Thursday 22 October 2015


James Bond is back, in case you hadn't noticed, and this time his mission is even more impossible than ever: to top Skyfall. Off the back of the most successful, cannily post-modern and downright surprising Bond film ever, Sam Mendes and his crack team of operatives needed to pull something unbelievably amazing out of the Bondbag with Spectre. So does it top Skyfall? Well, no, not quite. Does it top Casino Royale? Er, no. Wait... does it top Quantum Of Solace?

No. It does not.

In actual fact, Mendes didn't need to make a film bigger and better than its predecessor at all; just one that lived up to it, justified our faith in him and rewarded fans with another glorious slice of world-class Bondery. Spectre does none of those things. Where Skyfall was a daringly-structured rolling boulder of excitement, full of knowing winks and arch commentary on the place of the series in modern cinema, Spectre is a paper chase from A to B to C, deviating only to take in M and Q. It's all surface, like most of the pre-Daniel Craig era; given that we've had three films reinventing the character for modern audiences, the temptation to take him back to his 1970s incarnation - as if that's some kind of benchmark - is both understandable and utterly ill-advised. Parts of it work, sure, but so much of it just feels... ordinary. And if there's one thing Bond must never, ever be, it's ordinary.
Chess, for example. Ordinary. Why not 3D hologrammatic space chess?

Things start well - extremely well - with the return of the gunbarrel to its rightful place at the front of the film, Craig finally getting the walk, turn and shoot right on the third time of asking. What follows is a blinding single shot, maybe five minutes in length, following Bond through the Day Of The Dead parade in Mexico City on his way to take down a bad guy for reasons as yet unclear. It's a virtuoso sequence that takes your breath away and promises so much for the two and a bit hours to come. It's no exaggeration, though, to say that things never get this good again. After a great gag involving a sofa and some typically impressive helicopter stunt work (marred slightly by some unconvincing green screen), Sam Smith's pitiful theme song whines in and brings everything back down to earth. Rumour has it Radiohead were strong contenders to perform the song, and in fact they already had the perfect theme for the film: No Surprises.

If you've followed any of the film's build-up, even just the officially-sanctioned synopsis, trailers and so on, you'll know exactly what happens in Spectre. And what they haven't told you, you can probably guess. Bond was sent to find his Mexico target by a "message from his past", which turns out to be a nice touch but makes zero sense when you think about it. Acting against orders (for a change), he jets off to Rome, where the much-trumpeted "Bond woman" Monica Bellucci is wasted in a staggeringly Moore-esque scene that won't do anything to help the argument that Bond girls women females are treated better by writers these days. He also meets Dave Bautista's Mr Hinx, a henchman whose classically bizarre (but frankly silly) USP is introduced in shocking style, and then NEVER REFERRED TO AGAIN. Imagine if Jaws had come on at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me, smiled to show his metallic teeth, then never actually used them. That's what we're dealing with here.
That's right, he can bend flexible rubber tubing WITH HIS BARE HANDS

A semi-spectacular car chase is hobbled by the film's decision to dollop jokes throughout, which grate more often than not; Daniel Craig has a wicked sense of humour, and showed it in Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace, but he can't do the cheesy stuff that Moore and Brosnan effortlessly pulled off. It just looks out of place. And it's carried through the film in the decision to have Bond treat everything with levity - again, we're going back to the "golden age" of 007 here, but it removes all the threat and menace we've come to appreciate from the Craig era. Sometimes the humour lands - the word "stay" is put to excellent use - but only when it's not trying too hard.

Before long we're in Austria, where previous über-villain Mr White is hunkered down in his cellar, tossing himself off to rolling news channels. This is where we expect to find out the connection between Quantum and the mysterious new organisation, but it's inadequately explained. You'll know from the trailers that Spectre, and its boss man Franz Oberhauser, are responsible for all Bond's pain, but my god does that involve some clumsy ret-conning. "It's always been me", says Oberhauser in his later, inevitable monologue, but frankly we've only got his word for it. The facts don't really add up and nobody can be bothered to show their working out.

It's nice to see Q pop up in Austria, although how he got there is a mystery: remember in Skyfall when Moneypenny said he was afraid of flying? No, neither do the writers. Still, it's fun to see Ben Whishaw - along with MI6 engine roomers Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Naomie Harris - get involved in a bit of the action; Fiennes, especially, teases out his M's military background in some of the film's classier dialogue. It's just a shame he has to keep arguing with Andrew Scott's government wonk about how vital the Double-0 section is, given that he spent most of Skyfall disagreeing with Judi Dench's M, who said exactly the same things he says here but with added Tennyson.
"I know a little Roger McGough, will that do?"

If it's Act III, it must be Tangier, and a decent stretch of good stuff plays out in a hotel room between Bond and Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, which is then undone by a conversation on a train which draws inevitable and unfavourable comparisons with Casino Royale's superior Bond / Vesper train-based chinwag. Possibly the film's best action sequence follows, and it owes a huge debt to From Russia With Love, but even that is immediately dampened by an unnecessary coda.

And then, after about a hundred minutes, Christoph Waltz finally shows his face. Was it worth the wait? You guessed it. Waltz is wasted here, trying desperately to add some idiosyncracies to his two-dimensional villain but never being allowed to explore the character like we know he can. His scheme is depressingly low-key, and his personal beef with Bond means nothing and goes nowhere. He will, however, make you even more terrified of going to the dentist. Fortunately the final act picks up considerably, and contains a neat in-joke for hardcore Bond fans (hello, I understood that reference), but by then it's too late to save the film. Nothing we've seen has been especially new, exciting or unexpected, and in a post-Skyfall world that seems like a huge missed opportunity.
I know, man. I know. Let it out.

If you've made it this far, then I'm sorry for your loss, but let me just add one more personal thing: special mention must go to Spectre's chief villain, Thomas Newman, for whom a sauna in hell is reserved for his score. I found his work in Skyfall brilliantly up to date and innovative, different enough from David Arnold's preceding work but recognisably Bondian even without much of the James Bond Theme. It appears Newman felt the same way, because around half of Spectre's score consists of cues lifted directly from Skyfall. Almost every set-piece is scored by music I instantly recognised, and it repeatedly pulled me out of the film, making me more and more furious. That's unforgivable enough, but he also chooses to ignore the Bond Theme again, when it would have lifted so much of Spectre's action. God only knows what John Barry - who knocked out eleven distinct but connected Bond scores, all brilliant, and one of them in just three weeks - would make of it.

We're not dealing with Die Another Day levels of dreadful here, and there's plenty in Spectre to please casual Bond fans and unfussy cinemagoers. But I'm writing this review as someone who cares so much about these films it's embarrassing. I don't expect perfection and I can forgive a lot in Bond; I mean, I actually really like Quantum Of Solace. But Bond is at its best when it ignores what's going on around it and reaches further and pushes harder to be its own thing, to surprise and excite, and to tell audiences what they want to see rather than react to what it thinks they want to see. Spectre doesn't do that, but, you know, maybe Bond 25 will. James Bond will always return.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Book Corner: Back To The Future -
The Ultimate Visual History

As we are all no doubt painfully aware, Back To The Future is the joint-best film ever made of all time ever, and so when the sexual tyrannosaurs at Titan Books offered me a copy of their new book Back To The Future: The Ultimate Visual History to review, I bit their hand off at the shoulder. Having once, long ago, owned and read to within an inch of its papery life Michael Klastorin and Sally Hibbin's Back To The Future: The Official Book Of The Complete Movie Trilogy but flogged it on eBay in a moment of foolish desperation, I welcomed this new volume with open cheeks. It gives me unbridled joy to say that it is everything I could have hoped for and more, and when I say "and more" I mean "with added Eric Stoltz".

Put in its simplest, most pullquote-friendly terms, you cannot not be a person who doesn't not own this book. Co-written by Klastorin from his extensive and enviably deep connection with the trilogy, it's an exhaustive detailing of the genesis, production and legacy of Marty McFly's adventures dicking about in the space-time continuum. But more - so much more - than that, it is, as you might expect from a "visual history", full of lovely, lovely pictures. So when you get bored of the words, which you won't, the pictures will be there for you. Pictures like the reference photo of Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd that Drew Struzan took before turning it into a work of airbrushed genius for the BTTF Part II poster; pictures of concept art for Hill Valley across three time periods (plus a Biffhorrific version); pictures of Eric Stoltz as Marty - about FIFTEEN PAGES of them: every page reveals a new eye-arousing wonder.

What's more, many of the pictures are replica props: "a wealth of special removable items", as the book's press release describes them. Sure enough, you too can wave a 'SAVE THE CLOCK TOWER' flyer in your spouse's face, boggle at the amazing lenticular photo of the McFly family (complete with disappearing Dave and Linda) for hours on end, or frame the sepia snap of Marty and Doc either side of the Hill Valley clock in 1885 and proudly display it on your bedside table, as I may or may not have.

Of course, pictures are all well and good, but one thing many books have in the past included in order to deepen their potential is a shitload of words. And Back To The Future: The Ultimate Visual History has precisely one shitload of words. I'm not going to pretend I've read them all (some of them are quite long, plus the book only arrived the other day and it comes out on Friday, JESUS give me a break), but I can tell you that those I have read are the pictures' equal in terms of fun things to look at. Christopher Lloyd's preface, for example, asks you to imagine a world in which you were reading Jeff Goldblum's or John Lithgow's preface to the same book. This set my mind wandering for about half an hour, and upon its return I was uncertain that neither option would be a bad thing at all.

Alternate timelines aside, this book approaches its subject in a pleasingly linear fashion, describing the making of each film in order of production. So after all the idea-having and draft-writing and title-wrangling (MCA president Sid Sheinberg's hilarious memo pushing for Space Man From Pluto gets a full page to itself) is dealt with, the Stoltz era is given meaty coverage before the "real" Marty McFly arrives, complete with Fox's own battered (and discontinued) sneakers, 25 pairs of which had to be made specially by Nike because costume designer Deborah L Scott forgot Marty's "proper" shoes and preferred those the actor turned up in on day one.

Further memories, anecdotes and revelations from pretty much everyone involved in the trilogy's successive five years follow, and the briefest flick-through while standing in Waterstones will provide as convincing an ad for the book as I can give here (I just opened it at random looking for an example and accidentally spent ten minutes reading about the painstaking attempts to recreate scenes from the first film for the second). An appropriately tiddly section is given over to the Universal Studios ride and the animated series, and as you discover the final treat - a fold-out poster for Jaws 19 - you'll immediately want to stick the films on for the bazillionth time and re-indulge in their wondrousness once more. Or, like me, you can just keep playing with that lenticular photo. It really is quite clever.
Yeah, 'bye Dave

Wednesday 7 October 2015


I've got my eye on Denis Villeneuve. Prisoners may have been overcooked nonsense but it was, at least, enjoyable and stunningly-shot overcooked nonsense, and Enemy is a lip-smackingly atmospheric oddity that proved Villeneuve's versatility (at least to me: I haven't seen his Oscar-nommed Incendies, or indeed anything else he made before that, which means you have every right to ignore my stupid uneducated opinion.) But with a Harrison Ford / Ryan Gosling-starring Blade Runner sequel in the post, Villeneuve is officially One To Watch, and Sicario - on the face of it - should be his chance to prove himself a master of the exciting and intelligent cinematic experience.

By and large, he succeeds: Sicario is immensely watchable, without a bum note among its lead performances and a couple of genuinely thrilling set-pieces. It's also, like Prisoners, shot beautifully by that film's DP and certified god amongst men Roger Deakins, and Villeneuve knows exactly where to stick his camera to achieve optimum audience involvement in any given scene. When all's said and done though, anyone who's seen Zero Dark Thirty - and many who haven't - are likely to feel like some pretty familiar ground is being trodden here.

Emily Blunt takes our hand and gives us an idealistic but steely FBI agent's look at the murky world of government-sanctioned black ops, specifically one that involves taking down a Mexican drug cartel via some morally and ethically barren methods. As always, she's brilliant, and her character successfully avoids any accusations of tokenism as the only woman in a testosterone-soaked world of drug dealers and hairy, bantz-loving SWAT teams. She tags along at the request of Josh Brolin's Dudish (as in Lebowski) special agent, and is uncomfortable with the inclusion in the team of Colombian "adviser" Alejandro, played by Benicio del Toro as a hollowed-out former human being whose troubled and mysterious past is carved into every line on his face, of which there are many. Lines, that is, not faces. Although you could argue there are more than one of those too.
Villeneuve knows exactly which buttons to press to drag you into his world, and one of those buttons is very clearly labelled "DEAKINS". The cinematography here is alternately spectacular and prosaic, often when you least expect it, and a late scene utilising thermal imaging and night vision is enormous fun even though Villeneuve hasn't fully explained exactly what's meant to be going on. His other big button is marked "JÓHANSSON", and Sicario's score composer employs pulsing beats and atonal honking to unnerving effect.

Aside from one clunkily-executed plot device involving a colourful wristband, Villeneuve does a great job of balancing intelligent political intrigue with Friday night thrills, and as such Sicario is a massively entertaining watch. However, the naive young officer surprised by the complexity and darkness of international sub-radar operations is a well-worn story, and the similarities to Kathryn Bigelow's 2013 bin Laden-buster are almost excruciatingly clear in several scenes. Sicario is arguably a more satisfying night out, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better film. Like the characters of both movies, history will eventually judge who got it right.

Monday 5 October 2015

Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to the intriguing Blue Ruin continues his series of Films With Misleadingly Soothing Colours In The Title in typically unsoothing style. Taking that film's blackly comic revenge-led theme to its next logical step, Green Room borders on horror with its wince-inducing violence and genuinely unpredictable death toll.

Patrick Stewart becomes Saulnier's first big name, kindly bestowing a small portion of his big bag of gravitas upon the role of Darcy, a horrible racist shitbag who runs a thrash metal bar for boots 'n' braces types in the backwards backwoods of middle America. Into this venue step naive punks The Ain't Rights, a fledgling band of teens who obviously haven't seen enough horror movies to know when not to enter a cabin in the woods full of white supremacist mentalists. Needless to say, something unpleasant happens, which causes a lot more unpleasant things to happen, and very few people live happily ever after.

Saulnier is slowly ploughing a furrow of mildly amusing thrillers full of unspeakable acts, and Green Room, like Blue Ruin, rarely lets up in its shark-like race to the end credits with as much carnage inflicted as possible. But it's let down by a handful of improbably convenient plot developments and a dearth of likeable characters, and as the film reaches its obvious conclusion it runs out of steam and tosses off a climax that needed more satisfying emotional heft. Stewart never gets the chance to be as bastardly as he should, and the imperilled protagonists are too under-developed to care about which of them might be next for the chop.

There's a great genre film in Jeremy Saulnier somewhere, and it's worth sticking with him to watch as he works it out. But until he does, Green Room is destined to be little more than a lesser version of the masterpiece to come.