Joe’s Blog

Archive for March, 2009

Quantum of Solace (2008)

March 27, 2009 3:23 am

QoS banner

“Impress me”, M in Quantum of Solace

I should really have reviewed QoS back in October when it opened, but due to a combination of the usual month-long Bondmania (where every TV presenter and z-list celebrity declares their undying passion for Bond but probably couldn’t name one actor who’s played Blofeld, let alone all seven eight [props to harry Webshiter, see below]) and a rotten cold, I felt I couldn’t give the film a fair crack.

After two subsequent viewings, and a period of grace, the time has come. And I have to say it’s not great. And what follows may contain spoilers (if it’s possible to spoil the story of a Bond movie).

As someone who has long championed the Fleming-esque route to Bond movies over the space lasers and world domination world that tarred Roger Moore’s tenure (go and watch them again, they are not all like that), Casino Royale was the film I thought I would never see: a perfect mix of well-directed, exciting action, a decent story, good acting and a film that didn’t rely on outdated cliches.

QoS was suppossed to continue this trend. The hiring of Marc Forster, a man not normally regarded for his high-octane action films, to direct seemed to be a step in the right direction. Oscar-winning screenwriter (as we are CONSTANTLY reminded) Paul Haggis was retained from Casino Royale, along with Bond alumni Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, the men who are were rather cruelly blamed for Die Another Day‘s excesses, and then recieved no acclaim for Casino Royale.

The film begins just minutes after the end of Casino Royale, with Bond having captured the mysterious Mr White. he is being tailed, presumably, by White’s men in a hair-raising car chase opening, before Bond arrives at his rendezvous with M in Sienna. A traitor is revealed, White escapes, and so begins a hunt for the ‘organisation’ that White works for (“The first thing you need to understand about us is we have people everywhere”, White chillingly informs M), whilst Bond still tries to come to terms with Vesper’s betrayal and death at the end of Casino Royale.

Oh, yes. This is a proper sequel. If you haven’t seen Casino Royale, you will have no idea what the hell is going on for most of the film’s running time. But you won’t be alone.

The first of QoS failings is it’s length. Bond films have been criticised in the past for having too much padding, and regular run over two hours. Casino Royale was the longest ever, clocking in at almost 2 and a half hours. QoS by contrast is 45 minutes shorter, and the shortest film in the entire series. This means the film moves at such a relentless speed, it doesn’t have time to breath. This is fine for a high-concept film like …erm… Speed, where the plot is simple, and the film is all about the next action set piece. But QoS has an incredibly complicated plot, and factor in the baggage from Casino Royale, and you’ve got a lot of story to tell, mixed in with the action scenes (of which there is probably too much after the leaness of Casino Royale), and the whole thing feels like an over inflated balloon waiting to burst.

As a consequence important plot details get lost in the mix. Expositional dialogue is often played out over other scenes, competeing for your attention. In one particularly annoying scene the viewer is asked to read two seperate subtitled conversations at the same time while having no idea which on is the important one (one is completely superfluous, and is merely ‘ominous’, a nice touch that would have worked better in islolation).

As with Casino Royale, the casting is brilliant. Mathieu Amalric is a superbly odious villain, perhaps due to his terrifying resemblance to Roman Polanski. He’s a small chap, always flanked by larger bodyguards, but he fight’s dirty, and is a worthy adversary for Bond. Olga Kurylenkois a fine replacement for Eva Green as chief Bond girl. As usual, there’s the standard guff about she’s ‘not a dollybird, she’s Bond’s equal’, and to be fair, she is certainly a lot tougher than usual. She’s waging her own vendetta, gunning for the corrupt general (and secondary villain) who murdered her family when she was a child.

It’s also great to see Giancarlo Gianni and Jeffrey Wright reprising their Casino Royale roles, but sadly both are criminally neglected again. And of course Judi Dench steals every scene she’s in, and this time she is particularly grumpy.

As always though, there is one weak link, and in this case it’s Gemma Arterton. She claims to have based her portrayal of ‘Strawberry’ Fields on the classic Bond girls Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg. But to me it seems she based it more on Britt Ekland and Talisa Soto. She doesn’t have a great deal to do, just turn up wearing a Graham greene-era spy raincoat and awful suede boots (and, it’s implied, nothing else), sleep with Bond, go to a party and die. That’s all she’s there for. She doesn’t advance the plot or assist Bond in anyway. And she can’t even do this well. She has all the charisma of a wet rag, and less acting ability. It’s interesting that despite how little dialogue she has, most of it is obviously, and painfully, re-dubbed afterwards.

But what really grates, what really annoys, is the fact that this just doesn’t feel like a Bond movie. I know, it’s a statement as old as the hills (I remember my dad saying it when he saw The Living Daylights years ago), and it’s a bold claim to make because everyone has their own idea of what exactly a Bond film is.

When I say it doesn’t feel like a Bond movie, I don’t mean little things like the lack of a gunbarrel at the start, the loss of Q and Moneypenny, or even the absence of the Bond theme (again). These are really inconsequential when you consider the fact that you could substitute Bond for a generic secret agent, or any other man-on-a-mission type character, and it wouldn’t alter the film one iota.

The presence of so many Bourne crew members over the traditional ‘Bond family’ demonstrates a decision to move Bond on, which is fine. But into what? Bond movies have always been distinctive; they’ve always stood out from the crowd. How else to explain why the films kept on going when all those late 60s interlopers died out? Quite simply, Bond offered something that no-one else was doing, and sadly, that is no longer the case.

The producers (a finer pair of individuals than you could wish to find, alright, I fancy Barbara Broccoli…) may claim that the ‘traditional’ Bond movies wouldn’t work in our ‘troubled’ times, whilst the popular films at the box office are comic-book adaptations who do a fine job of making the most ridiculous scenarios believable. (Did any of the millions who flocked to The Dark Knight complain it wasn’t realistic?). Bond was never rooted in reality, that was part of the charm. By dragging him kicking and screaming into the 21st century they have stayed true to Fleming, but neglected their filmic roots.

What a don’t understand, is Casino Royale did an almost perfect job of straddling both stools, so it seems to me the fault lies at the feet of the director, and the unfamiliar crew. Bond fans would note that beyond the writers and producers, the only prominent Bond family members are SFX man Chris Corbould, composer David Arnold (doing his best Bond work since Tomorrow Never Dies) and casting director Debbie McWilliams, and all do sterling work.

Beyond that everything else is servicable, professional, but strangely generic. Forster is clearly no action director, and in combination with some of the worst editing in the series, most of the stunt scenes (mostly in-camera for a change) are rendered unintelligable. For instance, early on Bond chases an assasin across some Italian rooftops (in a neat reprise of a lost scene from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). It’s easily the most exciting sequence in the movie. At one point Bond slips on some roof tiles and has to make a leap across to the next building. In the making-of documentaries, it clearly shows Daniel Craig performing this himself (on a wire, but still…), but in the film the scene is cut to shreds so you can’t appreciate the full magnitude of it. There’s at least four or five cameras, and everything is so shot so close, you get no sense of how high he is or how far he’s lept.

There’s a boat chase too, of which most was done for real, but for some reason the best shots again, only appear in the documentaries. The moment that Bond pierces one of the pursuers motorised dinghies replaces a spectacular shot of the boat somersaulting over Bond’s boat, with a ghastly shot that looks like poor CGI. It’s infuriating.

QoS isn’t a bad film. Not by a long shot. It’s a perfectly adequate action film. But that’s all. The proposed ‘character arcs’ are rather lumpen affairs realised through the use of deep and meaningful (and ultimately complete toss) dialogue, while you’re waiting for someone to explain what the bloody hell is going on.

My wish for Bond 23 would be for Wilson and Brocolli to beg borrow and steal to get Martin Campbell back in the director’s chair, give Bond a meaty story (it appears the QUANTUM organisation will continue to be the villains) and another worthy adversary. But give the film the room to breathe. Bond fans are not the same impatient teens who want their films beamed directly into their brains because they can’t deal with a shot that lasts longer than two seconds. You’ve proved a serious, mature Bond film can work, then gone and created a happy-meal version of it.

Sorry, but M will not be impressed with that.

Jade Goody: Cause celebrity

March 23, 2009 3:10 am

The news yesterday of the death of Jade Goody had a rather numbing effect on me. every TV and radio channel was running regular ‘reports’ on it, and the fact it had been so long in coming made it feel like a relief from the past couple of months media bombardment. Of course the worse is yet to come.

Whilst I have no strong feelings either way on whether I ‘like(d)’ Goody or not, I have found myself recently defending her from those who have chosen her illness as an opportunity to have cheap cracks and make crushing judgements on the poor woman. Normally, these people are the same people who always say how they hate reality TV, don’t read tabloids and despise our modern obsession with celebrity. In other words, people who have no idea what they are talking about.

I won’t bore you all with Jade’s tragic life (that’s what Wikipedia is for), but needless to say, it was the kind of upbringing that regularly finds a slot in the top ten paperbacks in Tesco.

What makes Goody such a fascinating character (and let’s be fair, most people can only relate to the Goody character rather than the person), is the way her adult life has existed solely in the media spotlight. From her first appearance on Big Brother, through fame and fortune, Celebrity Big Brother, the descent into hell, attempted atonement on the Indian Big Brother, and the final lazarus like ascent back into the nation’s heart in her final months.

This is the stuff Media Studies courses are based. Is Jade the first media-created celebrity? Probably not, but she’s certainly one of the most interesting cases you could study.

Looking back over archived materials today, it’s revealing how she herself has been treated to vilely by the very same media who today are very quick to criticse the public for their reaction to her. There’s much mention of ‘Kill the Pig’ placards, the record number of complaints about her ‘racist’ behaviour, and how her top-selling perfume (it really was the third most popular celebrity fragrance at one point) was withdrawn after sales plummeted. Yes, the public turned on her.

But, there’s very little about how much the media played into this, if not instigated it. One comment that HAS been mentioned a lot is Dominick Diamond’s comment about how Jade was ‘a slapper with the face of a pig’. This comment appeared in the Daily Star, a paper with the kind of readership who prefer not to wank over pictures of a slightly tubby girl, but would be more than happy to sleep with them after ten pints on a Friday night. How else does a girl acquire the ‘slapper’ label?

This lovely front page was brought to my attention this morning:

jade PFP

(cheers to Waz4444 @ B3ta.com)

This was, of course, the ‘Shilpa Shetty’ incident, where ugly, fat, working class Goody was branded a dirty racist and constantly attacked poor, defenceless, pretty, well-off Shilpa Shetty. This entered the public conciousness so much that for a while the prefix “Reality TV racist” appeared before Jade’s name.

Find me a clip where Jade says something racist. I dare you. Because I know you can’t. The nearest you’ll find is Goody calling her popadom. Given the ‘street talk’ colloqiolisms that infest the ‘standard’ BB, this is small fry. The worst offender in the race row was, unsurprisingly, the one who is now doing very nicely thank you very much… pretty, large breasted Danielle Lloyd. After her fifteen minutes of infamy, she was soon back standing in her knickers for Zoo and Nuts, and has recently been promoting domestic abuse and doing stuff for Comic Relief (interesting, since most people who participate in Comic Relief are, you know, Comics).

The race-row was never about race. Had Shetty been a white actress, the outcome would have been exactly the same. Goody always had a problem with her because she thought Shetty was a lazy, stuck up cow, who was far to used to having flunkies catering to her every whim and couldn’t deal with ‘normal’ people (ie working class). Guess what? I thought exactly the same thing. Oh shit, I’m a racist too!

Shetty was portrayed as a victim, and yes, there was an element of ganging-up going on here. But there’s a common mantra that comes out every time BB is on: if they can’t handle it they shouldn’t go in there in the first place… no one forced them. Fair point.

The media liked to portray Shetty as the Queen of Bollywood. She was their Julia Roberts. We’re constantly told that Bollywood is more successful than Hollywood, so surely getting the Indian Julia Roberts into the house was a major deal. Hey, maybe they could get Julia herself next time. FAT FUCKING CHANCE!

It was spin… far from being the Indian Julia Roberts, Shetty was more like the Indian Sharon Stone. If Shetty was so big and successful, what the hell was she doing appearing in a TV show with an 80s TV star, a long forgotten 70’s pop singer, and the brother of a very famous pop singer? She was just as desperate to save her career as everyone else in there… including Jade.

But, i’ve gone off the rails a bit here.

The next week, I guarantee someone will say to you that “thank christ that’s all over, I never liked her anyway”. And whilst I’m sure once the funeral is out of the way, the spin will turn back against her. The broadsheets and columnists will be respectful for about a week, before the claws come out again and we get lots of “Why are we mourning this woman who was famous for nothing?” type affairs.

What these people forget is that for a HUGE amount of the population, Jade gave them someone they could root for, someone to believe in, because she was just like them. If she can do it, why can’t I?

And yes, you can argue that this has led to our ‘fame hungry’ culture we have now. But, guess what, the media are complicit in that too. If they weren’t they wouldn’t, seemingly, devote half their airtime and column inches to talking about Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor.

Because if anyone’s going to miss Jade, apart from her poor family, it’s the media.

Burn After Reading (2008)

March 9, 2009 5:55 am

 

brad pitt dancing

┬áIt’s tough following a big Oscar win. Cuba Gooding Jr decided that the best way was to appear in a succession of appalling ‘comedies'; Halle Bery and Nicolas Cage went down the ‘awful action movie’ route; and most directors normally disappear up their own arse making impenetrable, pretentious drivel, in an attempt to replicate the success of their ‘personal’ movie.

The Cohen Brothers, on the other hand, just carried on doing what they do best. That is, making whatever the fuck they want, normally side-stepping any possible expectations that the critics and audience could possibly have about what they’ll do next. As a result, many people were somehwat perturbed by Burn After Reading, a film that has so divided critical and public tastes that it just HAS to be watched.

This isn’t new for the Cohens. After the huge success of Fargo, they followed it with The Big Lebowski, to the utter bemusement of the paying public. Critics dismissed it as silly and self-indulgent, and the public stayed away, the film only finally finding its (now huge) cult audience on video.

I feel the same will happen to Burn After Reading, which critics dismissed as silly and self-indulgent, and the public stayed away… oh… deja vu…

The thing is, there is no way to describe what a Cohen Brothers film is. So for critics to say this isn’t worthy of them is a little ridiculous, because NOTHING is not worthy of them. They’ve done just about everything except sci-fi.

John Malkovich (in shouty crackers mode) is a CIA analyst who is unceremaoniously sacked for his alcoholism. This sets in motion a truly bizarre series events involving married serial-womaniser George Clooney, Malkovich’s wife, Tilda Swinton, and a pair of none-too-bright gym workers, played to perfection by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt (complete with Johnny Suede style hair).

The first 20 minutes or so are almost impenetrable, and could result in the casual viewer giving up before the fun starts, but once the Macguffin of a computer disk, supposedly containing “CIA shit” is introduced, things start motoring at a terrific pace, and everything begins to fall into place.

One thing most of the film’s detractors commented on is the ‘gang-show’ mentality of the whole thing. Just about every cast member has previous with the Cohen’s, and those that haven’t (specifically Malkovich and Pitt) had their parts written specifically for them. Swinton was brought in at Clooney’s request, after appearing with her in Michael Clayton.

I don’t understand the criticism though. Many people cite the Ocean’s films as another example of people seeming to have more fun than the audience. I think this is preposterous. How many times do crtics chastise a film because the leads have no chemistry? Surely a film where everyone is comfortable acting with each is a bonus, not a hinderance?

Well, that’s certainly the case here. While McDormand and Swinton are operating pretty much on effortless auto-pilot (but are excellent), and Clooney does his kooky jerk turn, Pitt and Malkovich are simply awesome. Pitt has honed and refined his Twelve Monkeys quirkyness into a genuinely stupid character. The scene where he tries to blackmail Malkovich and gets a bloody nose for his trouble is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in the past year.

Another Cohen regular, composer Carter Burwell, delivers a superb thriller score which is often at odds with the on-screen action, creating a terrificly disorientating mood at times. The look of the film is superb as well, with a wonderfully grey, cold look (all concrete and chrome) which also produces unease. The look of Russian Embassy, reminded me of both Eraserhead and Brazil.

What finally caps the film as a winner, for me, is a glorious final scene which not only explains, but possibly negates everything we’ve watched. It could also be the final reason why so many people DIDN’T like the film. To say anymore would be cruel, but I firmly believe that the chances of you enjoying Burn After Reading are strongly linked to how much you like the final scene.

It’s not an easy film to love. The difficult introduction will test many people’s patience, but those who stick with it should find themselves swept away on an increasingly ridiculous, but hilarious, ride that never goes the way you think it will.