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.

E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L…

In the hands of a different cast and crew, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) could have been bad – or worse, it could have been absolutely nothingy. Of course the real-life premise is memorable and impressive – locked-in syndrome, being a prisoner inside your own body – but making this work as a magazine article or even a book is very different from making it work as a film. Without a keen directorial vision, this would’ve turned into the worst kind of movie-of-the-week.

I’ve never seen any other films by Julian Schnabel (the sheer silliness of his name may have kept me from watching his earlier work), but based on this film I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open for Basquiat and Before Night Falls. The movie isn’t overburdened by directorial flourishes, but Schnabel has a strong sense of the visual, in the real scenes as much as in those that take place in Jean-Do’s imagination or are inspired by his words. Talking of which, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir (the film could be described as a sort of making-of of the memoir, but that would be far too banal a description for what Schnabel achieves), strikes a deft balance between the visual and the verbal. It hums with the energy of words – Jean-Do is filled with language, even if his condition doesn’t allow him to express them easily. Each word is a battle, each phrase is a war – at least at first, but one of the refreshing aspects of the film is that the women who help the man express himself are all French beauties of the Emanuelle Seigner type (and one of them looks like a Gallic dead ringer for Naomi Watts), and Jean-Do is the kind of man who falls in love, at least a bit, with every woman he sees.

The lightness that the film has, derived equally from Bauby’s ironic tone (he isn’t afraid of laughing at himself and his situation) and Schnabel’s visual idiom, doesn’t detract from its darker side, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. The horror of Jean-Do’s situation makes especially the first twenty minutes almost unbearable at times. Schnabel doesn’t need to emphasise this – he shows, quite simply and unflinchingly.

I’ve only just finished watching the film about an hour ago, so my first impression is still fresh and might change. However, throughout the movie I kept thinking of another film, this one by Alejandro Amenábar: The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro), also a true-life story, based on the struggles of a Spanish quadruplegic fighting for his right to die. Both films are centred on men who have been taken prisoner by their failing bodies; both men are full of life, yet have been deprived of the ability to life as fully as they desire; and both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Sea Inside use similar imagery, especially the ocean and seaside. To some extent they feel like a French and a Spanish take on similar issues and would make near-perfect companion pieces.

Isn't the resemblance uncanny?

On a different note: we’ve added another HBO series to the already considerable list. It’s called Wome, at least if you ask Michael Palin:

And like so many HBO series, it’s got a pretty cool title sequence. Enjoy!

The Grim Brothers Coen

There are many things in No Country for Old Men that recall the Coens’ earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Fargo; yet it feels notably different in many ways from those films. Intolerable Cruelty (and, from what I hear, Ladykillers) also felt unlike the earlier movies the brothers had made – in some ways, they felt more like someone was trying to imitate their style and succeeded in isolated scenes but, on the whole, failed… Failed, that is, to make a good Coen movie as well as a good film in general.

No Country for Old Men is a good movie. It may even be the best Coen film to date. Chances are I’ll never love it as much as Fargo, but that’s also for nostalgic reasons. Fargo is by no means anything less than a fantastic film, but it doesn’t have the sheer compactness and focus of No Country for Old Men.

And it doesn’t have Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem, is one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy novels, and for all I know he was already frightening in the book, but what Bardem and the Coens make of him is chilling.

However, the film has plenty more going for it than Bardem’s psychotic Prince Valiant and his pneumatic slaughterhouse device. It works so well because the three main characters – Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – complement each other so well. The story and the protagonists are balanced to perfection; you’ll rarely see a film that is as intricately structured. Bell and Chigurh are like two poles, balanced on the axle that is Moss: not a bad guy, but deeply flawed and too sure of himself, even after he’s seen the force of nature that is the killer following him. Moss commits several stupid acts in the film, as well as some brilliant on-his-feet thinking, but his greatest stupidity lies in thinking that he has a chance against his opponent. Bell, on the other hand, seems to understand (and accept, in the very end) that there is some evil that is beyond comprehension and that cannot be tricked or beaten.

No Country for Old Men

If you’re like me, and an Academy Award is more likely to put you off a film, do yourself a favour. If you enjoy great acting and don’t mind bleakness that makes Sweeney Todd look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (okay, that’s not quite fair – like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps), do go and see this film. And see it at a cinema rather than on TV. Roger Deakins’ work, which once again is quite magnificent, deserves the big screen. I just say The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and, once again, Fargo.