Talking Movies

March 13, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Alas, Max Von Sydow

Another great has left the stage. 13 years younger than Kirk Douglas, Von Sydow was still working in high-profile productions. Indeed he worked for so many decades that one could say there are multiple Von Sydow personae. There is the Bergman art-house God that my mother remembered from The Virgin Spring, beating himself with sticks to build himself up for his vengeful rampage. There is the priest from The Exorcist and assassin from Three Days of the Condor which properly established him with American audiences after his underwhelming Hollywood debut The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then there was the first von Sydow I encountered, unrecognisable as Ming the Merciless in the gloriously silly Flash Gordon. He was already very old when I came across him as another villain, this time in Minority Report. And then I started coming across him in the art house as a tremendous supporting player in Intacto and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is astonishing to think that while Kirk Douglas thru ill health and bad luck had his last important roles in the early 1980s Von Sydow was still working in his 90s and goes out with cameos in The Force Awakens and his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones as recent reminders of his potency.

The Desplat Factor

I have, of late, been trying to distil down the elements needed to reproduce the essential Wes-ness of a Wes Anderson film. Some are practical for guerrilla film-makers, others less so. Colour coded costumes, hand-crafted sets of increasingly outrageous artificiality, whip-pans, tracking shots, overhead shots, especially of handwritten notes, and the laying out inventories, droll narration … Bill Murray. And, one might add, a score by Alexandre Desplat. Which itself may or may not be connected to the increasingly outrageous artificiality of Wes Anderson’s cinemascapes. Certainly I still regard The Darjeeling Limited as the highpoint of his work, and it was after that film, which used pre-existing music, that he replaced Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer for his first four films, with Desplat for his next four films. I rather liked Desplat’s largely percussive score for Isle of Dogs, but was not particularly taken at the time by either his Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel work. Although the latter is growing on me as I soak it in. I think my objections circle a certain childishness at the core of the Desplat/Anderson enterprise. The score for Fantastic Mr Fox had a childlike quality, which was entirely appropriate to the material. But The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film I thought soured in dialogue and action by an unexpectedly mean spirit, seemed to be given the same treatment. And in both cases they shared their approach with Moonrise Kingdom where, in thrall to the featured music of Benjamin Britten (especially his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) Mr Desplat’s orchestration was explained in ‘The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe Part 7’. Ralph Vaughan Williams held that a composer lacking confidence in their themes could be depended upon to orchestrate all hell out of them. Desplat’s work for Anderson though is a horse of a different colour. The orchestration is sparse but determinedly eccentric, with featured unusual instrument after featured unusual instrument [“Not to speak of the glockenspiel” “The glockenspiel?” “I asked you not to speak of it”]. And this complicated curating of harps, flutes, piccolos, pizzicato strings, electric guitars, ukuleles, classical guitars, dangling blocks, sixteen bass baritone singers, balalaikas, celestes, banjos, tubular bells, cymbals, timpani, vibraphones, xylophones, triangles, clarinets, French horns, tenor saxophones, trombones, tubas, trumpets, organs, snare drums, bassoons, pianos, and, yes, glockenspiels, is far more important than his simple melodies: timbres are more important than themes. In a sense that’s a musical reflection by Desplat of style being more important to Anderson than substance. Has Anderson fallen into the same trap of Tarantino, of losing touch with basic reality and human emotions in favour of constructing his own Neverland ranch? We shall see later this year…

No Time to Die Edit

Now that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed to November it might be an idea for Cary Fukunaga to go back into the editing suite and make some cuts. The already ramping up publicity push had unwisely seen Lashana Lynch brag about how 007 got put in his place for sexual harassment in this movie. Coming just weeks after Birds of Prey bombed after a publicity campaign that couldn’t stop talking about everyday sexism, male gaze, and misogyny, you have to ask the question staff most feared hearing from President Obama – ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ The trailer had already seen my tepid interest evaporate. Craig looks as past it physically as Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, but without even the lingering interest in the role. The moment where the security guard has no idea who Bond is clearly is meant to be hilarious and subversive, and yet it makes no sense; MI6 would remember. Think of the scene at the start of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where a similar character realises who Ethan Hunt is, “I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true…” Lashana Lynch’s dialogue and smirks in the trailer quickly pegged her character as insufferable and, once again, made you yearn for any Craig-era Bond girl to measure up to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. But the idea that No Time to Die will see Bond, and by implication the audience, receiving an endless series of lectures makes one think again on the reasons for delaying it. Quite simply, this film cannot fail or it sinks MGM. But… even if everyone is primed to go back into packed cinemas in November, will anybody bother if the cast and crew of the film keep telling them it’s not a rollicking adventure but a vitally necessary lecture on their implicit biases? The evidence of Birds of Prey, Charlie’s AngelsTerminator: Dark Fate, and Ghostbusters (2016) suggests not. Films that wish to lecture a pre-existing audience must reckon with that audience not showing up, and the supposedly untapped new audience of people on Twitter that like and retweet that pre-existing audience getting owned will also not show up, they never do. Which means of course that no one shows up. And then goodbye MGM. Time to edit?

November 15, 2018

From the Archives: Casino Royale

An unprecedented journey into the past finds amidst the uncollected material from even before the pre-Talking Movies archives a review of the film that brought James Bond back from the dead, where, in retrospect I find that I had been very willing to leave him after suffering thru Brosnan’s quartet.

I hate 007. It’s important to clarify this at the beginning so you will understand that it is through extremely gritted teeth I have inform you that not only is Casino Royale brilliant, but it is brilliant in all the specific areas where a Bond film has no right to be even half-decent. Specifically a strong female character, an element of realism, a coherent plot, a lack of cheesiness, a believable torture scene and Bond displaying human emotions.

The screenplay is credited to three people. The writing partnership of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who wrote the last three execrable Bond films drafted the script, which was then completely rewritten by one Paul Haggis. I am not a fan of Haggis. I had a mean gag lined up about him being renowned in Hollywood by which I would mean not his back-to-back Screenplay Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby but rather his ability to make Oliver Stone look subtle. It is with seething fury then that I have to tell you his contributions to this film are masterful. He locates Bond firmly in the real world of post 9/11 intelligence, complete with MI6 cleaners to get rid of dead bodies. We meet 007 assassinating crooked agents and investigating two bomb plots, all with thrilling believability, before he finally discovers who is financing these terrorist activities: a private banker named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Bond must defeat Le Chiffre at a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale where his buy-in is supplied by Treasury official Vesper Lynd. Their first meeting on the train to Montenegro is delicious. Over dinner the pair verbally dissect each other’s characters based on their first impressions of each other. Bond is cruel but Vesper hurts him back with interest. Eva Green plays the first Bond girl who really is his equal. Furthermore in his relationship with Vesper we actually see James Bond displaying human emotions! There is a scene with Vesper slumped in the shower trying to wash blood off her hands after helping James in a gruesome murder which is jaw dropping: Bond makes no gags and does not try to take sexual advantage but actually just sits next to, and comforts, her.

The much touted castration torture scene meanwhile is gruellingly tense, blackly comic and utterly believable. This film has no Bond jokes. The funniest gags in the film are funny simply because they are unexpected unlike the double entendres of yore. David Arnold refrains from using the Bond theme for the entire film making its entrance incredibly impressive. Indeed the film’s final Get Carter style image confirms that Daniel Craig’s gritty Bond is in debt to Michael Caine’s unglamorous 1960s spy Harry Palmer. What’s more this scene makes us as impatient for a sequel as the promise of The Joker which ends Batman Begins. Damn…

4/5

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

October 28, 2015

Spectre

Daniel Craig reunites with his Skyfall director Sam Mendes for a bloated follow-up that seems more interested in rushing the exit than whooping things up.

mexico_city

James Bond (Craig) is in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, so more people join the ranks of the dead; to the displeasure of M (Ralph Fiennes). M is under pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a connected bureaucrat merging the intelligence services into CNS; a nightmare of Orwellian surveillance. C wants to replace the erratic 00s with drones, and M’s case is not helped by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) enabling Bond every step of the way as he causes chaos in Rome and Austria. Bond murdered Mr Sciarra at the posthumous behest of M (Judi Dench), and, via Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), becomes entangled in the tentacles of an organisation run by ‘dead’ foster-brother Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond’s only lead is old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen), and White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)…

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s opening gambit looked foolhardy in throwing away the film’s best sequence, until you reached the opera assassination, but Spectre’s cold open is its best sequence. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema produce a Wellesian flourish with a mind-blowing long-take following Bond down a street, into a hotel, out the window, and across rooftops for a hit. After that, beginning with the execrable Sam Smith song over misjudged titles, proceedings are less surefooted. Spectre is looong. 2 ½ hours that pull off the paradox of not doing enough. Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and his MI6 crew recall Henry IV: Part Two; all the collegial bonhomie and agency freedom achieved by Skyfall is vanished, and they get little of consequence to do. It is a full 65 minutes before Swann (please let that not be a Proust reference) appears, and her delayed entrance is not for effect like Skyfall’s Silva, but a consequence of Spectre’s deliberately slow pace. The grand summit of Spectre, with Oberhauser creating a frisson of fear from his shadowy chair, is less impressive than Silva’s soliloquising entrance, and this stately subtlety is thrown away anyway with the excessive grand guignol introduction of Hinx (Dave Bautista).

Hinx has a terrific fight scene with Bond, think Robert Shaw’s dust-up in From Russia with Love, which may end with the most oblique Jaws reference imaginable; as pointed out to me by my sometime co-writer John Healy. But it’s preceded by Swann and Bond dining on a train, which constant reminders of dead characters cue us to read like Bond and Vesper’s first meeting. Only one thing is missing: Paul Haggis. Seydoux doesn’t have the material to convince us of her importance to Bond that Eva Green had, and a literal jump-cut to romance is an admission of defeat. Haggis’ Quantum; a network of ex-spooks, shady businessmen, and politicians; was more plausible and scary than de-contextualised Spectre. Waltz’s misfiring Blofeld has a desert lair and a fluffy white cat, what he doesn’t have to go with his premature recourse to torture is psychological depth or cartoonish fun, while Bond’s outrageous marksmanship against incompetent goons is the Austin Powers fodder from which Haggis rescued the franchise. The underwhelming finale poorly replays Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to end with a visual choice between two lives which is absurdly literal. Spectre loses what momentum it had on hitting Morocco, and never recovers.

Spectre has more good elements than bad, but it’s hard not to be disappointed that, having placed all the pieces on the board, Mendes and Craig belatedly remembered they didn’t like chess, and sought a graceful way to bolt.

2.75/5

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