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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Craig’

I don’t want things to get too confessional around here, especially so soon after I owned up (again) to not being that big a fan of Blade Runner (probably best not to mention I’ve always been fairly lukewarm about Goodfellas, too), but: I’ve never entirely seen what all the fuss is about when it comes to Agatha Christie, either. I know, I know: two billion sales, translated into over a hundred languages, author of the best crime novel ever, apparently – words like massive and enduring don’t begin to do justice to her appeal. She is the kind of writer, it seems, that other people don’t just read and enjoy, they read and enjoy and want to have a go themselves – a friend of mine writes Christie pastiches as a hobby. (This isn’t just limited to her particular brand of suspense, of course; another friend has half a dozen Scandi noir mysteries for sale on Amazon.)

Oh well, I suppose I will just have to get used to being in the minority about this, along with everything else. Someone else in the Christie fan club is the writer-director Rian Johnson, whose new movie Knives Out is the purest example of knocked-off Agatha I can remember seeing on the big screen in a very long time. Johnson is best known for work in a different genre – he made the superior SF movie Looper a few years back, and was then responsible for the last main-sequence stellar conflict movie (apparently the worst movie ever to make $1.3 billion, if you believe the voices of the internet) – but if you dig down into his career he clearly has a fondness for the mystery genre. One of the good things about your last film making $1.3 billion, is that – regardless of how derided it is – you can basically write your own ticket for a while, and Johnson has made wise use of this.

The plot of Knives Out is, not surprisingly, twisty-turny stuff, but the basic set-up goes a little something like this. Famous and successful mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, the morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, apparently by his own hand. The police make the necessary enquiries, interviewing his various children and their partners (Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette amongst them); it soon becomes apparent that nearly everyone in the family had a reason for wanting the old man dead – but they also all have alibis for the time of his demise, and there is no forensic evidence of any foul play. The cops are inclined to list the whole thing as a suicide and go about their business, but also on the scene is renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, deploying an accent as outrageously thick as his pay packet for the next Bond movie), who is convinced there is more going on (not least because some unknown individual has retained him to consult on the case). He confides all this to Harlan’s former nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has her own insights into the family’s somewhat unusual internal dynamics – and, from Blanc’s point of view, the useful psychological quirk that she is incapable of telling a lie without experiencing an alarming degree of projectile emesis. Can Blanc and Marta crack the case? Is there even a case to be cracked?

As you can perhaps discern, all the essential elements of the classic country house murder mystery are present, making this a recreation of a form which was probably creaking a bit even before the Second World War. In those terms it probably sounds like a bemusing folly, the continuing popularity of the genre notwithstanding, but Johnson is smart enough to be aware of this and deftly update the form for a modern audience. Part of his response is to ground the film firmly in the present day: there are jokes about the alt-right and snowflakes, and references to the modern political situation in the US; if you look hard enough, there is a sardonic subtext about the tension between established, entitled American citizens and the immigrant workers they are so reliant on. Of course, this may mean the film is liable to date rather quickly, but I suspect this is incidental enough to the plot for it not to be a major problem.

The other notable thing about Knives Out is how knowing it is: the film isn’t desperately ironic, but it is fully aware of how camply absurd Christie-style plotting is, and makes it work by embedding it in a film with its film firmly in its cheek. This borders on being a full-blown comedy thriller, with a lot of very funny moments mixed in with the detective work and exposition. The family are a collection of comic grotesques, while Craig turns in one of the biggest performances of his career so far. Just how much fun he is having playing Blanc is palpably clear, and one could easily imagine a post-Bond career where he swaggers his way through another film like this every few years; rumour has it that talks regarding a follow-up are already taking place. Craig pitches it just a bit too big to be credible, but big enough to be so entertaining you don’t really care; Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael J Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans follow his lead. That some of the other participants turn in much more naturalistic performances without the film collapsing into a mess of jarring styles is also to Johnson’s credit.

It seems that you can still make this kind of story work for a modern audience: the trick is not to try and make it terribly relevent to contemporary concerns, but to embrace the confected nature of the form and run with it, concentrating above all else on simple entertainment value. It sounds simple, but this is a ferociously clever, witty film, both in its mechanics and in terms of the sly games it plays with the audience. Fingers crossed that it connects with cinema-goers to the extent that it deserves to; the early signs are good. As noted, I am agnostic about Agatha Christie and that whole subgenre of mystery fiction, but I still had a whale of a time watching Knives Out; I imagine most people will have a similar experience.

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Even in the rapid-turnaround world of mainstream Hollywood film-making, this is some going: having been miraculously revived by a four-leafed clover he picked up off-screen towards the end of the previous movie, everyone’s favourite mutant vigilante claws his way out of a shallow grave and shreds his way to vengeance, aided by a string of unlikely and serendipitous happenings…

This is not the premise of Logan Lucky, of course. (But if Hugh Jackman’s interested, I’m sure we can work something out.) The actual premise of the film is actually rather secondary to the fact that it marks the reconstitution of the remarkable filmmaking collective which likes to operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (look, have you seen the Soderbergh filmography? It can’t be just one guy). The Soderbergh announced a temporary dissolution – or ‘retirement’ – a few years ago, but now they have reconjugated themselves and, to judge from Logan Lucky, and it’s like they’ve never been away.

Soderbergh favourite Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, who is experiencing some financial trouble after losing his job as a construction worker. Jimmy’s brother Clyde (the bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver), who himself lost a hand in Iraq, thinks this is because the family is cursed. Jimmy is not convinced of this, despite his various misfortunes. Nevertheless, Jimmy and Clyde embark on a rather ambitious scheme to rob a motor racing track on a race day, by breaking into the system the track uses to physically transfer cash to its vault.

The problem is that to do this they need the assistance of an actual bank robber and explosives expert, who goes by the name of Joe Bang (he is portrayed by that most uncomplaining and under-recompensed of movie stars, Daniel Craig), and Joe is currently in prison, where he is likely to remain throughout the window of opportunity for their big heist. And so an already convoluted scheme becomes practically baroque, as a means of springing Joe from the slammer in order to help with the robbery, and then reinserting him without anyone noticing his absence, has to be added to the plan. What could possibly go wrong? Well, given the supposed family curse, just about anything. But, when the dust settles, will Jimmy be able to get to his daughter’s junior beauty pageant like he promised?

Seasoned Soderbergh-watchers – or perhaps that should be sniffers – have apparently smelled a rat with regard to Logan Lucky‘s script, which is credited to one Rebecca Blunt. No-one knows who Rebecca Blunt is, as she is a non-person as far her film-making history is concerned, and the only person who seems to have had any contact with her is Soderbergh himself. Soderbergh has form for doing multiple jobs on the same film under a variety of pseudonyms, and so some people are leaping to the conclusion that Blunt is actually the director or someone close to him, working under a false name. It’s such a polished and casually effective piece of work that this is very easy to believe, if such things matter to you.

One of the hallmarks of the first phase of Soderbergh’s career was the deft way in which he moved between smart, broadly commercial projects, and equally smart niche and experimental ones – thus, a moneymaking hit like Ocean’s Eleven would be followed by an audience-confounding bomb like his version of Solaris. Logan Lucky is definitely one of his commercial movies, being something of a variation on the theme of the Ocean films. It’s essentially another caper movie, albeit a caper executed by hillbillies and rednecks, and with the comic potential of that idea by no means under-exploited: most of the characters, one way or another, are comic caricatures or grotesques, and the actors attack these roles with considerable gusto.

It’s an ensemble piece, obviously, and Soderbergh has assembled an impressive cast for it – people like Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston turn out for what are basically quite small roles. And, to be fair, top-billed Channing Tatum recedes into the background for much of the film. Dominating the centre of the film, and delivering as big a performance as I can remember him giving, is Daniel Craig. Is he wildly over the top? It’s possible some people might think so. This is certainly big acting, one way or the other.

And on the whole it’s a rewarding piece of entertainment, although one which works much better as a straight-down-the-line don’t-take-this-too-seriously comedy than an actual comedy thriller. Quite apart from the general absurdity of the plot, there are some pleasingly unexpected jokes – there’s an involved Game of Thrones-related gag which I found particularly droll, though I’m not sure what future generations will make of it – and it is never dull or slow, even if at one point the final act of the movie shows signs of losing focus. On the other hand, there are a few dead wood characters – I’m not really sure what the characters played by Seth MacFarlane and Sebastian Stan actually contribute – and you really have to cut the film some slack in fairly essentially areas – given that Jimmy Logan can’t remember what day he’s supposed to be picking up his daughter, it seems pushing it a little to suggest he is the brains behind a ferociously involved and tricksy prison-break-stroke-robbery-stroke-spoiler-redacted. But this is the kind of thing you either go with or you don’t, and I expect most people will choose to go with it, as that option is much more fun.

There’s also something very slightly Coen brothers-ish about the film’s sardonic view of the details of lower-income mid-west life: it never seems to be outright mocking its cast of rednecks and hillbillies, but at the same time this is a comedy film, and many of its jokes come out of the presentation of this section of society. Mostly it seems entirely good-natured, but at the same time it’s very clear that this is, on some level, a group of well-educated and prosperous artists, some of them not even from the USA, who are choosing to tell a story about a gang of crooks and dimwits from the lower echelons of society, which is absolutely played for laughs. It’s not outright offensive in the way it’s handled, for the film is generally good-natured, but I was aware of it.

In the end, of course, Logan Lucky is simply one of Soderbergh’s more mainstream confections, and was it not for his recent lay-off it would probably be subjected to less critical scrutiny. And as such, there is not much wrong with it – it is consistently entertaining, and beyond that it is frequently interesting (which is not always necessarily the same thing), not afraid to surprise the audience or provide unexpected moments of ambiguity. Nice to have him back.

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One piece of news which got relatively little attention in the days just after Casino Royale was released, back in 2006, was of the passing of veteran film-maker Kevin McClory. McClory’s name was not widely known but he was in many ways a key figure in the history of the Bond films, for all that his name only appears in the credits of a couple of them: McClory and his supporters, if no-one else, were in no doubt that the massive, decades-long success of the Bond franchise was in no small part due to the work McClory put into reconceiving Ian Fleming’s literary creation as a big-screen hero with global appeal (the most immediate product of that work being the novel Thunderball, based on a film script co-written by McClory and Fleming – McClory’s involvement being the reason why he retained the rights to make his own non-Eon version of the script, Never Say Never Again).

One consequence of the seemingly-endless tussle over rights between McClory and Eon was a decision for the official movies not to use certain characters and concepts to which McClory had been assigned ownership. With all this now resolved, one way or the other, the way has been cleared for something which I and many other veteran Bond-followers would never have anticipated coming to pass.

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Or, to put it another way, Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE. Following up the huge critical and popular success of Skyfall might have been an intimidating prospect, but the new film is loaded with enough tantalising concepts to make one forget about all of that. Things get underway with a bit of incidental mayhem in Mexico City, where the Day of the Dead is lavishly staged (and Mendes shows he means business by opening with a hugely extended Touch of Evil-style opening shot, which so far as I could see only has one obvious cheat in it).

It transpires that Bond (Daniel Craig) is following his own private agenda, rather to the annoyance of M (Ralph Fiennes). 007 has been put on the trail of an international criminal organisation known as SPECTRE and is intent on following it, orders or not. This leads him to Rome and a very well-scrubbed-up widow (Monica Belucci), then into the heart of his enemies’ schemes, before travelling on to Austria and north Africa, accompanied much of the time by a beautiful young doctor (Lea Seydoux), whose father Bond has occasionally made the acquaintance of in the past.

While all this is going on, M and the rest of the Secret Service team back in London find themselves under a bureaucratic assault by a new intelligence agency headed by the mysterious C (Andrew Scott). C believes Bond’s section is obselete and is determined to see him replaced both by drones and near-unlimited surveillance. But could there possibly be a connection between this and the case Bond is working…?

I know the question you are wanting to ask (always assuming you haven’t seen the film yet, or read its Wikipedia entry, or looked at a review with spoilers in it) – is there a cat in this movie? Well, on the tiny off-chance you don’t know yet, I feel obliged to keep quiet. What I will say is that the film-makers seem very well-aware that the return of SPECTRE and its leader (maybe) is a huge deal for dedicated Bond-watchers – the organisation was the main opposition in most of the Connery films, and involved with some of the most iconic Bond moments and characters. In a similar vein, the new film retcons like mad to establish that virtually all of Daniel Craig’s previous opponents have been SPECTRE operatives of various stripes, whether this really makes sense or not (it seems logical that Quantum was SPECTRE operating under another name, but not really that Silva from Skyfall was on the payroll).

Keeping at least the pretence of mystery over the SPECTRE top man’s return (or not) is presumably the reason why the film works terribly hard to wrong-foot the viewer, throwing all kinds of misdirections and double-bluffs into the pot. Is it effective or not? I really can’t say, but I do wonder whether it’s worth the effort.

Similarly questionable is the decision to establish that (and this barely constitutes a spoiler) there is a long-standing personal connection between Bond and senior SPECTRE figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). What this brings to the story is really unclear, to say nothing of the monumental coincidence involved – it’s not even as if the script and performances suggest these two men have any kind of shared history together. There seems to have been a belief that the story is improved by giving Bond a personal stake in it.

I’m not sure that’s the case, and SPECTRE‘s attempts (as a continuation of Skyfall) to make a Bond movie into something of a sophisticated psychological drama arguably get in the way of it doing all the slightly outrageous, larger-than-life things a lot of people want from Bond. The dear personal friend and valued colleague occupying the workspace contiguous with mine gloomily observed that he felt he didn’t need to see another Bond film ever again, so dragged down to earth has the series become. (Another friend thought it was basically ‘a kid’s film’, although I must say it contains more eye-gouging and skull-drilling than the usual Pixar production.)

Despite all this, I must say I enjoyed most of SPECTRE hugely, as its attempts to reconcile many of the classic Bond staples with a non-ridiculous sensibility are fairly successful. Craig is by now thoroughly comfortable and convincing as Bond, Waltz is very good as the villain (or not), the stuntwork is imaginative and impressive, and there are some very decent jokes. (Although as top SPECTRE heavy Mr Hinx, Dave Bautista is used in an ever-so-slightly perfunctory fashion.) Ever since Eon first cast Judi Dench, these films have had to come up with things for the distinguished actors playing the regulars to do, and this continues here, with bumped-up parts for M, Q, and Moneypenny, but the performers are good enough for this not to be a problem.

The real problem for me comes at the end of the film. One of the things brought to light by the Sony hacking scandal was the existence of a pile of studio notes worried about the fact that SPECTRE‘s climax was both undercooked and underwhelming – and based on the finished movie, I have to say the studio definitely had a point. What’s more, the end of the film is almost the cinematic equivalent of a suspended chord – you’re not so much invited to expect something, you’re almost compelled to, and yet the film doesn’t deliver what seemed to have been promising. I was almost tempted to sit through the entirety of the credits to see if the pay-off arrived in a post-credits scene, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Oh well. I suppose it must be a sign of Eon’s confidence that a further movie is bound to happen (and after 53 years, who’s going to argue with them?). I’m still not completely convinced that the Craig formula, such as it is, is quite guaranteed to meet audience expectations, but it would take a bolder writer than I to say that SPECTRE is anything other than very impressive , even if only as a piece of spectacle.

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…I saw Idris Elba’s name coming up a lot earlier this week in connection with more information released back into the wild as a result of Sony’s current embarrassment. (Sorry palindrome fans, I just couldn’t make it sing somehow.) Apparently, apart from thinking that Angelina Jolie can’t act and possibly thinking about leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, one of the things that Sony executives like to spend their time doing is thinking about who should be the next James Bond, and – not for the first time – Elba’s name has come up in connection with this.

First and foremost, the thing to remember is that Daniel Craig is still in-post and will be for at least another twelve months: he’s already started shooting Spectre, after all. He’s contracted for the film after that, as well, though Eon do have form when it comes to unexpectedly dumping successful Bonds – just ask Pierce Brosnan. Whether Craig is retained for the c.2018 Bond movie will probably depend on how well Spectre does with the critics, but I’d be surprised if he went. So I doubt the job will be up for grabs much before 2020, by which time Elba will be 47 or so, which would make him the oldest person to take on the role.

But putting this to one side, is colourblind casting an option when it comes to a character like James Bond? There’s no question that Elba is an accomplished and charismatic performer – I thought that this was someone with a lot of potential the first time I saw him, which was in 1998’s Ultraviolet – but, inevitably, issues of ethnicity and diversity raise their heads when this kind of question is asked. The New Yorker, for instance, ran the following impressively subtle and ambiguous cartoon on the topic.

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I wouldn’t have said I was a particularly heavyweight Bond fan, but as this is just about the only major franchise from my childhood I still feel a genuine sense of investment with, maybe I should reassess my position. Certainly, on the ‘could a black actor be plausibly cast as Bond?’ question, a couple of things leap to mind – both regarding exactly who the main character is in the series of Eon films.

The notable thing about Casino Royale is that it is a hard reboot of the Bond series: this isn’t just a new leading man, but a new version of the character, and this is made clear in the movie. This naturally gave Craig and the film-makers a lot of latitude which was, perhaps, denied to Pierce Brosnan. The logical question for those of us who worry too much about trivial stuff is, therefore, one of whether we’re supposed to regard all the preceding films as happening to the same person.

The Bond films are so connected to real-world geopolitics and technology that it’s very difficult to argue that they don’t all happen in or around the year they were released, and this instantly makes it massively implausible that the man who visits Jamaica in 1962 is the same one dropping into South Korea in 2002. Clearly there have been most likely a number of soft reboots along the way, but the question is when this happened.

There is a school of Bond thought that, actually, in the context of the films themselves James Bond is only a codename assigned to a succession of individual agents (in same way Matt Damon’s character is renamed Jason Bourne in that other franchise). It’s an idea, I suppose, but one with virtually zero evidence to support it on-screen beyond George Lazenby’s jokey cry of ‘This never happened to the other feller!’ at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Set against this must be the same film’s painstaking efforts to make the audience believe that Lazenby-Bond is the same guy as Connery-Bond (Bond clears his desk and encounters props from previous films), not to mention various references to Roger Moore’s Bond having been married to the Diana Rigg character from OHMSS.

There are usually so few continuity references between Bond films, so few recurring villains, and such an absence of ongoing plotlines, that you can insert the reboots and rewritings of the character’s history pretty much anywhere you like, although the first seven films all seem to be in continuity with other, while some version of the same events seems to have happened off-screen to Roger Moore’s Bond – hence the marriage references and the brief appearance by supposed-to-be-Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only. (In the same way, the appearance of the tricked-out DB-5 in Skyfall is presumably meant to suggest that Craig’s Bond has been through some version of Goldfinger – rather a shame we didn’t get that film instead of Quantum of Solace, but never mind.)

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the next change of Bonds triggers another hard reboot. Normally I would doubt it, but casting a non-Caucasian actor would really demand it, I suspect: colourblind casting is one thing, but colourblind recasting another.

This still begs the question of whether casting a non-Caucasian Bond is viable, even following a hard reboot. I suspect it depends on how you view Bond himself – if he’s just a generic tough, wise-cracking, ladykilling, male-power-fantasy-fulfilling cartoon, character then there’s nothing that ties the character to any particular ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to see him as a coherent, aspiring-to-be three-dimensional character – specifically, the one created by Ian Fleming – then it may be a bit more problematic.

Fleming himself obviously never conceived of Bond as anything but white – he admittedly describes him as ‘dark’ at one point, but also likens him to Hoagy Carmichael. There’s also the fact that Fleming writes Bond as – by modern standards – an appalling racist. ‘Koreans were lower than apes,’ is a representative insight into Bond’s thought processes in the original novel of Goldfinger. On the other hand, this aspect of the character has understandably been dropped from the movie version.

One bit of Fleming which has been retained is Bond’s heritage as a Scots-Swiss orphan. The question, if Fleming’s conception is to be retained, is really one of whether a Scots-Swiss Bond can also plausibly be a non-Caucasian Bond. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I must confess to feeling dubious about the prospects of this idea.

But, if we’re going to think about this in terms of Fleming’s conception of the character, then we’re talking about a white Bond, a very traditionally British Bond, a son of privilege, an elitist, a snob, an imperialist. The question is not just one of whether an acceptable version of all these characteristics can be brought to the screen by a non-white performer, but whether any non-white performers of note would be interested in doing so.

In short, then, I would say that a non-Caucasian Bond is possible, but it would be a departure, and a version of the character more widely removed from the source material than any other up to this point. You might say that Bond has already evolved a long way away from Ian Fleming by this point, and I would agree, but only up to a point. Much of the success of the Craig version of Bond is, I think, down to the way in which the films have authentically returned to the roots of the character. Stepping too far away would undeniably be a risk.

 

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It occurs to me that, perhaps, there’s rather more riding on the success of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall than is really ideal for what should be a wholly celebratory golden anniversary outing for the modern world’s greatest hetero-normative fantasy icon. The fact remains that the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is not well regarded, and I’ll admit to wondering whether the much-lauded rethink of the series under Daniel Craig was actually such a wise idea after all – perhaps Casino Royale just had novelty value to commend it after all.

Nevertheless, for the time being at least, a new Bond movie remains a big event and Skyfall has arrived, preceded by an enormous bow-wave of bespoke advertising and tie-in products. This is undoubtedly the biggest movie of the Autumn, possibly one of the four or five biggest movies of the year in terms of profile. It all adds up to a very high set of expectations.

So how does Skyfall measure up to them? I’ll happily confess to being such a big fan of the series that any Bond movie looks good to me the first time round, but – despite a few misgivings which we’ll come to presently – I’m pretty sure this is an outing which will find a place in the upper echelon of the franchise.  The script, from regular Bond screenwriters Purvis and Wade, with John Logan, is so packed with twists and turns and surprises that it would be a shame to describe it in any real detail. Suffice to say that it features an embattled Bond (Craig) in pursuit of a brilliant cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) – a man with, it would appear, a suspicious familiarity with both MI6 and its long-time director, M (Judi Dench)…

The first thing to be said in Skyfall‘s favour is that it’s such a relief to see a Bond film which obviously isn’t afraid to be a Bond film. For me Quantum of Solace came across as much too earnest and even a bit timid – Skyfall kicks off with a terrific, full-scale chase through Istanbul, which showcases immaculate action choreography while still managing to set up the themes of the film to follow. ‘Relax,’ the film seems to be saying to the audience, ‘you’re in the hands of professionals: we know exactly what you’ve come here for.’

What follows doesn’t quite count as Bond at its most outrageous, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the action quotient. Any shortfall in Skyfall on this front is more than made up for by a (relatively) thoughtful and subtle script. In some ways it revisits territory from several of the Brosnan Bonds – at one point Bond is accused of being a superannuated relic of bygone days, and he’s depicted as a much more vulnerable, self-doubting, battle-scarred (in every sense) figure than usual.

It’s a bit of a wrench to go from the relatively inexperienced Bond of Craig’s first two movies to the veteran he’s portrayed as here (the plotline left hanging concerning the Quantum syndicate is never mentioned), but this allows the film to develop a rich seam of ideas all related to the theme of age and regret and mortality. There’s an almost valedictory atmosphere to a lot of Skyfall – one senses the Bond legend being dissected, obliquely, before one’s eyes – which is finely sustained, even when such a tone is clearly not in earnest: Bond is ultimately infallible and indestructible.

This is by no means a heavy film, however, possessing a very dry sense of humour that suits Craig and Dench well, and issued with some very good jokes indeed. Albert Finney pops up as a crowd-pleasing comic relief character, while the revamp of Q is also winning: Ben Whishaw makes the boffin a mixture of spod and steeliness and his relationship with Craig also promises much for future installments. (This is a fairly gadget-light Bond film, with the major exception of a classic Bond item which gets a major role in the third act.)

While Skyfall gets the tone of a Bond movie pretty much bang on, I’m not sure about some of the substance: there isn’t exactly a proper Bond girl in it, for one thing, but funnily you don’t notice that much. More of an issue is the nature of the plot, which is uncharacteristically introspective – this is very much a personal drama, with little reference to the world beyond Bond and his colleagues.  On a related point, Javier Bardem’s performance as a particularly psycho Bond villain has a peculiarly reptilian campness to it – it’s by no means unnuanced, but at the same time it’s much bigger than anything else on display in the movie and occasionally seems to be going for laughs when they’re not completely appropriate.

Nevertheless, this is winning, blockbuster entertainment. And, strangely, my overriding impression of Skyfall is of a movie completing the process of reinventing Bond which began in Casino Royale. Every Bond film of the last two decades has had to try to find a way of living up to the legend established in the previous three, and while I’m not sure Skyfall is obviously more successful than any of the others, by its conclusion all the pieces – the tone, the wit, the regular characters – all of these are in place, as fresh and exciting as one could hope for. This looks like a series near the top of its game, getting ready to conquer the world (as if that would be enough).

(Now, if they’d only move the gun-barrel sequence back to the start of the film where it belongs…)

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If you were to saunter into the offices of any major movie studio and request $80 million to engage the cream of international talent so that they might make a lavish two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie about sexual violence against women, featuring all manner of graphic content and centring on a protagonist who is a) bisexual and b) possibly insane, you would most probably find yourself rapidly expelled from the same offices very shortly afterwards, possibly not even via the door. Unless, of course, said movie had a built-in audience, due to it being an adaptation of a massively popular novel by one of the most bankable names in modern literature. Some say he was a journalist who investigated and campaigned against the extreme right. Others say that he spent time in his youth training African women to use grenade launchers. All we know is, he’s called the Stieg (Larsson).

Yes, it’s David Fincher’s value-for-money adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – one of those books which everyone seemed to be reading just a couple of years ago. I, whether fortunately or not, am one of the eight people in western Europe not to have done so, nor have I seen the Swedish movie version of this story. So at least this review will be unpolluted by outside influences, for a change.

Set in Hollywood Sweden (i.e. everyone speaks English – this produces some very strange and intrusive effects, such as when the print on a cheque is in Swedish but the script in English), Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading investigative journalist who’s facing a career crisis after a lawsuit goes against him. He is thrown a lifeline when elderly tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) retains his services, ostensibly to write his biography but really to investigate the vanishing of his niece decades earlier. The Vanger clan are a prickly and deeply dysfunctional group, with more than one former Nazi sympathiser amongst them, but – rather to his surprise – Blomkvist makes progress. Wanting to corroborate his findings, he retains the services of a superbly efficient investigator the Vangers have previously used to run a background check on him.

She is Lisbeth Salander (Mara Rooney), a striking and uncompromising figure: androgynous, fiercely self-contained, heavily tattooed and pierced (she is the title character). The events of a traumatic childhood have left her emotionally aloof, and also the ward of the state. Nevertheless she leaps at the chance to assisting in hunting down a serial killer who preys on women, not realising the danger that she and Blomkvist may be placing themselves in.

First things first – judged by any reasonable standard, this is an excellent thriller. The distinctly Bond-esque title sequence with accompanying rock song may create entirely the wrong set of associations for the audience, but it soon becomes clear that this is a more thoughtful and measured kind of film. Indeed, there’s almost something of Agatha Christie in the set-up of the central mystery plot. Said plot is satisfyingly convoluted and clever, and the movie never insulted my intelligence – if anything, it insulted my stupidity in that a few small points whizzed past a little too swiftly for me to keep track of them! This did not spoil the overall experience, though.

Beyond this, though, the film has a peculiarly sprawling structure. It’s quite a long way into what’s a long movie before Craig and Rooney team up (the chemistry between them is excellent and both give terrific performances), and prior to this it’s a little unclear what the significance of the Salander character is.

This is particularly the case given that the thread about Blomkvist and the Vangers is, initially at least, rather genteel. The scenes with Salander, on the other hand, frequently plunge into graphic unpleasantness with virtually no warning. This is why this movie has been slapped with a box-office-unfriendly 18 rating in the UK, and deservedly so. They are not pleasant to watch: there is considerable sexual violence and other explicit abuse. I could feel the atmosphere in the auditorium change the first time one began, and shift again whenever one seemed to be in the offing.

Then again, if people find scenes of rape and abuse shocking, that’s surely only for the best? A friend who saw the film said he could have done without them – but interestingly, he didn’t come out and say they were gratuitous. They absolutely aren’t – to me they’re central to the theme of this film, which is the effects of sexual violence on both the perpetrators and the victims. Given the devaluation of violent crime in so many movies and TV shows (victims blown away by the score in CSI, hunting killers treated as a jolly, jokey game in Midsummer Murders), the extreme nature of some sequences in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo serves to make clear exactly the character of the offences the film is dealing with. I found parts of this film difficult to watch, it’s true – but that’s as it should be, in a civilised society. I thought this was a brave and commendable choice on the part of the film-makers.

David Fincher’s direction is fluent, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is deft (and even shot through with dark humour in places), and all the performances are accomplished: Rooney and Craig particularly so, while a rather good Stellan Skarsgard pops up to fly the thesping flag for the home team. (Nearly everyone else is British or American – accents are rather variable.)

What really surprised me was how much of a European sensibility this film managed to retain – in its careful pace, its refusal to provide the obvious set-pieces one would expect in a Hollywood thriller, and most of all in its closing stages. With what’s been presented as its central plotline apparently resolved, the film nevertheless proceeds for quite a long time, dealing with various other subplots. Salander, who has grown in significance throughout the story, is suddenly unequivocally the main character and the film is now about her on a more personal level. It’s a little jarring, especially when the story then suddenly concludes, without presenting any easy answers and in a dismayingly downbeat fashion given what’s preceded it.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine another conclusion to a very solidly-made film with a distinct flavour and toughness of its own. Lots of little bits of it resemble other things to some degree or other – but taken as a whole, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a unique experience, and a high quality movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s only that fact that stops me from giving it a very strong and unreserved recommendation.

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…which is to say that the Wild one meets its Final cousin in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens – a self-consciously silly title which the film, for some reason, does its best to belie.  Nevertheless, this is what it sounds like: a mash-up of the venerable old Western genre with its upstart (and some would say illegitimate) offspring, the sci-fi action movie. (More on this later.)

Clearly working hard to establish the right tone of quintessentially American ruggedness, Favreau has cast a British actor best known for playing someone posh in the lead role. Daniel Craig plays a tough, rootin’-tootin’ kinda guy who wakes up in the desert, bereft of his memory but possessing a jazzy wristband, a photo of a woman and a funny-looking wound. Making his way to the nearest town he learns he is in fact feared outlaw Lonergan.

Lonergan is on the hit list of ruthless cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who pretty much owns the town, and whose son is a public nuisance there. The sheriff slings Lonergan in the town jail, ready to be shipped off to the federal marshal with Dolarhyde’s son.

A showdown threatens when Dolarhyde and his men ride in, demanding both prisoners be handed over to them, but things are disrupted by the arrival of – and it’s not quite as abrupt and bizarre as it sounds on paper – alien ships, also intent on making a nuisance of themselves. The mash-up threatens to become a literal one as the aliens start behaving like cowboys and the cowboys start acting like aliens. The aliens start physically lassoing the townsfolk and dragging them off while Lonergan discovers a death ray about his person and rapidly learns how to use it.

When the dust settles the aliens have been driven off, but not without having taking numerous local worthies with them. Quite properly, Dolarhyde decides to raise a posse and go in pursuit (his son being amongst the abductees), recruiting Lonergan to his cause, along with the local preacher (Clancy Brown), the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), and various others – including one of those tediously enigmatic young women (on this occasion, Olivia Wilde) who you just know will be reporting for exposition duty somewhere in the second act.

Well, to some extent this is a combination of excerpts from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches with a selection from its little-read Western counterpart, but as genre fusions go it’s a curiously unsuccessful affair. This seems odd, as there is a long and fairly distinguished history of splicing Western DNA into SF stories: Westworld itself, the Tatooine section of the first Star Wars, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, and more recently Firefly have all partaken of Western themes and imagery (let’s not mention Wild Wild West). Having said that, none of these films have what you’d honestly describe as an American west setting, which to me suggests that what true Westerns are really about is nothing to do with deserts and six-shooters and hats, but personal freedom and morality, and the clash of different values.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t about anything like that, really. It works hard to establish an authentically nasty and grimy Western atmosphere – the films it reminded me of most were Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both great movies even if the latter isn’t a very typical Western – but the characters are all very thin and anonymous, the cast resembling people on a Wild West dress-up holiday. The only person who effortlessly convinces is Harrison Ford, who’s an impressively nasty piece of work to begin with, that familiar old growly whisper modulated into a vicious rasp. But as soon as the aliens show up he turns into a bit of a cut-out and really doesn’t get the material that such an icon really deserves.

For this kind of film to work, both the donor genres really need to have a strong identity of their own. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem with the case of the Western and the SF film, but as I’ve already mentioned the Cowboy element is wholly superficial, and the Alien element… well, it’s not really a proper SF movie, but an effects-driven summer blockbuster, a style of film which is fundamentally superficial anyway.

(The Aliens here, by the way, are an anonymous bunch, their glistening appendages and deceptively-weathered technology marking them out as close cousins of the ones in Independence Day and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. Why have they come to Earth and started behaving so badly? I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that when the expositing eventually occurs, Ford’s character responds by snarling ‘That’s just ridiculous!’ and I was with him all the way.)

So what we end up with is a fairly empty-headed FX blockbuster with some strange tonal and pacing problems: the film-makers seem desperately keen to show this is a Proper Western on some level, resulting in long sequences where everyone’s a bit dour and homespun and not much happens, involving aliens or not. It’s not visually very surprising, nor is the plot particularly involving. It’s all a bit dull, if I’m honest, without much humour or indeed a sense of fun about itself. Occasionally there’s a briefly arresting moment (the one inevitably springing to mind is when Olivia Wilde walks naked out of a bonfire, but that may just be me) but on the whole there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before.

And I suppose on some level you could argue that all this really is, is an attempt to mash a genre up with itself: many people having argued that – in cinematic terms – the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster in the late seventies coincided rather neatly with the demise of the western as a going concern, with the resulting conclusion being that one simply transformed into the other. I’m not completely sold on that, to be perfectly honest, but beyond it simply being a coincidence I’m not quite sure how to explain it.

Anyway. Cowboys & Aliens probably sounded like a great idea for a movie, and there may indeed be a good film to made around the theme of extraterrestrials in the old west. But this isn’t it: the story and characters are too thin for it to engage as a drama, and it just isn’t fun enough to work solely as a blockbuster (needless to say, Favreau’s Iron Man did both). Given the talent involved this is really a disappointment, and one of the weaker movies of the summer.

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