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Posts Tagged ‘Eva Green’

Been to the cinema much recently? No, me neither: if you’d told me at any point in the last decade or so that there would be a four-and-a-half-month gap between visits to the pictures, I would have concluded that this indicated my leaving the country, going to prison, or having some kind of medical emergency. Nice one me, I suppose, as a medical emergency has indeed been to blame. However, for whatever reason, attempts to drag the country back to something resembling how things used to be have been in progress and this weekend saw the re-opening of the first cinema in Oxford.

Naturally I was there, but I wonder, I wonder. I am as critical as anyone of the efforts of those in power and their media cheerleaders to persuade everyone to resume their old lifestyles, mainly for the benefit of the bottom line and the continuation of the old economic model. People have, perhaps, begun to question what they took for granted, or were told, and even glimpsed another way of living more to their liking. Certainly the virus has shredded our former way of life, and it is foolish to pretend this can quickly or easily be repaired.

Then again, am I not just as worthy of scorn for clinging to the hope that the old model of cinema can be preserved? As you may have surmised, I used to go to the cinema two or three times a week, on average, occasionally far more often than that. Often this wasn’t because I had a burning desire to see a particular film, but I enjoyed following the schedules, finding new and unusual things to write about – even the simple routine of going to the cinema (buying my ticket, taking my seat, waiting for the lights to go down, watching the adverts for the umpteenth time) was something I genuinely took pleasure in. You don’t get any of those things just streaming something.

I hope it’s too early to make predictions, because the signs were not especially positive – although the whole experience was a little surreal, to be honest. It turned out I had forgotten which of my cinema cards was which, for one thing: that would have been unthinkable back in March. (Though looking on the bright side, my membership has been extended until the middle of next year.) There were all the masks and bits of hand sanitising equipment you would have expected, all for the benefit of… well, just me, if we’re honest about this. I had the whole screen to myself. Now, I should say that this was not that unusual even back in the old days, given some of the obscure films I went to see at funny times, and the afternoon showing of a subtitled art-house drama on a sunny August day would likely never pull a big crowd. But even so.

Notably few commercials, and – other than one for vodka – most of these were for either charities or public health agencies. Not many trailers, either – well, one, to be precise, for Tenet (which feels like it is rapidly becoming the last great hope of mainstream cinema for this year). According to the trailer Tenet is (or was) released in July 2020 – but, given the time-mangling nature of the story implied by the trailer, this actually feels oddly appropriate, and it’s far from the only film which had its publicity campaign overtaken by events: all over the city centre one could see buses still decked out in advertising material for movies which were supposed to open in March, and never did: ghosts of a vanished future.

Anyway, I went to the cinema to go to the cinema rather than see any particular film. The one I ended up going to see was Alice Winocour’s Proxima, which had a hopeful, slightly science-fictiony-sounding title – although had I known going in that Winocour also co-wrote the accomplished but slightly heavy Mustang I might have managed my expectations a bit. There you go: always do your research, friends.

Proxima does indeed turn out to be slightly science-fictiony, by which I mean it is a film about space exploration rather than an actual piece of science fiction. Or is it really about something else? Eva Green plays Sarah Loreau, a woman whose lifelong ambition has been to become an astronaut: her daughter (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) is named Stella and her cat is named Laika, after the Soviet space dog. At the start of the film it looks like her dream has come true, as she is selected for Proxima, a long-duration space mission and a crucial part of the programme which will culminate in putting a person on Mars.

Rather tellingly, the first thing Sarah worries about once she gets this news is sorting out her childcare for while she’s away: Stella will have to go and live with Sarah’s former partner Thomas, an astrophysicist (Lars Eidinger). Then it’s on with the training, and having to sort out some sort of modus vivendi with the American mission commander, Shannon (Matt Dillon), who seems openly dubious about her abilities. As the training regime grows increasingly gruelling, Sarah becomes aware of the strain all of this is placing on her relationship with her daughter and the concerns of her psychiatrist (Sandra Huller).

I know what you’re thinking: Gravity knock-off. Well, I can see where you’re coming from, but no it isn’t, not least because none of the film actually takes place in space – it’s all resolutely earthbound, about the training process rather than the actual mission. A big chunk of it looks like it was shot at Star City in Russia (officially the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre), with some scenes being filmed around the Baikonur space centre. I’m not as much of a space enthusiast as some people whom I know, but even so, the nuts and bolts of the training regime are fascinating and occasionally unexpected, assuming the film isn’t just making things up: trainee astronauts watching upside-down TVs to prepare for work in zero gravity, for instance. I think this naturalistic element of the film will be quite engaging enough to satisfy many viewers.

On the other hand, though, by the end it is quite clear that the movie isn’t really about a woman preparing to go into space: it’s about a mother on that journey. Every element of the story is viewed through the lens of the relationship between Sarah and Stella and Sarah’s attempts to preserve the bond between them. We are invited – maybe even commanded – to sympathise with Sarah and accept that the maternal connection is one which the male-dominated space exploration establishment do not appreciate. At one point Sarah commits a massive breach of mission protocols in order to keep a promise to her daughter, and it is presented as a transcendent moment of togetherness rather than someone being dangerously irresponsible. It doesn’t quite sit well with a film which is implicitly critical of the chauvinist American alpha-jock played by Dillon (when asked how he feels about a French woman joining the crew, his response is that he’s happy, because they’ll have someone around to do all the cooking). Dillon’s character suggests that Sarah’s preoccupation with her daughter makes her a bit of a liability, but the really odd thing is that the film implies he is correct, while simultaneously presenting her as a sympathetic, admirable figure. (Then again I am neither a woman nor a parent, just someone who occasionally enjoys space films: I fully expect other people to have very different takeaways where Proxima is concerned.)

Well, apart from that it is competently written and directed, with a very good performance from Eva Green and solid support from everyone else (Boulant-Lemesle gives an extremely self-assured turn for one so young). As I said, the nitty-gritty of the story is fascinating, I just couldn’t buy into the film’s idealisation of motherhood, or the suggestion that mums who go into space are making some kind of unqiue sacrifice – plenty of fathers go into space, after all. Is Winocour suggesting they are all distant, cool parents without much of a connection with their kids? Oh well. Not the best film of the year, nor the worst, and so probably the kind of thing we should be hoping for going forward, if we really want to see the restoration of something resembling the old days. That still feels like it’s a long way off, though.

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When I was a lad, especially prior to the home entertainment revolution, your actual classic Disney cartoons never turned up on TV: the corporation had hit upon a cunning wheeze to maximise its cashflow as far as these films were concerned. The trick was a simple one: rather than selling the films to TV networks, Disney just kept re-releasing them into cinemas on a seven-year cycle, meaning that every new generation got the chance to see them on the big screen. This continued until the dawn of the new modern age of Disney animation in the early 90s – I remember seeing The Jungle Book on its 1993 release. Things are different now, of course, with all of the corporation’s back-catalogue available on DVD. They have to find a new way of maintaining interest in these movies.

And the solution they appear to have landed upon is to remake all those lovely old cartoons as modern CGI blockbusters: a trend which started with Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book three years ago [It has been pointed out to me that Ken Branagh’s 2015 version of Cinderella predates this – A], and which is reaching full fruition this year – apart from the Mary Poppins sequel, which is not exactly the same kind of thing, we will see live action and CGI versions of Aladdin and The Lion King. First off the blocks, however, is Tim Burton’s new version of Dumbo.

The original Dumbo, released in 1941, was made in something of a hurry for Walt Disney, made economically after Fantasia proved to a glorious folly for the film-maker. The new film is twice as long as the original and basks in a budget of over $170 million dollars. The story remains very roughly similar, and concerns a rather down-at-heel circus, in the new film run by Danny DeVito. The year is 1919 and animal trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the First World War, in the course of which his arm has been CGI’d off, to be reunited with his (rather charmless) children. Their mother, along with many of the other circus folk, has died from the Spanish Flu, leaving everyone dispirited and emotionally scarred. (Good stuff for the tinies in the audience, this.)

Hopes are high that a new elephant recently purchased for the circus will turn the fortunes of the business around, as the animal is about to give birth. However, the mini-elephant, when it emerges, is an unprepossessing specimen, mainly on account of its freakishly large ears, and it is unkindly christened Dumbo. However, and you are almost certainly ahead of me on this one, Dumbo turns out to have an unusual talent – when properly motivated, those ears begin to flap and the pachyderm takes to the air!

So far, so very much like the 1941 version, you may be thinking. Well, yes and (very emphatically) no, for as you may have gathered, the more charmingly whimsical elements of the story have been almost wholly excised in favour of a bunch of largely one-dimensional new human characters. Think of an element of the original Dumbo that you remember with particular vividness and fondness, and I can almost guarantee that it is essentially absent from the new one. Oh, yes, there are plenty of call-backs and allusions, but only in the most superficial way – Timothy the mouse is gone, the extraordinary alcohol-induced hallucination sequence is gone, and the musical sequence with the singing crows has also gone (presumably it has been decreed that the crows could be construed as racially provocative). In their place are clangingly delivered messages about the treatment of circus animals and (for some reason) the evil of gender roles: in almost every scene, Farrell’s daughter gets to deliver solemn dialogue about how she is going to be A Scientist and Discover Things and Do Research And Experiments Using The Scientific Method. Nothing wrong with the sentiment, naturally, but why the hell are they crowbarring it into Dumbo?

I should point out that the new film blows through virtually the entire plot of the 1941 version well within the first hour, leaving a lot of time to fill before the obligatory happy ending. It is at this point that the new Dumbo stops being just dismaying and becomes actively baffling: arriving on the scene is wealthy entertainment tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who is opening a new theme park and needs a big attraction to lure in the punters. He initially comes across as a warm, avuncular figure, but (no real spoilers here, I think) eventually proves to be a ruthless, grasping, exploitative villain.

At which point one can only pause to wonder what on Earth the people at Disney think they are doing? Has no-one noticed the subtext of the new movie? This is a Disney film in which the bad guy is effectively a thinly-disguised version of Walt Disney, with ‘Dreamland’ presented as a thoroughly phoney and unpleasant place. It’s the worst possible advertisement for the world’s biggest entertainment brand. I can just about imagine someone like Tim Burton being amused by the idea of smuggling this kind of subversive idea into a film from the Mouse House, but this is barely subtle enough to qualify as smuggling – it’s hardly some buried subtext, more the essential message of the film. I say it again: has everyone at Disney gone mad?

Normally I would be quite amused by the extravagant way that the world’s biggest entertainment company is cheerfully shooting itself in the foot, but the execution of this part of the film isn’t really any better than that of the opening act. The characterisation is still thin (the best part probably goes to Burton’s girlfriend Eva Green, as a trapeze artist), the general tone of the film gloomy and grotesque. No-one seems to have figured out that a concept which is effortlessly charming when realised with cel animation and anthropomorphic talking animals just seems weird and slightly disturbing with photo-realistic CGI and human performers: we are clearly intended to find Dumbo irresistibly cute, but the glassy-eyed creature front and centre for much of the film comes direct from the Uncanny Valley.

I suppose one should even be slightly grateful for how comprehensively misconceived the new version of Dumbo is, for few films in recent memory are quite as worthy of this kind of self-sabotage. It’s a film which trades heavily on the audience’s fondness for the original film – fondness which is entirely warranted, I feel obliged to mention, for the 1941 film is packed with charm, imagination and pathos – but then attempts to lure them in to see something which barely qualifies as a remake, having a substantially different tone and story, and including none of the moments you remember. One can only assume the other films on the way will be better – it’s hard to imagine how they could be much worse – but Dumbo is, well, mostly just dumb.

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Sometimes you go in to see a film with an almost unshakeable conviction that it’s going to turn out to be nonsense, or worse. In my case, the mystery attached to this is not so much where these sort of certainties come from, as the fact that I invariably end up going to see the film anyway. Perhaps it’s just to see if I was right in the first place, I don’t know. I sort of recall having that sort of feeling prior to seeing Zack Snyder’s 300 back in the middle of 2007. I was in Japan at the time, and the English-language films coming out were somewhat limited, but that really isn’t an excuse, is it?

Anyway, off we went to see the film anyway, and somewhat to our surprise we found it thoroughly, if rather disreputably, enjoyable. I recall that my literary advisor was one of my companions (hello, Rob, if you’re reading this) and even he was mildly impressed by the fact the thing was (very) vaguely historically accurate. We agreed the film had achieved the neat trick of managing to libel the then-current Iranian government with its depiction of troll-monsters and goat-headed guitarists, dismissed the whole thing as silly fun and went on with our lives.

However, a $456 million box-office take has a weight and significance all of its own and I suppose we should not be greatly surprised that a follow-up has finally emerged, fresh and glistening, from wherever it is that Zack Snyder generates his work. Snyder was apparently busy making Man of Steel while 300: Rise of an Empire was in development, but he is still involved as co-writer and producer. In charge of making actors stand in front of the blue screen this time is Noam Murro, whose lack of a Wikipedia entry should tell you something about his CV.

300-Rise-of-an-Empire-Wide-wave-drop

Rise of an Empire gets straight down to the business of reassuring the audience of the previous film that it will be business as usual this time, too: we are treated to volcanic quantities of spraying blood and jiggling bare breasts within the first minute or so of the film actually starting (both are thoughtfully presented in slow motion, as is quite a lot of the film if we’re honest). It’s not immediately apparent what this film is going to be about beyond random carnage and general naughtiness, but reasonably soon it becomes clear – Snyder and his team are taking a crack at that most ill-favoured of cinematic beasts, the ‘interquel’ or ‘parallelquel’, which is to say that many of the events of this film occur in parallel with those of 300 itself.

So, we are treated to the Battle of Marathon, ten years prior to the shenanigans at Thermopylae, and the death of Darius, father of 300‘s chief villain Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro again) at the hands of Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Following his ascension to the Persian throne, Darius falls under the sway of total and complete nutcase Artemisia (Eva Green), who is a-lusting for revenge against the Greeks following a rough childhood. His transformation into slightly suspect jingly bald megalomaniac complete, Xerxes sets out to conquer the world and kick off the plot of the original movie.

Things go on in this vein. If nothing else this provides the opportunity for virtually everyone from the previous film to come back, even if they died the first time round. Even the bloke who got kicked down the well comes back for a couple of scenes, and there are extended bits, not just for Santoro, but also Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo as David Wenham as the Spartan warrior with an iffy accent and only one eye.

But the bulk of the movie is about an extended naval standoff between the Athenian navy, commanded by Themistocles, and the Persian navy, commanded by Eva Green. This is largely a retread of the plot of the first film, but with boats and rather less of a homo-erotic subtext between the two antagonists, and everyone settles down to a good old-fashioned bloodbath…

For the last week I’ve been going around cheerfully telling people I was off to see the sequel to 300, which I openly confessed I fully expected to be absolutely terrible. Well, I went, I saw it, and I’m pretty sure that by any objective standard it’s a ludicrously bad film. However – and this is one more way in which it resembles its predecessor – it is strangely enjoyable to watch.

Well, always assuming that astounding, non-stop graphic violence and men in leather shorts spouting cobblers about the brotherhood of warriors are your thing. (I didn’t think they were mine, to be honest, but clearly I was wrong.) They are so absurdly, operatically over-the-top that the film is impossible to take seriously, which is actually a good thing: it would just be nasty and objectionable otherwise.

Murro does a decent job of capturing the feel and tone of the original film, although he is saddled with a few problems which would try the creativity of an experienced director. Most obviously, while most of the original cast were clearly very happy to come back, one of them obviously wasn’t, and there is a glaring, Gerard Butler-shaped hole in this movie. Sullivan Stapleton just can’t bristle and sweat with the same degree of charisma, nor can he shout in an inappropriate accent with quite the same degree of conviction.

Some of this is made up for by the presence of Eva Green. I have spoken in the past of the off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent which this actress brings to all her roles, but here she is, quite frankly, off the leash to the point of seeming completely bonkers. Here she is the de facto main villain, but this doesn’t stop the producers giving her and Stapleton an actual sex-stroke-fight-scene together. This seems to be here mainly to a) provide an excuse for Eva Green to get ’em out and b) give a pretext for Green to deliver the immortal line ‘You fight harder than you —-‘ during the final battle.

I suppose the primary mission of any sequel is satisfy anyone who liked the original, and I suspect 300: Rise of an Empire will deliver this in spades. It has the same striking aesthetic, soaring sense of its own profundity, and absurd lack of historical accuracy as the first film (just two examples: there appears to be an oil tanker in the Persian fleet, and the climactic Battle of Salamis, one of the most famous naval battles in history, features somebody riding a horse). And all the previously-mentioned gore and sex, too. For me, 300 has always been a definite guilty pleasure – Rise of an Empire was too, although the guilt was a little more pronounced and the pleasure slightly less. This is a very bad film in many ways: and yet, as a result, a lot of fun to watch. It’s a strange world sometimes.

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Under a spreading chestnut tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

Except when he’s played by Orlando Bloom, in which case none of the foregoing really applies (there isn’t even much of a chestnut tree near the smithy). But such is the situation at the start of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a 2005 movie dipping its toe in the treacherous waters of medieval history, in particular, the Crusades.

Landy plays Balian, a soldier-turned-blacksmith somewhere rustic in France. Following the death of his wife and child he is struggling to find a reason to live, but one arrives in the imposing form of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a baron of the Crusader Kingdom of Palestine.  Surely no-one would describe Landy as a little bastard, but it turns out that’s just what he is, and Godfrey wants to make peace with his illegitimate son and indeed make him his heir too. Balian is initially resistant, but realises that fighting in the Holy Land could grant absolution not just of his own sins, but the ones which have consigned his wife’s soul to Hell.

However, on finally arriving in Jerusalem – this takes a rather long time, involving many appearances by the staples of Ridley Scott movies, i.e. beautiful shots of landscapes and brutal gory violence – Balian discovers a kingdom in peril. The truce with the Saracens will only endure as long as the King (Ed Norton) lives, and unfortunately he’s come down with a severe case of leprosy. Fanatical elements at court are pressing for Holy War against the unbelievers. Balian finds himself sucked into the power politics of the court, not least because he gets involved with the King’s married sister (Eva Green). Sooner or later Landy’s going to have to break out the chain-mail…

Well, I saw Kingdom of Heaven on its theatrical release, thought it was, mmm, okay, for a long time would probably have expressed no desire to experience (‘sit through’) it again. So why go back to it now? First off, as is his slightly tedious wont, Sir Ridley has revisited the movie and produced a director’s cut: and this has received universally glowing notices as a vast improvement on the original. Secondly, I recently digested (‘ploughed through’) Simon Sebag Montefiore’s whopping, superlative book on the history of Jerusalem, which includes a fairly detailed section on the events which this movie purports to retell. So I was interested to see if the director’s cut was any good, and if the history was remotely accurate.

The answer to the first is that it certainly is, if you like your epic widescreen historical action dramas, and the answer to the second is that it’s frankly a bit dodgy (no pun intended, history buffs out there). Scott can produce lavish, beautiful cinematic worlds in his sleep, and this film is no exception to that – my issue with his films is that the quality of the narrative often doesn’t match that of the visuals.

The story here certainly rambles on a bit – the movie is somewhere around the three hour mark – but the world it portrays is interesting enough for this not to be a major problem. Scott’s helped by the quality of the supporting cast, which is excellent, and stuffed with well-known faces – Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, amongst others. Even Landy is not, as one critic charmingly put it, ‘actively bad’ (bear in mind that Arnie was attached to star in this project for a while during its long gestation period). And, certainly in the extended version, there seems to have been a serious effort to portray the texture of medieval life with reasonable accuracy – these aren’t just modern-day action heroes playing dress-up. Admittedly, some of this is put to the service of rather obvious themes and metaphors: most of the characters on both the Christian and Islamic sides are fond of proclaiming everything that happens to be the will of God – it’s just a bit too thumpingly driven home that a) using religion as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility is the cause of all the trouble and b) they’re all the same anyway.

And I found it a bit of a problem that the characters we’re supposed to identify with and care about – Balian, the King, and to a lesser extent Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) – all share a very modern attitude to the issue of religion and how much it should dictate one’s actions and morality. I suppose this is necessary in order for them to be characters we engage with at all, but it’s still not just getting the details of history wrong, but the whole tone.

Of course, Kingdom of Heaven cheerfully engages in getting the details of history wrong too. Perhaps that’s putting it a mite strong, as there is such a thing as justified artistic licence – the historical Balian obviously wasn’t a bastard blacksmith, but neither was he such an identifiable character. Some of the stuff that’s crept back into the extended cut is a bit more dubious – the leprosy that afflicted Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is a recorded fact, but the movie opts to give his nephew and successor, Baldwin V, exactly the same disease (to lose one King of Jerusalem to leprosy is unfortunate, to lose two is an obvious plot contrivance). Baldwin V died very young, it’s true, but there’s no evidence he was bumped off by his mum as an extremely pre-emptive mercy killing, as the movie depicts.

More problematic, yet also understandable, is the movie’s portrayal of the major religions involved. There are many more nutters on the Christian side than the Islamic one, and Saladin is portrayed as the civilised, enlightened statesman of popular legend. At the end of the movie he lets the Christian population of Jerusalem walk free – historically, he was rather less generous. Of course, there are perfectly sound reasons for not wanting to annoy Muslims these days, and it’s difficult not to see Kingdom of Heaven as being, on some level, a comment on the state of the modern world. ‘To this day, peace remains elusive in the Kingdom of Heaven,’ states the closing caption, in a masterpiece of understatement.

Well, true enough, but there I think the movie is falling into a trap decried by one modern historian – that of treating the Crusades as somehow emblematic of an age-old, inevitable, irresolvable clash between different philosophies, the start of something which has continued to this day. The Crusades were nearly a millennium ago and no more influential on the modern world than any other event of that time.

Still, it’s not many big-budget Hollywood movies that cause one to engage in this kind of thought process, and this is surely to the movie’s credit. That it does so without neglecting the impressive spectacle and well-mounted violent action one would expect from a movie on this subject only increases my admiration for its achievement. The movie is still fundamentally troubled by the lack of a stronger leading man, but I found the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven a huge improvement over the theatrical version – quite possibly this is now my favourite of all Ridley Scott’s films.

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There’s nothing wrong with niche film-making, of course, but sometimes the box office figures tell a story of their own: as modern budgets go, $10 million is barely a trifle, but even so, if your film only pulls in $3000 you’re still going to be having a long and uncomfortable conversation with the head of the studio. Such was the fate of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, and it suggests that there just aren’t enough fans of pretentious arthouse apocalyptic SF movies featuring Eva Green getting ’em out for such a project to be financially viable. The revelations one stumbles across sometimes.

Eva Green brings her usual off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent to the role of Susan, an epidemiologist in contemporary Glasgow. Her life is quite nondescript, as is that of Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef she encounters via a slightly laboured cute-meet early on. Both of them have commitment issues; hey ho.

However, a strange affliction takes hold across the globe: people experience sudden surges of melancholia, followed by the total and permanent loss of their sense of smell. No-one knows what’s causing it, or how it’s spreading, but spreading it is – and soon everyone is affected. However, people adapt and life returns to a close semblence of what it previously was (although one assumes that sales of deodorant take a bit of a knock). Michael and Susan embark upon a relationship. But then it becomes apparent that the phenomenon is progressive: people are now starting to lose their sense of taste, as well. The obvious question is on everyone’s minds – how long can society survive if the other, more vital senses are lost?

Now, this sounds like the premise for a bleak SF catastrophe movie, and to some extent Perfect Sense delivers on this – the scenes of collapsing civilisation towards the end of the film are well-mounted and convincing – but this is really not a genre piece in quite that sense. I’ve heard this movie compared to Melancholia, in that both films combine what are ostensibly SF themes with a more psychological, internal focus, but this film is not as accomplished.

The main problem is that it’s too obvious that the writer and director are not interested in the collapse-of-society story per se: it’s just a device by which they can explore their real concerns, which are all to do with what it is that makes life worth living, the nature of relationships, the power of emotions, and so on – and it’s written to suit those concerns. Judged as a proper piece of SF, Perfect Sense is sorely wanting – one could perhaps excuse the lack of cause given for the progressive sensory shutdown, but not the fact that it’s such a precise and coy little affliction, much inclined to entice histrionics from the cast. No reason is given as to why the loss of each sense is accompanied by everyone experiencing the same emotion to a heightened level, but one is invited to draw the obvious conclusion that a point is being made about feeling on a personal as well as a perceptual level.

Am I saying that this film is heavy-handed? Er – yes. Several moments have the lead characters pausing just to fully appreciate whichever sense they’re fearful of losing next, and these are Loaded With Significance to a much greater degree than they require. One sequence about the pleasures of being tactile turns into an extended bout of whoa-ho-ho between McGregor and Green. There’s quite a lot of this sort of thing, to the point where it even becomes a bit desensitising: certainly by the end I found myself playing Whose Leg Is That? rather than feeling particularly stimulated.

A further problem is that, even if you’re prepared to meet the film halfway and buy into the improbable central premise as an idea, the way it’s actually implemented is actually quite preposterous. A grave voice-over by an omniscient narrator doesn’t help much when her account of ‘a single moment of hunger… and then taste was gone forever’ is accompanied by scenes of McGregor, Green, and various other players squirting mustard down their throats, eating lipstick, seizing hungrily on live rabbits, and so on. It just looks ridiculous – a scene later on where the leads try to make the most of their new situation by eating soap doesn’t help, either.

Now in theory I’d be prepared to forgive Perfect Sense a lot, because attempting to combine genre SF ideas and proper character-based emotional drama seems to me to be a potentially interesting area, but whatever it’s trying to say about relationships and emotions is either so subtle and profound I completely missed it, or utterly obvious and banal. And the central romance does not engage: the two characters are not quite, as McGregor at one point suggests, Mr and Mrs Arsehole, but neither are they people you’d particularly want to spend time with. She has no vulnerability, he has no depth; they are quite self-absorbed and humourless.

At least the romance plotline gives a counterpoint to the otherwise progressively more downbeat story of the death of civilisation. The fact that the film attempts to end on a positive, upbeat note, at a moment when the life expectancy of the human race can probably be measured in weeks, tells you everything about the preoccupations of this film. It’s nicely made and the performances aren’t awful, but it is quite pretentious and much more concerned with theme than narrative. Not a complete waste of time by any means, and it does have a certain sort of originality – but annoying and bemusing much more often than actually satisfying.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 7th 2006:

Ah, Mr Bond, I’ve been expecting you. For quite a while, actually, you’ve certainly taken your own sweet time turning up. Have you by any chance had a bit of work done here and there? I love what you’ve done with your hair…

Whether the Bond franchise was in dire need of a radical makeover following 2002’s Die Another Day is questionable, given the deserved popularity of Pierce Brosnan in the role (not to mention a global box office take of over $430 million). It’s a bit of a moot point now as Eon, Bond’s big-screen custodians, clearly thought so, even if the studio didn’t. Well, they’ve opted for grit over glamour and the results, as displayed in Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, are startling.

The news that Brosnan would be replaced for this final Fleming adaptation by the surprising choice of Daniel Craig attracted only slightly more attention from the lunatic fringes of Bond fandom than the revelation that the new movie would ditch over forty years of admittedly rather duff continuity and be a very definite re-start for the franchise, but Eon have stuck by both decisions.

So the movie opens with Bond receiving his 00 rank and rapidly discovering the talents for monumental carnage and indiscriminate fornication and adultery that have made him such a family favourite for many decades. Surveillance on a Madagascar-based mercenary leads to Bond putting a serious spanner in the works of terrorist financier Le Chiffre (nicely played by Mads Mikkelsen), and, more importantly, probably the best action sequence of the year, as Bond relentlessly pursues the astonishingly agile free-runner Sebastian Foucan all over a building site. Seriously short of funds and pursued by some very nasty creditors, Le Chiffre is forced to organise a high-stakes card game to recoup his losses, and Bond’s prodigious gambling talents make him the obvious man to take him on…

Expectations for this movie were high, but it delivers in spades. Most importantly it does the business as a tough, realistic thriller. The opening act, with Bond basically wandering around the Bahamas and Miami for an hour, destroying everything in his path, is perhaps a little overlong, but from here the movie goes into a fairly close (by Eon’s standards) adaptation of the original novel. The character of Mathis, here played by Giancarlo Gianinni, finally makes it into a Bond movie, and Felix Leiter very briefly pops up (it seems that these days he is once again an African-American). The book’s most notorious sequence also appears, although Le Chiffre’s carpet-beater is replaced by a length of rope. Eva Green gets a chance to do a bit more acting than the average Bond girl, even if her relationship with Craig is a bit too underwritten to really convince. Martin Campbell’s taut direction is better suited to the various gunfights and chases anyway.

But the really startling thing about this movie is the way it handles the central character. It essentially ignores the characterisation that has developed (or rather hasn’t developed) over the previous twenty films, and goes back to source. Daniel Craig’s performance as Bond is closer to Ian Fleming than I would ever have imagined. He enjoys the good things in life and is extremely good at his job, but his job is applied brutality – he’s cold and hard and ruthless, and when things don’t go his way he’s prone to acts of almost irrational violence. That said, the movie makes it clear he’s not just a blunt instrument – this is a cunning and almost scarily perceptive man. You don’t want him as an enemy – but then, neither do you really want him as a friend…

Daniel Craig brings him to life tremendously. It would be unfair to the other Bonds to say he’s the first not trying to copy Connery, but he seems to be the first whose performance isn’t in some way a reaction to the great man’s interpretation. He’s playing a human being whereas Brosnan in particular was inhabiting an icon. (The Brosnan pictures, slick and accomplished though they all were, are now looking to me at least like karaoke Bonds – the greatest hits of the 60s and 70s remixed and repackaged with a knowing wink.)

There’s a lengthy coda to one action sequence where we see Bond back in his room drinking whiskey as he washes off the blood, something previously unimaginable. The relaunch allows the writers to have a lot of fun with the various elements of the Bond legend – the clothes, the Aston Martin, the drink, the catchphrase. But it’s telling that they miss a lot of the staples out completely. There’s no sign of Q, in particular, or his invisible car. (Though that’s probably the idea of an invisible car, come to think of it.) Essentially the reboot has given the scriptwriters the opportunity to dynamite away most of the dead weight of formula and tradition that have accumulated around James Bond over the decades. Rather surprisingly, the character revealed – and maybe released – by this is as compelling and guiltily entertaining as he must have been fifty years ago. Where they’re going to go from here I haven’t the faintest idea – but I can’t wait to see. This is very probably the best Bond movie since the 1960s, and one of the best action movies of 2006. Highly recommended.

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