Tuesday, 24 November 2015

SPECTRE

(SPOILERS)


This features few of Skyfall's faults, but also lacks some of its virtues. First of all, the Doomed Secondary Bond Woman I discussed in the Skyfall piece doesn't die, but unlike Bereniece Marlohe, Monica Bellucci is unable to bring her character to life in such a short amount of screentime. The point that Lucia is not going to go the same way as Solange and Severine could have packed some dramatic punch, and the buildup to her thwarted murder, as she downs a drink and strolls outside to the strains of opera pursued by hitmen, has potential, but we don't get to know her before hand and afterwards we just get a rather perfunctory scene in which Bond tells her Felix will look after her, and then she's forgotten.

Christoph Waltz, similarly, doesn't get the opportunities that Javiar Bardem had in Skyfall. With the exception of his observation of what happened to the blinded SPECTRE member, he never really has any moments that give the audience the shivers. He also lacks Silva's strong motivation. The "Bond's foster brother" back-story sounded a bad idea when it was first announced, and it unfolds exactly as one expected: the clunky coincidence that the world's greatest secret agent and the world's greatest terrorist knew each other as children, and the unconvincing idea that disliking your younger foster brother could motivate you to become a supervillain who stands against everything you've somehow predicted your younger foster brother will stand for when he grows up. Adding to the problem is the fact that Bond never really seems fazed by any of it, and Blofeld turns out not to have any juicy gossip or insIght - all he reveals is that his father adopted Bond and young Franz resented it.  The former we knew from the Fleming source (the Hannes Oberhauser background comes from his short story Octopussy) and the latter from the official announcement that Weitz would be playing a villain named Franz Oberhauser (who could only be Hannes's son). The torture scene is never quite as tense as Casino Royale's because, in the latter film, things are all the more terrifying because Le Chiffre's motivations for torturing Bond are so credible: we realise that Le Chiffre's in as frantically dreadful a predicament as Bond (something both actors really sell). Here, there's the nagging feeling that Blofeld is being nasty for the sake of it, which jars in the much more adult world of Craig's Bond, where everyone has a convincing motivation. Blofeld putting up photocopied pictures of faces from Bond's past - especially when they have already been referenced visually and by name in several scenes, and Blofeld has already explained his connection to them - is equally shallow. The film would like to create the impression of  Blofeld squatting in the shadows throughout the previous three films, manipulating with his many tentacles as in Daniel Kleinman's title sequence, but given that Vesper committed suicide as a result of a predicament she was trapped in before meeting Bond and Silva had his own reasons for revenge against M since 1997, Blofeld's claim to have caused the end of "all the women in your life" is clearly nonsense. The decisions to make Skyfall entirely stand-alone, to leave unexplained what happened to Quantum's members (such as the opera attendees in Quantum of Solace), the lack of any memorable agents of Quantum other than Mr White (who doesn't really become interesting until SPECTRE), and the lack of explanation for the change in names (was Quantum a subdivision, or just a different name for the same organisation?) don't help. A few clarifying lines could have given the first three films a solid backbone before we got to the climactic chapter.

Blofeld deserved better. I want every Bond villain to resemble Rupert Murdoch to some extent. I want them to reflect what's most toxic about our world. Silva, memorable though he was, was disappointing in the sense that he represented nothing. Blofeld and SPECTRE, on the other hand, remain potent symbols. After numerous "dastardly foreigner" stereotypes, and the straightforward "evil commies" of SMERSH, Ian Fleming (of all people!) finally created a villain and villainous organisation that embodied Capitalism. The screenplays, direction and design of From Russia with Love, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice understood this. It's impossible to hear Blofeld's description of his three Siamese fighting fish - ("the other waits until the survivor is to weak to defend himself. Then like SPECTRE he strikes") - without thinking of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.

But in this movie, it never quite stings as it should. Two recent examples of how to write villains in hero narratives seem to trump it. One is the Sherlock episode "His Last Vow." It's an odd series for me to cite admiringly, but the scenes where the rightwing media mogul Magnussen asks Sherlock to let him flick Watson's face to demonstrate his total power over him and urinates in his fireplace had what SPECTRE's Blofeld scenes lack. The second is from Netflix's Daredevil series. When Fisk, in his climactic fight with Matt Murdock, howls with rage about how he wanted to save this city and Murdock has taken this away from him, he's frightening because his rage seems plausible, and this makes Murdock's determination to take him down all the more exciting. It's a shame the final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld doesn't have this edge. Remember Edge of Darkness - please remember Edge of Darkness.

A more successful aspect of the film is Denbeigh. In particular, the following  exchange between Tanner and Bond - "He went to school with the home secretary." "Of course he did" - tested very well with me. One thing I'm always hoping these films will reflect is that our response to terrorism is as much the enemy as terrorism. SPECTRE is perhaps the most topical of the Bond films, hitting the cinemas the same time as the Conservative Government's Snooper's Charter was shamefully unopposed by Labour. Obviously, the idea of the Double-O Section as an alternative to Denbeigh's surveillance nightmare is a comforting fantasy (M's speech about how a licence to kill is also a licence not to kill because "to pull that trigger you have to be sure" might articulate a valid point against drones, but it also romanticises men with guns.) However, the Double-O Section is entirely fictional, and so romanticising it feels less dubious than romanticising MI6 as Skyfall did. We know Bond doesn't exist: his roots are in mythology and his potential comes from what he tells us about narrative rather than how intelligence services operate, hence the lack of actual spying and detective work in these movies. Audiences don't leave these movies feeling that Intelligence operatives should fly helicopters upside-down over crowded squares, drive tanks through St Petersberg or shoot down helicopters onto Westminster Bridge, but as with Skyfall it's different when you start talking about MI5 and MI6 in general, and on this occasion we  leave feeling that governments and their intelligence services should be accountable  to the people rather than the other way round.  In some ways, it's a shame that it isn't Denbeigh who turns out to be Blofeld rather than Oberhauser (the idea of Blofeld having gone to school with the Home Secretary and having the Prime Minister's backing would have been wonderfully subversive) but it's great to see an exciting movie that climaxes in the destruction of  one of David Cameron and Theresa  May's goals, and to see the series place itself on the side of Snowden. Particularly satisfying are Bond's "No I think I'll call you C - C..." And  M's "And now we know what C stands for..." delivered impeccably by Craig and Fiennes. Just hinting at that filthy word... Conservative.

In another sense, the Daniel Craig movies have not lived up to Casino Royale (which is particularly disappointing given that Casino Royale felt more like a terrific start to a series of movies than a self-contained movie). There's a marvellous scene in that movie in which Bond, confident Le Chiffre is bluffing, plays his hand and loses. He sits staring at the cards for a while, then goes and tries to brazen it out with Vesper, asking for more money. She refuses. He insists he can beat Le Chiffre. "I'm sorry James," she says. "Sorry? Try putting that in a sentence. Sorry Le Chiffre's gonna win? Continue funding terror and killing innocent people? That kind of sorry?" snaps Bond, in his first moment of genuine panic and deepest moment of disclosure in the whole series. Vesper points out that he has lost because of his ego, and now that ego can't take it. Bond, all grace gone,  sneers that she's a bloody idiot. He then returns to the bar, crushed, says "do I look like I give a damn?" when asked if he wants his Vodka Martini shaken or stirred, then grows steely, grabs a knife and finally resolves to kill Le Chiffre as a last resort. The gamut Daniel Craig gets to run in this scene - cocksure, punctured, attempting to regain his poise, punctured again and forced to reveal his deepest fears, lashing out with impotent anger, stripped of his illusions and finally acting out of desperation - is something no actor as Bond has ever had the chance to pull off, but disappointingly it's also something Craig hasn't been allowed to do since. There's no scene in SPECTRE or its two immediate predecessors quite as good.

The relationship with Madeleine comes close to giving Craig this opportunity, and Lea Seydoux is marvellous (and much stronger than the slightly overrated Eva Green) but there's still nothing quite as memorable as Bond declaring to Vesper that he loves her "enough to quit and float around the world with you, until one of us finds an honest job. But I think that's gonna have to be you because I've no idea what an honest job is. Like you said, you do what I do for too long and there won't be any soul left to salvage. I'm leaving with what little I have left." When Bond responds to Madeleine's questions about why he chose this life with "I'm not sure I ever had a choice...anyway, I don't stop to think about it..." and the meaningless piece of trailerspeak "it was either that or the priesthood", it feels like business as usual, with Bond dodging the question and donning the familiar taciturn mask. Still, Craig-Bond realising he does have a choice after all does have some emotional kick, particularly after three films with endings in which Bond vows to put his job first, and it ends the film strongly, with a glorious shot of Bond and Madeleine  in the DB5. The moment when they first see each other on the train in their gorgeous new outfits is beautifully shot and played, as is their first love scene as a response to having just avoided death (hitting that same Fleming-esque note as the moment in Casino Royale where Bond's response to having nearly been killed is that he's famished).   

The film sees violence in terms of gender: Madeleine needs rescuing twice, and has to follow Bond's instuctions and look away when the footage of her father's death is played. It's a shame she doesn't play a more dynamic role. The film borrows a character arc from The Bourne Supremacy: you always have a choice to put the gun down, and like Bourne, Bond is told this by a woman (as he was told by Vesper in Casino Royale). It's difficult to assess how wise it is to see violence in gender terms. On the one hand, violence can be seen as the result of  patriarchy, which would justify portraying the feminine perspective as the opposition to it. On the other hand, there is a danger that this denies the richness of human experience and individuality - women can, after all, be just as messed-up as men - and in cinematic terms, makes for less exciting roles for women. However, a more subtle touch comes after Madeleine has just demonstrated that Bond doesn't need to teach her how to handle a gun: her recollection of the time an assassin came to the house but didn't know her father kept a pistol under the sink. We're not told who went for the pistol. Here the suggestion is that Madeleine has rejected violence precisely because she is not innocent of it.

For all its faults, this is an extremely entertaining movie, partly because the action has a surer touch than in Skyfall: scenes never end deflatingly as with Silva's arrest or the inquiry shootout. The pre-credits helicopter fight and the Bond\Hinx brawl are stunning, and the Rome and Austria chases are both solid. The humour is delightful throughout - Bond and Q together, the Aston Martin's gadget failures, Bond and the protein shake, the C-word gags, the reminders that Q and Moneypenny both have lives too - applying the rule of the Craig era that it should come from character interaction and character detail rather than old-style quips and familiar routines.

Sam Mendes, this time with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, continues to add scenes of cinematic splendour in between the action. There's a gorgeous opening tracking shot, making superb use of Mexico City's Day of the Dead festival; a lovely scene between Bond, a drunken but feisty Madeleine and a mouse; an inventively horrible torture scene; one of those always satisfying "the only thing that can get Bond out of this is that gadget we mentioned briefly" moments (one of the reasons Q works so well as a figure is that he sets up Chekhov's guns which pay off at particularly tense moments, always adding an emotive thrill), a shocking moment of violence in Rome that provides a deeply chilling introduction to both Mr Hinx and the brutality of SPECTRE (albeit one which has no place in a 12a film), the marvellous idea of placing Blofeld's base in a crater made by a meteorite, and a splendid final scene for Mr White.

The climax wobbles a little: we've seen so little of the inside of MI6 building and rarely seen Craig-Bond in it, so his hunting of Blofeld through the wrecked and waterlogged remains doesn't quite have the "Batman returns to the ruins of the batcave" vibe it seems to seek. We've come to expect better at the climax of a Bond movie than such an old-fashioned Perils of Pauline moment with Madeleine, merely tied-up in a building about to be detonated. Bond shooting down the helicopter onto Westminster bridge is very satisfying, though, as is his decision not to kill Blofeld. The resurrection of the DB5 at the end is as inspired as its destruction was in Skyfall. Ultimately, this is the first of the Craig Bond films to tell a traditional Bond story - an ending in which Bond gets the girl, a supervillain, a supervillain's lair, a car with gadgets, a gadget which saves Bond's life when things are going wrong, the gunbarrel placed at the start, Moneypenny and Q as familiar figures and a terrifying henchman are all back for the first time since Die Another Day. However, it skilfully assembles these elements within the parameters established by the previous three films: the gadgets are not over-the-top, the humour less cheesy, the violence is harsher, the setting is strongly post-9\11, the nature and ethics of British intelligence is under question and M, Moneypenny and Q are characters embroiled in the drama - and with lives of their own - rather than walking on briefly to enact familiar roles. The Craig films have grown up enough to have fun.

As for Bond getting the girl at the end, the Craig era's commitment to emphasising drama and characterisation more strongly than before means that Madeleine's absence from the next film seems unthinkable, in contrast to the previous films where audiences instinctively understood that things had been reset with each film and so never queried what had happened to the previous leading lady. Like Casino Royale's cliffhanger, this sets an interesting challenge for the series. A recurring leading lady offers great potential for character development of a kind the series hasn't seen before, as does the idea of Bond in his first ever continuing relationship. I'm looking forward to seeing Dr Swann again. And maybe they'll get Blofeld right this time.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Skyfall


This is the best structured of the Bond films. Everything is about Bond and M's relationship, and so the script gets tenser with each passing scene as a result, with Mendes's direction and Roger Deakins's cinematography rising to the occasion to complement it and create a distinct, elegiac tone. It's an action movie where the dialogue provides the most gripping scenes, like the marvellous moment where the series uses the word fuck for the first time. Much of this is also due to Judi Dench's screen presence. She's better used here than ever before, and the look on this great actress's face when the Mi6 headquarters blow up, as she faces Silva and as she believes she has ordered Bond's death in the name of duty - a look at once unrepentant, unyielding and yet aware of the terrible consequences of her actions - gives the scenes a sense of grandeur new to the series. Also of note in these scenes is the clever editing and sound mixing, as when the rain hitting the window M stares out of merges into the waterfall Bond descends into, and the sound of the surf from Bond's next scene plays over the end of M's reaction to the MI6 explosion.

The film begins and closes brilliantly, with two of the series's most exciting sequences. The pre-credit sequence - matching character detail to action so perfectly, from M demanding that Bond leave Ronson to her climactic betrayal of 007, with a narrative that raises the stakes moment by moment, leading smoothly into Daniel Kleinman's exquisite title sequence - is yet more proof that no other films begin as well as Bond films. The climax is the stuff of legend, combining moments of great emotive-mythic pull - a return to Bond's childhood home, Bond learning to shoot again with his father's hunting rifle, the Aston Martin's reappearance and destruction, Bond losing M, the grave of Bond's parents, the priesthole where Bond hid following his parents' death and emerged no longer a boy, the catharsis of Skyfall's destruction, the grizzled gamekeeper who taught Bond to shoot and was there when he lost both his parents and most re-enact both of those roles again - with thrilling action, the most satisfying explosion in the entire series and gorgeous cinematography.

Why can't I love this movie, then? It's due to two stumbling blocks. To get a relatively pedantic concern out of the way first, the action in between the splendid opening and closing setpieces seems fudged to me. The window fight, gorgeously shot as it is, is too short. The casino fight is perfunctory.The shoot-out at the Inquiry ends on the tame note of Silva running away because Bond made a couple of fire extinguishers go off (visually, the sense of Silva being hemmed in during the shootout is not very well sold to the viewer, and the film has already established that Silva is on a suicide mission anyway.) The biggest problem is when Bond instantly disarms five henchman after Severine's death scene. It's simply impossible to understand why Bond didn't do this less than a minute earlier, and save Severine's life. He knows backup is arriving any moment, no-one is even pointing a gun at him when he first sees Severine tied up, and the thug who does hold a gun on him moves the barrel away from Bond's temple Into swatting distance before Silva has taken his shot. Again, a few different directorial decisions could have conveyed that Bond was unable to knock the gun trained on him out of the way, but the problem is also due to making Bond too powerful (there's a similar moment in Quantum of Solace when Bond is apprehended and led into a lift by three agents and instantly knocks them unconscious, which left me thinking, "if he can do that, where's the tension?).

The second concern is more troubling. Most of the sexism  in the Bond series was phased out by the 1980s: the ghastly "man talk" and "you're very sweet" scenes in Goldfinger, the scene in From Russia with Love in which Bond is told the two gypsy girls are "both yours", the line "in Japan, men come first and women come second" in You Only Live Twice, the appalling treatment of Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun and Bond's irritating attitude towards Holly in Moonraker are all blemishes of a kind that don't affect the later films. However, there is a nasty, misogynistic trope present since Goldfinger which has remained right up to Skyfall: the Doomed Secondary Bond Girl. Examples include the Masterson sisters in Goldfinger, Andrea in The Man with the Golden Gun, Corinne in Moonraker, Paris in Tomorrow Never Dies, Solange in Casino Royale and Severine in Skyfall. There is no room for them in the film, so not only are they killed off, they are killed off with little regret in the screenplay. Bond never even learns of Corinne's death, and shows no emotion at those of Andrea, Solange and Severine. Although he shows some emotional at Jill and Paris's deaths, he has cheered up only a few moments later, and in real time (witness his flirtation with Moneypenny after brooding over Jill in front of M, and his chuckling over his reinflatable tyres as he escapes from the place where he cradled Paris's body).

Even creepier is that all of them are treated by the villains as their possessions, and as they are killed by them for daring to act or think outside this role, and the screenplays show no interest in avenging them (even when the villains are killed, the girls' deaths are not mentioned, which does give Quantum of Solace something of an edge), the films ultimately leave themselves ideologically aligned with this view. The enemy is female disobedience, female desire, female independence and female wistfulness (both Severine and Andrea die because they see Bond as a knight in shining armour, while Solange and Jill die because they are intrigued by him). 

The villains' displays of how they punish this femininity is frequently exotic: Jill, Andrea, Corinne and Severine all have bizarre death scenes, and the bodies of all but Corinne are left on display for Bond and the audience. Goldfinger punishes Jill not just by killing her, but by turning her body into an erotic object. It's troubling to consider that the reason Shirley Eaton's gold-painted body has become one of the key images in cinema history is because it's a manifestation of misogyny: brilliant, inspired but deeply ugly in a moral sense.

So by the time we come to Skyfall, it's time for the series to do some serious thinking. It needs to interrogate, to challenge and to subvert the role of the Doomed Secondary Bond Woman. Instead it falls back on Bond Movie cliché, and kills her exactly as we'd expect. Particularly gratituous is the reference to Severine being sold into the Macau sex trade around the age of 12, a detail which should only be in the script if the writers are prepared to do it justice. Some have taken issue with Bond subsequently having sex with her, but this is a queasy argument which ironically betrays signs of prejudice - specifically, stigma against rape victims - itself: characters who have been abused have every right to enjoy sex. The sex scene between Bond and Severine is in no way ambiguous - we see Severine inviting Bond to her yacht, her waiting with champagne for two, her disappointment when he doesn't turn up, and her responding with warmth and no shock as he enters the shower (what seems to have wrongfooted some people is that Bond enters the yacht surreptitiously, but this is to get past her Silva-appointed guards, not to sneak up on Severine). No, the problem is not that Bond and Severine have sex, but the gratituitous reference to appalling sexual abuse in a script that has no subsequent interest in it or the character it inflicts this back story upon. It's particularly offensive when Berenice Marlohe is promoted, as actresses in Bond films always are, as a "Bond girl", so that audiences are set up to see her as an object of desire. It's not impossible that a Bond film could be written in which the male gaze is turned against itself (as in Mad Max: Fury Road) and the audience's conceptions of a Bond girl are challenged, but until a script that mature arrives, rape and sex trafficking are best avoided in this series.

Severine's death scene poses the same problem: it's been misunderstood in a few ways while remaining genuinely dubious. Bond's line "it's a waste of good scotch" is clearly meant as a moment of stark horror, similar to how his reaction to Solange's death in Casino Royale is played, with Bond demonstrating his ability to survive through emotional detachment and his refusal to give ground to Silva by expressing the exact opposite of what he's really feeling. Nevertheless, the film does forget about Severine, (the scene with Silva in custody mentions only the Mi6 agents he killed) as Casino Royale forgets about Solange, and ending the scene in which she is killed on the triumphant note of the Bond theme and Bond's quip about the radio gadget leaves a bad aftertaste. When the Aston Martin is destroyed, the fact that Bond didn't look that angry when Severine was killed is not something the audience are thinking of - that only strikes us as we leave the cinema. Severine plays no part in the imagery or the subtexts: it's all about Bond, M and Silva at that point. Quantum of Solace had the right idea, although it was diluted by a poorly sketched character and duff performance, in that it at least refused to let us forget Fields's murder, which was very much on Bond's mind when he took care of Greene. Berenice Marlohe gives a fine performance, conveying with great skill the sense of someone used to hiding their fear, and bringing Severine to life within just a few minutes, but she deserved better.

While they don't affect the film's artistic strengths and weaknesses, Skyfall's politics also feel regressive compared to Quantum of Solace. The film articulates an elegiac defence of the west, as seen in M's model bulldog, ("maybe it's her way of telling you to take a desk-job," says Moneypenny when the object is left to him in M's will: "Just the opposite," replies Bond), Bond standing like a sentinel on the rooftop at the end and M's reciting of Tennyson at the Inquiry. It's not surprising that the film appealed to right-wingers like James Ellroy. Skyfall turns M into a heroic figure, which is politically troubling in a way that Bond as a heroic figure isn't. Part of Bond's appeal with Left and Right alike is that he is a figure that doesn't exist in real life. No-one has a job like that in reality, and in the first 16 films it isn't even clear that he works for Mi6. He is a figure that owes as much to Arthurian Knights and Greek mythic heroes as he does to mid and late twentieth century politics, and his appeal lies more in what he tells about the potential of narrative than espionage, just as Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe have little to do with real-life detective work. When we reach GoldenEye, we're now explicitly told he works for Mi6.  Making the head of Mi6 a heroic figure, and giving us scenes in which those calling her and her organisation to account are portrayed as buffoons (as seen in Skyfall and in Casino Royale) takes the series away from mythological territory and into right-wing politics.

Fortunately, Spectre goes in a different direction. But that's another blogpost...