SPECTRE

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

The classic...


with the perhaps inevitable follow-up:



Thank you, Robot Chicken!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ranking the Bond Films

And so here we are.

I've ranked the Bond films many a time before, but this is the first time I've done it so systematically. Watching all the films in order, in close succession, gave me a new perspective on some of the films, put some things into focus for me that had only been nebulously hanging about in the back of my head, showed me some relationships between the films that I hadn't caught onto before.

First let me note that Quantum of Solace is still too fresh for me to slot into this list comfortably. Give it some time to percolate in the back of my head for awhile, and then we'll see what pops out.

Secondly, fans of any particular movie, please don't get too upset at me. I know every Bond is someone's favorite...but in a forced ranking, some movies have to be in the bottom, right? Don't take it personally, and realize that I would still take, say, the #17 Bond movie over almost any other film 9 days out of 10.

Third, there's no magic formula. You can't go "Well, this movie had the #1 teaser but the #8 Bond girl and the #2 villain, so that averages out to X." There's lots of things involved, lots of synergies, and they all clump together in odd ways in my critical mind. A complicated way of saying, a Bond movie is not the sum of its parts...sometimes it's more, sometimes less.

And it's not static...there's been fairly substantial movement on this list since the last time I did it, and I'm sure there will be more when I do it again before The Hildebrandt Rarity.

And if nothing else, give me credit--over the months, I've put a lot more into this than the average 3-sentence blurb used when a hack outfit like EW does it. For deeper explanations, check out my actual reviews.

22) Moonraker. It's not just the wannabe Star Wars trappings, although those are fairly egregious. But this is the one Bond movie where I can't escape the feeling that everybody involved is just coasting. Let's repeat the henchman for the previous film, repeat the villain's plot, ruin most of the stunts by playing them for humor, allow everyone involved to give the most low-affect performances allowed under SAG rules, and conclude by having Bond playing a video game. Bleh on almost every level.

21) A View To A Kill. It's pretty dire, I'll admit. But I put it above MR because at least those involved are making an effort, albeit unsuccessfully. Devoid of most of the trappings we expect from a Moore era Bond, and replaced with pedestrianism: a gun filled with rock salt? A boring chase through San Francisco--and Bond's not even driving? A 20-minute rescue of Stacy from the fire and climb down a ladder sequence? A weak effort. At least Christopher Wlaken injects a bit of life.

20) Never Say Never Again. What if you had a Bond movie made by a bunch of people who had no idea of what it was they were trying to do? You'd get this--a film torn between being serious and tongue-in-cheek, without the courage to pick a side; a film with everyone playing at a different level, as if they were in different types of movies; a movie that tries to simultaneously be far, far over-the-top and yet the talkiest, least action filled Bond move ever. PRO-TIP: If you're doing a remake, it's not a good idea to have it be less good than the original in every way possible. Still, it was good to see Sean again.

19) You Only Live Twice. Sean Connery's Moonraker. OK, that's too glib...but not exactly incorrect. Lovely sets, lots of beautiful location filming...but an underbaked script that manages to give 007 virtually nothing to say or do. Throw in a terribly underwhelming reveal of Blofeld, the lack of a real confrontation with the villain, the lugubriously filmed space scenes...some good ideas, but it never comes together, or even become actually interesting. The first film to diverge significantly from Fleming, but they didn't quite no how to do that yet...

18) Live And Let Die. A film that really hasn't aged well at all. Some decent stunts, but Guy Hamilton makes the many chase scenes both long AND boring. And of course, there's the elephant in the room. Somebody should have pointed out to Eon that if you want to do a blaxploitation film, those movies had black heroes, not just black villains. Special bonus: Mr. Big, with the WORST make-up job in cinema history.

17) The Man With The Golden Gun. OK, it's gotta seem like I really have it in for the Roger Moore era at this point...sorry, nothing personal, Sir Roger. A marked improvement on LALD, but things still don't quite click. The first half is actually pretty good, I think. But when the plot turns out to be just a trick to get 007 involved, and that Scaramanga was never interested in Bond, it takes away a lot of the tension in the movie. The "solex agitator" MacGuffin feels so tacked on, even the villain can't pretend to actually care about it, or understand it. And whichever fool put that slide whistle over the Hornet jump...well, there's no punishment too severe.

16) Die Another Day. Another movie I thought got off to a pretty good start, but once Bond "comes back in," it loses most of the momentum, and turns from a kinda gritty "Bond goes rogue" story into "James Bond becomes a high-tech superhero" flick. The extensive (and bad) CGI, the not-performed-by-actual-human stunts, the supersuit the villain wears at the end...these all drag the movie way too far away from what most of think a James Bond film should be. Lots of spoiled potential. I'm also the only human being on the planet who really likes the theme song.

15) Diamonds Are Forever. Lots of people like this more than I do, and what can I say? Far too jokey for my tastes, and incredibly lazy and slapdash in its story construction and filming. I like the movie, I really do, but it so self-destructs into illogic and incoherence in the last act that I got whiplash from the cognitive dissonance. Seriously, the worst last act in James Bond history.

14) The World Is Not Enough. Man, this is always one of the toughest ones for me to place. But Apted just cannot direct action, so the last half disintegrates into a series of over-long and uninteresting fight scenes on fairly crappy sets. Elektra is a great villain, but Renard is mostly wasted potential. And if you look up "nails on a blackboard' in the dictionary, you get a picture of Denise Richards. A potentially interesting story made overly complex and poorly told. I'm always going back and forth on this one, and even now there's a voice in my head nagging me to move it higher on the list...

13) Octopussy. PRO-TIP: the title character in a Bond film shouldn't completely boring and forgettable. There's a lot of fun stuff here, and Tarzan yells and "SIT!" aside, Roger Moore still has the charm to pull it off. But the movie focuses on the wrong villain, as Bond spends all his time hunting down the henchman, and barely meets Orlov. Also, it seems fatally overlong, as the final hunting down of Kamal Khan takes place after the film's emotional climax, and it takes forever. Frothy fun that never quite gels into something more.

12) Dr. No. The beginning. It does quite a fine job of setting the table for the franchise, telling us about Bond and his world. Everything that came later was to spin off of what was established here. Still, there's some overly long stretches of just wandering around without actually advancing the plot. We don't actually meet No until the end of the film, which drains some of the dramatic conflict for us. Apparently, some people think Ursula Andress had an interesting bathing suit...

11) The Living Daylights. Weak villains and a weak plot are overcome by a spirited debut by Timothy Dalton; some of the best stuntwork in the series' history; some great supporting cast; and a dynamite teaser. But most importantly, TLD features the series' sweetest romance--seriously!! Maryam d'Abo is terrific as the innocent woman who helps humanize a fatigued and bitter Bond.

10) Tomorrow Never Dies. A pretty good outing for Brosnan. There are those who say that the all-out machine gun action at the end goes too far away from what Bond should be...and they might have a point. There are also those who don't like Jonathon Pryce as Elliot Carver...and they're just goofy, because I think he's great. Well made, tense fun...you'll have to decide for yourselves if it goes too Die Hard at the finale.

9) Thunderball. Sean Connery at the height of his swagger, and 007 at the apex of Bondmania. The first nuclear blackmail plot, which (probably unfortunately) raised the stakes for what the plot had to be in many of the following films. The best collection of beautiful women in any of the films. Largo and Vargas, though, are surprisingly ineffectual...and everything seems to come just a little bit too easily for Bond. Plus the ending seems a trifle flat. Big extra credit points for the brilliant Junkanoo sequence.

8) The Spy Who Loved Me. The era and the circumstances made this one the most overrated Bond film of all time...but it's still good. But when we get this high on the list, small distinctions can make a big difference, and TSWLM has several glaring weaknesses: a turgidly paced second half; a huge battle scene that is just as gung ho, for its day, as the finale of TND; a boring cardboard cut out of a villain; and a terrible, terrible performance in the crucial role of Anya. I will say this--if the second half had been anywhere near as good as the first hour (which was damned near perfect), TSWLM had a shot at taking top honors.

7) Goldfinger.

OK, I'm going to get some comments on this one, aren't I?

Every argument about how iconic every element of Goldfinger is, how it forms the blueprints for all Bonds, it's got the freakin' car...I'll give you those arguments. It created the Bond "phenomenon," cemented the series as a cultural fixture--no argument. I myself said it had the best theme song and best teaser and the #2 villain!!

But Goldfinger is less than the sum of its parts. If you look at how it plays as a movie, as a Bond film, well, I feel its clearly lesser than the films above it on the list. Much of GF feels "on the cheap," with Gert Frobe and Sean Connery not even actually appearing in Miami, terribly unappealing stock footage of Kentucky commercial zones, and lots of obvious studio lots covered up by great sets. The vaunted Aston Martin doesn't actually help Bond at all (except to pick up Tilly)...he can't escape the GF compound or his goons in it, and crashes into a wall because he can't tell a reflection of his own headlight from a real car. And 007 is highly incompetent throughout, failing at every aspect of his mission and getting everyone killed until his unconvincing turning of Pussy.

Watching Golfinger again--really watching it--I see it as establishing the franchise's panache, but it plays more as Bond's Greatest Hits than a fully successful Bond movie. Sorry.

6) For Your Eyes Only. Also known as "we apologize for Moonraker." Bond goes gadgetless with a plot that, rather than threatening the end of the world, gives us a look at a life and death struggle over a rather small piece of technology. The action never stops, from the mountains to deep beneath the sea. The momentum is fast paced, a crackerjack supporting cast, and a Roger Moore you can really believe has a licence to kill. I love this movie to pieces, and would have ranked it higher if only the villain had a little more "oomph" (no fault of Julian Glover's).

5) Licence To Kill. This will be another controversial ranking, I'd imagine. I know a lot of folks out there disagree about this one, and a fair number of people have LTK ranked at or near the bottom. I strongly disagree, for many of the reasons you can see in my review. Robert Davi makes Franz Sanchez one of the most compelling villains, and his fall is breathtaking to watch. After two and a half decades, it was good to finally see 007 stripped of his support, and see how Bond the man would perform. of all the "non-Fleming" Bond movies, this one plays almost exactly as you would imagine Fleming had written it, and that counts for a lot in my book.

4) Casino Royale (2006). After the DVD initially came out, I had pretty much put this film away for a couple of years. Coming back to it for this blog, I was stunned by how good it actually was, holding up in almost every way. A wondrous debut for Daniel Craig, CR is the movie none of us expected to see--a pitch perfect telling of Bond's first days of a Double-O, as well as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the first Fleming novel. It does have a couple of structural difficulties that come from following the novel so closely, but otherwise, damn, this is a good movie. Don't be surprised if, in future rankings, I move this fella up...

3) Goldeneye. I don't remember being this impressed by Goldeneye when I saw it in theaters, but there you go: the bugger has wormed its way into the Top 5. Why has it aged so well? In part because it can now be viewed as a reverse order thematic bookend with Martin Campbell's other effort, Casino Royale--the latter shows how Bond became Bond, and Goldeneye shows Bond confront what that life means, and has done to him. And it accomplishes that by giving Bond a great villain, his evil doppelganger--the rogue 006, who's going to show James what he could have become. Great cast, thrilling stunts and fights, a wonderful Bond Girl, and Brosnan immediately nailing Bond.

2) From Russia With Love. Two words: Kerim Bey. Two more words: Rosa Klebb. Two more words: Orient Express. Two more words: Red Grant.

OK, enough...but what they tentatively touched on in Dr. No, they fully find the rhythm here. We reveal S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (while only glimpsing Blofeld), we get a vast army of evil opposing 007, we fall in love with Istanbul, we get the gypsy camp and Bond settling a dispute, we have the briefcase. We have Pedro Armendariz as one of the greatest supporting characters ever. We get the train compartment fight, still to this day one of the most intense, believable fights ever portrayed on screen. We have our villains deftly maneuvering various factions against each other in a fiendish plot only Kronsteen could come up with. Bond in a straight spy story, done with wit and seriousness. Nearly perfect, and it so very nearly edged out...

1) On Her Majesty's Secret Service. How good is OHMSS? I have it number 1 even with George Lazenby shambling about. That's how good it is. The most faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel, the one that still gets to us that our eyes still get misty at the end, almost 40 years later.

Granted, it's not perfect, and this time I came perilously close to putting FRWL ahead of it. But Peter Hunt's bravura direction, especially during THE CHASE, and the performances by all of the supporting players elevate this affair so high, I find the critiques to be mere quibbles. Bravo, sirs. Bravo.

And then there's Diana Rigg...sigh...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bond Vs. Bourne

With Quantum of Solace, it's become all the vogue to compare the Bond franchise to the Bourne franchise. Hell, QoS practically demanded that comparison, by bringing in the second unit director from the last 2 Bourne films, and staging many of their action scene in a way that was...ahem...heavily influenced by the style Paul Greengrass brought to those films.

Well, I certainly feel that QoS veered too far in the Bourne direction. But I feel that way because, in most ways, the Bond approach is better than the Bourne approach. I know that goes against a lot of the critical consensus (although I should note that the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way recently).

Don't get me wrong--I love the Bourne movies, I've seen them all multiple times, I own them all on DVD. So when I make this comparison, please understand that I'm NOT ripping on these movies.

But if you give me a choice between watching a Bond movie and a Bourne, 85% of the time I'm choosing a Bond. Here's a few reasons why:

A) The Bourne movies all have the exact same plot. Now, I've never read the books, so I don't know how closely the movies have followed Ludlum. But all three of the films follow the same damn outline:
"While Bourne tries to discover his identity, a high level CIA muckity muck decides he's inconvenient and tries to kill Bourne to cover up his own malfeasance. Bourne gets away and the bad CIA guy is stopped by a good CIA guy. Throw in a confrontation with another Treadstone agent."
That's it. We change the scenery, have a chase in a different make of car, but it's all basically the same stuff: Bourne running around avoiding being caught/killed while riveting CIA office politics really resolve the crisis. It's not a bad outline, but they've already re-used it twice.

Bond movies, on the other hand, have far more variety...yeah, you can come up with plenty of similarities (after all, there have been 22 movies). But Dr. No is nothing like From Russia With Love is nothing like Goldfinger etc. Even at the height of the rigid "Bond formula," at least the movies had different plots, different threats.

B) The Bourne movies are grim, humorless affairs. Especially after they killed off Marie in the first few minutes of B2. People complain how grim Licence to Kill was, or how humorless QoS was. But those movies look like Seinfeld next to the Bournes. There are more wry jokes in ten minutes of QoS than the whole of B2 and B3.

Sure, the Bond movies have often been too jokey, too humor oriented in the past. But the film makers realized that you need some humor to leaven the tension. You get none of that in B2 and B3...you might chuckle to yourself at how Bourne outsmarted someone (said chuckle cued by the "Bourne fooled someone music sting," because they feel the audience is too dumb to realize when he's done something clever, apparently). But there's no laughter, no levity...which makes the grimness of the Bournes hard to bear for two hours.

C) Bourne needs a companion. Killing Marie was a big mistake...or at least not not replacing her with another buddy.

There's a reason there's always a Bond girl, always a Doctor Who companion. We need to make our hero accessible, to give the audience an identification figure; hell, we just need to give our hero someone to talk to!! For far too much of B2 & B3, our hero is silent, broodier than Frodo but with nobody to vent to--is there any lead character who has less dialogue than Jason Bourne?!? It's hard to give us any character development when he has no one to interact with. An occasional terse phone chat with Pam Landy isn't enough.

He doesn't need to have a "Bourne Girl" every movie, but he does need someone, anyone, to interact with on a regular basis. Matt Damon is a fine actor, but there's a reason Daniel Craig's Bond has blown him away--Bond doesn't lapse into isolation, becoming a cool but remote automaton. That's why B1 was, to me, distinctly better than B2 or B3--Jason's relationship with Marie helped humanize the character, and gave Damon someone to play off of.

D) How about some villains? Yes, this is really just a subset of A) above, but it bears repeating. OK, so every single person of authority at the CIA is a corrupt bastard (except, of course, for Pam Landy)--we get it. The U.S. intelligence service suck. Can we move on now?

Bond's gone rogue more than once, but always in pursuit of an actual enemy, not to try to bring down M. And those instances don't happen in consecutive movies, anyway.

Yes, I understand Bourne wants to be "realistic," so we're not going to get megalomaniacal billionaires. But there are plenty of "realistic" villains out there--terrorists and drug lords and threats to U.S. security. Yet aside from the African leader Jason refuses to kill in B1 (and they never show us why he's "bad"), there's not a single bad guy in the movies except American operatives.

Hey, I'll concede that the USA sucks, is arrogant, treats its operatives like shit, yadda yadda (at least for the sake of argument). But seriously, does that mean the only villains we can show are American government officials? That's just boring, and shows a profound lack of imagination.

Not to mention, Bourne never gets to actually meet the big bads, so there goes the tension, character building, and cathartic confrontation the Bond films give us.

But hey, we get lots and lots of CIA office politics--isn't that what we all watch a spy movie for?

So when everybody makes their "Bond is becoming more like Bourne" comparisons, they're only looking at superficial elements, like editing styles. But Bond is a better character, in movies that work better dramatically...and aren't as repetitive as hell. When it comes to the more important elements of film, so far Bourne takes a back seat to 007.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

QUANTUM Contest Results

Well, folks, in the first contest we've held around here, we have a winner. The object was, if you'll recall, to tell us what Quantum stood for (if anything). Our winner is frequent commenter David C. Allow me to reprint his entry:

It's a French acronym:

QUorum des Architectes des Nécessités Terribles pour l'Ultime Monde

Translated: Quorum of Architects of Terrible Necessities for the Ultimate World

They're the self-appointed shapers of the ultimate world. "The best of all possible worlds" will be created by this enlightened, cultured elite. They know how to save the world from itself. Sadly, of course, many adherents to the obsolete old world refuse to listen to their betters, so acts termed "atrocities," "terrorism," or "crimes against humanity" by the small-minded will be necessary.

One of the little bits about Ian Fleming's SPECTRE that I always liked is that it was a specifically European (i.e., Continental Europe) organization in its origin and culture. As is QUANTUM. Elitist, highly-"cultured" Europeans, like an evil subset of the Davos Forum attendees. And among other things, they can't abide uncultured thugs like James Bond.

For creativity, and the audacity to actually do it as a French acronym, I declare David the winner, and his prize is winging its way towards him even now.

Stay tuned for future contests around here, as we try to enliven the dark times between Bond movies...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ranking The Bond Villains

I hope you've all digested your turkey, because it's time to open a new can of worms.

What, exactly, makes a good Bond villain? It's hard define...and you look at the ranks of those who've played them, it's really tough to pin down why some work and some don't.

We run the gamut from greedy little gits with drug running scams to clandestine organizations conducting nuclear blackmail to delusional billionaires out to commit global genocide.

We have good actors, bad actor, and indifferent...but sometimes the best actors are waylaid by scripts and directors who don't utilize their talents well. And vice versa...sometimes you get actors you wouldn't expect pulling off classic Bond villains.

You have master manipulators who control their spider-webs of evil from afar, and hands on guys who don't mind going mano y mano with a British Secret Service agent.

People from each side of this divide end up making good Bond villains, and lesser villains as well. It's tough to discern the alchemy that makes some villains just sizzle and some sputter. One key, I think, is that there has to be some direct interaction and conflict with Bond--physical, philosophical, gambling--something that builds up the relationship between the characters, so we care when it comes down to the final confrontation. That's one key factor I believe you'll see reflected in my rankings.

Of course, all my choices are merely my personal preference, feel free to disagree, yadda yadda. One further note: Quantum of Solace is till too new for me to feel comfortable about slotting Dominic Greene in here yet. Suffice it to say that, at this juncture, I don't foresee him making the top half. So here we go:

22) Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), The Spy Who Loved Me. Really, he's just such a non-entity...Jurgens gives a somnolent performance, with the lowest energy level of any villain. His motives are never elaborated in the least. And he and 007 are rarely onscreen together, and when they are, there's absolutely no clash, no chemistry. Above all else, a Bond villain must never be boring!!

21) General Koskov & Brad Whitaker (Jeroen Krabbe & Joe Don Baker), The Living Daylights. Classic villain confusion--the villain Bond should have the most against, Koskov, is overplayed as a clown most of the time, and receives his comeuppance off stage, from someone besides 007. And Bond ends having the final confrontation with the weaker of the villains, someone he's never even met, which deprives us of any emotional investment in the outcome. Baker gets essentially zero screen time, and it kills the role.

20) Ernst Stavro Blofeld I (Donald Pleasence), You Only Live Twice. The revelation of Blofeld after all this time should have been an emotional climax at this point in the series. But YOLT keeps him hidden for over half the screen time; he has only one scene with Bond; they really have no confrontation at all. And despite the Dr. Evil make-up, Pleasence just doesn't come off as the awe/fear-inspiring leader we saw in FRWL and TB. And in this case, Blofeld is really just a hired hand for the Chinese!! Plus, is it just me, or does Pleasence look distractingly uncomfortable holding the cat?

19) Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), Moonraker. Lonsdale's performance is also somnolent, but he does manage to inject more dry wit into his performance than Jurgens, and the script gives him better lines, more time with Bond, and a vaguely better sense of how to portray a monomaniacal genocidal billionaire.

18) Kananga/Mr. Big, (Yaphet Kotto), Live And Let Die. It's not Yaphet's fault the script is that bad, or that his Mr. Big make-up is the most embarrassingly bad in the history of motion pictures. And the death scene is not brought up in polite company. At least you got the consolation of starring in Homicide for several years...

17) Ernst Stavro Blofeld III (Charles Gray), Diamonds Are Forever. Nothing against Gray's performance--I see no reason why the head of an evil organization can't be "effete," especially since he believes he's descended from aristocracy. But the confusion of so many body doubles certainly lessens his impact, and his plot is uninspiring. And the lack of a real final confrontation with 007, and his offscreen death (?) makes for an unsatisfying conclusion to The Blofeld Trilogy of movies.

16) Kamal Khan & General Orlov (Louis Jordan & Steven Berkoff), Octopussy. Another case of villain confusion, as the true mastermind, Orlov, dies far away from Bond and well ahead of the climax. Khan should be merely a henchman, as he has no real interest in Orlov's goals. But Jordan's deliciously slimy performance makes for a good competition with Bond. This would rank higher with a better script, or if it was just Khan.

15) Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), The Man With The Golden Gun. The movie portrays Scaramanga as basically an idiot savant, a doofus whose only really skill is as an assassin. He has no interest in hunting Bond, he doesn't understand his massive death device 1/20th as well as Bond, he doesn't really have an evil scheme, and despite his prowess he gets shot in the back because he's fooled by the ridiculous "Bond replacing the mannequin" gambit. Lee's performance is fine; I just question whether the "obsessed fanboy" is the right approach for a Bond villain.

14) Colonel Moon/Gustav Graves (Will Yun Lee/Toby Stephens), Die Another Day. Ah, if only it had been a better movie, as I think Stephens nails the haughty arrogance just right, and the sword fight is incredible. But the Moon=Graves conceit just never convinces; his plot is just too darn derivative (oh, excuse me, an "homage") of other Bond films; and the Iron Man suit at the end destroys whatever credibility he might have had.

13) Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), Thinderball. He's a classic--that eye patch is one of the constant features of parody Bond villains--but he really is a loser, isn't he? Unfortunately, he faces Bond at the height of the Connery Swagger, and Bond doesn't even break a sweat against him: 007 whoops him at baccarat, steals his woman, bests him at skeet shooting (without even looking!), escapes his death traps with ease...and he leaves the bombs laying around where Bond can track them down. If only he were half as competent as his "henchman" Fiona Volpe.

12) Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover), For Your Eyes Only. The problem with your down-to-earth, "realistic" Bond films, is that that same realism sometimes can work to the detriment of being a memorable villain. Kristatos is a nasty piece of work, and Glover gives him the deft touch of high society menace. But the script doesn't actually have him do very much (in fairness, that's a consequence of having to hide the fact that he's the villain for the first part of the film), and he's really much more of a nemesis for Melina and Columbo than Bond. Good, but not really memorable. I wanted to rate Kristatos higher, but there's no "there" there.

11) Ernst Stavro Bolfeld II (Telly Savalas), On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I think Telly comes closest to Fleming's conception of Blofeld, as a man who could be a physical menace as well as a criminal mastermind. Certainly the most personally threatening of the Blofelds, and probably the best performance.

10) Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), Never Say Never Again. The better of the Largos...Brandauer's performance is so eccentric, it makes him more believable as an insane madman...and his vaguely slimy Euro-sophisticate veneer plays much better than Celi's gruff evil big guy performance. It's pretty clear that this was the vibe Mathieu Amalric was going for in QoS, but nowhere near as successfully. Downside: Brandauer never seems to connect woth Connery's performance...it's almost as if they were in different movies.

9) Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), A View To A Kill. Crappy movie, but don't let that distract you from Walken's breeding-experiment-turned-insane-billionaire...an eccentric performance in a movie that desperately needed one, the only times the movie comes to life are when he's on the screen. Yeah, his plan is a Goldfinger ripoff, but in the Moore era, you can't be too picky about your villains...

8) Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), Dr. No. Set the template for all future Bond villains. The smooth, urbane, aristocratic and accented opponent to Bond's steadfast Britishness became the stuff of parody, but only because Wiseman sells it so completely, in full seriousness without camp. Unfortunately kept hidden for too much of the movie, and his demise feels rushed and anti-climactic.

7) Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), The World is Not Enough. Yeah, her plan doesn't make a lick of sense, but that's because she's mad 12 ways to Sunday. Her role suffers a bit from the "pretend she's not the villain for the 1st half of the movie" syndrome, but Marceau more than makes up for it with the fire of her performance, the embodiment of the spoiled-rich-girl turned spoiled-evil-madwoman. The first female Bond villain, Elektra attacks 007 in ways other villains couldn't...and almost succeeds.

6) LeChiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), Casino Royale 2006. The role suffers a mite because of the structure of the book. But Mikkelsen nails the role, perfectly embodying the arrogant mathematical genius who can't believe he can lose yet constantly does--sort of a 21st century Kronsteen. The torture scene with Bond is outstanding...pure menace.

5) Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), Tomorrow Never Dies. I know a lot of people don't like him as a villain, and I'm not sure I understand why. Was the egotistical media mogul obsessed with expanding his empire even if he has to make the news himself too realistic, too blase for some? I find him the perfect 1990's Bond villain. A hilariously droll performance.

4) Rosa Klebb & Kronsteen & Red Grant (Lotte Lenya & Vladek Sheybal & Robert Shaw), From Russia With Love. Who's the villain here, and who's the henchmen? It's not clear cut, as formulas were not set in stone yet in 1963. Grant's clearly a henchmen by today's standards, yet his presence dominates the movie. It's Kronsteen's plan...yet Bond never meets him, and never even hears his name (and given the circumstances, Bond probably never even learns of his involvement!). Klebb, while odd and evil, is hardly a real threat, as Bond beats her with a chair! And in a sense, they're all just henchmen for Blofeld...Let's just think of them as a Triumvirate of Evil, and a stunningly effective one.

3) Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), Licence To Kill. I'm probably idiosyncratic for having him this high, but so be it. One of the best-developed, most fleshed out Bond villains. Davi's portrayal of Sanchez' unshakable confidence in himself and his people sets him up nicely for Bond's Iago-like manipulations, giving the character an almost Shakespearean arc. You almost feel sorry for the guy, which is a tribute to the writing and performance.

2) Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), Goldfinger. Let me emphasize, there's no shame in finishing second on this list. For 3 decades plus, Auric Goldfinger set the standard for what a Bond villain should be. Colorful, confident, disdainful, proud, a compulsive cheat, a braggart, a brilliant schemer, a casual mass murderer. And a special shout out to the little recognized Michael Collins, who dubbed Frobe's lines, making the "No, Mr. Bond--I expect you to die!!" so memorable.

So why not #1? The slightest demerit for being dubbed, and the slightest demerit when we realize that despite his own stake in matters, Goldfinger is really just a henchman for the Chinese. It's not much, but in a battle this close, it knocks Auric just the tiniest amount behind...

1) Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), Goldeneye. It's so brilliant that you can't believe it took them 30 years to come up with it--an evil Double-O. Bond's equal but opposite, the man who can anticipate his every move AND match him in physical combat. The mirror-universe Bond, who shows us the directions James could have taken had his moral compass been as damaged. Bean sells him, both when we think he's the doomed sacrificial lamb and when we realize he's the vile mastermind. Throw in the vast amount of personal animus this creates with Bond, and, well, 006 is the best of the worst.

Don't forget to submit your entries in my "Quantify Quantum" contest...entries due by Wednesday 12/3...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Contest #1--Quantum??

Well, it's time to spice things up with a little contest, eh?

Greene may have answered all of Bond's questions about Quantum at the end of Quantum Of Solace, but the movie chose not to share those answers with us.

So instead of waiting two years, let's make our own answers, shall we?

At present, we don't even know how to properly spell Quantum, let alone what it is.

Is it Quantum, or QUANTUM, or Q.U.A.N.T.U.M., or something else?

Is it a word that has no more meaning then a name, a la THRUSH in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? (yes, I know some of the novels made it into an acronym, but it was never on screen during the series...for our purposes today, let's just agree that THRUSH wasn't an acronym, OK?)

Is it a contraction or conglomeration of two words, as SMERSH comes from the Russian phrase "SMERt' SHpionam" ('Death to Spies in English). (Yeah, there are alternate ways to transliterate that from Cyrillic...worry about that another time)

Is it an acronym, just as S.P.E.C.T.R.E stands for SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion?

Well, this is (more or less) an open democracy around here...so you, the readers, get to decide what--if anything--Quantum means.

So I'm giving away a prize--a brand spanking new copy of the QoS soundtrack to the best explanation. Send in what you think Quantum stands for (if anything), and whatever (BRIEF!!) explanation you think necessary.

You can post your entry in the comments section if you seek public acclaim (or ridicule!), but to be an official entry you must email it to me at snell27 AT excite.com. One entry per person, please. Deadline--Wednesday 12/3 by noon EST.

Fair warning: any decision I make will be purely arbitrary--maybe it will be the one I think actually works best, maybe I'll just pick the one that makes me laugh the most. Who can say? So don't take it too seriously, and let's have fun with this.

And who knows--maybe Broccoli and Wilson will be reading this (yeah, right) and decide to use your entry as the official explanation for "Quantum." How cool would it be to have your name up in the (very very very) end credits in Bond 23??

Not likely, but it's fun to dream. Now everyone go have a good Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Quantum Of Solace (SPOILERS)

#22A few weeks ago in my discussion of The World Is Not Enough, I compared the film to some of Shakespeare's "problem plays." Like those plays, TWINE was somewhat controversial with fans and critics: it didn't seem to fit conveniently into the categories that had been used to classify previous films, and tried to do a lot of interesting things but didn't actually following through on the promise of any of them.

Which brings us to Quantum Of Solace, a.k.a. Too Bourne, Or Not Too Bourne--That Is The Question.

Let me be clear--QoS is distinctly superior to TWINE in almost every way, and is a pretty good film. But it could have been--should have been--a much better film.

Like TWINE, QoS had a director who seems to lack confidence (and competence) for the action genre. Like TWINE, QoS tries to do a lot of new things, but is less than 100% successful. Like TWINE, the script in QoS lets the movie down somewhat, failing to build up the proper connective tissue between action scenes to make the audience properly care about them. Now, as I said above, in each of these criticisms, QoS is more successful the TWINE was. And QoS is still, I think, a pretty good movie. But upon reflection, I find myself more haunted by the flaws than impressed by the good things. That, my friends, is a problem play.

A few caveats before we go any further. First, despite having seen QoS several times (please don't ask how many), I still don't know it all as well as any of the other Bond films. And without a DVD to reference, I'll doubtless be uncertain more often, or even mistaken more often, than I was in my other reviews. Please forgive me, and allow me to revise (and post many more pictures) when the DVD breaks.

Secondly, as I suspect will is the case with all of us, my opinions are still in flux. How I regard certain scenes, or even the movie as a whole, seems to swing wildly at times, sometimes from hour to hour. Six months from now, two years from now, exposure and familiarity and debate may very well have morphed my opinion into something else. Again, please indulge me in this new (for me) experience of reviewing a brand-spanking new Bond film.

On to the film. But before we even get to the teaser, we must deal with the fact that QoS is a direct sequel to Casino Royale (2006), with producer Michael Wilson famously telling us that it took place "5 minutes after" its predecessor. With the possible exception of the teaser for Diamonds Are Forever, this is really the first Bond sequel we've had, the first case of one movie's plot spinning out of events in the earlier one. Some have even gone so far as to declare that QoS is really just the "final act" of CR06.

Quantum bastard, you killed my girl!To which I declare...poopy. Those facts should have zero influence on how we review QoS. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock was a direct, immediate sequel to Wrath of Khan...yet certainly no one should should suggest that I give STIII bonus points or grade it on some special curve just because it continues the story of STII. QoS is its own entity: it has its own director, its own 2nd unit director, its own cinematographer, its own production designer, its own editors...it has a very different look and style than CR06. Even director Marc Forster insists that QoS shouldn't be viewed as a sequel.

To suggest the QoS is just some appendage of Cr06 is frankly insulting to both films. To suggest that CR06 somehow needed a "last act" is, in my opinion, nuts. And since QoS traveled to 3 continents and 5 countries and featured different villains and allies and a new plot, it's pretty demeaning to the latter movie to suggest that it's merely a continuation, an afterthought. No, Quantum of Solace must stand on its own--the filmmakers deserve at least that much respect.

So, on to the teaser...and they throw it right in our faces early on: Too Bourne, or Not Too Bourne? This is the fundamental question that has Bond fans debating with considerable vigor.

But I think there's an even deeper question here, more fundamental. In another essay I'll discuss Bond vs. Bourne, and explain why, although I really like Bourne, that I find Bond preferable on most levels. But I don't think we can properly judge whether QoS is "too Bourne," or whether Bourne style is appropriate for James Bond, for one very important reason: what we're given here is very, very poorly done Bourne.

It was apparently required for all mainstream media reviewers to refer to Marc Forster as an "art-house director" in their reviews and articles. Lazy writing, but a fair label: the director of Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner, and Stranger Than Fiction had never helmed anything with even 1/50th the action of a Bond film. Hell, he admitted that he wasn't even a Bond fan. So Dan Bradley, who'd done 2nd unit for the last two Bourne movies, was brought on board. Was this "copying Bourne," or just trying to get the best person available to help an inexperienced action director, or both? I report, you decide...

One commenter to any earlier post noted that Bond directors rarely direct the action sequences, as those are left to the 2nd unit. Well, sure...but the director's name is on the film, he gets the Oscar nominations and all the credits. so he damned well had better be ready to take some of the blame. Furthermore, hopefully he's communicated his vision of what he wanted to the 2nd unit, and again hopefully he's been a participant in the editing process, and decides what gets used.

Hmm, now who is this James Bond character again??And Marc Forster lacked the vision, I think. If you're going to do the "Bourne-style," you HAVE to have a certain command of the grammar of an action film, the basic vocabulary to discipline the seemingly undisciplined rapid shots and edits into telling a coherent story. Whether or not you like the Bourne style, I don't think you can argue that director Paul Greengrass--using the same 2nd unit director--did a far superior job of storytelling in that mode. As disorienting as the camera may be in Bourne 2 and 3, you are rarely lose track of how many participants there are, over who is where and what's going on. Greengrass may give you micro-cutting and a shaky camera, but he also gives you establishing shots and beginnings and middles and endings of actions, gives you shots besides extreme close-ups, and manages to tell the stories of his action sequences.

But in QoS, Forster gives us a Bourne vocabulary, without the Bourne grammar. Forgive the patronizing analogy, but he's like a child who knows some words but doesn't know how to structure a sentence with them yet. We shouldn't have to keep guessing about how many cars are involved in the teaser chase. We shouldn't constantly be confused about where Bond is in relation to Mitchell during the rooftop chase, and you shouldn't have to guess what the hell Bond fired his gun at during that chase (it was Mitchell's head, in frame for about 1/100th of a second and never established with a pre or post firing shot). We shouldn't be puzzled about how many agents Bond is fighting in the elevator. We shouldn't be completely baffled when Mitchell turns rogue during the interrogation scene...it shouldn't take multiple viewings to be able to follow the action and realize that it was White who took a bullet and that was M running off to the staircase.

Prime example: the boat chase scene in Haiti. One boat is left pursuing Bond. He pulls back on the throttle so the evil boat jumps up on top of his (since that knocks Bond on his ass and knocks out Camille, maybe that's not such a bright move, but never mind that...). Bond grabs a grappling hook on a rope (?), attaches it to something (?) on the enemy boat. Suddenly, the enemy is hurled up in the air and capsized. After many viewings, I still have no clue as to what happened here, because Forster has failed the most basic visual storytelling. We never see what the other end of the rope is attached to, we are never shown what Bond attaches the grappling hook to, we never see the physical reaction of something acting on the enemy boat. Oh, sure we can guess that maybe an anchor might have been on the other end of the rope...but a) we are never shown the anchor b) we never see Bond put the anchor into the water c) an anchor that attaches to a boat by grappling hook? Forster NEVER shows us what happens here, never sets it up, never follows through, never bothers communicating with the audience exactly what's going on. Think about that: 007 makes one of his trademark clever escapes, and the audience is left to guess for themselves what actually occurred.

All of that, and more, happens because Forster doesn't seem to know how to put the parts together in a way that effectively conveys the action. Like Michael Apted in TWINE, he doesn't seem to be able construct an action sequence that the audience doesn't have to put together for themselves. So my gut feeling is, even if they hadn't decided to Bournify things up, his action scenes wouldn't have been up to snuff. Heck, maybe that's even why they Bourned things up--to cover up the inadequacies, on the theory that a confused audiences might not notice the cracks and poor storytelling in the action scenes.

As to the Bourne style itself? Well, I'll leave that to another essay. But I will say that when you have a series whose reputation is for brilliant stunt work, why would you want to obscure that? Does anyone believe the parkour scenes in CR06 would have been better shot in the Bourne style...or the stairwell fight? Even if the Bourne style had been properly shot, wouldn't the cathedral fight in this movie have been even more thrilling if shot in the "Martin Campbell style?"

Forster also has the annoying quirk of inserting seemingly random shots into even the simplest of scenes, for no apparent reason. When Beam and Greene are talking on the plane, in the middle of their conversation we're given a close up of a glass being filled with liquor by the stewardess. This is puzzling, as everyone has just been served their drinks, and we never see the flight attendant or the drink again. Was this symbolic something, and I'm just too stupid to see it? Or is Forster's attention span so short that he can't even get through a simple expository conversation scene without having to wander off into "art house" territory? During the rooftop chase, do we need a lingering shot of the elderly woman who is upset that her cherries have fallen? That shot lasts longer than any of the cuts of actual action during the chase! The horse race--what, exactly, is that apropos of? When Mitchell's apartment is being examined, when M is worried that Quantum might actually have people "everywhere," we get a fairly lengthy shot of Bond staring at one of the CSI's searching the place. In a normal movie, that would mean Bond suspects him of being a turncoat, or the guy's about to unveil a valuable clue. Nope...in QoS it just means that Forster gets bored filming conversations and has to insert random shots.

And so in the lead-up to the finale, instead seeing exactly how Bond and Camille manage to avoid the military guards and walk right up to the hotel unnoticed, we're treated to a 55-second montage of Medrano's men and Greene's crew walking up and down stairs and along corridors to the conference room. And walking. And walking. And walking...

I was soo hoping the Marx Brothers would show upAnd then there's the opera...or more specifically, Bond's fight during the opera. We dragged a friend along to one of my viewings. She's not particularly a Bond fan, not an action movie fan, but she is a fan of the more "cerebral" type movies. Her reaction to the opera montage interspersed with blips on Bond's fight? She didn't like it. Her reaction (paraphrasing): "I wanted to see the fight scene. I wanted to see Bond taking on these guys and being clever in a fight in a restaurant/kitchen. Why show us all of that opera when we really wanted to be watching the action? I just didn't see the point of that...That's not what a Bond film is supposed to be like." Thank you, Dawn. And note that, by being obscure about the action, Forster again mystifies his audience about what's actually transpiring. It starts off with Greene's thugs chasing Bond...but sometime during the gauzy montage, Guy Haines' bodyguard joins in. Why? When? How?!? Rather than share these petty details of what's actually happening in the plot, Forster feels it's more important to show us random scenes from Tosca (which has mysteriously leaped from Act I to the end of Act II and then into Act III...must have been a pretty long fight that he didn't show us). The opera business is a microcosm of Forster's QoS: Very pretty, great sets, well shot...but let's obscure the action and plot as much as possible in favor of some vague artistic statements.

And that's just a damn shame, because otherwise, Forster does a dynamite job as a director. Despite all my negativity above, in most respects he nails the scenes he has to. His scene composition, the angles and lighting, are gorgeous. The emotional scenes, the quiet scenes, are very effective, quite well done. Mathis' death, Camille asking Bond to kill her rather than endure death by fire, Bond's confrontation with Yusef...all fantastic. And he gets great performances out of the entire cast--an often neglected aspect of the director's job. It's jus unfortunate that for some important components of Bond movies--the action, the plot--Forster can't seem to summon up the same interest.

How the uadience felt after the chase sceneWell, that was a long digression. Back to the teaser...No intro, no dialogue, just a car chase. This is a very sparse, spartan teaser, no frills whatsoever. In fact, it feels perfunctory, more out of a sense of obligation than an attempt to make a mini-movie. There are two recent comparisons to make here. When TWINE was previewed, the original teaser (Bond killing the banker and escaping in Bilbao) was deemed not exciting enough, not spectacular enough, so they re-worked the whole opening of the movie. Obviously, they weren't concerned about that type of reaction a decade later. Not that there's anything wrong with a modest teaser--they have their place--it's just interesting to see how the standards have changed.

Secondly, well, it's not very Bondian, is it? There's no panache, or flair. There's nothing special that tells you "This is Bond," that this set piece couldn't be done in any other movie. If it weren't for the Aston Martin, there would be nothing to distinguish this scene from a dozen other action movies. Even in CR06's low key teaser, we meet Bond, we witness his dialogue with Dryden, we get a pretty good sense of 007's style and personality. This time around, we just one line of dialogue before a puzzling freeze frame (why??). QoS' teaser doesn't have a story to tell us, just an action scene to present us with. It's well done, but it's also as unambitious as hell in most ways.

Which brings me to the script. Paul Haggis reportedly finished his rewrite less than 2 hours before the screen writers' guild strike deadline, and I believe it, because this movie reads like an early draft. QoS is the shortest Bond film, and one reason is that it's not properly fleshed out. There are some very good bits, but there is also an awful lot that needs polishing, a number of good ideas that are just never fully developed. This is NOT the complete, confident screenplay we got in Casino Royale.

The first problem is the lumpy, uneven structure of the film. We get the nothing but action in the teaser. Then a couple of minutes of dialogue...then bang, another action sequence, the rooftop chase/cathedral fight. Then a few more minutes of exposition, then bang, Bond's fight with Slate. Then a bunch of exposition, and bang the boat chase. After that, though, we enter a long patch without any action--do you count the glimpses of a fight during the opera as an action scene? Bond taking down the two Bolivian cops? It's well over half an hour until the next full set piece, the plane chase. Then long pockets of conversation and desert-walking, a couple of ten second blips (the elevator fight and the CIA raid on the bar) that eventually lead--again, almost half an hour later--to the final set piece. It's very unevenly paced, with most of the action bits bunched up in the first half hour, and then a much more leisurely last 60 minutes.

The second problem is the script's complete lack of interest in resolving the plot lines it dredges up. Take for example, Mitchel, M's bodyguard. He turns on them at a critical juncture, and M goes on (and on) about how impossible it was, about how fully vetted the man was, how long he had been with her. How could they have made him go bad? Well, don't bother to wonder, because the movie doesn't really care. After Bond leaves for Haiti, not a single syllable is spent concerning Mitchell, not one!! After the big build-up of how and why, raising our curiosity, nothing...not even a shrug. Meanwhile, after all of the concern (and lingering shots) of the poor Bolivian people suffering from the drought, so you'd think the audience would get the catharsis of seeing some of their despair relieved. Nope. All we get is "What should I do? "Well, someone could blow up the dams" "Yeah, that's a thought" and walking off into the camera. That's it?!? Beam is removed from his job at the CIA--why? Virtually every plot and subplot--Mitchell, the Bolivian water crisis, everything--is just a prop that's never seriously dealt with. A complete, finished screenplay wouldn't leave these loose ends, or give us the impression that it just didn't care about all the issues it had raised.

Finally, the dialogue pales next to CR06. During filming Forster brought in Joshua Zetumer, who had written some spec scripts he had liked, to do some re-writes. Zetumer also "rewrote dialogue depending on the actors' ideas each day." Is that ever a good idea, outside of a Judd Apatow film? Does that ever work? Well, it certainly didn't work here. CR06 shined in its snappy, witty dialogue. In QoS, the dialogue rarely rises above the bare minimum needed for exposition. There are exceptions--Bond's conversation with Felix in the bar sparkles, Mathis gets some good lines. But otherwise, it's just terse, functional conversations. Bond probably gets fewer lines than in any movie since You Only Live Twice--and all too often it's of the same lifeless, monosyllabic quality.

As for the other characters, their lines are dry and repetitive at best--how many times do we need to have the "we have to business with villains" speech? How many times do Bond and M have to have the exact same conversation about trust and control and vengeance (the answer, 4). How many times does the dialogue seem to be written at right angles to itself, with conversations not making any sense? Given Forster's claim that everything in the script was shot, and that there's nothing on the cutting room floor, we've got to question the writers' ability to construct coherent dialogue.

Example 1: At MI-6, "Forensics Tech" comes up to M and Tanner in the corridor, saying they've done a thorough forensics examination and trace of all the bills in Mitchell's wallet. Tanner nods him off, saying "We're not in the mood." Except, of course, once they enter the room, Forensics tech then proceeds to tell them about what Tanner just claimed they weren't in the mood for. Huh?

Example 2: In Haiti, Bond gives his card to the thug. Elvis comes up, the thug explains what happened, Elvis calls the number. Then, mysteriously, Elvis derides the thug "Next time, pay more attention!" Huh? Attention to what?!? What are you talking about? There's obviously a line or two missing there, or else it's just dialogue that can't be bothered to hook up with itself.

OK, OK, enough with the negativity (except for some stuff in the Notes below). I just wanted to spell out, in some (annoying long) detail why the film falls short of being great. And that's important, because a number of the other elements in the movie do bring it to the edge of greatness.

Don't worry folks, he cleans up purtyPrimarily among these is Daniel Craig's performance. He picks up this movie and carries it on his shoulders for 109 minutes. When a number of critics and friends have suggested that QoS doesn't "feel" like a Bond movie, it's vital that we have someone whom the audience can identify with as Bond to keep the movie grounded. Daniel Craig wrings every bit of humor, every bit of pathos, every bit of emotion that he can out of the script, and gives us a Bond that we can believe in, a man who is just trying to do his job but keeps killing people when circumstances warrant it. (My friend Dawn noted that whenever Bond was accused of killing someone he didn't--Haynes' bodyguard, Mathis--he never denies it...he just stays quiet and lets the credit be given to him, knowing that will build his reputation. And she says she's not a Bond fan...) He takes the few humorous lines and milks them quite wryly...it's too bad that the "teachers on sabbatical...who have won the lottery" line is subtitled, because I think some of the audience miss it, and it hilarious, especially Craig's delivery.

Watch his scenes with Camille in the sinkhole, when she relates her tale, and in the hotel blaze, when he understands her need not to die in that fashion. You can literally see the empathy and humanity returning to Bond's face, as he finally begins to come to life again after having been a relentless machine for most of the movie. His final scene with Mathis is heart-wrenching. Craig doesn't just hit a home run this time...he hits a grand slam.

And we're helped by the fact that Bond is still so damn good at his job. He's a good detective...he knows how to follow a trail, how to figure out what the next move should be. He's a master at improvising during a chase or a fight, and you can always see the wheels turning as Bond looks for the next move. Using a motorcycle to jump from boat to boat may seem silly, But Craig sells it. And of course, his breaking up of the Quantum meeting (or is it QUANTUM?) is a classic--although, on a picky note: the blond at the table had a list on her clipboard showing who got the special gift bags. Shouldn't that have been Bond's first stop, to get a complete list, rather than hoping everyone flees at his voice so he can get pictures? I'm just sayin'...

Brought back just to die? Damn it!Speaking of Mathis, full props to Giancarlo Giannini for turning a tiny role in CR into a performance this good. Every time I've seen QoS, the audience gasps in shock and sadness when Mathis' body is revealed in the trunk...and that means he's made an impact on viewers, which is a pretty good indicator of how good he is here. He doesn't rise to the level of a Kerim Bay or a Draco, primarily because the script doesn't give him enough to work with. But his weary charm, his attempts to fill Bond's need for a father figure, and his sad death make him the most memorable supporting character since Columbo in For Your Eyes Only.

A number of people, particularly online, seemed upset at Bond leaving Mathis' body in a dumpster. Not me...I found it very appropriate, both as the only type of "funeral" Bond had available at the time, and as a reflection of his world view at the time. That's how Bond saw himself ending up some day. A beautiful (if ugly) scene.

Hey, baby, wanna ride?Camille is a fine Bond Girl, even though the movie doesn't give her a ton to do, and has her vanishing for a good chunk in the middle. Olga Kurylenko actually pulls off a fine Spanish accent, and the tale of a Russian mother is enough to cover any gaps...and we're about 46 years too late to start complaining about Bond Girls' dodgy accents, anyway. She's as reckless as Bond, continually confronting Greene even though he wants her dead. Bond does have to rescue her a lot, but not because of basic incompetence, but because her drive for revenge has made her heedless of her own safety (sound familiar?). Her scene in the blazing hotel--magnificent.

Of course, all the talk is how she doesn't become another notch on Bond's Walther. It's not something that I'd like to see become a trend, but for these two characters in this particular movie, it's entirely appropriate. Plus, obviously it's a thankless task to have to be the Bond Girl after Vesper...don't hold that against her.

French=evilMathieu Amalric makes a perfectly slimy villain, although the movie doesn't give him too much to do, either. Amalric is going for a Klaus Maria Brandauer/Largo vibe in Greene, the affected villain who lays on the quirky Euro-charm while casually being evil. But he has only one real scene with Bond--at the party--and Bond only has about 2 lines, both of which are essentially "excuse me, we must go" while Greene blathers on. There's not a lot of tension there, and so Greene's performance isn't really playing off our hero, which makes for a weaker villain than we need. To that extent, despite Amalric's best efforts, Greene comes off as not to different than Stromberg, another villain Bond barely meets--except Bond spent more time with Stromberg!! Greene only truly reaches a level of eerie hatefulness when Bond is holding him by his hair in the hotel fire, and Greene screeches, "It sounds like you've lost another one!" Now that's evil.

There's a seed of something there...in Haiti, Greene gives us the story of how he hates to have friends talk about him behind his back (a story that he doesn't finish..thank you screenwriters)...but it's never referred to again. Here we've got a prime opportunity for Bond to pull a "Sanchez" on him, a way to make their meetings sizzle with some intrigue and personality...but it's never mentioned again. Sigh...But other than walking around fund raising and doing dirty business dealings, Greene just doesn't actually do very much, does he?

As to his plot...lots of people complained about how Elliot Carver's plan in Tomorrow Never Dies was "only" about Chinese broadcasting rights. I wonder how those same people felt about a riveting exploration of Bolivian water rights? I don't mind "mundane" real-world plots, but it's clear that no one in this movie gives a rat's ass about the problems of the Bolivian people, so why should I? Bond would still be chasing after Greene even if this wasn't his scheme; Camille would still be using Greene to get to Medrano even if Bolivian utility rights weren't at stake. Even the movie itself doesn't give a damn about the issue, with it's shrug of "oh, yeah, I'll get somebody on that someday soon." All those artful shots of thirsty Bolivians with dry wells? They're all still just as thirsty at the end of this movie...MacGuffins are a great part of storytelling, but in QoS, the villain's entire plot is just a pointless MacGuffin. It's odd, to say the least, to see a movie that cares so little about the villain's goal.

As to QUANTUM? Well, that's still in the shadows, and I have no real problem with that. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was still pretty shadowy early on, a behind the scenes player. Remember, we never actually met Blofeld until the fourth movie. And S.P.E.C.T.R.E. always had small schemes--blackmail, drug running, stealing secrets, toppling missiles--running long before their more ambitious efforts. So we should be patient (although it's hard, as few of us here were old enough to have to wait 2 years between movies for more revelations about S.P.E.C.T.R.E...we could just pop in the next tape or DVD). But I'll admit that it can be frustrating that we have so little indication of the group size, or goals, or aims. So far, we know that they recommend bankers to terrorists, put plants inside of government agencies, and try to buy up water rights. Not the most evil or thrilling resume we've ever seen...

Don't forget to order your Quantum mugs and stationery, while you're at itOh, and a tip for Quantum: just like in Thunderball, if you're a top secret organization that nobody even knows exists, maybe it's not a good idea to go around wearing jewelry advertising it. What are you going to say when somebody asks "Hey, Greene, what's the 'Q' for?" "uh...well, it's definitely not the logo of a super-secret evil organization!!"

I'm just here as eye candyHey, what about henchmen?!? More to the point, are henchmen a dying art? For the second movie in a row, we really don't have ANY classic Bond henchmen. LeChiffre only had his silent girlfriend. Greene has Elvis and the silent Rutger Hauer wannabe...but Elvis doesn't do a damned thing the entire movie, except fall down the stairs!! He has perhaps two lines in English, he's not particularly menacing, he never gets a confrontation with Bond or Camille, and nothing he does is of any consequence to the plot. And the other guy has no dialogue, looks vaguely menacing but doesn't do anything besides carry a briefcase of money, and is killed with 10 other extras in a flash in the hotel garage.

Has the current Eon regime decided that classic Bond henchmen are passé? Have they decided after Diamondface Zao in Die Another Day that these characters are too comic bookish? Have the writers run out of ways to portray henchpeople besides trumped up bodyguards? Do villains need henchmen? Do Bond movies (if for no other reason than to give the villain someone to talk to)? Discuss...

At this rate, I'll be running the CIA by Bond #25Felix, Felix, Felix...I never really figured out why Eon adopted the "Felix-of-the-week" approach back in the Connery days. Not that it made much difference, because Felix was usually only there so Bond had somebody to explain the plot to, nothing more than a glorified Doctor Who companion. But see what happens when you put a real actor in the role, bring him back for consecutive movies, and actually make him a valuable (albeit minor) component of the plot? Like in CR06, Jeffrey Wright doesn't have a ton of screen time, doesn't get to actually figure in any of the action--but he steals his scenes anyway. Let's hope he's around for several more movies.

I liked your old office much betterI luvs me some Judi Dench. And she does a masterful job of forcing a good performance through repetitive dialogue and odd plot contortions: really, M, the head of the British Secret Service, turns up in person for prisoner interrogations in Italy and Russia?!? Seriously?!? And reboot confusion: it's hard to hear her castigating Bond for using women when we recall in TND she's actually ordering Bond to use sex to get information out of old girlfriends. But those are merely quibbles. Dench rules.

And can I praise the living hell out of Bond's confrontation with Yusef? 007 waiting in the darkened room for Yusef brought things nicely full circle with the teaser in Casino Royale. The quiet intensity Craig brings to the scene is breath taking. Corrine's reaction is wonderful, and the quiet "thank you" she gives Bond as she leaves the room is one of the best things in the movie. No hyper editing, no unnecessarily obscure shots of inanimate objects, dialogue that explains things without lecturing, Craig exuding dry wit and menace...it's the best scene in the film, and almost makes up for the anti-climax in Bolivia.

There is a ton of really good stuff in Quantum of Solace. It continues the process of "James Bond Year One" effectively, many of the action bits are exciting (if difficult to follow), the performances are Grade A throughout, the location work is outstanding (and creative, not just relying on the old standbys, but taking us to new exciting places), there are some some exciting sets.

But the movie falls short of the greatness of Casino Royale, because the people in charge didn't have the vision or ability to fully implement their ideas. A director who didn't know action adopting an idiom that he can't handle, which hides a lot of the great action and stunt work; amateur writers creating dialogue on the fly, with off-putting results; a plot even those making the movie can't be bothered to care about. A movie that could have been as great as CR06 ends up being lesser in almost every way (although still enjoyable and good)...and the trend worries me.

People complain that QoS didn't "feel like" a 007 movie. Well, there's nothing wrong with a Bond film "feeling" different than what's gone before. I'm all for changing the game around once in awhile, for shaking things up, for trying new things. But there is a point where you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and it can be even worse when you're not doing it on purpose. Did they purposely make it not feel like a Bond movie, or did they just not know how? The movie sets out to do things Bourne-style, but in the process manages to give short shrift to many of the things that make Bond Bond. Was that intentional, or just because they didn't know what they were doing? Did they try to make a Bond movie as dour, terse, short and cold-hearted as possible? Or was it because nobody involved knew how to inject humor, or how to craft a plot that involved the audience, that fleshed out characters and motivations, that gives us Bond panache and "wow"? Many critics complained that the Monty Norman theme wasn't used more...well, there weren't that many moments in the film that justified it's use, frankly...there's not a lot in the film that calls for the "holy crap it's Bond!" music.

I wouldn't care as much, or have gone on for so long, if the core of the movie wasn't so good (hell, look how easy I was on Die Another Day). But wasted potential rankles me, and sloppy execution of good ideas annoys me. So don't get me wrong...I like the bloody movie. I just wish that, somewhere in the process, someone had taken a step back and said, "Can't we do this better?" And hadn't Eon better find someone who can before Bond 23?!?

SNELL"S RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:

**After Craig complaining that they shouldn't use Die or Death in the film's title, it's ironic that we end up with a theme song titled Another Way To Die. I don't hate the song, but I can't say that I particularly care for it. Like many a Jack White written song, it's heavy on rhythm, light on melody, which I'm not sure is right for a Bond theme. I'd like it better as a White Stripes song than a Bond theme, I think. And while I appreciate that they're trying to pastiche elements of many Bond themes, it feels like they just threw everything in a blender and set it "chop" instead of "puree," resulting in a chunky mess instead of a smooth song. Much like the movie, it feels not fully baked yet. And don't get me started on the lyrics: "Shoot 'em up/ Bang bang!" Really??? You're serious?!?

That being said, David Arnold manages to use elements of it extraordinarily well in the score...and I like the way he attempts to "localize" the score, altering the type of music to fit the area Bond is in. Thumbs up.

**In teaser, the cars shooting the hell out of the Aston Martin, and trying to drive Bond off the road--aren't they just as likely to kill Mr. White? Or did they care about that--"better for him to be dead than let him fall into enemy hands," perhaps?

**Note to mainstream critics who relentlessly whine about how "bad" a title Quantum of Solace is...shut up. Please. Like The Bourne Supremacy means anything...

**I don't usually complain about this type of thing...but what was this, bad wig theater? Gemma Arterton's wig was atrocious, and Olga's seemed to change in color and thickness from shot to shot. If I'm noticing wigs, you know they must be bad...(and what the hell was Fields wearing under that trench coat, anyway?!?)

**Speaking of Gemma, we have Strawberry Fields. Here's a memo to screenwriters--if you're going to make a joke of her name, it doesn't count unless you actually put that joke in the movie. If you're not going to put the punch line into the film, then why leave the "what's your first name" coyness in the script? If you decide that actual humor is wrong for the movie, than why call attention to your own almighty cleverness by revealing the joke in the credits? Commit, guys, commit...either give her the name or don't, no half way measures.

What's the point of a cute/silly name if you never say it on screen?**So, Strawberry had time to take a note to the desk saying "run?" And it didn't refer to M, because Fields was dead by the time she showed up...so it had to be Greene or his men. So they left her time to take a note to the desk? Or did she just realize she was being followed?

**Part of the whole unresolved Mitchell plot was the $20 bill in his wallet, that led them to Slate.

First, they had been placing tracer bills in LeChiffre's payoff money. But, LeChiffre didn't work directly for Quantum, did he? In CR, Mr. White said "we just do the introductions, we don't vouch for him," implying that LeChiffre was an outsider. So how did his cash get into QUANTUM's hands?

Secondly, since we never find out even a scintilla of a clue about why Mitchell turned, what do we make of his having a single bill? Were they paying him...and he hid the rest of the money except for one $20?!? Does that mean they didn't have an emotional blackmail hold over him, as with Vesper and the plan for Corrine? Or did they do that only with females (or maybe Mitchell was gay and really into Yusef, too)? I just find it hard to see why Mitchell would have one and only one bill from the same batch used to pay Slate. Did Greene give him they assignment and Mitchell then say, "hey, bro, lend me a twenty?"

**The exciting touch table tops and hyperkinetic GUI on all of MI-6's computers (which seem pretty damned advanced for "5 minutes" after CR, but never mind). Are they sweet, or are they ultimately more distracting than regular old briefings/info dumps? Cool, or too Minority Report? Discuss.

**We obviously have to reevaluate parts of CR now that we know that Vesper's "boyfriend" was really a bogus dude. Now, obviously, there's no way LeChiffre could have known in advance his stock swindle would fail, he'd have to enter a big poker game, and MI-6 would infiltrate it and send an agent for the Treasury along. And there's no way QUANTUM could set up some whirlwind romance intense enough to sway Vesper in such a short period of time.

Which means they must have already planned to turn Vesper, and this opportunity came up. So what had they planned to have a rogue treasury agent do? Siphon them money? And having the exact right person in the exact right place is awfully convenient--unless they have a plethora of double agents, ready to be "activated" at a moment's notice. Maybe Yusef was a really busy guy...or they have an awful lot of seducers around. Q.U.A.N.T.U.M--meeting your evil male prostitute needs since 2006 (female, too, I would imagine).

Also, M showing up for White's interrogation was surely not planned far in advance, so rescuing White was an emergency tactic...so what was Quantum's plan for him?!?

**Wait a minute--vital secrets from Canadian intelligence?

Just kidding, Canadian friends. But seriously, a couple of Quantum members want to make this their top priority? What the hell does Corrine have access to??

**Whereas Bond had a godawful time tailing people in CR06, he never gets "made" here. However, this time around he's Mr. Butterfingers, dropping his gun gosh knows how many times. Better start carrying a back-up piece, James...

**Bond also is terrorizing Haiti, undoubtedly their top vehicle thief. In a brief span he steals a motorcycle, two boats, and a truck...He's a one man crime wave.

**More opera fu: Bond interrupts the Quantum discussion during the "Te Deum," which is at the end of Act I. Since Bond procured his earplug before the start of the show, what has he been doing for the last 45 minutes (at least)?

Also..the audience is hanging in the lobby, and the company is still unloading equipment and costumes? I don't think so...

**Why is Greene so upset about Haynes' bodyguard seeing his face? Greene was already seen by tons of people at the opera--he was greeted by name in the lobby, he was mingling with other guests...everybody would have already known he was at the show!! So why the secrecy? (answer: more sloppy writing...they had to have an excuse for Greene's man to shoot the bodyguard, so Bond could be blamed for it...)

**Both a fighter plane and a helicopter are chasing Bond's DC-3. Bond takes out the plane...but the copter is still there..what happened to them? It just vanishes after shooting the DC-3. Did they just assume Bond was dead (which would be odd, since they were the ones who insisted that the fighter plane confirm the kill)?

**How did Fields know when Bond was arriving in Bolivia? Even if the airline agent finked out and told MI-6 that Bond had wanted to go to La Paz, he spends an untold amount of time traveling to Italy. Mathis supposedly gets them new untraceable documents, and they fly a private jet down there. Was Fields just staking out the airport 24/7? Remember, she had never heard of Mathis, so it seems unlikely they traced his connections...so how did they know when and where to be waiting?!?

**So, MI-6 bought Mathis that gorgeous villa as an apology for torturing him when he was innocent?!? Uh, where do I sign up for that package?!? Torture away, guys...

**So when he's dying, Mathis tells Bond that "Mathis" was just his cover name. We don't learn what his real name was (thanks for the follow through, writers!!)...but that does make us think again about the possibility that "James Bond" is also just a cover name...that, like in the "comedy" Casino Royale, maybe it's just the cover name given to whoever is 007. Which means maybe this hasn't been a reboot, which would explain why we still have Judi Dench as M, because the "Brosnan" Bond died or retired, and "Craig" was promoted to his spot and given his name and number.

Gentleman, start your fan fic...

**The clumsiest and most-telegraphed deus ex machina ever: "What's that sound?" "Hydrogen fuel cells!!" "Sounds unstable." From that moment, the audience knows with metaphysical certainty that those cells will blow up the hotel during the climax. Really, is it possible to be less subtle?

**Speaking of which, is this the most anti-environmental Bond ever? What are our messages--"Don't trust environmentalists--they're really evil scumbags who want to rape the Earth more than ever" and "don't trust hydrogen fuel cells...they'll blow up your place real good!!"

**Okay, okay, we get it, "US=dickheads." Do we need to keep piling on? (And did we need to make Beam such a braying jackass?)

**I know the hotel in the desert was "secured..." but only 1 employee? That's ridiculous, but the only "civilian" we see is the receptionist/waitress (played by Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter!)...not even a janitor? The writers/director are transparently trying to minimize the number of civilian casualties from 007 and Camille's raid...but common sense tells us that a number of innocent people had to die as a result of their actions. This isn't a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. hollowed out volcano, it's a private hotel!! (Cue the Death Star discussion from Clerks...)

**Speaking of which, can I whine about something here? We have General Medrano rape the poor girl just so we'll hate him and won't be conflicted about Camille shooting him. Given that, it was pretty dickish of the filmmakers to just let her die, offscreen, wasn't it? When we last see her, her hands are bound, she's thrown to the floor, and in a hotel room being consumed by fire with no way out. I'll suggest there was no possible way she survived that, and if she did she no doubt perished in the desert.

Which is in keeping with the movie's treatment Bolivia in general--pretend we care, then forget about them when it's convenient...I just find it disturbing that we set someone up to be a rape victim just as a plot device, and don't even give them the dignity of an on screen death or rescue.

**Producer Michael Wilson said they put the "gun barrel" at the end of the movie "as a surprise." Uh...any other reason than just to f$%^ with us, Mike? Because that doesn't make a lot of sense...

**Marc Forster said the poker scenes in Casino Royale were "really slow." Seriously, how did he get to direct a Bond film?

**Bond Score 1, just Strawberry Fields, and sadly not forever. Cumulative Bond Score: 58.

And, as always (no pic yet)

JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN THE HILDEBRANDT RARITY

That's my prediction, and I'm sticking with it...