it again, I can see that this character is very different from the M Pierce Brosnan dealt with. This M has much more of a sharp edge. She has much less patience for Bond and, even though she still has that almost maternal attitude toward Bond, it seems to come from a different place. In GoldenEye, Bond had to prove himself to M, who had formed an opinion of him based solely on the statistics of his record, and the two grew to respect one another greatly over the course of about half a film. In Casino Royale, it’s almost like she’s his case worker and he’s a rebellious foster child, chafing under her unfamiliar authority. She wants to keep him from getting himself killed, but she doesn’t understand him and he drives her crazy. She’s doing her best to teach him what she expects of him, but there’s an ocean of separation between the two. They’re not close, by any means, but she does feel responsible for keeping him in line. And so, though Judi Dench is still playing M, she’s playing a very different M, which is a nice way to start over while still fitting into the world of the previous films.

This is getting too long, so I’ll wrap this up. As this one draws to its cliffhanger ending, things are set up for Quantum of Solace to explain things.

Random Observations
-I love how things escalate in the Uganda scene. It seems like Carter is the untrained newb, and Bond is the hardened spy, but as the chase progresses, Bond gets more and more angry and more and more reckless, and pretty soon everyone in the audience is going, “Whoah, was that necessary!??!”
-I love how Craig can make a flowered Hawaiian shirt look like the manliest thing on the planet.
-M’s sassy entrance is the best. The line “Christ, I miss the Cold War.” is just the most perfect line, especially in a Bond film.
-It’s really difficult to watch this and not feel like I will never be as smooth and charming as Craig’s Bond. And then he steps out of the water onto that beach, and I start hating myself even more (and I’m totally cool with how I look, usually!) He’s just really good at making one feel completely inadequate. Such swagger should be illegal.
-“Why can’t nice guys be like you?”
“Because then they’d be bad?”
-The cell phones in this movie seem positively ancient, even though it came out less than a decade ago.
-I love the “fuuuuuuuu…!” look on Bond’s face after he stops the truck.
-“Stephanie Broadchest,” hehehehe. It’s totally juvenile, but I laughed…sue me.
-Bond is all grumpy about the dinner jacket and then he puts it on…and every guy in the theater hates himself more because they’d never be able to make a tux look THAT good.
-The dealer at the poker game looks like Ba’al from Stargate SG-1…but he’s not…
-Felix!
-How convenient that Bond’s car just happens to have a built-in defibrillator.
-I just realized that, for the last half of the movie, I was calling Vesper Vespa in my head.
“I am Princess Vespa! Daughter of Roland! KING OF THE DRUIDS!”
“Oh….that’s all we needed… A Druish princess…”
“Funny, she doesn’t look Druish!”

I need to stop now or I’m going to launch into an avalanche of Spaceballs quotes…

“It’s my industrial-strength hairdryer, AND I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT!”

Ok ok, I’m going. I’m going. Next week, we conclude this little reboot duology with the puzzling Quantum of Solace. See you then!!

*refrains from posting another Spaceballs quote*

James Bond Overdose Part 20 – Die Another Day (2002)

When I first saw this one as a teen, I loved it. But, that doesn’t mean much. I also wore shorts in winter and sweat pants in summer and thought that Moulin Rouge! was the most important work of art ever to be created in the history of the world.

Tragically, Pierce Brosnan’s final Bond outing just doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, and it’s not aged well at all. (Moulin Rouge! on the other hand will always be timeless, if only for its demonstration of how fantastic and cinematically useful the tango really is). It’s visually slick in parts, but about as complex as baby formula, and so weighed down by its own self-referential gimmicks that it’s a half-step removed from a parody. But it’s part of the series, so I will do my best to give it what it’s due.

While on the hunt for an MI6 mole who betrayed him during a disastrous North Korea operation, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) finds himself up against wealthy diamond mogul Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who has big plans, and they aren’t nice. Thrown into the mix are British double agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), American undercover agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry), and a whole lot of in-jokes.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this movie can be entertaining if you want to shut your brain off and just be swept away. It’s for this reason that I actually own Batman and Robin and The Scorpion King. I’m not even ashamed. This one just seems worse because it feels out of character to the films that came right before it. When this one is placed side by side with Goldeneye, they seem to be from completely different franchises: the former is a fun action spy flick and the latter is an overblown sci-fi film about a spy who takes out a rejected supervillain from a Marvel Comics arc. It just goes too far.

The initial premise isn’t actually bad at all. Bond is betrayed while in North Korea, gets captured and is tortured for months, and then is extracted. When he learns that MI6 has lost faith in him he goes rogue, searching for whoever betrayed him. If that had been the main plot, it would have been incredible! Pierce Brosnan’s Bond has always been so charming, it would have been awesome to see him get the Timothy Dalton treatment. But when things devolve into invisible cars, space lasers, and a fencing battle that rivals the final scene in Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet for sheer insanity, it just kills whatever setup it established before the credits.

While we’re on the subject of the credits, I would like to say that I love the opening credits. Sure Madonna’s main theme is vacuous, but let’s be real here. It’s Madonna. You listen to her for her dance beats, not her deep insightful lyrics. And the song isn’t that bad. I love the orchestral hook and the flamenco-style intro. It’s a fun song, so you just keep your judgement to yourself. And the animation is fantastic, telling the story of Bond’s torture in a stylized manner. Daniel Kleinman (now “Danny Kleinman” in the credits) really does a good job of making the credits mean something like he did with Goldeneye. I love the fire, ice, and electricity imagery. It’s slick, very cool, and is more than just a fun distraction. Say what you will about it, but I really like it. If only I liked the rest of the movie the same way. A View to a Kill had the same issue.

Now, as brutal as the credits make Bond’s torture seem to be, there really is no discussion of the lasting implications of it. I mean, sure, Bond can withstand it and come out unbroken, but still. It seems like a missed opportunity. When Felix Leiter was almost killed, Bond went crazy and killed a whole bunch of folks. But when Bond is tortured for months, he comes out of it with a deeper understanding of his inner soul and the ability to stop his heart at will. Eh. Ok, I guess…

I get that they were going for a fun celebration of Bond’s 40th anniversary, but at times, you feel like you’re being bludgeoned with in-jokes. When I first saw this, I was eagerly pointing out all the references to previous Bond films scattered throughout, especially in one scene where Bond and Q (John Cleese) are walking through a storage room filled with previous gadgets, like the alligator sub from Octopussy or the jet pack from Thunderball. But there’s so much tongue-in-cheek intertexuality that the movie becomes basically a huge gimmick. In its attempt to be an homage to all previous Bond films, it comes careening out of the fourth wall, dancing in front of the audience and pointing out in-jokes on the screen. It’s too much of a parody to really stand up to repeat viewings.

The one good thing that came out of this movie is the “back to basics” strategy that would be tried out in the next Bond film. Just like Live and Let Die came after Diamonds are Forever and The Living Daylights came after  A View to a Kill, the extreme goofiness of this film will encourage a more serious, intelligent film after it, which we’ll discuss next time.

Random Observations
-Space suit surfing in Korea. Looks like fun…
-Apparently walking out of an MI6 facility is super easy, and then walking around Hong Kong wearing the same non-clothes you were wearing when you escaped doesn’t get you re-captured right away like it should.
-Pierce Brosnan just can’t really pull off the Jesus look very well…
-Mr. Chang is incredibly random. I read that it was supposed to be Wai Lin whom Bond met (whoo!), but they couldn’t get Michelle Yeoh, so they had to create a “Convenient Chinese Agent Guy Who Just Happens to Be There and Who Knows Bond.”
-Peaceful Fountains of Desire is a crazy name for a masseuse. I can only imagine what her business cards look like..
-Ursula Andress’ beach entrance was sexy and effortless. Halle Berry’s silent moaning “Totally Organic Experience” look just doesn’t have the same impact.
-The guy Bond uses to get to La Isla de Los Organos has the worst fake accent ever. It’s like eight accents mushed together.
-Pointless DNA spinny mirror room! I bet Scaramanga designed that back in the day.
-Jinx’s escape off the wall in Cuba is so painfully edited and matted together…
-Union Flag parachute! Is it Bond? Nope! It’s Gustav Graves!
-I do like the Bond/M exchange in the abandoned underground. But it’s Judi Dench. She’s always amazing.
-At the beginning of their exchange, Bond calls him “Quartermaster,” but by the end he calls him “Q.” That’s sweet.
-John Cleese has found a good character by this point. Unfortunately, it just seems like he’s playing Desmond Llewelyn’s role. He’s going for the same curmudgeonly uncle character. He does it well, but still…I miss the real Q. 😦
-I love how the invisible car is able to sneak up on people in the snow, despite leaving very conspicuous tracks…
-Rocket car outrunning a giant space laser. And then, when the car gets trapped, Bond MacGyvers a parachute-y surfboard thing to escape in…
-The editing in Bond’s flying surfboard escape is awful. It looks like a cheap cartoon.
-“Soon we will be victorious” *cue maniacal laughing and orchestral dun dun duuuun!*
Flying disposable jet parachute things…
-Miranda’s “Evil Aphrodite” sports bra outfit seems wildly impractical. Why does she even change into it? Just so she can swordfight with Jinx? I mean, Rosamund Pike is lovely and all that, but it’s still a pretty goofy outfit…
-Moneypenny and Bond get to make out!!…in a fictional digital world… But still, go Moneypenny for coming up with a hugely profitable application of Q’s virtual reality glasses!
-I love how Bond and Jinx just happen to find an abandoned home in Korea to make out in. Also, rolling around in a pile of small diamonds sounds super uncomfortable…
-The remixed Madonna theme that plays over the end credits is atrocious. Ugh.

Next week, we will be taking a break and talking about a certain upcoming dinosaur movie (Cretaceous-something, I think).

See you next time!

James Bond Overdose Part 19 – The World is Not Enough (1999)

It took Roger Moore about three-ish movies before things started going seriously downhill. With Pierce Brosnan, apparently it only takes two movies. The World is Not Enough isn’t necessarily a bad movie–it does have lots of great moments–but it’s clear that the magic which made Goldeneye so satisfying and Tomorrow Never Dies so fun is starting to wane. Part of it is a plot which is overly confusing, and part of it is an odd marriage of goofy slapstick humor with intense and rather dark human drama.

After a terrorist attack on MI6 claims the life of a wealthy oil industrialist, M (Judi Dench) assigns James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to protect his daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau), fearing that the terrorists will try to target her next. All the while, Elektra is working to maintain her family’s oil pipeline which has come under attack from competing oil companies. But things may not be what they seem.

That summary is the main thrust of the plot, but there are TONS of details propping it up. So many details that, at times, the plot is maddeningly difficult to follow. For example, I still have no idea what actually happens in the pre-credits sequence. Once things devolve into explosions and boat chases, I’m fine, but the conversation between Bond and the Swiss bankers is so densely filled with expository details that won’t make sense until you get further into the plot (or that aren’t relevant to the plot in any way) that the whole scene is a bit bewildering.

That’s the thing about this movie as a whole. I can’t decide if it’s a fantastically intelligent script that fans of more straightforward (translation: cliche) Bond movies like myself just don’t get, or if it’s a convoluted script that tries too hard to be complex to cover up the fact that it’s a pretty standard Bond outing. It’s either brilliant or awkward. It uses a similar villain setup as Goldeneye with a big reveal of the main villain halfway through (and, to be honest, it’s one of this movie’s best scenes), and a similar web of deception and misinformation as did The Living Daylights. The plot is pretty easy to follow once you realize that a lot of the complex exposition and details introduced early on really aren’t that relevant. But, all in all, I didn’t find it to be a very satisfying movie in the way that previous Brosnan entries had been.

The darker villain plot is actually marvelously done, but it seems diluted by a lot of awkward humor sprinkled throughout. Renard is an interesting character (if medically improbable), and Robert Carlyle portrays the sadism and pathos of the character in a way that only Robert Carlyle can (I love you Rumpelstiltskin!) But I feel like his storyline, which is otherwise fantastic, gets lost amidst the rest of the plot, much like how Andrea Anders’ storyline was sidelined in The Man with the Golden Gun.

The action sequences, aside from the fantastic boat chase at the beginning, feel really clunky and forced. The razor blade helicopter attack and the parahawk chase in the mountains just feel like the writers needed something new and couldn’t rally think of anything interesting. Slow moving, parachute-suspended snowmobiles that get easily tangled up in trees don’t really make for a riveting chase scene.

The complex relationship between Bond and Elektra is my favorite part of this movie, despite the silliness surrounding it. Sophie Marceau is a truly accomplished actress, and she never seems goofy or over the top, even though she’s worthy of the melodrama of the Ancient Greek play from which she gets her name. She’s childish and shallow, and then swings towards poignant observations and dark emotions. And Marceau plays every nuance in that wildly swinging pendulum beautifully. I love the character. Elektra is quite possibly the most unique individual Bond has faced thus far, and she really gets under his skin in ways that few other characters, good and bad, are able to. This movie is awkward in many ways, but it’s safe to say that this one character redeems it and makes it worth watching.

While I’m discussing this film’s merits, I do want to point out Q’s absolutely perfect exit. It’s one of those happy accidents where things just work out in ways that weren’t planned. Desmond Llewelyn had said he was planning on coming back to the series if they’d have him, and his tragic death after the film’s release was an unexpected shock, but it really served to make Q’s final scene really touching. After griping and complaining to Bond about the destruction of his boat, there’s a beautiful moment where you see in Bond’s eyes just how much he needs Q, who’s always been a constant in his world. You get the suggestion that when Bond called him Uncle Q in The Living Daylights, it wasn’t just a goofy nickname. Bond needs Q. For all Q’s complaining and gruff behavior, he cares about Bond and Bond respects him as he would an uncle. So, when Q gives Bond those pieces of advice and then vanishes offscreen via secret trap door, the moment becomes the most perfect goodbye those two characters could have. I just love it. It’ll be a while before we get a Q worth stepping into Llewelyn’s shoes.

And finally, the music. David Arnold gives us another good score, peppered with samplings from From Russia with Love. It’s not as memorable as his previous Bond score, but it’s pretty decent. When it comes to Garbage’s title song, I’m dismayed at the slapdash editing it endured to be squeezed into the time constrainsts of the opening credits. It’s an absolutely phenomenal song, one of my favorites, and the version we get in the movie is a pale ghost of it’s unedited glory. On top of that, the opening credit animation is sub par. Oil features prominently, but there’s no depth. The theme is basically just “Oil makes naked women attractive” which is sort of meh. It could have been done better. But do listen to the full version of the title song. It’s glorious. And the music video is fantastic.

Random Observations
-steering a boat through a network of streets is silly, no matter how many rockets you have.
-I love John Cleese, but I don’t like how the writers can’t decide if he’s a goofy klutz or a dry-witted curmudgeon.
-“I hope you know how to ski, then.” Clearly Elektra has never seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, or A View to a Kill.
-Denise Richards. Ugh.
-“Can’t you just say ‘hello’ like a normal person?”
-The pretty BMW gets sliced! Noooooooo!
-Nice to see M getting a lot more to do.
-I wish we’d gotten more Renard.
-“Must be a premature form of the millenium bug…” I wonder how many kids nowadays won’t get that reference. *shakes cane at youngsters*

Next week. Well, things get silly. Die Another Day makes Moonraker seem deep and compelling, by comparison. But we’ll have fun ripping it to pieces!

James Bond Overdose Part 18 – Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Elated by the success of Goldeneye (which ousted Moonraker as the highest grossing Bond film up until that point), folks at MGM were eager to continue their winning streak. And aside from the fact that this one was up against Titanic which broke all the box office records, it’s pretty good. It’s not as good as Goldeneye in that it feels less cohesive, and complex, but it’s a fun, entertaining action film with a great cast.

Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), the worldwide media mogul, is manipulating events in China in order to start another world war, one which will cause people all over the world to flock to his newspapers and media networks for the latest news, of which he will have exclusive coverage. It’s up to James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), who has joined forces with the Chinese agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), to stop Carver before things escalate out of control.

It’s a fun, straightforward plot. Unlike in Goldeneye, there’s no complex backstory aside from Bond’s past romance with Carver’s wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher). There’s no secret identities, as we know Carver’s behind it all by the first post-credits scene. Much like in The Spy Who Loved Me or Thunderball, it’s more of a matter of how the villain will be defeated. There’s really not much else going on. Whereas Goldeneye had the big reveal of the identity of Janus, there’s not much like that here. And, I’m not too bothered by that. It’s a fun movie. Sure, it’s riddled with cliches and plot holes, but let’s be realistic here: which Bond movie isn’t?

The action sequences are top notch. Lots of chases and escapes, though not much to really write home about. I do love the pre-credits sequence in which Bond saves the day while M fights with Britain’s military leaders to get them to understand that her trust in Bond’s ability to do his job is not unfounded. The two of them have come a long way from their tense bickering in Goldeneye. We’ve only had Judi Dench as M for two films so far and she’s already an integral part of the whole series.

Regarding the music, this is where Bond finds its footing again. It’s been a while since a Bond film has had a truly excellent score. John Barry’s later Bond scores were ok, but didn’t really stick with you the way his incredible score for Thunderball does. It was not a great movie, but Barry’s score for Moonraker was excellent, probably his last really memorable score. After that, it was a bit of an orchestral desert until David Arnold, the man who gave us the scores for Stargate, and Independence Day, stepped into Barry’s shoes (at the recommendation of Barry himself). And we are so glad he did. The music is multilayered and well done, incorporating Bond’s signature tune here and there without really treading on Barry’s toes. This is definitely something new. I like Arnold’s scores because, like John Williams, he really sees a score as a big canvas on which he can work with many thematic elements. So many recent film scores tend to just be one theme repeated ad nauseum in a fast and slow variation, or a percussive series of chords and arpeggios. Arnold’s scores really feel like orchestral works that can stand on their own.

The only blah element is Sheryl Crow’s theme. It’s not that bad, really. It just feels out of place, in that it wasn’t done in collaboration with Arnold and is therefore never referenced in his score. Also, compared to the song Arnold himself did with k. d. lang, it pales in comparison. lang’s end-credits song, “Surrender” is not only a glorious homage to Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, but it feels so much more like a Bond title song. Apparently the film’s producers wanted Sheryl Crow to do the song because she was more popular at the time, but Arnold felt that the best Bond title songs in past years were the ones that were done in collaboration with the composer (think “Diamonds are Forever” or “Live and Let Die”). Arnold lost that argument and his own superior theme was relegated to the end credits, which is a shame, because it’s fantastic. Crow’s more angsty, whiny theme does work well with Daniel Kleinman’s title animation, though. I like the surreal homage to the explosion of technology in the internet age and the transparency of people’s lives that it leads to (suggested by the x-ray shots of the gun firing).

Getting back to the movie itself, I like how it really draws on elements that worked well in previous Bond films. It does make for a bit of deja vu, but it’s not as silly as one would think. The stealth boat recalls Stromberg’s submarine-stealing tanker ship, especially when fighting breaks out inside it. Mr. Stamper (Götz Otto) seems to be a vicious reincarnation of Red Grant and any number of Aryan-esque thugs the series has returned to time and again. The search for the missiles in the sunken ship recalls a similar scene in For Your Eyes Only. But overall, it didn’t seem to be an unimaginative rehashing of old themes, but rather an homage to the series, and a way to show that Bond will always be fun, no matter which decade you’re watching. Die Another Day will try to do this same thing later on and will fail miserably, but that’s a story for another post. All in all, the plot feels familiar, but not boring.

Carver is an excellent villain. This was my first introduction to the fantastic Jonathan Pryce (who’s been awesome long before he starred in this film). It’s nice to have a slightly insane maniacal villain in the vein of Blofeld and Stromberg. He’s flamboyant and over the top, and Pryce chews the scenery with gusto. There’s no tragic backstory or hidden secret. He’s just a symbol of the media gone mad with power, toppling governments and manipulating economies to further his own goals, all with the enthusiasm of a circus ringleader. And when he gets angry and quiets down, you know things are about to get bad for whomever has made him mad. He’s just an all around fun villain, and I can’t help but like him.

In terms of Bond’s female costars, Teri Hatcher does the best she can with a pretty uninteresting character. Paris and Bond have good chemistry and it seems completely plausible that they have a romantic history, but Paris is only really there to add temporary drama, and so there’s not much substance to the character. Even Hatcher herself has been quoted as saying that she regretted accepting the part because of how simple the role was. but Hatcher does a good job with what she’s given. I just wish she was given more.

Michelle Yeoh, on the other hand, is way too awesome for her own good. I’m a HUGE fan of hers, and it’s no secret that Wai Lin is my all time favorite “Bond Girl” of all time. The term “Bond Girl” seems a little too sexist to me, though, so how about I just call her my favorite Female Bond Costar of all time. She’s strong, smart, is never relegated to window dressing, and is never a damsel in distress. When Bond saves her at the end, their positions could easily have been reversed. She just happened to be the one who was caught first. I’m also a huge fan of her super secret base filled with flamethrowers and weaponry. Overall, I think she’s just the best. She even beats out my beloved Sylvia Trench (I still love you, Sylvia!). She’s very much Bond’s equal, and the two have really great chemistry. The romantic thing thrown in right at the very end seems a bit forced (it’s more of a “So, we both just almost died. Do you wanna…?” “yeah, ok.”), but overall, Bond and Wai work together really well, and it’s a tragic shame that they didn’t get to do more movies together. Sigh.

I don’t think, as a whole, this one is quite as good as Goldeneye, but it is a fun Bond film, up there with The Spy Who Loved Me. I read that the production was pretty troubled at first as the script was sort of written as they went, which caused Anthony Hopkins (the first choice for Carver) to quit. It shows, in that the script has a few open seams showing, but I’m impressed they were able to cobble together such a fun movie with such a shaky script-writing process. So, we should enjoy it. After this, the Pierce Brosnan era starts getting a bit of Roger-Moore-itis as it resorts to increasingly goofy scenarios to appeal to broader and broader audiences. There’s still going to be good stuff here and there, though.

Random Observations

-Spotted a young Gerard Butler as an extra during the Devonshire scene. He has one line, but he’s there!
-The sea drill would not have been that easy to pilot through the ship…
-Moneypenny: “You always were a cunning linguist, James.” *Money penny hangs up the phone, turns around and sees M* “Don’t ask…”
M: “Don’t tell.”
-This BMW is fun, I guess, and we get to see it in action…but… *looks longingly at the beautiful blue roadster from Goldeneye*
-The magic Everything Phone gets a bit sonic screwdriver-y…
-The “edifice complex” quip is so cheesy you can almost see Pierce Brosnan grimace as he says it.
-a helicopter can’t lean forward like that and hover in place…
-“Never argue with a woman. They’re always right.” It’s cute that the filmmakers are trying to atone for the rampant sexism in previous years. It’s a good quote, though.
-sort of ends with them in a boat. Does burning wreckage of a boat count?

I will return, next week, with The World is Not Enough!