More sad news givn yesterdays terrible events in Manchester – Roger Moore has retired his licence to kill. He isn’t the first Bond to leave us, there was David Niven of course and Kubrickophiles will be aware that Barry Nelson, the General Manager of the Overlook Hotel is technically credited as the first actor to have played Ian Fleming’s misogynist psychopath. I’m not a fan of Bond movies in particular and I think we can agree that some of the later Moore’s were pretty poor cash-grabs, but be brought a twinkle in his eye to the role, and as a young kid I had soft spots for both Live & Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun;
I follow quite a few fellow film critics, bloggers and podcasters on a variety of social media. Broadly speaking we share the same politics as much as you can detect these things through such communication models, being supportive of equal rights for everyone, agitating for a woman’s right to choose her fertility options, in favour of gay marriage as an equalizing factor for a certain strata of the community, loathe the entire fabrication of austerity measures, all in all pretty much left of centre in most areas of social progress and civil evolution. It amuses me no end then that some of these individuals go absolutely berserk when ‘controversial’ ideas strike the movie community, such as perhaps the next actor to strap on a tuxedo and prefer their beverages being shaken and not stirred being of a darker skin tone than the last fifty years of representation. ‘But….but Bond is white‘ they passionately implore, with the idea of the franchise being helmed by Idris Elba or Colin Salmon allegedly representing some enormous affront to humanity, decency and in-universe character integrity. It’s ridiculous of course, as I think this immensely popular franchise could survive some small measure of experimentation, and in fact such developments could save the series from its slow, inevitable slide into irrelevance. Some of these ideas of Bond being a dinosaur and a relic of an earlier age are explored in the fourth film of Daniel Craig’s arc of Ian Fleming’s beloved misogynist psychopath, notions that are uncomfortably set against some of the series defining features – scheming super villains, travelogue globe trotting narratives, elegant sexy ladies and all socio-political problems being solved on the receiving end of a Walter PPK. Having precisely zero investment in this particular franchise on an emotional or historical level I do vaguely look forward to these films as movie events, as big, high-profile entries in one of cinemas most enduring franchises, and I was mildly interested to see what Mendes and Craig were going to go next after the spectacular success of Skyfall. The results for me were similar to the last picture, entertaining enough for a couple of hours but not secreting a great deal to take home and unpack, either intellectually or aesthetically.
It’s a shame that the opening sequence set against an evocative Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City is the strongest movement of the entire film, as when the expectations levels are set so high the remainder of the film is doomed to disappoint. Bond has gone rogue as all the heroes do in these films, instructed by a message from beyond the grave to hunt down the international ne’er-do-well Marco Sciarra, a nasty foreign type who is planning a series of terrorist bombings. Back in London HQ the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is preparing for a sinister new amalgamation of intelligence services and assets across the western hemisphere, with drones and surveillance assets being seen as the 21st century direction of travel by new Joint Intelligence chief C (Andrew Scott). The bad old days of wet-work and clandestine assassinations are deemed redundant in the modern global environment, but little do the authorities perceive that a secretive foe is marshalling its grip on the international narcotics, slave and terrorism markets, with a sepulchral figurehead whose evil ideology also bleeds into our heroes tragic childhood…..
As we all know the film has been eagerly awaited since the rights of the Spectre characters and concepts of Thunderball were acquired in November 2013, so if like me you have a passing knowledge of the Bond universe then there are no real surprises as to where the plot and character revelations finally formulate. Well, when I say plot I’m referring to a rather amorphous chain of A to B to C materializations which never really coalesces into any entertaining master-plan, as Spectre is not much more than a collection of interruptions and exotic locations set against the side plot of the intelligence co-ordination which also contains zero unguessable twists or revelations. Apart from the amorous opening (with a very comfortable long uninterrupted tracking shot that sees director Sam Mendes competing in the same arena as Cuarón and Iñárritu) and a particularly painful train tussle my pulse wasn’t exactly pounding, but Craig is as coldly functional as he has been in the other movies, comfortably sporting his arrogant tuxedo attire which he has carnivorously carved for himself. Ben Whishaw gets a bit more to do as the newly promoted superhacker Q (presumably a moniker for Querulous), Moneypenny is functional in the form of Naomie Harris, while Fiennes gets a bit more screen time as well. Personally I could have done with a lot more of Monica Bellucci though, she disappears after two scenes which is a shame, although the emphasis from an x chromosome perspective rests clearly with Léa Seydoux as the primary plot cypher whom leads Bond from one energetic entanglement to another.
For all these glaring faults I did kind of enjoy this movie, I was never bored even when enduring some of the patience sapping set-pieces, and I actively enjoyed the finale which I’m assuming is the first of this arc that peaks on the gloomy, rain-sodden streets of central London. It would have been nice to have more amusing quips and dialogue exchanges that deserved more attention, and I liked Seydoux’s character even if she starts off as a fairly strong agent before devolving to another damsel in distress trophy to be saved from the evil clutches of the nefarious, titular organisation. Speaking of which Christophe Waltz is proficient as always as the puppet master behind the scenes with an interesting link to our heroes childhood (is that in the books? If not that’s an interesting angle for Mendes to take the series), but it’s a shame he didn’t get more to do as the omnipotent scheming antagonist who has apparently been secretly torturing Bond for the past three movies. Perhaps Spectre’s saving grace is the lavish photography from the increasingly brilliant Hoyte van Hoytema who bathes the screen in high contrast black versus white exteriors, it can’t be easy stepping into Roger Deakin’s shoes but he acquits himself admirably. Nevertheless I still can’t for the life of me see how this movie cost an absurd $300 million, I guess all that commitment to practical effects and location work stacks up spectacularly plus the starry cast receiving generous upfront paycheques, and thankfully the product placement doesn’t sour the experience as much as the last few movies. Overall the series has thankfully moved on from the 1990’s doldrums of Die Another Day and other Brosnan bruisings, but still lags behind the modern techniques of the Mission Impossible or Bourne movies, as it tries to grapple with contemporary post Snowden queries on the ethics of modern surveillance and intelligence, alongside the franchise trappings of dispatching remorseless henchmen, seducing sexy ladies, conveniently contrived gadgets and remote super villain bases. You’ll have to forgive me for such an obvious affectation but Spectre left me stirred but not necessarily shaken;
For someone who has little interest in all things Bond I must admit that this new movie has pricked my curiosity, if only to see how they are approaching a 21st century update of evil secret serpentine SPECTRE;
Films lurking at the apex of the alphabet are few and far between. Even a cinephile such as myself finds it difficult to offer movie titles beginning with that arrogant dash of a letter known as Z, there’s Michael Caine’s honourable sacrifice in Zulu or Costa-Gavras politically deadly Z, (which to my eternal shame I haven’t seen), the more historically attuned of you may consider Zéro de Conduite, Jean Vigo’s celebrated childhood paen which shares its qualities with the dark surveillance of Zero Dark Thirty. Then there’s Woody Allen’s schizophrenic Zelig or Antoninoni’s explosive Zabriskie Point, a film which arguably shares some contemporarily minded cultural concerns with tonight’s entertainment. With the possible exception of any of the Zombi movies, or Takashi Kitano’s Zaitochi for us cult and SF fans the first Z movie that springs to mind is the eccentric Zardoz, the post Bond Sean Connery starring oddity which has developed something of a devoted cult following, as part of the retrospective BFI season of John Boorman’s work this was an immediate selection for a big-screen reappraisal due to an urge to revisit a film I’ve never entirely enjoyed despite my affection for all things Science Fiction. I’ve seen the film maybe twice before and the only real moments that have stuck in my mind is the striking opening and unintentionally amusing conclusion, and I have to say that an enjoyable but slightly exasperating rewatch hasn’t entirely changed this opinion, although I was struck by a) the amount of drugs the filmmakers were clearly on and b) a small gloomy resignation that I couldn’t join them in tuning on, jumping up and dropping down. Or something;
As the BFI is festooned with posters celebrating Boorman’s work it amused to me see the tagline ‘Beyond 1984 ; Beyond 2001’ quoted on some marketing material, a mere seven years after the gradual appreciation of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey this was one of the last films of the cycle of distinctly odd and partially intellectual SF movies, before Lucas’s meek little effort obliterated ‘cerberal’ SF for the likes of Republic Serial inspired derring-do and scorched laser-blast swashbuckling silliness. In a far advanced civilisation – well, some of it has advanced – the human race has evolved to the point where powerful subjects known as Eternal rule over a sub-class of the dregs of humanity, a group hunted and killed by another strain of Homo-sapiens known as the ‘Brutals’. These swarthy, amusingly garbed barbarians are brainwashed through a religious spell of fire-arm rifle distributing giant floating heads, convincing the proles to exterminate their weaker brethren under the orders of a holy supplicance, in order to destroy the curse of life and pay treaty to the all-powerful deity of Zardoz. Whilst the elite class idly cavort and enjoy the wealth and resources of their godlike technology one rebellious leader of the exterminating underclass known as Zed (Sean Connery, anxious to shed his Bond image) manages to infiltrate one of the shielded villages, as a figure of curiosity to the Eternals Zed’s arrival upturns the society and a chain of revolution is set in motion, as he slowly seduces the senior matriarchs Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and May (Sara Kestelman) and ushers in a new stage of revolution, or should that be evolution?
Shot in the tranquil beauty of the Wicklow mountains of Boorman’s adopted Ireland Zardoz can best be described as a Heavy Metal strip crossed with a Michael Moorcock book, specifically his Dancers At The End Of Time series with the idea of an idle class of late civilisation humanity wielding incredible technological power over life and death itself, but suffering from a profound sense of ennui and moral incapacity as they have simply seen, done and experienced everything, yielding questions that perhaps a core tenet of our humanity is the limited lifespan we are granted upon the earthly realm. It has its assets, like many films of the period it has a specific visual charm which is a hangover of the psychedelic sixties – halls of mirrors, crazy framing, colours timed to ‘pop’ on the emulsion – which stands in contrast to the digitial holocausts of contemporary SF, all the optical tinkerings are practical models or in-camera feints, and I’ll always a smiling affection for these techniques on the big screen. And as is my idiom I must once again highlight the presence of Geoffrey ‘2001: A Space Odyssey Unsworth in the cinematographers chair, he was clearly the go to guy for SFX heavy projects in the Sixties and Seventies, and would you believe it we shall be seeing even more of his work next month as part of a different BFI film season, but I’ll just tease you with that clue and move on…..
The reveal of the background universe and what has happened to led up to this allegorical society is not a bad framing device from a genre perspective, it does provoke the requisite internal ‘aaah’ response but holds little depth in how Boorman explores the muddled metaphor, and any allegorical treatise behind the framing is lost among a rather cluttered and narcotic narrative which doesn’t really know where’s it going or what to do when it got there. I was amused to see the deployment of Beethoven’s 7th as a swirling aural ballet to the bookended on-screen antics, this piece of music has become increasingly popular (The Kings Speech and Irreversible to name but two fairly recent examples) and this may be it’s very first utilisation on the silver screen – and then after consulting with our digital oracle I found this which provides many more examples. So is Zardoz a groovy Griselda or a Debbie downer mmmaaannnn?? Well I think it has had its impact on the genre even as it is lampooned and dismissed as a messy embarrassment, that appropriation of older texts as source material (The Wizard Of Oz as a defining cultural instrument in this case) has become something of a crutch for the genre, and just a casual glance at the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas invokes similarities with the pure visuals of their long advanced, neo-feudal society, and I’m pretty sure that Stephen King used the same framing tool as part of his Dark Tower odyssey.
The film can and has been read from a variety of political viewpoints – a critique of the self involved, Ivory Tower dwelling countercultural movement who deny human barbarity at their peril? A poisoned and bewitched servile class kept in mental chains by the hypnotic possession of religion and an urge to bow the divine as an excuse for unleashing tangible horrors? The hippy dream taken to its logical conclusion as an ideological nightmare? Is Sean Connery’s moustached and crimson nappy sporting Zed really a stand-in for Manson and his families unorthodox version of cultural revolution? Only the giant floating head knows, and he ain’t yapping. I’d like to keep this review relatively short so I’ll just wrap things up by saying I can see what fans appreciate in Zardoz but I’m no zealot, it is very much a product of its time and is thus quite the bizarre and idiosyncratic beast, a curio which doesn’t quite meld its cultural commentary with its psychedelic pondering, indulgent and irascible in equal measure – but I do still like the opening.
As I meandered home after this screening with a slightly puzzled expression on my face I was reminded of Beyond The Black Rainbow as a more recent example of unusually psychotropic Science Fiction, although I’m quietly furious that the bloody film never received any sort of release here and I’m still praying for some sort of DVD or Blu-Ray miracle. In terms of the more esoteric SF of the period may I humbly suggest Robert Altman’s little considered Quintet which is a real cult competition, then of course there is the ecological concerns of Silent Running and The Omega Man which together offer a far more effective use of the counter-culture, post-holocaust landscape, as does A Boy & His Dog which shares many of the allegorical dimensions of Zardoz and other societal shimmering SF serials. Closer to home was the Skynet heralding supercomputer of Colossus: The Forbin Project which is a personal favourite, then there’s A Clockwork Orange and The Andromeda Strain which cast long shadows across the genre even after a certain Space Opera detonated in 1977 and transformed the genre and movies in general. What’s next? Well, I’m accelerating matters to warp-speed for a more up to date look at the universe of SF, so join me as we both seek Oblivion….
When I was growing up, if you put a Walter PPK to my head I would have cited my favourite Bond films as those of the Roger Moore era, specifically the twin delights of The Man With The Golden Gun and Live & Let Die. I guess its simply my generation but I didn’t know any better, I was young and stupid as I connected with the comic book escapades of the most hammy incarnation of the immortal 007, but as I’ve mentioned on here before I’m not actually that much of a fan of Ian Fleming’s deadliest creation. I was quite surprised then to consider myself fairly excited to see Skyfall, the latest installment in the franchise, now in its 50th anniversary year, mostly due to the presence of Sam Mendes in the directors chair and vague promises of his taking the series in a different, more contemporary direction. The early UK reviews have been phenomenal, with many critics citing it as the greatest Bond to date (an assertion that to me is the equal of this being ‘the greatest salad’ ever – it might be the greatest but it’s still just a fucking salad) but there was a fairly high level of expectation as I braved a rainy and windswept Sunday afternoon to see Daniel Craig back on-screen, the film has been sold out across London so no doubt its going to be a gargantuan hit, although it pains me to report that two qualities aside this is a deeply average film, and I fear that the misty eyed jingoism of my fellow countrymen might just have diluted their critical faculties.
Opening with a barnstorming action sequence – probably the most rewarding kinetic set-piece of the whole film in fact – and Bond is accidentally shot by a fellow agent when attempting to retrieve a hard drive from Random Task Henchmen#5, a disk which contains a list of critical top-secret names. Presumed dead Bond languishes on a tropical beach, drinking himself silly and screwing anything that moves while M – Judi Dench in her usual clipped fashion – comes under intense political scrutiny as a secret villain slowly drip feeds the clandestine details of all of MI6’s double agents around the world who have penetrated terrorist cells and foreign agencies. After a bomb hits MI6’s Thameside HQ Bond returns from the dead (with no questions as to why he went AWOL) and is soon on the trail of M’s secret nemesis, the blonde coffered Mr. Silva (Javier Bardem as good thing No.1) whom is wrecking a trail of vengeance for reasons I’ll leave secret for now. In fact, that’s probably the best place to leave the synopsis other than to say Ralph Fiennes turns up as some senior intelligence civil service type toff and newcomer Ben Whishaw introduces this strain of the franchises uber-boffin Q, much to the delight of the series committed fanboys no doubt.
Where to begin? Well, first of all for the first half or so this is pretty good fun, Silva is set-up nicely as Skyfall’s deadly foe with a unusual feminine turn from the usually terrific Bardem, a rogue element who clearly has some mommy issues and might even have some amorous designs towards our patriotic quasi-fascist misogynist assassin. The problem I think is this, the film tries so desperately hard to remain relevent in a post Bourne and more importantly a post Jonathan & Christopher Nolan action realm, and clearly screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Roger Wade are massive fans of those two as they imitate some of their surreptitious plotting techniques in a horrendously inept fashion, when Bond should surely be setting the benchmark for action movie heroics, not scrabbling for ideas and designs in the wake of other blockbuster behemoths. That said for Bond fans this will be an unashamed treat, with numerous references and call backs to previous installments which will have them downing their martinis in glee, perhaps overlooking some of the films obvious plot and pacing problems. Some of Bonds back story is crowbarred in presumably due to the 50th anniversary status, and treading very carefully here for fear of spoilers but the final confrontation has to be one of the most anticlimactic set-pieces I’ve seen for a long, long time. However it’s no Quantum of Solace I’m happy to say and for the first half its pleasing enough fare, with the usual globetrotting and casino escapades, the sultry women and fisticuffs, but after Mr. Silver is introduced and the film should shift into a higher gear it all falls to pieces in dull chases around London sponsored by the capitals tourist board, not to mention a ludicrously illogical and ill executed ‘master’ revenge plan.
There is one reason to see this at the cinema though as we arrive at good thing No.2, and that is master cinematographer Roger Deakins – his work on this is absolutely outstanding and he glosses the film with a sleek palette, it gives the series a much-needed element of style and panache which has frequently been lacking in the series, the Shanghai sequence alone might be the most ravishingly photographed sequence of the year – it’s that good. I think Mendes was a little constrained by the infrastructure of the character and franchise, there is only so much room to maneuver when you have to hit all the expected genre points, and the single concession to producing a surprise should have been shifted up early in the narrative to really pay off, rather than leave it for a really quite tedious and thrill-free denouement. But all this is academic of course, it will be a massive hit and good luck to it I guess, as I said I don’t really have a distinct interest in this as Bond isn’t my favourite screen icon, so let’s just hope they can pull off something more original and fresh next time round;
Bond. Queen. Olympics. Face-palm. Trailer? Sleek. Sophisticated. Deadly. Bardem? Odd. Craig? Convincing. Excited? No. Interested? Yes;
A more exciting film development is the long-awaited return of Sight & Sounds greatest film ever poll which is announced tomorrow. For the uninitiated this poll has been conducted every decade since 1952, it’s the most comprehensive consolation of directors (358 of ’em) and academics, critics, distributors and associated cinephiles (a staggering 846 contributors this time) for a judgement that is widely considered as the most serious and accurate of the form. Me? No, I wasn’t consulted, I just hope that hack Chaplin gets kicked out for The Gold Rush or Modern Times or whatever, I mean he hasn’t made a decent film since 1954…EDIT – OK, some decent context and background here.
After the grinding ineptitude of The Quantum Of Solace I kind of swore off Bond movies, a franchise I have never been fond of anyway. I have to say though that the slow build to the next film has tickled my curiosity, particularly to see how a character atuned director like Sam Mendes is going to tackle the homicidal misogynist;
Could be OK, but I’ll bet it’s no Picasso Trigger;
I think I’m going to have a quiet word with the UK’s film exhibitors. Halloween evening and the only horror film on at the flicks is ‘Saw V‘ which I refuse to spend my hard earned cash on given its execrable reviews and the fact that the franchise’s premise was essentially exhausted after the first installment. So, what’s a boy to do? Given that I was not in the right frame of mind for anything challenging or worthy my choice of cinema visit was essentially relegated to the latest Bond picture, ‘The Quantum Of Solace‘.
First things first, I am not the world’s biggest Bond fan. Heresy I know but even as a kid I found the Connery installments boring, the Moore era tacky (which I understand is part of their charm for some people but it just doesn’t fit with my idiom although I will confess to loving the end of ‘Live & Let Die‘ when I was a ankle-biter) and whilst I enjoyed Brosnan’s first effort ‘Goldeneye’ they swiftly degenerated into absurdity. I mean invisible fucking cars? Gimme a break. Again, I know its kind of the point of the franchise that they are simply stuffed with exotic locales, cunning gadgets, cartoon villains and fit birds but my taste in espionage material leans more to the cerebral, dark and gritty double crossing type of stuff. There were elements of that nature in Daniel Craig’s first donning of the tuxedo in the pleasantly entertaining ‘Casino Royale‘ re-boot which I thought quite effectively reinvented the series for the 21st century so I thought ‘Solace‘ was worth a look at the flicks.
The plot, for what its worth, is all over the place but I didn’t really care as what also drew me to the film was to see some big mindless action sequences, a salivating prospect given the stunt and design teams are the same dudes that made the Bourne trilogy so exhilarating. Continuing almost immediately after the events of ‘Casino Royale’ the film opens with a superbly choreographed car chase which was a very promising opening, Bond is hot on the trail of a shadowy secret organisation that is destabilising third world governments in order to profit from the subsequent exploitation of their natural resources. How very contemporary. For Bond it’s personal as the sinister puppet-masters are the same as those responsible for the death of his true love Vesper Lynd in ‘Royale’ which gives impetus to his somewhat predicable going over the edge, violating instructions, ignoring the orders of his superiors (for me a somewhat unconvincing Judi Dench again as ‘M‘), using unorthodox methods to get results…well, you get the idea.
I do like Craig as Bond, he exudes a genuine aura of psychopathic coldness that I’m told is in the novels (I’ve not read any of Fleming’s work) and the best moment of the film for me was an early sequence where after ruthlessly dispatching a knife wielding goon Bond nonchalantly adjusts his clothing, distractedly mops away blood from his injuries and calmly exits a Tunisian hotel. On the plus side they throw everything in to the mix, there’s a car chase, a boat chase, a plane battle, some gnarly hand to hand combat and some ludicrous but fun computer GPS tracking super secret special agent nonsense to luxuriate in but overall I was a little bored I have to say. Even a mindless action film I think needs some sort of vaguely coherent connecting structure to keep you engaged. The film culminates in a final set piece that I’m afraid was woefully inadequate and left me exiting the cinema with a palpable sense of ‘meh’. Still, Gemma Arterton as the amusingly monikered ‘Strawberry Fields’ was pleasing on the eye and her (skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers) ‘Goldfinger’ referenced fate was a vaguely clever contemporary update.
SPOILERS ALERT – You have been warned. Anyway, I can’t bring myself to let ‘Halloween‘ pass without some reference to the chilling and macabre so here are some scenes from some of my favourite all time ghost, mystery and horror films. I suspect my warning was not enough.
Seriously NSFW links here – Further gruesome warnings for these links. When I think of how many great looking and widely praised genre films are on the way including ‘Let The Right One In‘, the controversial ‘Martyrs‘, ‘À l’intérieur‘ and ‘Midnight Meat Train‘ (which I concur has been slated but given that it’s directed by Japan’s answer to Sam Raimi it will certainly be on my viewing list) I despair at current release patterns. I shall be drafting a very strongly worded letter of complaint to the UK film council. That should rectify matters. Final warning – here is real horror, or failing that there’s always Bruce……