SPECTRE lacks the freshness of Casino Royale or Skyfall, but pretty good for the fourth entry in the Craig series

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SPECTRE’s opening set-piece instantly reminded me of Orson Welles’ brilliant 3 ½ minute single-take achievement in Touch of Evil. Unlike that 1958 classic, this 4 minute sequence is only appears to be a continuous tracking shot but in fact has a couple of carefully hidden transitions. Nevertheless, it is a richly mounted, incredibly detailed and meticulously choreographed sequence, consisting of 2000+ extras, all of whom stay in character even in wide and long shots.

Sam Smith’s new theme song Writing’s on the Wall is reasonably good when paired with the title sequence, but will not challenge my Top 3 favourites – Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill, Tina Turner’s Goldeneye and A-ha’s The Living Daylights; of course, Paul McCartney’s iconic Live and Let Die now probably transcends these mundane lists.

The overall story arc is simple enough to describe – Bond follows up on a tip to kill a man and then investigate the secret organization he works for. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a personal connection with the man who has been pulling the strings of globally organized crime over the years. The execution of this simple story is quite complex though and sometimes it’s tough to keep track of why exactly Bond is in a particular part of the world – Mexico, London, Rome, Austria and Morocco – except in order to set up a spectacular sequence in an exotic location!

And spectacular they are. Everything looks fabulous in this movie, including Bond in his perfectly fitting Tom Ford O’Connor suit (only about USD 4000 at Harrod’s). If indeed this is going to be his last Bond, then certainly Mr. Craig will be going out on a high, as he hardly seeming to have aged since Casino Royale nine years ago. Equally eye-catching are his co-star Léa Seydoux and his car, the Aston Martin DB10 prototype.

Product placement has been toned down, but just enough to allow the featured brands to run their own Bond-related promotions off-screen. Aston Martin and Omega are the two brands explicitly visible on-screen, but brands like Tom Ford, Sony phones and Belvedere Vodka are certainly riding on the association.

Throughout the film, there are echoes of the past for Bond loyalists to pick up on. The mountaintop Hoffler Klinik where Seydoux’ character Dr. Madeleine Swann works looked like Blofeld’s similarly placed allergy research institute in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond and Dr. Swann’s dinner date on the Oriental Desert Express is a nod to his and Vesper Lynd’s first meeting in Casino Royale.

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Later on, the fight sequence between Bond and Hinx (Dave Bautista from Guardians of the Galaxy) is reminiscent of the one between Sean Connery’s Bond and strongman Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love.

I get a bit worried with this new trend of referencing old events in franchise movies. JJ Abrams did it in Star Trek Into Darkness and it came off poorly in Terminator: Genisys. It’s a bit of a gimmick and seems like lazy writing to me. Or maybe it was just coincidence and I am looking too hard for such connections!

There is no femme fatale this time around unless you count Monica Belucci in a use-and-throw role who does not even have the good grace to get killed. I missed having a character like Famke Janssen’s unhinged Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye or Bérénice Marlohe’s stunning and tragic Séverine in Skyfall or even Caroline Munro’s irritating helicopter pilot Naomi from The Spy Who Loved Me (whose destruction I thoroughly enjoyed at the tender age of 9).

I should be writing more about Christoph Waltz’ performance; not only is he one of my top character actors, he is also a two-time Oscar winner and plays an iconic Bond villain – history was waiting to be made. However, he is strangely tame in the film; I actually thought he was more menacing with his shadowy presence in the trailers than he was when actually seen in the movie. I can understand that director Sam Mendes would not have wanted him to ham it up like previous Bond villains nor do a repeat of Waltz’ own tongue-in-cheek performance as SS Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Whatever the case, I felt that Javier Bardem’s Silva was far more menacing and disturbing in Skyfall.

I also missed Judi Dench. At the end of Skyfall, I very much welcomed Ralph Fiennes as the new M. His character Gareth Mallory had shown a certain spiritedness throughout the film which I thought would serve him well as the new boss of MI6. But in SPECTRE, Fiennes’ M is an emasculated leader, tagging along behind his new boss ‘C’ (played by Andrew Scott, last seen as Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock) and mouthing pedantic phrases about democracy. Likewise, Naomie Harris, who made such an impression as field agent turned executive assistant in Skyfall, seemed to be missing her spark. I thought about this and realized that this is the truth of life in large corporations (even MI6), which is that even omni-powerful bosses have their own boss to be afraid of and the brightest of talent can eventually get ground down by the pressures of the job! Perhaps their seeming fatigue is a reflection of director Sam Mendes’ own state of mind, considering that he has been working on 2 consecutive Bond films for the better part of the last five years.

Looking back at all my comments, it may seem like I have a lot to quibble about, but it really is only quibbling. And that’s because Skyfall set up such high expectations, which were even further enhanced with that brilliant opening sequence. Thereafter, the film suffers a bit due to the long running time and a bit due to some lazy script writing and editing. But overall, it is a great-looking movie, featuring a lead actor absolutely in his element that ends with on a surprisingly noble and conventionally happy (but welcome) ending. Go see it! It may be the last time we’ll see Daniel Craig on screen as the iconic 007.


And the most successful Bond movie ever is…

I woke up this morning to the news that Skyfall had broken the US record for the best opening weekend for a Bond film, with an estimated 3-day gross of $ 87.5 million. There has been a lot of talk in the past few days about how Daniel Craig is the most ‘bankable’ Bond ever, with his 3 films together heading for a global gross of $2 billion and a combined US gross exceeding $500 million, thereby exceeding the US earnings of Pierce Brosnan’s 4 films.

But of course, we all know that ticket prices have experienced significant inflation over the years. And therefore, shouldn’t the term ‘bankable’ or ‘successful’ refer to the Bond actor who has sold the most tickets?

So, I went to my trusty resource, boxofficemojo.com and checked their database for the number of tickets sold by each of the Bond movies…the caveat is that for old movies, they have this information only for the US, not the international box office.

I decided to look at both opening weekend tickets as well as total tickets sold during the entire theatrical run.

The site has been tracking opening weekends since the late ’70s, so I could look at information from Moonraker (1979) till Skyfall. And indeed, Skyfall is the opening weekend champ in terms of tickets sold, with 11.2 million tickets. The runners-up have been the last 3-4 Bond films with 7-9 million tickets sold on opening weekend. This is not very surprising, as the obsession to maximize opening weekend grosses by releasing movies ultra-wide is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the last 10-15 years. In the earlier days, studios were content to allow a film to ‘find its audience’ through word of mouth, frequently opening it in limited number of theaters in the big cities and then slowly expanding it out through the country. It was not uncommon for a successful film to be in theaters for close to a year, whereas these days most films open very big and then burn out relatively quickly in a matter of weeks.

So, rather than opening weekend data, I was much more interested in checking the total tickets sold through the entire theatrical run. And, going by that metric, the most successful Bond film in US box office history is Thunderball, with an estimated 74.8 million tickets sold through its run back from Christmas of 1965 through 1966. Its predecessor Goldfinger gets the silver medal with 66.3 million tickets sold from its Christmas launch in 1964. Of course, those were the heydays of movie going in the US, with very limited forms of alternate entertainment and also the height of the Cold War, making the Bond films extremely topical. The 3rd most successful Bond film is the follow-up to Thunderball, which is You Only Live Twice with 36 million tickets sold in 1967. Never again did Bond movies ever reach these heights; all the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig films so far have sold about 25 million tickets during their theatrical runs and perhaps Skyfall may get close to 30 million.

So, while I am a big fan of Daniel Craig, I would hesitate before naming him the most bankable Bond. I feel that statistically, the crown still belongs to good old Sean Connery.

One Skyfall to rule them all…

I have just come home from the premiere of Skyfall (Thank you Sony and AXN for the invitation!).

Well, it’s official as far as I am concerned…this is the best 007 film, period.

After the disaster that was Quantum of Solace, we can all be forgiven for setting our expectations a bit lower, but any which way one looks at it, Sam Mendes has just gone to the top of the Bond directors’ class. Mr. Mendes, I was ambivalent about American Beauty, but I loved Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. I can’t wait to see what you will do next.

Much of the credit must go to the script, which once again is from Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, but unlike the first two Craig films which were co-written by Paul Haggis (he of Crash and Million Dollar Baby fame), this one is co-written by John Logan, who has previously been Oscar-nominated for scripting Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and The Aviator and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. One can see strong elements of Gladiator in Skyfall, especially the conflict between the ‘hero making a comeback’ and his seemingly more powerful adversary. But the real trick is the way the script injects bits of playfulness into the story without making the scenes campy (yes, I am referring to those Roger Moore films!). And some of the playfulness comes from the most surprising quarter…none other than Bond villain Silva, played masterfully by Javier Bardem (3 Oscar nominations and 1 win so far; I wish he would get one more for this performance). Never have I seen a Bond villain make Bond uncomfortable in quite the manner that Silva was able to do in this film…and to get a laugh out of the audience while doing it too! On the flip side, this Bond villain also seemed to have the most depth and once again, no praise can be too great for Bardem’s performance in a role which always carries a risk of going over the top.

French TV actress Berenice Marlohe makes a fantastic addition to the Bond line of femme fatales, while Naomie Harris shows a lot of spunk as an MI6 agent. But ultimately the strongest female showing continues to come from Dame Judi Dench as M, this time having to also deal with the politics of having a new boss.

The message consistently delivered throughout the film is that “old can still be gold” and will easily resonate with anyone who belongs to my generation. Even the new Q, played by a young Ben Whishaw, appears comfortably old-fashioned in his sweater and mussed hair.

The only disappointment was the theme song by Adele. It sounded a lot better when I listened to the leaked clip on the internet than it actually did during the opening credits. Tina Turner’s Goldeneye still tops my list when it comes to Bond songs.

Overall, an outstanding start to the Fall blockbuster season and I can’t wait to see how the box office for this movie plays out over the next couple of months.

My year-end movie list

It’s that time of the year again when Hollywood rolls out their award contenders as well as some big-budget feel-good blockbusters.

There are 7 movies which are on my must-watch list, another 5 which I will watch, either because they will be Oscar front-runners or because they come from big names, but am not necessarily interested in the subject matter or actors involved. And there are 3 high profile releases which I have no interest whatsoever in (but will probably end up watching anyway at some point). I have also thrown in two films under the heading Guilty Pleasures!

I’m going to start with the 3 big ones which I am not interested in:-

  • Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 – I have watched the entire series so far. I really enjoyed the first film, but I feel the acting and actors have increasingly looked more suited to a daytime soap than a big-screen film…nothing against it, but not really my cup of tea. And I am now thoroughly irritated with the Kristen Stewart approach to acting which mainly consists of furrowing her brow. No doubt, being the last in the series, the film will have a monster opening weekend. Stephanie Meyer fans can next look forward to the film adaptation of her scifi novel, The Host in March 2013.
  • Life of Pi – I am a huge fan of Ang Lee’s work, but have no interest in a story about a boy named Pi stuck on a boat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I don’t see the point at all and the trailer did nothing to help me change my mind. I can understand that Ang Lee would want to push his own boundaries just as he did when he directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hulk, so I hope for his sake that the film is at least a critical success if not a commercial one.
  • Frankenweenie – I had already covered this in a post soon after the trailer came out. I have watched every single Tim Burton film, except the latest Dark Shadows and his animated 2005 film Corpse Bride, but I haven’t really enjoyed one of his films since Sleepy Hollow back in 1999. And I find his stop-motion animation style too creepy, unless taken in small doses like in Beetlejuice.

Then come the 5 obligatory viewings:-

  • The Master – I have no real interest in this story of a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who creates a quasi-religious cult and has a troubled relationship with his most fervent disciple (Joaquin Phoenix). Having said that, I had no real interest in the story of a man who discovered an oil field and had troubled relationships with his son and with an over-zealous preacher, but 2007’s There Will be Blood remains one of my all-time favourite films, so I am certainly going to give Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort a fair chance, not to mention that it is most likely to win the Best Picture Oscar in February.
  • Cloud Atlas – I was so looking forward to the return of the Wachowski siblings, but was quite underwhelmed by the trailer. This hard-to-describe novel by David Mitchell was always going to be a challenge for any one director, so the producers hired a team of 3 directors, i.e. the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to bring it to life. I hope that audiences are able to decipher the plot consisting of 6 nested stories beginning on a Pacific Island in the 1850’s, progressing to a distant post-apocalyptic future and then concluding back where it began. All of this spread over 3 hours with each actor playing multiple characters across the nested stories. I so want to like this movie, but something tells me The Wachowskis will continue the search for their first hit since the Matrix trilogy.
  • Les Miserables – Musicals have never been my cup of tea, but they are so few and far between these days that there is always a big buzz when a Moulin Rouge or Hairspray or Chicago is released. I’ve watched them all, but wouldn’t care for a repeat viewing of any of them. In this case, I certainly can’t say “No” to a film starring Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter…and directed by Tom Hooper (director of The King’s Speech and the outstanding 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams)!
  • Silver Linings Playbook – I am not a Bradley Cooper fan and his presence in films like the Hangover series have done nothing to improve the situation, but I am intrigued by the buzz from this film which won the People’s Choice Award at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. I absolutely loved director David O. Russell’s Desert Storm-set action-comedy Three Kings from 1999, but haven’t seen his critically acclaimed boxing drama The Fighter from 2010. This film represents a change of pace, a dramedy, somewhat similar to his I Heart Huckabees from 2004.
  • Killing Them Softly – New Zealander Andrew Dominik has directed just 3 films in his career. The first was Chopper in 2000, which introduced the world to a certain Eric Bana. Then in 2007, he released The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt to great critical acclaim. He now reunites Brad Pitt in this crime-thriller which is already generating awards buzz, having been nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Guilty Pleasures

  • Jack Reacher – After the embarrassment of Rock of Ages this summer, Tom Cruise returns to a more comfortable setting in this screen adaptation of crime novel One Shot, one of a series of novels by Lee Child featuring former Army Major Jack Reacher. Having said that, I cannot imagine what the studio was thinking when they cast the 5’7” Cruise to play a character described as being 6′ 5″ tall with a 50-inch chest and having ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. Why even bother to call it an adaptation of a Jack Reacher novel and risk upsetting the hard core Reacher fans? Anyway, I am a big Tom Cruise fan, so I count this film as a guilty pleasure.
  • Taken 2 – In early 2009, Liam Neeson had his biggest career hit as a leading man, playing former CIA operative Bryan Mills who creates mayhem among East European human traffickers after they take his daughter. There is nothing as enjoyable as a good old-fashioned action thriller where the good guy takes apart the bad guys one by one. Fans have been looking forward to seeing more of Neeson’s character, so writer-producer Luc Besson has come up with a new adventure, this time the bad guys specifically target Bryan Mills’ family in revenge for the people he took out in the first movie.

And finally, the 7 movies I am really looking forward to:-

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A few months ago, Peter Jackson delighted his fans with the announcement that he had shot enough footage of The Hobbit story to produce 3 films, not the 2 as originally planned. The films are adapted not just from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also depict incidents from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings books and from Tolkien’s companion-piece publication The Silmarillion, hence the over-abundance of available material and the opportunity to feature characters from LOTR like Galadriel and Legolas. The build-up to the release of the first film has been perfect, with the release of a number of photos of the 13 hobbits comprising the Company of Dwarves and recently the release of an iPad App with lots of goodies. I expect/ hope this will be the biggest box office hit of the fall season and also that it will be as critically acclaimed as the original trilogy. The latest trailers with their four different endings are superb.
  • Django Unchained – I raved about the Django Unchained trailer when it first came out. It’s a new Quentin Tarentino film, not much more needs to be said.
  • Skyfall – I am really looking forward to seeing Daniel Craig chug a can of Heineken in the upcoming Bond film…and of course, eager to see if they can get the Bond franchise on track after the mess that was Quantum of Solace. I am looking forward to some of the gritty storytelling that director Sam Mendes put on show with Road to Perdition back in 2002 (interesting bit of trivia here – Road to Perdition featured a then-unknown Craig playing the cowardly son of mob boss Paul Newman).
  • Lincoln – Daniel Day Lewis brings his famous method acting chops to play the great American President. I expect to see the full bells and whistles which we have come to expect from Spielberg, hopefully it doesn’t become another Amistad. I was surprised at Lincoln’s nasal voice after years of hearing him portrayed with a deep sonorous voice. There has been a fair bit of internet chatter about the voice, which is apparently historically accurate. I think a lot of viewers will really have a problem with this, but hopefully the rest of the movie will be engaging enough.
  • Argo – It’s interesting that Ben Affleck, an actor I have taken such a dislike to, has directed two of the most gripping films in the last 5 years – Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both set in his native New England. This time around with Argo, he goes across to Iran for a fact-based drama-thriller in which he also acts (and looks quite good in that beard, by the way).
  • Hyde Park on the Hudson – I am a sucker for period dramas – Downton Abbey being my current favourite – and there has been steady buzz building up about this FDR biopic, featuring funnyman Bill Murray as The President and directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame.
  • Flight – This is Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. It features Denzel Washington as a pilot who becomes a hero after safely landing a flight in distress, but the subsequent investigation reveals that he may not be a hero after all. Denzel does this sort of role very well (remember Courage Under Fire?) and I am hoping Zemeckis has not lost his edge after making only motion-capture pictures for the past decade.
  • On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s beat-era cult classic finally gets the big screen treatment, directed fittingly by Brazilian ‘road movie expert’ Walter Salles, famous for the touching Central Station and the delightful Motorcycle Diaries. On the Road features a great cast of actors including Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams and oh…Kristen Stewart. Well, if I needed a good omen on that last one, it could be the fact that Kristen Stewart played a very short and sweet role in her last road movie Into the Wild. Hopefully the same will be the case here.

Altogether, there is an incredible array of award-winning directors and actors on show in the next few months. Looks like I will have to watch multiple movies on some weekends if I am going to fit in 17 movies from now till end-December!

Daniel Craig and the Girl with the Weird Hair

Ok, you know I am referring to David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular 2005 crime novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Actually the original Swedish title of the book is Män som hatar kvinnor, which translates to ‘Men who hate women’. For those of who you have not read the book, nor watched either the original Swedish movie adaptation or Fincher’s version, that should tell you all you really need to know about the storyline.

Larsson’s book is an excellently written page-turner which exposes the dark underbelly of Swedish society, encompassing incest, prostitution, murder, the role of government in social care, corruption in big business and a general attitude of misogyny. Now surely, these descriptions can apply to many societies (India comes to mind), but also it would be unfair to paint an entire population on the basis of one story. However, the fact that Larsson was a journalist does keep you thinking “this sort of thing must be really happening in Sweden” while reading the book.

I read the trilogy a year ago – actually I read Part 2 first, for some reason – and I literally couldn’t put them down, violence and disturbing subject matter notwithstanding. In the books, the two protagonists, the journalist Mikael Blomqvist and the antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander get almost equal ‘page time’. Once the books were re-titled in English and became global hits, the focus of public attention shifted to Lisbeth Salander…many reviews tacked on ‘lesbian’ in their description of Salander, although in fact, that aspect of her personality, in my opinion, isn’t that significant a part of the story.

In the 2009 Swedish film adaptation, Salander was played by Noomi Rapace, the charismatic Swedish actress who has used the role to launch a Hollywood career – she was the gypsy girl in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and will be seen later this summer in Ridley Scott’s scifi epic Prometheus. In my view, Rapace’s interpretation of the character has now become an integral part of Larsson’s creation, just as much as Daniel Radcliffe has become the visual bookmark for Harry Potter’s character. At least, I believe, this would be the case for European audiences who have seen the movie. Of course, because of the marketing muscle and global footprint that Hollywood enjoys, it is most likely David Fincher’s version that will eventually get more viewers than the Swedish version. But even so, there is no doubt that Rapace’s performance has created the template for Rooney Mara’s interpretation of Salander’s character and for any other movie adaptations that may follow.

Which brings me to the title of this posting. David Fincher’s version seems to give more screen time and importance to Daniel Craig and Mikael Blomqvist’s character. One would argue that this is the sensible thing to do when you have the current James Bond acting the lead male role in your movie. But even so, I really felt that Salander’s character was relegated to a supporting role in the film, not helped by the fact that Rooney Mara, in spite of being is a very good actress, just doesn’t have the screen presence to compete with Mr. Craig. And that strange mini-fringe (or baby bangs, as they are referred to in the US) hairstyle actually makes her look a bit comical. Her famous dragon and wasp tattoos, which are such an integral part of her character in the books are only incidental in the movie.

David Fincher is considered to be one of the great modern American directors. His directing style is effortless and calls very little attention to itself, relying instead of great camera work and seamless editing. However, the subject matter he picks for his movies usually have limited emotional scope and therefore his films end up feeling a bit impersonal. The one big exception is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I think will be considered one of the masterpieces of his career. But all the rest, like The Social NetworkThe Panic Room, Zodiac and The Game tend to fade away from memory soon after viewing and rarely pop up in ‘my favourite movie of all time’ lists.

I think that will end up being the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well. As usual with a Hollywood production of this pedigree, the production design, cinematography, locations and editing are outstanding. The list of supporting actors is impressive, as are their respective performances. Special call out for Christopher Plummer who plays the ageing billionaire Henrik Vangar, the man who hires journalist Mikael Blomqvist to solve a 40 year old mystery. Mr. Plummer, who most of us know as Captain von Trapp from The Sound of Music, is having some of the best years of his professional life in his ’80s. He won the Oscar this year for his portrayal of a gay dad in Beginners and was nominated for his portrayal of Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station a couple of years ago. Another great performance was by Joely Richardson, with her limited screen time as one of the members of the vast and weird Vangar family.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but would still rate it below the book and the Swedish film adaptation.