Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mister Bond, We Weren't Expecting You

You're going to have to give me a little leeway on this one. Casino Royale is the 21st Bond film, the first to star Daniel Craig as 007, and a movie I was bound to like. So, review or not, there WILL be gushing.

Still, I do still have a little perspective. I was the Bond fan who walked out of Die Another Day going "Erm, what the hell happened?" It's become known as 'that one with the invisible car', somewhat unfairly - it should be called 'the one with the director who doesn't understand action'.

(Die Another Day had some great ideas - Bond captured, tortured and traded, for example - but you can't get behind a film with CGI that bad, or that cuts away from a supposedly life-or-death car chase to watch the villain pack up his gear.)

For all the talk of reinvention, Casino Royale is smart enough not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The producers know their iconography, and are clearly aware that those touches are the difference between a Bond film and a generic action thriller. (Or, even, the unofficial 007 picture Never Say Never Again; Connery or not, without the music, catchphrases, titles and style it just ain't a Bond flick.)

They've also wisely ignored calls for a 'auteur' Bond film. These are producer films, not showcases for directors. All the talk about a Tarantino Bond was unfounded, but can you imagine anything more ghastly?

So when Martin Campbell was called back for Casino Royale - having previously helmed GoldenEye - it was always going to be his film second, the producers' first.

It's great to have this director back, though. He has a crisp, clean style that really works for Bond. As with GoldenEye, both the photography (by his long-term collaborator Phil Meheux) and and the editing style really add a snap to proceedings. But where, in GoldenEye, he was working with a 'greatest hits' script package, here he's been handed something far more complex...and he rises to its every challenge.

Because while GoldenEye's attempts to plumb 007's depths were kind of embarrassing - cod-psychology dialogue mixed with Brosnan's inability to get beyond TV-movie substance - here they're...well, if not revelatory, then certainly affecting and compelling.

Dialogue and depth can most likely be attributed to Oscar-winning writer Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), who polished up an original screenplay by Purvis & Wade, veteran of Brosnan Bonds as well as powerful true-story brit-flick Let Him Have It. There's a palpable crackle to every exchange.

Characterisation is precise to a pin-point. Vesper Lynd has a history and a take on the world that's all her own. She's also achingly real, which means that she reacts pretty badly to the life of casual death she's stumbled into - never has it been more clear that Bond is borderline psychotic.

The villain has been misunderstood in some quarters, described as weak or insubstantial. But that is, surely, the point. Le Chiffre is a numerically-gifted banker, but it's always someone else's money. He's a pawn in a much bigger game, as per the novel. The high-stakes poker game around which the film centres is the final act of a desperate man - he's lost £120 million that wasn't his, and he needs it back before they kill him.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre as a sadist, a psychotic mirror of Bond (who could, in this incarnation, could be seen as a masochist). A small bundle of foibles - asthma inhaler always on-hand, and a malformed eye that weeps blood - back him up as basically weak, but driven to the edge. Yes, that's right, he's MOTIVATED.

M, also, returns to the original Fleming - only nobody seems to have noticed. Judy Dench may be back, but this is NOT the same incarnation of the character. She's exasperated, angry, and given to bouts of brilliant swearing. Female or not, this is M as the books describe, and the frisson with 007 is palpable.

On to the second teir. We have Villiers - M's chief of staff, and another novel regular, who rarely turned up in the film series - who Tobias Menzies makes likeable, if forever slightly startled. Rene Mathis, played by the terrific character actor Giancarlo Giannini, all understated French confidence and capability, dispatching with problematic people (alive and dead) remotely, just watching as they are dealt with while he carries on with his breakfast.

And just when you think it can't get any better, Felix Leiter makes his presence known.

While this Felix has yet to, ahem, bond with Bond, Jeffrey Wright makes it very clear where this relationship will be going. He's sharp, witty, and very likable, and his limited screen time just makes his likely return in the next film all the more desirable. Spot on.

And Bond himself? Wow.

I'm always loathe to compare Bond actors. Is Roger Moore's version - a guy who'd rather humiliate an assassin than shoot him - really the same as Connery's? And does it matter? I have huge affection for every incarnation.

But, okay, the script is as Fleming as can be, and that means Daniel Craig gets to nail the character in a way nobody's had to the chance to before. Which, along with a pitch-perfect performance, makes him the best screen Bond ever. Yes, EVERY actor has been 'the best since Connery' - Lazenby was by default, Moore then became so, Dalton then beat those two, and Brosnan came along and did it better than any of them (all debatable, obviously, but you see what I mean) - but Daniel Craig...sod the hair colour, he IS James Bond. And he's better at it than Connery.

Don't bother getting into a continuity tizz, by the way. There's been years of nonsensical debate among fans that the universe changed with each actor, or that Bond is a code name for several agents, or that Dalton's Bond was written over by the Cold War flashback at the start of GoldenEye. NO version makes full sense. If they're all the same guy, Bond would be at least 70 years old by the time of Die Another Day.

The way to look at the first 20 films is as stand-alone adventures with SOME shared history. But each film is of its time, and continuity can (and should) been seen as breakable.

So - this isn't a prequel. A lot of reviewers have this wrong, but then even the cast and crew seem unsure how it works. It's not 'Bond 0', not the film before 1962's Dr No. For the sake of tidiness, it's a reboot. But then, so were most of the other films. (Remember On Her Majesty's Secret Service? Bond goes undercover at Blofeld's HQ. Which is odd, seeing as they met in the last movie...)

But neither is really appropriate. What we actually have here is the start of a series that was never, really, a series before. Casino Royale is a film that leaves a few key questions behind to be picked up in a sequel. Yes, a sequel. Not just 'the next film', but a film whose narrative locks directly into the previously part. In that respect, you can call Casino Royale incomplete if you like. I don't mind.

I've heard the director call it part one of a two-parter. With Craig signed for three films, I hope it's a trilogy. Sure, he may do more films after that, but I say go with what you can be sure of. A trilogy has a definite shape to it, and it means risks can be taken with running story threads. A two-parter just means Craig's third film won't be directly connected to the first two. (Of course, what happens POST-Craig is anyone's guess. We can't do the origin story every time.)

Ah, but who to direct? Aiming for a 2008 release (guys, PLEASE don't rush the screenplay!), director Campbell has stepped away, and - producer-led series or not - we need someone who can match part one's style. But not a director so huge that it becomes THEIR film.

In years past I've talked up American F. Gary Gray. He's the guy behind the Italian Job remake - a film that balanced real-stunt spectacle with some fun humour and well-drawn characterisation. And if this were a Brosnan Bond, I'd still suggest him.

Only we need someone now with a slightly darker sensibility. And you know who I crave? Doug Liman.

The Bourne Identity was his. And if this new Bond has a touchstone, it's that film. Not the sequel - which I enjoyed immensely, but it went WAY too far with the documentary style and lost the cleanness of the original - but Liman's original (which he followed, oddly, with the 'Two Bonds at Home' comic action allegory Mr and Mrs Smith) shows you that he'd be the guy for the job.

Beyond that? Okay, I'd like Michael Caton-Jones on the list. He knows thriller (Basic Instinct 2 is nowhere near as bad as you think it is), he knows sexy, he knows British sensibility, and he can handle emotion and action (Rob Roy's is remarkable, and the look of The Jackal is smooth). Sure, the back catalogue isn't outstanding...but I'll say it again, these are producer movies.

Seriously, you need a gun for hire who's going to make the best of Eon Productions' concepts. THEY'LL nail the script, you just have to stick to it. Campbell did No Escape, for God's sake.

With that in mind, the rest of my hastily-constructed shortlist includes Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571, Terminator 3) for his gritty, solid style, and John Moore (Flight of the Phoenix, Behind Enemy Lines), assuming he can be made to hold off on the CGI.

These are hired guns. But I think they're realistic choices, and directors who would be able to maintain the work begun in Casino Royale.

That's big-picture, franchise stuff, though. I haven't exactly run through the film itself, have I? So here, for the patient and virtuous, is the quickie 'regular' review:

The opening scenes show Bond's first two kills, intercutting between a trashed bathroom and an under-lit office. The first kill (which, with the cutting, we actually see second - radical style for a Bond movie, as it goes) is brutal, violent, hand-to-hand. It's shot with a grain that the cooler office scenes don't have. And with one being dark and the other being neon-lit, it's absolutely designed for black and white. Nobody's getting lost - it's visual storytelling at its best, at its most simple.

By the second kill, James is already an icy killer. And already we're asking - is this right? Is what he does the only way? And how can he feel so little about it? There's something wrong with this guy.

Themes the movie will make good on. Oh yes.

We conclude with the gunbarrel shot - at the end of the sequence, rather than the traditional start - actually as part of the film proper. (Which makes you wonder if they picked the bathroom setting just to give Bond the traditional white background...) The blood runs down, giving our first piece of colour...and the song kicks in.

I won't hear a word against Chris Cornell's song, by the way. It's a ballsy, heaving, masculine track, with lyrics that nail the tone of the film. ("Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you...")

It also provides the backbone for the film's score by David Arnold. A powerhouse of excitement, tension and timing, and steadfastly only offering up fragments of the James Bond theme when 007 has earned them. After over-using those iconic notes (albeit to great effect) in the last three films, it's a great move, further cementing Casino Royale's new style, while still anchoring us to the history.

The titles are a work of art, by the way. Daniel Kleinman goes up and down in my estimation with each film - GoldenEye's are spot-on, and full of intelligent metaphor, while Tomorrow Never Dies' are pretty weak - but this newly-styled look, all playing card motifs and Bond silhouettes with not a floating naked woman in sight, works a treat.

Then we start running. Literally. Bond is on-mission and almost immediately forced to chase a bomb-maker and, apparently, part-time free-runner. It's an amazing sequence, marred only once by Brosnan-like excess when 007 gets behind the wheel of a digger. Otherwise, it's a perfect example of human-action filmmaking; Bond's unrefined physical style versus his slippery free-running opponent.

Here the style is cemented. To kill is a struggle. To fight causes pain. You will scrabble to survive, you will get hurt. And as things conclude in an embassy building, it becomes clear that 'victory' and 'defeat' are concepts too simple to live here.

An icy chat with M later, and Bond is off to the Bahamas. He wins an Aston Martin, does some real, proper detective work, seduces his quarry's wife (though NOT to conclusion)...then gets caught up in a race against time to prevent an airport bombing.

I know, it aches with contemporary relevance, doesn't it? And yet, just as Fleming's book held the mood of a post-WWII world, so this film has no choice but to land post-9/11. It's done with intelligence and power, though. So while the sequence again goes a step too far with the property destruction (and apparently yet more destruction was cut), there's tension and invention throughout.

That's movie one, then. The one where 007 kicks ass and forgets to take names.

Movie two is the one where Bond knows everyone's name...and gets HIS arse royally kicked.

Because the film is weirdly built up of two separate three-act stories. The first, described above, is all satisfying wham-bam. It DOES have substance, but is really a prelude to the the good stuff that's on its way.

I won't ruin this latter film, too much, though. It kicks off with some great chemistry between Bond and Eva Green's Vesper, then gets down to the business of playing poker.

Don't listen to anyone who tells you that the poker scenes are too long. That's only true if you're not invested. Let yourself be taken into the world - a world where both hero and villain HAVE to win - and the timing is impeccable. I don't play, or even understand, poker and even I followed every step of the game. There's some exposition, but it actually explains the wrong things; the camera and editing does the real work...and it's nail-biting.

Between games, Bond and Le Chiffre both fend off attacks (watch for a brutal fight on a staircase - wow), and at one point James looks certain to die...not from a bullet, but from something far more pedestrian. And thus more humanising. (And back to Fleming again.)

While the much-vaunted car stunt is amazing, the chase before it is over way too soon. Still, it does cause genuine does 'that' torture scene.

This Bond bleeds, sweats, cries and even vomits. He's not always right, and he doesn't always get the bad guy. But never is he better than when he's stripped of everything. Clothes, weapons, allies...all gone. And as Le Chiffre beats him from below, THAT'S when he becomes tougher than ever. With words, with performance, Bond fights back. His ego becomes a survival tool. And in those moments, we were never more proud of him.

He's also bloody funny. How can a film be so brutal, then wryly humourous, then so pulse-pounding? And then make you cry? Christ, this is top-notch stuff.

The only problem is, as I said before, the two-film structure. Because the second film is, at this point, only at the end of act two, we have a LONG way to go to get to our conclusion.

It would be more of a problem if this final section were bad. But the quality stays high, and it drags you over a couple of bumps - relocating to Venice - before concluding in a pumping climax. One that probably goes to far, given that we really just need to focus on emotion at this point, but still has some great action to offer.

And then the coda. And it's in the film's final shots that we are told, definitively, everything we came to find out. Yes, this IS Bond as never before...and at the same time, don't worry, feel safe, because Bond is Bond and he'll always be the same.

Think that's a contradiction? Not when you see it it isn't. The best is saved for last - these films have ended sadly (OHMSS, with the death of Bond's bride), and happily (all the others). But they've never ended with triumph like this. It may be hollow triumph, but it's all we have.

And Bond is all we have.

You won't agree with his methods. You may not even like him. He's a dangerous, amoral, borderline psychotic with a possible drink problem. You don't want to know him.

But you'd rather have him on your side.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nothing Up Their Sleeves

So - a question. Is a movie with a major twist in its tail a failure if you see that twist coming?

Usually, probably.

With Christopher Nolan's The Prestige...well, that's the trick, isn't it.

Christian Bale (cockney chancer) and Hugo Jackman (all-American showman) face off as rival magicians in Victorian London. And it's magnificently painful to watch.

As one punishes the other back and forth - initially over the death of Jackman's wife, but later over pride, obsession and downright bad habit - we watch. And hurt. Blood flows quickly and sharply. Limbs break, appendages are sliced off - and, usually, there's a full-house audience to see it happen.

It's about obsession, then. And deception, naturally enough. It's also about love. Male-female (three female leads - two glamorous assistants and a viewer) and familial (father-daughter, father-figure-to-son).

The layered storytelling might lead you to doubt some of this. Nolan directs with the same flash-back-forward-and-sideways style that served him so well in Memento, Insomnia and even Batman Begins - so much so that some viewers will think that THIS is the trick.

But, actually, the framing devices (TWO journals, a pair of teasers up-front, and ruthless intercutting throughout) are just that. Nolan cuts, as Walter Murch always taught us - with the EMOTION.

His photography is always crisp, but it's not where the meat of the storytelling happens. Nolan uses the edit like Ridley Scott or Brian DePalma uses the camera. THAT'S where his particular brand of magic happens.

Events, feelings, moments are effortlessly joined. And somehow you never lose track of where or WHEN you are. Filming the whole thing with little interest in 'ooh, another period detail!', there's a vibrant energy to the look that put me in mind of Michael Winterbottom's Jude. It's modern-day just happens to be a hundred years ago.

The performances are joyous (yes, even the bizarre combination of David Bowie and Andy 'Gollum' Serkis). Sympathies bounce between out two male leads and they each out-anguish and out-obsess one-another. Meanwhile we ALWAYS feel for the real victims - the loved ones.

Scarlett Johansson seems to be getting some knocks, but I found her coping well with an English accent while forever seeming TOO luscious to deserve these men (and too marginalised by them both). That her role is not more tragic is down to the script's own agenda, not any particular failing on her part.

(And yes, I know - this is my second positive Scarlett write-up after The Black Dahlia. I'm far from being her biggest fan, but twice on the run I just happen to have found her ideally suited to the film she's in. Sue me.)

But we have two other female leads that NOBODY is talking about, but who arguable carry far more weight and significance.

Piper Perabo, the wife Jackman (and the audience) loses, manages to be so much more than character motivation. You love her as he does, or at least like her a lot, and you miss her when she goes. Rebecca Hall, meanwhile, becomes the wife to Bale's struggling innovator - and, again, does way more with the 'you're losing your family to your obsession' role than anyone could have expected.

These fantastic, amazing women surround them (not to mention Caine's doting mentor). That they can't see past their rivalry...well, that's what makes this whole thing a tragedy.

Still, let's not dump a genre label on it - it's also a gothic horror tale, a period drama, and (kinda) a science fiction story. It is just...The Prestige.

And yes, I'm afraid you WILL spot the twist. Moreover, you'll spot it at the one-hour mark. And just when you expect it to be revealed, the film just carries on.

It's the first time Nolan has missed his mark. Usually he's the first to be a step ahead. And if this were a lesser movie, the whole thing would end right then and there.

Thankfully there are other surprises in store, other pennies to drop, and further depths to plumb. Every one worth the ticket price.

So, while you may feel like you just saw the magician with a dove up his sleeve, you can still enjoy the rest of the show. You can even admire the dove trick when it finally happens.

And applaud.

Entering Lives and Breaking Hearts

Anthony Minghella returns to London and a smaller character story after a triumphant few years with thunderous (yet still intimate) period near-epics like Cold Mountain, The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley.

Breaking and Entering has Jude Law looking, frankly, as fallen and damaged as he ever has. Is he really a heart-throb? Seriously? Okay...but to me he's all inconsistent stubble, strange bone-structure, bulging eyes and receding hairline.

And I mean that in a good way.

Whatever else he is in this movie, he's fully-rounded as a character. Except that the character has an emptiness, a missing part to his life. But you get what I mean. He's not pretty, or especially sexy. But he's human as hell.

Martin Freeman is his best mate. A career path Freeman is undoubtedly going to get landed with after Hitchhikers' Guide failed to take off while The office really did. (He is, for the record, delicious. His comedy is tragic, his tragedy comic. There's a lightness and reality to everything he does.)

So, Law is married to Robin Wright Penn, playing daddy to her mildly autistic teenage daughter. (The kid's great, touchingly layered and far from cliched. Wright Penn does way more with her role, too, than simply be 'the wife'.) Then his workplace, his business, is robbed. Twice.

Law chases the kid responsible back to the home he shares with his mother...and goes about meeting her. Then falling for her.

It's Juliette Binoche. How could he not?

There follows some who-will-cross-who plotting, a little bit of forward movement, but really just enough to keep us going. Because what we really have here is a poem on modern city life.

Breaking and Entering is a film that makes your heart just ACHE. Because everything just seems so...hard. While at the same time we seem to tread water, we also seem beset with problems that constantly sabotage our chances to be happy.

I will happily concede to weeping repeatedly. But the kicker is this - I don't entirely know WHY.

In that regard, among others this feels like a cousin to Paul Haggis' Oscar-winner Crash. Again, crime and coincidence tying together lives of ill-ease, and the film asks questions without being able to throw up many answers.

Minghella beautifully balances the cinematic and the regular. This isn't rom-com chocolate-box London, but it DOES find the cinematic within the real - the thief is a street-runner, flipping his way around the city's rooftops. But it's something his mum thinks is cool.

And it's this real-world feel that stops the film from caving in. Every time you see something you KNOW will cause trouble (because you've seen it in a movie), it doesn't, quite. But the stuff you thought would be fine? THAT'S where you need to watch out.

There are great moments of humour, too. As Law begins hanging out in his car, waiting for his offices to be robbed again, he strikes up a bizarre friendship with a local prostitute. She brings him Starbucks, he lets he keep warm.

And yet it's all founded on credibility; and, maybe more importantly, on tonal resonance. Because relationships ARE co-dependant, even the hooker in the passenger seat is showing you a perspective on your life.

Once or twice the subtlety wanders away - usually when Law is given a quick monologue about his character's nature when those thoughts would be better off coming from another character's mouth - but this is just nigglesome.

The performances are great, the writing always good and often excellent (yet it rarely draws attention to itself), the direction near-faultless.

There's no question that this is not feel-good territory (though the film does tie things up more neatly than it probably should). But it is a dim light on a dark corner.

You'll relate. You'll cry. And you'll leave wanting to do...just a little bit better at the whole 'life' thing tomorrow.