Tag Archives: SkyFall

Bond 24: And they’re off!

bond24

So, this piece of news hit the Interwebs yesterday:  Bond 24, officially announced, to be directed again by Sam Mendes and released on this side of the pond on November 6, 2015.  While Mendes had withdrawn from consideration some months ago, citing his theatre commitments, and fanboy excitement had been stirred to exploding by the revelation that producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli had met with Christopher Nolan, in the end it seems that after Skyfall blew apart box office records across the planet, no one was willing to let Mendes go – even if that meant delaying production to wait for him to finish up his work on the London stage.  So yeah, it blows that we have to twiddle our thumbs two and a half more years, but I’m happy to wait for a production that equals or even betters the last one rather than have a rushed, half-assed job by some other hack-for-hire.  Sam Mendes will become the first director to make back-to-back 007 movies since John Glen in the 80’s.  And of course Daniel Craig will be back, along with Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as Q.  John Logan is handling writing duties.

That is all we know at this moment and all we are likely to know for quite some time.  However, that won’t stop the entertainment press, per their S.O.P., to print thousands of words of misinformation and other misleading nonsense in the hopes of drumming up clicks and ad revenue tied to the golden touch of 007.  Whenever a new Bond movie goes into production the same rumors spring up like the annual dandelions in your otherwise impeccably manicured front lawn.  They get the same circulation and eventually someone from Eon (Bond’s production company) is forced to issue a denial.  In the interest of expediency, I thought I would save the press some time and write the story for them here, based on the fifteen hundred other versions of it we’ve seen ever since the first Bond-related article sprang up in cyberspace many moons ago.  They can then plug in the name of the requisite D-list starlet whose overzealous publicist is trying to boost her profile by linking her falsely to a Bond role.  Anyone who follows Bond gossip will find it all too terribly familiar.  Please to enjoy:

(GENERIC ACTRESS) Set to Star in Next Bond Film

HOLLYWOOD – (Generic Actress) is being wooed to match wits with the cinema’s most dashing secret agent, James Bond, in his next adventure, (Misguided Entertainment Publication) has learned.

(Generic Actress), who has appeared in (Swiftly Canceled CW Teen Fantasy Series) and (SyFy Channel Original Movie Featuring Sharks and Tornadoes), is the number one choice of Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who are said to be “desperate” to ink the rising star for the upcoming production, tentatively titled Bond 24.  “(Generic Actress) is perfect for the role of 007’s leading lady because she’s beautiful and alluring, with that slightly dangerous edge that marks the greatest of the Bond girls,” says a source inside Eon Productions, who asked not to be revealed for this story.  “We’re excited that (Generic Actress) will be a part of this film and are certain she’ll make a memorable addition to the James Bond legacy.”

Next up for (Generic Actress) is a formal screen test with Bond star Daniel Craig to take place at Bond’s home base, Pinewood Studios in London, and a meeting with director Sam Mendes.  Also rumored to be joining the cast is (usually Kevin Spacey) as the villain, and (Completely Unknown Bollywood Actor) as a henchman.  (Forgotten X Factor Winner) will be performing the theme song.  Bond 24 is set to be released in cinemas in November of 2015.

Use it wisely, my friends.  Royalties are not required, but would be nice.  Just leave me your bank account number and password in the comments.

What’s the story, Graham?

Who is that guy?
And while we’re at it, who is that guy?

I’ve never been good at self-promotion.  Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn.  Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out.  It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier).  The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career.  Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves.  You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet.  Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases.  My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working.  I need to give you more.

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long.  A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while.  (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.)  About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length.  Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all).  Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective.  And I have started sending queries out again.  So why have I not shared more about it here?

Well, in a strange way, I have.  There is a lot here about the book.  And no, you haven’t missed it.  Let me explain a little.

We live in a spoiler-addicted culture.  Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it.  I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers.  I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie.  I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster.  For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end.  Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.  Is it Khan?  Gary Mitchell?  Robert April?  Harry Mudd?  Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere.  And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high.  It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing.  My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.

I’ll crack open the mystery box a little:  My novel is a fantasy.  It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy.  The main character is a woman with magical abilities.  She encounters a mortal man.  An adventure ensues.

Whoa, you’re saying.  Back up a sec.  This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?

Argh.  As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I.  But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita.  You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different.  Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world.  Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults.  And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another.  But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires.  Luckily, I find them tiresome.)  Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.

Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.

I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment.  My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans.  But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what.  Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t.  It worked.  His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns.  I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.  The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot.  But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.

For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ:  A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men.  This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected.  If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting.  The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book.  You get no sense of the why.

After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why.  The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site.  It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share.  My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel.  Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more.  So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.

It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress.  Why did I choose to write as a woman?  Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS.  But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions.  Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre.  We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us.  My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further.  The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow.  I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies.  Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks.  The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon.  The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.

Does it sound like something you’d like to read?  I hope so.  I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along.  Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title.  We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens.  It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form.  But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for.  Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.

As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…

James Bond: What’s next?

Looking to the future.
Looking to the future.

With what can now safely be called the Bond Begins trilogy coming to a close, as Skyfall ends, in essence, right where Dr. No commences (at least thematically if not quite chronologically), the logical question becomes, where does James Bond 007 go from here?  Absent any hard information about Bond 24 for the time being (save a confirmation of Skyfall’s John Logan returning as screenwriter), 007 fans will return to their usual far-fetched speculation about titles, creative personnel and theme songs, while every D-list actress and reality starlet’s publicist will plant specious stories about their perpetual wannabe clients being pursued by “desperate” 007 producers to star as the new Bond girl (can we collectively agree going forward that after stacking up massive critical acclaim – including five Oscar nominations – and grossing over a billion dollars on Skyfall, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli are anything but desperate?)  What is of interest to me is not the minutiae of who plays whom and who directs what; it’s what will be done with the character of James Bond.  With the ghosts of Vesper Lynd and M laid to rest, anything is possible for the next chapter.  But will the producers slip lazily back into formula, or will they push through to something new and untested?  Even Skyfall borrowed from previous Bonds, using a facially-scarred former MI6 agent as the villain (Goldeneye) and centering the plot on M’s dark past (The World is Not Enough).  There is an obligation now, it seems, to outdo past glories yet again, lest the disparaging reviews write themselves (“Well, it’s no Skyfall, but…)  Is James Bond finally trapped by his own success into running aimlessly like a tuxedoed mouse on a wheel?  I’m sure no one wants to return to the era of Bond in the 80’s, where an aging star creaked his way through formulaic plots assembled lazily by committee with no deeper insight into Bond’s character.

I’ve lurked on the message boards of major and lesser-known James Bond websites for years, and it’s always mildly amusing to read the ideas that are pitched for future adventures.  Some are quite awful.  Others are simply impractical.  A great number are recycled, whether deliberately or in subconscious plagiarism, from what has gone before.  What is most interesting though is the almost uniform approach these well-meaning fans take – to whit, the place from which they begin:  the villain and the plot.  The bad guy should be this, that or whatever (usually a fairly one-dimensional stock madman) and his plan should be to threaten to do this.  And in fairness, some of the plots that are concocted are fairly elaborate, if awfully familiar.  The biggest question that arises when reading these synopses is, where is James Bond?  (He often isn’t plugged in until the third paragraph, usually in afterthought:  “…and Bond has to stop him.”)  With apologies to my fellow Bond fans, they’re all missing the most crucial ingredient for any story that draws inspiration from the classical hero’s journey – what is that journey?  Why is he taking it?  What will he learn about himself along the way?  How will he forever be changed by it?  Anyone trying to dream up a realistic Bond 24 plot needs to answer these questions before they start dreaming up cheesy names for seductive, large-breasted henchwomen.

To resolve the issue of where does Bond go, we have to look back at where he’s been over the last three films.  He has loved and been betrayed (Casino Royale), he has learned the futility of vengeance (Quantum of Solace), and in Skyfall he has buried his “mother.”  What do you take away from the man who’s lost everything?  I mentioned in one of these 007 posts somewhere along the way that there is a theme running through the entirety of the Bond series – less pronounced, perhaps, in some of the more pedestrian efforts – that being James Bond withers the soul; that his life, despite its exotic trappings, is not one to be envied or emulated.  What keeps Bond going is what Silva mocks him for in Skyfall:  “England, the Empire, MI6… so old-fashioned.”  Even in Quantum of Solace, as Bond seeks to strike at the organization responsible for Vesper’s death, duty remains paramount in his mind, cemented by his final declaration to M that “I never left.”  The films have never touched on in any great detail where Bond’s sense of duty comes from.  As an orphan he seeks to identify with any parental figure, and given that governments are frequently described both in positive and negative terms with parental analogies, it’s not too difficult to see why such a “maladjusted young man,” as Vesper calls him, might gravitate toward public service – first, as indicated in Bond’s official biography, in the Royal Navy, and ultimately in its Secret Service.  Queen and country is what drives Bond, ironically, even with his “pathological rejection of authority based on unresolved childhood trauma.”  In reviewing The Man with the Golden Gun, I talked about the oddity in the construction of the plot that had Scaramanga scheming to create a monopoly on solar power that would drive the oil companies out of business – something of a laudable goal, not your typical supervillain scheme that threatens the entirety of humanity.  Yet Bond is still driven to stop him by any means necessary, out of fidelity to England.  Scaramanga himself points this out when he tells Bond, “You work for peanuts… a hearty ‘well done’ from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.”  Skyfall literalizes this sense of duty to country by personifying it as M, and yet, even after her death, Bond’s England soldiers on – as does he, recommitted fully to his work and arguably, his destiny, as he happily accepts a new assignment from M’s successor before the final fade out.

But what if this were all taken away?

What has never been examined in any great detail in any of the 007 films is Bond’s moral compass, absent his loyalty to England.  What if England itself was the enemy?  Who is Bond then?  What if Her Majesty’s loyal terrier is compelled to break off the leash – what if doing the right thing means betraying queen and country?

Some might argue that Licence to Kill touches on this briefly, as Bond walks away from M and England to pursue private vengeance, but the film features only one brief scene set on British soil (not even filmed there, ironically) and Bond never actually questions or betrays his fidelity to his homeland, he just considers retribution for Felix Leiter to be more important at the time.  So as far as I can tell, this is completely unknown territory.  (Quantum of Solace did flirt with this idea of Bond being considered a rogue by his own government, but the screenplay was so underwritten it never took the time to explore this idea to its fullest extent.  In that movie, despite pretensions of being on a mission of vengeance, Bond is really doing Her Majesty’s work his own way, and simply not stopping to file the required TPS reports.)

I’m not saying I expect Bond 24 to follow this line of thought.  Such questions tend to veer into the realm of the political, and Wilson and Broccoli, like her father before them, shy from making political statements.  Villains of a particular nationality are usually portrayed as rogues, with a sympathetic character from the same homeland always included to disavow all official connection with them – witness the genial Soviet General Gogol versus the crazed General Orlov in Octopussy, or the conciliatory North Korean General Moon against his megalomaniacal son in Die Another Day.  From Russia with Love’s adaptation changed the bad guys from the novel’s Soviet Union to the stateless SPECTRE.  Yet you can see the groundwork laid for an exploration of these shadows in Quantum of Solace – the usually reliable CIA (at least in the Bond movies) are portrayed as willing accomplices in a Bolivian coup d’état, and one of the leading members of Quantum is a “Guy Haines,” said to be a top advisor to the British Prime Minister, and whose fate is left unresolved at the end of the film.  And the worldwide audience is at a place now where trust in government is at a record low.  Corruption and incompetence is expected and tolerated; democracy is an exercise in spending rather than ideas.  And yet one can see the threads of the greatness that once was drifting in the cynical wind – hope has not been extinguished yet.  Where is Bond’s Britain on this new political map?  Is David Cameron meant to be the “PM” whom Q, Tanner and Mallory worry about in Skyfall?  Does Bond worry about what cuts to the National Health Service may mean for his martini-damaged liver?

In Skyfall, we saw a James Bond who wasn’t sure he wanted to be 007 anymore – addicted to painkillers and doing tequila shots at a beach bar, before family loyalty called him back into service to try and regain his classic self.  The man who stumbles around in exile in the first act, drinking Heineken (horrors!) as he can barely be bothered to notice the beautiful girl lying next to him, is a man without purpose.  At the end, as he stands on the rooftop of Regent’s Park contemplating the promise of the morning sun and the Union Jack soaring in the breeze, Moneypenny hands him his final gift from M – her prized porcelain British bulldog; bequeathing M’s sense of duty to a greater calling that she knew in her dying moments that he shared.  A powerful gift – and if it is somehow taken away from him, what becomes of Bond then?  Bond vs. England to save it from itself would be a powerful story, with Bond forced to question everything about who he is and whom he’s chosen to align himself with.  From this seed, the rest of the story can spring forth.  Then you can start figuring out the shape of the ideal, modern villain who could somehow turn Bond against his own homeland, and a love interest who can help Bond smash the conspiracy and restore honor to his life.

I should be clear – I am not interested in a rehash of the exhausted “one man must clear his name, the villain is his former mentor” trope that was every action movie released in the late 90’s.  Nor do I want to see Bond turn into Jason Bourne, pursued relentlessly by agents of the organization he is trying to leave behind.  This would be Bond choosing to betray his country for a compelling reason, and the consequences of that betrayal.  Testing whether Bond’s loyalty is truly to Her Majesty or to a deeper moral code, hidden somewhere in the murky ambiguity that accompanies a licence to kill.  Stripped of any issues of loyalty, where is James Bond on the grand divide?  Can a man who murders people for a living be, fundamentally, a good man?  That’s the question my hypothetical movie would want to examine, and my starting point for developing the screenplay.  If, you know, I got the call from Eon.  That phone can ring anytime, guys.

Wherever John Logan, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli choose to take 007 next, just as a fan I hope for two small things, both involving the leading lady – first, I really hope we’ve seen the last of the “Bond’s equal” female spy, a la Jinx, Wai Lin, Anya Amasova, etc.  As I’ve said before it’s an unimaginative stock character that gets shoehorned in when there is no more logical reason for having a love interest in the movie.  And second, after three movies where Bond ends his adventure alone, it would be nice to see the poor guy have a walk-into-the-sunset moment with a gorgeous companion at his side, in a cleverly-written scene that doesn’t involve puns about how many times Christmas comes in a year.  Everyone Daniel Craig’s Bond has slept with has died, and he’s earned an old-fashioned Connery-in-the-raft ending, methinks.

Sigh… long wait to November 2014.

The countdown concludes: Skyfall

Only a fool fights in a burning house.

Well… was it worth the wait?

I can’t speak for you of course, I can only offer my own opinion.  And if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage you to bookmark this, close the window and come back later.  Skyfall is a movie loaded with surprises, and it would be a shame to spoil any of them for you.  Go on then, go check it out.  I’ll be here when you get back.

When MGM was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2010, it looked for Bond fans as though we might be in for a repeat of the long dark night of the early 90’s.  Those whose appetites were left wanting by Quantum of Solace were forced to grapple with the notion that it could possibly be the last one for a long time.  But as has happened before, events for 007 had a way of working themselves out, and this case, very much for the better.  The most inspired stroke was the hiring of director Sam Mendes, a veteran of the British theatre whose first movie American Beauty had secured Academy Awards for Best Picture, actor Kevin Spacey, screenwriter Alan Ball and of course himself as Best Director.  Mendes had followed up on this achievement with the visually captivating Road to Perdition, which featured in its star-studded cast an up-and-comer at the time named Daniel Craig.  Mendes’ name got the A-list to sit up and take notice, and so for Skyfall, instead of the usual roster of capable if mostly unknown performers, we have the most pedigreed assemblage of genuine movie stars to ever take part in a Bond adventure; actors who would likely have turned up their noses in decades past.  And Mendes gets everyone to give their absolute all – there is no phoning it in, no dodgy line delivery, no short-shorted twenty-year-olds trying to explain nuclear physics phonetically.  It’s critical because Skyfall is a story, like the best of the stage, that depends on great acting.  It is not a battle for the fate of the world – it’s a struggle for the life of one very important person.

As the movie opens, Bond and junior field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are struggling to clean up an operation gone bad in Istanbul, where a gun-for-hire named Patrice (Ola Rapace) has murdered several British agents and made off with a hard drive that contains a list of every embedded NATO agent in every terrorist cell across the entire world.  The mission goes truly awry when on orders from M (Judi Dench), Eve shoots and appears to accidentally kill Bond.  Patrice escapes, and M is hauled on the carpet by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the bureaucratic chairman of the British intelligence service.  His government is convinced that the kind of human intelligence that MI6 represents is no longer needed in the absence of clearly defined enemies like those of the Cold War.  Returning to the office, M receives a mysterious transmission telling her to “think on your sins” and watches helplessly as MI6’s London headquarters explodes, killing several of her operatives.  A very much alive Bond, who has used his presumed death to disappear to a remote part of the world and has become addicted to painkillers and drink, finds out about the attack and decides to return to service, although he is a worn out shell of the specimen he once was.  Despite failing his physical and mental readiness tests, Bond is sent by M to Shanghai to follow up on the location of Patrice.  It’s there that Bond meets the beautiful yet emotionally scarred Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who reluctantly leads him to her employer – Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent (and former “favourite” of M) who was abandoned to torture after his identity was compromised, now living only for vengeance against “mommy.”  Although he cannot save Sévérine, Bond is successful in capturing Silva and returning him to London, thanks to a revolutionary gadget supplied by the young Q (Ben Whishaw) called a “radio.”  However, the capture of Silva seems to be a component of the villain’s master plan, which sees him promptly escape custody and go after M as she is attending a government hearing on her competency as head of MI6.  Bond realizes he needs a home field advantage, and so absconds with M to Skyfall Lodge, his empty childhood home in cold, rural Scotland, which is still being tended by gruff but lovable gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney).  Armed with only a handful of hunting rifles, Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 and a good helping of ingenuity, Bond, M and Kincade stand off against Silva and his men in a final brutal showdown which sees everything Bond believes in tested one final time, and his world changed forever – ironically bringing him back after a three-movie arc to where James Bond 007 as we know him truly begins.

In reviewing the preceding 24 Bond films over the last month, the trend that has emerged most strongly for me is the struggle to maintain balance between spectacle and substance; to ensure that along with the dessert goes a healthy but not too plodding serving of meat and potatoes.  The problem is that the eye candy is diverting, but we need a compelling reason to care about what’s going on in front of us, apart from just thinking that James Bond is cool and we don’t want him to die.  In Skyfall, as befits the CV of Sam Mendes, the stakes have never been more personal or more emotional for James Bond – you know going in you’re not going to get the downright stupid antics of A View to a Kill or even the mind-numbing kill-a-thon of Tomorrow Never Dies.  And the story is crafted by screenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (their 007 swan song, apparently) and John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Star Trek Nemesis) to move away from mechanics and big machines – the villain as a mere extension of evil technology – to hinging on the consequences of personal choices.  In fact, the McGuffin of the stolen hard drive is more or less forgotten about by the middle of the second act, but by that point we realize it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme, because we care more about the people than the plot.

My own Bond girl observed to me that she was most impressed by the calibre of acting this time around, that there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, and she’s correct.  Fiennes gets to dial it down a notch after finally escaping from Voldemort purgatory to portray a public servant struggling with the demands of accountability to a public (and a government) that sees the world in black and white and his recognition of the world of shadows within which M and MI6 operate.  Finney, with whom working was apparently an unfulfilled lifelong ambition of the late Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, is wonderful as the cranky old Scotsman who raised Bond after the death of his parents, and his chemistry with Judi Dench provides a gentle human contrast to the pyrotechnics of the final act.  Harris is a flirty and fun companion to Bond, and their relationship, which consists largely of verbal sparring (and one close shave) is clearly never going to progress to Vesper Lynd levels, but the reason why makes perfect sense as the movie draws to a close.  I don’t have the words to capture even a fragment of Bérénice Marlohe’s exotic, soul-shattering looks, but her Sévérine is a classic tragic Bond girl in the tradition of the Ian Fleming novels, her inner wounds elevating her from vampy, dragon-manicured femme fatale to a richly rounded human being, whose only failing is she isn’t on screen long enough for my liking – although perhaps that’s just my hormones talking.  The competing spy series XXX tried to introduce the idea of a young gadget-master in the vein of Q, but wound up with an unfunny scenery-chewing hack; Whishaw shows how to do it right, with low-key self-awareness that never veers into the smug smartassed techno-geekery that would make you want to punch him.  He is, like the other supporting players, the perfect foil for 007.

But Skyfall is the trifecta of performances that form its sad emotional core – the mother and her two sons.  Raoul Silva is perhaps the most unique Bond villain in decades; a former agent, once dedicated to the cause, who has suffered tremendously and is now driven and remorseless – his own kind of blunt instrument.  Yet Silva is also flamboyant and colourful in a way that none of 007’s foes have been in recent memory, prone to fits of tortured laughter as he struggles to hold himself against the insanity that boils beneath the surface, the inner physicality ravaged by a failed cyanide capsule, keeping himself together long enough to complete his mission of vengeance against M, a woman for whom he once held tremendous feelings of loyalty and the love one would have for a mother.  Particularly telling is his final confrontation with her, when he notices that she is wounded and still finds it within himself to care about her pain – seeking, at the end, to free them both from it.  As the audience we too feel sympathy for Silva despite his acts of terrorism; we cannot fully condemn the path he has chosen, as much as we don’t want to see him win.  With his complex and layered performance here, by turns charming and skin-crawlingly creepy, Javier Bardem has set a bar for James Bond villains as high as that achieved by Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and one does not envy the task awaiting the next actor or actress who must don this imposing mantle.

When Judi Dench was first cast as M for Goldeneye, it was a novelty – here was the world’s most famously sexist spy taking orders from a woman for a change.  The filmmakers quickly wised to the capabilities of the actress they had enlisted for this previously inconsequential role and beefed up M’s contributions from film to film.  The World is Not Enough was the first real attempt to expand the role of M, but like the rats so frequently mentioned by Silva in this movie, it only scratched very tenuously at her surface.  Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace recognized the maternal aspect of M and began to subtly play up this new angle, but in Skyfall that metaphor is the crux of the movie:  M is the leading lady this time.  It is Bond’s loyalty to her that brings him back to her side over the cynicism and disillusionment he feels, inasmuch as it is Silva’s loyalty to her that lies at the heart of his feelings of betrayal.  However, M’s loyalty has always been to the mission – the greater good of queen and country – and Bond’s and Silva’s inability to comprehend that the devotion shown to them is not personal leads both men to choose radically different paths; only one on the side of the angels.  Dench is magnificent as this most inscrutable of mothers, who clearly cares about the agents whose careers she has nurtured but fights to keep that sentimentality under control, and is filled with regret for the decisions she’s had to make that have gone against the mother’s instinct to protect her children.  Does M’s gender make her a better intelligence chief or a lesser one?  Skyfall seems to suggest that despite the predictable harsh consequences to a woman’s soul, it favours the former – M’s final confession to Bond being the proof.

Famous actors who have allegedly turned down the role of James Bond have described him by turns as boring, frivolous or simply immoral.  I would argue that Bond is in fact one of the deepest, most fascinatingly ambiguous characters on the silver screen, and with Skyfall, Daniel Craig has finally nailed him.  If in Casino Royale he was figuring himself out, and if in Quantum of Solace he was simply angry, Craig is confident enough here to play Bond torn apart – almost literally by bullets – and reassembled piece by shattered piece, emerging at the end as James Bond in all his classic glory and ready for new adventures bold.  Craig asked for more humour in the script this time, and Bond is much quicker with his wit than he has been for a while, with Craig surprisingly deft with a clever, well-written wisecrack after having seemingly cemented himself as the brooding man’s James Bond.  His Bond is also refreshingly less than superhuman, his strength failing and his marksmanship suffering, with sheer determination and adrenaline making up for what his skills lack.  The “old ways” which come so sharply into focus in the finale are in fact the only way to defeat a techno-genius like Silva, much as one needs a Daniel Craig in comfortable, fighting form to share the screen with a performer like Javier Bardem and not be completely blown off it.  If any doubts yet remained, Daniel Craig is James Bond for our generation, and the last two or three people left in the world who don’t agree can frankly suck it.

Skyfall is such a sumptuous feast of a 007 movie that I could probably go on for paragraphs more in dissecting its every precious component and why it is such a triumph, but rather than risking the old tl;dr, I have to make at least a brief mention of the cinematography of Roger Deakins, which is the most polished and gorgeous photographic work seen in a Bond movie likely ever.  Whether it’s in the neon flash of the lights of Shanghai, the bleak moors of Scotland or simply making Bérénice Marlohe look like a goddess made flesh, Deakins crafts a sublime palette for the story to unfold upon.  It’s been suggested that he should receive an Oscar nomination for his work here and I heartily agree.  I also want to note the welcome return of Daniel Kleinman to the position of main titles designer after the boring one-off that was MK12’s contribution to Quantum of Solace – Kleinman has always treated the titles as a chance to advance the story through abstract, artful imagery instead of just a “commercial break” with random silhouetted women gyrating in shadows, and he backs Adele’s haunting theme song with a sequence that plays almost like a graphic journey into the depth of Bond’s soul.  And last but not least, everlasting gratitude to Sam Mendes and second unit director Alexander Witt for holding the camera still.  My eyeballs thank you, and my stomach thanks you.

So that’s it, and after a month of journeying through the highs and lows of 50 years of movies I’m saying goodbye to James Bond for now.  I may have further reflections at a future time, once the memory of Skyfall has firmly entrenched itself in my brain and whether my opinion evolves upon further viewings.  Since we started this voyage back in the middle of October, the world has tumbled onward and given me plenty of new things to write about, and it’s time to get on with that.  As the new M tells Bond at the end of the movie, there’s plenty of work to do, and as Bond replies in turn, it’s my pleasure.

Cue the explosive horns and electric guitar of the James Bond theme.  Over and out.

Skyfall Countdown Day 1: Quantum of Solace

Daniel Craig aiming at the 185235th person to complain about the movie’s title.

Those who prefer their film franchises with rock-solid continuity are best steering clear of James Bond.  It is impossible to square the various circles that arise each time a new movie is released, even with the occasional tip of the hat to Bond’s past that might be included.  Roger Moore’s seemed to be if you consider the opening of For Your Eyes Only, but is Timothy Dalton’s James Bond meant to be the same man who married and then lost Tracy di Vicenzo?  How are we to believe that Blofeld could not recognize Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when they just met in You Only Live Twice – and what happened to his scar?  Is Felix Leiter a short old guy with a dorky hat or is he Christian Shephard from Lost or McGarrett from Hawaii 5-0?  Is Judi Dench’s M the same person who managed Pierce Brosnan’s veteran James Bond for four adventures and then promoted Daniel Craig’s James Bond to 00-status?  The mind wants to see logical connections, and will grasp at the flimsiest rationale to justify them.  But James Bond never cooperates.  It’s best – to preserve one’s sanity – to approach each movie as its own, individual entity.  Of course that doesn’t work when considering Quantum of Solace, the first direct Bond sequel.  Taking its title but nothing else from the Ian Fleming short story about James Bond attending a boring dinner party, it picks up literally five minutes after Casino Royale ended and sees Bond criss-crossing the world in pursuit of the shadowy terrorist organization that robbed him of his love Vesper Lynd.

Delivering the wounded Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) to an MI6 safe house in Italy, Bond and M are shocked when M’s personal bodyguard turns out to be in league with White and allows the mysterious bagman to escape.  A clue among the bodyguard’s possessions leads an angry but determined Bond to Haiti, where he encounters Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), a Bolivian secret service agent in pursuit of the exiled General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), the former dictator of Bolivia who was responsible for the murder of her father and rape of her mother and sister.  Medrano is being aided in an imminent coup d’etat in his former nation by environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whose organization is arranging Medrano’s return to power in exchange for a supposedly worthless tract of Bolivian desert.  Eager for this coup to go forward are the CIA’s South American station chief Gregg Beam (David Harbour) and his deputy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, reprising the role), in exchange for a share of the oil bounty rumoured to exist beneath the desert.  Following Greene to Austria, Bond snoops on a meeting Greene attends at a lavish lakeside production of Tosca – whose other participants are global power players and members of the secret organization to which Mr. White belongs, including a senior advisor to the British Prime Minister.  When Bond blows their cover and is blamed for the death of the advisor’s security man, M cuts off all 007’s financial support and forces him to seek the aid of former ally René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini).  The two journey to Bolivia, where it turns out that talk of oil is smoke and mirrors to fool the superpowers into looking the other way:  Greene is after Bolivia’s water supply, which he intends to sell back to Medrano for twice the current price after installing him as President of Bolivia.  However, Greene’s people are deeply entrenched – Mathis and fellow agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) are murdered, Bond is held responsible and the CIA is closing in.  Tipped off by the ever-reliable Leiter, and with little but Camille’s help and the lingering trust of M, Bond pursues Greene to an explosive showdown in the middle of the desert, where he must stop the coup, allow Camille to have her vengeance, and find out just who is masterminding this secret terrorist organization, called Quantum.  A coda in Russia sees Bond confronting Vesper’s former boyfriend, also a Quantum operative, who is being used as a honey trap to seduce highly placed female agents into giving up valuable classified information.  Bond finishes his adventure alone once again, leaving Vesper’s necklace behind in the snow before the famous gunbarrel roars across the screen to close this second chapter of James Bond 2.0.

Deleted scenes on a DVD are a fascinating glimpse into the filmmaking process, but it’s readily apparent why they were lopped out of the movie – they weren’t necessary to advance the story.  In much the same way, Quantum of Solace feels like the deleted scenes of Casino Royale.  Bond himself has taken a step backwards from where he found himself at the end of the first movie, as Vesper had proven, even in death – by giving up Mr. White – that her love for Bond was genuine, as was her remorse for betraying him.  But here Bond seems to have forgotten all of that; it’s as though the last twenty minutes of Casino didn’t happen, and he is still furious with her and unable to forgive.  And quite frankly, James Bond is not really a pleasant person in this movie.  He is cold, distant and often silent, a blunt, charmless instrument.  I suppose these traits are appropriate given Bond’s presumed state of mind, but the movie doesn’t take the time to address them.  Director Marc Forster has said he wanted the movie to be tight and fast, and true enough, Quantum is lean and mean at 107 minutes versus Casino’s 145, but part of the joy of watching a Bond movie is taking the time to appreciate the locations, the characters and the atmosphere.  Quantum of Solace feels a bit like the film projector is running too fast, it’s in such a hurry to get to the end.  Part of the issue as well was that the movie laboured under the Writers’ Guild strike of 2008, and scenes were being rewritten minutes before being shot, with Daniel Craig confessing that with the writers on the picket line, the task was left largely to him and Forster.  Even though Paul Haggis receives official writing credit (along with the apparently tenured Neal Purvis and Robert Wade again) what dialogue there is feels clunky and disjointed and has none of the zip and panache that accompanied the exchanges of Casino Royale.  Characters contradict each other, forget things they’ve just learned and offer witticisms that make no sense.  (There is really only one good line in the movie, and it’s in Spanish – when Bond explains how “teachers on sabbatical” can supposedly afford to stay at La Paz’s most palatial hotel.)

Without a solid script this time, Forster has to focus on what he can do with the action and the visuals.  Despite an unfortunate borrowing of technique from the Bourne movies and their damnable shaky cameras, for the most part the action scenes are well-executed, if routine and lacking somewhat in innovation.  Forster uses an interesting approach in that each of the movie’s four major action beats are based on a classical element of nature – the opening foot chase (earth), the Haiti boat pursuit (water), the battle in the skies above Bolivia (air) and the final explosive showdown (fire).  But Forster’s best work is to be found in the Tosca sequence, with villains hiding in plain sight as the brutal imagery of Puccini’s famous drama plays itself out in front of them, and the striking chase and gunfire exchange that follows with no sound but that of operatic voices singing their lament.  Here, Quantum of Solace nears the realm of exceptional cinema, even if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the promise.

The actors try their best despite the underwritten material, but the only real standout this time is Judi Dench, as the motherly M who both frets over and grows frustrated with her prodigal “son.”  The angle of a villain character pretending to care about the environment to hide the destructive nature of his true ambition is worth much more exploration than it receives here – while he is an excellent actor, Amalric doesn’t have much opportunity to develop his sinister power broker, and the only moment in which Greene reveals anything about his background is interrupted.  The filmmakers also missed their chance, given the South American setting, to feature the first Latina Bond girl, casting Ukrainian-born Olga Kurylenko with a spray tan and wobbly accent as Camille instead (and explaining it with a throwaway line about her Bolivian father having a “beautiful Russian wife… a dancer.”)  The characters of Bond and Camille seem to be in two different movies – indeed, they have two different missions – and their physical interaction is limited to one little kiss after the quest has ended and they are about to part company forever.  Camille herself has little personality; the more exuberant of the standard two Bond girls is Arterton as Fields, who unfortunately isn’t on screen very long.  Nor is Italian film legend Giannini, returning as Mathis only long enough to be killed off by Greene’s thugs (in a glaring continuity error that smacks of deleted scenes, Mathis turns up battered and bruised in the trunk of Bond’s car only about two minutes after we see him alive and well at Greene’s party – that was one quick beating!)  The remainder of the cast is unmemorable – particularly pointless is Anatole Taubman as Greene’s henchman Elvis, who has a silly bowl cut hairdo, follows Greene around in silent awkwardness while trying to look menacing and gets blown up before he even gets the chance to fight Bond.

What is most frustrating about Quantum of Solace is that one can see the seeds of a better movie scattered throughout, and a few alternate creative choices might have made for a more robust experience.  Had the story not been tied so irrevocably to Casino Royale, had the pace slowed and given the characters more time to flesh themselves out, and most importantly, had Bond himself had a different journey instead of the too-familiar path of vengeance, it’s very possible that Quantum could have met or even exceeded the expectations left in its parent movie’s wake.  As it stands, Quantum of Solace is like how many viewed the last half hour of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, keeping an old story going on and on long after the audience has arrived at a satisfactory emotional conclusion, and diminishing the impact of Casino Royale.  Even at the end, Mr. White is still missing and there are lingering questions of how far Quantum’s reach stretches inside the British government, suggesting that there is still more to tell, long after our interest has waned.  I’m encouraged that Skyfall is its own stand-alone story, with this movie’s ghosts put to rest for the time being.

Speaking of which – John Lennon says life is what happens when you’re making other plans, and as much as I was looking forward to seeing Skyfall tonight, because of other personal commitments it won’t be happening.  So you’ll have to wait till the beginning of the week for my take on it.  Sorry about that, folks, but I figure if you’ve been with me up until now, you don’t mind waiting a few more days.  In the meantime, thanks for coming with me on this retrospective, which hopefully has been as fun to read as it was to write, and if you are heading out to Skyfall tonight, I hope I’ve helped get you a little in the mood.  Stay shaken, not stirred.

Skyfall Countdown Day 3: Die Another Day

“Yeah, I didn’t like her last album either.”

It’s become fashionable in Bond fandom to wear one’s contempt for Pierce Brosnan’s 007 swan song as a snarky badge of honour; to attempt to one-up other anonymous keyboard wielders with profanity-laden schadenfreude at the movie’s expense.  Yes, it’s over the top, yes, it’s dabbling in the dreaded science fiction arena again, yes, the special effects are dodgy and we’re not sure that what Madonna’s doing in it can be charitably called “acting.”  But the way professed fans go after this movie with raging hate-ons about everything from the CGI bullet flying through the opening gunbarrel to the villain’s robo-suit does little to diminish the perception of fandom as the proverbial bunch of spoiled virgins squatting in their parents’ basements on a diet of Doritos and Mountain Dew, so thoroughly jaded as to be unimpressed by anything.  It has its faults, but it’s simply not that bad a movie.  Most of the criticisms levelled at The World is Not Enough (those that did not solely blame Denise Richards) accused it of being too low-key and having a confusing plot (i.e., one that isn’t explained on a blackboard for the slower members of the audience).  In preparing Die Another Day, the filmmakers wanted to streamline the story and bring back the notion of Bond movies feeling big.  In that, I believe they succeeded.  But let’s delve deeper, shall we?

The story begins with 007 undercover inside North Korea on a mission to assassinate the rogue Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee), who has been trading illegal African conflict diamonds for arms.  A rogue MI6 operative exposes Bond to Moon’s henchman Zao (Rick Yune), and following a hovercraft chase through the Korean DMZ in which Moon is apparently killed, Bond is captured, imprisoned and tortured for fourteen months.  He is eventually released, traded back to the West in exchange for Zao, stripped of 00-status and about to be packaged off for rehabilitation.  But Bond, who believes he’s been set up, escapes British custody and with the aid of Chinese intelligence finds his way to Cuba, where Zao is undergoing a peculiar form of DNA-replacement therapy designed to transform his appearance.  It’s here that Bond first encounters NSA agent Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson (Halle Berry), who’s also hunting down the resourceful Korean.  It seems Zao is paying for his “makeover” with African conflict diamonds bearing the laser signature of Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), which leads Bond back to Britain and eventually to Graves’ ice hotel in Iceland, where the diamond magnate is demonstrating his Icarus satellite, which can redirect solar energy anywhere on earth.  With Jinx’s help, Bond discovers that Graves is in fact the presumed-dead Colonel Moon, having undergone DNA-replacement therapy to take on a new identity, and that Icarus is actually a destructive solar laser.  And Bond finally meets his betrayer – MI6 agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), who has been assisting Graves/Moon in his master plan to use Icarus to detonate the minefield in the DMZ and give North Korea’s million-man army a clear path to invade the South.  Everything comes to a head in the skies above Korea as the two countries teeter on the brink of war.

Die Another Day was the first Bond movie to be made after 9/11, when the idea of the hero shifted away from the wry smirk of the testosterone-jacked Uzi-sprayer to the self-sacrifice of the first responder and the common man finding bravery in his darkest moments.  It also came out in a time when Jason Bourne was first carving his cinematic mark, and when the makers of the Vin Diesel vehicle XXX were bragging publicly about wanting to take down the Bond franchise with their hyperactive, video game-inspired knockoff, accusing 007 of being a spy movie for grandfathers.  Despite ever-escalating box office numbers, Bond was again in danger of irrelevance.  The solution was to stage the next movie as a celebration that would remind audiences why they loved Bond in the first place.  Director Lee Tamahori was clearly interested in giving a much larger scale and faster pace to this 40th anniversary outing, and he and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade packed the screen with sly references to almost every Bond movie that had come before (diehards claim there is indeed a reference to every preceding Bond movie, but some of them are probably just wishful thinking applied to coincidences).  Octopussy’s Acrostar jet, Rosa Klebb’s spike-toed shoe and Thunderball’s jetpack are just a few of the toys on display in Q’s lab this time around.  The plot borrows an unused element from the Fleming novel Moonraker in the shaping of its villain, a man who appears to have gone from nothing to a highly-respected member of British society in a short amount of time but is in fact a foreigner bent on destruction.  Some of these homages do come off as recycling, especially in the space-based weapon angle we just saw in Goldeneye a few movies ago.  But Die Another Day is essentially a greatest hits package, and in between the familiar and the winks to Bond’s past we do see some terrific individual scenes, and an attempt to do the same old things in a stylistically different way.  And some people just didn’t like that very much.

The first half of the movie is the tribute to Bond’s past, while pushing him into some interesting new directions.  It’s a bold decision to show the unstoppable 007 suffering the brutal consequences of failing in his mission, and looking for the first half hour of the movie like a refugee from Cast Away.  It being a PG-13 movie, we were never going to see the true horrors of torture, but Tamahori and director of photography David Tattersall incorporate black-and-white cinematography and different film speeds to make the audience uncomfortable.  In addition, the image is slightly desaturated in the opening North Korean section of the movie to add, subconsciously, the feeling of a cold and bleak foreign land, in contrast to the warmer, richer colours of the Cuban portion of the movie.  When Bond arrives back in England (to the strains of the Clash’s “London Calling,” another choice that upset a lot of fans for no apparent reason), Tamahori unleashes the finest action sequence of the entire film (once Madonna’s limp cameo is out of the way): the swordfight between Bond and Graves.  Beginning with epees, the battle escalates with samurai swords and tears apart half the club before it’s stopped.  Wisely, Tamahori never cuts away from the two characters as they duel – John Glen would have added all sorts of comic reaction shots of people diving out of the way, staring at their drinks in disbelief and so forth.  We the audience then, never get a breath from this intense and memorable exchange – to our benefit.  Like the best action beats, this scene works better because there is some emotional underpinning at work, even if it is, at heart, as Madonna describes, a “cockfight.”

Bond’s arrival in Iceland at Gustav Graves’ ice hotel begins the portion of the movie that fans had the most trouble with.  They didn’t like Bond’s invisible car, the scene with Bond escaping (via CGI) from the collapsing ice wall, or the use of speed ramping in the editing of Bond’s high-speed chase with Zao.  The invisible car actually isn’t that much of a flight of fancy, being an extrapolation of technology actually developed for military use.  I’ll concede the point about the ice wall, not because the special effects and the use of a digital Bond in a series renowned for its real-person stunt work are suspect, but because the entire scene could be lopped out of the movie with no letup in the narrative.  The speed ramping reminded too many people of The Matrix, I suppose, but when one considers the style contrast between the old-school spy movie of the 60’s at work in the movie’s first half and the leap ahead into the future in its second, it makes sense, and there’s enough energy at work here to keep the picture moving even through some of its saggier bits.

I do have issues with Die Another Day in a couple of areas.  Firstly, the acting is a real step down from some of the impressive work done in The World is Not Enough.  The relatively unknown Stephens, who would go on to play Bond in a series of BBC radio adaptations of the Fleming novels, is the best of the lot, punching above his weight to deliver a snarling performance that stands him in good stead against some of the more famous actors who’ve faced off against James Bond in the past.  Some criticized Stephens’ interpretation as petulant, but again, it’s logical when considering the nature of the character, a young North Korean seemingly spoiled by an unfeeling father and a longing for the excesses of the West.  John Cleese is a delightful (if short-lived, as it would turn out) successor to Desmond Llewelyn as Q.  But other than that it’s verging a bit on amateur hour, U.S.A.  Halle Berry would win an Oscar prior to appearing in this film, but she’s relying a little too much on sass to create a likeable character, forgetting that sass in and of itself doesn’t equal memorable.  In fairness to her, she doesn’t have much to work with in yet another “Bond’s equal” female agent role – the played-out archetype Bond’s screenwriters resort to when they can’t think of a more logical reason to have a love interest in the movie.  (A plan to give Jinx her own spinoff movie series was mercifully abandoned.)  Rick Yune is kind of a non-factor, lowering his voice to sound menacing and skulking about in slow motion, and for a supposedly lethal killer, we never actually see him kill anyone.  And Judi Dench goes terribly underused here after factoring so significantly into the action of the previous movie.  Secondly, the dialogue is hammy, trading nuance and character for pun after pun.  It hasn’t escaped notice that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, now credited with co-writing their fifth consecutive Bond movie on Skyfall, are often rewritten by others, but here they are in full command of the script and one longs for the deft, literate touch that Paul Haggis would provide on the forthcoming movie.

But at the end of all that, much like Moonraker, I still give a thumbs up to Die Another Day.  I appreciate the nods to Bond’s past, I like some of the riskier touches, I can even appreciate the ones that don’t work for the attempt alone – and when the classic Bond theme kicks in, I can’t help being pumped.  Die Another Day is, as I said, Bond’s greatest hits, and much as you do often want the intellectual challenge of the more difficult concept album with its experimental tracks, sometimes it’s better to kick back and put on the party mix where you know every song is going to be one you love.  Die Another Day is a movie full of flaws and miscalculations, but it succeeds on the question of entertainment, and those inclined to waste megabytes trashing it might want to just give it a rest – for the sake of their own sanity.  There are much more important things in the world to get upset about.

Tomorrow:  Back to the beginning.

Skyfall Countdown Day 24: Dr. No

“Bond… James Bond.”

It’s been a bit of a dry spell for us fans of James Bond of late, a drought not seen since the dreaded 1989-1995 hiatus when a combination of lawsuits, hostile takeovers and general public ennui made it seem like 007 had had his day.  The financial woes of the legendary MGM have kept Bond off the big screen since 2008, but as anyone who’s seen the trailers for Skyfall can attest, he’s ready to roar back in a big way, with Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes at the helm and a powerhouse A-list cast including the likes of Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney.  It occurred to me this morning that there are 24 days until the movie is released here in North America, and that there have been 24 James Bond films preceding this one (if you include the “non-official” 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again).  What better way to celebrate this new Bond than to review one 007 adventure a day culminating with my take on Skyfall (because you know I’ll be there on opening night)?  So let’s get down to it then – with the movie that started this 50-year rollercoaster ride.

Dr. No seemed an unlikely choice to kick off the film series in 1962 – it was Ian Fleming’s sixth James Bond novel and hardly the most cinematic of the ones he had written up to that date – to say nothing of that oddball title, a moniker probably more suited to a goofy 1930’s Flash Gordon-type serial.  True enough, producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had wanted to make Thunderball first, but it was tied up in litigation.  And the unknown Sean Connery was not anybody’s first choice for the leading role – Fleming himself wanted David Niven, and offers had been rejected by bankable stars of the day like Cary Grant, James Mason and Patrick McGoohan.  Yet it’s difficult to imagine any of them defining the role the way Connery did, particularly in his introductory scene.  There’s a sort of laissez-faire to the way Connery announces “Bond… James Bond,” cigarette dangling from his lips, like he just doesn’t give a rat’s arse whether you care who he is – he’s that confident in his awesomeness.  (One can imagine Grant delivering the line with his customary wink and smile – James Bond would have been Cary Grant, not the other way around.)

There has been a copious amount of criticism written around the “James Bond formula” – the exotic locations, the women, the cartoonish megalomania of the villains.  Many of the elements are introduced in Dr. No, but almost seem like they’re in rough draft form; indeed, it’s difficult to look at the movie objectively 50 years on.  The plot is probably one of the simplest of the film series – a British agent is murdered in Jamaica after looking into reports of radio interference with American space launches, and James Bond is sent in to investigate.  Bond is assisted by CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and local boatman Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), and eventually crosses paths with the half-German half-Chinese, handless Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman), agent of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), who is using his private nuclear reactor to knock the American rockets out of the sky.  And of course there’s eye candy in the form of Eunice Gayson as Sylvia Trench, Zena Marshall as Miss Taro, 1961’s Miss Jamaica Marguerite LeWars as a photographer, and most famously, the voluptuous Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), whom Bond famously encounters as she strolls out of the ocean in a white bikini, knife on her hip, singing “Underneath the Mango Tree.”

Dr. No is a tough sell to modern audiences if it isn’t the first Bond movie you’ve ever seen.  It was made on a shoestring budget of $1 million (nowadays, that wouldn’t even pay for a third of an episode of CSI) and a lot of it does look very cheap.  The acting is pretty painful across the board, and Connery himself tends to flap his gums and yell his lines as he tries to figure out the character, not yet realizing that intensity doesn’t require volume.  Andress begins a long tradition of Bond girls having their lines completely dubbed by another actress, and the effect can be greatly distracting.  Apart from Wiseman, who is aware of his character’s cartoonishness and underplays to compensate, none of the villains are terribly menacing.  The fight and chase scenes are nothing special.  The “dragon tank” is a goofy excuse for a prop that belongs on Gilligan’s Island.  The latter half of the film, once Dr. No finally enters the picture, slows down and drags where it should be building tension to a breaking point, such that the climactic battle between Bond and the villain seems a bit like an afterthought.  Apart from the singular James Bond theme (which is regrettably hacked up in the opening credits) the musical score is cheesy and instantly forgettable.  Yet compared to the largesse of some of the later films, there is a rawness to this adventure and more of a sense of Bond as a bruiser of a man relying on his skills, wits and fists to extricate himself from sticky situations, rather than the finely-tailored dandy with nary a hair out of place who always has the right gadget at the right time.  When a bloodied, battered Bond is crawling through an air vent to escape Dr. No’s lair, you truly worry whether he’s going to make it out alive.  And there are several memorable scenes that help to define Bond as a new kind of morally uncompromising hero, most notably when he shoots an unarmed man in cold blood, and callously turns a woman he’s just slept with over to the police.  Bond is always at his best when he’s being an unrepentant badass.

In most recaps of the Bond series, Dr. No tends to rate around the middle, which is where I’d probably place it.  It’s a little low-key for how I like my James Bond, and really shows its age in certain places, particularly in its pacing.  It has not yet acquired the panache and greater sense of fun of the mid-60’s Bond pictures, and the cheapness of its budget is quite evident throughout.  In recipe terms, Dr. No is a soufflé with all the right ingredients that doesn’t quite manage to rise all the way.  But you certainly cannot argue that without it and its success to set the stage, we would never have had the James Bond that we’ve grown up with all these decades and continue to love.  That alone tends to earn it both a pass for its faults, and a greater appreciation of what it is – a competently-executed thriller bursting with promise for what is to come.

Tomorrow:  From Russia with Love raises the bar.

The charms of James Bond’s Vesper

“Once you’ve tasted it, it’s all you want to drink.”

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean.  They made me feel civilized.”  Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms

Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man.  I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages.  But enough about all that.  It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent.  Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks.  In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice:  the Vesper martini.  As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

I love martinis.  They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins.  Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent.  The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm.  Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.”  But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper. 

Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure.  The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet.  Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine.  Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore.  The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down.  The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while.  Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953.  The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka.  80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff.  I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink.  Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid.  I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away.  If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel.  Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie:  “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.”  I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.

The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good.  Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid.  The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions.  There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil.  In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner?  It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight.  Nor are we.  (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)

Happy 50th James Bond – have a Vesper on me.

Mr. Bond, Dr. Freud will see you now

“Oh please, James, spare me your Freud.  One might as well ask if all the vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed.  Or if you’ve found forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women… for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” – Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) to James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in GoldenEye

After four years of speculation, rumor, tabloid nonsense and the customary story about the Bollywood flavor-of-the-month who is “perfect” for the female lead and the “desperate” choice of the producers, the truth is out.  The 23rd James Bond movie, SkyFall, started shooting on November 3rd.  Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes reteams with Daniel Craig after their collaboration on Road to Perdition, and brings along for the ride the most incredible cast ever assembled for a James Bond movie:  Javier Bardem (Oscar winner for No Country For Old Men), Ralph Fiennes (Oscar nominee for Schindler’s List among other things), Albert Finney (four-time Oscar nominee and star of the Best Picture winner Tom Jones) along with Judi Dench and the two new ladies – French actress Berenice Marlohe and Pirates of the Caribbean star Naomie Harris.  Longtime Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins is the cinematographer and Stuart Baird handles editing.  The script is by Bond veterans Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Gladiator writer John Logan, based on a premise by The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan.  With all that talent it would take an act of Satan himself to forge an A View to a Kill-style misfire.  Then again we haven’t heard who’s doing the theme song yet.  Is Shirley Bassey still available?

About the plot, little is known beyond the postage stamp synopsis released by the production team – basically, that Bond finds himself fighting to save MI6 after a dark chapter of M’s past comes back to haunt them both.  When Judi Dench was first cast as M for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut GoldenEye, much was made in the entertainment press of the idea that a woman was taking over as the boss of the most chauvinistic of all cinema spies (sorry, Austin Powers.)  However, throughout the four-film Brosnan era, apart from a few sparse touches the relationship between Bond and M was not played that different than it had been with Bernard Lee (or to a lesser extent, Robert Brown) in the past.  Beginning with Daniel Craig’s tenure, the producers have opted to treat the relationship differently.  Obviously with an actress of Judi Dench’s caliber you don’t want to limit her to sitting behind the office desk and disappearing after the first act.  In expanding the character of M, the producers have created a more maternal bond (pardon the pun) between her and her star agent.  Indeed, their relationship is unique in the 007 universe, as M is the only woman who does not see Bond sexually (the reverse being true as well.)  When Bond was broken in Casino Royale by his betrayal by Vesper Lynd, and set out to bury his demons in Quantum of Solace, his loyalty to M remained.  Indeed, when one thinks of Bond as doing his duty for queen and country, it is not necessarily Her Majesty Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor he is thinking of first.

Bond movies can be a curious entity.  In many of the more forgettable entries there was little attention paid to character development or emotional engagement.  It was just a fun ride.  And that’s fine if that’s all you’re looking for.  Clearly it worked or we wouldn’t still be talking about it 50 years on and 23 films later.  As the second generation of Bond producers has gotten older and responded to the changing audience, and in particular seen Bond struggling to stay afloat in a field swarming with imitators of the genre it essentially spawned, they have come to realize that the character of James Bond has considerable depth worth exploring.  Who is he?  What drives the core of this man whom men want to be and women want to be with?  Consequently the producers have tried to craft plots that are emotional journeys inasmuch as they are excuses for implausible action scenes.  Sometimes with mixed results.  The World is Not Enough was the first real attempt in the modern era to make a character-driven Bond movie and the elements did not blend together well – rather like a martini where the proportions of vodka and vermouth were just slightly off.

Some Bond fans balk at the character-driven approach, suggesting, and not unreasonably, that not every mission needs to be personal.  But I’ve maintained that that resonance is the crucial meat and potatoes alongside the chocolate and the whipped cream.  We need to begin to care about the people on screen, about Bond, as opposed to just watching him do cool stuff.  That cool stuff will always be essential to Bond – one would not necessarily care to see him simply talking about his problems on a psychiatrist’s couch for two hours – but probing into his soul takes it from the realm of popcorn movie into that of real cinema and makes it a truly memorable experience.  I suspect that with the above-the-line talent who have been brought on to shape SkyFall, the producers are aiming for just that.  Of course they want to make a great entertainment, but let’s have a little something for the grownups too.  I think Ian Fleming would be ok with that (actually, he would have flipped out at the suggestion of a female M, but I won’t tell him if you don’t).