Friday, December 27, 2013

Bond Becoming Bond

[SPOILER ALERT: In the following post I refer to events in Skyfall, which if you have not yet seen the film could significantly affect your viewing experience]

Hip, hip hooray!  We’ve finished watching all 23 official films in the Bond oeuvre (so far).  I’m finishing this in the car as we drive home from family Christmas (started on the car ride there); we watched Skyfall about a week ago.  The final three are by far the best of the bunch.  In the special features for Casino Royale Daniel Craig makes a comment: “make the best movie you can and all the Bond stuff will sort itself out.”  And he is absolutely correct.  With Casino Royale, it was the first time in 20+ films that I thought I had just watched a good movie not just a good James Bond movie. 

Granted, Casino Royale was a smidge too long and lost my attention when it got somewhat tedious and disjointed at the end, but I managed to both follow and enjoy the plot for the entire first half of the film.  As my boyfriend put it, they kind of lost me with “all the spy stuff.”  It’s true, I have a hard time with double agent plotlines.  I think because I have this lazy streak that just wants to take everyone and everything at face value, and I can’t be bothered to get into the mindset or think through the betrayal of one agent by another or figure out who’s working for whom and what their role is.  Why can’t these villains just do their own dirty work; why do they all need to have slimy foot soldiers to do it for them?

But what Casino Royale did really well was present a kind of at-the-edge-of-my-seat suspense even when the only action was at the poker table (there was a time when I literally found myself sitting at the edge of the couch leaning toward the TV).  And there was more than one moment when an audible “WHOAH” came out of my mouth in response to some of the action sequences.  I will never forget the image of Vesper showing up in Bond’s headlights tied up in the middle of the road as Bond is speeding through the countryside to find her.

When people say that with the Daniel Craig era Bond has been rebooted for a new generation they are completely correct.  Not only is the tone grittier and more serious and the look darker but flashier at the same time; by starting Casino Royale with Bond only just being promoted to “00” status we get three films that show us James Bond becoming James Bond, secret agent.  There is a depth to his character that is nonexistent in all the previous films - even the Dalton films that people are trying to defend as precursors to Craig’s darker portrayal.  Craig is grittier and angrier to an extent that Dalton doesn’t even begin to approach. 

Initially, I had a hard time adjusting to this switch back in “time” -- essentially being re-introduced to James Bond for the first time.  It totally messed up my chronology.  Bringing Vesper into the mix really confused me.  I took the Bond - Vesper story arc over Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as some sort of explanation as to why Bond is a womanizer.  True love betrays him or dies for him (honestly, I never quite figured out how sincere Vesper’s feelings for Bond were) - either way that could seriously mess a man up when it comes to women: make him not want to love ever again, I mean, with his line of work and all.  But then what do we do with Teresa?   The woman Bond would marry appeared in only one film, but was referenced to in at least two others.  I thought it was her who proved that Bond could love.  And who establishes vengeance as a motivating factor for Bond.  While I appreciate Vesper because she establishes these character traits in our newly rebooted Bond right away, I also feel like she negates the significance of Teresa.  In the previous films, Teresa was something of a moral compass when it came to understanding Bond’s psyche.  Are we meant to replace that compass with Vesper or throw out Teresa completely or expect her to reappear in a future film? 

I also found myself confused because I initially refused to accept Bond getting his “00” status in the 21st century.  The fact that the opening scene of Casino Royale is black and white totally threw me.  I couldn’t tell if it was a flashback to the sixties or what.  Once it was established that the film was actually about a new 007 in the present day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the producers had missed an opportunity for a period piece -- tell James Bond’s origin story set in the fabulous fashions and atmosphere of the 1950s and ‘60s when his origin actually occurred.  I clung to the desire to see a James Bond period piece until we got to Skyfall, when I finally accepted that it wasn’t about reverting back to the historical origins of James Bond but actually recreating the James Bond character in the present day -- to refresh him and tell a new James Bond story for a new generation of movie watchers.  And with the way Skyfall successfully re-introduced so many classic characters I was converted to the idea and generally approve. 

My only wish is that they would have gone more into Bond’s backstory.  Perhaps they could have started Casino Royale just a few months or years earlier so we better understand the process of becoming a “00.”  I also would have appreciated a flashback or two in Skyfall, when they’re actually at Skyfall, to explain Bond’s family and how that estate helped shape who he is.  That would have been a better use of time than the overblown war scene and superfluous fall through the ice that the filmmakers gave us.  Because Skyfall felt like a multi-genre film to me, and the genres didn’t always meld well together.  At moments it felt like a super hero film starring James Bond as the indestructible man; at the climax it felt like a war film; and the rest felt like a spy film that also happened to be a character study of Bond, M, and their relationship.  And it is as a spy film and character study that it is at its best.  I wish they would have toned down some of the over-the-top action and spent even more time delving into the characters of Bond and M.  All of which just goes to show how different the Daniel Craig reboot era is from the previous films, when I sometimes felt like the only reason I kept watching was in hopes of seeing yet a bigger explosion.  That being said, I was glad I had taken the time to view all the previous films in the genre because it meant I could appreciate the full value of the many, many humorous callbacks in  Skyfall, which would have fallen completely flat had I watched Skyfall on its own.

And it was only after watching 23 entire films that I can declare the revelation of Moneypenny at the end of Skyfall as literally my favorite moment in nearly 50 hours of Bond film.  I don’t know how I didn’t see it coming, but I’m glad I didn’t because it allowed me to have a genuine reaction of delighted surprise.  I had managed to come across a spoiler about M’s death (which made watching the movie more suspenseful but my reaction to her death less anger-laden that it would have been otherwise) and went searching on IMDB to see when a new Q would appear in the final three films (searching in hopes of finding I would not be stuck with John Cleese for three more films).  I guess I saw Moneypenny as such a minor and uninteresting character in all the previous films that I did not even register the fact the while we were essentially meeting a new Bond and were introduced to a new Q (who is a total cutie.  I absolutely approve of him and hope he returns in future films) we had not seen Moneypenny for three entire films.  I was perfectly satisfied with no Moneypenny.  And the character they reveal as her in the end was so much cooler in her role in the rest of the movie that she didn’t equate with the image I already had of Moneypenny in my head.  I remain pleasantly surprised.  I like how the character’s role in the rest of the film helps us understand the tension between her and Bond so much better than in the previous films, and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers do with her in the future. 

Some final, random thoughts about the first three films starring Daniel Craig as Bond: 
  • It felt to me like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were actually written as one long movie that the producers ultimately decided to chop into two.  The second literally starts up where the first one let off, and it might help explain why Casino Royale was too long and Quantum of Solace surprisingly short.  I might have ended Casino Royale earlier and found a way to simplify the confusing, disjointed plotlines that defined the end of CS and all of QoS.  Doing so also might have helped to give some much needed depth to QoS, which really just felt like one extended chase sequence (there are literally three significant chase scenes in the first thirty minutes of a 106-minute film). 
  • I was so excitedly pleased with the complete lack of naked women in the title sequence for Casino Royale!  I only wish that re-imagining of what a Bond title sequence could look like had been adopted as a permanent feature of the Bond reboot.  That said, I appreciate that they still put the effort into creating a full and uniquely visual title sequence for each Bond film, even in this day and age when title sequences are basically nonexistent.
  • I also found that I liked the way the gun barrel shot was incorporated right into the action of the opening of the film with Casino Royale.  Waiting until the end of Quantum of Solace to show that shot kind of bothered me, but I accepted it by Skyfall.
  • Had I ever mentioned gambling in a previous post?  Bond seems to gamble in nearly every film, and I always would find myself wondering how his gambling was funded, especially if he was using it to cozy up to someone on a mission and get information.  I appreciated that Casino Royale directly addressed Bond’s talent in cards as well as openly acknowledging that, at least for this mission, he was directly funded by the British government.
  • I found Skyfall to be a fascinating look into the nearly impossible decisions that M is required to make as part of her job.
  • Javier Bardem played an amazing villain in Silva.  He was honestly intimidating and scary at moments, almost Hannibal-Lecter-like at times.
  • Daniel Craig can play emotionally detached, cold, and angry like nobody’s business.  He plays this version of Bond so genuinely, and he has completely created a character that at moments I find myself afraid of.  I like that his Bond is a complicated and ambiguous Bond -- that he can be charming and suave, even sweet and sensitive, when necessary, but it is not a character that the audience is automatically endeared to liking, as we were with previous Bonds.
  • And if I still find other Bonds (Brosnan, even Connery) to be more attractive, I think Craig plays the best Bond that is created for him.  I actually find it hard to compare his Bond to the previous versions because it really is so different, written with so much more depth that it’s almost an unfair comparison.

Well, that’s all folks.  Now I can watch a new Bond film whenever I want - and I probably will watch each new one as it comes out just so I can continue to say I’ve seen them all.   

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Overcoming Disappointment

It turned out to be true.  I was really hoping the few things I had read were hyperbole, but they were pretty accurate.  Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films after Goldeneye are not very good, and they get progressively worse from Tomorrow Never Dies to Die Another Day.  With the exception of a dark opening to Die Another Day, with Bond being tortured in a North Korean prison (let’s ignore the fact that Bond looks impressively healthy and fit after 18 months in that camp), they basically drop any of the dark, intriguing elements of Goldeneye and return to the kitschy Moore formula.  Brosnan’s worst never gets as bad as the worst in Moore’s tenure, but Die Another Day was incredibly boring and pretty stupid--even the combination of a Madonna cameo and Halle Barry’s sexiness did not do much to redeem it for me.

I really wanted the films to be better than advertised since I came in wanting Brosnan to live up to the Bond I had created in my teenage head, and I was afraid bad films would make me dislike Brosnan as Bond.  Luckily, even bad films couldn't spoil his perfect bond charm.  In the end, even Brosnan at his worst is a far better Bond than Moore ever was.  And I still think he pulls off what is written in the script better than Dalton.  I have a feeling it’s because he’s the prettiest of all the Bonds, but Brosnan is probably my favorite going into the Daniel Craig era.  With his sexy smile, shiny hair, perfectly cut suits, dapper accent and demeanor, he’s pretty hard to resist and fits exactly what I imagine Bond to be in my head. 

I don’t have my notes on hand, and I find it hard to remember details from Bond films, so this post will be short.  And I’ll rely on the predictable: I miss the original Q (I’m not a fan of Monty Python, so John Cleese was not an exciting replacement); I appreciated that Bond’s interactions with women were relatively realistic and believable -- they either established some sort of history with them -- be it a past relationship or simply a history of flirtation and “hooking up” -- or made it plausible that he would be interested in picking up the next hot woman that came along (i.e. having been deprived of humanity in a prison for months); and the sex scenes are finally starting to actually be sexy.  Every time the films open and I see that they’re only rated PG-13, I’m always upset thinking there won’t be any steamy sex scenes.  But then after watching the films, I’m not disappointed.  Now that I think about it, I might be some kind of a prude, amazed by what can pass as PG-13 -- and if that was in the ‘90s, what are they passing through to the eyes of teenagers today.  Then again, I really was a prude back in high school, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess it’s the fact that the action gets more attention than the sex in the end that prevents these from being rated R.  But then again, it’s pretty amazing how much more violent they’ve gotten since the ‘60s -- what would it take for a Bond film to be rated R, I wonder.  Another thought: for all the beautiful fashion Bond girls got to wear in the ‘60s, the ‘90s were such a disappointment in that department.  I mean, this shawl thing they have over Terri Hatcher’s dress is quite hideous. 
[Photo credit:]

Finally, you might like to know that I finally got my hands on a vintage metal cigarette case.  Not as nice as Bond’s but a pretty good substitute and a great deal on Etsy.
From the Etsy shop outofthepasvintage

Monday, October 21, 2013

I May Be Biased, but . . .

If you’ve read my initial post in this blog, you know that I am somewhat biased when it comes to Pierce Brosnan as James Bond.  But I have to say, after having watched Goldeneye, my preference for Brosnan’s interpretation of the character may be more than a simple case of teenage nostalgia.  I am prepared for the possibility that my current appreciation of Brosnan’s 007 may be negated in viewing his next films, but that’s why I wanted to blog about my reaction to Goldeneye.  I’ve read in numerous places that Brosnan’s Bond films after Goldeneye are mired in bad writing and hard-to-swallow plot points, which negatively affect his ratings in competition for “best Bond.”  So, I thought, what if we rated him only on Goldeneye, then what would everyone think?  

I personally think Brosnan did amazing work as Bond in Goldeneye.  I liked him even more than Lazenby, who has been my favorite so far, which many of you probably read about here.  Brosnan is obviously super attractive.  He exuded charm and charisma on par with Connery, was suave and sophisticated to a fault, and was quick with the wit without being overly campy.  The script was somewhat heavy-handed with its exploration of how Bond maintains his humanity while dealing with the often inhuman demands of his job, but Brosnan’s Bond was 100% more believable than Dalton in all dimensions of 007--cold-blooded killer, brooding government agent, flirtatious lover, etc.  If Dalton is praised as being dark and brooding and therefore closest to Fleming’s literary Bond, Brosnan should be even more highly praised because he is able to bring in that darkness from the books while also capturing the Hollywood version of Bond who has been previously established as colorful and cliché.  The film itself is more direct with its violence -- there are a lot more shoot-em-up scenes and straight up killing than any extended banter or hand-to-hand combat between enemies -- but Brosnan successfully brings levity to an otherwise straightforward action film. 

Other aspects of Goldeneye made it an important and surprising viewing for this Bond franchise novice.  I never expected to see Dame Judi Dench in the role of M -- I was under the impression that she didn’t take the part until the Daniel Craig era.  It was a welcome surprise, and she plays the awesomely sassy role with gusto.  The same can be said for the new Moneypenney.  Telling Bond that he someday has to “make good on [his] innuendo” was one of the best lines in a film so far.  This was a very positive film for the ladies, with Natalya being a Bond girl I could unquestionably root for.  I also liked that her interactions with Bond seemed believable and that she often called the shots, not just Bond.  I imagine it has something to do with the era, being in the 1990s with a couple decades of real female empowerment and sexual liberation to draw from, the writers finally wrote scenes of Bond interacting with women that seemed comfortable and realistic relative to my own experience.  This was also the first film in the franchise where my understanding of Bond films as sexy and steamy actually played out on screen -- we finally got to see some real sex scenes.  Granted they were scenes in which the female villain, who is sexually aroused by violence, is getting pleasure while strangling (or attempting to strangle) her partner with her legs, but still, graphic and explicit relative to what we’ve seen in previous films. 

Some final, arbitrary thoughts about Goldeneye: The music was so different in this film it almost didn’t feel like a Bond score.  The Bond theme was not recognizably employed until 90 minutes in.  We see at least two recognizable British actors -- Alan Cumming and Minnie Driver -- playing the supporting roles of Russian characters with less than stellar Russian accents.  Couldn’t they have found Russian actors (or at least Eastern European, as is the actress who played Natalya) to play those parts?  I felt thrilling tension in the final scene on the ladder above the antennae dish -- kudos to the crew that pulled that off and made me cover my eyes from fear and suspense.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Broody Bond

Overall, I feel like there’s not much to Timothy Dalton as James Bond.  He does not have an especially imposing presence on screen; he’s not particularly attractive compared to his Bond counterparts (although by no means unattractive); and the two films in which he starred were, in my opinion, middling in terms of overall quality. 

After 13 Connery and Moore films filled with condescending sophistication, rampant womanizing, witty one-liners, and a good deal of campy kitsch, Dalton’s Bond seems oddly quiet and brooding.  He doesn’t say much, and when he does it is not especially powerful.  He’s not as skilled with the humorous quips, nor does he seem to demand the authority, charm, or sophistication of the Bonds who came before him.  It was, in fact, quite strange to see Bond in a bulky leather jacket and knit sweater, rather than a suit, for much of The Living Daylights

His character, especially in Licence to Kill, moves from one extreme to another--at one moment a brutally violent killer, the next a flirtatious and sweet companion.  Granted, I like the dimension more emotion can bring to the character of Bond.  Who knew Bond could be so driven by sentiment, when he goes rogue to avenge Felix?  And I kind of like that he and Bouvier are flirtatious with each other.  It was much more believable than Bond’s typical “I deserve to have you” attitude, the “we just survived a crazy mission, we should obviously have sex now” pattern of Moore’s films, or Dalton’s unconvincing sappiness and swooning over Kara in The Living Daylights (those two had some of the worst on-screen chemistry I have ever seen; not to mention, it is nearly impossible to believe that in 1987 Bond would be attracted to a woman so completely dependent and ineffectual).  Moving between extremes might bring more interest to Bond, but the maneuver ultimately lacked subtlety and nuance, and for me, Dalton does not successfully convey a naturalness in either gear.   

Dalton’s take on Bond was quite a jarring departure from Connery or Moore.  I can understand how a generation who grew up on either of those two actors in the role might resist Dalton, relegating him to the bottom (always just above Lazenby) on any number of online polls of the “best Bond.”  After Connery and Moore, you expect Bond to be larger than life, rather than fading into the background; cocky and quick-witted, not brooding and humorless; indifferent to his female conquests, not adoringly sentimental and practically monogamous (admittedly, as I have read elsewhere, this lack of promiscuity--he only sleeps with one woman in The Living Daylights, two in Licence to Kill--is attributable to an historical context dominated by the relatively early years of an AIDS epidemic). 

There are those who, having gone back to view Dalton’s films with a new eye, point out that he was actually ahead of his time and predated Craig’s darker portrayal of 007, arguing that Dalton should be viewed as the best Bond ever (see, for example, this article or this one).  But while they claim Dalton as the best Bond, their claim hinges on an argument that Dalton’s interpretation of Bond is merely the most authentic to the Bond created by Fleming in his original novels.  In my opinion, this is not a solid base on which to rest one’s claim.  Granted, I have never read any of the Bond books, so I cannot make any kind of judgment about an actor’s authenticity to them, but I imagine most of the people who watch Bond films have also never read the books.  So shouldn’t the film Bonds be judged on their own merits, rather than compared to the Bond in Fleming’s books?  Also, if the movies are not authentic to the books--from what I have gathered, nearly all of them simply take their titles, a few character names and plot points, and pretty much completely re-write the story--then why should an actor’s portrayal of Bond be judged on his allegiance to the books?  Even more significant, only one of the books that bear the titles under which Dalton stars, The Living Daylights, was written by Ian Fleming.  The other, Licence to Kill, was written by a John Gardner.  So to defend Dalton’s portrayal of Bond as the best because it is closest to Fleming’s envisioning of the character seems to me to be little defense at all.  

However, everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion.  If someone prefers a more broody, sentimental Bond, so be it.  But someone could also argue that Bond is best when womanizing, cracking jokes, and always wearing beautifully cut suits with a dashing smile.  I simply feel like Timothy Dalton did not inhabit the role of Bond in the same way that his predecessors did.  He never felt completely comfortable in the role from what I could see and failed to make it his own or make a real impression at all. 

A few other thoughts on the films overall:

The technology has definitely improved with the times--wireless phones, desktop computers, and some seriously heavy weaponry.  It makes me wonder if the Bond franchise is reaching a point where the crazy gadgets that made Bond cool in the ‘60s will soon make little impact as they become merely reality rather than futuristic fantasy.  It has also contributed to some exceptionally gruesome death scenes and major violence in recently viewed films.

While I was not a particular fan of Dalton’s Bond, I think that part of the reason he is less praised than others is the fact that his films are less likely to be played on television, especially The Living Daylights.  The history surrounding Britain and America’s role in Afghanistan and with the Mujahideen is problematic today, at best.  But watching it forced this ignorant and confused viewer to read up on that history and actually learn something.  And while I say “play it all the time; educate our populace!”, perhaps that’s exactly why it’s not played--it’s probably not a history America is comfortable fessing up to on network or cable television on a regular basis. 

I have a problem with the choice of actress to replace Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny.  At least Maxwell was obviously older than any of the girls Bond slept with, and I could use that as a reason for why Bond might not take advantage of her also--she could be seen as either “over 30” and therefore unattractive in Bond’s entitled mind or as something of a mother figure in later movies.  As much as I hate to admit it, Caroline Bliss is simply not right for the role because she is far too attractive.  Without those glasses she is totally Bond’s type, and it is hard to believe that Bond would not be seducing her any chance he gets.  I guess I have to work on believing that Bond is actually capable of caring for a woman without wanting to sleep with her--that Moneypenny is maybe like a sister to him?