Talking Movies

November 5, 2018

From the Archives: Quantum of Solace

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up from the depths Daniel Craig’s pointlessly reviled outing; whose problems derive from the strike everybody knew about but affected not to.

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in Quantum of Solace, which features a lot more action than Casino Royale. It doesn’t quite measure up to its mighty predecessor, but it does offer an intriguing re-invention of Bond’s 1960s foes.

The opening establishes that this is less the talk-talk-bang-bang formula of Casino Royale and more bang-bang-bang-BANG! The opening sequence is an incredibly frantic car-chase, after which we have to put up with the godawful Jack White song and sleazy silhouettes of naked ladies, but then it’s straight into the interrogation of Mr White, the villain Bond caught in the final scene of the last film. This scene features a shock so good it took me 20 minutes to get over it. 20 minutes of action as Bond travels to the Caribbean for a vicious Bourne style fist fight in a bathroom and a boat-chase. It really is surprising just how much action Marc Forster, the director best known for Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland, has crammed in here. He only comes unstuck with an aerial dogfight which comes perilously close to returning the franchise to Roger Moore style campiness but just avoids doing so, and only displays art-house leanings with a silent shootout in Vienna wonderfully sound-tracked only by the opera the characters have been attending.

The sheer preponderance of action over meaty drama though makes this film feel like a victim of the writers’ strike. Paul Haggis’ rewrite of the script was infamously delivered mere minutes before the strike began last year and it could have used more character beats, even though there are great unexpected moments throughout. There is an absolutely priceless gag involving Bond’s distaste for cheap accommodation amid many other quotable lines. The CIA is depicted as morally bankrupt, willing to turn a blind eye to any right-wing dictatorship’s human rights abuses if there’s a plentiful supply of cheap oil to be had, while a high-ranking member of the British Government is revealed as a member of Quantum, Haggis’ reinvention of super-villain organisation Spectre. The rights to Spectre are owned by Irish writer/producer Kevin McClory so Haggis has re-imagined Bond’s 1960s foe as a network of ex-spooks and shady businessmen and politicians. This film pays further homage to the 1960s with the death of a major character, a score which evokes the softer, and more sinister, moments of John Barry’s scores, and a desert lair in Bolivia which is pure Ken Adam in its set design.

Mathieu Amalric, a god of French cinema, is slightly underwritten as Quantum villain Dominic Greene but makes his ‘environmental philanthropist’, who’s secretly plotting to seize control of the natural resources of Bolivia, a worthy foe for Bond. Olga Kurylenko, who graduated from taking her top off in French films (Le Serpent) to taking her top off in Hollywood films (Hitman), miserably fails to escape the shadow of Eva Green’s Vesper. Her character has an intriguing back-story but the parallels between her search for vengeance and Bond’s search for closure evaporate due to her inert screen presence.  The best relationship is between M and Bond who develop almost a fraught mother/son bond by the end. Craig is once again magnificent as Bond; physical, but also offering glimpses of the inconsolable grief behind his driven pursuit of Mr Greene. This is a good film and well worth seeing, and the consistently brutal action combined with some clever conceits left unresolved suggest that Craig’s next Bond film may surpass Casino Royale.

3/5

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September 8, 2016

Anthropoid

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star in a brutally compelling take on the cost of assassinating the Butcher of Prague at the height of WWII.

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Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) parachute into Czechoslovakia after years in exile. They quickly discover how deep the occupying Nazis’ regime of fear and infiltration has gone in their attempts to make contact with the Resistance. But with the help of Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) and Marie Moravec (Alena Mihulova) they begin a life of deep cover in Prague. Fake girlfriends Marie Kovarnikova (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafkova (Anna Geislerova) help to deflect suspicion at these two loitering unemployed men, but it also raises the question of the nature of their mission. Josef is at peace that he has signed up for suicide, but Jan is eager for an escape plan after the assassination. And the assassination attempt itself raises moral questions; articulated by Resistance chief and Doubting Thomas Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski).

If killing Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command after Himmler and a chief architect of the Final Solution, would lead to the reprisal execution of 30,000 Czechs, is it morally justifiable to do so? At what point does informing on a handful of men to save thousands of men become morally defensible, or is it ever so when faced against an evil like the Nazis? Sean Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin don’t have any answers to these knotty questions, but allowing the characters to raise them elevate this film from gung-ho heroics. The deepening attachments between Josef and Lenka and Jan and Marie could become stock, but that the philosophical divide between the two men is amplified by the women; Lenka in particular is a breakout performance by Anna Geislerova as a soldier in the shadows of formidable steeliness who, like Josef, regards their death warrants as signed.

Ellis acts as his own cinematographer with a noticeably grainy aesthetic, almost a homage to Zapruder’s JFK footage. This is not a sumptuous recreation of occupied Prague, it is focused on the details of espionage, weapons manufacture, and assassination, and invites comparison with Jason Bourne for extended wordless sequences of practical spy-craft. Oddly enough the timing of the assassination places this structurally beside The Dark Knight, but building towards a climax of historically accurate honourable heroism that is as alien to Hollywood storytelling tropes as (the previously fantastical) 47 Ronin‘s finale. If there is one quibble it is that Bill Milner’s At’a Moravec is so ostentatiously introduced as a violinist, at which point your stomach knots that the ability to play will be taken from him; because sadistic cruelty is the modus vivendi of the Gestapo.

Anthropoid is not a tale of derring-do, but a muted study in suicidal bravery, which will leave an audience saddened beyond measure but glad to have seen such heroism.

3.5/5

January 13, 2016

Top 10 Films of 2015

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(10) Steve Jobs

The combination of Michael Fassbender, Aaron Sorkin, and Danny Boyle produced a far warmer movie than Sorkin’s previous tech biopic The Social Network. Sorkin’s theatrical script was tense, hilarious, meta-textual, and heart-warming as if each iteration of the same confrontations pushed Jobs closer to doing the right thing, as Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score became less electronic and more orchestral, while Boyle’s changing film formats emphasised the passage of time and  thereby generated unexpected pathos.

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(9) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Since JJ Abrams became Tom Cruise’s producing co-pilot this vanity franchise has suddenly become great fun. This doesn’t equal the blast that was Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, but writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s combined great comedy and stunts, with a truly mysterious femme fatale, and some well staged action sequences; the highlight being assassins’ night out at the Viennese opera, riffing shamelessly and gloriously on Alfred Hitchcock’s twice-told Royal Albert Hall sequence.

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(8) The Martian

Director Ridley Scott may have demurred at this being a Golden Globe ‘comedy’ but Drew Goddard should write all Scott’s future movies on the basis of this screenplay chock-full of great jokes. You know you’re looking at an unprecedented ensemble of scene-stealers when Kristen Wiig ends up straight man to the Fassbendering all around her, and this valorisation of can-do science arguably realised Tomorrowland’s stated intention of restoring technological optimism to the popular imagination.

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(7) Sicario

Denis Villeneuve once again directed a thriller so spare, savage, and elemental that, like Incendies, it invited comparison with Greek tragedy. Amidst Roger Deakins’ stunning aerial photography and Johann Johannsson’s unnerving score Emily Blunt’s steely FBI heroine, in her conflict with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, became a veritable Creon to his Antigone: for her devotion to upholding the law is the right thing, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing.

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(6) Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman was on top form as an obnoxiously solipsistic novelist who retreated to the place in the country of new mentor Jonathan Pryce, and alienated his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), his mentor’s daughter (Krysten Ritter), his students, and, well, just about everybody else. This was a tour-de-force by writer/director Alex Ross Perry who threw in a wonderfully gloomy jazz score, a narrator, and alternating perspectives to create an unashamedly literary, unhappy, ‘unrelatable’ story.

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(5) Mistress America

Expectations were high after Frances Ha, and Baumbach and Gerwig’s follow-up did not disappoint. Their script provided compelling characters, with great jokes and screwball set-ups, as well as a literary sense of melancholy. The story of Brooke and Tracy is one of the best observer/hero films I’ve seen lately; from Tracy’s loneliness at college, to her meeting with the whirlwind of energy that is Brooke, to her co-option into Brooke’s restaurant dream, and all the fall-out from Tracy’s attempts to have her cake and eat it; sharply observed, but with great sympathy.

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(4) Carol

The Brief Encounter set-up of the extended flashback to explain the true nature of what superficially appeared to be casual meeting was played out with immense delicacy by stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Maray in a feast of glances and little gestures under the subtle direction of Todd Haynes. Carter Burwell’s score added the emotion forced to go unspoken in Phyllis Nagy’s sleek adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel which mixed romance with coming-of-age story as Mara’s shopgirl followed her artistic path and so moved from ingénue to the equal of Blanchett’s socialite.

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(3) Eden

Mia Hansen-Love followed-up Goodbye First Love with another exploration of 20 years in a character’s life. Paul (Felix de Givry) was the guy standing just next to Daft Punk in the 1993 photo of Parisian house music enthusiasts, and the story of his rise as a DJ wasn’t just about the music. We met the women in his life, including Pauline Etienne’s Louise and Greta Gerwig’s American writer Julia, and the male friends who came and went. Eden was always engaging, hilarious, tender, poignant, and rousing; in short it felt like a life.

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(2) Furious 7

Paul Walker bowed out with a gloriously nonsensical romp which made pigswill of the laws of physics because Vin Diesel, The Rock and The State said so. This franchise under the direction of Justin Lin, and now James Wan, has broken free of any link to humdrum reality to become distilled cinematic joy. And it’s so much fun they can even break rules, like not killing the mentor, yet still set themselves up for an awesome finale. CC: Whedon & Abrams, there are other ways to motivate characters and raise the stakes…

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(1) Birdman

Michael Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s meta-riff on Keaton being overshadowed by his Bat-past. Keaton was hilarious and affecting by turns, and in support Edward Norton shone in a play on his persona: preening self-regard with notes of self-loathing. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work was spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion of a single take, but the time-lapses made you suspect it was a cinematic conceit designed to conceal the theatrical nature of essentially four long-takes. Indeed the characters were highly conscious that theatre was the only medium for a Carver adaptation; the days of Short Cuts are gone. Birdman was interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time was enough to overcome any quibbles.

May 10, 2011

‘Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne’

Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne. An obvious truth I know, but one which seems to need re-stating of late…

I’ve been bemused by more than a few posters for movies of late because of two problems, the second of which concerns Matt Damon. The first problem is ho-hum films with unmemorable titles which make matters worse for themselves by blowing up their equally generic taglines to the same size so that looking at the poster on a bus stop you can find yourself looking at the top and bottom of the poster, and wondering if that new rom-com with Vince Vaughn is actually called The Truth Hurts or The Dilemma, or if Russell Brand is voicing a CGI character in something called Hop or Candy, Chicks, and Rocky and Roll. Now it’s undoubtedly true that good films make their titles memorable even if those titles aren’t particularly great objectively, but that’s no excuse for mediocre films settling for utterly banal titles. Similarly with taglines; how far we have fallen from when taglines like ‘In space no one can hear you scream’ became as famous as any lines of dialogue from the film they advertised.

This seems to display a lack of effort by all concerned that ties into my second problem – incredibly lazy journalism being utilised for incredibly lazy marketing. Green Zone displayed on its poster a quote stating ‘Bourne Goes Epic’. The Adjustment Bureau displayed on its poster a quote stating ‘Bourne meets Inception’. It’s got to the stage now that if Paul Thomas Anderson was to make a companion piece to Boogie Nights starring Matt Damon instead of his lookalike Mark Wahlberg, you would put serious money that some idiot somewhere would obligingly write ‘Bourne goes Porn’ as a handy pull-quote for the poster. Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne: not every film he makes will be a gritty hand-held action thriller, nor will he be taciturn and amnesiac in every role he plays. Could Hereafter be accurately described as ‘Bourne meets Medium’? This trend is as idiotic as plastering the sentence ‘Indiana Jones meets Perry Mason’ on a poster for Presumed Innocent would have been, and it desperately needs to stop now.

The death of film was loudly declared some weeks ago in an article I may parse in the near future, but, while I don’t subscribe to the idea that Hollywood doesn’t tell stories anymore, I do think it may be accurate to suggest that a malaise of sorts has indeed descended over Burbank. Possibly it’s related to the decline in DVD sales, and a consequent feeling that if everything will just be pirated and watched online for free anyway, then what’s the point of wasting your time designing a Saul Bass class poster with a tagline that will become a catchphrase to entice people to see a film in theatres, when you could just plaster a barely adequate tagline and an inane quote from a pressed for time journalist over a cast photo?

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