I saw Spectre days after the eager-beavers but still before some people, so here are my spoiler-free thoughts

It’s been quite the year for spies on the big screen: mega-success for Kingsman, high praise for Mission: Impossible 5, comedy from Spy, the TV-ish thrills of Spooks, and you may’ve missed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — based on its box office, most people did. But now we come to the biggest of them all: Bond. James Bond.

Chances are, if you’re interested in a review of the 24th Bond movie you’ve already read one. Several, probably. Nonetheless, as both a blogger and a Bond fan who saw the series’ latest instalment this afternoon, I’m compelled to throw some of my initial spoiler-free thoughts out there. Plus, in places, commentary on those other reviews.

For starters, if you have read any other reviews, you’ll know it begins with a helluva pre-titles sequence; perhaps the only part of the film to have attracted unqualified universal praise. A big opening action scene has become one of the series’ most iconic elements, and Spectre contends (against stiff competition) to be considered the best yet. Too stiff, in my view. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic opener, with one of the entire series’ best shots, but the very best of them all? That’s just hyperbole because it’s the newest.

It leads into the title sequence — another of the series’ most famed elements, of course. No details, because I know that I wouldn’t want anyone to spoil it for me, but I thought it had some strong imagery without being amongst Daniel Kleinman’s very best work (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, Skyfall). Sam Smith’s insipid song is slightly less irritating in context.

Most reviews will also contain a version of one of these two comments: either, “they’ve finally brought back the classic Bond formula, but integrated into the Craig-era style — how wonderful”; or, “they’ve merely brought back the classic Bond formula, albeit in the Craig-era style — what a regression”. You only have to look at the Rotten Tomatoes pull quotes (at the time of writing — these will surely change once US critics oust UK ones from the front page) to see this played out. It’s true that Spectre is much more like one’s idea of a “classic Bond film” than any of Craig’s previous films were, but it didn’t strike me quite so much as it clearly struck others. As to whether that’s a deliberate filmmaking choice which has succeeded beautifully, or a case of lazily falling back on (or being unable to escape) the series’ tropes… well, your mileage — and appreciation — will vary. Considering both Craig and Mendes have mentioned in multiple interviews that they were deliberately bringing back more of the familiar Bond elements (something Craig had been hoping to do gradually ever since Casino Royale jettisoned most of them; indeed, I believe he’s mentioned it regularly since that time, too), I think we must conclude it was a deliberate decision. So the question becomes: do you approve of that decision? If you didn’t like Bond pre-Craig, or think the time for such things has passed, then probably not; if you’re a fan of the series as a whole, however, it may be a welcome return for some recently-absent familiarities.

For all its modernism, there’s one aspect which the Craig era has always had in keeping with earlier Bonds: the casting of the villain. After the Brosnan era gave us Brit Sean Bean, Brit Jonathan Pryce, Brit Robert Carlyle, and Brit Toby Stephens (even if some of them were playing foreigners), Craig’s films have stuck to the older formula of casting a respected/famous European: Dane Mads Mikkelsen, Frenchman Mathieu Amalric, Spaniard Javier Bardem, and now German “European actor du jour” Christoph Waltz. The double Oscar winner is on fine form at times, but there aren’t quite enough of those times. Again, without aiming to spoil anything, I’d say he’s not so much underused as misused.

Action sequences are naturally fantastic, the best coming in the alps. Thomas Newman’s score is as bland and unmemorable as his work last time, while Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is strong, but not quite as striking as Roger Deakins’ in Skyfall. According to most reviews, M has the best line and biggest laugh. I have to say, I’m forced to guess which that line is, because neither of the two contenders I’d put forward provoked much response in my screening.

The real downside comes in a muddled third act, which suggests the Sony leaks were right: either this is the one they criticised for not being good enough, or it’s the written-during-production replacement. Either way, it feels off the ball. Further discussion next time…

I must also mention that Madeleine Swann’s name is a reference to Proust, because I believe it’s beholden on every reviewer to point this out to make sure you know they got the reference. Well, I did too. Now I want a cake. And if you’d like to watch someone eat a Madeleine, check out Blue is the Warmest Colour. (Too far?)

Oh, and I must get in a pun along the lines of, “what were you exSpectreing?”, or “we’ve been exSpectreing you, Mr Bond”. I guess mine should be, “I exSpectred something more.”

My spoilersome full review of Spectre is available here.

Skyfall: Initial Thoughts

The following article is resolutely spoiler free.

My spoiler-filled review/commentary is here.

SkyfallBond is back, and you’ve surely seen the torrent of 4- and 5-star reviews (and the insignificant handful of dissenting voices). I’m pleased to report that the consensus is correct: Skyfall is Bond at his best.

There’s also a lot of potentially interesting stuff to discuss from it, which is why I’m throwing this out now and will try to be more considered in a full review later. I read someone on the ‘net this week express surprise that anyone would be concerned about being spoilered for a Bond film, because “no one” watches them for the plot. Well, that person was clearly a first-degree idiot anyway, but of all the Bonds I think Skyfall offers something different. The climax, for instance, which is stunningly brilliant in all sorts of ways, is not one you could picture occurring in any other Bond film. Aside from that, there are themes and subplots that are, more than ever, best experienced in the film and discussed after.

So leaving that to a later, spoiler-y review, a few thoughts I might return to later. Firstly, this is in many respects Judi Dench’s film. Nothing against Daniel Craig — he’s great too — but she has surely the largest part ever afforded to M; even more so than her featured role in The World Is Not Enough and her increased importance through the previous two Craig outings. She’s given some relatively meaty stuff to play and, of course, Dench is more than up to the task. Plus Javier Bardem makes for a great villain. Some have compared him to Heath Ledger’s Joker, but that undersells it — he’s camp, but nowhere near that over the top.

This shot isn't in the filmTechnically speaking, the film looks gorgeous thanks to Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Best looking Bond ever? There’s little I can think of to dispute that. Obviously it could be said to lack some of that ’60s glamour, but from a purely photographic perspective, it shines. (Incidentally, this shot isn’t actually in the film.) I’m less sold on Thomas Newman’s score. While in no way bad, and with undoubted sparing but precise use of the Bond theme, it didn’t always click for me. The fact I at times felt like I was listening to cues from Lemony Snicket did it no favours. I love that film and I love its score, but it has no place here.

Daniel Kleinman is back on title sequence duties, and the work he’s delivered is second to none. Familiar yet also innovative, whatever you think of Adele’s Skyfoal theme, Kleinman has delivered an instant-classic sequence to go with it.

The action sequences are well done, which can be a worry when you hire a more dramatically-minded director, but there’s some stunning stuff. Nonetheless it’s to the writers’ and director’s credit that people are more likely to come away talking about events in the plot than “wasn’t it cool when X exploded, or when A did B to C?” But there are some cool bits, and even stuff you’ve seen in the trailers has a better or different impact in the film itself. One stunt, just part of the familiar montage seen in most of the trailers, even drew a laugh at my screening (in a good way).

This is the 50th anniversary and Skyfall has acknowledgements of that. This, for fans, would be even worse spoiler territory than the plot — Martin, Aston Martinhonestly, there perhaps aren’t as many twists as you might expect in that department, but the ways they’ve nodded to the franchise’s history are sublime. Die Another Day was ever so conscious it was the 20th film and was stuffed with blatant callbacks throughout. It’s kind of fun, but a bit on the nose. Skyfall is more subtle and therefore more effective. But, as noted, those would perhaps be the worst things to spoil, so I’ll tally my favourites later.

In closing, I’m not sure that Skyfall is, as some have claimed, the best Bond ever. It is, perhaps, too atypical for that. But then so are From Russia With Love and Casino Royale, to one degree or another, and I’d have no problem placing those at the top of such a list. No, what’s really required before such a decree is multiple viewings — Die Another Day was well-received on release but is now widely derided; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service suffered years of neglect before its relatively-recent re-assessment (Quantum of Solace, conversely, is still waiting for such a re-evaluation). In short, Skyfall may well be the best Bond film ever made, but only time will tell that. Until then, you can be certain that it’s bloody brilliant.

The Dark Knight Rises: Initial Thoughts

The Dark Knight RisesEveryone and their mother will be writing about The Dark Knight Rises over the next few days — I’m sure there’s already been an explosion in articles, blog posts and comments on both, not to mention various related terms trending on twitter almost constantly for most of the week already — so I figured I may as well add my voice to all the thousands shouting into the dark. But rather than a full review (which I’ll save for when things have quietened down a little, and perhaps there’s some kind of consensus or even just other reactions to respond too), here’s a couple of stray thoughts and paragraphs that immediately struck me.

Naturally, this is all spoiler free.

Christopher Nolan’s film is properly epic, and a proper trilogy-closer too. We’re so used to superhero stories that never end that even when he said this would be an ending I half expected something spectacularly open-ended. But no, this is as much a fullstop as we’re ever likely to see on a big-screen superhero… unless it proves really popular and they all start doing it, of course. It feels really weird, but only because it’s not something we’re used to.

The epic part has its pros and its cons. It creates a grand close to the trilogy, but it’s a very busy film and arguably the makers bit off more than they could chew. There’s probably enough story and characters for two whole films here, and maybe they should have pulled back a bit on some threads. Equally, that sense of scale creates the uniquely epic sensation, and maybe it will reward repeated viewings and more leisurely contemplation, each apparently-short moment loaded with information. Or perhaps not — it is literally something only time can tell.

There’s been some backlash already, and though I’ve only skimmed it the feeling I get is mostly one of mismanaged expectations, rather than flaws of the film itself. It’s definitely more comic book-y than The Dark Knight, but only about as much so as Batman Begins. That has clearly disappointed some, but may delight others, and not bother others still. The marketing is part of the problem: the final trailer’s slow, measured, elegiacal style suggested Superhero Movie As Art, whereas Nolan has instead delivered a proper summer blockbuster — albeit one with a more measured pace and less frenetic action than usual. It’s more ‘traditional’ in that respect — I’d wager the pacing is similar to a blockbuster of 20 years ago, rather than the non-stop-bombast we get today.

I also think it might have benefited from a title change — the fan-mooted Gotham City seems ever so apt. Perhaps that would have aligned some expectations in the right direction. Ultimately, you see, this isn’t A Batman Film for the people who want that — it’s The Conclusion Of Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne Story. And I think that’s fine, but perhaps you need to expect that, or at least be open to it as a possibility.

Stray thoughts:

On BD I may watch it with subtitles, not just for Bane (one review I read noted that some of Gordon’s lines “seem to get lost in his moustache”, which is an amusing way of putting the fact that half the cast offer muffled lines at some point; could just be cinema sound systems though).

Criticism of Nolan’s action direction, which has gone on since Begins, is increasingly unwarranted. Some may feel there isn’t enough action, or that what we get doesn’t go on in enough detail, but that’s the style of these films — they’re story movies with action sequences, not Action Movies. The previous two were the same. But the actual shooting and cutting of the action we do get is never less than fine.

Related to the epic-ness, I’ve seen numerous complaints of poor pacing or a slow middle. I didn’t feel that once. Similarly, this epic-ness may be why it can feel certain cast members are underused. The one that surprises me is Matthew Modine — is he really a big enough name for his supporting role here to be labelled “underused”? I didn’t think so. The stand out for me was Michael Caine, who may bring a tear to your eye, but there are several other noteworthy performances.

This is why I’m going to write a full review later, though this has already turned out a tad long.

The big question on everyone’s lips has always been, can it equal or better The Dark Knight? I don’t think it does. I didn’t ever really think it could, so perhaps I just correctly managed my expectations in that regard. But it not being as good as one of the greatest action-thrillers ever made doesn’t mean it isn’t a fantastic film in its own right, and it has a tone and a feel that’s both connected to the previous two Nolan Bat-pics and distinctly its own.

I think it’s wonderful stuff.

My ‘official’ drabble-length review can now be read here.

Quantum of Solace: Initial Thoughts (no spoilers)

Quantum of SolaceQuantum of Solace isn’t as good as Casino Royale; though I should immediately qualify that statement by saying that the previous Bond movie is not only one of my favourites of the series, but also one of the best action-thrillers ever made. It would’ve been some feat indeed for QoS to top it.

As it is, director Marc Forster doesn’t really try. Casino Royale was about a poker game; QoS is about bringing down a significant player in a worldwide Secret Evil Organisation — but it’s the former that’s more epic. Bond rattles around the world, from action sequence to action sequence, at a rate of knots. There’s a sense that Forster, who has never made an action film before and was initially reluctant to take this one on, has treated this as the time he tried an Action/Spy Movie and so thrown everything at it. There’s a car chase, a bike chase, a roof-top chase, a foot chase, a plane chase/fight, gunfights, fist fights, knife fights, sneaking around, going in all guns blazing, betrayals, reversals, having to be a maverick agent because Bond’s right while his superiors refuse to trust him… And all this squeezed into the shortest Bond film yet made.

In truth, the running time isn’t really a problem. The film doesn’t come up for air until quite far in, but if one pays attention (and can remember Casino Royale — this really is a direct sequel) the plot can be followed well enough and you’re not likely to get bored. It’s a tad ironic that Forster was chosen because of his Oscar-nominated ability to do Character Drama and the like, and yet has wound up crafting such a relentlessly action-packed entry in the series. QoS is perhaps at its best when getting stuck into the meatier scenes between Bond and M, or Bond and Camille, or Bond and a returning character from the last film. The action scenes occasionally had too much of a Bourne vibe for my taste. I love the Bourne films, but the Bond films are different, and I don’t want a handheld camera shoved so close you can barely see anything, and even when you can the next cut is only 0.4 seconds away.

There are other flaws. I don’t mind Bond being light on humour, and it does at least mean when the jokes come they’re all the more welcome, but I think Casino Royale‘s torture scene exemplified the overall mix the rebooted Bond should aim at: dark, gritty, nasty, real… but the scene also got the biggest laughs of any part when I saw it at the cinema. Bond doesn’t need the campness of Moore or Brosnan, or even as much humour as Connery injected, but I think it could do with more than Dalton had, and The Craig Era has now reached that level of humour-dearth. On the flipside of that argument, this is a darker story all round… but I’ll have to save the end of that argument for my spoilery review at a later date.

My other main complaint is probably the title sequence. I like the song, personally, but MK12’s titles are bland, generic, and too colourful for either the film or the song. They’d look fine on a tie-in video game (in fact, they do — I saw it on YouTube), but in the film itself I almost began to wonder what they were thinking. I may have some residual distaste for the dropping of Daniel Kleinman here — certainly, I haven’t seen anyone else write about them; but then Proper Critics tend to have other things on their mind — especially after he created one of the best main titles ever for Casino Royale, but I sincerely hope they bring him back for the next film.

As for the next film, I think QoS will leave some with a feeling of, “well that’s that out of the way — next!” In truth, it’s not that bad. It suffers by following the exceptional quality of Casino Royale, and also being so tied to the former’s story, but despite that pulls a well-above-average action-thriller out of the bag. I expect it will continue to receive a mixed response from critics and audiences, which is more due to people’s expectations than the film’s inherent quality, but that’s the way things go. As far as I’m concerned, Bond’s back, and that’s always a good thing.

A fuller review of Quantum of Solace — I have a lot more to say! — will appear as #73 in the next few weeks, following my reviews of After the Sunset, Stay, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Hitman, St. Trinian’s, The Invasion, and Casino Royale.

Indy 4: Initial Thoughts (no spoilers)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullI couldn’t make it to the local midnight showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so instead I plumped for the next one on the largest local screen (which is also the cheapest student rate locally — hurrah!) A whole 11 hours extra waiting…

The film has now been out in the UK for just over 14 hours, and goodness knows how long elsewhere, not to mention last Sunday’s premiere at Cannes, so the ‘net is already packed with thousands of opinions and full-bodied reviews (almost 3,000 people have already rated it on IMDb, unsurprisingly placing it in the Top 250). Hundreds of thousands more will follow in the ensuing hours, days, weeks and years — I’m sure discussion of Indy isn’t going away soon. Nonetheless, I’m throwing out my thoughts onto my little plot of webspace, just in case anyone cares. I’ll post a proper review another time, but these are a quick handful of reactions having finished the film less than an hour ago. They are, as the title notes, spoiler-free.

From the first shot it’s clear that a playful, entertaining spirit will pervade the film. It’s a bit of a slow open after that, but once it kicks into gear it’s excitement all the way. There are several exciting sequences, most notably the much-trailed jungle chase, so there’s no disappointment there. It also has the best idea for a sword fight since Pirates of the Caribbean 2. The MacGuffin is decent enough — not as iconic as the Ark or the Holy Grail, perhaps, but it more than serves its purpose. There are fewer quotable lines than you might hope, but the dialogue is still witty. It’s occasionally a bit silly too, but most of it’s in-keeping with the near-B-movie spirit of the franchise.

Indy’s age is playfully acknowledged, but it doesn’t become an excuse — he still gets plenty of action and drives the story. There are nice references to his earlier adventures (including the TV series) and what he’s been doing for the last 20 years. Most fans will appreciate that, I think. One might argue (and some reviews have) that a few actors are underused in their supporting roles, but this is Ford’s film and they’re no worse than, say, Sallah in Raiders and Last Crusade — I doubt they cast John Hurt, for example, and then wrote him a relatively small part. As with the opening image, Spielberg ends the film with another playful beat aimed primarily at fans.

To rank Crystal Skull in relation to the original trilogy, it’s the third best — but that’s behind Raiders, a certified classic, and Last Crusade, one of the first films I ever saw and which I love dearly. Aside from those, it stands head and shoulders above many other action/adventure films. Will it hold up as well as Raiders has in 27 years’ time? Who can say. But right now, it’s damn fine entertainment.

A proper review of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will appear as #32 in the next few days, following my review of Iron Man.