Saturday, November 15, 2008

How The West Was Reviewed, plus Quantum Notes

My "NoZone" review of HOW THE WEST WAS WON, featured in the December 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND (pictured), is now up on their website here. Furthermore, Kim Newman has a superb review of QUANTUM OF SOLACE in this issue, but you'll have to buy the magazine -- or at least rifle its pages on the newsstand -- to read it.

I saw QUANTUM OF SOLACE myself this week and agree with the general condemnation of the opening action sequence, which is so chaotically shot and edited that it's impossible to really tell much of what's going on or feel any of the consequences. I did notice that it was shot around a road tunnel location that features prominently in Mario Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK. Of course, feeling (or rather not feeling) is one of the movie's big themes, so it's possible that emotional disconnection is what director Marc Forster was going for here, but that doesn't excuse bad filmmaking. Basically, if an action sequence already has ten or more different things happening, often half of that number in frame at any given time, its success is reliant on the audacity of its staging, on mise en scène, and not on hopped-up, Avid-happy editing. The sequence looks well-planned, just poorly executed -- the stunt people must have been particularly pissed to see how the risks they took were glossed over by fashionably overdriven editing technology. Follow that with a dullish main titles sequence (not by Daniel Kleinman) and a Jack White theme song ("Another Way To Die") that's... um, not bad on its own terms, just inappropriate and unmemorable, and QUANTUM OF SOLACE is basically a lame horse before it has a chance to get out the gate.

Daniel Craig protects Olga Kurylenko in one of the better scenes from QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

But it gets better. The sequence in the opera house I found impressive, both in its staging and in its absolutely coked-out, numbed-up state of abstraction, but also because it gives this rather stripped-down adventure an opportunity to showcase some of the worldly opulence that defines what a Bond film is, or at least should be. Daniel Craig is a compelling Bond once again, though Bond himself doesn't continue to evolve in this continuation of the CASINO ROYALE storyline; in a sense, QOS betrays the final shot of the previous film by putting Bond back on the faster-and-furiouser "how 007 became such a hardass" track. I was impressed by leading lady Olga Kurylenko (who incidentally was the vampire lady from PARIS, JE T'AIME featured on the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #144), all the moreso because she's the first Bond girl who isn't treated as a Madonna or a whore (or at least a disposable luxury item); he can see that she's damaged goods like he is, and doesn't take undue advantage. The films have come a long way from women with names like Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead, and as Daniel Craig's Bond develops, it will be interesting to see what genus this series replaces them with. (Actually, there is a character here who's named on the cast list as Strawberry Fields, but she insists on being called "just Fields." Even so, Strawberry Fields isn't quite the same as calling her, say, Tempest Geespot; it actually harkens back to the Sergeant Pepper who worked at Scotland Yard in the Edgar Wallace krimis of the late 1960s, a proper if unintended tip of the hat to a film series that helped inspire this one.) Mathieu Amalric gives an interesting performance as the villain, but I've grown tired of his kind: the scrawny, decadent, greedy entrepreneurs who engineer outrageously contrived plots to garner them more worldly power than their apparent billions can provide. This kind of greed may be true to post-Gordon Gecko capitalism, but Bond villains should be larger than life and their plans should build to grandiose coups de theâtre, not bigger and more corrupt business deals. The movie strikes a genuine frisson with a passing visual reference to GOLDFINGER, but as good as it looks, as tragic a note as it strikes, it doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny; it's one of those ideas that is almost good enough to work but, almost immediately, shows a bankrupt brain trust raiding the franchise's jukebox for greatest hits. (I'll take advantage of that music analogy to add that I admired David Arnold's score, among his best and most original work for the series.)

I guess what I'm saying is that they should have saved this image for a proper remake of GOLDFINGER -- and I hate to say this, folks, but Fleming only wrote so many books and, if Barbara Broccoli and company are desperate enough to call their latest blockbuster QUANTUM OF SOLACE, remakes are inevitable. But look on the bright side: they might consider being faithful to the books the second time around. It worked for CASINO ROYALE.

PS: On a different topic, I want to send positive thoughts to my favorite living novelist, J.G. Ballard, on the occasion of his 78th birthday. His most recent volume of autobiography, MIRACLES OF LIFE, confessed that he is now living with advanced prostate cancer and I hope the day is at least passing comfortably.

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