Friday, July 3, 2009

James Bond review: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Bond is back.

BOND, JAMES BOND: My personal favorite of the series. I think I may have said that before, and when I’m not actually watching this one, I might give the nod to From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or The Man With The Golden Gun. But when I am watching this, I have such an irrepressible grin on my face that I can’t honestly say it’s not my favorite.

Why? Everything I wrote in my GoldenEye review about how the advantage of three decades of 007 mythmaking works to Pierce Brosnan’s advantage is still true of this film. Brosnan’s performance captures the Ideal Bond that has been taking shape in our collective imagination through all these movies. And even more so than in the previous movie, the filmmakers give him a film that supports that performance perfectly. The story, the settings, the secondary characters, the cast, the camera work, the art direction, the music all epitomize what a James Bond movie should be. Stylish, dark, witty, sexy. The quintessence of cool.

Last time we established that Brosnan has the look. Here the whole film has the look. Bond’s brawl with Carver’s thugs at the party in Hamburg, everybody in suits in a black room with a single overhead light; Bond making his escape through Carver’s headquarters building, all white walls and black girders; Bond and Wai Lin in a junk on the South China Sea at dusk; Bond and Paris in the hotel room, and those garters…the film is full of carefully chosen visual elements, each striking in its own right, that collectively live up to the Bond fan’s wildest fantasies.

What is all lives up to is Monty Norman’s original “James Bond Theme.” It was barely heard in GoldenEye, but here it pops up repeatedly. And it’s the highest compliment I can think of that the visuals are worthy of the music every time.

What Makes Bond Bond: When M suggests he exploit his previous relationship with Paris Carver to get at Elliot, Bond resists. Whatever his critics may say about him, Bond is not a woman-hater. This is crucial. He’s a playboy but not an exploiter. That’s why the best Bond girls are those who match him in sophistication or brass.

What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: Drinking alone in the hotel room, waiting for Paris. It’s a nod to two scenes in Dr. No: the one where Bond drinks vodka alone in his hotel room and the one where, having already dispatched Miss Taro, he’s waiting for Dent so he can kill him. Here Bond is drinking alone, looking dashing in his slight deshabille, waiting for some one of Carver’s goons to come for him; part of him hopes it’s Paris, part of him dreads that it might be. And of course it is. Brosnan handles the scene with just the right note of bitter determination. Check out the way he flicks the last few drops from his glass. The quintessence of cool.

BAD GUYS: Back to the classic Goldfinger/Blofeld Bond Villain template. Charismatic lunatic with a mad plot to take over/destroy/extort the world. Actually Carver’s plot isn’t all that much more ambitious than Janus’s in GoldenEye, or Whitford’s in The Living Daylights, but Jonathan Pryce plays it larger than life, unlike Sean Bean, and he’s up to the job, unlike Joe Don Baker. From his veneer of unctuous sincerity to his ridiculous chop-socky mockery of Wai Lin, Pryce is just pure fun to watch. The best Bond villain since Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo.

(It helps that Carver’s plot is a very relevant satire of the media’s relation to world events; in that sense Tomorrow Never Dies gets better with every passing year.)

Götz Otto as Stamper, Carver’s main muscle, is at the very least memorable, with his Billy Idol looks. But he has to share henchman duties with two other guys who are more fun to watch. One is the inimitable Ricky Jay as Gupta, Carver’s tech wizard; his deadpan delivery is a perfect foil for Pryce’s fulsomeness.

The other is Vincent Schiavelli as Dr. Kaufman, the courtly pistol marksman. In everything from his silly mustache to his leather gloves to his overwrought German accent, Kaufman is an original, and deserves a seat in Henchman Valhalla right next to Messrs. Wint and Kidd.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS3 again. Once again we start out with a throwaway Bond girl (one more thing to love about the Brosnan Bonds is that they brought back truly gratuitous sex). This time it’s his Danish teacher at Oxford (Cecilie Thomsen), by which we learn that Bond is a “cunning linguist.” (One of the great double entendres.)

Teri Hatcher’s Paris Carver (a desperate housewife if ever there was one) is the damsel-in-distress type of Bond girl. Hatcher was at the peak of her appeal here, and she has the beauty wattage and the cool to convince you of her hold over 007’s emotions. And she’s every bit as good as Brosnan in their last, doomed love scene.

Then there’s Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin, a rival Chinese agent. It hardly needs to be said, but Yeoh is the real deal. She's the only actress cast as a fellow spy in the series (and there have been many: I’m looking at you, Halle Berry) who has ever looked like a convincing rival or partner for 007. She more than holds her own both on the motorcycle and in that evening dress. Glamor and guts: she’s got it all. Bond Girls don’t come any better than her.

AND VIOLENCE: The precredit action sequence sets a new standard for the series; they’d go out of their way to top it over the next few films. The motorcycle chase through Saigon is also brilliant, reminiscent of the similar scene in Octopussy but making up for that one’s jokiness. The BMW chase in the garage is also a classic, striking just the right balance of light notes and thrills. And speaking of that garage: here’s why we love James Bond movies, when they’re done right. A bunch of thugs are trying to get into Bond’s car, and they can’t, so they start whaling on it with sledgehammers. But they’re impeccably dressed in suits and ties. They don’t even loosen their ties. The quintessence of cool.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Okay, so it’s too bad that the ‘90s series ditched the Aston-Martin for a BMW, and it was worse that we saw so little of the Beamer in GoldenEye (there’s a Woody Allen joke in there somewhere). At least we get a lot of the car here: that chase through the parking garage. Remote control driving, reinflatable tires, on-board missiles, and best of all a cable-cutter at just the right height. Awesome. I mean, we’re approaching You Only Live Twice levels of grooviness here.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Supercool Hamburg and Asian Tiger-era Thailand (standing in for Vietnam); yin and yang. Both shown off to excellent effect.

ETC.: Once again the opening credit sequence is a stunner, with all those x-ray effects adding a touch of paranoia to the sensuality. If you’ve ever seen the video for the Sheryl Crow theme song, though, you may agree that it could have functioned equally well as the title sequence; its visuals are just as striking. The theme song itself is all that and more, a heartbreaker, perfectly catching the romance and foreboding that Brosnan brings to this movie. Meanwhile, k.d. lang’s end-titles song is just as good – it’s a barnburner, sleazy horns and all… I’m aware that in rating this the best of the Bonds, I’m kind of alone, and I don’t know quite how to explain that. In the end, perhaps there’s just no accounting for taste; but I don’t really believe that. I don’t think tastes are necessarily either universal or exportable, but you can try to account for them. In fact, you have to try, if your discussions of art are to be anything more than just thumbs up or down. This whole series of reviews is an attempt to do that…

RATING: 007.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Johnny Depp in Public Enemies

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I saw this last night. We'll see Johnny Depp in anything, even if it doesn't look good, and this looked good.

I enjoyed it. I came away with my usual feeling about Michael Mann films (not that I've seen them all): that he's a master of visuals and violence on a par with Scorsese, but he doesn't try nearly as hard to convince us that there's something socially or artistically redeeming besides the visuals or beneath the violence. Whether that makes Mann or Scorsese the more honest filmmaker is something I think is open to debate, but I do tend to feel a bit uneasy with myself after enjoying a Michael Mann flick. And I did enjoy this one.

A couple of interesting links. Here Elliott Gorn tells you how historically accurate the film is or isn't. I like this line:
Good historical movies can't be entirely accurate (though Hollywood publicists constantly invite us to hold them to that standard, hoping that we'll mistake verisimilitude for history).
"Mistake verisimilitude for history": great phrase. True. But I will say that the verisimilitude of this film was dazzling, and very pleasurable.

This review by Stephanie Zacharek made me perk up for a minute, because she calls it
a folk song rendered in visual shards instead of notes, hopscotching through parts of the Midwest as it follows Dillinger's numerous bank robberies and evasions.
Is she right? The folk song that immediately jumps to my mind, because its subject appears briefly in the film, is "Pretty Boy Floyd" by Woody Guthrie. (Here's Guthrie singing it, and here's Bob Dylan singing the bejeezus out of it.) And if this is any indication (and I'm game for questioning whether any song to which we can attach an author can really be called "folk" - let's give credit where credit's due), then a folk song about these events would have had a less ambiguous take on Dillinger. Either he's a hero or a villain, a Robin Hood or a repentant sinner, or perhaps even all of that, but whatever, you wouldn't have to wonder much what the song thought, or wanted you to think.

But I did wonder through this film exactly what we were supposed to make of Dillinger. And I think that's kind of the point. Certainly that's the point of Johnny Depp's performance, which is closer to the vest than he's played in ages. There's that wonderful little speech he makes to Billie, where he sums up his life in about twenty-five words, then says, "What else do you need to know?" Well, everything, and maybe nothing. Maybe nothing can explain him; maybe nothing more than the Zen-like, Wang Yangming-like direct action approach to life that Clark Gable hints at in that last speech in Manhattan Melodrama ("die like you lived, all of a sudden"). Mann shows Dillinger watching this, and he gives a little smile of recognition, and then he goes and gets shot. But is that all the movie's trying to do with him?

I guess it's all about brands of ambiguity. I'm afraid I made it sound there like I think folk songs are simple, and they aren't: the expression is usually simple, but there's psychological complexity to make your head spin, moral profundity to make your heart sink, and enough resonant ambiguity to stun a Tuvan throat singer. But I came out of this film unsure of how I felt, and unsure if that insecurity was an artistically productive one.

But I sure as shooting enjoyed it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

James Bond review: GoldenEye (1995)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Welcome to the Second Golden Age of Bond.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Consider this. The precredits sequence is set sometime during the later years of the USSR. Cut to the present – “nine years later.” Assuming the present of the film is the present of the film’s release, that sets the precredits sequence in 1986. I.e., one year after A View To A Kill. GoldenEye, in other words, is inviting us to imagine a world in which Pierce Brosnan, not Timothy Dalton, had succeeded Roger Moore. Unfair to Dalton, perhaps, but you’ll get no complaint from me.

Because now it’s time to lay my cards on the table. I think Pierce Brosnan may be the best Bond of all. Not to diminish Connery’s achievements: he created the role, and without him, Brosnan would have done nothing. But Brosnan, and the team that re-created 007 in the late ‘90s, had the benefit of thirty years of mythology. Brosnan had a lot more to work with, as it were, and he works wonders with what he’s got. He plays Bond as we’d always dreamed of Bond – and maybe it took thirty years for us to dream him this well.

He’s got the look. He’s handsome in a way poor Timothy, for all his Shakespearean chops, simply wasn’t; and his handsomeness is dark and dangerous in a way Roger Moore’s, with all his latent bonhomie, never was. He looks brilliant in formal wear. He looks comfortable behind the wheel of an Aston-Martin (or that Beamer). He looks at home at the baccarat table. He looks suitably stiff-ass next to his CIA opposite number. He looks tough in a fight and tender in the clinch. He embodies James Bond.

And of course he reinvents him. Connery’s charm was easy-going. He was the ultimate man in a man’s, man’s, man’s world, and his charm consisted in his assurance that the world could appreciate him – that the world was his. Brosnan’s charm is one of smoldering intensity. He’s the ultimate man in a world that is no longer a man’s world, and because he can no longer depend on the world appreciating him – because it’s no longer his world, precisely - he has to reach inside for strength. It’s not just that he has to deal with female authority (and he deals with it gracefully, for the most part), it’s that all of the certainties that once defined his world have crumbled. It’s no accident that betrayal is the key to the villain here: Brosnan’s Bond, more than any other, is about being true to one’s own code, to which the world is either indifferent or actively hostile.

What Makes Bond Bond: Driving the tank through the streets of St. Petersburg, covered with debris, he straightens his tie. He knows what letter the license plates for Ferraris start with this year – even the counterfeit ones. He has no problem with female authority.

What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: The scene on the beach in Florida before he and Natalya fly to Cuba. He’s brooding about his upcoming confrontation with Trevelyan – he’s brooding. And he looks sexy doing it.

BAD GUYS: Because of his name we shouldn’t be surprised, but Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan/Janus cuts both ways as a Bond villain. As the mysterious head of a crime syndicate with a grandiose plan for world disruption and domination, he’s a Bond supervillain in the classic mold. But as an ex-MI6 agent turned petty bank robber, he’s a grittier, more complex opposite number than the series has perhaps ever seen. And as a former partner of 007’s, he makes the confrontation personal: he knows Bond, and exactly what he stands for, and hates him for it. It’s this intimate knowledge of 007 and his values that makes the character work, and it puts a lot of pressure on Bean. He delivers: he brings to the role a panache that succeeds in suggesting an alternate-universe Bond – a Bond gone bad.

Janus’s co-villain, as it were, is General Ouromov, another well-realized character. Again, the credit goes equally to the writing, which gives us the best Russian character since From Russia With Love, and to the actor, Gottfried John, who’s all menace and no satire. In fact all of the Russian characters here are a lot of fun to watch, due to the restraint with which they’re presented and the skill with which they’re portrayed. No red pajamas here.

Evil Henchman. They go back to the View To A Kill template here, making the main henchman a Bond Girl, but this time it works, because Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp is both one of the great Evil Henchmen and one of the great Bond Girls. The look on her face as she guns down the crew at Severnaya is so hilariously over-the-top - she almost steals the movie.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Let’s count. We start off with Caroline (Serena Gordon), sent to Monte Carlo by MI6 to evaluate Bond, and we end with Natalya (Izabella Scorupco), for an unassailable GS quotient of 2. The question is, can we count Onatopp? From Bond’s perspective, no, but from her’s – judging by the look on her face – we can say yes. In fact, the pleasure was all hers.

Certainly she’s a Bond Girl: a ravishing beauty who engages Bond in innuendo and various other forms of sexual behavior. In fact, she easily makes my Bond Girl Top 5.

As does Izabella Scorupco. Her Natalya is stronger and more competent than the average Bond Girl, even while she displays a girlish accessibility. And she looks fantastic in a miniskirt and tights. We really have an embarrassment of riches in the femme department here, the best one-two punch since Thunderball.

AND VIOLENCE: The opening stunt, bungee-jumping off a dam, sets the tone. We’re in classic Bond action territory with this film. Taut, exciting fistfights and gunfights. All handled with precisely the right balance of humor and suspense. They manage some good sight gags in the tank chase, for example, but they never let the film veer off into jokeland. And the final Luke-Vader moment on the antenna is quite effective, and significant. We get 007 once again exercising his license to kill.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Desmond Llewellyn as Q is the only holdover from the previous regime, and he’s a welcome sight. Certainly by this point he’s showing the strains of age – his comic rhythms aren’t quite as spry as they once were – but it’s nice to have one strand of continuity.

The gadgets, like so much else in this film, are perfect. There are a number of nifty things, but they never overshadow the action. And the one really key toy, the exploding ball-point pen, is effective not because it’s an ingenious device, but because the script used it so well, as a means to bring out the neurotic personality of one character and ratchet up the tension in the climactic scene.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Monte Carlo, Russia, and Cuba. Can’t ask for a better trifecta of Bond locations than that. It was particularly appropriate that the first installment of the resurrected series take a look at post-Soviet Russia. Not just appropriate, but important: the producers needed to tell audiences where Bond stood in this new world, and why he was still important. The Russian setting allowed that, not only demonstrating the kind of villains and villainy the ‘90s could bring, but also the kind of wealth that would make a tuxedoed superspy just the thing. The Brosnan Bonds would make it a point of being classy and glitzy in a way that the series hadn’t seen since the late ‘70s.

ETC.: As we’ve noted, Q is the only survival from the Dalton years. This means M and Moneypenny are both new. And they’re both excellent. Making M a woman was a wise choice, and making that woman Judi Dench was a stroke of genius. Easily the ballsiest M ever. “I prefer bourbon.” Yes… The new Moneypenny, meanwhile, is excellent, a veneer of secretarial dowdiness over an eminently flirtworthy sexiness; and the actress is named Samantha Bond… I suppose retiring Felix Leiter in favor of a new CIA liaison is a nod to continuity, considering Leiter was maimed in LTK; Joe Don Baker as the new guy is much better than he was as the heavy in The Living Daylights… The score may be the one weak point in the film. It’s serviceable but not memorable, and is a bit ginger in its use of the classic themes. It’s by Eric Serra, who also sings the closing-credits song; he sounds like an ersatz Peter Gabriel, and it’s a forgettable song. The title song, however, is a bruiser: Adam Clayton and the Edge from U2 wrote it, and Tina Turner sings it with a lusty power only she possesses. It’s paired with a brilliant set of title visuals that, more than anything up to that point in the film, tell us we’re in a new age. Gone are the elegant and restrained lighting effects Binder used. Now we get surrealist CG landscapes and morphed human figures, in an allegory of the dismantling of the USSR. Very striking, very sensual… Bond was back…

RATING: 007.