Tag Archives: Ian Fleming

Must we come to hate our darlings?

oldbooks

So this was interesting.  Variety ran an interview with Stephenie Meyer the other day asking her about the new movie she’s producing, Austenland.  Naturally you don’t interview one of the most successful authors in the world without posing at least one question on her signature achievement, but Meyer’s response upset some of her more devoted fans (as noted in the comments, which I give you leave to read this one time, but remember, don’t read the comments.)  She said Twilight isn’t a happy place for her anymore and she has no interest in revisiting it anytime soon.  Sheesh, some might be inclined to say, it made you a household name and a bajillion dollars, what on earth are you complaining about?  Yet, Stephenie Meyer is neither the first nor will she be the last artist (yes, you cynical wags, I called her an artist) to have an ambivalent relationship with her art.  I’m reminded of the story of Alec Guinness telling a kid he’d only give him an autograph if the kid promised to never watch Star Wars again, and I wonder if it’s a fate that befalls all of those of us who dare to create – is it inevitable that we will come to hate the creation?

One can forgive Meyer for wanting to move on.  It would be one thing for her to simply wish to expand her pursuits into new arenas following a profitable run with her first endeavor, but Twilight generated as much scorn, probably far more so, as it did praise.  You can say what you like about the Harry Potter series, but those who aren’t fans don’t detest it with such visceral hatred as you’ll see anywhere on the Internet Twilight dares to enter the discussion.  The pastiche of the Ain’t It Cool News comment section mentality I posted in the last entry?  The most generous of compliments in comparison.  Plenty of memes sprang up mocking the characters, the actors who played them in the adaptations, the quality of the writing, every single creative decision taken in the crafting of that saga.  (“Still a Better Love Story Than Twilight” is probably the one that resonates the most.)  In essence, popular culture saw this largely-teen-and-tween-girl phenomenon and decided to take it to the woodshed and whack it with a two-by-four, as if it were singularly to blame for the decline of post-modern civilization (well, that and Obamacare, naturally).  I don’t know Ms. Meyer personally, but I can’t imagine, even in the glow of unimagined wealth, that this wouldn’t have cut, and cut deeply.  In the beginning, she only wanted to tell a story that was important to her.  Now, however many years later, she wants nothing to do with it, and in a way has even more to prove now than when she was a nobody.  It’s a bit sad.

I’ve befriended quite a few writers on Twitter.  Most are unpublished, working away diligently on their dreams and hopeful that someday they’ll break on through the stubborn glass to a cheering audience and critical acclaim.  Each has a story they feel passionate about telling, otherwise they probably wouldn’t be writing.  As I chat with them and read their blogs and learn more about their works-in-progress, I chance to imagine a future time where they are exhausted by the attention, answering the same interview questions fifteen hundred times, and fans wanting to know every iteration of every character nuance of that single work as revealed by word choice and punctuation.  We do so love our darlings but is the moment when we come to despise and regret their existence that distant train rumbling down the track and headed right for us?  Paul McCartney refused to play Beatles songs in concert for most of the 1970’s.  Both Fleming and Conan Doyle tried to kill off their star characters only to be pressured into resurrecting them by fervent readers, and the works that followed were of lesser quality – their hearts just weren’t in it anymore.  (A particularly cutting review of Fleming’s You Only Live Twice I read recently pointed out that it’s almost a deliberate, sniping, mean-spirited parody of what readers had come to love about James Bond, like a middle finger from the worst of Fleming’s snobbery as his health began to fail.)

There are times, very few I’m happy to say, where I even find the modest demands of this blog to be an irritant – the pressure to keep to a regular schedule, to continue to find things to write about that will interest more than just my immediate family.  But I keep going because for better or worse, I still love doing it.  Then again, I don’t have one million fans (or haters) pestering me to write less of this or more of that or what have you.  And I can’t really imagine ever arriving at the point where I say screw you all, I’m done, I’m going off to finally start my dream project about 8th Century cabinet making and I don’t care if nobody but that one guy in Mongolia likes it.  Then again, I’m sure that neither did Stephenie Meyer.  It seems to be a given that success is not always the most comfortable destination.  However, you look at folks like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, who after struggling against typecasting for years finally came to embrace the work that had given them international renown and the life they earned as a result.  I Am Not Spock eventually begat I Am Spock.  Maybe it’s a full circle after all.  Like raising kids.  First they’re cute, then they’re irritating, then they’re rebellious pests, and ultimately you love them again, more than you ever have.  If that’s the case, then we can learn to treat our art the same way.

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A dialogue on dialogue

From the new Bravo series, "Graham on Graham."
From the new Bravo series, “Graham on Graham.”

Graham (G1):  Good morning Graham, how are you?

Graham (G2):  Meh, pretty tired.  The cat decided to wake us up at three in the morning again.

G1:  That sucks.  Frickin’ felines.

G2:  Yeah.

G1:  So I saw on Twitter last night you said you thought you might write a post about dialogue today.

G2:  You must have been up late.

G1:  I was.

G2:  Couldn’t sleep either?

G1:  What “either”?  You and I are the same person.

G2:  True enough.

G1:  I’m just choosing not to be snippy and cranky about it this morning.

G2:  “Snippy” and “cranky”?  What are you, channeling our grandmother now?

G1:  Do you think we could get on with this, Mr. Snarkypants?

G2:  Fine.  Where do you want to start?

G1:  Well, it occurred to me that there is a lot of contradictory advice about dialogue floating around out there.

G2:  I’ve noticed that too.  Some people think too much dialogue is a bad thing.

G1:  I don’t get that.  I mean, obviously a novel is not a play and you need to create a balance of description and dialogue, but come on.  I think that’s an excuse invented by people who can’t write dialogue well.

G2:  And you accused me of being snarky.

G1:  Well, if I didn’t think I was a good writer of dialogue, I would pare it back as much as I could.  But do you remember when we were watching There Will Be Blood, how pretentious it seemed that there was no dialogue at all in the first half hour?  Characters were going out of their way to not talk.  It was forced and artificial.  Real people are insatiable chatterboxes.

G2:  Our son would certainly agree with you there.

G1:  He’s kind of the singular example.

G2:  Yeah.  But you wouldn’t write a character like him, would you?

G1:  No.  Because a lot of what he says is just random stuff that pops into his head – half-remembered lines from TV shows, updates on the video game he’s playing, stuff he did at school that day.  It doesn’t have a lot of coherence to it, or readability if you were to type it out word for word.

G2:  Naturally.  He’s twelve, and he’s a real person, not a character in a novel.  We’re not expecting erudition and fully formed sentences with multiple clauses.

G1:  No, no one would believe that, even in a novel.  Unless you were portraying him as the most preternatural, linguistically-gifted twelve-year-old in the history of the human race.

G2:  We love him very much, but no, that’s not who he is.

G1:  Nope.  So there’s a balance between the accurate portrayal of a twelve-year-old’s mentality and the need to establish a readable character, one who serves the narrative.  People just don’t talk how writers need to write them.  We yammer on about everything but what’s actually on our mind – we tell silly jokes, we blather about the weather.  In a story you have to get to the point.

G2:  That’s what you mean about serving the narrative.

G1:  Yeah.  Every conversation needs to push some aspect of the story, if only the slightest of nudges.  The relationships between the characters need to develop, or the characters have to get closer to their goal.  If your guys are going to stop for a five minute exegesis on hamburgers, there had better be some payoff to it.

G2:  Hamburgers… you’re thinking Pulp Fiction again.

G1:  You know me so well.  That’s a really good example.  That whole conversation between Jules and Vincent has nothing to do with the plot, but it helps establish their relationship, and shows us that these guys are interesting, endearing people we’re going to dig spending time with.  Even though they are on their way to commit a series of murders.  Would we have liked them if they’d devoted the conversation to the methodology of how they were going to kill the guys once they got to the apartment, or worse, said nothing at all?

G2:  That would have been the insufferable arthouse version.

G1:  So, I come back to this idea of balance.  You can go too far the other way, where characters become plot explainers.  I’ve seen this in fantasy a lot, where two people who have no real reason to talk to each other do an information dump about where they are in their quest, what happened over the last couple of days, and what has to happen next.  There’s no nuance to the conversation – the characters just agree with each other for pages on end as they lay out the story so far.  It’s the “As you know, Bob” problem.  Or Basil Exposition, depending on your preferences.  If the sole purpose of your dialogue is to tell your audience things they could learn another way, You’re Doing It Wrong.

G2:  My eyelids sag at the mere thought.  Of course, you and I are basically just agreeing with each other here.  What did you mean by nuance?

G1:  Characters should never talk about what they’re actually talking about.  Concepts and pellets of information should be implied, not blatant.

G2:  Oh, so we would talk about mochacinos in the guise of discussing dialogue?

G1:  I like to approach conversations from oblique angles.  Like yeah, maybe I would compose a scene of two writers (or two halves of the same mind, as it were) discussing dialogue and set it in line at a Starbucks while they wait for their lattés.

G2:  Yeah, because you’d never find a writer at a Starbucks.  Real original.

G1:  You get my point, though?

G2:  Not really.  Please explain it to me with statistics and visual aids.

G1:  You cribbed that line.  You really need to get more sleep.

G2:  I really need a lot of things and sleep gets in the way of them.

G1:  Suit yourself.  Picture it this way.  When you’re building dialogue, you have a couple of elements to consider.  You have the setting.  You have the goal – the piece of information that you need to convey.  Maybe it’s a simple fact, maybe it’s a clue to the mystery, maybe it’s the next step in a relationship.  That’s where you’re heading, but you don’t start with it.  You start in the wilderness and build towards it.  Imagine a scene of a couple eating in a restaurant.  The husband has to tell the wife that he’s lost his job, but he doesn’t know how to break the news.  His first line, then, is not going to be “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I lost my job.”  Is it?

G2:  I guess it could be, but that seems a waste of a lot of potential dramatic tension.

G1:  Exactly.  Instead, you might start with them talking about the food they’re eating, other restaurants they’ve been in, you know, casual, everyday, innocent stuff.  They might recall fond memories of when they were first dating.  The husband will realize that losing his job means they won’t be able to have nights like this anymore.  That will start to creep into what he’s saying to his wife.  She’ll notice something’s wrong and she’ll ask him about it.  He’ll deny it.  She’ll ask again.  He’ll deny it again, until he breaks down and confesses – or maybe doesn’t at all.  You see how 95% of the conversation won’t be about the main piece of information that comes at the very end, right?  Instead, you find your way in from the edges.  Organically.  The characters will lead you there on their own.

G2:  Like the scene in our novel where the two leads talk about their respective parents.  It begins with the heroine humming a stupid old folk song, and the guy noting that he recognizes it.

G1:  Or the scene later on where a conversation about the role of women in the world begins with a chat about sandwiches.

G2:  Pick the oddest thing and work your way back from it.

G1:  You are learning, young padawan.  The other thing to keep in mind too is that unless you’re writing a 1920’s silent movie, characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Nor do most people.  Subtlety and understatement are the way to go.  A solemn declaration of undying love shouldn’t sound like it was scripted for daytime TV.  In fact, avoid solemn declarations of undying love altogether.

G2:  Something just occurred to me.  We’re unpublished – where do we get off flinging rules around like so much confetti?

G1:  There are no rules, only our interpretation of our own truth.  There is every possibility that this exercise has been one in utter nonsense.  We can only pass along what works for us in the hope that someone else might find it useful.  And this is a rich topic that could go on for thousands upon thousands of words, but eventually, folks will want to tell us to shut up.

G2:  Are there some resources we could point people towards?

G1:  I think you just have to read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies written by great writers, listen to a lot of different kinds of people talking and process it all in the mind’s blender.  And then try and fail a few times on your own before you figure it out.

G2:  You were going to mention Aaron Sorkin, weren’t you.

G1:  We both know he’s a big influence on us, it goes without saying.  Look at him, look at people like David Mamet, Richard Curtis, and David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, to name but a very few.  Listen to their rhythms, listen to how someone like Mamet deconstructs patterns of speech to convey character.  Glengarry Glen Ross is a terrific example of this.  The scene between Moss and Aaronow “talking about” versus “speaking about” is fantastic.

G2:  You haven’t mentioned any actual novelists.

G1:  Well, funny you should bring that up, because we’re reading a book right now, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which has an interesting approach to dialogue.  It’s a western, set in 1851 California, but everyone speaks in very elegant, grammatically precise phrases that are probably not an accurate reflection of how people in 1851 California really spoke.  Not the artistic choice I was expecting, but refreshing after plodding through Ian Fleming’s clumsy attempts at American slang which felt as artificial as nobody talking in the first act of There Will Be Blood did.

G2:  Way to bring it full circle, dude.

G1:  I know what you like.  Anyway, how to portray dialect, how to vary word choices to denote different speakers, the value of repetition, talking it out to make sure it sounds right – like I said, a rich palette and worth discussing further at a later time.

G2:  If you can persuade me to do this again.  I feel like I didn’t get to say very much.  You were doing all the talking.

G1:  You’re tired.  The cat, remember?  Just looking out for you.

G2:  Oh, yeah.  Thanks.  Cheers, mate.

G1:  You too.

I Suck at Description

The sky was blue.  The sand was not.
The sky was blue. The sand was not.

That’s my mea culpa for the day.  If I had to rank my perceived strengths as a writer in descending order, description would linger odiously in the basement with the lawn furniture and the dresser my wife keeps reminding me we need to sell.  I’m good at dialogue, at proposing ideas and batting them around, at the exploration of questions of human nature and our place in the universe, but, ask me to put any of these items in a setting that leaps off the page and I will curl up in the corner of that setting sobbing like an infant afraid of having his wooby taken away.  Every time I go back through my novel for revisions and start to think, “hey, this isn’t so bad,” I encounter someone else’s work that blows me back through the wall and turns my confidence to lime Jell-O.  I just can’t seem to crack that important element and it drives me bonkers.

I’ve devoted a lot of self-examination to trying to figure out why this aspect is so difficult for me.  Some writers seem to be able to do it flawlessly.  Within a few short, concise phrases you know exactly where you are – your imagination is triggered and the setting shimmers into existence around you as though you had stepped into the holodeck and announced “Run Program.”  Writing, as someone famous whose name escapes me for the moment has observed (I think it was Joyce Carol Oates), is about creating atmosphere.  My focus, however, has always been on character, though, and how the characters interrelate, and that usually means dialogue, and lots of it.  (And of course, you run into plenty of writing advice that suggests too much dialogue is a bad thing.  Can’t win, can’t even quit the game.)  In a perfect world, this is how I would describe almost every scene, so I could get on with crafting conversations (from Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett):

 A country road.  A tree.  Evening.

A few more words about Estragon trying to pull off his boot and we’re off to the races.  Okay then, you’re asking, why don’t you just write plays then?  I’ve written exactly one play, it was called Brushstrokes, a three-act examination of hidden love and the inability of men to admit their feelings tied together with a tenuous nail polish metaphor, and well, the less said about it the better.  That’s not to say I’ll never try another one, but in writing it I missed the ability to digress into stretches of narrative, to get into the heads of the characters and figure out what they were thinking.  It is not to suggest that novels don’t have to have structure, or limits for that matter, but they tend to be a freer place to play.  You can linger on a particular thought, explore its depths and its reaches, without worrying too much about a foot-tapping, finger-drumming audience waiting in exasperation for the next line.  It can be rather like the van that took forever to fall off the bridge in Inception without seeming to drag down the pace – again, depending on how you write it.  So it helps if you’re really good at that.

Many great writers are poets and can bring that sensibility to details as slight as a flake of ash falling from a burning cigarette, or the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing.  My description, by contrast, tends to be simple and straightforward.  What you need to know and no more.  Here’s an example from my novel:

Splinters of wood and crumbling brick from ramshackle buildings line the pockmarked street.  Lampposts bent by storms and vandals stand eerie sentry.  The rattle of broken window shutters is this rotting borough’s only tenant.

And another:

Dotted by whitecaps, the river is an icy gray.  Brine and rotting algae poisons the air.  The north side of the city lurks, cloaked, beneath frigid fog.  At the end of the jetty, a flat barge with a water wheel at its stern strains against the grip of the ropes anchoring it in place.  Creaking twin planks on its starboard side wobble under the boots of passengers laden with sacks and baskets who are shuffling aboard to claim a precious portion of the hard benches in the center of the craft.

One more:

A paved drive marked by a trail of brass lanterns on iron posts conducts us through spacious, garden-rich grounds, past a stone-rimmed lily pond watched by a gazebo, once-trim shrubs and dwarf trees grown wild with neglect.  The secluded manse that presides is half-hidden by branches yet still exudes wealth and pretense, as if trying to compete with its neighbors.  Long thin windows with black shutters adorn the exterior, while a portico supported by white columns protrudes over the front entrance.  A terraced second floor is set back on the high roof of the first.  A pointless relief of vine-entwined roses on the portico adds to the sense of superfluous money that permeates this place.

There is nothing technically wrong with any of these passages, but poetry they sure as hell ain’t.  Even looking at them sitting here out of context I want to rewrite them from word one.  One’s spirit crumples into crushed tinfoil at the possibility of being considered a candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton award, or as the latest Eye of Argon.  But you do what you can with what you have and keep trying to do better.  And though sometimes you gnash your teeth at the raw talent on display in some other people’s mere first drafts, you can’t let that stop you from moving forward.

The mistake that I tend to make and that many others probably do as well is in not having the description of the scene push the story forward in any way.  Think of it in terms of the last time you related a funny anecdote to your best friend.  You didn’t say, “So, I was at the grocery store.  It was a massive, soulless building painted in black and brown and the floor tiles bore the smudges of the soles of a thousand tired mothers dragging screaming children who were unable to comprehend the simple nutritional logic of why it wasn’t a good idea to eat chocolate at every meal.”  Your friend is sitting there saying “I don’t care!  What happened at the store?!”  You want to stage the scene and sprinkle in some color, but putting in that kind of description is like hitting the pause button.  It breaks the momentum and adds nothing.

Those who know what they’re doing, even writers who are incredibly journalistic and fetishistic about detail, like the late Ian Fleming, use that information to push the narrative – to tell you about the character they’re trying to sketch in your mind.  The sometimes excruciating manner in which Fleming waxes on about James Bond’s breakfast preferences still manages to tell you something important, that this is a man who defines himself very much by his tastes, and he is as much a social competitor with the villains he squares off against as he is a knight trying to slay the fearsome dragon.  It works, though, because everyone knows how Bond likes his martini, and “shaken, not stirred” has become entrenched in the zeitgeist (even if Aaron Sorkin insists it’s wrong).

Also, as human beings, we tend to notice individual details rather than the big picture.  This is crucial when you are writing first-person perspective as well because you can’t use that detached, “I SEE AND HEAR ALL” narrative voice.  When you spot an attractive person coming towards you, there’s probably one specific trait that strikes you first; their eyes, their smile, what have you.  And that characteristic will define them in your mind from then on.  That girl with the long dark hair, the guy with the shark tattoo on his right forearm.  (It does not have to be a visual characteristic either:  the girl who sings like a parrot with laryngitis, or the guy who smells like apple cinnamon soap.)  The same goes with scenery.  The tall building with the broken window on the top floor.  The car with the coughing exhaust pipe.  If your character has a particular perspective on the world, what they notice will flow organically out of that perspective as well.  Mine is accustomed to the peace of a silent forest, so the things she takes note of are what stands out to her as unusual – noise and artifice.  If I’ve done my job correctly, that should tell you something about her and how she views the world.  If not, then it’s back to the rewrite shed for another round of head-splitting angst and wondering why, despite people telling me contrary and often, I continue, in my own mind, to suck.

Anyone else struggling with this stuff?  Let me know.  Let’s help each other 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 2: Casino Royale (2006)

Making his mark.

No zealot like a convert, goes the old saying.  I was one of those people utterly perplexed by the decision to thank Pierce Brosnan, the “billion-dollar Bond,” for his service, and move ahead instead with an actor whose most prominent role to date had been as Angelina Jolie’s bland American love interest in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  And back in the mid-2000’s, there were a lot of us, not the least of which was Pierce Brosnan himself.  He seemed pretty keen on reprising the role; if you listen to his commentary on the DVD of Die Another Day he talks several times about what he’d like to do “in the next one.”  That “next one” would end up being a videogame, as 2004 saw the release of Everything or Nothing, featuring Brosnan as a digital Bond as well as Judi Dench and John Cleese back as M and Q respectively.  But on the big screen, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli wanted to go another way.  They wanted to go back.

And this is where, quite unexpectedly, Peter Parker comes into play.  Behind the movie screen, there had been a great deal of legal wrangling going on – Sony had come to own the rights to Casino Royale and was threatening to launch a competing series of Bond films (rumours at the time suggested that Independence Day filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were Sony’s preferred creative team for 007).  But they also wanted to make Spider-Man, a portion of whose rights happened to be the property of MGM.  A deal was agreed to by which the two were exchanged.  Casino Royale came home, and Sony got to sling webs with Tobey Maguire.  Making a proper version of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel had long been an aspiration of Michael G. Wilson – something that would give the story its due and sponge away the memory of the embarrassing 1967 Peter Sellers version.  But although Brosnan was keen to continue, it didn’t really make sense to try and do a Bond origin story with an actor who’d be ten years older than he was the first time he’d played 007.  Negotiations with Brosnan were abandoned, and although a wide casting net was thrown out, with the press happily offering dozens of flavour-of-the-month names into the mix, Barbara Broccoli had her heart set on someone she’d seen as a charismatic gangster in a 2004 British movie called Layer Cake.  Some time in 2005, Daniel Craig received a phone call from Broccoli telling him merely, “Over to you, kiddo.”

In a very subdued, John le Carré-like black-and-white prologue, James Bond is promoted to 00-status after completing two kills:  a corrupt MI6 section chief and his underling, the latter of which shows us the origins of the famous gunbarrel scene.  The story proper begins in Africa, where terrorist banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) accepts an investment of $100 million from rebel army leader Steven Obanno (Isaach de Bankole) under the supervision of the enigmatic Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), and Bond is chasing down a nimble bombmaker, whose cellphone reveals a mysterious text message.  After Bond nearly causes an international incident by shooting the bombmaker inside an embassy, an embarrassed M (Judi Dench) tells him to go stick his head in the sand – in the sunny climes of Nassau, where the text message originated on the phone of arms dealer Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian).  After winning Dimitrios’ Aston Martin DB5 in a game of poker, and seducing Dimitrios’ wife Solange (Caterina Murino), Bond pursues the arms dealer to Florida, where a gun-for-hire is planning to destroy Skyfleet Industries’ massive new airliner at Miami International Airport.  Bond saves the plane and kills the terrorist, and ruins the plans of Le Chiffre, who had invested Obanno’s money in a stock-shorting scheme he intended to cash in on when Skyfleet would presumably be bankrupted by the loss of their prototype.  Desperate to win back the squandered funds, Le Chiffre stages a $150 million winner-take-all poker tournament in Montenegro, and Bond is staked in the game by Her Majesty’s Treasury, as represented by the beautiful and intriguing Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).  If Bond can bankrupt Le Chiffre, the villain will have no choice but to turn himself over to the authorities for protection, revealing all the secrets of this mysterious terrorist network in the process.  After several nights of cards, failed attempts on his life, one disastrously played hand and a timely bailout by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), Bond wins the pot, and victory is sweet – until Vesper is abducted and Bond is captured while trying to rescue her.  After enduring savage torture at the hands of Le Chiffre in a squirm-worthy scene torn right from Fleming’s pages, Bond is freed by Mr. White, who punishes Le Chiffre’s financial misdealings with a bullet to the skull.  All seems resolved, and Bond is free to resign from MI6 and travel the world with his new love, until one final betrayal leads to a climax in a sinking Venice tower where Bond fails to save the treacherous Vesper from a watery fate.  In an atypical downbeat ending, the money is gone, “the bitch is dead,” and Bond is embittered, until a final message from Vesper leads him to Italy and the villa of Mr. White, to whom he introduces himself – after shooting the terrorist leader in the kneecap – with “The name’s Bond, James Bond.”

In retrospect it’s quite difficult to reconcile how Daniel Craig is perceived now with how much scorn greeted his announcement as the sixth James Bond.  Pierce Brosnan devotees couldn’t understand why their guy had been seemingly tossed aside after four record-breaking smash hits.  An angry fan site, whose name I won’t list because they frankly don’t deserve any more publicity, published screeds on how Craig wasn’t good-looking enough, wasn’t refined enough and didn’t even have the right hair color to be 007.  The entertainment press, who’d been hoping for Clive Owen or Rupert Everett, even heaped derision on Craig for wearing a life jacket in the speedboat that brought him to the press conference that introduced him to the world.  The hints of reassurance offered by the filmmakers to “wait for the movie” didn’t do much to quell the fierce tide.  But we all should have listened – because the movie is, for lack of a better word, terrific.  It’s arguably truer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming book than any of the other films that preceded it, because it focuses so sharply on the character of James Bond.  Who is this man and how did he become the archetype of the womanizing, martini-guzzling crusader for justice – the hard-living St. George forever pitted against the dragon?  We see Bond bruised, we see him broken, we see him struggling to contain the rage that forever simmers inside him.

A rarity for a Bond movie, Craig gets to act and complete a genuine character arc, and he does it so well that his became the first performance as James Bond to be nominated for a BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscar).  A lot of credit too must go to the screenplay, by veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with a final polish by Oscar winner Paul Haggis, whose pen lends the dialogue a sparkle and complexity so very refreshing after years of groan-worthy puns passed off as clever.  The exchanges between Bond and Vesper simply crackle, loaded with meaning and consequence, and their growing relationship is always compelling.  Eva Green, whose unusual goth girl beauty has led to her frequent casting as witches in her subsequent career, shows how sass and confidence can live comfortably alongside heart-wrenching vulnerability to create a character who resonates beyond the end credits and can be held up, plausibly, as the “ultimate Bond girl” – the singular figure to whom Bond would compare all his many conquests to follow.  The always reliable Dench begins to grow M as a kind of mother figure for James Bond, the only woman in the world who does not view him sexually, and the writers of the follow-up films would continue to expand on this aspect of her character.  Jeffrey Wright is a subdued but quirky Leiter, and Mikkelsen’s villain, while perhaps a bit less snarly than Bond baddies of the past, still makes for a believable foe and one whose motivations are rooted for once not in global destruction but simply desperation and survival – the most dangerous kind of animal.

Director Martin Campbell, who had helped to relaunch the franchise with Goldeneye, was again tasked to introduce the world to a new James Bond.  He takes on some of the complaints about the excesses of Die Another Day by cutting the number of explosions in the movie to just one (with a second happening offscreen as Bond smirks).  There is no fantasy in Casino Royale – this is gritty, real-world action.  People get hurt.  They bleed.  Bad guys don’t fall down after one convenient hit.  Bond himself spends time in hospital after being tortured by Le Chiffre.  The parkour chase that opens the movie, with free runner Sébastian Foucan seemingly able to defy gravity – while Bond merely smashes through walls as a good blunt instrument should – is a remarkably exciting sequence, as is the extended chase and battle between Bond and his terrorist quarry at Miami airport, both featuring clever reverses and their fair share of surprises.  Yet when the movie slows down in its second half as the pivotal card game takes center stage, Campbell keeps the the tension high; one waits with as much breathless anticipation as the river follows the turn follows the flop as one does watching Bond struggle to stop an out-of-control fuel truck from crashing into a plane as David Arnold’s driving music races to its conclusion.  Casino Royale is long (it’s the longest Bond movie, in point of fact) but it is never slow, and that it can retain its pace and level of interest without resorting to laser beams and stuff blowing up is a testament to the strength of the story and of Campbell’s ability to tell it.

But in the end it’s Daniel Craig’s movie, and he defies the naysayers to entrench himself firmly in James Bond’s shoes; with nary a frayed nerve showing, Craig commands the screen with the kind of self-assuredness that endeared Sean Connery to audiences almost forty-five years earlier, and wows his female fans with his sculpted physique rising out of the water in homage to Ursula Andress.  When he announces “Bond, James Bond,” at the very end, we’re completely sold, and the famous James Bond theme, only hinted at sparsely throughout the score, blasts out triumphant to cement the victory, the becoming of our hero in his familiar form.  Casino Royale was one of the best-reviewed movies of 2006, out-grossing Die Another Day and assuring Bond’s ongoing berth among the increasingly crowded multiplexes.  Back to the beginning – back to Fleming – proved to be once more the key to keeping Bond fresh and relevant, along with making sure the right guy, despite boisterous public opposition, filled out the tuxedo.

Tomorrow:  Our countdown concludes with a sophomore stumble.

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 7: Licence to Kill

Carey Lowell about to exact vengeance on Wayne Newton for his Vegas act.

Throughout the James Bond series, Bond’s biggest challenge has not been any of the seemingly endless ranks of supervillains he’s come up against, or even the bevy of beautiful women who’ve sought to tame him.  Rather, it has been that most complicated of adversaries, the United States of America.  Bond’s relationship with America has been one of push and pull, give and take, with America always wanting more, it seems, than Bond’s willing to give.  Many of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels take place in America, or feature American characters.  American audiences have embraced this English hero and propelled him to unimagined heights.  It was an American President, John F. Kennedy, who first brought Fleming’s novels into the national spotlight.  Yet America’s more crass, tentacled, Borg-ifying side that seeks to remake the entirety of global culture in her commercialized image has always been a wolf nipping at James Bond’s door.  American studio executives push hard for more American content in 007; American actors have tested for the role of Bond, and American performers have been forced into Bond casts to ensure American audiences won’t be put off by too many foreign accents.  Ironically, Bond’s quintessential Britishness has been protected from these attempts by the American producers who continue to shepherd his legacy.  But if there is a single Bond movie that feels the most American, it would have to be Licence to Kill.  (The ironies continue to abound given that the movie’s working title, License Revoked, was abandoned when test marketing suggested American audiences would think the movie was about a teenager losing his driver’s license.)  That the movie is an effectively told tale but at some gut level just feels wrong speaks to this concept that a little America in Bond goes a very long way.

When Bond’s longtime friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison, reprising the role from Live and Let Die) is maimed and his wife murdered by seemingly untouchable South American drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), Bond defies an unsympathetic M, resigns his commission and goes rogue to pursue vengeance.  Succeeding first in stealing $5 million from Sanchez’s cohort Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Bond travels to Sanchez’s home country, and, with the assistance of CIA pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), Sanchez’s mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and a helpful Q (Desmond Llewelyn), infiltrates Sanchez’s world.  The stakes are raised when it turns out Sanchez is purchasing shoulder-mounted missiles he intends to use against American passenger airliners if the American Drug Enforcement Agency doesn’t leave him alone.  By sowing seeds of mistrust, Bond leads Sanchez to dismantle his own kingdom, the villain himself killing off his associates in ever more brutal fashion – before Bond’s true nature is revealed and he squares off against the object of his quest in a final, gasoline-soaked showdown.  Vengeance is never a picturesque road, and Licence to Kill was the most violent Bond film to date, with character after character meeting grisly end, either in shark tanks, decompression chambers, pillars of flame, or simply in a hail of machine gun bullets.  Bond himself is embittered, cynical and remorseless as he winds his way through his elaborate plan of retribution.  The trouble was, particularly in the summer of 1989, there were already plenty of antiheroes crowding the box office, and a gentleman English spy couldn’t compete on that level – not only that, audiences didn’t really want him to.  Bond had, in effect, become too American for the Americans who loved him.

Numerous subtle factors contribute to the over-American sense of this movie.  Filming in England proved too expensive this time around, and so the entirety of the production relocated to Mexico, with the opening scenes shot in and around Key West, Florida.  American accents abound – casting took place out mainly of the States and the supporting players are a roster of familiar if lesser known TV actors, people like Hedison, Zerbe, Frank McRae, Priscilla Barnes, Grand L. Bush, Everett McGill, Don Stroud and Anthony Starke.  In fact, leading lady Lowell’s most prominent role since this movie has been on Law & Order.  Given that a portion of the design budget had to go towards refurbishing the Mexican studio first, the resulting sets lack the polish and finish of the Ken Adam creations of old, looking very much like locations thrown together on a much leaner American TV budget.  Michael Kamen’s score evokes his previous work on Die Hard and the Lethal Weapon series.  And then of course there’s the presence of Mr. Vegas himself, Wayne Newton.  There is something to be said for the exercise of taking a character out of his comfort zone and plopping him down in an unfamiliar environment – the old “fish out of water” trope – but watching James Bond order a Budweiser in a redneck bar just before it explodes into a full-on brawl as cheesy 80’s rock wails on the jukebox just makes him seem… ordinary.  The appeal of Bond is watching him move through exotic worlds unattainable by us mere mortals, not seeing him slumming at the karaoke dive just down the street.  Anyone can do that; why do we need to go to the movies to see it?

Despite the Americanized aesthetic, there are a few standouts of note.  As Sanchez, Robert Davi delivers the most complex, multi-layered portrayal of an antagonist yet seen in a Bond movie.  Sanchez is a sadistic man, yet he has his own strong moral code which values loyalty above anything else, and betrayals merit the cruellest punishments.  Without delving even slightly into the origins of this man – no elegantly related backstory to be found here, he just explodes onto the screen as a force of nature – Davi rounds him out and gives him a degree of the elegance common to the finest Bond bad guys, and a correspondingly wicked sense of humour to boot.  And a 22-year-old Benicio Del Toro, in only his second movie, shows hints of greatness to come as Sanchez’s eccentric, hot-tempered young cohort Dario.  But in some ways, the biggest joy in the movie comes from the ever-endearing Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who is freed from his laboratory and his usual briefing scene to become a significant partner in Bond’s mission.  With more screen time here than in his last half-dozen Bond movies combined, Llewelyn gets to do some genuine character work and become a father figure to Bond in a way that the cold, bureaucratic M (Robert Brown) never did.

But it’s still Timothy Dalton’s movie, and in what would turn out to be his final performance as James Bond, he dares to give us a 007 consumed with passions and doubts that his usual veneer of sophistication cannot control.  Fuelled by animalistic anger and the desire for retribution, Bond begins to lose his way, and himself.  But he comes to realize that in order to complete his mission and bring Felix Leiter some justice, he cannot be that simple “blunt instrument” – he has to become James Bond again.  Particularly telling is the moment where Bond sits, bloodied and bruised, watching Sanchez and all that remains of his drug empire dissipating into smoke, and there is no sense of triumph to be had, only the quiet solitude of the end of the long night – an oddly European ending for such an American-feeling movie, but one that suited Timothy Dalton’s interpretation of the classic role.

In times past, if you were disappointed by a Bond movie, you could comfort yourself with the reassurance that there would be another, hopefully better one coming in only a couple of years.  One wonders how many fans walked out of Licence to Kill thinking the same thing, only to find that studio politics, lawsuits, shady financial dealings and plain old greed had vastly different plans.

Tomorrow:  Pierce Brosnan finally gets his second chance.

Skyfall Countdown Day 8: The Living Daylights

Timothy Dalton, being intense.

This was almost Pierce Brosnan’s debut as James Bond.  It was clear to all involved after A View to a Kill that it was time for Roger Moore to exit stage left, and for the James Bond series to begin anew with a younger face.  Brosnan’s popular TV run as Remington Steele was ending and he had tested successfully for the part, beating out dozens of other contenders including Sam Neill and Lambert Wilson (the Merovingian from the Matrix sequels).  Pre-production was underway, the remainder of the cast was set, and then, NBC decided to drop a spanner in the works.  The network retained a 60-day option to commit Brosnan to another season of Remington Steele, and, seeing dollar signs in the publicity that his impending debut as James Bond was generating, decided to exercise it at the very last minute.  Albert R. Broccoli did not want the Bond movies to be reduced to advertising for a TV show that had already been cancelled once, and so a change had to be made – opening the door for Timothy Dalton.

The trailers for The Living Daylights used the tagline “Dalton – Dangerous,” trying to play up a return to the hard-boiled intensity of the Ian Fleming novels, a characteristic that had been abandoned in the recent Bond films and that Dalton himself was keen to bring to his interpretation of the role, describing 007 as “a man living very much on the edge of his life.”  The plot would borrow a kernel from Fleming’s eponymous short story and expand it into a topical Cold War thriller, borrowing heavily from the Iran-Contra affair which dominated the news in the mid-eighties.  Bond is assigned to protect the defecting Soviet General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé), who warns of a plot by his colleague General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) to murder Western intelligence agents in the hopes of igniting a war.  As Koskov escapes, he is targeted by a beautiful female assassin, whom Bond makes a split-second decision to only wound instead of kill.  The assassin winds up being Koskov’s girlfriend, a Czech cellist named Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) whom Bond befriends after Koskov is apparently re-abducted from British custody by the KGB.  The trail leads to exiled American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), who is working with Koskov in a scheme to use Soviet military funds to buy and sell opium from Afghan rebels instead.  Koskov’s “defection” has been a ruse to try and convince the British – and by extension, Bond – to eliminate the innocent General Pushkin who knows too much about their plans.  Allying with mujahidin rebels led by Kamran Shah (Art Malik), Bond leads a battle at a Soviet air base in Afghanistan to destroy the opium and spoil the deal.

While the characters and the grand plans of the villains are scaled back somewhat, the spectacle is not.  The movie feels enormous.  Its canvas is much broader and has a much more international flavour than the previous entry, with visually sumptuous locations ranging from the slopes of Gibraltar to the opera houses of Vienna, from the quaint English countryside to vast Moroccan deserts standing in for Afghanistan.  And the progression from one location to the other is more organic, as though the story is leading us there naturally, rather than forcing in a bunch of exotic places just for the sake of variety.  The energy of the chase scenes has been amped up considerably by having a younger, more physically capable actor in the lead, as Dalton throws himself into as much of the fray as nerve (and insurance) will allow – you could hardly see Roger Moore, even in his prime, jumping on the roof of a Land Rover as it speeds along the winding roads of Gibraltar as Dalton does in the exciting teaser.  And yet, there is something of a battle going on within the very tone of the movie as the filmmakers can’t seem to let go completely of their less appealing instinct for the gag, as much as they want to embrace Dalton’s more serious side.  Dalton struggles somewhat to project a dark soul even as his Bond finds himself in preposterous situations like steering a cello case down a ski slope.  In fairness, this stemmed largely from the uncertainty in the pre-production phase with the script being geared more for Pierce Brosnan’s perceived persona, and consequently, one-liners that might flow smoothly from Brosnan’s Irish tongue clatter clunkily on the floor as Dalton utters them.  When Dalton is required to be intense, he’s in his wheelhouse – brooding over the corpse of a murdered colleague or putting a gun to Pushkin’s head.  Interestingly enough, Dalton became a lot more comfortable in comedy as he grew older and settled into himself – he’s hysterically funny in Hot Fuzz.  But here it’s clear which arena he prefers, and he soldiers on gamely despite the filmmakers’ insistence in looking for laughs in all the wrong places.

Another choice was made in this new era of Bond to make him a one-woman man, despite the implied one-off dalliance suggested at the very end of the teaser.  Maryam d’Abo as Kara is a definite step back from the glamour girls that populated the Bond movies up to this point; while nothing to sneer at looks-wise, she’s not the larger-than-life figure that one comes to expect from 007’s romantic interests.  Operating very much in her favour, however, is that no attempt is made to prop her up as “Bond’s equal” – she is an innocent, working-class woman caught up in something well beyond her everyday experience.  But that makes her a far more appropriate partner for this more down-to-earth James Bond.  The bad guys, too, are cut from a more sedate cloth, with no cackling or cat-stroking – Joe Don Baker, who would return to Bond in a different role later on, is an adequate stand-in for Oliver North, and Jeroen Krabbé is almost too likable as Koskov – it’s a bit difficult to accept him as a threat, particularly when he’s hugging everybody within sight and the filmmakers elect to turn him into Wile E. Coyote at the finale, in another one of their struggles with consistency of tone.  A couple of “where do I know that guy from” faces fill out the cast, with Andreas Wisniewski, a.k.a. the first guy Bruce Willis kills in Die Hard, taking the role of explosive-milk-bottle-wielding henchman Necros, and John Terry, best known to fans of Lost as Jack’s father Dr. Christian Shephard, as the (brief) new face of the long-absent Felix Leiter.  And the boisterous John Rhys-Davies is always a delight even if he’s not in the movie very much.

This would be the late John Barry’s final turn at the podium for James Bond, and he ended his tenure as much as he began it, by pushing the music in new directions with the inclusion of synthesized rhythm tracks to accompany the action, a tactic embraced and expanded upon by his spiritual successor David Arnold.  With these new elements, the music has an energy and a pulse to it that was absent from the lilting string-heavy scores of his two previous Bond works, intensifying the movie’s pace.  He also co-composed three different pop songs whose themes resonate throughout the score – the title track (with Norwegian rock group a-ha) and “Where Has Every Body Gone” (the theme for Necros) and the love theme “If There Was a Man” with the Pretenders.  And Barry himself makes a cameo appearance conducting the orchestra at the film’s close – a suitable sendoff for the man who more than anyone defined the sound of James Bond, and for that matter, spy movie music in general.

The Living Daylights is not perfect; as I mentioned it does suffer from an inconsistency of tone and the final act is bloated and longish, with one climax coming on top of another as all the disparate plot threads are tied up (not helping is a similar musical phrase used to score each big moment).  But it does what it needed to do in 1987 – free 007 from the burden of Roger Moore, update him to the modern era and set him off on a journey toward adventures bold once more.  With Timothy Dalton established in the role, the next movie would be able to tailor itself specifically to his strengths as a performer and to the qualities that he brought to the cinematic James Bond.  Unfortunately, it turned out not to be somewhere audiences wanted to go.

Tomorrow:  Licence to Kill and the long dark night.

Skyfall Countdown Day 9: A View to a Kill

“Hmm… he looks like James Bond, but…”

Alas, in our grand journey across the history of the cinematic James Bond we have come to what for many, including myself, is its lowest ebb.  Beating up on A View to a Kill is rather like kicking a puppy, and plenty of bandwidth has been devoted already to tearing apart its myriad flaws.  It’s clear, based on the general plot, that the filmmakers were trying to remake Goldfinger with another megalomaniacal, commodity-obsessed villain – in this case, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) and, with a nod to the burgeoning era of personal computing, microchips.  For 1985, a computer-wielding bad guy would have been groundbreaking – think of all the many thrillers that have been released in the last twenty years involving hackers wiping out the hero’s identity, credit rating or what have you.  But apart from one brief scene where Zorin uses a digital camera to deduce Bond’s true identity, A View to a Kill keeps computers very much in the background.  In a way, the movie’s major mistake is that it is trying to dangle a toe two minutes into the future while keeping its other foot anchored firmly in 1964, failing to recognize that audiences, and James Bond, have grown up.  They want more than outlandish gags and double entendres, but unfortunately, that’s all A View to a Kill is serving.

With suspicions aroused that industrial magnate Zorin is leaking secrets of electromagnetic pulse-resistant microchip technology to the Soviet Union, Bond is put on the case, traveling to a horse auction at Zorin’s French estate where he bandies wits with the bad guy and his henchwoman May Day (Grace Jones) and finds that Zorin is using his microchips to cheat at horse racing.  After narrowly escaping a drowning in a Rolls Royce, Bond journeys to San Francisco, where with the assistance of geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), who harbors a grudge against Zorin for having destroyed her father’s oil business, he discovers that Zorin is planning to manipulate California’s fault system to create a double earthquake that will flood and destroy Silicon Valley, leaving him as the sole purveyor of all microchips on the planet.  As with most basic Bond plots, when they are outlined briefly like this they seem like a solid basis for a thriller.  However, given Roger Moore’s advancing age (he was 57 at the time of filming) and his inability to perform action scenes without excessive use of stunt doubles, the decision was made to treat said scenes as comedy and play everything tongue-in-cheek – a tragic misjudgement that mars the entire experience.  Gone is any sense of danger, of suspense, of doubt that Bond will survive the day.  In its place are broad double-takes, wild, emphatic gestures and hammy acting by bit performers; in essence, the worst of 1920’s-era silent movie slapstick.  Director John Glen cheekily describes it as “James Bond meets the Keystone Kops,” but the problem is, the Keystone Kops aren’t and never were funny.  Humour has its place in Bond but should be kept dry, like his martini.  A View to a Kill is 007 as a broad parody of himself, the classic hero of yore reduced to stumbling buffoon.  Indeed, given the tone, one could simply swap out Moore for Leslie Nielsen.  (Moore’s own comments in hindsight suggest that he might have preferred that option.)

What is doubly frustrating is that many of these scenes (like the extended sequence with the San Francisco police cars falling off the lift bridge) could be lifted neatly out of the movie without making a dent in the integrity of the narrative.  I’m throwing down the gauntlet here to an ambitious Bond fan with ready access to editing software to do a “Phantom Edit” of A View to a Kill that rids it of some of the less inspired choices on display, like the screaming and gesticulating French cab driver running after Bond, or the applauding drunken homeless man watching Bond carry Stacey down a ladder from the burning San Francisco city hall, images I only wish I could expunge from my memory as easily.

For his part, Moore is not helped by the other actors, none of whom seems to understand what to do with the weak script.  Walken, while delivering his lines with the same peculiar cadence that has generated fodder for impressionists the world over, is subdued and lacking in his usual charisma; it’s almost as if he is worried about coming off as camp so he dials it back, regrettably to a less interesting level.  Despite an extensive history revealed as the film goes on (Zorin turns out to be the result of a Nazi doctor’s experimentation with steroids on pregnant women) we never get a sense of who he is or what drives him, beyond the simple motivation of greed.  (Ian Fleming’s villains always received detailed personal histories as he attempted to examine the nature of evil.)  Tanya Roberts’ dressed-down part as Stacey, bikinis exchanged for long, demure dresses, consists largely of shrieking “James!” as she lands in one peril after another.  And Grace Jones as May Day seems to be on another planet entirely.  Bond himself is uncharacteristically neutered in this movie – he wears dowdy brown suits, flirts like a creepy old uncle and, in one of the most stereotypically emasculating moments of all time, bakes a quiche.  It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to both acknowledge and ignore the age of their leading man, probing way too far into his tender side and keeping him from coming off like a lecherous senior citizen without completely abandoning the ruthless ladykiller of the past.  But it’s a shaken and stirred concoction that simply does not gel.  He who tries too hard to please everybody will end up pleasing no one.

Is there anything worthwhile to be found?  Well, Duran Duran’s theme song, which remains the only Bond song to hit #1 on the Billboard charts, is terrific.  The story goes that guitarist John Taylor, somewhat in his cups, approached Albert R. Broccoli at a party and asked when Broccoli was going to hire someone decent to do the title track.  The sound is Duran Duran at their peak, yet it’s indisputably Bond, and it remains the movie’s most enduring feature, still achieving regular radio airplay almost 30 years later.

The fundamental error common to the worst Bond movies is the failure to develop the character of James Bond – failure to give him an arc to follow or a journey of personal evolution to undertake.  Failure to give the actor something to sink his teeth into.  Throughout his lengthy but controversial tenure, Roger Moore was rarely given any substantial material to play, which is a shame, because when he was, he proved he was up for it (see:  The Spy Who Loved Me.)  Bond instead became merely a vehicle for propelling the plot, a cog in the grand wheel of an elaborately choreographed action sequence, and the filmmakers abandoned the qualities that make him unique.  (Until Christopher Nolan took over, the Batman movies suffered the same problem.)  The reason James Bond is popular is not because audiences bust a gut watching him drive half a car across Paris or dangle from a loose fire engine ladder as he careens through the San Francisco streets.  He is not popular because he can snowboard away from hapless Soviet soldiers while a bad cover of “California Girls” plays in the background.  He is not popular because of the women he tangles with or the villains whose schemes he foils.  Set all the elaborate accoutrements aside; he remains popular because he is James Bond.  And any filmmaker approaching a new 007 adventure who forgets that, as happened here, does so at his peril.

Tomorrow:  A new Bond, an old attitude.

Skyfall Countdown Day 14: The Spy Who Loved Me

“What do you mean you think Pete Best was a better drummer?”

The most common complaint about the James Bond film series among Ian Fleming purists is that they stray too far from the original books.  The screenwriters would keep the title, a few of the characters and maybe one or two scenes, but generally be permitted to make things up from scratch.  The Spy Who Loved Me, released on July 7, 1977 (or 7/7/77) is a case where not only does the movie have absolutely nothing in common with the Fleming book, but it’s because Ian Fleming himself wanted it that way.  The novel, a low-key tale told from the first-person perspective of a woman named Vivienne Michel (and containing Fleming’s misogynist and dubious observation that “all women love semi-rape”) with Bond appearing only late in the story, was a source of embarrassment for the author, and he stipulated when selling the rights that no material from it could be used, save the title, should a film adaptation be undertaken.  This must have been liberating to Albert R. Broccoli, now the sole producer in charge of James Bond following Harry Saltzman’s departure, and having to chart a course back to respectability after the disappointment that was The Man with the Golden Gun.

The core element Broccoli latched onto, wisely, was the idea of Bond as spectacle.  The previous few films had been very gritty and muted, in keeping with the early 70’s trend in cinema, but Broccoli knew that 007 fit more comfortably alongside the widescreen epics of the previous era.  He rehired Lewis Gilbert, the director of You Only Live Twice, and commissioned a story – after an abortive attempt to bring back Blofeld and SPECTRE that was thwarted when Kevin McClory’s lawyers reared their heads – that would see Bond pitted not against a villain merely interested in selling drugs or cornering the renewable energy market, but against an utter madman with designs on destroying the entire world.  As the story begins, one British and one Soviet nuclear submarine have gone missing, stolen out of the water it seems by someone who is able to track their movements.  James Bond and Soviet agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) are assigned by their respective governments to Cairo to trace the origin of the tracking system, and team up to pursue the architect of the entire affair:  billionaire, webbed-fingered Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), who is obsessed with the oceans and intends to accelerate what he feels is the inevitable decline of civilization by using his captured subs to start a nuclear war between Russia and the United States.  Adding a wrinkle to their reluctant collaboration, Bond has unknowingly killed Amasova’s boyfriend during a previous mission, and she has sworn that once their mission is complete, she will take her revenge.

Clearly this was not a tale that could be told in the buttoned-down, economic manner of the last two movies.  Spectacle requires a spectacular talent in the designer’s chair, and for Broccoli, there was only one name who could measure up:  Ken Adam, fresh off winning an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick’s period costume drama Barry Lyndon.  Adam’s sets open the movie up beyond the reach of the most imaginative audience member.  The staple of the villain’s lair this time was the interior of Stromberg’s enormous supertanker, large enough to contain three nuclear submarines and so large in fact that not only did the world’s biggest soundstage have to be built to contain it, but the film’s director of photography Claude Renoir could not see from one end of it to the other.  (In what has become the worst kept secret in the James Bond canon, Adam invited Kubrick himself to the set to advise on how to light it properly.)  Each set, from the warmth of M’s office to the sterile environs of General Gogol’s retreat, from the curves and spheres of Stromberg’s underwater home to the sandy brickwork of Q’s Egyptian laboratory, brings with it a lush and meticulous character that occupies the screen with as much presence – and in some cases, far more – as the actors wandering through the space.

Until recently, Bond movies were never renowned for their great acting, and while The Spy Who Loved Me is a visual banquet stretching from ski slopes to desert dunes and finally beneath the waves, the supporting performances are just a few notches above bread and water – doubly ironic given that this is the movie where Roger Moore finally cast off the shadow of Sean Connery and came completely into his own in his interpretation of James Bond.  Gone for good is the macho cruelty and slapping women around.  In its stead is a polished gentleman who kills when he has to, even if it is with great reluctance and only as a last resort.  Moore was never better as Bond than he is here, both in physical presence and manner, blending his ability to play quips with a forceful dramatic presence, particularly in the scene when Anya discovers that Bond is responsible for her lover’s death.  In that brief moment, Moore unveils the darkness lurking beneath the playboy surface, reminding those audience members who might aspire to be James Bond that his life, despite its exterior appeal, is destructive to the soul.

If only the actress opposite him in the scene could provide a solid counterpoint; alas, Barbara Bach, wife of Ringo Starr, is not up to the challenge.  She’s fine as eye candy but doesn’t really have the chops to be a leading lady, speaking her dialogue with unchanging facial expressions in an accent which defies location (but certainly isn’t Russian).  Caroline Munro, as Stromberg’s bikini-wearing, helicopter-flying accomplice Naomi, radiates more character and sex appeal in one seductive wink at Bond than Bach manages in an hour and a half of screen time.  Jurgens is effectively creepy as Stromberg but is as straightforward and one dimensional as the anonymous henchmen he sends after the heroes, and is not as interesting a social foe for Bond.  The most memorable villain is of course Richard Kiel as Jaws, the unstoppable behemoth with the metal teeth.  Without speaking a word, Kiel injects his lumbering brute with personality and a sense of humor, making him oddly likable even though he kills several innocent people (and eats a shark).

Despite not being so surefooted with his actors (Moore excepted), director Lewis Gilbert stages action extremely well and keeps the pace tight even in sections where it would be natural to let it sag a little.  The geography of the massive final battle between Stromberg’s men and the captured British and Russian naval crews aboard the supertanker is capably handled with no confusion ever about who is doing what to whom (Michael Bay, take notes!)  Interestingly enough, the movie’s signature moment occurs within the first ten minutes.  The filmmakers had seen a print ad with a man skiing off a mountain precipice and contacted the stuntman in question, Rick Sylvester, who confessed that the photo had been faked but that he could execute it for real.  A small filming unit spent weeks hunkered down in the Arctic waiting for the right conditions.  Finally, the weather broke and Sylvester had one chance to nail it – and when audiences watched James Bond, pursued by Soviet gunmen, ski over a sheer cliff ostensibly to his doom, only to be saved by a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack, theatres exploded in cheers.  It was the surest indication that James Bond was back in the biggest way possible.  Marvin Hamlisch, who had achieved the rare feat of winning three Oscars in a single year, supplied his services for the music and composed for Carly Simon the movie’s famous title song to reinforce this point:  “Nobody Does it Better.”  In that moment, at that time, nobody did.

Tomorrow:  Moonraker shoots for the stars and gets lost along the way.