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Posts Tagged ‘Jeffrey Wright’

The arrival of a new James Bond film has always been a very big deal, for as long as I can remember – but such is the breathless expectation awaiting Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die that one half expects significant chunks of the population to turn purple and fall over. This is, let us recall, the production which saw Danny Boyle depart shortly before shooting began, due to script differences; various injuries besetting key cast members; and not one but two substantial postponements, the second of which was the catalyst which caused several major UK cinema chains to shut up shop last Autumn, well ahead of the second lockdown.

Now, of course, it seems that Bond is the latest movie to be hailed as the saviour of commercial cinema. So desperate, so certain is the company running the local multiplex where I’m living, that they scheduled forty-five screenings of the movie on its day of release alone (not counting the midnight showing – they started at nine in the morning and continued several times an hour until eleven at night). This is unprecedented, mad, and silly; it almost qualifies as a new level of hype and expectation. No film, not even a classic Bond, can match up to this kind of hype, surely?

Well. The film opens with the customary pre-credits sequence, but its first innovation is to shatter the record for time elapsed before the actual titles roll. Don’t hold your breath or you’ll be turning purple and falling over again. To be fair, this is a hugely confident and thrilling segment, opening with a vignette like something out of a horror movie, segueing into something unexpectedly moving, and then slamming into high gear as Bond’s trip to Italy with his girlfriend from the last movie (Lea Seydoux) hits a few wrinkles – suffice to say the famous Aston Martin DB5 gets one more glorious run-out.

Then we’re off into the plot, which starts with a resurgent SPECTRE (I know I’m the only one still capitalising the name of the organisation, but I’m a sentimental old thing) attacking a London bio-warfare lab, stealing a new weapon, and kidnapping its creator. Shadowy forces are at work inside the governments of the free world and a retired Bond is recruited by his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to retrieve the boffin before SPECTRE persuades him to do something nefarious with it. However, he finds himself in competition with his old paymasters at MI6, who have sent a Double-O agent from the younger generation on exactly the same mission…

And it all takes off from here, more or less. The plot is convoluted, but not impenetrably so, although it does feel sometimes that all the double-crossings and personal angst and exposition of bleak back-story is rather taking the place of the action and grand set-pieces which have always been the Bond franchise’s bread and butter. Somewhere along the way, too, exactly what the agenda of the diabolical mastermind (Rami Malek) is seems to become rather unclear. Even so, the film finishes strongly, with all the requisite crash-bang-wallop (along with a few more surprising touches) and the getting-on-for-three-hours running time more or less floats by provided you haven’t ingested too many liquids before it starts.

This is lavish, highly entertaining stuff, less glum and introspective overall than some of the Craig Bond films have been in the past, and striking an interesting balance between honouring the series’ history and engaging in some startling acts of iconoclasm – the plot draws on elements from the original version of You Only Live Twice, while the film overall is informed by one previous entry in the series in particular. Daniel Craig himself carries a huge movie with aplomb, but he is very well supported – Rami Malek is an authentically creepy and twisted Bond villain, Jeffrey Wright manages to make Leiter so much more than just Bond’s sidekick, and there’s an eye-catching extended cameo from Ana de Armas (who I think everyone was expecting to be in the movie a bit more than she actually is).

However, there are a lot of things about this film which it’s very difficult to talk about without spoiling it completely – most of them ultimately boiling down to the question of just what place, if any, there is for a character like James Bond in the world today. The producers (one of whom is Craig) seem very aware of this, which is why a number of what can perhaps be called corrective measures have been put in place – Lashana Lynch plays one of Bond’s fellow agents and the script has been given a polish by the acclaimed Fridge Wallaby, writer and star of Fleabag. Even so, one gets a sense of the decks being swept quite clean and a line firmly being drawn under the Craig era, in preparation for…

Well, that’s the question. When you really get down to it, James Bond – Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007, as the credits still put it – is the personification of a white heterosexual male power fantasy, and I can’t think of anything more problematic in modern culture. Bond has always been a bit problematic, but never more so than today, when virtually every major remake or adaptation of an older story sees characters ostentatiously having their genders or ethnicities changed.

Looking at the Craig era now, it’s clear that throughout them there’s been an ongoing negotiation between Bond-as-power-fantasy-figure and Bond-as-an-actual-credible-character; what made Casino Royale such an astounding breath of fresh air was that it did treat Bond seriously as a character; the series’ occasional problems since then have largely arisen from the limitations of this approach within the confines of a traditionally big, brash, and slightly tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action movie series. The new film really pushes this approach to its uttermost limits: one of the things I predict will prove highly polarising and divisive about it is that it is the human, flawed Bond that is central to the (rather contrived) final sequence, rather than the comforting, infallible superhero. (Not that the pay-off to this isn’t unexpectedly moving.)

The old idea of James Bond as a white male wish-fulfilment figure likely has no future, the modern cultural landscape being as it is. The problem is that the subtler Bond the Craig movies have brought to the screen, a somewhat modulated and updated, more humanised version of the character from the novels, likely has little distance left to run either: for a new actor to continue with it now would only invite deadly comparisons with Daniel Craig. But there has to be something a Bond movie provides that you just don’t get from – say – a Fast & Furious movie; call it the quintessence of Bondishness. What the people at the top of Eon have to figure out now is just what that is and whether it still has a place in the culture of the future.

I must admit to not being particular optimistic on this front, having seen too much well-intentioned cultural vandalism over the last few years. Bond is really the last of the great masculine icons; it’s a wonder he’s lasted this long. If this twenty-fifth Bond film does prove to be the last hurrah of the series before it’s reconfigured into something fundamentally different, then that’s a shame – but No Time to Die is at least a worthy and entirely fitting piece of valediction.

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‘A cross between Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express.’
 
Oh, good grief. It’s enough to make you swear off CNN (the source of that particular critical gem) for life. Okay, folks, in the wake of all this ‘It’s Bourne meets Inception’ and Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day’ nonsense, that was the final straw. Henceforth if you ever catch me describing a film in such a lazy, mechanical and – honestly – inaccurate way, shout at me, because I’ve had enough.
 
Normally I try and steer clear of other peoples’ opinions when choosing what to see in my weekly trip to the cinema – I mean, if you have any ambition to write film reviews with something like integrity (don’t start) you have to leave your preconceptions and prejudices at the door (not that I’m actually aware of anyone who’s completely successful at this).
 
Here’s the deal. I was put off going to see Duncan Jones’ Source Code by the trailer, which doesn’t do the film any favours. I thought it came across looking like another high-concept middle-budget Phil Dick pastiche, with hefty dollops of stuff derived from other bits of TV and movie SF. And I’ve seen enough of those, ta. This week I was going to see… er… a certain other movie, which had the virtues of at least looking original, and being directed by someone whose previous movies I’ve all really enjoyed (well, I didn’t bother seeing the one about the owls, but…). However. The certain other movie has received unanimously toxic reviews, while everyone’s raving about Source Code. It was time for a change of plan.  

 

In the movie Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US serviceman who wakes up to find himself on a train in Illinois. But on the train Stevens is not Stevens: his wallet is that of a man named Fentress, and on looking in the mirror he sees a face he doesn’t recognise. It’s as if he’s been teleported into another man’s life without anyone noticing, not even Fentress’s closest friend on the train, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Before he can even make sense of all this, a bomb blows the train apart and kills them both –

– and Stevens finds himself suspended in a dark, but oddly familiar space. A woman in military uniform (Vera Farmiga), under the command of a spiky boffin (Jeffrey Wright), is giving orders to him via a computer screen. Suddenly he find himself waking up on the train again, the events leading up to the bombing replaying inexorably…

And the film continues from there, filling in information about both the train bombing and Stevens’ own predicament as it goes (the latter turns out to be at least as grim as the former). One really shouldn’t say too much about the plot, for fear of spoiling the journey into understanding which is at the heart of this film.

As a piece of proper SF, Source Code’s credentials are dubious at best: as the main scientist on display, Wright’s character is clearly an expert in bafflegab and gobbledegook. The reason it’s called Source Code at all is an aesthetic one – in the context of the story it’s a punchy, slightly mysterious name for a ludicrous piece of pseudo-scientific invention. Retro-Cognitive Psycho-Projectron would probably be a more logical and honest title, but the studio wouldn’t allow them to put that on a poster.

However, as a thriller with a big fantastical high-concept at its heart, Source Code is exemplary. Jones’ control of time and space is excellent: it’s not until after the film that you realise most of the story occurs in only three or four locations, none of them particularly sizeable, and the repeated visits to the train in the minutes before the blast never actually seem repetitive. Were he still around, I think Hitchcock would have relished the challenge of operating within such strictures: and I think he would approve of Jones’ work here.

There are inevitably shades of Groundhog Day here, but only very faint ones. I was put rather more in mind of Jonathan Heap’s 1990 short film 12:01PM (the makers of this film decided not to sue the makers of the more famous movie for plagiarism, so I’m certainly not going to say Groundhog Day ripped it off), in which a man finds himself trapped in a short-period time-loop with no means of escape, and the tone is much harder and darker. Source Code has something of the same quality of an endlessly recurring nightmare, particularly in its middle section.

On the other hand, there are numerous clues in Source Code – some of them obvious, some quite deeply buried – which indicate that the makers consider themselves mainly in debt to the late-80s-early-90s-liberal-angst-a-thon TV series Quantum Leap, although this story is much darker than anything that show ever made.

Source Code’s sources are basically immaterial, anyway, as this film manages to transcend them and become something quite new and original. Comparisons with the likes of Inception strike me as overgenerous – this film isn’t quite so technically dazzling, and it’s not intended to be a puzzle or particularly ambiguous in its ending, and any debates on that subject will almost certainly be the result of people not properly paying attention to the climax.
 
In the end, I’m very happy to have seen Source Code, although it didn’t quite live up to the expectations all those glowing testimonials had given. Had I gone to see it cold, I expect I might be even more impressed than I am. As it is, I think it’s a brilliant exercise in storytelling, well-played and actually quite moving throughout. And I suspect it’s at least twice as smart as most of the films that’ll be released to cinemas this year. Recommended. 

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