Thursday, 27 August 2015

License revoked?: A look back at Quantum of Solace

Before Quantum of Solace came out, I was so excited. Casino Royale had been a breath of fresh air after the last few Bond movies, and remains one of my favourite action movies. Like a lot of people, I left its sequel feeling let down. While I did not hate the movie, it just felt underwhelming -- it had a bunch of good ideas but lacked a fully fleshed-out story. What was most disappointing is that you could feel there was a good movie in there trying to get out. While Skyfall has restored 007's mojo critically and in terms of box office, it still bugs me that Craig's second movie ended up the way it did. I would have preferred the dud to come at the end of his tenure.

Since it came out, I've re-watched QoS a few times. Every time I hear somebody say something positive about QoS, I take another look to see if my opinion has improved. Overall, my feelings remain the same. The direction is too berserk, the script too threadbare and the tone too dour. However, upon re-viewing, while I cannot say I enjoy the movie as a whole, there are lots of things to like about QoS, and a few that I reckon should have been carried over into future films.

Since I'm so split on this movie, I'm going to break this review into two sections, starting with:

The bad stuff

The Action scenes 
This is my major beef with the movie. One, there is way too much shaky cam. It just does not suit a Bond movie to me. And two, it does it badly. Combined with a frenetic editing style, the action sequences in QoS lack the impact of its predecessor. Casino Royale is often lumped in with the post-Bourne action glut, however there is very little shaky camera work in the film - it manages to convey a sense of immediacy and visceral impact while also maintaining a clear sense of geography. QoS goes the full hog, and its action sequences come off as either confusing or dull. While it seems like a creative decision, there are moments where it feels like lazy filmmaking. The opening car chase, the boat chase and the airplane chase especially are extremely conventional and lack real stakes. By contrast, the action sequences in Casino Royale were distinctive, and tied to the story and the character's motivations. There were stakes in those scenes, which are not as present in QoS. When you break them down, the choice to go with shaky cam appears to be an attempt to make the action sequences seem more exciting, rather than making sure the scenes were inherently exciting.

Director Marc Forster has said that he set out to make the shortest Bond film ever, and wanted to make the movie move as quickly as possible. This cart-before-the-horse approach is ultimately detrimental to the film, since he often makes numerous, unnecessary cuts during sequences which do not need them. Apart from ruining the action, this approach results in confusing continuity, fumbled exposition and a lack of tension.

The Script 
This is at the root of the movie's faults. Before its release, there were rumours of production problems, mostly centred around the lack of a finished script. Quantum of Solace was one of the biggest casualties of the 2007-08 writer's strike, with screenwriter Paul Haggis delivering a draft hours before the strike began. Numerous hands, including Daniel Craig and director Marc Foster, worked on the script during production but ultimately the movie suffers.

Making the movie a direct sequel to Casino Royale works against the movie dramatically, since the villains of QoS only work if you have seen their dirty work in the previous movie. Since so much of the movie's set-up is provided in the previous film, the main villain Dominic Greene is introduced without a distinctive sense of what kind of threat he is. While he is suitably odious in the part, Matthieu Amalric does not get a signature moment to make his case as a threat that needs to be expunged. Casino Royale's villain Le Chiffre is similarly callous, but we get to see what he gets up to -- gambling with money that is not his to make more money off the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Greene's plan -- to take over Bolivia's water supply -- is suitably evil, but it feels too abstract. There are no real stakes here.

The good stuff

The villains
As a stand-in for perennial foes SPECTRE, Quantum are good antagonists, even if their chief muscle is not that distinctive.

And even though he does not get much to do, Mathieu Amalric is actually really good as Greene. He does not have any of the scars or other cosmetic trappings of previous Bond baddies. Instead, he gets to play a more subtle, unsettling nemesis. In his few good moments (having a witness shot, or trying to kill his mistress in the middle of a party), Greene comes across as a childlike psychopath with poor impulse control and little regard for human life. This is especially clear at the climax where he finally gets to unleash his Id and goes after Bond with an axe. He makes up for a lack of combat skills with a suitcase full of batshit crazy, and it's great.

As secondary villain General Medrano, Joaquin Cosio is equally unpleasant. As Kim Newman points out, he's probably the closest thing to a Fleming-style villain the series has had in a long time. Ultimately, the problem with Medrano and Greene is lack of screen time, rather than quality of (potential) knavery.

Specific scenes
While I have major problems with the film, there are specific sequences which manage to emerge as strong, despite the editing and camerawork. The opera sequence may be the film's best set piece. It also contains the best moment for recurring nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). While his compatriots scurry for the exits (allowing Bond to identify them), Mr. White just removes his earwig and sits back to enjoy the show. Boss. I also enjoy this sequence at the hotel, which has a certain dark wit that the rest of the movie could have used more of. Taking the place of the usual conflagration Bond's opponents endure,  Greene's death is a nasty shift in gear that feels akin to Moore kicking Locque's car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only or Dalton's 'compliments of Sharky' gambit from Licence to Kill.  It defines just desserts.

If there is one scene which really shows how much the movie suffers from the lack of a strong script, it is the ending. A nice, quiet contrast to the explosive finale, Bond's confrontation with the Quantum agent who turned Vesper should pack a sense of satisfaction and resolution that is just not there. It's a great scene neutered by lack of build-up.

The humour  
This is one of the chief casualties of Forster's editing. While it is not as packed with gags as other Bond films, there are subtle visual jokes and dark barbs which are easy to miss. While the sequence where Bond changes hotels is an obvious highlight, it is actually a setup for a punchline that Forster completely short-changes and which I never picked up: in their review, the hosts of the James Bonding podcast pointed out that the shitty hotel Bond turns down is the same hotel that Felix Leiter and the other CIA agents are forced to stay in. It's a great joke that is completely lost. 

Set design
One of the hallmarks of classic Bond is the production design by Ken Adam. Through the 60s and 70s, he provided a series of iconic, over-the-top sets which helped define the series. However after Adam was replaced by Peter Lamont in the 80s, one of the things which the series has missed is great set design. In contrast to Adam, Lamont's style was far more realistic and location-based. While his work was always good, I always felt it lacked a certain flair. 

Quantum of Solace marks a return to the over-the-top production design of yore. Lamont's successor Dennis Gassner brings just the right touch of retro-futurism to the proceedings. The MI6 offices, Bond's Bolivian hotel room and the Perla des las Lunas interiors are all great, and pop in a way that Bond sets have not in ages. It gets lost with the editing, but, for me, the sets for Quantum may be the best in the series since Ken Adam's work on The Spy Who Loved Me

Title sequence
Alicia Keys and Jack White's song 'Another Way to Die' is one of the worst songs I've ever heard, period. What makes it even more disappointing is that the title sequence itself is one of the best in the series. Created by MK12, it is a weird, psychedelic mixture of sand, girls and Craig's baby blues. Magic. 


It's a shame that the editing is so loathsome, because it obscures how good Roberto Schaefer's photography is, and the great enter-titles by MK12 which introduce each location. It's a small touch, but I wished they kept it for Skyfall.

And thus concludes the 5-6 minutes you wasted reading my ramblings. Catch you next time.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

MISS BALA: A new star is born

Drug cartels and beauty pageants. It sounds like the longline for Miss Congeniality 3. Instead, it is the subject matter of this Mexican thriller from 2011. I remember hearing good things about it when it was on the festival circuit. I finally managed to watch it, so here's my review.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a young woman who wants to win the Miss Baja  California beauty pageant. The night before the competition, she goes to a party which is gatecrashed by a cartel hit squad. She manages to escape, but the friend she was with disappears. Desperate to find her friend, she goes to the police. Of course, the officer she talks to drops her off at the drug cartel's base. And then the movie gets DARK.

This movie is really brutal and gritty. The story veers in unexpected directions, and has a queasy immediacy that hooks you in from the beginning. There are so many twists to this plot, and so many rug-pulling moments that prevent this lo-fi effort from turning into a familiar thriller. This narrative unpredictability is matched by Gerardo Naranjo's direction. He shoots every suspense and action sequence with an on-the-run intensity that feels even more lo-fi than the faux-doc realism of the Bourne movies. It feels like a home movie -- if a home movie included homicidal drug dealers.

If I had any quibbles, it was that there were a few turns that felt a tad repetitive, and there were a few dead spots in the second act. The final few twists feel a little excessive -- almost like the filmmakers did not know how to reach the story's ending. But these are small gripes.

If there is one factor that holds Miss Bala together, it is Stephanie Sigman's naturalistic, charismatic performance as Laura. So much of the movie is dependant on her reactions, on her character's journey, that a less capable actress would have destroyed the film's sense of realism. She gives the film a humanity its other characters lack.

Overall, I would recommend the movie. It's pretty strong stuff, but if you can stand the brutality, it is worth a look -- especially for Sigman's performance.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Top Secret!: The funniest movie you've never heard of

Top Secret! is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Sadly, it is a film that the unwashed masses have never seen. The brainchild of Jim Abrams, David and Jerry Zucker (known collectively as ZAZ, they are the writing-directing trio behind Airplane! and The Naked Gun), it is the missing link between Airplane! and the Police Squad movies.

A big bomb on its original release, ZAZ's underrated follow-up to Airplane! is finally getting the respect it deserves. While it's more scattershot than Airplane!, it has more great gags and flat-out bizarre ideas than most comedies.

The story for this one is kind of complicated. Basically, it is a parody of both World War II movies and Elvis movies. Music star Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, brilliant) goes on a tour of East Germany and gets caught up in a complicated scheme involving the Stasi (who are dressed like Nazis) and the resistance (who are French).

This movie is bananas. It starts out as a parody of pre-Brit Invasion rock and roll, with Kilmer doing a killer variation on Presley's meat head persona. As soon as Nick crosses over into East Germany, the movie seems to time warp back into a deranged World War II movie featuring train stations on wheels, a suave secret agent (Omar Sharif) who has been fused with the wreckage of his car, and a commando force disguised as a cow.

There are too many great gags to run through, but Top Secret is one of the most inspired comedies of the last half century. There are jokes about Elvis, Nazis, movie cliches, surf rock, Mel Torme, Tarzan, forced perspective, blaxploitation movies and Swedish. It's no wonder that ZAZ ran out of steam -- they threw every idea they had into Top Secret!

With its simple plot and stronger characterisation, Airplane! will always have a leg-up over its successor, but Top Secret! is far from the failure it is made out to be.

You may think the jokes I have listed are spoilers, but I have barely scratched the surface. The gag rate in this movie is truly jaw-dropping, and I cannot recommend Top Secret! enough. This movie will shatter your funny bone.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Film Fest Finale

This is the end. My only friend, the end...

This is the last post of my festival viewing. And I have to say, it finished strong.


Going in, this felt like a companion piece to the Peggy Guggenheim documentary I reviewed a couple posts back. The last work by the late Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), this fly-on-the-wall documentary chronicles the life and work of Iris Apfel. Iris is a world-renowned figure in the worlds of fashion and interior design. She has travelled the world in a constant search for new fabrics, styles and colours, combining the cheap, the exotic and the expensive to create her own sense of 'style'. She is so famous, she even acted as interior decorator for the White House.

Fascinating, charismatic and utterly grounded, Iris acts as her own guide to her life story. Both commentator and comic relief, she is the lynchpin of the whole enterprise, and Maysles wisely keeps his camera firmly on Iris and her 100-year old husband and collaborator Carl. Both still sharp as a tack, their easy rapport is one of the joys of this warm, intimate portrait.

A modest, but enjoyable tribute to an intriguing woman, and a fine conclusion to Maysles's illustrious career.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Man, talk about a real 'rogue nation'!

Illuminating, scary and (occasionally) blackly comic, Alex Gibney's hot button doc is one of the highlights of the festival. I'm glad I caught it before the festival ended.

Charting the history of Scientology from its bizarre origins under founder/visionary L. Ron Hubbard, to its current status as a multi-billion dollar enterprise, Going Clear is must-see cinema. The film is very slick and well made. It feels more like a conspiracy thriller than a documentary. Combining expert testimony from the organisation's now-ostracised hatchet men and former members (including screenwriter Paul Haggis), the film is very tense and unnerving.

If the film has a Big Bad, it is Hubbard's self-appointed successor David Miscavige. He comes off like a cross between Gordon Gecko, Jim Jones and Dr. Evil. He's been a part of Scientology since he was a child, which makes him far more unsettling than Hubbard -- he's a true believer to the extreme.

Apart from his antics, the movie is filled with other disturbing stuff. Former members show self-shot footage of Scientology members watching (and filming) their homes, and talk about harassment, black mail and worse. The film was so effective, about midway through the screening I started to get paranoid about undercover Scientologists hiding in the audience. Based on the evidence in the documentary, I don't think my fears were unfounded.

As has been noted elsewhere, celebrity members like John Travolta and Tom Cruise do not come out well (no pun intended). The episode involving David Miscavige trying to placate a post-divorce Cruise with a new girlfriend is really, really creepy. Actually everything involving Cruise is creepy.

I didn't know much about Scientology going in, and Gibney has constructed a really detailed history. It does not paint a pretty picture, but it is damn good cinema.

Well, that's it folks. Hope you enjoyed my incoherent musings and half-baked analysis of the New Zealand International Film Festival 2015. I'm going to try and do it again next year.

Check in soon I'll be back with more reviews of some really cool movies.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Why Roger Moore is the most important actor to play Bond

This premise might sound like sacrilege. Why Moore and not Connery? Well, let me explain. In simple terms, while Connery created the icon, Moore gave the character longevity.

First, a bit of context. Moore assumed the role of Bond at a point when the series was considered moribund and outdated. George Lazenby, Connery's original successor, had been rejected. Connery had come back on a one-off basis to resuscitate the series with Diamonds Are Forever, which provided only a brief reprieve.    

Why did Moore succeed where Lazenby had not? Partially this has to do with the relative talents of the actors, but more crucially this has to do with the material they were given. While the movie is one of the best in the series, the filmmakers behind On Her Majesty's Secret Service failed their inexperienced leading man. They tried to wedge poor George into Connery's shoes and in that unequal contest the poor guy could not help but come off second best. As the first man through the door, Lazenby's 'sacrifice' would help the Bond producers figure out a way to re-cast the character. Roger Moore wound up as the first recipient of this new approach.

With Moore, the production team made the decision to tailor the role to the actor rather than the other way around (as with Lazenby). Rather than merely imitate Connery's sophisticated thug, Moore's Bond was a killer comedian, with a penchant for Cuban cigars, puns and a Lotus Esprit as his vehicle of choice. Where Connery was more comfortable beating the hell out of anyone who got in his way, Moore relied more heavily on gadgets and wit to get out of jams.

While his tenure has become a parlour joke, and a certain section of the fanbase think his self-parody destroyed the character, Moore's importance should not be underestimated. Not only did he give the series a second wind, he proved that the character of Bond could live beyond Connery's portrayal. Most significantly, while the argument could be made that he 'destroyed' the idea of who and what Bond was, he also opened up the character to re-invention -- a key factor in the series's continued success. 

 Moore's interpretation expanded the character's horizons to virtually limitless variations -- now Bond could be camp and silly, or cold and gritty; he could beat a guy up in an elevator, go into outer space, drive a car underwater or chase a free runner across a construction site. Simply put, without Moore, there is no Dalton, no Brosnan, and no Craig. All of Moore's successors have played very different versions of Bond, and that would not be possible if Moore's iteration had not worked. Love him or hate him, Moore's re-invention of Bond ensured the series would continue, and paved the way for all of the character's future permutations. 

Film Fest Day 10: The Enemy Within

A tense, thriller-like documentary about the 1984-1985 miner's strike in the UK, The Enemy Within is a terrifying look at how an industrial dispute turned into a pitched battle between the National Union of Mine Workers and Margaret Thatcher's government.

If you like the Iron Lady, you are not going to like this. Based around interviews with key figures in the strike, it gives an immersive ground-level view of the strike from the miner's perspective. This is the film's greatest strength and its most obvious weakness. A fiery, passionate text, it feels like an inversion of She's Beautiful When She's Angry in that it deals with the inner workings of a mass protest action, except that it shows the ways in which the National Union of Mine Workers was failed by other unions, the media, and the police in their stand against the government.

The failure of the strike remains a major political fissure in Britain, and The Enemy Within mounts a stirring defence of the men and women who fought to maintain their jobs and communities. My only complaint is that it did not provide outside observers to provide more context for the mine closures. Thatcher's rhetoric and tactics during the strike are pretty deplorable, but it would have made it more compelling for me if there had been a few historians and economists included to provide more data and analysis. We are only given the miner's perspective, and I left the film curious about the broader history leading up to and following the strike.

Still, it's worth a look.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Film Fest Day 9

Final day ushering at Event Cinemas, Queen Street. It's my favourite theatre to usher. Only one entrance and two big trashcans. Really important when there's only one volunteer holding down the fort. 

The End of the Tour
I have a copy of Infinite Jest in my bookshelf. It's been there since 2013.

James Ponsoldt is one of the best American filmmakers working today. The Spectacular Now, his last effort, was one of the highlights of the 2013 NZIFF lineup, and his latest, The End of the Tour is definitely one of the highlights of this year.

Ponsoldt's latest tells the true story of David Lipsky's (Jesse Eisenberg) road trip/interview with novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during his book tour for Infinite Jest. Based largely on audio recordings of Lipsky's interviews, Ponsoldt and his performers build upon this unconventional framework to chart the pair's tentative relationship as interviewer and subject.

There is an empathy and nuance to Ponsoldt's characters which, for me, makes his work so involving. This has the knock-on effect of making his narrative trajectories harder to predict and dramatically satisfying. In Ponsoldt's work, there is nothing pat or easy, no moralising or obvious plot contrivances to restrict his character's progression. 

Ponsoldt's understated approach extends to the performances.

What makes Jason Segel's work as Wallace so great is that it dodges all the cliches you would traditionally associate with a name actor playing a real life character. In The End of the Tour, there are no grandstanding moments, no signature schtick of his real-life alter ego for Segel to trot out and hang his performance on. Partially that has to do with the real Wallace lacking an identifiable physical tick (beyond the bandana). But mostly I think Segel's understated performance just reinforces the overall tone and intention of the piece -- there is no need for showboating here. Wallace's whole point throughout the interviews is that he does not want to come off as something he is not. Ponsoldt, Segel and Eisenberg do a masterful job of serving Wallace's wishes.

One of the best movies I've seen this year.

A harrowing Canadian drama (directed by Xavier Dolan) about a single mother's uphill battle to rebuild a life with her ADHD-afflicted son, Mommy is not an easy watch.

Shot in a claustrophobic 1x1 aspect ratio, we as viewers are forced to experience Diana's (Anne Dorval)'s struggles up close and (extremely) personal. Our perception of her life is as restricted as hers is, and we ultimately feel as helpless she does in trying to curb her son's behaviour.

Performances from the three principles are excellent. These people feel queasily real, and fully realised as individuals capable of actions both selfless and self-serving. Even the son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is not a one-note obstacle -- he is as tortured by his outbursts as those around him.

Mommy is a brave addition to the festival. In the end, it reminded me of Wrinkles -- specifically in its willingness to take a difficult subject and show it without sentimentality or pat solutions. It's strong stuff,but definitely worth a look.