Thursday, 13 September 2018

He means his cock(tail):
Shaken - Drinking with
James Bond & Ian Fleming

If you're a) a fan of James Bond and/or Ian Fleming, b) are nurturing or have fully developed an expensive dependence on obscure alcoholic drinks, and c) can read, then good news: the mixologists at London's sexy booze dungeon Bar Swift have only gone and compiled a book of Bond-based cocktail recipes just for you! It's called Shaken: Drinking with James Bond & Ian Fleming, and while it should probably have added the disclaimer "(not literally)" to its title, it is nevertheless a fine-looking addition to your library / bar / downstairs toilet.
Endorsed by Ian Fleming Publications (which is about as official as you can get without Barbara Broccoli coming round and licking it), Shaken is the first book to seriously investigate James Bond's crippling booze habit in such an entertaining, thirst-inducing way. Its major selling point is the forty original recipes conjured up by the Swift guys, but its cheeky twist is the way it ties these recipes into Ian Fleming's world. Each drink is followed by a selection of relevant quotes from the Bond books and other assorted bits of Fleming's writing, with a garnish of trivia that begs to be picked apart by awful Bond pedants (don't look at page 23 if glaring errors in Bond lore make you do a shit).

As you'd hope, there's some stunning photography and delightful illustrations accompanying all those boozy, Bondy words, and a cursory flick through in the Food & Drink section of Waterstones will be enough to send you straight to the nearest 'spoons for their approximation of a Vesper (good luck). But this is, first and foremost, a cocktail recipe book, so let's talk cocktail recipes.

Side note: among the many, many ways in which I am exactly like James Bond is my health-threatening relationship with fancy grog. My sideboard groans under the weight of fifty-odd bottles of random spirits I've picked up over the years in the misguided belief that I won't drink two shots of each and then decide I don't like it. So it was with a justifiable sense of preparedness that I parted this book's pages, ready and willing to whip up as many of its recipes as I could with my unnecessarily large selection of boozy booty. And this is where Shaken gets a bit shaky.
"You know, that's not half bad. I'm gonna have to think up a name for that.
I know! I shall call it SEXY FUCKJUICE"

As well as the forty original recipes, there are ten more for some of the "standard" cocktails that feature heavily in Fleming's books: the Martini, the Negroni, the Daiquiri, the Old Fashioned, blah blah blah. I've mixed a million of these. If you haven't, you can google those recipes in seconds. But of the forty new drinks, I was visibly distressed to discover that my extensive collection of weird and wonderful alcohol allowed me to make... four. (Of those four, I've so far made three, and to be fair they were all delicious - in fact there is a Blofeld just to my left, sheeing me through writing thish posht.) So unless you work behind the bar at the Savoy or are Gerry from Gerry's of Soho, the chances of you getting much practical use out of Shaken as a cocktail recipe book are slimmer than a straw full of slimline tonic water.

Maybe I'm being presumptuous. Maybe you've got loads of mastiha liqueur, yellow chartreuse, velvet falernum or Branca Menta knocking about next to your Aldi gin and that Smirnoff you picked up on the way back from Corfu, in which case great, enjoy this book! But even you can probably forget knocking out a round of Kissy Suzukis unless you've got plenty of Unkai Nayuta No Toki buckwheat shochu and Akashi-Tai Shiraume Ginjo Umeshu in. In its defence, Shaken does tell you how to make some of its peculiar ingredients at home, but I'm just not sure how many of us have the time or the inclination to throw together a batch of rooibos syrup in order to mix a Dr No (assuming you've also got some kind of gentian liqueur handy, which the recipe also calls for).

So it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend this book, even as a 007 fan who loves a cocktail or three while rambling on the internet of a Wednesday evening. It's certainly a lovely thing, curated with an obvious passion for Bond and with due deference to fans, especially those who love the books as much as the films: the inspirations for some of the drinks (the Trueblood, the Dreamy Pines) are hugely rewarding for the most devoted among us. And if you don't mind not being able to make most of the drinks on offer, it's still a fun read and a classy piece of Bondiana. But a good cocktail book shouldn't feel exclusive to its audience, and if you're not a patholigical collector of pretentiously-packaged liquid intoxicants then it's difficult not to see Shaken as a somewhat mis-marketed product.

Monday, 30 July 2018

That's Rogertainment! Rogisode 10:
Sherlock Holmes In New York

A lot has happened in the 28 months since our last voyage into the world of Roger Moore films, not least the enormously unwelcome death of Sir Rog himself. It saddens me that I can no longer refer to him as The Greatest Living Englishman, as I have on so many previous occasions, so I suppose I will just have to call him The Greatest Englishman Ever from now on and hope the hyperbole police are off duty.

Anyway one of the things that hasn't happened since I put myself through Bullseye! back in early 2016 is me watching any more Roger Moore films, which is something I imagine a lot of people who have seen Bullseye! have experienced. Well it's time to get back on the horse, because here comes Rog in a deerstalker cap, Ulster coat and Inverness cape, which means he's either hunting deer in the north of the island of Ireland and/or a city in the Scottish Highlands, or - and this is by far the more likely reason - he's playing Sherlock ruddy Holmes.
"What do you call a deer with no eyes, Watson?"
"Dashed if I know, Holmes"
"No idea"
"Nope, none whatsoever"
"No, I mean... oh forget it"

Produced for US TV by NBC in 1976, Sherlock Holmes In New York was the fourth film Roger Moore squeezed in during the Broccoli/Saltzman wars which took place after 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun and delayed The Spy Who Loved Me until 1977. (It's quite something to realise that he played Holmes and Bond concurrently; for context, the modern equivalent would have been the BBC's Sherlock series kicking off in 2010 with Daniel Craig - at that time also sitting through a lengthy inter-Bond hiatus after two films in the tux - filling Holmes' shoes.) Shot at the Fox studios in LA, Rog's film is a lavish production with a cracking cast that's considerably better than I expected, but maybe that's just because I can still smell Bullseye!.

The 1901-set story (an original idea, not based on any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books) concerns a plot by Sherlock's own Blofeld, Professor Moriarty, to nobble a shitload of gold from a Manhattan bank vault, using the then-under-construction subway tunnels as a getaway (weird how no film critics ever mention Sherlock Holmes In New York as inspiration for Die Hard With A Vengeance). In a cheeky twist, Moriarty blackmails Holmes into refusing to help the clueless NYPD in solving the crime by kidnapping and threatening the life of a young boy who, it is strongly hinted, is the illegitimate son of old Sherl himself.

While it's hardly the pinnacle of Holmes on screen, SHINY - as I was delighted to discover is the film's acronym - is an entirely adequate addition to the canon. It benefits enormously from expecting a basic grasp in Sherlology of its audience: Holmes, Watson, Mrs Hudson, Moriarty, Irene Adler and even Colonel Moran all feature without the faintest whiff of any tedious origin stories. The dialogue is faithful to Conan Doyle's style, the plot is a rewarding puzzle and there's a reasonably exciting horse-and-cart chase at the end. And the supporting cast are top-notch: Patrick Macnee bumbles about as Nigel Bruce's version of Watson, eternally bewildered and ending every sentence with "hoho, eh?"; Charlotte Rampling is appropriately gorgeous and mysterious as 'the woman', Irene Adler, and John Huston's growly Moriarty constantly looks like he's trying to suppress a violent shart.
Co-starring John Pooston as Morifarty

But at the centre of it all is Rog, who - with typical self-deprecation - said of the part: "Another fictional character - I'm going to play them all the same, so it doesn't matter whether I'm going to be called Simon [Templar], Sherlock or Mr Bond." Normally I'd agree with him, but this is a rare Roger role where 007 is nowhere to be seen. Moore's Holmes is a logic machine with a quick temper and a deadly serious manner; Bond's charm and propensity for knob jokes have, for once, been kept in storage at Pinewood for the time being.

Ideal Holmes
Rog delivers his lines with the rapid-fire impatience of classic Holmes, and enhances potentially whiffy dialogue like "Watson, there is devilry afoot! I feel it in my very marrow" with his own naturally mellifluous tones and a deep furrowing of that normally-elevated brow. He also clearly relishes the mischief of the detective's frequent disguises, getting to grips with Irish, Italian and New York accents with varying degrees of success. There are little grace notes, too, that give away how much he's enjoying himself: witness the triumphant cape-toss over his shoulder after he fools Moriarty with what is frankly one of the least convincing disguises in Sherlockian lore. And as a gift for Rogerwatchers throughout history, there's a splendid montage of Holmes mulling over a four-pipe problem which is essentially the same shot of him frowning and smoking, shot from three different angles.

All of which amounts to an unspectacular but worth-your-while Sherlock Holmes film but an excellent Rogerformance, thoroughly deserving of a Rogerating of four Rogers, only the second time such an honour has been bestowed in the long and sad history of That's Rogertainment!.
If the two-year-plus gap between now and the last time I Rogered has left you baffled as to just what the chuff is going on, you can catch up here. See you in December 2020 for Rogisode 11!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Mission Zimmpossible:
Celebrating the majestic lunacy of
Hans Zimmer's M:I-2 score

There's a new Mission: Impossible film out in a minute, which is good because the stench of the last one has just about left cinemas. I do love this franchise (well, three-fifths of it so far), but there's no getting away from the fact that 2015's Rogue Nation effortlessly stole the crown of rubbishest Missiossible from 2000's M:I-2, which was a $125 million shampoo ad directed by a psychopath. But that's fine, because it forced us to look for redeeming features in John Woo's batshit sequel that set it above Christopher McQuarrie's snooze-inducing quinquel. And the most obvious of those redeeming features is its utterly insane score, composed by Hansel Florian Zimmer, the only man who literally makes music nervous when it sees him coming.

There isn't actually a bad Mission: Impossible film score yet: Danny Elfman, Michael Giacchino and Joe Kraemer have all done terrific work expanding Lalo Schifrin's perfect, thrilling themes into feature-length ear-parties. But none of them have gone as balls-out bonkers, aurally speaking, as Zimmer's work for M:I-2. It's got fucking EVERYTHING. It's film score tapas, drizzled in every soundtrack condiment in the composer's pantry. So I decided it was time to give it some love in the only way I know how: by thinking about it at an insultingly shallow level and allowing those thoughts to plop gracelessly onto the internet. And so, track by track, here lie those carelessly discarded ruminations. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to forgive me for ending this intro with such a lazy cliché. I'm better than this, honest.

"A Triumph" - Motor Cycle News

Track 1: Hijack
Twenty seconds of threatening bass and none-more-Y2K drum loops give way to a stirring guitar motif perching atop the kind of electronic samples that pervaded most action film scores of the time (cf. David Arnold's The World Is Not Enough). Just over a minute in, a Russian male choir quietly and briefly announce their arrival, as if politely waiting to be asked to join the party. They head for the bar and start drinking, and will return when they are jolly well good and ready. Everything is going smoothly until, at 2'35", a furious crunching drum-and-guitar shaped monster stomps all over everything for a few bars, followed by the kind of hilariously overblown axe solo that makes you think of ill-advised perms and gigantic wind machines. If you don't love this score at its worst then you don't deserve it at its best.

Track 2: Iko Iko
Zap Mama's cover version of The Dixie Cups' delightful original is fine I guess, but I'm just glad somebody chose to include it on this album over Limp Bizkit's "official" theme Take A Look Around, because that song is a fucking war crime. Fear not, musical masochists, for the Biscuits' steaming heap of noise is on the other M:I-2 album of music "from and inspired by" the film, and if you bought that then you deserved everything you got. Anyway none of this has anything to do with Hans Zimmer's score so why are you going on about it?

Track 3: Seville

Music website dismisses the entire M:I-2 soundtrack as "an uneven score that ranges from successful eclecticism to bombastic predictability", as if that's somehow a bad thing. Who wants even? Who wants unsuccessful eclecticism? Who wants bombastic unpredictability? OK maybe that last one sounds fun. But when they spat out that invective, they were just bitter that they'd never thought of following millennial beats and angry electric guitars with an achingly beautiful flamenco heartbreaker named after an orange, as Zimmer does here. Handclaps, footstomps and hugely evocative Spanish guitars lay the groundwork for the voice of Lisa Gerrard, hot off her Zimmer-assisted work on Gladiator, to drift in like a ghost doomed to an eternity of anguished and incomprehensible wailing, sounding much like I did about an hour into Rogue Nation.

Track 4: Nyah
Zimmer regular Heitor Pereira glides in with his Spanish guitar and makes string-based love to everyone in the room simultaneously. Nyah is the exact sound of Thandie Newton wafting around Seville in slow motion, i.e. it is absolutely, life-enhancingly beautiful. It's a tender lament that evokes a serenity and poise rarely achieved in modern film music; a hymn to grace and elegance that HOLY FUCKING SHITBALLS HANS WHAT IN THE FUCKEST OF FUCK IS THAT?!

Track 5: Mission: Impossible Theme

"Nothing limp about THIS bizkit bro"

Track 6: The Heist
More flamenco and handclaps introduce a funksplosion of jazz bass jamming, because Zimmer hasn't covered enough musical genres yet. I can't remember what happens at this point in the film (some kind of heist, presumably) but imagine that bit in Spider-Man 3 when emo Peter Parker struts down the street firing finger-guns at people, only it's Tom Cruise and his tectonic plate-sized grin doing the strutting, and that's what this sounds like.

Track 7: Ambrose
Suddenly remembering that this is a film score rather than a neurotoxin-induced psychotropic episode, Zimmer digs out an actual orchestra from behind the sofa and immediately sets the string section to work on this theme for Dougray Scott's entirely forgettable villain. If a low, menacing cello didn't yell "BAD GUY!" loudly enough, then guess what? The Russian male choir from Track 1 are tanked up and ready to go, solemnly grumbling the kind of noises that your brain makes when you wake up hungover and unsure if you're in the same continent you fell asleep in.

Track 8: Bio-Techno
In a moment of uncertainty regarding how one might score a John Woo-directed shootout, Hans Zimmer drops a tab of acid, stares at the faulty fluorescent strip light in his kitchen for four hours and decides the best thing to do is to use three late-'90s techno tracks all at once because his cat, who is a floating cloud of liquid energy, told him to. John Woo drowns it out with gunshots in the final mix, much to everyone's relief.

Track 9: Injection
Lisa Gerrard is back, and so is the string section, and so are the drum loops, and so are the electric guitars, and so is the Spanish guitar, and because that's all a bit sparse Hans casually lobs in a massive fuckoff timpani beat. Zimmer gonna Zim.

Mad as eggs.

Track 10: Bare Island
In the M:I-2 score's standout track, the male choir suddenly produce from beneath their choral robes an entire female choir, and they all get naked and start an absolute orgy of vocal harmonies that sounds like Carmina Burana if, well, Hans Zimmer had composed it. It is quite literally all going Orff, building to an orgasmic climax which ejaculates nothing less than the most histrionically macho rendition of the Mission: Impossible theme on electric guitars. But the guitars have still got more axe-spunk in reserve, so they pump away at that motif from Track 1 for a bit before slowing to a gentle finish, over which Lisa Gerrard sighs the most satisfied sound you'll ever hear. Anyone got a cigarette?

Track 11: Chimera
Everyone is utterly exhausted by the exertions of the previous track so they just lie there moaning for a couple of minutes, gently leaking musical fluid onto the film's best satin bedsheets.

Track 12: The Bait
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "you said this score had 'fucking EVERYTHING', but we've yet to hear, for example, a bongo drum introduction to the Mission: Impossible theme, you tedious smartarse". Well Track 12 is here to McConaughey that thought right back in your stupid face.

Track 13: Mano a Mano
A largely percussive piece, this is the sound of Zimmer banging his head against a wall trying to think of an instrument he hasn't used yet. Midway through, the answer comes to him: sleigh bells! Of course! The only downside is that it all goes a bit Éric Serra's GoldenEye score for a bit, but frankly we're in such a state by now that Hans could play Joe Dolce's Shaddap You Face on a rhino's scrotum and nobody would bat an eyelid.

Cheer up love, it'll only be the worst one for another fifteen years

Track 14: Mission: Accomplished
The title of this track is a bit of a spoiler if you've never seen M:I-2, or indeed any Hollywood blockbuster, so look away now. Oh wait it's too late, sorry. The haunting melody of Nyah returns in a gorgeous wave of strings and, because the penultimate track is never too late to introduce one more new instrument, woodwind. It's almost lovely enough to make you stop thinking about the baffling physics of the climactic motorbike-based fight scene that just punched you in the brain. But not quite.

Track 15: Nyah and Ethan
More soothing Spanish guitars attempt to calm you down after the glorious punishment your ears have just taken, and it's a slow and sexy way to end what has been quite the adventure in sound. Naturally the film ends with Fred Durst grunting at full volume over the credits, but the album has better taste than that.


So there you have it: the soundtrack about which said: "avoid if you suffer from psoriasis or eczema, for Hans Zimmer's insultingly simplistic action music for synthesizers and electric guitars could make your lymph nodes swell up and cause a nasty skin rash." Well I am here to tell you that not only is that verdict medically questionable, it is also weapons-grade poppycock. Hans Zimmer's score for M:I-2 is the work of a mad genius; a fearless piece of art that deserved so much better than the film it graced with its musical preposterousness. I mean yes, I have developed a nasty skin rash after listening to it for the umpteenth time, but I'm sure that's just coincidence.

Friday, 13 July 2018

First Reformed: God's lonely clergyman

Father Toller is in Hell (figuratively, not literally). He's dying inside (figuratively and literally). A crisis of faith spreads within him like a cancer, killing off his spirit while actual cancer kills off his body, and he's dipping his toast in whiskey in an alcoholic inversion of holy communion. Welcome to the laugh-a-minute world of Paul Schrader's First Reformed, which finally answers the all too infrequently-asked question: what if Travis Bickle were a priest in 2017?

Full disclosure: I've never seen a Paul Schrader-directed film until now. I've no idea how this compares to his usual visual style, but as a fan of his collaborations as a writer with Martin Scorsese I can spot within First Reformed the DNA of Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Raging Bull and Bringing Out The Dead from the furthest pew from the pulpit. That internal conflict, the despair and rage that come from impotence and failure, and the drive to cleanse the soul via good old-fashioned extreme mortification of the flesh are the arterial flow of Schrader's best-known work. (If that somehow passes you by, Travis Bickle's iconic Alka-Seltzer fizzing away in a glass of water reappears here as Pepto-Bismol in bourbon.) First Reformed might be a more measured, sombre piece for having Schrader behind the camera rather than Scorsese, but it's no less thought-provoking, even for heathens like me.

Shot in austere 1.37:1, drained of most of its colour and almost devoid of camera movement, Schrader's aesthetic mimics the abstinent life Ethan Hawke's Toller has chosen. Everything is shot against a flat wall or the disappearing perspective of a corridor or room, as if the 90-degree rigidity of Toller's life has shaped his very surroundings. He's trapped himself in a cellular structure of devotion to God and the walls are closing in. So when his festering spiritual doubt and general sense of inadequacy are fuelled by a parishioner who points out the unbearable shitness of being, it's little wonder that Toller sets off on a dark path, with only Amanda Seyfried's Mary (obviously she's called Mary) and his diary of increasingly disturbing thoughts - which he can no longer confess to God - as his companions.
Exploring and exploiting the hypocrisy of the church's inextricable links to Big Business, First Reformed is part religious critique, part environmental plea, and swings from subtle to sledgehammer throughout its running time. Why doesn't God have anything to say about the destruction of His creation by climate change? Is it all part of His plan? Toller doesn't know, but he can see in eco-terrorism the same self-sacrifice that the Jesuit priests of Scorsese's Silence suffered to defend their faith. Set pointedly in Trump's America, the film depicts a bubbling liberal fury that can't be quelled despite every attempt at tolerance.

Ethan Hawke is terrific here, the lines of his face like scars for every soul he's tried to save. It's a measured, calm performance, but there's never any doubt about his doubt. Each pause he takes before answering a tricky question betrays Toller's mounting panic that he's in the wrong job, while opposite him, Mary's fragility and determination are enhanced by Amanda Seyfried's then-real-life pregnancy. Toller preaches that life is equal parts despair and hope, and it's impossible not to see him and Mary as the two parts of that equation.

First Reformed builds menacingly towards a nail-biting climax, but don't go in expecting an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Like this year's other Taxi Driver-referencing slow-burner You Were Never Really Here, this is a film of nuance and intelligence, of originality and provocation. It stays with you in the same way, making you want to reach out and give its protagonist a big hug and tell him it's going to be OK, even though it clearly absolutely is not. And if you're like me, it might even make you want to seek out more of Paul Schrader's work. Anyone give us a lend of Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist?

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Bond Begins (again):
Forever And A Day

Just a week after Ron Howard's self-defeatingly unnecessary Star Wars prequel Solo limped into cinemas, Anthony Horowitz's James Bond continuation novel Forever And A Day - set before the events of Ian Fleming's first 007 book Casino Royale - arrives bearing another origin story for a 20th century pop culture hero. The timing, of course, is coincidental, but the result is identical: a serviceable but weak yarn that might have passed muster if only numerous other entries in the series weren't vastly more impressive. Both Han Solo and James Bond deserve better.
Ant: man

There's definitely a great Casino Royale prequel to be written, and it doesn't need to cover every event in Bond's formative days that led to him becoming the cold, ruthless, state-sanctioned psychopath we know and love. To his credit, Horowitz realises this and avoids Phantom Menace-ing Bond, but the result swings a little too far the other way. You could fillet out every reference to Bond's pre-double-0 duty in Forever And A Day without much impact on the word count, and it would appear for all intents and purposes like any other Bond novel. It's almost as if the character needs no introduction.

It's a shame Horowitz didn't choose to cover Bond's WWII exploits; there's probably a cracking war story to be told that includes his rise from lieutenant to commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve that doesn't follow all the predictable beats of every other Bond book. I'd also love to see a fully fleshed-out account of the two assassinations Bond undertook in order to be elevated to double-0 status, and to which he briefly and tantalisingly alludes in Casino Royale. Horowitz obliges me with a few pages devoted to the latter of those jobs, but it's a cursory bit of connective tissue before the thrust of his own story gets underway.

That thrust is this: the newly-promoted James Bond assumes the code number 007 after its previous (unnamed) owner, who was in the middle of an investigation of unexplained goings-on in the heroin trade, inconveniently rocks up dead in the south of France. Bond sets out to finish whatever his predecessor started, with the added objective of a little payback for the death of 007.1. Grotesque villains, beautiful women, casinos, car chases, explosions, sex, violence and betrayal all follow, just as they always do, and surprises are few and far between. The only way you won't spot the final chapter's "twist" coming from at least the halfway mark is if this is your first ever book.
Oh God James Bond's going to die, he's going to die!

Horowitz writes well enough to keep you reading without getting bored, but his is not a particularly entertaining style. His attempts to emulate Ian Fleming are admirable - the detail with which he describes certain objects or places is almost as exhaustive as Fleming, and there's a great deal of evocative authenticity in his writing  - but you never get the feeling that he's as deep under Bond's skin as the character's creator was. There are brief references here to the way Bond feels about taking a life (which shifts significantly by the story's end), and a weird amount of reflection on the vulgarity of excessive wealth (specifically cruise liners), but Fleming poured so much of himself into Bond that you genuinely felt you were reading about a three-dimensional person, rather than the franchise icon of Forever And A Day. At least that title would have pleased Fleming, being as it is entirely meaningless and crowbarred into the story with minimal justification.

Where Horowitz succeeds is with his version of the Bond Girl: Sixtine, as she's mysteriously called, is a competent, independent woman who's more than a match for Bond and who approaches their relationship entirely on her own terms. She's never a damsel in distress and she teaches Bond a thing or two about a thing or two, which is refreshing to read. Bond first encounters her playing blackjack in Monte Carlo, in a great little vignette that tells you much about both characters with wit and efficiency.

Sadly that fire doesn't spread to any of the other characters: there are two major villains and neither of them are remotely memorable. Horowitz has one of them, a hideously obese Corsican gangster, speak via an emotionless translator, an unnecessary choice which prevents the reader connecting with the bad guy in any meaningful way. And as for the villains' evil scheme, it's lifted wholesale from one of the Bond films and makes even less sense here than it did there. Keep your eyes peeled too for echoes of Quantum Of Solace (spy business set against the backdrop of a performance of Tosca) and Skyfall (a villain's interrogation of a bound Bond that challenges his sexuality, albeit briefly and inconsequentially).

So the quest for a truly worthy successor to Ian Fleming continues: this is Anthony Horowitz's second Bond assignment (following 2015's criminally-titled Trigger Mortis), effectively rendering him the authorial equivalent of a double-0, but it's hard to get excited about any future missions bearing his signature. His style, which often borders on the prosaic (one major character's demise is described in literally the shortest, simplest way possible), is ideal for the younger audience of his Alex Rider books, but for the grown-ups who look to the literary Bond for the meat that's missing from the cinematic version of the character, it's a little on the lean side.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Comic Relief: How Dynamite Entertainment are saving James Bond

As we all know and are not allowed to argue with, the James Bond franchise skied off a cliff without a Union Jack parachute with 2015's Spectre, a strong contender for the worst Bond film ever. My heart was broken, the blinding intensity of my Bond love reduced to a flickering two-lumen glow; I even had to whine about the whole situation out loud as some kind of therapy, for which I can only apologise. But behind the scenes, the healing process was beginning: sexy nerds at comic publishers Dynamite Entertainment and even sexier, nerdier nerds at Ian Fleming Publications were sexily nerdling away at a new direction for everyone's favourite state-sponsored alcoholic gun-toting sociopathic sex tourist.

And so it was that while I was processing my post-Spectre grief, an alternate James Bond universe opened up in the pages of Dynamite's comics and collected graphic novels, and it was, like Moneypenny to Bond in For Your Eyes Only, a feast for my eyes. An insanely fun blend of reverence and freshness, Dynamite's Bond smokes, swears (PG-bombs only so far), drives a Bentley (initially, at least) and is mercilessly cruel - all as Fleming described him - but enjoys all the action beats and playful relationships of the films. It's a delicate cocktail, and Dynamite's mixology skills are currently at Duke's Bar levels, where Spectre's were more like Wetherspoons. And while the stories so far have mostly been typically action-packed Bond yarns, there have also been spinoffs for M, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter. It's this canny handling of the formula and willingness to diversify that, for me, is where comic-book Bond is gaining the edge over his cinematic counterpart.

Now I'm not saying I necessarily need a full length film about Felix Leiter, but I do dream of one day seeing an official 007 flick about an older Bond (ideally starring Timothy Dalton), or a period film, maybe set during the Cold War. But until there are major changes at the top of Bond production company EON, those movies - whose appeal to a mainstream audience would be limited, to say the least - seem about as likely as me playing James Bond. What would be an eye-wateringly expensive gamble in the cinema, however, is just a matter of original commissioning and great writing in comic book land. Last year Dynamite announced Origin, a Bond arc set during WWII (although that seems to have stalled, perhaps in light of Anthony Horowitz's similarly-themed forthcoming novel), and just the other week they released a staggeringly faithful graphic novel adaptation of Ian Fleming's first Bond book Casino Royale, over which I may or may not have coolly and calmly lost my shit.

Here, then, using the first five of Dynamite's runs to be made available in collected hardcovers, is a story-by-story guide to how the publishers have reinvigorated the Bond brand. With Bond 25's future uncertain, it's good to know there's still new life in the old bastard yet, even if I have to do the sound effects myself.

VARGR (2015)
Writer: Warren Ellis     Artist: Jason Masters
The brave new Bondworld kicked off with pleasing deference to the character's history and refreshing new twists: a cold open straight from the films has Bond's face hidden until a dramatic reveal, but not before there's been the kind of eye-watering violence that's always been out of bounds for the cinematic 007. The story concerns lethal drugs being peddled on the streets of the UK by diabolical mastermind Slaven Kurjak, assisted by a super-strong henchman and henchwoman. In true Fleming style, all three have some form of physical or mental disfigurement.

Warren Ellis happily throws in scenes you'd never see on screen: junkies dying in their own filth in a Brixton crack den and James Bond eating a shitty sandwich in the MI6 canteen are just a couple of ways in which the comic book Bond announces its house style, and while it's initially disconcerting, it's exactly what the comics should be doing. Similarly, there are precious few gadgets and no sex at all in Vargr, and Ellis maintains the violent streak set out in the opening - a warehouse shootout is drenched in blood, and a vicious triple murder is shocking as much for being unexpected as it is brutal. To compensate for this almost unrecognisable Bond aesthetic, there are comfort blankets to be found in the familiar relationships between Bond, Moneypenny, M and Q, and when the action kicks in it's as inventive and fun as you'd expect.

Ellis nails the tone perfectly: following a devastating car crash, Bond calmly retrieves his suitcase from the boot and walks the rest of the way to his destination; after escaping a raging inferno and discovering his phone doesn't work because it's too hot, he simply sits down and smokes a cigarette while it cools down. It's drily funny, too, refusing to take itself too seriously but not at the expense of the franchise's integrity. Jason Masters' artwork is clean, detailed and hyperreal in all the right ways, and he and colourist Guy Major have a ball splashing blood all over the place as if they're inking Preacher. Vargr announced comic book Bond in impeccable style, and while it's light on subtext - it's a straightforward romp with little new to say about 007's place in the world - it was enough just to know that Bond was back.

EIDOLON (2016)
Writer: Warren Ellis     Artist: Jason Masters
Warren Ellis hit harder and dug deeper for his second run, which sets out its stall in the first few pages when the villain sacks a sloppy employee by slowly pulling his head back until his neck snaps. That viciousness isn't limited to the bad guys: Bond himself kills six people before the story is 20 pages old, and he doesn't do it quietly. It's the Bond we were promised in the most brutal moments of Daniel Craig's Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace (only with 1000% more blood, bone and brains spattered around), before the sharp edges were softened for Skyfall and Spectre. While the films returned to family-friendly entertainment, the comics shamelessly appealed to the sadists lurking inside every fan of Ian Fleming's 007. Bond even goes a bit Jack Bauer, happily torturing a suspect in the bowels of MI6; an uncomfortable moment, the implications of which should probably have been developed further.

The plot involves murky politics and paranoia, with MI5 and MI6 pitted against each other, and terrorist cells compromising the CIA and the Turkish secret service. Behind it all is Eidolon, a mysterious organisation with links to none other than SPECTRE. Ellis joins these unlikely dots with far more intrigue and skill than the films did when they were finally able to link Quantum to Blofeld, and as a bonus there's none of that surrogate brother nonsense to drag it all down.

Old school Bond is still there though: both of the story's two main female characters end up in the sack with him (separately, I should add, although one of them - the spectacularly-monikered Cadence Birdwhistle - is into BDSM), and he's still a high-functioning alcoholic, his bourbon of choice this time being Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ("You want anything in it?" "Yes. More Woodford Reserve Double Oaked."). And it's hard to tell how intentional it is, but Jason Masters delights in dressing Bond in Sterling Archer's tactleneck for one night-time set-piece. Modern Bond has always been about weighing familiar tropes against both the character's literary origins and what 21st century storytelling can offer the franchise, and on the basis of his two runs, Warren Ellis appears to have a better grasp of that than most.

Writer: Andy Diggle     Artist: Luca Casalanguida
The most politically relevant arc yet from Dynamite, Andy Diggle's first pop at the series features a villain whose plan is to "make Britain great again", who hates "bleeding heart liberals and Eurocrats", is an extreme imperialist, nationalist and capitalist, and - just to be sure - has the nickname 'Tory', short for Victoria. James Bond's mission isn't just to stop her blowing up London with a stolen Trident nuclear warhead, it's to symbolically stop Brexit, Trump, nuclear proliferation and every right-wing concept going. The fact that Bond himself is an old Etonian and former Naval commander invented by an upper-class son of a Conservative MP is apparently neither here nor there.

Diggle goes all in with some classic Bond action here, assisted enormously by Luca Casalanguida's kinetic artwork. Nukes, parachutes, sharks, tuxedos, baddies who turn out to be goodies (and vice versa) and a race to abort a missile are all present and correct, and Fleming fans will delight at Bond smoking his beloved Morland cigarettes (with the distinctive triple gold bands, obvs) lit with a Ronson lighter, as well as the mention of Loelia Ponsonby, his personal secretary from the novels.

There are sequences here you'd kill to see in the films: Moneypenny threatening to kill M to avoid his capture and Bond's beloved car being remotely controlled by the enemy in an attempt to kill him are terrific ideas. But it's the final page of Hammerhead that demonstrates the comics' subversive bent: where Skyfall finished with 007 proudly framed by the Union Jack as he watched over London, here he casts a wary glance up at the flag before turning his back on it. Maybe being a dead-inside, government-sanctioned murder drone isn't as much fun as it sounds after all?

BLACK BOX (2017)
Writer: Benjamin Percy     Artist: Rapha Lobosco
OK, here's where my argument falters a little. Just as every Bond actor's fourth film is a stinker, Dynamite suffered a similar fate with their fourth run. Benjamin Percy's 007 is a shameless recreation of everything the writer obviously loves about the Bond films: loaded with familiar tropes and references, Black Box is a zippy but unoriginal tale, concerned with WikiLeaks-style secrets being used to blackmail nation states. The action is serviceable, but it's hooked onto a load of cringing waffle that sounds like it's trying to explain the digital age to your grandad.

Percy's obsession with sticking to the formula of the films leads to elements that will either be welcome or disappointing depending on how progressive you feel the comics should be. Bond's Bentley is replaced with an Aston Martin, a female agent exists only to hang on to Bond's arm (and, subsequently, his dick), and the villain is all talk and physically unthreatening, so that a massive, near-mute, virtually invincible henchman can do his dirty work. Some of the classic Bond stuff is fun (alpine-based action makes a welcome appearance), but Percy can't control himself - inserting a scene in a casino isn't enough; the casino also has to contain Chekhov's shark-filled aquarium.

There's a potentially interesting motif about scars - physical and emotional - running through the story, but it's all a bit laboured and on the nose, and ends up becoming a diet version of the kind of character analysis that's become a millstone around the neck of Daniel Craig's films. Rapha Lobosco's illustrations are strong, if less clean than we've seen so far in the series, but Chris O'Halloran's colours render the whole story - set almost entirely in night-time Tokyo - uniformly blue, black and grey: a twilight blur in which it's hard to distinguish one set-piece from another. Less adventurous than its predecessors and falling back on tired familiarity, Black Box proves how tricky it is to get the Bond balance right.

Writer: James Robinson     Artist: Aaron Campbell
The first full-length spin-off from Dynamite's Bond series focuses on 007's scruffy Texan pal, who's made brief appearances in the main run (Bond returns the favour here, popping up for a quick cameo). It's a cracking standalone adventure, in which the ex-CIA spook teams up with another fan favourite, You Only Live Twice's Tiger Tanaka, on a mission to discover who's behind a terrorist attack in Tokyo. En route we get flashbacks to Leiter's time serving in Afghanistan alongside improbably hot female Russian agent Alena Davoff, with whom he enjoyed a little PG-rated R&R. Davoff reappears in Tokyo, somehow connected to the attack and thereby dragging Felix into the action.

Writer James Robinson lends Felix an air of introspective melancholy; equipped with a prosthetic arm and leg, he stews over the loss of his limbs (to a shark; an incident referred to but unseen in Dynamite so far, and straight from Fleming) and laments the fact that he's not as smart, cool or infallible as Bond. Riddled with self-doubt and largely clumsy and uncertain for most of the story, it's a relief that Leiter isn't simply a Bond substitute here. The welcome result is more characterisation than we've seen so far from Dynamite, although there's still plenty of action - mainly courtesy of Tanaka and his 21st century team of ninjas. Robinson avoids cliché for the most part (although the old 'villain-who-wants-to-get-captured' chestnut makes an appearance, despite the disdain Robinson shows for Skyfall's plot in an interview printed at the back of the hardcover), and there's a delicious tease at the end, leaving things open for further instalments and connecting neatly to earlier stories.

Felix Leiter's major selling point, though, is its stunning artwork. Artist Aaron Campbell and colourist Salvatore Aiala toss off panels that wouldn't go amiss framed on your wall, employing a cinematic style that would be welcome in the main run of Bond stories. Campbell's Felix is a craggy but fit Josh Holloway type, much as Ian Fleming described him, but considerably (and understandably) less cheery due to the whole, you know, missing limbs thing. Aiala's use of light is gorgeous, whether it's in a sultry middle eastern hotel room or on a sun-drenched Key West beach, and his Tokyo - a vast improvement on Black Box's rendering - is wet, gloomy and oppressive: perfect conditions for externalising Leiter's despondent frame of mind.


So if you've found yourself let down by your chosen James Bond platform or are just twiddling your thumbs waiting for Bond 25 to finally arrive, it's very much worth checking out Dynamite's work. I wouldn't go so far as to say that nobody does it better, but right now it's hard not to feel sad for the rest.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Baccarat To Basics:
Dynamite Comics' Casino Royale

Comic book publishers Dynamite Entertainment have, for the last two and a bit years, been steadily ploughing a furrow of new and original James Bond stories told in panel-and-speech-balloon format. The first story - clumsily titled Vargr, as if nobody would read it as 'Viagra' (is it just me? Oh god it's just me isn't it) - kicked off a parallel Bondiverse that has so far produced five full-length 007 stories (with a sixth currently mid-run), another centred on the adventures of Felix Leiter, and four one-shots. In the same time, EON Productions have released one rubbish Bond film and are currently dicking about trying to decide who should write the next one.

So Dynamite's output is catnip for Bond-starved geeks right now, and while the stories they've produced haven't all been 100% successful (more on that in a forthcoming waffle), last week they knocked everything up a notch with the long-awaited (and long-delayed) release of what is hopefully the first in a long series of hardcovers: a graphic novel version of Ian Fleming's debut Bond book, Casino Royale.
Adapted with fastidious loyalty to Fleming's text by Van Jensen and with artwork by Dennis Calero, Casino Royale is everything I'd hoped it would be from the moment it was announced: a perfect marriage of words and images that's the closest we'll ever get to a genuinely faithful screen adaptation of Fleming's work. It takes minimal liberties with the story, scrupulously translating every event from every chapter to ensure Fleming is never short-changed, and adding just enough flourishes to justify its existence as a separate entity. Maybe I'm still on a high from finishing it, but this book has gone some way towards reigniting a passion for Bond I thought had been utterly doused by Spectre's woefulness.

Jensen has made some bold choices with his writing, opting to retain swathes of Ian Fleming's electrically evocative prose to illustrate Calero's panels. Ordinarily this might come across as an excess of exposition, but Fleming wrote with such brutal panache that it's a joy to read those words alongside the accompanying images. To evolve the text, though, Jensen has also added what he describes as "Bond View" (personally I'd have gone for "Bond Vision", but what do I know): labels describing Bond's calculated assessments of situations before him. Initially it makes 007 look a bit like the Terminator, but then you realise that that's quite deliberate - he's cold and methodical, and that's the exact mechanical way in which the character sees the world. When he fails to stop and analyse is usually when it all goes tits up for him, which it does in Fleming far more often than on film.
Fidelity to the source leads to the kind of things we haven't seen in Dynamite's Bond work so far, but it's what makes the whole project exciting. There's no pressure to restructure the story, which plays out nothing like a typical action adventure, and no crowbarring in of explosive action sequences just because it's Bond. The baccarat game at the novel's heart remains in place (no dumbing down to Texas hold 'em here), as does Bond's lengthy mansplaining of its rules to Vesper Lynd. Jensen and Calero depict the game with the appropriate rollercoaster tension, arguably improving on Fleming's narration - which, naturally, is included almost verbatim.

We also get Bond's lengthy meditation on the nature of evil in full, selling his decision to resign much more convincingly than the 2006 film did, and making his subsequent rage-fuelled reversal of that choice (at which point Calero allows himself to portray Bond in the famous gunbarrel pose, and it's a lovely nod) so much more tragic. But unswerving devotion to Fleming means we do have to put up with the author's deplorable sexism (and presumably, in forthcoming instalments, racism). It's to Jensen's credit that he's excluded the most reprehensible misogynistic bile that Fleming spewed into Casino Royale, but hasn't shied away entirely from the attitudes with which the creator imbued his creation. It's still unpleasant to read, but it would have felt dishonest to censor it completely. Jensen himself has publicly expressed his distaste for these elements, saying they're included in order to be discussed, and I tend to agree with his judgement.

Perhaps the boldest augmentation of the novel comes in a double-page spread in which Bond, having survived the infamous knacker-whacking torture dished out by Le Chiffre and his carpet beater (Mads Mikkelsen's knotted rope going the same way as poker), internally expresses the fear that his junk might never return to its former glory. Jensen and Colero illustrate this with a technical diagram of the constituent parts of a gun; literally, a dismantled weapon. The metaphor is both ingenious and, in terms of Bond's self-image, hugely troubling.

Dennis Calero's Bond is a little inconsistently depicted throughout, although for the most part he has more than a little of the Michael Fassbender about him. As Fleming described, his looks are cold and cruel; the scar on the right cheek is mysteriously (and, in all honesty, disappointingly) absent, but the comma of hair on the forehead and ruthless blue-grey eyes are present and correct. Meanwhile Le Chiffre is an unholy hybrid of Aleister Crowley (on whom Fleming based the character) and Orson Welles, who played Le Chiffre in the 1967 film version of which we do not speak. An imposing, meaty figure with snooker ball eyes that give the impression of never having blinked, it's a pity we don't see more of him.
Calero renders Fleming's world in appropriate muted tones with shadows and silhouettes everywhere: the sense of Bond skulking around in dimly-lit casinos is a world away from the movies' idea of him strutting smugly past sparkling roulette tables. And those single-page splashes, naturally reserved for the story's most dramatic moments, are stunningly rendered by Calero and colourist Chris O'Halloran. The first contact betwixt carpet beater and Bondian undercarriage, for example, is unforgettably executed.

So yes, it's an insanely enthusiastic double thumbs up for Casino Royale: an absolute treat for Fleming fans, an education for those only familiar with the cinematic 007 who can't be arsed to read a whole book (if that's you, you're an idiot), and a tantalising appetite-whetter for what may lie in store. I can't deny the excitement I felt when, after tweeting Van Jensen to congratulate him on this book, this was his immediate response:

So it looks like yet again, James Bond will return. Now there's a novel idea.