Cold War

Bond Legacy: Goldeneye

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When ay where ah kid, this were all fields, as far as the eye could see…

So ended the world’s greatest game of pass the parcel. After much to-ing and fro-ing between them, and with the various shenanigans and machinations of the past six years behind them, the baton finally passed from Timothy Dalton – who was first considered as early as 1969 – to someone who’d been in the frame since the early Eighties, and whose chance looked resolutely to have gone when he had to drop out before The Living Daylights. Maybe that sense of relief is what explains the shit-eating grin that Bond wears at random moments in Goldeneye…

Yes, Pierce Brosnan was the fifth man to inherit the on screen mantle of Britain, nay the world’s, greatest not-that-good-at-being-secret secret agent. His performance in Goldeneye, in the best Bond Legacy tradition, seemed to call on something from each of his predecessors in the role; he had the stern insistence of a man with an English accent who wasn’t actually British (Lazenby), the effortless sophistication and grace that make him look good in a dinner jacket, but also the belief he could handle himself in a fight (Connery), the hard-edged distance of a man that’s seen a lot of suffering (Dalton) and a louche theatricality with a one-liner that made him seem almost dangerously cheesy (Moore, although that maybe does a little disservice to old Rog).

For some reason, when attempting to capture what made the quintessential Bond film, Martin Campbell and the Broccolis made what everyone thought the stereotype of a Bond film was, rather than replicating an actual Bond film. Consequently the style and the stunts are all there, but so are the worst extremes of Seventies Bond, and there’s a moment with Bond and Wade in Cuba when their aside to camera feels closer to the music hall than it does to a classic Bond film. However, audiences lapped it up and this new Bond, serious one minute and leering the next, would largely provide the template for the Brosnan era, for better and for worse.

Goldeneye is without doubt the best of that era, thanks to a number of key elements. Sean Bean’s creepy smoothness as Trevelyan gave this new, modern Bond the ideal mirror in which to view himself, and their fight late on has a crunching physicality to it, a no-holds-barred approach that would also come to categorise the Bonds that followed. Isabella Scorupco might have been a Polish model turned singer turned actress, but she was still able to act rings around many Bond girls that had gone before her, and Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp (also a former model) camped it up delightfully; if you don’t enjoy her delivery of the line “He’s going to derail the train!” then you maybe need a little more joy in your life. But the key elements were the revitalisation of Martin Campbell’s direction and the knowing script that just about managed to avoid tipping over into self-parody. Just.

Thankfully, just like the sixteen films that preceded it, Goldeneye still has something to offer in dictating the path of what is to come.

1. No relic of the Cold War after all

The one doubt in everyone’s mind was whether, in a world without Russian enemies and with high-powered American action movies, Bond was still really needed. The relative failure of Licence To Kill in America and a few other territories had, somewhat unjustly, caused speculation as to if Bond could still cut it. In terms of box office and adjusting for inflation, Goldeneye took nearly twice the total of its predecessor and more than any Bond film since Moonraker, and Goldeneye really showed, for the first time, that Bond could move with the times. Sure, the franchise had often made reference to the latest fad or fashion and tried to hang on the coat-tails of the other big movies of the time, but the Nineties showed how Bond could still thrive in a world without the Iron Curtain. (We’ll gloss over the fact that half of the film is still set in

2. Campbell’s soup-er when it comes to reboots

Martin Campbell had made his name with the TV adaptation of Edge Of Darkness, and he proved key in bringing Bond back to the big screen. So key, in fact, that when Bond returned after another four year hiatus and producers were again looking to put a fresh spin on proceedings, Campbell returned and once again proved his ability to keep enough familiar elements while injecting a shot of individuality and freshness. He’s now in his early sixties, so he should still have enough good years left in him when Michael Fassbender, Andrew Garfield and Will Poulter line up for their reboots in the next twenty years. (Especially when everyone says how much the Poulter years are a return to form after that Garfield fiasco.)

3. Kleinman’s the man, but Serra’s an error

I’ve wrapped the last two lessons together, but they are both salient warnings to anyone attempting to make a Bond film in the future. Daniel Kleinman takes the work of the likes of Robert Brownjohn and Maurice Binder and makes it fresh and exciting, capturing the feeling of its predecessors but still managing to take the opening titles forward. Consequently he continued to get the gig right up until Quantum of Solace. Eric Serra was also hired to write the score, and has produced some fantastic work for Luc Besson’s movies, especially the prior year’s Leon. His work on Goldeneye is similarly great, with the sweeping string accompaniments for Bond’s Caribbean detour evoking just the right mood. Trouble is, the score as a whole is categorically wrong for a Bond film; so wrong that the producers had to bring in John Altman – who, fact fans, also arranged Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life for Life Of Brian – to Bond up the tank chase in St. Petersburg. Consequently David Arnold, to the relief of everyone everywhere, got the gig for the next five films. The moral of the story is, feel free to have a little play with the key elements, but if Bond Legacy has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t mess with the fundamentals.

Next time: The irony of a film about a media mogul gone mad whose title is based on a misprint. It’s Tomorrow Never Lies Dies.

For more Bond related japes and in-depth analysis, visit BlogalongaBond.

Review: X-Men: First Class

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The Pitch: The origin of the species’ next evolution.

The Review: You’d be forgiven for having lost patience with the X-Men saga by now, after the complete mess that The Last Stand and the Wolverine spin-off turned out to be. Blame for that could feasibly be put at the door of two particular individuals: Bryan Singer, who ran away from the franchise to make a bloated, overly reverential Superman movie, and Matthew Vaughn, who stepped in to direct but then got cold feet over the resources he had to work with and disappeared off to make Stardust and then Kick-Ass instead. But obviously the call of the mutant still remained strong for both men, as Singer returns to produce and Vaughn to direct what was described in some quarters as a reboot but is actually positioned as a fairly direct prequel to the original trilogy. Given how poorly treated many of the mutants on both sides were treated by the original trilogy’s final chapter, it’s also a chance to redress the balance for many of the characters.

But if you’re going to go back forty years, then your most immediate challenge is to find someone to fill the younger shoes, and eventually wheelchair, of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Vaughn has turned to two of the hottest up and coming actors, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Avoiding the trap of direct impersonations that so dogged Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, McAvoy and Fassbender instead bring the same ethos and conflict to their pairing, but both with a twist; McAvoy’s Charles Xavier starts out by using his mind control powers to pick up women in the pubs around Oxford, but eventually his sense of responsibility takes over from his more lecherous tendencies, and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr is almost the anti-James Bond, globetrotting in a mission of revenge that has its roots very much in the character’s origins right back at the start of the original movie. Both of the youngsters are up to the challenge, Fassbender very much with the more interesting and shaded role but McAvoy his equal in the more tense moments. Their relationship is the core of the movie, possibly even more so than in the originals, and they both keep you interested and invested every time they’re on screen.

So First Class is the origin story, and in this case it’s the origin of the differing viewpoints of Professor X and Magneto. Given their ages and the timeframe, the rest of the cast is mainly new mutants, although Mystique is slow enough in her ageing to have been around in the Sixties, here portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, and Hank “Beast” McCoy old enough, so Nicholas Hoult picks up the role. While neither rise to the heights of the two leads, both have some great moments and are absolutely right for their characters. Outside of these four leads the other new mutants get very little to do on the good side, but they do at least fare better than the baddies, where only half of them even get speaking roles, with mixed success. Kevin Bacon is deliciously evil as the head of the Hellfire Club, but January Jones appears to be in a competition of her own making to see how badly she can act and get away with it, as she looks diamond some of the time but acts plastic for the rest of it. The other main role is handed to CIA stooge Rose Byrne, who takes her clothes off to get into the Hellfire Club and then spends most of the rest of the movie earning back her dignity.

Vaughn has also taken the opportunity to populate the rest of the cast with a fantastic array of familiar faces to fans of sci-fi and action genres, with the likes of Oliver Platt, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise and even Michael Ironside popping up, and giving the whole film a feeling of consistent qualityJones is pretty much the only weak link in the whole film. There’s also some fantastic connections to earlier films, both in terms of visuals and personnel, but the depth of the acting quality and the reasonable structure would mean little if the story wasn’t up to much. The concept is great, putting the action in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although you’d be advised not to have your brain fully engaged, otherwise some of the silliness of the concepts may become too apparent. But Vaughn keeps the movie going at a cracking lick, with montages and split-screens used sparingly and effectively, and some set-pieces which have a scale which doesn’t feel out of place in the company of the other summer blockbusters. Singer’s hand as producer has achieved something on the fifth film of this franchise which he didn’t achieve on his Superman gig, which is to make a fifth film that can sit comfortably in the company of the first two. It falls short of the outstanding quality of X2, but there’s enough here to make you want to see what Singer, Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman can make of another trip round this universe.

Why see it at the cinema: Vaughn brings a scope and a scale to the whole enterprise that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and after the damage done to the franchise by the last two sloppy instalments, this will reward you if you’re willing to make the trip out.

The Score: 8/10

Bond Legacy: You Only Live Twice

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Bond's Japanese disguise was rubbish, but he got into the Vulcan Bruce Banner fancy dress party very easily.

Film number five already. It’s been five years in the world of James Bond films, and five months in the Blogalongabond collective’s epic quest to document every aspect of the screen life of James Bond, one month at a time. You Only Live Twice marks a turning point, as it would be the last film in the series to feature Shir Shean Connereh in the lead role, at least for the time being. As with any successful action film sequence, the need to outdo what’s come previously is inevitable, and consequently the series is left dangling on the verge of self parody by the end of the film.

But maybe that’s also a consequence of the increasing levels of actual parody that were taking place in the wider world. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; if that’s the case then the Bond producers must have been very flattered indeed by the sheer volume of flagrant piss-taking going on in other movies of the time. In 1967, the year that You Only Live Twice hit cinemas, there were a number of other movies taking their inspiration from the Bond series, so was it any wonder that Bond was struggling to take himself seriously?

Here’s just a sample of the Bond influence that got in front of audiences the same year:

In Like Flint

James Coburn, Oscar winning actor and part time Australian impersonator, had a reputation for more hard man roles, so to see him swanning about in tights in the Bolshoi ballet is somewhat disconcerting; admittedly no more disconcerting than Sean Connery putting on a Japanese disguise that’s more insulting than blackface.

The Ambushers

James Coburn made two attempts at Bond parodies, but Dean Martin managed to knock out four Matt Helm movies, of which this was the third. It’s amazing how he manages to convey the feeling of being disinterested to the point of looking like he’s speaking under duress.

Operation Kid Brother, a.k.a. OK Connery

I mentioned this back around the time of From Russia With Love, but this really does have to seen to be believed. Actually, I defy you to watch this trailer and then believe that it ever happened. Astonishing.

All this, of course, leads us to the most famous parody of the James Bond series, which might not have arrived until around thirty years later, but spawned two sequels and probably takes its love of the Bond series more seriously than any of those parodies listed above. So this month’s first legacy is…

1. The Austin Powers series

The Austin Powers series not only have Dr Evil at their heart, the most obvious riff on Blofeld but (thanks to the hard work of The Austin Powers and James Bond Connection) I can confirm that You Only Live Twice contains more references picked up in the three Powers movies than any other Bond movie. If you ignore most of the bits with Fat Bastard in, then you’re left with a pretty respectful and loving homage to many of the Bond films that also manages to work in everything from hollowed out volcanoes to giant spaceship eating rockets, and undoubtedly Beyoncé looks better in Aki’s outfit than Aki ever did.

And while we’re mentioning good modern day parodies, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the finest episodes of The Simpsons, You Only Move Twice. Hank Scorpio successfully embodies the SPECTRE philosophy of money making and evildoing, even if he isn’t exactly Blofeld, but there’s plenty more loving nods to this film in that episode. Sadly you’ll have to track them down for yourselves, as no one could seemingly be bothered to put any decent clips on YouTube. Thanks, world. Thanks for nothing.

2. Bond comes in from the Cold (War)

With the changing political landscape of the Sixties, American and Russian tensions remained high and so Roald Dahl shoehorned these tensions into the plot to give something for SPECTRE to play off. While it wasn’t the first time that either the Americans or the Russians had featured in the series, it was the first time that the real world threat had become so prominent, but it marked the beginning of the end for the SPECTRE plot line and meant that we could start to look forward to a succession of more realistic plot lines, including voodoo priests and assassins with three nipples.

3. Bad guy lairs: compact and bijou, Mosytn

Blofeld's collection of enormous phallic objects was off to a good start.

Thanks to Ken Adam, whose imagination was thankfully only matched by the amount of money the producers were willing to give him, unnecessarily huge lairs that are apparently undetectable to the world’s finest defence forces until they get really, really close to it. So of course, the Bond films carry on this tradition of having bad guys with lairs so big that you could park a small country in them, but that are completely invisible to the finest detection devices. Evil genius.

And that’s it for the last film in the first Connery era. Not only the end of the hairy Scotsman’s first run in the role, but also the point where my efforts to find the legacy in each of these gets that much harder, now that the template has been fully established. But at least I got all the way through this without mentioning Casino Royale.


Next month: This never happened to the other fellow. It’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Farewell (L’affaire Farewell)

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The Pitch: Spies, like us.

The Review: The Cold War has been such effective fodder for the movie industry over the years, it’s maybe a little surprising that there haven’t been more explorations of the latter years of that period on the big screen. As it transpires, there was more than a little French involvement in the events that triggered the fall of the Soviet machine, and so it’s the French that have brought the tale to the cinema, an adaptation of Serguei Kostine’s book Bonjour Farewell, itself inspired by the true events surrounding Vladimir Vetrov, a high ranking KGB official. The movie details the actions of a fictional character, Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), based on Vetrov, and his relationship with a French engineer working in Moscow, Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet).

Gregoriev’s unlikely relationship with Froment is kept secret from Froment’s wife, who fears the potential consequences of such involvement, and seemingly from everyone else in Russia as well. The wealth of important information being passed to Froment has soon given François Mitterand, the then French president, enough leverage to get the attention of his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan. As the secrets mount, Mitterand and Reagan work out how to exploit the relationship to their best advantage, but they are to a certain extent at the mercy of the idealistic Gregoriev, not involved for money or the possibility of defection and so keeping Froment’s involvement to keep the flow of information undiscovered becomes crucial.

The movie by its very nature has a very international cast, with Canet and Kusturica both very effective in their roles, and support from such American luminaries as Fred Ward as Reagan, Willem Dafoe and David Soul portraying the Americans. There’s also a good selection of other international actors with familar faces, including Alexandra Maria Lara as Froment’s wife and Ingebora Dapkunaite as Gregoriev’s. Family tensions on both sides are as much an integral part of the story as the grander political machinations, especially as both men have more to hide at home than they do in their respective spying roles, it would seem. The only slightly false note is Ward as Reagan, who never quite convinces with his impersonation or his acting, but the remainder of the cast are all very solid and help to keep things simmering.

Unfortunately simmering is the tone for most of the movie. There’s a fantastic shot early on when Gregoriev is first revealed in the back of Froment’s car; such moments run the risk of being heavy clichés in movies such as this, but here the direction is wonderfully effective. It’s all the more frustrating that this moment proves to be almost a high point in terms of dramatic tension and direction. Carion, who also co-wrote, may have been a little inhibited by the unwillingness of the Russians to allow filming of a story of such a traitorous figure in their history, but somehow he never gets the movie out of third gear, even at the end when characters have to make their moves. It’s a fascinating historical document and worthy of watching on that basis alone, but it errs slightly too much towards drama when the potential was here for a cracking thriller.

Why see it at the cinema: It feels worthy and weighty enough of the big screen, and there are just a few moments that will be more effective in a darkened cinema.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Salt

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The Pitch: There’s No Way Out for Angelina.

The Review: The Cold War cast a terrible cloud over the world for a long time – unless you were a moviemaker, of course. The end of hostilities saw a changing landscape in action blockbusters, with one of the two superpowers not only reduced to a shadow of their former selves, but also no longer a threat. But those sneaky Ruskies, they’re slippery, y’see? They were just biding their time, waiting for the right moment to strike. Arbitrarily waiting nearly twenty years for the right moment, a Russian agent reveals himself and a surprising plan to strike against… the Russian president. (Don’t worry, that doesn’t make any more sense by the end of the movie.)

As with many blockbusters, the lead is effectively interchangeable, so much so that the difference between Tom Cruise (originally mooted) and Angelina Jolie (actually cast) is simply a gender – there’s even a bit of Mission: Impossible style mask silliness in the final act. The cast has been rounded out with generally capable actors, Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor being the most prominent, but for the majority of the running time pretty much everyone else is there on the sidelines to pass comment on the latest twist in the plot. When I say twist, that may be overstating the case a little – the plot, played out against that backdrop of escalating terror attempts, simply challenges you to work out, “who is Salt?” Consequently there are only so many ways that can be spun before you run out of patience, and Salt will test just how far your personal limit is on that level.

As with any good blockbuster, though, if the action is good enough it can distract from any slight implausibilities in the plot. Director Phillip Noyce has form in this area, having done well with two Jack Ryan adaptations on his CV, but while other action has moved on, this feels slightly retrograde. Sure, there’s the POV shots from within a vehicle and some wanton destruction that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bourne movie, but the overall effect is pedestrian, rather than pulse-pounding. Jolie employs a few trademark moves when things go hand-to-hand, not least running up the nearest wall whenever she’s about to kick someone, but while you believe thoroughly that she could be capable of these actions, there’s nothing that will linger long in the memory.

Consequently, you are left enough time to dwell on the various improbabilities, such as Salt being able to assemble a rocket launcher in a confined space without any preparation, planning or assessment of the situation whatsoever, or that a building organised enough to install giant bulletproof shutters has massive blind spots on their security camera coverage. You’ll overlook the clichés, not least Liev Schreiber asking for a zoom into video footage for no other reason than so he can ask the freeze-frame what it’s up to. But this is just an early sample – moments like this continue, as you test your disbelief’s suspension. The final test comes at the end, with of a coincidence of such shuddering implausibility which triggers the final face-off that you should count yourself lucky to ever believe anything again. Salt has just enough to keep you interested, but if this was all the Cold War had to offer, maybe it’s a good job things have defrosted.

Why see it at the cinema: If you have a fear of heights and / or suffer from vertigo, then the shots of Angelina precariously climbing round a high ledge will successfully give you the willies. And if you like average action movies, you really should be seeing them on the big screen.

The Score: 5/10