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Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

There’s a conversation that comes around every few years, concerning the long-term prospects of the big studio blockbuster and whether in fact it is a viable form of entertainment. (As most major studios base their business plans on the assumption they will have at least one blockbuster hit every year – this is why they are sometimes called ‘tentpole’ releases – this is far from an idle discussion.) The last time I recall it properly doing the rounds was in 2005, when Stealth (it is perfectly acceptable to have forgotten or never heard of this movie) lost $60 million, A Sound of Thunder (ditto) lost $70 million, and Sahara (ditto again) lost at least $100 million.

Astute readers may have noticed that all of the above movies were not very good, but the big studios seem to have trouble grasping the fact that the failure of a bad movie may simply be down to its badness; they are so frequently successful in pushing dross on audiences that these occasional moments of rebellion from cinemagoers must be quite confusing for them. Nevertheless, here we are again, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies (relatively) underperforming and the latest version of The Mummy not exactly setting the box office on fire either. Deja vu beckons, as the people responsible cheerfully ignore the fact that some films have done exceedingly well this year (Wonder Woman for one; Fast and Furious 8 for another) and suggest the whole system is flawed, not their dud product.

Having said that, some films seem to be struggling for no apparent reason – for example, well-reviewed, mid-budget genre films like David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which you might expect to be well-positioned to do okay. Perhaps it’s just not quite big or accessible enough to be a real summer movie nowadays. Comparisons have been made with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-stylish, ultra-ridiculous John Wick movies, not least because Leitch worked on those, too.

The movie is set in November 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the movie takes great pains to point out this film has only the noddingest acquaintance with actual historical fact. As the communist grip on the city begins to falter, chaos begins to envelop the intelligence community there, and an MI6 plan to retrieve a highly important McGuffin goes bad, with the lead agent being killed by a Soviet assassin and the McGuffin being lost.

Not content to leave it at that, the top brass at British Intelligence send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), quite possibly the most preposterous MI6 agent in cinema history, and that includes Roger Moore in A View to a Kill. Broughton is packed off to Berlin to liaise with semi-rogue agent Perceval (James McAvoy) and recover the lost information – but quite apart from the competition from other agencies (the CIA, KGB, and French Intelligence are all on the scene), the situation is complicated by the suspicion that a double-agent may be involved and trying to prevent their identity from being revealed…

Or, to put it another way, Charlize Theron swanks her way around Berlin in a succession of chic thigh-flashing outfits for the best part of two hours, pausing only to beat the living daylights out of the local cops, occasionally drawl a profanity, disrupt a revival of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and engage in some eye-catchingly hot girl-on-girl action. Hrrmm.

Theron does kind of have form as an action movie heroine, especially following her recent successes in the last Mad Max and Fast and Furious 8, but I have to say the movie that leapt to mind was Karyn Kusama’s Aeon Flux, the main virtue of which was its sheer oddness. Atomic Blonde is a slightly more conventional proposition, in that it doesn’t feature killer topiary or people with an extra pair of hands in an unexpected place, but it’s still very much a vehicle for Theron (not surprisingly, given she produced it). Not that there isn’t a strong supporting cast – John Goodman plays a senior CIA dude, Eddie Marsan a Stasi officer looking to defect, and Sofia Boutella is Theron’s love interest (appearing without prosthetic makeup or limbs, for once).

As a thriller it is only marginally successful, I would say, as the plot becomes quite startlingly and bafflingly convoluted in fairly short order, the fact that most of it is told in flashback not really helping much. But you could certainly argue that the plot is the most dispensable part of Atomic Blonde, which trades heavily on its ass-kicking supermodel aesthetic, stylish direction, and retro vibe.

(To be honest, for a film supposedly set in 1989, most of the well-known songs on the soundtrack hail from rather earlier, and the film has a touch of punk rock attitude which is arguably more 1970s than 80s. You could also argue that the movie overdoes it when it comes to establishing its historical credentials: at one point a breakdancer is savagely beaten with a skateboard, while in the background ’99 Red Balloons’ is played on a ghetto blaster. All right, all right! It’s the 1980s! We get the idea!)

On the other hand, it does work rather well as a ridiculous, very stylish action movie, provided you’re happy to buy the conceit of a leggy supermodel repeatedly beating up gangs of big strong men without her hair getting overly mussed by her exertions. The movie is crunchingly violent, I should say, and even though Theron generally emerges victorious, I found some of the male-on-female violence a bit uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, there are some highly impressive sequences, the highlight being one which incorporates two separate fist fights, a gun battle, and a car chase, all in (apparently) a single travelling shot. I’m practically certain they cheated, but it’s still a bravura piece of film-making.

Yet I have to say that for all the film’s supposed aspirations towards feminine empowerment, I couldn’t help but detect a slightly leery whiff about it, because Theron is depicted in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if she were, you know, a male action hero. There is copious nudity from the lead of a kind you will look for in vain in your typical Jason Statham or Tom Cruise (or even Roger Moore) film, and there’s also the girl-on-girl stuff, which feels just a bit salacious. Can you imagine a Hollywood studio releasing a mainstream action movie with a gay protagonist? Me neither, but a bit of lipstick lesbianism is a different prospect, of course.

In the end I had a pretty good time watching Atomic Blonde. I couldn’t really find it in me to take it seriously at all, but then that’s hardly the point, is it? The plot may be a blithering tangle, but it’s plenty stylish and the fisticuffs, gunfights, and car chases all pass muster with the greatest of ease. I’m not sure this is the stuff of which successful franchises are spun, but as a one-off piece of slightly disposable entertainment, it does the trick rather nicely.

 

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Interested parties could be excused concern when it comes to the directorial career of Edgar Wright – over the last few years, anyway. Following the successful one-two of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, with their associated popular and critical success, a promising career in big-budget movies beckoned – until 2010’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World proved to be just too idiosyncratic a vision to find an audience, and he was notoriously booted from Ant-Man (a film he’d been working on for the best part of a decade), again because Marvel couldn’t quite get on board with his approach to the material. Wright’s only significant success since Hot Fuzz has been The World’s End – which harsh critics might say suggests he can’t make a good movie without Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Nevertheless, Wright’s long-time backers at Working Title have stuck by him, and here they are putting their name to another very un-Working Title-like movie – neither a rom-com nor a film with especially serious aspirations, Wright’s Baby Driver is in many ways a modern take on both the kind of stylised urban drama made by Walter Hill in the seventies, and the teen-oriented drive-in tales of a generation earlier.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby, a young man with two great passions in his life – classic music and dangerous driving. Following a traffic accident as a child in which his parents were both killed, he has been left with tinnitus and is obliged to listen to music virtually non-stop in an attempt to drown out the buzzing in his ears. If only that were the worst of his problems. For some considerable time he has found himself in the sway of veteran criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), for whom he has been working as a supremely gifted getaway driver. After many years of, basically, indentured servitude, Baby finds himself on the brink of discharging his debt to Doc, and finds himself beginning to dream of freedom… the open road… Debora (Lily James), the waitress at his favourite diner…

Doc, however, has other ideas, and sees no reason to dispense with Baby’s services – his concession is that Baby will receive his share of the loot in return for his participation now, and if he refuses it will be so much the worse for him, his girlfriend, and his elderly adoptive father (CJ Jones). And so he reluctantly shows up to participate in planning sessions for a raid on a post office, other members of the team including a stockbroker turned robber (Jon Hamm) and a violent psychopath (Jamie Foxx). Baby finds his capacity to ignore the violence and cruelty that’s an essential part of armed robbery is reaching its limit, but how is he going to extricate himself from the dangerous world he’s so deeply involved in?

On paper it sounds like a fairly generic crime thriller, with many elements we have seen numerous times before (you may detect faint echoes of the 2011 movie named Drive, as well as The Driver from 1978).  What makes Baby Driver distinctive, however, is its soundtrack, which is very prominent throughout the film, and the way the music is integrated into the story: Wright’s inventiveness when it comes to this sort of thing has been clear ever since the ‘Don’t stop me now’ sequence in Shaun of the Dead. I’ve seen it suggested that this is essentially a jukebox musical (although none of the characters actually do any singing), which couldn’t function without the songs on the soundtrack.

Well, maybe. In a few places the way the songs are woven into the movie is brilliantly handled – a gun battle where the shots are choreographed to match the drums of the song playing over it, for example – but much of the time Wright doesn’t appear to be doing much more than just sticking a cool tune on over a scene. Maybe the director is a little twitchy about making the film too surreal and stylised, after what happened with Scott Pilgrim, in which case this is kind of understandable. In any case, it is naturally a very good soundtrack; anything which brings artists like Marc Bolan and The Damned to a wider audience will get the nod from me.

So in the end, instead of something particularly adventurous stylistically, we are left with that, let’s be generous, archetypal crime thriller, which on the whole is handled fairly seriously. (Although there are some very good gags along the way.) Ansel Elgort is not really required to do much more than look soulful and conflicted, and Lily James is honestly not very much more than a symbol, but they are perfectly fine in these roles. Most of the heavy lifting, in terms of actual acting, is done by the more senior members of the cast, and these performances are possibly the best thing about the movie. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx are all extremely good as characters which frequently turn out to have a bit more depth than you might honestly have expected – the result is a nicely twisty-turny caper, although a few of the final character beats and reversals don’t ring entirely true.

In any case it’s nice to find so much heft in a movie that promised to be much more about style and directorial whistles and bells. Those are still here to some extent, and perhaps this is why the various chases don’t give the breathless hit of adrenaline that a really classic movie car chase provides , and why the romance between Baby and Debora feels a bit anaemic and lacking in real heat – an ostentatious reminder of Wright’s directorial presence is never very far away, which stopped me, at least, from completely engaging with the film as a piece of fiction.

Still, this is well put together stuff, even if I’m not sure the target audience will recognise all the narrative riffs that Wright is looking to play – rather unexpectedly, he takes the morality of the film and his characters rather more seriously than is fashionable than in a lot of films aimed at this sort of demographic, and it will be interesting to see how that plays with the target audience.

Baby Driver is unlikely to transform anyone’s world, but it is a solidly assembled and consistently entertaining film. Whether (and how much) Wright is forcibly restraining his natural instincts in order to make a commercially more viable film is a question I suspect we’ll never know the answer to, but this deserves to do well for him.

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Democracy, I commented recently, has had a rough couple of years. I must, of course, qualify this by saying I speak as a left-leaning progressive and internationalist; should you be a right-winger who fervently believes in the primacy of the nation state, you will probably be little short of delighted with how things have turned out for you. Perhaps it’s better to say that recent events have conspired to show up the cracks in the system. As Churchill famously said, democracy is a terrible way of organising things; it just happens to be better than all the others. It inevitably reduces the multi-layered complexities of human opinion and belief down to a black and white tick-your-preferred-box choice.

And this is when the system is functioning as it’s supposed to. Situations like the one in the USA last year, when the person who scored three million votes more than the second placed candidate did not in fact win the contest, almost inevitably lead one to wonder in what sense the electoral college system is genuinely democratic. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we have repeatedly had the problematic situation where the slenderness of a winning majority has had no effect on the behaviour of a winning side – you may only get 52% of the vote in a referendum, but that still gives you 100% of the power to impose your interpretation of the result on the population, under the cover of the useful phrase ‘the Will of the People’.

The extent to which the Will of the People really matters is one of the issues examined by A Very British Coup, a 1988 TV drama which I was recently moved to revisit (available free-to-watch to UK residents). Rather to everyone’s surprise, it is showing every sign of becoming prescient and topical: written by Alan Plater from Chris Mullins’ novel, and directed by Mick Jackson, it opens on the day of a general election, in which former steelworker and lifelong socialist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) is victorious and becomes the Prime Minister of a borderline-Marxist Labour government. In addition to the nationalisation of various sectors, Perkins’ legislative programme includes open government, limiting private ownership of the media, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of US Air Force bases from British soil.

Unsurprisingly, this is met with horror by various members of the British establishment, not to mention the current American administration, and a shadowy coalition including senior figures at MI5, the head of the BBC, a Tory press baron, and members of the CIA comes together to undermine and, if necessary, topple the elected government of the UK. For the good of the country, naturally.

As I say, the series was made in 1988, and has a near-future setting (most clearly indicated by the fact that there are various references to ‘the King’) – apparently if you squint you can see tax discs for the year 1991 or 92, not that it really matters. The story was apparently inspired by persistent rumours that a military coup against Harold Wilson’s government was a very real possibility in 1974, not to mention alleged CIA involvement in an Australian constitutional crisis at around the same time.

It’s a solidly-made production, a product of that time when the scope and production values of British TV drama were becoming more cinematic, while its tone remained more theatrical. It is quite talky, and the audience is credited with some intelligence. McAnally carries the production ably, and there’s one of those interesting supporting casts made up of people on their way to a somewhat bigger time – Keith Allen plays Perkins’ press secretary, Jim Carter is the Foreign Secretary, Philip Madoc is the press baron, Tim McInnerny is a ruthless MI5 operative, and so on. (Of interest to a more niche audience – Geoffrey Beevers, Caroline John, and Jessica Carney also appear in roles of differing sizes.)

It’s a product of its time in another way, too – it’s hard to imagine anything quite so openly party-political being made by a UK broadcaster nowadays: Perkins is unmistakably the good guy throughout, with the forces against him clearly those of conservatism (with both a big and small C) and the right. The series was made while Thatcher was in power, based on a book written when it seemed distinctly possible for a hard left politician to become Prime Minister (in the early 80s, prior to the Falklands adventure, it seemed that Thatcher might lose the 1983-84 election and someone like Michael Foot or Tony Benn would take over – V for Vendetta was also originally predicated on this type of scenario). One of Thatcher’s most enduring achievements is that for many years it seemed wildly improbable that a committed socialist could ever get the job again.

And yet here we are. The series failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, which inevitably colours its international outlook, and barely touches on the topic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, but to me it still feels like one with relevant things to say about the country’s situation today. Our papers are full of editorials referring to the Will of the People – or at least a particular, narrow interpretation of what that Will might be – and we see the privately-owned media united in attempts to discredit the leadership of the Labour party. ‘Partisan’ and ‘biased’ doesn’t even begin to properly describe the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by many papers. Once again, no doubt the editors involved would say they are doing it for the good of the nation. They may even believe this themselves.

A Very British Coup takes biased press coverage as being just the first of the conspiracy’s moves against Perkins, going on to include fomenting industrial action, forged evidence of financial impropriety, and actual murder (a pro-disarmament scientific advisor is assassinated by MI5 – or so it is strongly implied). The series ends ambiguously, with another election, talk of ‘constitutional uncertainty’, and the sound of rising aircraft engines, implying that perhaps a genuine coup d’etat is in progress (again, there has already been speculation as to the likely response of the military to a Corbyn victory). Before all this, however, is a scene between Perkins and the head of MI5 where the civil servant admits that the prospect of a successful, genuinely left-wing government terrifies the establishment and those with a vested interest in the status quo, hence their determination to destroy Perkins and his government.

It’s a powerful scene and a disturbingly credible one, although still slightly theatrical. Who really runs the country? Does the Will of the People carry any real power? Or is it just the case that our elected officials are only allowed to govern within certain parameters, regardless of their popular support? If so, who has the real power, and what is it based on? In a few days there is a chance that all these questions may feel very urgent and significant indeed, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if any answers emerge.

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You would expect the coming together of a group as disparate as Ridley Scott, Steve Coogan, the BBC, and the Isle of Man film board to result in a fairly peculiar film – and sometimes things work out in an entirely predictable manner, for the fruit of their collective effort is Sean Foley’s Mindhorn, which is indeed fairly peculiar. This is a comedy, which is also as you might expect given the involvement of Coogan and co-writer and star Julian Barratt. Barratt is possibly best known for his role in the TV series The Mighty Boosh, which is another one of those things I must confess to having hardly ever seen. In some ways the new movie seems very familiar anyway, though.

Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a TV actor who was briefly famous in the 1980s as the star of Mindhorn, a (seemingly dreadful) show about a bionic detective set on the Isle of Man. (Yes, there may well be an implied dig at Bergerac, as there is a running gag about John Nettles in this movie too.) Now, however, Thorncroft’s star has faded, and he is now an overweight, balding unemployed-going-on-unemployable actor reduced to advertising support hosiery.

Things change, however, when a murderer strikes on the Isle of Man. The prime suspect is a mentally unstable youth (Russell Tovey) who’s obsessed with Mindhorn and wants to speak to his hero about the crime. Somewhat reluctantly, the Manx police decide to recruit Thorncroft to recreate his most famous role in the hope of catching the killer.

Once back on the island, however, Thorncroft gets a bit distracted, seeing this more as a chance to relaunch himself than an act of civic duty. So, rather to the annoyance of his police handler (Andrea Riseborough), he sets about trying to woo back his ex-partner (Essie Davis) and hopefully bring about the launch of Mindhorn on DVD, provided he can win the support of a much more successful ex-colleague (Coogan)…

As I said, there is a sense in which Mindhorn feels very familiar – this film is certainly not outside the mainstream of British comedy cinema in recent years. Films about delusional middle-aged men becoming caught up in slightly absurd adventures have actually been pretty common – Mindhorn is especially reminiscent of the Alan Partridge movie, Alpha Papa (though this was perhaps inevitable given it was made by the same company), but it also has a strong whiff of the David Brent film, too. Perhaps as a result, the genuinely odd thing about Mindhorn is that it feels like a big-screen adaptation of a sitcom, even though it’s a wholly original story. There’s been a notable tradition of metatextuality in British comedy for a while now, and Mindhorn’s lovingly-detailed if rather OTT realisation of the show-within-the-movie is part of it – viewers who stay to the very end of the film are rewarded, if that’s the right word, with a fake music video from the fictional Thorncroft’s non-existent music career. I was particularly reminded of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another project built around an absurd 80s genre pastiche, and not surprised to learn that Barratt was involved in that show too.

I suppose the other distinctive thing about this film is that most of it is set in the Isle of Man. Now it’s not that the Isle of Man doesn’t show up in movies occasionally, it’s just that when it does it’s usually pretending to be somewhere else (for example, Waking Ned, where it’s supposed to be Ireland). In Mindhorn, the Isle of Man is on screen as itself (various local tourist spots are worked into the plot), but the odd thing is that this is largely bathetic. The idea of a TV show about a bionic detective isn’t as necessarily funny as that of a TV show about a bionic detective set in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man’s role in the story is to be a provincial, underwhelming backdrop (much fun is had with the supposed awfulness of the Manx Day parade), which strikes me as a rather brave move on the part of the Isle of Man film board, who were involved in making this movie, after all.

Still, none of this matters very much given that the film is genuinely funny all the way through, for all of its vague familiarity. The film is, as mentioned, lovingly detailed, with a very strong cast inhabiting its array of comic grotesques – there are a couple of celebrity cameos early on which raise a smile. As regular readers may know, I’m not a particular fan of most modern comedies – they generally don’t make me laugh, plain and simple – but there are many extremely funny bits in Mindhorn: Julian Barratt carries the film with impressive aplomb, and the script is solidly structured and cleverly plotted. On the other hand, this is clearly a film which has been made on an extremely low budget – what, the Isle of Man film board doesn’t have bottomless coffers at its disposal?! – and this does occasionally result in an unintentional sense of cheesiness.

Then again, it just adds to the charm, probably, for this is a movie which was almost certainly never intended to set the world on fire – or even the Isle of Man, probably. It’s not terribly innovative or spectacular, but it takes the business of being very knowingly stupid extremely seriously, and I did laugh a lot. And that’s ultimately what you want from a comedy film.

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I’m always on the lookout for a chance to do something new and innovative on the blog, not to mention a chance to showcase my freakish ability to identify obscure actors in minor roles. And so, hot on the heels of our look at Lust for a Vampire, featuring David Healy in the small but relatively important role of Raymond Pelley (aka Angry Father of Early Victim), I thought we would move on and examine another Healy movie from 1971 – Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever, in which the actor treats us to his take on Vandenberg Launch Director (an uncredited performance). (Other movies featuring the work of Mr Healy which are reviewed on this blog include You Only Live Twice, Phase IV, and The Ninth Configuration.)

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just a coincidence (I’m still quite proud to have spotted him though). When you’ve spent nearly seven years reviewing virtually the entire canon of Eon Bond movies, you do start to run out of ways to start them off, but as this is the very last vintage Bond to cross off my list, that’s one problem I probably won’t have to worry about much in future.

Diamonds are Forever is one where Connery came back, for an enormous fee and for one film only, after an arguably rather overconfident George Lazenby decided not to stick around in the part. Fleming’s original novel provides about a third of what happens on screen, as Bond finds himself mixed up in diamond (well, duh) smuggling in Las Vegas, taking on sundry gangsters including the gay hitmen Wint and Kidd. Fairly soon, however, it all mutates into much more standard Bond movie fare, to wit Bond Plot 2: evil mastermind has nefarious scheme involving satellite-based superweapon. Other points of interest include the scene where Q uses his talents to defraud a casino, the one where Blofeld (Charles Gray) dresses up as a woman, and the one where Natalie Wood’s kid sister gets thrown out of a hotel window in her pants.

In the past I have commented on how the addition of SPECTRE and Blofeld to films based on books in which they did not appear often resulted in the improvement of the story. I’m not sure the same can be said in this case; while the presence of Blofeld in this movie was probably inevitable given how the previous one ended, all that results is a fairly bland piece of by-the-numbers Bond – the boxes of the formula get dutifully ticked, but not much new gets added to the recipe.

You could view Diamonds are Forever as the conclusion of the first phase of Bond movies, which nearly all concern themselves with Connery’s Bond taking on SPECTRE in various ways. From being virtually ever-present in the early films, neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld would really feature again for over forty years after this point, and I have to say that while this may have been forced on the film-makers for legal reasons, making most of the Roger Moore movies standalones with new villains does give them more variety and life. I’m always much more entertained by the blaxploitation or chop-socky stylings of the early Moore films than by anything in Diamonds are Forever.

One way in which Diamonds are Forever does set a precedent for the rest of the series is that it establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for Bond to be an older gentleman. Connery was in his early 40s by this point, and the part wasn’t played by anyone younger than this until the advent of Craig (who was only a couple of years shy of 40). Fleming’s Bond is said to be 37 at one point in an early novel, so it’s not as if this is wildly at odds with the source material. Quite what one should make of Connery’s performance here is another matter – as someone pretending to be a smuggler, he certainly has the ‘smug’ part down pat. One never gets the impression that Sean Connery has a problem with a lack of self-belief, and in this film he’s practically a battering ram of entitled self-satisfaction.

This is not especially good news for a film which has an odd tonal problem – there’s some quite hard-edged violence at a couple of points (there are sequences which trouble the TV censors more than most older Bond films), but coupled to a slightly camp tone. All the Bond films are essentially masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies, but it somehow feels more obvious here than in many other cases, and in a particularly unappealing and slightly sleazy way. Connery gets the dodgy ‘collar and cuffs’ gag (to be honest, I’m not sure he or Blofeld has an interaction with a woman in this film which isn’t basically patronising, although Bond is pretty patronising to most of the men, too), and there’s the very dated and frankly dubious (if not outright offensive) material with Wint and Kidd to consider as well.

One of the dated elements of the movie which occasionally draws attention is the rather peculiar sequence in which Bond, having infiltrated the enemy base, discovers what appears to be the filming of a fake moon landing in progress. This was 1971, after all, when the Apollo programme was an ongoing thing, and it has been suggested that this is a not terribly deeply coded signal as to what was really going on at the time. Quite how Eon got wind of the lunar hoaxes and why they decided to blow the gaffe in this slightly oblique way is never really adequately explained, though.

It would be nice to find more genuinely positive things to say about Diamonds are Forever – I suppose I’ve always enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance, and the theme song is good too. In the end, though, this is Bond as an almost totally mechanical, formulaic spectacle, and entirely lacking in the lightness of touch and charm which the best films of the series possess. A bit of a disappointment however you look at it.

 

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From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he’d grown rather bored by.

I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming’s intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young’s 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there’s an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers’ message being ‘This is a bit different, we think it’s quite good’, but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is ‘This is great, you’re going to love it.’

One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I’m not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice is a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld’s spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.

I’m thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn’t run by Bond’s long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence’s most libidinous operative.

The late Kevin McClory’s claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn’t feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what’s going on either. It’s unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.

We’re still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and ‘SPECTRE Island’ (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn’t a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.

That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren’t there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it’s telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.

Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don’t think he’s an actor with a particularly impressive range, but he is always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond’s girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick (ahhh, Martine Beswick) racks up (if that’s the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as ‘Martin Beswick’ in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).

It’s 2017, and From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.

 

 

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Film studios are usually so prepared to jump on the bandwagon of any successful movie and devote themselves to making more of the same, that it almost seems churlish to be less than fully enthusiastic when someone unveils a project which is quite startling in its originality. Nevertheless, this is the position I find myself in with respect to Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. If you are a fan of movies in which low-ranking fashionistas moonlight as ghostbusters and find themselves mixed up in the stuff of a psychological thriller, well, rejoice, for this movie is right up your street. If you are part of that inexplicable minority for whom this is not instinctively interesting, well, you might want to read on anyway, for this is still a fairly interesting project.

Kristen Stewart wafts around Paris, London, and Muscat as Maureen, personal shopper and general dogsbody for a prominent figure in the fashion industry (who’s a fairly unpleasant individual, it would appear). Several people wonder why she stays in such a difficult and unrewarding position; well, she has something else on her mind – her brother died three months earlier and the two of them made a deal. Whichever one passed on first would send a message of some kind to the other, confirming the existence of the afterlife. For Maureen, you see, has mediumistic powers, in addition to a good knowledge of couture, and spends much of her spare time hanging around gloomy old mansions harassing dead people. So when she starts to receive enigmatic text messages from someone seeming to know all about her and her life, one of the first questions that occurs to her is that of which side of the grave her stalker is on…

There is a certain class of actor who rose from near-obscurity to global celebrity extremely rapidly and at a relatively young age, and while this may have done their profile and bank balance no harm whatsoever, it creates a lens through which all their subsequent work is inevitably viewed. I’m thinking of people like Elijah Wood, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson, and – of course – Kristen Stewart belongs to this select group as well. (Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, seems to have slipped the net, while the career of Leonardo DiCaprio indicates there is hope for any of these people.) No matter what Stewart does, on some level she is still going to be The Twilight Girl for many people, with all the baggage that comes with this. On the other hand, I expect having a net worth of $70m makes up for a lot, and Stewart could be forgiven for either just sitting on a yacht somewhere or simply doing very commercial work. I would say that for her to lend her profile to an odd little slightly art-house film like this one is commendable, especially considering the vanity-free performance it demands of her.

Personal Shopper played at the Cannes festival, where it won the prize for best direction and was also booed by the audience, which may give you a sense of the film’s potential to divide and confuse. On paper the film sounds like some sort of odd genre mash-up, with elements of a psychological thriller and a possible ghost story intermingling, but to be honest it doesn’t so much combine genres as slosh around between them haphazardly. Most of the time it comes across as a naturalistic, ostentatiously understated character piece with Stewart buzzing around Paris on her moped, carrying out lengthy text message conversations, looking at shoes, and so on, and you think that the metaphysical elements – her fretting about the existence of the next world, the mysterious absence of word from her brother – are just part of this. She has the same congenital heart defect which killed him (and could potentially do the same to her), and you almost expect the business about spirits to be not much more than a metaphor, an expression of her existential uncertainty about life.

But then there’s a genuinely creepy sequence of Stewart wandering around a big old house in the dark, and vague shapes swirl around the edges of the frame, and abruptly she is contending with a hostile CGI spectre, and the effect is quite discombobulating – especially when the sequences like this don’t particularly seem to lead anywhere or add to the story. The thriller-storyline is somewhat less arbitrary – someone gets murdered, Stewart’s character is too close to being implicated for comfort, and what does her mysterious text friend know about it all? – but arguably gets going too late in the film and ultimately remains quite baffling and unexplained in several key details. (It may be there’s a brilliant subtext or hidden story in this film which completely passed me by; one sequence near the end is certainly very suggestive.)

Despite all this, Personal Shopper remains oddly mesmerising to watch – I glanced at my watch at one point, wondering when the plot proper would get going, only to find we were already 80 minutes into the film without my noticing it. This is partly because it’s simply quite a well-made film, and the various elements of the plot, for all that many of them are not entirely resolved, are nevertheless quite intriguing while they’re being developed. I would also say that credit should go to Kristen Stewart, who does have that indefinable quality we call Star. Her performance here, while a little mannered, is also technically meticulous, the work of someone who cares about their craft at the very least. And she pretty much has to carry the entire film – no-one else really makes much of an impression, with the possible exception of Lars Eidinger – it might be worth a small flutter on Eidinger as a potential future Bond villain, as he certainly seems to have the looks and the moves for the role.

For all that Personal Shopper sounds like a plot-driven genre movie, so much of it is oblique and ultimately unresolved that it really functions more as a mood or character piece than anything else. There are so many strangenesses and weird quirks and choices to the movie that I can fully understand why some people might find it deeply annoying, but on the other hand, the central performance is quite impressive and it is extremely watchable, in a funny sort of way. Is it actually a good movie or not? For once I can’t actually decide, but The Twilight Girl is certainly good in it.

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