Monday, 17 December 2018

Bond 25 speculation: What could Lea Seydoux's return mean?

As the countdown to production on Cary Joji Fukunaga's Bond 25 begins in earnest, a picture is slowly forming of what the vision for Daniel Craig's swan song could be.

Before I go further, bear in mind that this is total speculation from a loser who (thinks he) knows too much about James Bond.


Last week it was revealed by The Daily Mail that Blue Is The Warmest Colour star Lea Seydoux, who played the lead role of Madeline Swann in 2015's Spectre, will be returning for the new film - reportedly at the behest of Fukunaga and Craig.

It is an unprecedented move in the series' history. Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), a secondary love interest, appeared in the first two Connery films, while Maud Adams appeared in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) and Octopussy (1983), but as two different characters.

Never before has a main female character returned in a subsequent film. This move signals that the  focus on continuity established by Spectre will continue, in some form. 

While there is still a lot of context missing, to me this news feels like a portent of something very bad.


One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Bond franchise has been its mutability - continuity and history were always subservient to whatever the filmmakers were interested in. Hence Diamonds Are Forever could pretend that Lazenby never happened, and For Your Eyes Only could say that Lazenby's movie did.

With every movie, it feels like the slate is wiped clean - allowing the franchise to self-correct and adapt, through changing tastes, poorly-received instalments, and different actors.

With the Craig era, there has been a shift from this approach - and not for the better.

Both Quantum of Solace and Spectre have tried to break from the self-contained approach of previous instalments - the former starts minutes after Casino Royale; the latter tries to retrofit all of Craig's movies into one epic narrative. Neither of those movies was particularly successful at this aspect of their narratives - the choice to premise so much of the drama of your story on the events of a previous movie is never a good idea. It means the movie's impact is based on whether the viewer has bothered to watch these previous movies.

It's an accepted trope of Marvel, where characters move between different series, with mid and end-credit sequences linking them to future stories which might be released only months later. It's a holdover from comic books, and - to be frank - not designed for 90-100 minute movies. But the filmmakers have been savvy about how they implement this narrative strategy to enough of a degree to hook a large audience.

The Bond series is always trying to stay current, and Spectre tried to follow the Marvel template. With Seydoux returning, it is clear some version of continuity is being maintained - and a theory that has been bubbling in the ether since the run-up to Spectre's release.  



Before the release of Spectre I remember reading some speculation that Bond 24 was going to be a covert remake of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a story in which Bond winds up falling in love and marrying Tracy (Diana Rigg). Full credit to Matts Mira and Gourley from James Bonding, who picked out the following links between the films:

Both Madeline and Tracy are the children of criminals who have information Bond needs; in both cases, these fathers make deals with Bond that involve their children  (Tracy's father dangles information on the villain's location as an inducement for Bond to marry her; Madeline's forces Bond to protect his daughter in exchange for vital information on the villain's location). And - to varying degrees - both films end with the idea of Bond giving up his job to run away with their new love.

Beyond these connections, one of the final trailers for Spectre employed the OHMSS theme, which felt like a real tip of the hat to what the movie was building towards.

Judging by what I have read of the original script, the connections were meant to be more overt - Blofeld's sidekick was the same lackey he had in OHMSS, Irma Bunt; and the movie originally ended on the same line as OHMSS, "We have all the time in the world". Even the way the movie ends feels like a homage.

Just check out Spectre's final shot (1:11)...


...and see how it echoes the final shot of the wedding scene in OHMSS (2:48).


In the end, these elements were revised or removed, and Spectre ended in a way that kept Bond's retirement/nuptials hypothetical, and allowed for Craig to return in a brand new adventure.

Unless there is some unique idea that the filmmakers have for her, to me Madeline Swann's return means the filmmakers are still determined to follow OHMSS e.g. Bond marries Madeline, she is murdered, and Craig's Bond ends on the same note he came in on - with a dead woman on his conscience.

I'm hoping they have come up with something more original and daring, but I have a nasty feeling they are teeing up to just do another vengeance story. Could they do a good job? Sure.

There is the ghost of an interesting resolution to Craig-Bond in Spectre - the man who destroyed his relationship with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, inadvertently puts him on the path to finding redemption with the one person who can understand him: his daughter.

It could have been great, complicated and weird as hell, but Spectre kinda dropped the ball on that relationship. And now, unless they are going to make up for their error by actually developing that relationship into something more complex, we are gearing up for a revenge movie where we are supposed to be invested in a doomed romance that was not that developed to begin with.

Apparently, the casting breakdown is looking for two new female characters so unless polyamory is on the cards, it looks like Madeline is a goner.

Of course I could be wrong.

The producers are gathering a strong group of filmmakers, and Craig is clearly invested in going out on a high note, which I take as a good sign. And Seydoux is a great actress - I have been a big fan of hers through BITWC, Sister and The Lobster, and in the run-up to Spectre I was really excited that the franchise had snagged an actress of her calibre. Hopefully, the new team will do right by her and not relegate to playing a disposable archetype.

The Craig era has always felt like an attempt to fulfil the promise of previous Bonds that tried to break from the formula - not just OHMSS but For Your Eyes Only, the Dalton movies and 50% of The World Is Not Enough. These movies felt like dry runs for a different kind of Bond, one removed from. most of the gadgets and other surface flash that is part of the fun of these movies, but which is often mistaken for the meat.

Escapism is always at its best when the viewer has a genuine investment in the characters, and the hope that they can get through whatever situation they find themselves in. The best of Bond is when it finds a balance between the Bond formula, and strong relationships with other characters, particularly with the women - it is the reason why OHMSS has had such a renaissance in appreciation and the reason why the Brosnan movies feel less omnipresent than when they were first released.

A large part of the success of Craig's debut was his relationship with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd. His Bond is defined by his interactions with a strong, complex woman, and one could make the argument that part of the reason why Casino Royale and Skyfall succeeded, while Quantum of Solace and Spectre did not, was because those films did not feature a strong woman like Vesper or M (Judi Dench) to clash with Bond.

From the beginning, Craig's era felt like an attempt to really try and stay the course and not revert to straight repetition of the formula. They have not always succeeded, but I appreciate the intent. Now he needs a strong finish. And part of that strong finish is to do right by the female characters.

If you are interested in more Bond-related content, check out the reviews below. You can also subscribe to the podcast I co-host, THE JAMES BOND COCKTAIL HOUR, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Den of Geek articles





Bond reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun

Moonraker

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

GoldenEye

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

IN THEATRES: Sorry to Bother You

Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) is a man looking for purpose and financial security. After getting a job as a telemarketer, Cash is lost in the cut-throat commission-driven environment - until he discovers his White Voice. Having found his calling, Cash quickly rises to become a 'power caller', making multi-million dollar deals with massive conglomerates.

While his friends and colleagues fight for their basic rights, Cash is increasingly disconnected from reality. When he is offered an opportunity to work for multi-billionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Cash is confronted with a choice: does he give up the good life to fight for his friends' rights? Or will he let his White Voice dictate the sale of his soul?     


The debut of rapper Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You is a movie bursting with ideas and off-beat visuals. This movie turned out to be a prime example of how a bad venue can taint your viewing experience. I caught a screening of this movie months ago. I was really excited up until the point I entered the massive amphitheatre to discover row upon row of empty seats. Not a good sign - having an audience to share in the experience is a big part of going to the movies. I never really thought much about the communal aspect of it until about ten years ago when I saw Pineapple Express in an empty theatre. it was about as fun as a mausoleum. It was not until I was watching the movie later with some friends that the movie came to life.
The exact same thing happened with Sorry to Bother You - I enjoyed the movie's ideas and style, but I could not connect with it beyond that. Having to sit in a massive empty room absolutely killed the movie for me. I decided to wait and see if the movie came out in my area, and watch it again.
And I am really glad I did, because this movie is now one of my favourite movies of the year.    

The film is concerned with individuals and their impact on larger systemic processes and problems. The movie's title is really an encapsulation of contemporary society's relationship with larger issues (such as climate change, crony capitalism and gender equality; insert your own here). As Steven Yuen's character explains, most of the time people do not do anything to fix problems - they just figure out how to live with them.

That moral flexibility is the dilemma facing our lead character. He is unemployed, living out of his uncle's garage, and his car is so crap he has to manually pull the window wipers back and forth when it rains.
The big selling point of the trailers has been the 'white' voices which characters use to navigate the world. It is a neat, funny idea and a great extension of the movie's focus on the idea of passing: Our hero is willing to abandon his identity in order to move up the ladder.


The acting from the ensemble is great. Lakeith Stanfield, most well-known for his roles in Get Out and Atlanta, manages to make Cassius's journey from lowly telemarketer to 'power caller' relatable and affecting. Even when he has sold out, Stanfield has a wavering quality which makes his weakness understandable.
Tessa Thompson plays Cassius's girlfriend/conscience Detroit. Still sporting her Thor Ragnarok abs (which gives a clue as to when the move was shot) Thompson's character is a visual and agit pop artist, with a committed belief system who is willing to put herself in harm's way (literarily) for her art.
    On re-watch, she is one element that felt confusing on both viewings. Despite her radical credentials, Detroit never really challenges Cassius, and when she does, it comes long after they have moved into a big apartment and bought a flashy car - it is hard to track what her motivations really are. There is a sense that her reactions to Cassius are motivated by a need to force him to confront what he has become, but if so, why did she take this long to challenge him? Thompson is good, but I did not have a lock on what Detroit's personality, motives or function within the movie were. Check out Jourdain Searles's essay about the character. It is far more in-depth than I could write.




    As Cash's friend and leader of the strike, Squeeze, Steven Yeun is good - he just needed more screen-time. With the success of South Korean drama Burning, he's starting to break out, but Yeun should be leading more movies now - his unrequited(?) attraction FOR Detroit made me want to see him and Thompson in a straight-up romantic movie. His character only really suffers because of the lack of development for Detroit - their romantic flirtation feels random and never resolves in a way that makes sense.
    If you have followed this blog long enough, you know how much I love a good bad guy - Armie Hammer's Steve Lift - a CEO who has come up with a modern form of slavery - is terrifying and hilarious. Hammer is really amazing in this movie.


    Playing a self-absorbed megalomaniac he is hilarious and terrifyingly close to feeling like a real person. It is a credit to his abilities that the scene in which he reveals his plans to create a race of horse-human hybrids feels repulsive rather than ridiculous. It is hard not to compare his arrogant befuddlement at the public backlash to the sociopathic tone-deafness of certain tech bro billionaires like uh... Melon Tusk. Hammer seasons this monster with a superficial charm that feels a little too strong - he puts you on edge from the first moment he is onscreen.


    Sorry to Bother You is brilliant. I am so happy I watched this movie again - with an audience, it just came alive. The time in between viewings also helped - it gave the movie a chance to marinate in brain for a bit.


    It does not look like the movie will be expanding to other venues outside of the Academy, so if you are keen, book your tickets ASAP.








    Tuesday, 4 December 2018

    IN THEATRES: Creed II


    Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has made it to the top - he is the Heavyweight Champion of the world, and he is starting a family with his love Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Life could not be better.

    That is, until a new challenge appears in the form of Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of the man who killed his father Apollo. 

    After taking a horrific beating in their match, Adonis has to go back to basics, and with the help of his family and trainer/erstwhile father figure Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), re-discover his eye of the Tiger.


    I was really worried about this movie.

    a) Ryan Coogler was not writing or directing
    b) Stallone was (co) writing
    c) It was a sequel to Rocky IV

    Rocky IV feels like it is in a completely different universe to Creed. How could it not be garbage?

    While it is not as good as Creed, like its predecessor Creed II does a really good job of taking something from the original Rocky series (Ivan Drago) and re-contextualising it in a way that deepens it.

    Ironically, Drago's subplot is my favourite part of the movie. Post-Rocky IV, Drago lost everything. In the last 30 years he has poured his hopes and frustrations into his son Viktor (newcomer Florian Munteanu).

    Largely silent, their relationship is the most interesting and well-realised character development in the movie. It is too bad they do not have more screen time, but Lundgren and Munteanu convey a lot in only a couple of scenes.


    On the flipside, Creed II is operating without a good reason to be a Creed movie - Adonis's whole motivation in the original was to feel like his life had meaning. Having completed that arc, there is no room left for him to grow.

    Jordan is great, and manages to make this character turn less jarring, but the character feels different - more self-involved, and driven by vengeance.

    Ironically, Adonis's motivation in Creed II makes far more sense in context as a sequel to the events in Rocky IV than as a sequel to Creed. I was half-expecting/hoping/praying Bianca would be singing 'Living In America' as Donny entered the ring for the final fight.

    While this movie works as a sequel to the fourth Rocky movie, the basic set-up is a re-run of Rocky III: Adonis starts the movie full of bravado, and being humbled in his first bout with Drago, re-trains himself to take the giant on again.

    While not on the same level as Coogler's original, Creed II is a solid sports movie, and a good time at the movies.

    Friday, 30 November 2018

    IN THEATRES: You Were Never Really Here

    After a lifetime of violence (both personal and professional), Joe uses his skillset to rescue kids. Joe's life is - at least on the surface - simple and discreet. Underneath it all, he is a wreck, re-enacting the traumas of the past.

    When he is hired to rescue a politician's daughter, Joe's finds his life upended.


    I love genre movies made by people who have not made their bones in them before. the results may not always work, but they are usually interesting. And when it works, it’s like watching one of those videos of an octopus work it’s watching one of those mazes



    Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here has the bones of a thriller - a loner with a traumatic past takes on a seemingly simple case that spirals out into something bigger and more dangerous.


    Phoenix is great - a quiet, understated performance punctuated by abrupt moments of economic brutality. The title is as much a statement on his interior life as it is on his career as a covert retrieval expert. 

    Ramsay keeps the camera close to Phoenix, framing other characters in the corner of the frame or out of focus. Joe is almost completely checked out from the world. 

    Nothing about the story is new - Ramsay’s focus on emphasising Joe’s trauma goes beyond the easy signifiers of loners past. 

    Conveyed through disjunctive editing and sound design, Ramsay shows snippets that add up to a picture of Joe's inner psyche. This is a man who is constantly trying to pull himself together, while his past and present continually collide.  

    If you are coming for Jack Reacher-style hobo action, this is not it. There is a great set piece shot from POV of security cameras. Cutting between them at deliberate intervals, we get glimpses of Joe as he makes his way through the guards and patrons, either in media res-hammering or post-hammering. The movie is a slow burn, but always feels like it is moving inexorably toward some kind of explosion (either literal or metaphoric, it is going to be messy).

    Ramsay’s approach to violence is fascinating - generally speaking, we watch revenge movies for catharsis. Bad people have done something terrible, and we want to see them die. We want order restored to the universe. 

    In You Were Never Really Here, the violence is not cathartic - throughout the movie, Ramsay offers fragmented glimpses of Joe's past, including flashbacks of the violence he endured as a child at the hands of his father. Violence for Joe is the means to an end, but it does not act as a salve for his wounds. He is not some 80s action hero, who will be reborn and purified by the tortures he endures (Rambo, Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon). It just means more scars on his body, and ensures that he remains stuck in an endless loop, replaying the violence he has already endured.

    The film is ultimately a meditation on violence, and its limitations a means of resolution. The movie ends with Joe's desire for vengeance derailed, and replaced by a new connection with another human being.

    Easily one of the best movies of the year, You Were Never Really Here is a quiet, disturbing and deeply empathetic portrait of a violent man finding a way out.









    Thursday, 29 November 2018

    BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Lakeview Terrace (Neil LaBute, 2008)

    When an interracial couple, Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington), move into the titular suburb, they are quickly acquainted with their neighbour Abel (Samuel L. Jackson).


    A veteran cop who is solo-parenting his two kids, Abel is a pillar of this community.


    The only problem is Abel does not like his new neighbours - at all. And the longer they stay, the more it becomes apparent that he wants them gone - by any means necessary.




    The premise of this movie sounds like the premise to a bad joke, or a right wing fantasy: What if the racist evil cop is black?


    If I had watched this movie when it came out, I probably would have liked it. With ten years distance, this movie just feels ridiculous and shallow.


    What is interesting is that the story was inspired by a real series of incidents involving a black cop who harassed his neighbours. In real life the series of articles written about the episode won some awards and the cop lost his job.


    Early on, the signs are promising. We are quickly exposed to the fault-lines in the protagonists' relationship, and Wilson does a good job of playing a white liberal trying to tiptoe around Abel's digs at his attempts to be 'woke.'


    The early interactions between Jackson and Wilson tease a suspense thriller built on racial dynamics that is far more subtle and interesting than the neighbour-from-hell shenanigans it turns into. Watching Abel walk Chris into his own biases and privilege gives the movie a fresh jolt of energy - albeit briefly.
    This initial slow-burn approach is simultaneously the movie's strength and weakness, priming the viewer for a finale that falls so neatly to formula it completely obliterates this early promise.


    The movie is scattered with some neat touches - a conversation about police violence at a backyard party that turns nasty; a great beat where Jackson's character saves the couple from a home invader; and Jackson's final monologue about why he is the way he is.


    Director Neil LaBute is famous for the misanthropic world of his films and plays, populated by characters who are only interested in their own desires - or are too cowardly to admit their own selfishness. In the simplistic thriller environment of Lakeview Terrace, it is hard to see any of the bite of his previous work.


    The movie is not that overtly stylish, but there is a neat touch of foreshadowing: throughout the movie, local authorities are trying to hold back a fire that is slowly overtaking the hills behind Lakeview Terrace. The hills burning in the background gives the movie some atmosphere that feels totally in-line with the setting and the conflicts bubbling between the characters.
    The movie constantly flirts with being deeper and more probing.


    In search of legal options, Chris and Lisa go to Lisa's disapproving lawyer father, Harold, played by Ron Glass. Over the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that her father's concern is not about Abel, but about the soundness of Chris and Lisa's relationship. Harold asks Chris what he will do to protect his children.

    It is not a simple question of his parental concern, but is tinged with the way black bodies are treated in America.


    Is Chris in a position to understand and impart to his children the dangers they will face?


    It is an issue that is sadly too big for this silly movie to handle.


    By the end of the movie, writers David Loughery and Howard Korder give up and just turn him into a cartoonish super villain out of a 90s thriller (think Unlawful Entry). The movie's role-reversal of the races of the characters ends up as cheap and silly as a Ben Shapiro think-piece.


    As a racially-charged drama, Lakeview Terrace does not even get off tarmac. But even as a silly thriller, it does not go far enough to rank as a guilty pleasure.

    IN THEATRES: Suspiria

    1977, West Berlin. American Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is accepted to the exclusive Markos Dance Academy. While Suzy quickly advances through the company, under the watchful eye of Mme Blanc (Tilda Swinton),  elderly psychiatrist Dr Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) becomes suspicious that the academy's staff are involved in something nefarious...


    A remake of Suspiria sounds like an odd idea - the original is a wholly cinematic experience, of image and sound so singular and overpowering that re-doing it always felt like hubris.
    I am not the biggest Argento fan, but I've always liked Suspiria - it's the one Argento joint where the weird plotting and wooden acting make sense. A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to watch the movie on the big screen, with Goblin playing the score live. It was one of the best theatre-going experiences in my life. It really made me like the movie far more.

    Suspria is one of those movies that lives and dies on a couple of key qualities: Argento's direction, the colour palette and Goblin's score.

    Any remake would need to go in a completely different direction. On that count, this movie is pretty successful. In place of Argento's technicolour nightmare, you get the muted colours of West Berlin in 1977, grounded in a real historical context. 

    In some ways, this movie is more of a fully-formed story, with its own specific ideas and themes.

    I watched this movie weeks ago and I’ve been really struggling to come up with a clear read. It is more thematically complex than the original, yet somehow less interesting as a viewing experience - it alludes to a lot of ideas (particularly in terms of its historical setting), yet they feel weirdly isolated from the story.

    Speaking of the story, it is... ultimately hard to grasp?
    The movie is about hidden secrets and the traumas of the past haunting the present, with the old guard using the young to prolong their hold on power. The reveal that Suzy is the real Mother of Sighs, and the ancient Helena Markos (Tilda Swinton) is an imposter is where I really started to lose track of what was going on.
    My read was that Suzy's reveal represented the hubris of believing that an assumed order is static and correct. In the end, the coven's old guard is revealed to be built on a lie and is destroyed.










    As far as the cast go, the real standouts are Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton. As the headmistress struggling to keep the coven together, Tilda Swinton is terrifying yet the most empathetic character in the movie. She desires moving the coven into the present, but is out-votes. Swinton is more interesting in her other role as Dr Klemperer, an elderly shrink who investigates the witches, leading to a confrontation with the ghosts of his past. I would watch a movie about this character - when the movie is based around him and his wife (original Suspiria star Jessica Harper), the movie finds a centre.


    My favourite aspect of the witches was how ordinary their interactions were - they do feel like long-serving staff who both share a sense of camaraderie and petty gripes with each other. It’s a character game going back to Rosemary’s Baby. While it does not really go anywhere, it does give the witches a sliver more personality.


    The movie features some grue, but is not that scary. My thing is that there are no real rules to what the witches’ powers and goals are. As a stand-in for the scars of WW2 and the (then) ructions of West Germany, they kinda work, in an obvious way. But dramatically I was really confused what their function was.


    This movie includes characters that are not the central focus, and a bunch of very specific themes that do not really add up to more than their most overt meaning. The West German backdrop of 1977 is well-realised, and ties in with the story of the witches, but this alignment never feels cathartic or satisfying in any way.


    It is watchable, and occasionally unnerving, but it ultimately feels like a computer without a CPU. I don’t see this version of Suspiria obliterating the original or fading into the past. It is spinning so many plates that it will be inviting it’s own audience to muse over its themes.


    But as a dramatic viewing experience, it never comes to life.


     

    Monday, 26 November 2018

    IN (HOME) THEATRES: Cam

    Nina (Madeline Brewer) is a cam girl. She loves her job, and is determined to take the Number One slot on the website that hosts her show.

    One day Nina discovers another profile that looks almost identical to hers. Soon, it is not just her job that is being taken away. Somebody out there wants everything Nina is and has built for herself - including mind, body and soul...


    Sex workers do not have a good cinematic history. Generally speaking, they are treated as victims in need of saving (the prime example being Pretty Woman) or cannon fodder in genre movies (think of all the gun moles who get killed in action or horror movies).

    Recently released on Netflix, Cam was written by former cam girl Isa Mazzei and directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Mazzei's involvement is key - Nina/Lola is not a victim because of her profession, and the filmmakers never demonise Nina for her work. She loves her job, and is focused with improving her ranking.

    The character and the film are also aware of the challenges Nina faces. One of my favourite themes is the disjunction between a man's perception of a woman and the reality, and Cam is at its best when the line between Nina's private and public faces breaks down. Misogyny is present in multiple forms, from the clients who want to possess the fantasy for real, to the cops, who disregard her complaint because they think she has brought it on herself.

    Despite the fact that it is a horror movie, Nina never becomes totally reactive - as her predicament escelates, Nina explores every avenue to get her identity back. She is knocked back and undermined and every turn, but Nina is always pushing forward, trying to get the upper hand.

    After supporting roles in Orange is the New Black and The Handmaid's Tale, Madeline Brewer is great, offering three distinct personas as Nina, her online character Lola and the cyber doppelgänger who has stolen her identity. Her Nina is self-possessed and hyper-aware of the boundaries between her real life and her job, rightly outraged when those boundaries are violated.

    After slogging through absolutely awful Netflix movies, Cam feels like a breath of fresh air - a smart thriller that upends the cinematic image of sex workers, it also works as a nightmarish look at the ways a woman's sexuality can be co-opted. If that sounds a bit heavy, it is - but one of the joys of Cam is how unpretentious it is about serving up its ideas.

    Definitely worth checking out.