The Ghost of Spectres Past

Spectre isn’t a bad film. It is competently made on most counts, though admittedly this is damning it with faint praise, and it has a fantastic pre-credit sequence that’s up there with the best of them. Nevertheless, Spectre is a huge disappointment – perhaps even more so than Quantum of Solace. Where Quantum suffered from Marc Forster not being very good at directing action, Spectre suffers most from writers that don’t really understand what exactly they want the film to do and, worse, not realising that Skyfall had done most of these things already, and done them well.

Spectre

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Meet the new Bond…

… same as old Bond.

I have to admit this up front: I’m not a big fan of James Bond or the series of films he features in. I liked Casino Royale a lot, but even apparent series classic Goldeneye didn’t do anything for me, and while I could tolerate the Sean Connery films I wouldn’t want to sit through Roger Moore’s panto-style movies ever again.

Skyfall is both a call-back to old-school Bond and a deconstruction of the films and the character. In terms of both form and theme, it’s the most ambitious film in the series. At the end, as the credits were rolling, I was exhilarated and excited – yet I’m not sure I’m looking forward to what the Broccoli Gang will come up with next. For, see, Skyfall ends at a point where we could very easily segue into Dr No. Craig’s Bond at the film’s close is Connery’s original Bond, for all intents and purposes, complete with a male M and trusty Moneypenny.

Regardless of this, I come to praise Bond, not to bury him. After a boring, confused Quantum of Solace that barely works as a companion piece to Casino Royale – and that even then doesn’t add much to its predecessor – Sam Mendes has a much better handle on… well, everything. I haven’t yet seen a Mark Foster film that has convinced me the man deserves the praise he’s received, and he was most definitely the wrong man for Bond. Mendes hasn’t really done any action films, the closest being Road to Perdition, but he knows how to stage scenes effectively – and he knows how to pick his collaborators, with Roger Deakins turning in the most gorgeous film in the series yet. His aesthetic sensibilities complement Mendes’ directorial eye well, especially in a fight silhouetted against Blade Runner-esque Shanghai facades and in the Macao scenes. (Also, is it just me or is Mendes more overtly theatrical, though effectively so, in this than in any of his previous films?)

Skyfall

There’s more to like about Skyfall: the phantasmagoric-to-the-point-of-becoming-apocalyptic intro sequence (I didn’t like Adele’s song all that much until I saw it matched to the intro visuals), Craig’s co-stars (let me single out Javier Bardem who succeeds at being camp and chilling, gentle and deranged), a smart, witty script that doesn’t shy away from pathos when it is called for. It’s the first Bond film I’ve seen at the cinema that I wanted to see again as soon as the credits rolled, and it’s the second that has made me emotionally invested. Yet there remains that niggling feeling that Skyfall succeeds all too well at making everything that’s interesting about it superfluous for the next film in the franchise. Bond mentions at some point during the film that his hobby is resurrection – let’s hope that what this film has resurrected isn’t one of the undead, a revenant of the Bonds of old and nothing more.

P.S.: Ben Whishaw’s Q, while not much more substantial than a cameo, was much appreciated, as were Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney.

We need to talk about Lisbeth

In my heart of hearts, I knew it. There may be many girls with dragon tattoos, but there is only one Lisbeth Salander. David Fincher’s take on men who hate women is too slick and too self-assured to get anywhere close to the 2009 Swedish original, directed by Niels Arden Oplev. While I cannot recommend parts two and three of the original, the first part is pretty damn good entertainment sprinkled with bits of character studies. We meet a determined but far from bullet-proof journalist who cannot believe the story he has been dragged into. Michael Nyqvist gets his role just right: He knows what he wants to do next, but is far from sure whether it’s wise to do so. I always had the sense that with him, he kept thriving on the difficulties. His dogged determination seems to melt the snow around him. There are many moments where you can see him think, and then act. Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist is too sure about himself; he is never really scared, never really surprised and never really drunk. He isn’t even too fazed when someone tries to shoot him in the woods. He is the wrong choice for this role.

Of course, the Swedish movie will always have the advantage of having introduced us to Lisbeth Salander, on of the most intriguing characters in popular movie-making in a long time. I don’t know how, but Noomi Rapace has exactly nailed the character (now there’s a painful pun) and I pitied Rooney Mara as soon as her name was up for Fincher’s movie. Rapace plays her damaged and in self-chosen isolation, but highly self-reliant; I’ve never been able to see the character behind the role, which is a very good thing. With Mara, I felt I was looking at a goth runaway with an attitude problem and random bouts of Asperger’s. I could see the clockwork behind her acting, and it made the scenes where she brings Wennerström down less credible. The original Salander was surprised at herself that she could feel something akin to love for Blomkvist; the other Salander’s love for him comes to her like an afterthought and finally only stops short of a soppy Christmassy gesture.

Comparisons aside, I also had a number of problems with Fincher’s movie itself. The first three minutes play like Lord Voldemort’s idea of a Prodigy video. As the story unfolded, I could not shake the feeling that this must have felt like watching Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake: the same camera angles, the same lines, the same plot points – heck, there were moments where I was almost sure that the two Salanders and the two Blomkvists inhabited the very same hut, shooting on alternate days. The only good thing they left out were the scenes where little Mikael has Harriet Vanger babysit him.  There are some other changes, but they are insignificant – except, except… they changed the ending. Remember the scene where the original Blomkvist stands in full sunlight for the very first time in the movie, approaching a woman who has her back to the camera whose hair is ablaze with sunlight? Remember what happens then? They cut it. They cut that and turned the ending around. That, and giving Lisbeth that soppy street urchin ending. And while we’re at it: It is a huge, huge mistake to let the characters talk English with a Swedish accent. Once I know the main characters are Swedish, I can suspend disbelief and think of them as Swedes, even if they use proper English – that’s especially true for a movie that engenders a whole lot of disbelief.

I don’t know why I felt that Fincher’s version is longer than Oplev’s. Maybe it’s slower because the atmosphere is so much more subdued. I know a certain drabness and coolness is Fincher’s trademark, and it is essential to Se7en and Zodiac, but here, it sabotages the feel of the whole movie. Blomkvist and Salander are not cool characters – they may just behave like normal people, but they are churning with stuff. They need to be, because otherwise that cold Swedish winter and the shock-frozen Vanger family will get to them.