James Bond

Spectre (2015)

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Contains spoilers

spectre-0As far as titles for movies go, Spectre could hardly be better named. Right from the start it’s clear that this is a film full of ghosts: past, present and future, dead or alive, benign or threatening – this latest James Bond movie is a conspicuously haunted affair.

You can’t say that they don’t warn you. Even before the film starts, there’s an on-screen caption declaring “the dead are alive” and then we open in Mexico City on the Day of Dead where by tradition the deceased are said to walk the streets once more. And to really hammer the point home, Bond is there at the posthumous direction of the late, lamented M to carry out a clinical low key hit on a terrorist planning an atrocity. Unfortunately things don’t go quite according to plan and end up being rather messily high-profile, imperilling the very existence of MI6 as a result.

Despite all the spectral signs and portents in the opening minutes, it still didn’t prepare me for the jolting glimpses we get of the late M (Judi Dench), Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) and Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) in the opening credits sequence. Nor are these just grace notes: along with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), their presence is keenly felt throughout the film from the very start and exorcising these ghosts becomes Bond’s main preoccupation during the entire endeavour. Read the rest of this entry »

Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 (2012)

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A bit of an oddity, this feels rather more like it should be an extended meta-extra to the Bond Blu-Ray boxset or else a special made-for-TV anniversary documentary, rather than a stand-alone film that made it into cinemas in its own right and which now receives a very barebones DVD release ahead of next month’s issue of Skyfall to home entertainment channels.

That’s not to say that this isn’t very well put together – it is, very polished and stylish, and it never lets the pace flag so there’s always something interesting happening with lots of clips and music from the movies and behind-the-scenes. In the end, it’s perhaps a little bit too fast-moving at just over 90 minutes and feels a little shallow as a result, telling a well-trodden story with familiar faces that we’ve seen and heard from many, many times before. There are nonetheless still gems that are new (at least to me) along the way, and all the new interviews (done talking head style and also used as voiceover rather than using a traditional narrator) are well worth the price of admission.

The story of the Albert R. Broccoli/Harry Saltzman partnership is the core, together of course with the lengthy legal and financial wrangles that have enveloped the film over the course of five decades, but in the end the highlights come from the new interviews with the various Bonds. Lazenby’s story of how he got (and lost) the role is pure comedy-tragedy, and Moore’s obviously warm and tender father-son relationship with Broccoli is a delight. Dalton is remarkably open and candid about his own time in the role, and Brosnan terrific about his own heartbreaking miss first time around. Inevitably Connery is a truculent no-show and perhaps as a result he comes out of this the worst – portrayed as a total arse, basically – but ultimately there is a lovely anecdote related by Barbara Broccoli about the last time that the actor and her father spoke on the phone.

In the end this is a film that will appeal to anyone with an interest in Bond and the Bond series, and having President Clinton as one of the glowing interviewees is a real coup that echoes the public endorsement of the original Ian Fleming book series by President Kennedy in 1962 that was one of the principle sparks for the phenomenon that followed.

Now available on DVD, and also showing on Sky Movies from February 16 2013.

Skyfall (2012)

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Even for a creative team that includes some of the best talent working in cinema today such as Oscar-winning director Sam Mandes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the prospect of taking on Skyfall must have been a daunting one. No one wants to be the person who fumbles the ball and mortally wounds one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, after all. Quite apart from the whole 50th anniversary hooplah surrounding the latest instalment of the Bond series, there is the worrisome matter of having to follow on from a previous film widely regarded as a disappointment, and after a too-long hiatus caused by the latest financial strife at MGM/UA.

But even the best creative team has to start the process by asking itself: what sort of Bond movie do we want to make? Everyone has their own image of what a ‘true’ Bond film should look like and the elements it should contain but in fact the series has been consistent only in how much it has varied through the five decades, from the style-setting early Connery thrillers to the light-hearted family entertainment Moore outings. Where the series once created a whole new spy thriller genre, it later fell behind and seemed perpetually scrambling to keep up with the competition: hence the blaxploitation and science fiction outings in the 70s, or the quintessential mid-80s drug war/vendetta instalment, or more recently the feeling that the series needed to get back to realism and basics while assimilating the parkour DNA of the Bourne franchise. At times, the series seemed so busy dodging around copycats and wannabes, finding a new raison d’être for Bond after the end of the Cold War and adapting to the latest cinematic trends that it arguably lost the heart and soul of what it meant to be a Bond film altogether. For me, the successful recent run of entries in the Bond series was under Brosnan, which managed to reinvent the character and make it relevant for the end of the millennium, combined the serious thrillers with the spectacular and absurd, and did it all with a sleek new modern style that was both old-time Bond and wholly fresh.

What, then, should Mendes and his team do for a 50th anniversary film? What film in 2012 could possibly adequately pay homage to the entire history of such a multi-faceted storied franchise? Read the rest of this entry »

A Bumper Post of Bond Reviews

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With Skyfall launching into cinemas today, I thought I’d mark the occasion with a special “one post, 25 reviews” bumper instalment on all cinematic things Bond. One brief paragraph for each, plus the Radio Times Film Guide rating out of five stars as a benchmark and my own counter-bid alongside it. I look forward to hearing which you agree with and which provoke violent dissent in the ranks! Read the rest of this entry »

James Bond: Happy 50th, old man

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You have to hand it to EoN Productions, they know how to whip up the publicity for their upcoming James Bond film, getting the mainstream media falling over the “50th anniversary of the first James Bond film” as a way of priming the audience for the cinema début of Bond 23, aka Skyfall, later this month. Even satellite broadcaster Sky is joining in, launching its ‘Sky Movies 007’ channel today showing back-to-back Bond films for the whole of October.

Well, massive PR operation or no, it does seem that the 50th anniversary of the première of Dr No warrants a little mark of respect, so here’s my blog post offering in that direction – starting with a quick word on the new Bond film theme by Adele that was officially unveiled at 0:07am on Friday morning.

It’s good. It’s actually very good. Instantly likeable and memorable, it’s the first Bond theme in a long time that has the chance of being a hit record in its own right that will last the test of time far beyond the period of the film release.

The risk with bringing a big star like Adele in to do a Bond theme is that either the Bond fans won’t like the end result, or the star’s fans won’t. But “Skyfall” manages to be both a wonderful pure-Adele track while at the same time dripping in all the right epic trappings of a true Bond theme. That’s pretty impressive. To be honest, I think the song is as its best when it’s most “Adele-ian” and that some of the Bond motifs running through the background are just a little too heavy-handed, which may stop this from becoming seen as a standalone classic as it probably should. But then, this is the 50th anniversary film release and if there’s a time to remind people of the Bond heritage and wallow in a little gratuitous nostalgia then it is surely now.

Certainly I’ll be adding it to my iTunes collection. But then, I’ve even got Jack White and Alicia Keys’ theme song for A Quantum of Solace, so clearly I’ll buy any track that’s attached to a Bond film. Maybe that’s not the ringing endorsement it was intended to be after all…

Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (1955)

Last week I finally got around to reading Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker, some 33 years after I intended to having seen the Roger Moore film of the same name. I won’t call the film an ‘adaptation’ of Fleming’s book, because even back as a kid in 1979 I knew that the producers had followed the pattern of the previous film in the series and moved Bond completely away from his literary roots. (The films were so different that they were the first to warrant their own movie novelisations by screenwriter Christopher Wood; they were two of my most-thumbed paperbacks back in the days before the films become available to rewatch on VHS, DVD or endless digital channel reruns.)

The reason why The Spy Who Loved Me went so far away from the novel is entirely down to Fleming himself, who didn’t like the story and so forbade any film version of it (although he allowed the title to be used.) In the case of Moonraker it’s more a case that the contents of the novel had simply not aged at all well over a quarter of a century and were by any objective analysis unsuitable for adaptation. Given that basis, how readable is the novel now?

The plot consists of three main strands: the first half of the book has Bond uncovering a card cheat as a favour to M. On paper this has a fair degree of tension, but a game of bridge is hardly going to be cinematic (although Martin Campbell managed an impressive transfer of a game of Texas hold ’em to the screen in the 2006 film of Casino Royale). The rest of the book features a story involving new missile technology based on German V2 rockets and obsolete by 1979, added to the threat of Nazis seeking revenge for their wartime defeat. That was a real fear when the book was written, less than ten years after the end of World War 2: but by 1979 such a Nazi vengeance notion would have been archaic to a modern audience more used to having the Germans as partners in the EEC.

So what to do? The film makers resorted to essentially repeating the story format from The Spy Who Loved Me, which in turn had used the basic template laid down by Roald Dahl for You Only Live Twice – just going even bigger. Most people regard the film of Moonraker as having gone too far and as a result be one of the weakest Bond cinematic instalments; in passing I have to say that I disagree and that it’s still one of my movie guilty pleasures.

Reading the novel, it’s interesting to see just how much of Fleming’s plot actually weaves itself into the film’s DNA despite the loss of almost all this plot detail. For one thing, the antagonist is still the immensely wealthy Hugo Drax, who is apparently philanthropically using his vast fortune to pull off advanced scientific projects for the good of a grateful nation. In the book, Drax is using his money to fund an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system for nuclear warheads for the UK government; in the film, he’s essentially producing a fleet of space shuttles that the US and UK governments can’t fund themselves. But in both cases, he has his own reasons for underwriting the work.

The plot in the book revolved around fanatical former Nazis seeking revenge on the UK: there are no Nazis in the film, but it does come down to a megalomaniac with designs of reseeding a cleansed planet with a race of hand-picked humans to produce a eugenically perfect super-race. Meanwhile, the Bond girl in both the book and film is a fellow undercover agent: in the film it’s American CIA operative Holly Goodhead, but in the book it’s British Special Branch agent Gala Brand. In both cases there’s initial suspicion and animosity between the two organisations and the agents themselves to overcome, but of course they do team up in the end (although Gala Brand never succumbs to Bond’s charms in the bedroom like Holly Goodhead does.)

One of Fleming’s trademarks in his books is to make Bond suffer: his 007 is no superhuman, but suffers pain and agony during his missions (although just short of any debilitating injuries that might stop him from completing the mission or returning for the next in the series.) Toward the climax of the book, he and Gala Brand narrowly escape being cooked by the rocket exhaust discharge as the missile takes off, a sequence picked up by the film makers during a space shuttle launch although there Bond escapes using another special agent gizmo rather than gritting through the pain.

All in all, it’s surprising how much of the book feeds into the film after all. At the same time, the book has a very different feel as a whole. For one thing, while the film jets from California to Venice, Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon and then into outer space, the book never leaves London and the Home Counties, with the climax taking place on the English coast above the white cliffs of Dover. For those of us with an image of 007 as the globe trotting international spy, this is all unexpectedly cosy and domestic.

What’s most surprising about Fleming’s book is that even 58 years after it was written it’s still as readable as it is. Sure, some of the details feel like they belong in the history books – especially the astonishingly quaint section of Bond racing Drax through the Kent country roads which are positively Dick Barton-esque. But it still zips along at a reasonable pace, delivers using a sparse prose style, and never outstays its welcome but is instead a quick, easy and effective read.

Since Fleming’s day there have been a glut of books that conform to that style: Alistair Maclean was an early exponent, then there was Clive Cussler, and now it would be Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels that are surely the best of the bunch and the modern day equivalent of the Bond series. But Fleming did it first, and caused quite a stir with his ‘sensationalist’ writing presentation and overtly brutal and sexual topics. While the Bond books wouldn’t stand out in today’s crowd (in fact they’d be a bit of a wallflower compared with most popular fiction) and the plot details really are as archaic as the filmmakers realised in 1979, Fleming’s farsightedness in creating this new muscular writing style means than at least it’s entirely possible to still read and enjoy them even well into the 21st century.

That’s no mean feat. Whether in print or on screen, it seems that James Bond still has it, and will be worth returning to for a good while yet to come.

James Bond: For Your Eyes Only [Blu-ray]

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The 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film is nigh, and so is the release in October of Skyfall, the latest in the franchise to star Daniel Craig. As part of what’s likely to be an overwhelming onslaught of promotional activity, the studio is also finally making available all 22 previous Bond films on Blu-ray after a partial release back in 2008/9 stalled when the Bond franchise owner MGM Studios went into debt and was sold off.

In the circumstances, it would be positively rude not to review one or two of the Blu-rays from the new boxset …

For Your Eyes Only is one of the Bond films that did get a Blu-ray release four years ago, and the version in the new Bond 50 boxset is the same one that was released back then and which is itself a high definition transfer of the ‘ultimate edition’ DVD, even down to the same menus and extras on the disc.

If you’re labelling the Bond film Friends-style along the lines of “the one with …” then For Your Eyes Only would probably be “the one that no one really remembers.” Somehow it falls through the cracks: it’s by no means bad, so you don’t remember it as being utterly dreadful in the way that you might with Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun or A View To A Kill for example. But neither does it stand out as as anything brilliantly good either. There’s not even anything about the story or the characters that really seizes the imagination.

What there is, is a palpable desire to draw back from the excesses of Moonraker which literally sent Bond into orbit, and to bring him right back down to earth again (pun intended.) That’s made clear from the moment that Bond’s gadget-laden Lotus goes up in flames as the result of an over-zealous anti-burglary device early in the film, after which Bond is almost entirely bereft of his usual trademark gizmos.

Even the opening pre-credit sequence – for the most part a fast-moving, exciting and effective mini-adventure – seems laden with significance, this one a message about closing the door on the past as a certain cat-stroking bald supervillain is tipped down an industrial chimney stack in the Docklands. The film was made at the time when Eon Productions was in dispute with rival film producer Kevin McClory who claimed co-authorship of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball which introduced the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and so the makers of the ‘official’ Bond films decided they would show just how dispensable the character was to them by offing him even before the titles kicked in.

There’s a lot going on under the surface, then, but Roger Moore is still inclined to play the part of Bond in just the same smooth but lightweight and flippant way that he had done in the four preceding films. There are some overly comedic moments that were hallmarks of the earlier Moore films, a completely bizarre last line “I’ll buy you a delicatessen! In stainless steel!” from faux-Blofeld, and the film’s coda sequence with Janet Brown cameoing as Mrs Thatcher is dreadfully out of place (although watch for John Wells playing Denis, who quite beautifully steals the scene.)

However the producers are evidently really aiming for something altogether more gritty, realistic and harder-edged. They lift a nasty torture scene from the novel Live and Let Die in which Bond and his leading lady are painfully keelhauled over coral, and Bond is made to suffer in order to climb to the heights of the villains’ mountain top lair. The biggest change for the character is when he cold-bloodedly kills an opponent by kicking his teetering car off a cliff edge – something that Moore himself is said to have thought wrong for ‘his’ Bond.

As part of their back-to-basics push, the producers return to Fleming’s books for their plot after diverting away completely for the last two film outings. The literary For Your Eyes Only is a collection of short stories, and from the title tale is taken the murder of the Havelocks and the quest for revenge by their daughter (renamed Melina in the film and played by Carole Bouquet) while from Risico comes the story of the feuding smugglers Kristatos (Julian Glover) and Colombo (Chaim Topol), the two threads held together by an original McGuffin of a supersecret encoder.

The Risico plot requires an initial uncertainty about which of the smugglers is friend and which is foe, but that means that neither can be over-the-top moustache-twirlingly evil in the grand tradition of the best Bond villains. We know that Glover can be delightfully nefarious (see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Doctor Who: City of Death for example) but here he’s very reigned in, cold and impersonal. The worst thing that can be said about him is his leering over young ice skating prodigy Bibi (an early role for Lynn-Holly Johnson, whose inexperience shows) and that just makes him slightly creepy and distasteful rather than a full-blooded Bond foe.

Topol, on the other hand, gets to play one of the best characters to appear on Bond’s side in many a film. His passionate, life-loving, pistachio-addicted larger-than-life presence evokes the great Kerim Bay as played by Pedro Armendariz in From Russia With Love. However, Bay had Rosa Kleb and Red Grant to face off against; whereas when Colombo ends up being almost the most memorable thing about For Your Eyes Only, you know the rest of the film is lacking something vital.

Without a doubt, the single most vital thing the film is lacking is a decent score. Respected American film composer Bill Conti takes over the music duties from John Barry, and while he tries to keep elements of Barry’s trademark brass-heavy sound he also unwisely tries blending it with dance and funk that sounded dated even when the film was released in 1981 and hasn’t improved since. At times the end result is positively annoying. It simply doesn’t sound authentically Bond, although there are at least a couple of music cues when it does come close to almost – almost – taking off. And then it doesn’t, and you’re left thinking that this is just a forgery of the real Bond exploits. (McClory’s Never Say Never Again had much the same problem when it was made, especially when Eon recalled John Barry to make the official films once again sound like the real thing. That was continued when Bond fan David Arnold took over scoring duties with just the right sensibility of updated respect for Barry’s work from 1997.)

The one thing that does work in the musical score of For Your Eyes Only is the title song, which is actually very good indeed – right up there with the top classic Bond themes. It was performed by Sheena Easton, one of the very first pop stars discovered by the now-omnipresent ‘reality show’ format and who was very much the major star of her day. Legendary film title designer Maurice Binder liked the look of her so much that he even had her appear in the credits – the first time that the singer of a Bond theme was on screen in the film itself.

Given the unsuccessful score as a whole, it’s perhaps ironic that the soundtrack is one of the best things about the Blu-ray disc. That’s because it was the time in cinema technology history when theatres had just been forced to invest in advanced Dolby Surround systems after the breakthrough success of Star Wars in the sound department. Before then, most films – including the Bonds – had been mono or barely stereo affairs. But For Your Eyes Only was the first Bond to get into the new sound technologies and really start using the multi-directional capability creatively, so it was already a quantum leap ahead of its predecessors even before the Blu-ray restoration team got to work. It’s still a relatively early outing for this sort of new and improved approach to film sound and obviously can’t hold its own against 21st century offerings, but it’s still as good as we’ll ever hear the film.

The visual appearance of the Blu-ray is less impressive – but not because of any technical failings by the restoration team. Like the film as a whole, the visuals are all over the place and very patchwork, hit and miss throughout: spectacular one minute, positively tepid the next. It’s entirely down to the way the film is shot (the production design, the film stock, the lighting) and not because of a poor transfer. Indeed, the restoration team are to be commended for not going over the top and changing the film’s original look and feel in order to show off the Blu-ray technologies. Such tampering with a film should be best left to those who can’t help themselves – like George Lucas.

It does mean that the scenes filmed on soundstages look very flat and soft – perhaps even more so than the DVD versions, despite the same source being used for both. It’s so far off that you might even think something is wrong with the disc or your TV, but it patently isn’t because the minute the film goes back on location in Greece, Italy or the Bahamas the whole thing comes alive and sparkles with colour, contrast and detail. It’s just that the sets seem to have been designed predominantly in beige, pastel and khaki colours; they’re lit in an amazingly flat fashion; and shot unimaginatively without any sense of depth. There’s even a hint that the producers had taken a look at the dailies and panicked when they saw that their star was showing his age, and asked the director to soften the closeups whenever possible thereby losing sharpness and detail emphatically present in the location work. You’ll certainly be left in no doubt about what was shot at Pinewood, simply by the way the transfer looks at any given point.

That means that this is by no means the best of the Bond films in high definition – the earliest Bond films have massively improved the most thanks to the new technology, while the most recent films (from Pierce Brosnan’s début onwards) only needed a bit of a polish to make them dazzle anew in the first place. But if For Your Eyes Only represents the low-water mark for the 22-film boxset, then that’s still a standard by which many Blu-ray releases would find themselves left wanting by comparison.

There’s a ton of extras, all of which are also on the 2-disc ultimate edition DVD and include three audio commentaries. Almost all of the extras are in standard definition, by nature of when the source materials date from.

Film rating: a charitable *** out of five
Blu-ray rating: a slightly miserly **** out of five, just because I don’t want to peak too soon!