Tag Archives: Daniel Craig

10 Things I Thought While Watching “Spectre”

The new James Bond movie “No Time to Die” promises a number of changes that upend Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the British superspy. It’s out soon, so it’s an ideal time to go back to Craig’s last foray into Bond and figure out what that mess was. The two movies link together, after all, with several key characters returning. How was re-watching “Spectre”?

1. Sam Smith or Radiohead?

That Sam Smith theme song. Oof. I have no idea why producers went with that over Radiohead’s version. I like Smith, but their version is about as safe as you can play it. Given that the rest of “Spectre” has very little interest in playing it safe, it’s hard to tell why producers chose that over something far moodier and more foreboding.

Here’s the opening credits edited with the Radiohead theme instead of the Smith one:

2. This is a Different Character

One thing I liked about the new Bond in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” is that he did the calculations in his head. If he could get the bad guy but too many civilians were at risk, he’d back off and wait for another opportunity. You felt he had a duty, and that was often to be a wall between himself and the deaths of others. He’d risk one or two people and consider that the price of business, but never an entire crowd.

The tension lay in watching him back off and seeing how he found a way to create a new opportunity. That took good writing that sometimes established a set piece and then denied us that set piece, making us wait and wonder about how a confrontation would evolve.

It’s completely nonsensical then that in the film’s opening scene Bond chooses to have a fistfight that sends a helicopter wheeling about and nearly crashing into a crowd of hundreds. It doesn’t feel like I’m watching the same character. Or rather: it feels like the character is servicing the script rather than the other way around.

3. The Political Statement is Window Dressing

You remember the problem everyone had with the “Star Wars” prequels? That they focused on trade wars and the Galactic Senate and political machinations you could read a mile away, but you still had to wait and wade through them when they finally happened exactly as you predicted?

My problem isn’t that they felt Bond needed more of that – it’s fine to make political statements. The problem is that the political statement is made so clumsily that whole stretches of the film are devoted to a simple idea. Remember “The Dark Knight” for a second – Batman develops a tool that hacks into every cell phone in Gotham. He puts it into the hands of Lucius Fox, along with a way to destroy it when it’s served its purpose. We see a political commentary made, it’s employed into the plot, and then a solution for how to handle it is given. It doesn’t take over the movie.

“Quantum of Solace” had some problems, but one thing it did very well is it created an effective and moving plot around water rights in developing countries. It did this by asking us to inhabit that world and that experience for a time.

The political statement in “Spectre” is never inhabited. It’s part of a set, it’s a backdrop. Nothing is taught, nothing brave is said about spying on citizens beyond, “This is wrong.” Even then, it’s stated only in the broadest sense. There’s no nuance, there’s no real world impact to its existence or lack thereof. I agree with the film’s broad argument wholeheartedly, but we’re told spying on citizens is wrong by a spy who can defeat the plan to spy on citizens because he’s so gosh darn good at spying on citizens.

The good guys believe it’s wrong, and since they’re good guys and it’s a Bond movie, you know they’ll be OK…but the good guys never defeat what’s most important when making a political statement – they never defeat the argument or the ideal that they’re fighting, since the movie itself never bothers to fight it.

4. “Hudson Hawk” Editing

There’s a scene in “Hudson Hawk” where characters are saved from a fall because they literally fall into the next scene. Then they pick up the scene as if it’s perfectly natural for them to be there.

“Spectre” feels a lot like this, except it’s not supposed to be a spoof. The most basic elements of how Bond gets from place to place, and more importantly why he goes from place to place, are either mumbled, dropped out of conversation, or never explained in a context. Bond’s in an entirely new country, in a new climate. Why? Cause we’ve had an action scene in two other climates but we haven’t done one in the mountains yet.

“Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” had intricately winding plots, but they were made exquisitely simple by the scripting and filmmaking. The plot of “Spectre” is on rails the entire time: A to B to C. Yet you can hardly ever follow why something is happening.

Compare this especially to the last four “Mission Impossible” movies, which have delivered spider webbed spy plots and globetrotting set pieces, yet somehow managed to make these complications extremely sleek and accessible to the point of elegance. “Spectre” can barely get a scene change right.

5. Perfume Commercials

There’s a compact and far more entertaining hour and a half movie in here somewhere. I usually want my movies winding and long, but interrupting your spy action for sequences that feel like perfume commercials every 15 minutes makes zero sense.

There’s endless focus on the sets, the locations, and the atmosphere. It all forgets to keep the plot moving. You expect Daniel Craig to turn around at any moment and whisper, “Wingardium Leviosa by Calvin Klein” before spritzing himself with a bottle – and honestly, that would make more sense because it would at least fit the tone of what’s presented throughout the middle of “Spectre”.

6. James Bond is Bad at Sex

“Hi, I’m Bond. James Bond. I just killed your two assassins.”
“We literally only have five minutes before more come to kill me.”
“Let’s have sex.”
“OK.”

These aren’t direct quotes, but it’s pretty much how the Monica Bellucci scene plays out. Look, you see each other and want to jump each others’ bones, that’s fine. But there’s no chemistry here, there’s just a sort of borderline “Is this about to turn into a sexual assault?”

It doesn’t, she’s into it, another “Skyfall” moment barely dodged – although it’s worth noting that he killed her husband and she might be terrified of him. I’ll take it on faith that this is a consensual moment the movie communicates really badly.

There’s not an ounce of chemistry anywhere to be seen, but that holds true for any two people sharing a scene in “Spectre”. I’m not even going to address that mess. What I’ll address is scripting. Scripting, guys. Scripting. Get it together. You’re essentially telling us Bond gets off in, like, 90 seconds. That doesn’t seem that, uh…I mean, ignoring the 70s Roger Moore, misogynist claptrap a scene like this hearkens back to (which you shouldn’t, though), let’s be purely logical about what Bond’s communicating:

Bond’s supposed to be like the Superman of sex, and you’re telling us through your scripting, “Don’t worry, Bond literally takes less than five minutes.” Sounds, uh…I mean, it doesn’t seem like Monica Bellucci’s going to be having that much fun in this equation.

Sean Connery’s Bonds weren’t exactly forward-thinking about gender equality, but at least he’d ditch work for the day to take women on picnics. Daniel Craig’s just like, “All I need’s a minute, ninety seconds tops.” That’s not encouraging, James.

7. This is Severely Miscast

Rarely have so many strong actors been wasted. Christoph Waltz is doing a B-grade version of what we’ve seen him do better in other films. Bellucci’s there for five minutes and barely does a thing. Craig seems routinely disinterested (especially in his co-actors). Lea Seydoux is a far more enigmatic actress than just playing the straight-up Bond girl who falls in love. Dave Bautista isn’t a natural actor, but at least he showed he has charm for the screen in “Guardians of the Galaxy”. Here, they don’t even let him speak.

Yet the most inane casting choice in this whole mess was made in the last film – replacing Judi Dench with Ralph Fiennes as M. Fiennes is an actor whose specialty is hiding his characters, protecting them from the audience. He can create very real, very troubled characters that way, characters who draw you in because of the walls they’ve built to keep you out. In fact, he would’ve made a phenomenal villain for this. Yet as a bureaucrat with a gun, Fiennes is boring. We’re not tempted to draw in because the archetype he’s playing is intentionally uninviting.

So you end up with an actor protecting his character from an audience who’s not interested in penetrating the depths of that character. This creates a narrative wall in front of a character who’s already being performed with walls, meaning you could pretty much replace Fiennes with a wall and nothing about the film would change.

8. You Came for a Gunfight, but Have You Seen our Set Design?

That first climax. No, not the one that took Bond only ninety seconds. I mean the one in the desert that…also takes Bond only ninety seconds. Maybe if you spent less time showing off the production design for the perfume commercial you’re going to shoot right after this, you could have left the space for an actual gunfight, or fistfight, or anything more than Bond shooting a few people who – as the gunfight escalates – increasingly stand still doing nothing, and then magically destroying the entire base with one shot.

9. Time to Save the Wor- ooh, a Maze!

That last climax. The Sam Mendes Bond films are built around the villain planning for Bond to escape traps directly in front of their elaborately designed maze. This then requires Bond to completely ditch his plan to save the world and instead decide, “Ooh, a maze! This looks fun!”

10. Retcon Theater

The tie-in to what “Casino” and “Quantum” established with the Quantum group isn’t fleshed out. It just so happens Bond killed all of Blofeld’s Lieutenants in the previous movies by complete chance, even though the first one was basically about some schmuck who owed a warlord a lot of money and needed to win it back in a poker game. Seems that if Le Chiffre were secretly one of the most powerful people in the world, he wouldn’t need to do all that, he’d just be like, “Fuck it, I’m part of Spectre, I’ll just blow that guy up with a drone or send Dave Bautista after him.”

“Casino” and “Quantum” were about Bond working his way up the line of a powerful organization through villains who that organization considered expendable, not tripping over the key bad guys like he’s Chris Noth falling over evidence in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”.

To retcon the villains of those movies into Blofeld’s top Lieutenants isn’t just dismissive of Bond’s work and the story evolution of the first two Craig films, it also just doesn’t make a lick of sense for anyone paying attention. Of course, that’s kind of a running theme for “Spectre”.

With “Skyfall” and “Spectre”, Sam Mendes has taken the much-needed re-invigoration and modernization of the Bond movies “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace”, dismissed everything successful they did, and dialed their sensibilities back by decades. We’ve traded off complex characters, layered mysteries, and meaningful consequences (even for Bond’s sexual escapades) for set pieces that occur with the haphazard logic of a “Transformers” movie, and trivial titillation that doesn’t even seem to understand the most basic fundamentals of what human sexuality involves.

In the first two Craig movies, Bond was a globe-trotting superspy who had to prove his chops and was tempted by trauma and the sociopathy of revenge. He lost people close to him due to his single-mindedness and high opinion of himself, yet eventually found some brief access to peace and balance by turning someone else away from the path he’s taken. That’s compelling. That’s a reason to keep watching. For whatever other issues “Quantum of Solace” had, what it added to his character was complex and moving.

Mendes has taken that and made Bond into a sometimes-efficient, sometimes clumsy braggadocio who lucks into plot points and dei ex machina instead of uncovering them through any skill. He’ll risk hundreds of people for a fist fight, he takes 90 seconds to have sex, and villains can effectively distract him from saving the world by presenting him with a lame maze he has to solve for no reason.

Mendes took a revolution that made a character compelling who hadn’t been for a very long time, completely failed to understand it, and thought spending lots of money on cinematography and production design was a good replacement for a plot.

I’m thankful that the franchise has been handed off to a new director in Cary Fukunaga and the screenplay’s reportedly had a proper thrashing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but my excitement for “No Time to Die” is tempered by the fact it has to build atop the structure Mendes so completely broke.

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To Get “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” Sony Must Dump David Fincher

Girl Who Played with Fire lead 2

by Gabriel Valdez

One of my favorite films in the last few years is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s one of director David Fincher’s most impressive works, a tone poem of oppression, obsession, and rejection.

Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist is an idealist who suffers at the hands of social manipulators – white collar criminals and sadistic serial killers alike – while Rooney Mara’s  Lisbeth Salander plays his cynical knight in punk-goth armor, a hacker whose only care is to aggressively deconstruct – the identities of others, the clues to a mystery, the life of her abuser, the power foundation of an international bank. She’s one of my favorite heroes on film…well, ever.

Mara recently told E! that she was very doubtful the planned sequel – The Girl Who Played With Fire – would ever come to fruition. “I’m sad never to do it again,” she told Marc Malkin, “but it just doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards.”

Where the problem lies between Fincher and Sony is difficult to say. Much has been written about Fincher’s budget demands, but these may be red herrings or negotiation tactics. The impasse may rely as much on whether the last two films of the trilogy would be shot back to back, and on seemingly endless (and costly) rewrites of the screenplay. Obviously, Fincher’s the best choice to realize the sequel, but this doesn’t mean he’s the only choice.

Sony, who admittedly have created many of the problems they now face with Fincher, has got to deliver an ultimatum. If it isn’t met, they must move on. I want this movie. More importantly, I want it with this cast. I’d like to see Fincher at the helm – if you ask me, no director has changed the face of film more since the 1980s. Yet there are other choices. Here are five suggestions:

I’ve long said that if the pair can’t figure it out, Sony should give David Cronenberg a call. The franchise would exist both inside and outside of Cronenberg’s wheelhouse. He creates darkly horrific tales of mental, physical, and emotional frailty. That’s what this franchise is. Fire might creatively constrain him, though. Could he realize the thrill of discovery and risk that Fincher did? I don’t know.

Mary Harron deserves more work. She once knocked American Psycho out of the park and while she’s experienced at horror, she’s more experienced at exactingly taking the genre apart at its seams, which is the real strength Fincher brings to the table.

Could Steven Soderbergh be coaxed out of his not-really retirement? He’s a career chameleon with a rare ability to direct from the inside-out in any genre, although he can gloss a film over where Fincher is exactingly dispassionate. He’s directed Mara to stunning effect before in Side Effects.

What about Danny Boyle? It wouldn’t be the first time he took over for Fincher, as he’s doing now for the Aaron Sorkin-written Steve Jobs biopic. Boyle is a master of changing voice, pace, and style – 28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours. He’s not a precise match for the tone Fincher set, but who is?

If you want an out-of-left-field suggestion: Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Few are as good at setting mood. His films are paced glacially, but they always pay off. He’s also as good a director of actors as you can find, and he lends his movies that dispassionate, exacting quality I spoke of earlier while marrying them to a worldview more hauntingly sad.

These are the five who come off the top of my head right away. Obviously, Fincher is the best choice, but with the cast assembled – with core players like Mara and Craig who realized their roles so completely in the first movie…do you really want to lose those and be forced to start over? Do you think a reboot or, oh god no, a TV series (as Mara points out, Sony’s spent too much money on the rights to do nothing with them) would be better? Sony has to figure things out with Fincher. Or do the impossible, and be brave enough to dump and replace him. I don’t want to write this up one day in our Best Movies Never Made section.

Just make sure you keep Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the score, and bring Karen O in for another guest vocal. Because:

(Thanks to moviecritic92 for the heads up on Mara’s comments.)

New Life in Misogyny — “Skyfall” and the Bond Reboot

Skyfall collapse

by Russ Schwartz

The message reads, “Think on your sins.” Then MI6 blows up.

The institution is archaic and corrupt, and must be overthrown, says the villain of Skyfall. Yet it wasn’t long ago that the Bond series blew up its own foundations – twice in recent memory. Reinvention, rather than innovation, is the 007 series’ lifeblood, as on each go-round it renounces its formula only to cannibalize it, and then renounces the cannibalization, and so forth. On occasion, it will think on its sins, but not all of them.

Everyone thought it was pretty cool when Daniel Craig, his first time out, said he didn’t give a damn how his martini was made. A decade later, he accepts his perfectly shaken martini, presented to him by the same off-screen angel who throws Indy his hat at the end of Last Crusade. Within the Craig-era Bonds, we’ve seen the agent grow from a parkour ‘n’ poker thug into an assassin who says “England” before the profiler finishes the word “country.”

If Bond has grown into his role within three pictures – enough so for them to re-introduce series staples Moneypenny and Q – what is the next phase of his evolution? None of the other Bonds ever got further: not Connery, who at last wearied of the schtick; nor Moore, who leeringly failed to; nor Brosnan, whose final outing, Die Another Day, was a comic mishmash of everything Bond, a narcissistic, nearly apocalyptic celebration of the series’ continued existence (its momentary bid for relevance being that it pissed off North Korea, in lieu of having Brosnan take on Osama bin Laden).

Skyfall reboot

Until now, though, Bond hasn’t been about evolution, but reboot itself. And so if the current set of handlers, which will again include director Sam Mendes, continue to pursue evolution, eventually they will also pursue death. I have a funny feeling that it will take them two more movies: one to cap the overwhelming success of Skyfall (and maybe pick up the plotline about the Quantum organization), and one to say goodbye. Any change that happens to Bond the man kills 007, and 007 needs to outlive Bond; the way must be open for a fresh reboot.

There are seven movies across the last two Bond runs, and more than half of them – Goldeneye, Die Another Day, Casino Royale, and Skyfall – are principally concerned with the institution of Bond itself. Two of these are reinventions, and two are celebrations. In all cases, little occurs that is not designed to show how the old Bond is new, or how very Bond the proceedings are. The franchise is its own subtext.

You can see a similar pattern in any of Hollywood’s dozens of remakes, reboots, and popular adaptations on offer every year. While the source material varies widely, the filmmakers tend to have the same mix of priorities:

1) To reward the filmgoer for recognizing the characters.
2) To briefly convince the filmgoer that something is changing.
3) To reward the filmgoer for recognizing the brand.

This last one is particularly important here, as the series’ primary concern is finding new ways to configure the Bond brand. That sounds cynical, but I don’t dislike this element. I enjoy being in on the joke when Craig balks at the gun-and-radio toolkit provided by Ben Whishaw’s Q (namely, that Craig’s forebears all received extravagant gizmos to destroy). I remember being 10 and knowing that Super Mario Bros. was a terrible, terrible film, but still not wanting it to end because it had Mario and Luigi in it. (That was not an easy admission to make.) In the Bond series, nearly every moment, every scene, every line of dialogue strives to gratify in this way, even (especially?) in the strongest entries.

Is this self-involvement – a charge usually leveled at Bond himself – the series’ own sin on which to think? Hardly. If writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan are making a statement, it’s that they will not brook betrayal of all things Bond. Old ways will stay the best ways, and James Bond Will Return. But in affirming this, they commit to committing another sin, perhaps in perpetuity.

Berenice Marlohe

Was Pierce Brosnan’s debut in GoldenEye all that long ago? Yes, yes, I know that Spider-Man was back at square one after just a decade, but in Bond years, 1995 is a bat of an eyelash. Part of the campaign to kick the series back into gear for the post-Cold War era involved lip service to the notion that the series was with the times, even if Bond was behind them: the film introduced the first female M (Dame Judi Dench), who in short order took Bond to task for being a chauvinist pig. Of course, that’s the same film that introduced the Russian leg-strangling sex killer Xenia Onatopp, so perhaps M’s own handlers – Eon Productions and director Martin Campbell – were not-so-subtly informing us that Bond is only as behind the times as the films themselves (or that the times aren’t what they think they are, or that Bond simply doesn’t care what the times are).

And that’s where the reboot cycle comes in. Skyfall is meant to refine the Bond formula, and one of its core tactics is to reduce all female characters. It’s a decision, as opposed to a by-product, an oversight, or some other term people use to excuse misogyny. This is the most polished Bond movie ever made, sporting a rock-solid story structure (admittedly cribbed from The Dark Knight), the lush, opulent visuals of cinematographer Roger Deakins, gripping action set pieces, and near-perfect pacing, all in the service of a crusade to refine Bond like a good whiskey; Bond’s country is England, and Skyfall‘s country is Bond. It takes Bond to interesting places, dares us to think he’s slipping, and even manages a strong third act, a rarity for the series. Yet all this careful planning reserves only degradation, dismissal and sadism for the film’s female characters.

Skyfall Severine

Bond is deft enough to sneak onto a boat in Macau and make love to Severine in the shower (because hey, she’s already a lifelong sex slave), but he neglects to sneak off the same way. He casually presents himself to Silva’s thugs, dooming her to die in a shooting competition: Bond aims for the whiskey glass balanced on her head, and Silva (who has seen Bond’s wavering marksmanship scores) simply aims for Severine. Bond’s next line, “Waste of good Scotch,” is meant to throw Silva off, but it’s also the only epitaph Severine gets.

Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) accidentally shoots Bond in the intro, but the act is nearly a term of endearment between them by the end, as they leverage her incompetence – spurred by M’s impatience – into a bit of aggressive foreplay. Perhaps he is allowing her to redeem herself when he hands over his “cutthroat razor” and lets her shave him (good job, darling). But at the end, her flaws in service prompt her to withdraw from field work, deferring to Bond’s paternal suggestion that it “isn’t for everyone.” A scene later, he watches her happily recline to her desk, submissive, the point of entry to the now-male-again M, her sniper rifle removed for good. Not that Moneypenny is new to sexual humiliation (the Brosnan films were progressively meaner to actress Samantha Bond, culminating in her virtual-reality sexual fantasy in Die Another Day), but in the Craig canon, she is a woman who learned her place.

Skyfall Moneypenny

Now, I can think of a few other ways this could have gone. How about having Moneypenny redeem her initial error by helping out in the big fucking shootout with Silva’s guys in London, and getting rewarded with a job closer to M? Heck, if the team absolutely needed to cover all their bases, they could have had her wounded in the process, so she could say something like, “This will do while I’m on the mend.” Q gets to be a hacker now – why not adapt the role of Moneypenny to an intelligence position worthy of the M office? Perhaps this is in store moving forward, but after Skyfall, she is not off to a good start.

Again, these were not accidents in the writing. The movie is concerned with Bond losing his mojo and re-empowering himself, and for him to succeed, women must fail, it seems. All of them do, even M, whose sins (on which she and we are meant to think) are the root of the film. Yes, she can defend why she betrayed Silva, but the film still forces her to pay with degradation, punishment, and death. (A note: When she dies, does it mean Bond has failed her, or that she has paid the price for her ruthlessness? Or has Bond failed to save her from paying the price for her ruthlessness? I must consider.)

Skyfall M

Already mortally wounded, M is threatened with death at Silva’s whim, in a sequence as charged as Severine’s murder is dispassionate. It is the film’s most intimate violence, and in this it threatens to break the Bond world. Silva presses the pistol into her hand and begs her to kill them both with one bullet, suggesting an eerie death-rape only prevented by Bond’s well-aimed throwing knife. She dies peacefully in Bond’s arms, her last words harshly praising a job well done.

M’s fate rankles me a bit less than those of Severine and Moneypenny because she’s given space to develop and resolve her character in a film that explores her relationship with Bond as boss/mentor/mother. Facing public humiliation in a government hearing, the defense she presents for her work also serves as a defense of the series (with shades of Gary Oldman’s concluding speech in The Dark Knight – and for the record, I think Skyfall‘s version plays better).

Yet I am still confronted by the fact that all three female characters are ultimately forced to submit, in one way or another, and that this defines the role of women in an entry meant to set the series’ priorities in stone. Back to basics, it says; old ways are the best ways.

Skyfall insult to injury