Tag Archives: James Bond

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.

Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:

berenicesmile

You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.

Five things to hate about pop culture references in novels

Aren't those the Spice Girls?
Aren’t those the Spice Girls?

Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel.  The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea.  Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.

I get it.  It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia.  Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it.  There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience.  It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.

In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback.  I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips:  “So, what did you think?”  I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.”  I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings.  But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right.  And his most germane suggestion, while wounding to anyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction.  Paraphrased, it was simply this:

“Cut the pop culture references.”

Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before.  And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum.  Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer.  Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:

1.  It dates you

And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either.  Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks.  Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves.  I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming.  Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad.  (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.)  You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.

 2.  It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it

In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway).  A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it.  If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)

3.  It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative

Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own.  Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting:  you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote.  And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating.  If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards?  You should never abdicate the chance to be creative.  If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show?  I’ll get you started:  every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D.  Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot.  “FADE IN:  INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right.  CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’”  Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.

4.  It’s giving away free advertising

I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention.  And we writers are serious bear huggers.  We don’t want to let you go.  We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate.  We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase.  Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns?  Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need.  Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond.  Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would.  (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love.  I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.”  Spew.)  If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”?  Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.

5.  And it will probably cost you

So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.  This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work.  Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours?  And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song.  If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition.  It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song.  The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction.  Here’s a much better thought:  Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics.  Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).

Having said all that, let’s make it about me again.  Does any of this apply to my novel?  Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh!  Desperate Housewives reference!)  That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home.  I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them.  I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles.  Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive.  So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order.  But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.

The moral?  Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans.  It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman:  cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.

Do authors dream of electric typewriters?

A dime a dozen.
A dime a dozen.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former).  The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her.  In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.

Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is.  There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on.  I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item.  (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing.  But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.)  The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day.  A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit.  But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat?  How do you know which is which?

The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays.  That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post.  Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction.  Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually.  I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on.  What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal.  And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out.  Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two.  For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek:  The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways).  My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters.  My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead.  I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.

But back to that summer.  By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed.  That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino.  I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative.  My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.)  I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve).  Once that one was done, I started another, and then another.  But they weren’t anything of note or even interest.  I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there.  And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.

The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough).  I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people.  As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin.  When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people.  I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel.  And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off.  A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people:  Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land.  Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane.  And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel.  The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality.  “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.)  Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight.  As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff.  Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head.  But I still felt the need to finish it.

Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.”  Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion.  The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing.  And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one.  To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:

AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH

Surely she wasn’t serious?  My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights!  How could anyone dare me to set it aside?

In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.

After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally.  I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it.  Couldn’t I set another story in the same place?  And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow?  That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.

A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack.  There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters.  One of them strikes me.  It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff.  It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers.  But something about it strikes me.  And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her?  Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch.  In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome.  (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie?  Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.)  But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”?  Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat?  After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers?  What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want?  Anything at all?  Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?

And there was the seed of my new story.

Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.

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 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.