Spectre

Warning! This post contains spoilers for the new James Bond movie. If you don’t want to learn about any plot surprises, do not read on.

Daniel Craig has had a strange tenure as 007. It began with Casino Royale and promised a new, tougher, more realistic Bond, one with far more in common with the blunt instrument of government policy that Ian Fleming saw his creation as being. Craig’s Bond was a lot more human than most of the previous incarnations and yet he managed to keep the glamour associated with the character. Quantum of Solace was an odd disappointing film, then Skyfall was commercially the most successful movie of the franchise. It too was a reboot of sorts, looking back towards Bond’s tortured childhood.

Now comes Spectre and we’re once again delving into Bond’s murky past. The movie looks beautiful, has great settings and awesome set pieces and yet, as with Quantum of Solace, it ultimately disappoints. It’s let down by a number of factors, the biggest of which is lazy storytelling.

In Spectre things happen because the plot needs them to happen. Usually there is no more explanation than that. The movie opens with Bond on an unauthorised mission to Mexico. There is a spectacular assassination attempt during the Day of the Dead. Things explode, for no reason other than to set up the spectacular setpieces.

Bond eventually gets his man but not before laying waste to large sections of the city in a way that will get him suspended from duty when he gets back to London. The jokey, uneven tone of the film is set by a stunt in which he falls through a collapsing roof and lands in a sitting position on a sofa amid the rubble. It’s a moment worthy of the late-period Roger Moore incarnation of Bond and I don’t mean that in a good way.

After this we are back in London and Bond, yawn, is suspended from duty. We learn that he performed the Mexican mission at the behest of the late lamented Judy Dench version of M. She left him a recording containing instructions to kill that guy back in Mexico City and then pay close attention at his funeral. That’s it. M does not tell him why. It never occurs to our hero to question instructions from a VHS tape. SMERSH could have photoshopped the whole thing to send him on a rampage but who cares.

Then it’s off to Rome. Apparently M’s plan was that Bond find the assassin’s wife at his funeral and sleep with her. She would then reveal the location of Spectre’s HQ. The collect-the-coupons nature of the plot is fully revealed. Everything is a paper trail that leads to the next set-piece. There’s no human connection or any hint that the plot is going to make sense. Everyone exists in a fictional reality where people serve only to act as milestones in the storyline.

At the Spectre meeting we first encounter Christopher Waltz’s soft-voiced Ernst Stavro Blofeld, possibly the least frightening Bond villain ever. He’s about as menacing as an incontinent hamster. Later we will discover that Bond and Blofeld are sort of adopted half-brothers and young Ernst offed his dad because he was jealous of his old man’s affection for the orphaned Bond.

Yes, the script is really that lazy. Its a parody of Screenwriting 101. You know, everything has to be connected with family and childhood and we need to know the reasons why the villain is doing these unspeakable things. Except that it’s tosh. Blofeld has daddy issues– boo-hoo. I prefer my comic book villains a bit more comic book villainish. But I get ahead of myself.

At the Spectre board meeting we learn its a sort of cartel of international crime run in a business-like manner. Except that people apply for the position of assassin by walking into the room and poking other people’e eyes out. During the board meeting Bond discovers his next plot coupon, the location of the Spectre renegade who will lead him to the plot token beyond that. Bond is discovered, flees through Rome in an Aston Martin which he manages to crash into the Tiber, having flamethrowered his pursuers.

Next comes Austria, where Bond accepts a commission to protect the Spectre renegade’s beautiful daughter, Madelaine Swann. He tells her he is there to keep her alive, after ramming the car she is being kidnapped in with the airplane he crashes. She understandably has trouble beleiving his claim at this point.

Together they set out for Tangier to discover the next plot coupon. This consists of a drunken night destroying their hotel room, as if Led Zeppelin were playing at being secret agents. Then it’s off on a train where they are attacked by the super-assassin from Rome again. Bond and the hit man destroy half the train during the fight, yet no one else seems to be present at this point or thinks to pull the emergency cord.

The Spectre HQ is so secret, it has its own train stop. A Rolls Royce wafts our heroes to Blofeld’s luxury spa cum base in the middle of nowhere. You wonder why they bothered to send the train assassin as Bond and Swann cheerfully hop into the Spectre limousine. The baddies could just have put a bomb in the boot of the Rolls and saved themselves some trouble.

Anyway, it’s off to Spectre Central for a spot of being tortured. Mostly this consists of excruciating dialogue where Blofeld claims responsibility for every bad thing that ever happened to Bond. This is intended to make him seem omnipotent and omnipresent but just makes him seem really, really sad, as if he had nothing better to do with the gigantic international criminal conspiracy he had built. Get a life, Blofeld!

Blofeld then claims he is going to start the torture by destroying Bond’s sense of balance. The net effect of having robotic torture needles drill into Bond’s brain is to make him a better shot. Out he gets from the dentist’s chair, and off he goes to slaughter the mooks. He then destroys the Spectre base by looking at it. It’s the least thrilling destruction of a supervillain hideout I have ever seen.

Back to London for the grand finale. In theory it’s about Spectre taking control of the 9Eyes global surveillance program but actually it’s about ESB taking revenge on Bond again. Ms Swann walks off announcing that she can’t take this life anymore. She might just as well have said, “See you in 15 minutes, James. I’ll be the one strapped to the ticking bomb.”

So then we have countdowns and bombs and computer hacking. The denouement comes with a boat chasing Blofeld’s escape helicopter down the river. Bond tries to take it down with a handgun. It looks like Mexico City all over again. Our hero apparently intends to protect the citizens of London by crashing a blazing helicopter in their midst, right next to the Houses of Parliament. Which he does. With a handgun. At night. From a moving speedboat. At considerable distance. He then confronts Blofeld for the last time and refuses to kill him. Apparently the scriptwriter thought this proved Bond was a better man.

It’s Screenwriting 101 time again. There has to be an arc. The character has to change. Bond has gone from being a man who would kill a complete stranger on orders from a videotape to turning down the chance to kill the man who claims to be the author of all his miseries. Of course, there’s no visible reason why this change has occurred. It just happens because well, that’s what happens in movies. If ever there was a villain who deserved to be offed with a headshot and a crass quip, its Blofeld, if only for his annoying voice. Bond doesn’t bother. Love has made him a better man. Or something.

Don’t get me wrong. Spectre was very watchable most of the time, and not just in a train wreck, I-can’t-believe-I-am-watching-this sort of way. I like Craig’s Bond. The backing cast were great. The locations made me want to visit them. But at the end of the day, the story was a letdown. The Daniel Craig incarnation of the Bond franchise has not lived up to its early promise and that’s sad. It could all have been so much better. Hopefully next time they’ll give the script as much attention as they gave the set-pieces and the locations and the clothes.


If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

The Great Gatsby

I confess that I approached Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby with a feeling of dread. It has taken a terrible panning at the hands of many critics. The most common critique I have read is that somehow Luhrmann’s crass, lurid tale has not done justice to the delicacy of Fitzgerald’s masterwork. Even the most casual familiarity with the book will show that this is simply not quite true.

Don’t misunderstand me — the movie version of Gatsby is crass and lurid, but then so, taken at face value, is the narrative of the book. Luhrmann’s version is pretty much true to the book’s plot, and I think the actor’s all make a very decent stab at the parts they play. Joel Edgerton, who plays Tom Buchanan in particular is excellent, and Di Caprio is probably the modern movie star best suited in terms of looks, charisma and charm to play the title role.

I don’t object to Jay Z’s score either. It is an honest attempt to convey a truth. The Jazz Age may look to us like the set for Hercule Poirot but when Fitzgerald was writing the book, he was writing about the contemporary pop culture of his day. Jazz was the edgy music of the time. Bootlegging was the gangsta culture of its day. The film avoids being the nostalgia fest that I recall the 70’s Redford movie being even though it was much closer in time to the books release than we are.

The critics I read were uneasy about something. Clearly many of them felt that something had been missed, and, of course, they are correct. What is missing is the beauty, poetry and charm of Fitzgerald’s writing. The whole book is seen through the lens of Nick Carraway’s unreliable narration, and Nick himself is manifested in Fitzgerald’s lovely prose. I don’t see any way the movie could have overcome this. Lines which are powerful and evocative on the page become clunky when spoken as dialogue. To tell the truth, I was surprised by how well some of them survived the transition. But in general what is a strength of the book becomes a weakness on screen.

The difference between the movie and the book is a powerful example of the technical differences between the two mediums. A book is a collaborative fantasy shared between author and reader. It requires work on the part of both. It can be picked up and put down. You can pause to think about what you have just read. A movie hammers its way into our consciousness through our eyes and ears and it unfolds in real time. We all may take a different length of time to read The Great Gatsby. It’s going to take us all one hour and fourty six minutes (or whatever) to sit through the movie if we do.

In the novel, it is easy for Fitzgerald to elide time. He can casually allude to the rumours swirling around Gatsby by weaving them into the ongoing narrative. In the movie, we have to be shown them. They have to be spoken in real time, by actual characters in the actual setting and that sometimes comes across as clunky.

Imagery is handled differently. The movie can show us the titanic excess of Gatsby’s parties. It can seduce us with enormous sets but it misses the subtleties like Fitzgerald’s use of light, particularly moonlight, in the text. By its very nature, the use of imagery in the film becomes a bit ham-handed. We see the eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg because we are meant to. The camera homes in on them. The valley of ashes looks like the road to Mordor. Luhrmann does not want us to miss the point. This is where the subtlety is lost.

All of this aside, I confess I enjoyed The Great Gatsby. It was far more true to Fitzgerald’s vision than I expected it to be, and the watching of it was, for me, a pleasure.

The Hobbit: An Unexpectedly Unsatisfying Journey

Don’t get me wrong. I greatly enjoyed Peter Jackson’s latest epic. It looks wonderful, the actors are superb, and the action sequences are highly enjoyable. In places I found it very moving.

Like a lot of people, I was expecting the worst when it was announced that the film was to become a trilogy. Here it comes, I thought, the studios are looking for a new cash cow– KA-CHING. Well, that may be the case, but watching the film I did not care. I really, really liked it.

The bits I feared most, the inevitable padding, actually turned out to be very watchable. None of the things I thought would bother me about the adaptation did. Turns out that things that Tolkien skipped over in a paragraph or a page can quite enjoyably be expanded to fifteen minutes or half an hour on screen. You can get a lot of mileage out of trekking through New Zealand’s lovely landscape, and a battle that takes up a few lines can easily become a roller-coaster action ride, and what the hell, I am up for that.

Even the parts where the story deviates from Tolkien (and there are a few) did not bother me too much and in my youth I was a Tolkien obsessive. (I won’t mention the actual changes here for fear of spoilers.) I get the fact that film is a visual medium and everything needs to be shown. Things that Tolkien could convey by internal monologue or even a shift in the omniscient authorial tone need to be represented concretely on film. All of this did not affect my enjoyment of the movie in the least, so why then, was I left feeling curiously dissatisfied at the end of a movie I really liked?

I suspect my mistake was that I actually re-read The Hobbit a couple of weeks before I saw the film. It’s really a rather slight and lovely book intended to be read aloud to children. It was never intended to take the weight of a three movie Peter Jackson epic spectacle. It’s not a tale of bone-crunching battles and authentic darkness.  It’s an innocent story of a little person’s scary trip away from home. As Tolkien himself said in the introduction to the Lord of the Rings, it hints at matters deeper and darker but it does not show them. Seeing the movie after so recently reading the book introduced a great deal of cognitive dissonance into my head. Letting Peter Jackson go on this tale was a bit like getting Martin Scorsese in full-blown Gangs of New York mode to direct Bambi.

My sixteen year old son Daniel summed it up rather well. He said, “I loved the movie but it should have had a big sticker on it saying BASED ON A STORY BY JRR TOLKIEN”. That kind of sums it up for me. It’s a great, great action movie and I recommend that you see it if you like those, but it’s not The Hobbit as I remember it from my long gone youth. (I’m still going to see The Desolation of Smaug though.) 

Skyfall

On Saturday Radka and I went to see  Skyfall, the latest James Bond film. I enjoyed it. Daniel Craig’s 007 was physically convincing and seems to me to be closer to Ian Fleming’s original concept of “a blunt instrument employed by a government department” than any previous Bond (even Connery’s, who was just too charming), the locations were stunning, the ladies were beautiful, the stunts astonishing. In short it was pretty much all I could want or expect from a Bond movie.

Javier Bardem’s villain, Silva, was both camp and frightening, a combination that is difficult to pull off but which he managed very handily. He suffered a little too much from the modern movie supervillain’s omniscience for my liking– being able to predict what would happen at one point right down to placing explosives to derail a tube-train to forestall Bond’s pursuit as he escaped through subterranean London. This is the only real criticism that occurred to me at the time and, let’s face it, a Bond review is probably the wrong place to quibble about a lack of realism. 

The set-pieces were jaw-dropping, particularly an assassination attempt on top of a skyscraper in Shanghai that took place to the flicker of gigantic neon signs– very cyberpunk. The climax, set in a cold and chilling-looking Scottish Highlands, worked very well. I found the ending quite moving and got a certain nostalgic thrill out of the reappearance of the Aston Martin I remembered having as a Dinky toy when I was a kid. (It may just be my memory playing tricks  but I would swear it was a different colour though.) 

This was very much a changing of the guard movie– I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers– and it was about as thoughtful as a Bond movie is ever going to get on the subject of mortality, heroism and the ruthlessness needed for command. A couple of new versions of old characters are introduced and it looks like the reboot begun in Casino Royale is well and truly done now. If you like Bond movies you’ve probably already seen it but I just thought I would add my voice to the general chorus of approbation.