Sunday, 15 October 2017

Never Hike Alone (Vincente DiSanti, 2017)

A hiking vlogger, Kyle (Drew Leighty), heads into the Catskills for his latest adventure to an abandoned summer camp at an isolated lake...

Ever since the release of the reboot in 2009, Paramount has struggled to come up with a new instalment in the long-running franchise: should it be found footage? Another origin? 

Released last Friday (the 13th, geddit?), Never Hike Alone is a 55 minute-long argument for popular characters falling into the public domain. Written and directed by Vincente DiSanti (who also stars as the hockey-masked killer), Never Hike Alone takes a tacky premise (a found footage movie starring Jason Vorhees) and finds a way to make it work.

Its masterstroke is the focus on an individual POV. With bad casting and writing this device could have torpedoed the movie, but DiSanti succeeds on both counts. As Kyle, Drew Leighty is legitimately terrific. He is so naturalistic and likeable it never feels like you are watching a stock character in a Friday movie. It is a testament to his abilities that, for most of the movie, he is the only character onscreen. Kyle is also a great character - smart, self-sufficient and funny, he grounds the movie. 

And because he does not fit the mould of the usual dumb, horny teenager that the movie becomes weirdly unpredictable. Once Jason makes his entrance, Kyle's disbelief and terror feel queasily real in a way that does not feel cheesy. 

DiSanti's direction is also leaps and bounds beyond what you would expect with a fan film. The photography, lighting and sound design are immersive and atmospheric (just look at that screen shot below). He also has a solid grasp of pacing and tone, holding back on the expected tropes far longer than I expected.

It is a testament to how good DiSanti's build up is that you do not see Jason for over 20 minutes.  

And once the big guy turns up, DiSanti pulls out all the stops to make Jason as terrifying as possible. Even if you have never seen a Friday movie, you know what Jason looks like. DiSanti has a firm grasp on what makes Jason scary, and slow-rolls his appearance, making great use of the widescreen frame and brief glimpses of the familiar mask.  

In the flesh, Jason can come across as a lumbering automaton, but DiSanti takes great care to make sure that the recognisable aspects of his persona feel horrifyingly tactile. Jason's heavy footsteps, deliberate movements and sudden bursts of violence are all well-orchestrated. DiSanti even makes Jason's weird ability to appear and disappear feel uncanny rather than silly. It is in large part because of his direction and Drew Leighty's performance that this tired old slasher feels like a visceral threat.

While it does a great job of making Jason feel tactile and 'real', thankfully, Never Hike Alone does not fall into the trap of trying to make Jason feel like a real human being  No spoilers but this is the Jason Vorhees of the eighties, and DiSanti has a lot of fun playing off his superhuman abilities. 

The biggest compliment I can pay this movie is that it worked on me, and I don't even like the Friday the 13th movies. The first time I have ever been scared of Jason, and it actually made me want to go back and watch more of the movies.

Honestly, you do not need a lot of history to get the pitch for this one. Never Hike Alone stands on its own as a genuinely scary movie in its own right. You can find the movie on Youtube here.

Friday, 13 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Happy Death Day & The Foreigner

Two movies, one moron. Let's go.

Happy Death Day
After she is killed by a masked figure, college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) slowly begins to realise that she is trapped in a time loop, forced to repeat the day she died (which also happens to be her birthday) over and over again.

One day, someone is going to write a book about Blumhouse, the studio responsible for this movie, Paranormal Activity, The Purge and Insidious. And I look forward to reading that book, because aside from Marvel Studios, Blumhouse is the only production company I can think of with an identifiable 'authorial' stamp - if Marvel is classic MGM, with its musical unit, then Blumhouse is American International Pictures, churning out genre fare that makes up for a lack of stars and budget with interesting concepts and a focus on meeting audience expectations.

The acting is all strong, the script does a good job of following a similar route to Groundhog Day (having the main character go from Mean Girl to a better person) and unlike the last horror movie I reviewed, Happy Death Day has a sense of fun, and finds humour in the fascistic head of the sorority. It's not too hard to see where the movie is going, but there are a few twists and obstacles which keep the movie involving.

One thing which I love about this movie is the budget: 4.8 million dollars. Think of all the bloated, overlong blockbusters that come out every year. I really hope that the Blumhouse model starts to trickle out to the rest of the industry (or Universal does what Disney did with Pixar and bring Blumhouse creatives in to run their operations). Because of the low-budget, the movie sticks to the smallest version of its concept and thus it feels more intimate and believable.

And it is a testament to the movie's strengths that the villain remains effective - the baby mask is creepy as hell (side note: what school decides to make a baby the mascot?), and the reveal of who it is makes for a nice button (and leads to another great joke).

There is nothing really at fault here - this is a solid genre picture that ticks all the boxes but feels like a fleshed-out story. There are a few hacky jump scares, and there are moments of over-cutting which undermine the suspense but overall, it's a just fun ride. It does not push the envelope, but it does not need to. It is a fun time, and another strong entry in Blumhouse's horror canon.

The Foreigner
After his daughter is killed in an IRA explosion, a Chinese businessman draws upon his past life as a government killing machine to hunt down the perpetrators, while also evading a massive Pierce Brosnan and his equally ginormous gun.

Or at least this is what the poster promised.
The only reason this movie is on my radar is because of the director, Martin Campbell - if the name is unfamiliar, he directed the original Edge of Darkness miniseries, GoldenEye, Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale. While it is not a great movie, The Foreigner is a great showcase for Campbell.

He has developed a dramatically-focused minimalism in his action movies which stands in contrast to the bombast of contemporary action cinema.

Campbell's work is notable for its focus on the essential work parts of continuity story-telling - action is never there for its own sake: There is no speed-ramping, crash-zooms or computer generated 'God's eye' camera moves to ad visual panache. In Campbell's movies, the camera is in just the right place, moves only when it has to, and tied together by razor-sharp editing. It is a style best suited for Hollywood-style narratives, which is probably why Campbell is less heralded - no one gets prizes for economy.

He feels like a man out of time, with a no-nonsense aesthetic better suited to the action movies of the past - not just the seventies or eighties, but the samurai films of Kurosawa and the westerns of Leone. What has prevented Campbell from attaining a similar level of recognition is a lack of consistent material. For every GoldenEye there is a Vertical Limit; for every Casino Royale a Green Lantern; for every Mask of Zorro a Legend of Zorro.

Thankfully The Foreigner finds Campbell in great form, with a stripped-down action thriller that is perfectly suited to his talents. And it helps that he has Jackie Chan, who might be the perfect leading man for his style.

What has always fascinated me about Campbell's work is the way his camera and the edit feel perfectly choreographed to the speed and movement of his performers - think back to the lithe athleticism of Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye, the balletic elegance of Antonio Banderas in Mask of Zorro or the parkour chase of Casino Royale. Watching Chan and Campbell's camera move together felt like watching a great dance pair, every move by the actor perfectly captured by the director's frame.

Campbell's best movies are centred on violent professionals who are defined by action rather than words. Jackie Chan has built a career on body movement, developing a brand of physical comedy derived from his training in Peking Opera and a love of silent comedy. More importantly for this movie, Chan's comedy is based on his reactions to the predicaments he gets into. Unlike other martial arts stars, Chan always comes across as an everyman who does not want to be there. And while he can do some amazing physical feats, he is still fallible and vulnerable - half of his fights involve him getting punched and hurt.

While The Foreigner is a drama, Chan's style is perfectly attuned to Campbell's style. Campbell shoots in wide shots, allowing action to play out. It is a closer fit to Chan's traditional aesthetic, but Campbell does not share Chan's emphasis building drama (and comedy) through extended choreography. Campbell's style is all about pushing the story forward through editing, with the action reduced to as few moving parts as possible. It helps make the sequences feel less choreographed and more immediate.

does contains one sterling example of this unity of director and performer - Chan's escape from his guest room. Chan has always been an everyman, giving his action sequences a sense of pain and vulnerability - despite his incredible physicality. Whereas that quality has been used for comedy, it is also perfectly suited to a straight action drama. Throughout this sequence, it never feels like Chan can outmatch his attackers. He is clearly physically more capable, but Campbell makes sure to stage the action in tight spaces - an attic, a stairwell, a kitchen - so that Chan feels like he could be believably hurt or killed.

Campbell's underselling of action also allows for wonderful grace notes of comedy, and his unobtrusive visual style works for Chan's physical timing. While the escape sequence is tense, the sequence is broken down into various stages which work as the set-ups and payoffs to jokes. The audience laughed throughout the sequence, as Chan found a way out of trouble, or lost the advantage. It is perfectly paced action, that is not based merely on action - Campbell's style and Chan's choreography allow the sequence to breath, and allow for some wonderful grace notes of comedy: Chan twisting around a pole after falling off a roof; Chan leaping down the stairs as his confused opponent tries to catch up with him; shoving a man out a window. All great punchlines to the mayhem, and feel of a piece with similar moments in Campbell's previous work.

While it has its share of gunfights and beatdowns, The Foreigner is more of a political thriller than a straight-up action film. This is a revenge flick in which an older leading man avenges a loved one (ala Taken). What makes this movie stand out - aside from Chan's casting - is the movie's context: the theme of revenge is extrapolated to include the history of the Irish Troubles, and their ongoing reverberations in the present.

While there are short, brutal set pieces peppered throughout the film, much of its focus is on Pierce Brosnan's Deputy First Minister, an IRA veteran trying to hunt down the men responsible for the initial bombing while keeping his old comrades onside and maintaining the peace. Brosnan's complex performance - untrustworthy, scheming, and coldly pragmatic - carries most of the film's dramatic weight as Chan's actions increase the pressure he is under  to preserve the status quo.

Looking across his filmography, Campbell's minimalistic approach extends to the performances. In a piece on Sergio Leone (published in Empire magazine a few years ago), Campbell referred to the influence Leone had on the way he conceived character without dialogue. Brosnan can lean into ham, but here he underplays, turning his character into a ticking time bomb. Under Campbell's cool eye, Brosnan is fantastic.

The movie's one real flaw is that the real-life context does set the movie's more formulaic moments in relief - Chan's tragic backstory is so overblown (not only did his daughter die from an IRA bomb; his wife died in childbirth and his other children were murdered by pirates). Juxtaposed with Brosnan's storyline, with its references to IRA bombing campaigns, betrayals and backroom deals, the protagonist's story feels a little silly. Chan's performance and Campbell's under-selling of this melodrama mitigates this disjunct, but it is still there. It's the one major problem with the movie.

The Foreigner is no masterpiece, but with Chan and Brosnan on good form, and under Martin Campbell's deft hand, it is a solid genre thriller which is a far classier and more mature product than its generic title and plot may suggest. It does not move the dial in terms of originality, and might be too grim for some, but the mix of political intrigue and action make this a solid time-waster.
Related posts


Casino Royale

Martin Campbell

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Blade Runner 2049

Los Angeles, 2049. Thirty years after the events of the original film, replicant K (Ryan Gosling) works as a blade runner for the police department, killing the remaining Tyrell-era replicants who continue to hide amongst humanity. K's routine existence is interrupted by a shocking revelation from the past with the potential to destroy the very reason for his existence: what it means to be human...

35 years after Ridley Scott's original, a strong team has been assembled to bring his dystopian vision of LA back to life. The director of Arrival, the writer of the original Blade Runner and the Greatest Cinematographer Working Today. Oh, and the star of Young Hercules.

I came to Blade Runner late. I read about it several times, but the first time I watched it (it was the 1992 director's cut) was after I had read Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's a book I really enjoy, and I have re-read it several times. The special magic with Dick's books is that the experience of reading them is always different. The first time I read Electric Sheep, I found it extremely existential and depressing; the next time, I found myself laughing at Deckard's relationship with his wife. It never feels the same -- every read reveals a new layer of irony and complexity. It's an extremely literary experience.

This is a long way of saying that by the time I watched Blade Runner, I did not like it as much as the book. To be honest, no film can really do justice to Dick's prose and ideas, and the various properties generated from his work (Total Recall, Minority Report) have been extremely loose adaptions of his premises, with few of his ideas or themes. Last week I caught the screening of the Final Cut, which I had never seen before, and I really enjoyed it. So I ended up pretty excited to see this movie.

And you know what? It's really good.

All the actors are great - Gosling is perfectly cast as K. He is a little offbeat, but with his youthful looks and emotional restraint, he fits the role well. 

Ford is only in the movie briefly. With his well-known dislike for the first film (he always felt the character existed solely to give perspective to the set design), I was afraid that would influence his performance. Despite the character's emotional reveals, Ford does not play into these beats, but against them - he lends this older Deckard the same brusqueness he had in the original. It is a unity of performance that really tied the two films together.

The one real standout is an actress I am not familiar with, Sylvia Hoeks. She plays Luv, a replicant who is on K's tail. She is the closest thing the movie has to a villain, and she gives the character a terrific stillness and energy. Like all evil replicants, she is Dutch.

Another actor worth mentioning is Dave Bautista. He has a small but rather sympathetic role as an aging Nexus-8 that K retires. I am keen to see him in more vulnerable roles like this. He's been going about his career the right way, and I have a feeling there is a filmmaker out there who is going to give him something meaty.

This movie does contain scenes featuring Jared Leto. He is less histrionic than usual, but I found most of his dialogue portentous and repetitive.

Roger Deakins' photography is typically fantastic - the movie's aesthetic follows the original (it maintains the original's maximalist approach, employing multiple alphabets, languages and retro product placement).

Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch's score echoes Vangelis, and they include a few direct call backs to familiar cues (the theme which plays during the 'Tears in the rain' monologue is re-purposed, to somewhat lessened effect). Overall, it is fine.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. But I have to admit, I came out feeling aggressively mixed about it.

There was something not quite right with this picture. Overall, it is a really good, immersive movie with some interesting ideas, but there is something missing, an emotional and thematic resonance which the movie is aiming for but it is so incomplete and confused that it is hard to get a lock on exactly what it is aiming for.

My problems begin with the main character.

K is an enigma, and not in the way that the filmmakers intended. Because the character is so opaque, it is hard to latch onto him. Deckard was not well-defined, but he was clearly a man with basic human weaknesses - K is basically a superman, a Roy Batty without the existential dread of knowing he is going to die. And that lack of pathos is detrimental to the movie.

K has a 'relationship' with a virtual entity, Joi (Ana de Armas), which I guess was intended as a way of showing K trying to have a human-like existence. However, that relationship always comes off one-sided: she exists at his beck and call, first as a projection in his apartment, and then in the future version of a memory stick. My problem was a lack of context - unlike replicants, which become more human as they age, Joi's maturation never felt real. It did not help that de Armas does not get much of an arc. When she is deactivated, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean to K's character.

And in the pivotal sequence when he learns that he could be human, his reaction left me cold. It did not feel like the movie had laid any pipe in terms of his needs and desires that would make his breakdown feel believable. Once he knows the truth, and as the movie twisted into the third act, I had no idea what his motivation was. I know the movie's intention: that K is inspired to save Deckard to advance the replicant cause, but I never got what K's stake in all this was (which left the ending feeling completely empty). I did not understand what K's sacrifice was about.

The big problem is a lack of vulnerability, of something that the character is missing - it would have helped if K was operating on the same limited lifespan as the replicants in the original - it would have made the movie's revelations far more devastating, and would have made his story more emotionally believable. One of the key points of the original is that the replicants have a far greater sense of time, and how limited theirs is. Without that limitation, K is just a good-looking guy who is impervious to pain and can literally break through walls.
What is K fighting for? What obstacle is he facing? What is his ultimate sacrifice about? The movie never makes this clear.

When Deckard enters the picture, the movie deploys the crutch I hate - using echoes of the previous movie to create emotional impact: specifically the relationship between Deckard and the replicant Rachel (Sean Young).

By basing its plot on this relationship, it runs into two problems - one, this strategy only works if you have seen the original movie; and b) the relationship between Deckard and Rachel in the first movie was not especially substantial, and seems to exist purely to show the man's casual manipulation and disregard for the agency of the replicant. Deckard's treatment of Rachel comes off as extremely misogynistic and self-serving, and since Blade Runner 2049 does not show how this relationship progressed, all the viewer is left with is their brief interactions in the first movie.

After Fate of the Furious, this is the second big movie this year where the plot is built on a woman's uterus, but she has no function beyond that. Apart from Sylvia Hoeks (as a replicant hench woman), women do not figure in this movie. Aside from Robin Wright as K's boss, in Blade Runner 2049 women are just instruments and products created by men, for men. I am surprised the filmmakers did not do more with this, considering how these movies are about men who play god. There is a potential subtext about female reproduction versus male production (of replicants), but that might just be an accident.  

As you can see from all of this rambling, there are quite a few things about Blade Runner 2049 which  do not work. Or remain unclear. The movie is good, much better than I expected. But it is flawed. 

And you know what? I kinda appreciate it more because of that. Blade Runner is kind of a mess too. It only makes sense that the sequel has a few screwy bits as well.

Friday, 6 October 2017

NZIFF 2017: Horror

Since it is October, here is the Midnight Ramble's reviews of the horror-related films at this year's New Zealand International Film Festival.

Tragedy Girls (dir. Tyler MacIntyre)
Two teenage girls, Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp), run a blog tracking the crimes of a local serial killer. Unimpressed with his lacklustre performance (and its effect on their website traffic), they take matters into their own hands to boost his (and their) numbers...

If I am going to watch a movie featuring horrific acts of violence against the human body, it better be lathered in a thick layer of irony.

An absolutely pitch black, dead-eyed comedy about two best friends dealing with the end of high school, college, dating and serial murder, Tragedy Girls is the horror comedy for our social media-obsessed age.

For a movie like this to work is dependant on a couple of things. The first is tone - skew too real and you lose the humour, go too OTT and you will blunt its bite. Tragedy Girls tackles its subject with no holds barred, juggling gore-soaked set pieces with the subtle nuances of two co-dependant teens attempting to find their way into adulthood.

The second element is casting. Hildebrand and Shipp are the beating, exposed heart of this story, and the movie gorges itself on their dynamite chemistry.

Hildebrand caught attention with her role in Deadpool, but here she gets to deliver the kind of performance that will get her some bigger roles. The fact that she manages to make this sociopath sympathetic and weirdly likeable without sacrificing how utterly irredeemable she is. It helps that the script gives her a romantic subplot with a normie - it adds a (wafer-thin) layer of humanity while also making her creepier. You are never sure if she is just using him or genuinely interested.

 Previously known as the actress who replaced Zendaya in the Aaliyah movie and the actress who replaced Halle Berry as Storm in X-Men Apocalypse, Alexandra Shipp is hilarious in this movie. This movie will give her more name recognition. Her role is showier - unlike Sadie, McKayla's psychosis is completely pure, and Shipp gives the character a child-like gusto that is impossible to resist. Gleefully amoral, Shipp is the Harley Quinn we never got. What gives her performance such warmth is her relationship with Sadie. There is a genuine rapport between Hildebrand and Shipp that makes them a friendship to root for - and that includes the fact that they are stone cold killers AND self-obsessed narcissists.

Another thing I liked about this movie was how it did not try to make these characters heroes. What empathy we get is their bond, and the movie's focus on their friendship is enough to keep them relatable. It is a testament to how well this relationship is weaved through the movie that the movie works so well. Adding to this, the movie never veers away from how despicable their actions and motives are. The movie winds up being both intoxicating and sickening, but in the right proportions.

While I found the denouement incredibly disturbing, I feel like giving the filmmakers a hand for following their conceit to the end, without resorting to a conventional ending (there is not even a final girl to vanquish them).

Hilarious, caustic and completely nihilistic, Tragedy Girls is one of my favourite movies of 2017.

It Comes At Night (dir. Trey Edward Shults)
An unknown contagion has swept the globe, reducing humanity to a few disparate families scrabbling for existence. Joel Edgerton plays a man determined to protect his family (Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) at all costs. When another family (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner) arrives at their fortified home, he agrees to let them in. As the families try to get on with life, their tenuous bond is tested by the unseen terrors outside, as well as their own paranoia about each other.

A feature of zombie films is the breakdown of human relationships and interactions between the main characters. It Comes At Night takes this dynamic and removes everything else - the 'sickness' the characters fear is never identified or explained; the infected are only shown once; and we never get an overview of how the outbreak has affected the rest of the world.

It Comes at Night boils down to a very primal fear: the loss of control. Edgerton runs his home under a strict form of martial law. Ultimately, he fails. What makes it worse is that he - and the viewer - never know why.

While I enjoyed this movie, and found it effective as a human horror story, I need to address a factor that is going to influence this review. Like most people who enjoy surprises and fun, I try to go into a movie blind. I almost got away with it for this one, but on the day I saw it I caught a podcast where a critic I like briefly offered a negative opinion on the movie. No spoilers were revealed, but the critic had problems with the choices a certain character made. It was over so quickly I did not have time to skip ahead. So now I had to go into the movie with this vague critical frame, and it drew attention to parts of the movie I would have probably have overlooked.

While I appreciate how oblique the movie is, there are certain parts of the ending where I felt confused enough to be - briefly - ejected from the movie. I ended up checking the plot summary after it was over so I could figure what happened. So while I did enjoy the movie, and I recommend it, this little tangent really threw off the whole experience.

I am a fan of genre movies that take out the tropes and still manage to function, and It Comes at Night is a great example of this approach. For hard-core genre fans, this movie might come off a little pedestrian. The movie's tone and narrative are suitably nihilistic, but apart from its minimalist aesthetic the movie does not really push the envelope.

The acting from the cast is fantastic. Edgerton anchors the whole show as the taciturn patriarch. Introduced executing his infected father-in-law, he manages to feel both sympathetic and terrifying. With his basilisk stare and stillness, he is the perfect embodiment of the film's ambiguous point of view.

As his teenage son, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is horrifically relatable and alien at the same time. Clearly affected by what his family does to survive, he is the perfect compliment to Edgerton's stoic inscrutability.

As Edgerton's wife, Carmen Ejogo is the most relatable member of the clan. She does not get as much to do as the others but she provides a baseline of sanity that sets the rest of the family in relief.

As their guests, Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough are also really good. Abbott looked and sounded a bit like latter-day Shia LaBeouf, but like Edgerton he lends his role an ambiguity which makes his interactions with the family uneasy.

If you are in the mood for some end-of-the-world dread, you cannot go wrong with It Comes at Night.

The Evil Within (dir. Andrew Getty)
It's been two months since I watched this movie, and I'm still exhausted just thinking about it. The plot revolves around a young man with learning impairments who develops a split personality that may be the result of demonic possession. Huh, that was not as hard as I thought.

When the story behind this movie came out, I was so excited to see this movie: how a billionaire spent a fortune creating a horror movie to his own specific, deranged vision, and then died before its release - leaving no clues as to its meaning... Also BirthMoviesDeath released multiple, conflicting reviews which, if nothing else, made this movie sound like a clusterf*** on the level of The Apple or The Room.

A 15-year labour of love for its auteur Andrew Getty, The Evil Within has quickly become 2017's candidate for the pantheon of WTF Cinema. In its understanding of genre, filmmaking fundamentals and the basics of human interaction, it stands apart as an example of genuine outsider art. Watching this movie in 2017, and being aware of how it was made, I wondered if this movie could be treated as an example of how detached the 1% are from the rest of humanity.
The Evil Within is not The Room - the film's technical aspects are all up-to-par; the dream sequences are genuinely hallucinatory and the practical effects are genuinely disturbing. It is the story - and its telling - where things get extremely bizarre.

Getty died in 2015, before most of the editing and post-production had been completed, so there will always be a little bit of a remove from what his original vision was. According to what I could find online, the cast did not stick around for all of filming, so I am guessing there was a certain level of creative editing to keep the story coherent.

It is repetitive to say this, but it is hard to put into words how draining this movie really is. You spend the runtime trying to follow what is going on. The characters speak and act in ways that vaguely resemble human beings - except when they do not, which is generally when the movie is trying to shove the plot in a different direction.

In its favour, the practical effects are fantastic. It is so rare to see a horror movie with heavy use of makeup and puppetry, especially in a horror movie. When combined with the performances, and the script, these moments do pack a punch. If you are a fan of Dario Argento, you will be on a sure footing with this movie.

In the end, I don't know if I can recommend watching it. If you can get a group of friends together, it might be good for a movie night with lots of drinking. 

Other festival reviews


Live Cinema

Monday, 2 October 2017

Simulating catharsis: a look back at Total Recall

In the future, Earth is stuck in a perpetual war between northern and southern blocks. Mars is a North Block colony under the dictatorial rule of Coohagen (Ronny Cox), who uses his control of the air supply to control dissent. Back on Earth, a construction worker called Doug Quaid (Schwarzengger) has visions of Mars. Despite his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) and friends' warnings, Quaid decides the only way to get over his obsession is to get a memory implant of a vacation to the red planet, in which he plays a secret agent on a mission to save Mars and fall in love with a beautiful brunette.

Something goes wrong during the procedure, leading Quaid to realise that his entire life is a false memory and that he is really Hauser, a secret agent working for Coohagen who saw the light and decided to turn traitor after falling in love with Melina (Rachel Ticotin), a beautiful brunette. Cohaagen had him brainwashed and dumped back on Earth.

Determined to figure out what is going on, Quaid heads to Mars to discover his past and confront the man who destroyed his life...

Well, that's one way of looking at it.

Total Recall was inspired by the short story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale', written by the late, great Philip K. Dick. The story is not very long - it is literally just the memory implant scene. The big difference is that in the story, when the technicians realise their client has already had memory implant, during their attempts to find out who he is, they discover another memory implant within the first one. The story ends mid-stream, as the baffled  technicians discover another personality buried under that memory implant. And so on, and so forth. It is a comic spin on notions of identity, memory and reality. If a simulation looks and feels real, how would you know? In both story and film, there are no easy answers.

In writing the movie, screenwriters Ronald Shussett and Dan O'Bannon (the creators of Alien) used the story as a jumping-off point. The project took over a decade to get to screens, moving through directors as diverse as Richard Rush (The Stunt Man), David Cronenberg (The Fly) and Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). When the movie was finally green-lit, the man tasked with bringing the story to the screen was Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven.

I recently read an interview with Verhoeven in which he compared Total Recall to the idea of Schrodinger's Cat in the way that it never makes clear whether Quaid's experiences are real or all in his head. The movie is meant to work with both readings.

This analogy works for all of Verhoeven's movies. RoboCop is an 80s action movie that also subverts the genre - RoboCop is a one-man-army who kills the requisite number of bad 'uns, but what Verhoeven does is show the impact of how his (and the genre's) arbitrary use of violence. Starship Troopers is more overt, acting as a war movie which is also a scathing commentary on  America's obsession with military power, violence and blind patriotism. Released at the dawn of a new decade, Total Recall is a summation and indictment of the previous decade's pop culture, both on and off-screen.

Total Recall takes RoboCop's satire of neoliberalism and takes it to its most logical extreme (not only do the corporations control the government, they control the very air you breathe). Like Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) in that movie, Mars' overlord Coohagen (also Cox) is an ultra-capitalist but even more extreme - he is less a CEO and more a futuristic version of a robber baron in the old west, or a governor in a far-flung colony. A hyperbolic extrapolation of 80s capitalism and saver-rattling geopolitics, its commentary is made all the more pointed by the casting of its star, the most hyperbolic emblem of the era's obsession with cinematic machismo.

The film is also the point where Arnold Schwarzenegger became the icon he is now. After a breakout role in 1982's Conan the Barbarian, he carved out a niche as a B list action star with a series of action and science fiction movies. Some, like The Terminator, Commando and Predator were decent hits and critically successful; others (Raw Deal, Reds Sonja & Heat) less so. And then in 1988, he made his first foray into comedy with Twins, co-starring Danny DeVito. The movie was a huge hit, proving his comedic chops and introducing Schwarzenegger to a mainstream, non-genre audience. Schwarzengger was now emerging out of the B list, and Total Recall was the movie which would consolidate his broad appeal, becoming the first of his traditional vehicles to become a genuine blockbuster.

I have theory about this movie, and why it is one of Schwarzenegger's best. It is the one movie which does the best job at skewering the excesses and deranged masculinity underpinning his star persona. In that respect, Total Recall continues RoboCop's emphasis on the fascistic implications of its hyper-violent hero, only here he gets to play with the persona of the genre's most emblematic star.

Arnie's movies have always had an ironic edge - most of the filmmakers he has worked with have shown at least a degree of recognition about the sheer ridiculousness of their leading man. The Terminator's most iconic humorous moment ('I'll be back') is not meant to be funny, but when it is set against Schwarzenegger's massive frame, it gains a strange ironic quality, a sense of black humour that was picked and carried through successive vehicles such as CommandoPredator and Total Recall.  Taken in overview, Arnie's filmography appears to be a meta textual dare: is this behemoth believable as a robot/soldier/twin/kindergarten cop?

Within the context of a story based on questioning reality (and a filmmaker hellbent on hedging his bets), Schwarzenegger's antics become even more ridiculous. Because of the information within the movie, Quaid's Martian adventures are easy to question - especially during the film's many action sequences (why is this hulking man not hit?; why are people not dying when the outer shields are breached?). Even the introduction of an alien MacGuffin which can literally solve all of Mars' problems in a few minutes adds to the sense of ridiculousness.

Everything about Schwarzenegger's character, Doug Quaid, is hyperbolic. When he is introduced, Quaid is depicted as an ordinary working man, but it is a vision of domestic bliss pushed to the extreme. He also has a beautiful blonde housewife, who is introduced as a sex object for his gratification. He also has an insane degree of financial stability (his apartment including a holographic tennis instructor, virtual scenic views and he can contemplate vacations to other planets). He works as a construction worker, a job made all the more macho in the one scene of Quaid at work. Like Rambo at the beginning of Rambo II, he is shown breaking rocks, his massive arms holding a massive drill - it is everyman as cartoon.

And then there is the violence. It's what you expect from an Arnie movie, albeit leavened with a wink and a one-liner (ala James Bond). With the mad Dutchman at the tiller, the violence comes with an added bite. Verhoeven's movies are extremely controversial for their violence and sexual content, but there is always a sense of purpose to the excess. Unlike previous Ah-nuld vehicles, with Verhoeven the excess is never the punchline. The basis of Verhoeven's subversion does not come from a desire to turn reality into a cartoon, but the inverse. No matter how crazy the violence gets, Verhoeven blends it with a dose of reality that grounds it and highlights how horrific it is.

One example of subversion is the shootout on the escalator - specifically the beat where the villains shoot at Quaid and accidentally hit an innocent bystander. As the shootout continues, Quaid uses this corpse as a shield while he blows the villains away. When another group of villains appear at the base of the escalator, he spins the corpse around to catch their fire. The human shield is a familiar action movie trope of the era, and recognisably Schwarzeneggerean (gleefully lampooned in Austin Powers 2). By having this character be an innocent, rather than an antagonist, it draws attention to the often careless cruelty of eighties action heroes. When the character is a villain, we as viewers quickly reframe it as right and moral. But in Verhoeven's hands, we are forced to contemplate the violence stripped of its moral justification.

While this approach does subvert the cartoonish-ness of the action, it also gives the film a real sense of stakes. The sequences in which Coohagen's troops, backlit by the drills, gun down the resistance fighters, and the earlier scene in which the residents of Venusville have to watch as the fans pumping oxygen into their sector slow to a standstill. Verhoeven grew up during the Nazi occupation of Holland, and has talked about how the juxtaposition of childhood banality and sudden violence shaped his work. That tension between violent escapism and its consequences is an underlying dynamic in Verhoeven's work, and within the paranoid frame of Total Recall he has the perfect vehicle for his duelling occupations.

There are aspects of the film which do not stand up to snuff - my major criticism is the relative marginalisation of the female leads into a simplistic good-bad girl dichotomy. While Rachel Ticotin lends her character Melina a toughness that makes her believable as a partner to Schwarzenegger, the character is little more than a male fantasy - a hooker with a heart of gold who can also kick ass.

However while Melina and Lori's roles are barely more than archetypes, it does offer an opportunity for Verhoeven to undermine Arnie's machismo, and offer a re-working of the stock romantic leads of Ah-nuld's previous movies. Throughout the movie, Quaid is on the back foot with both of his lover interests (which is a nice flip-side to his borderline rape tactics in The Running Man). At various points Quaid is beaten up, objectified and rescued by them. This had never happened in one of his vehicles before. In previous movies, female characters are desexualised tagalongs (Commando, Predator) or arbitrary love interests (Raw Deal, The Running Man) that Arnie gets because he's the lead of the movie. Here, one woman is only with him to monitor and imprison him on Earth; the other is a self-sufficient freedom fighter who might be a figment of his imagination.

Could more have been done with these characters? Definitely. Romantic leads in action movies are generally the least well-drawn in the genre. Total Recall deserves credit for highlighting the limitations of the archetype (Quaid's description of his dream woman ('athletic build, sleazy but demure') could be mapped onto most of the throwaway love interests in the genre), but it does not do much to expand upon the template.

The dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' woman is one of the elements Total Recall shares with classic noir. Through this lens, Quaid is a fall guy in a situation he does not full understand. The ambiguity of the ending, where his fate remains in the air, is a perfect distillation of the film noir protagonist's dilemma - almost every noir, from Double Indemnity through Chinatown and Blade Runner, is about someone who loses control of events and finds themselves unable to get back to a place of equilibrium. That description fits Total Recall perfectly - it is a great juggling act between different interpretations.

Am I talking rubbish? Is Total Recall just a big dumb action movie? Yes, but that overlooks the fact that it is also tonally and thematically ambitious. The joy of this movie versus, say, Terminator 2, is that rewards whatever expectations you bring to it. Terminator 2 is a great movie, but it is meant to be taken as a straightforward dramatic narrative. Total Recall is the rare case where the filmmakers are having their cake and eating it, and it actually makes the movie better. You could make the argument that the movie's satirical edge is not intentional, and its excess is just mean-spirited - which is totally valid. The demands of the story and the generic requirements of being an action movie throw every choice the filmmakers make into doubt. It gives the movie another layer of ambiguity - which makes the movie more interesting to discuss.

Ultimately, Total Recall is whatever you want it to be.

Related reviews

Sunday, 1 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Flatliners & Lady Macbeth

Here is a double barrelled review of this weekend's new releases. At first look, there is not much linking them together - but they actually ended up sharing a few key ideas.

Trying to figure out if there is something after death, a group of medical students intentionally stop their hearts to experience death and see if there is something on the other side. After they return, they realise that they have brought something back with them...

In advance of the remake, I took a look at the original Flatliners, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts. I had never seen it before. Watching the original, it felt like a great premise looking for a great movie. It had a good cast, and some great photography from Jan De Bont, but my god is the movie corny. And while the concept sounds terrifying (what if your sins came back to haunt you?) the 1990 movie never goes anywhere that dark.

Watching the remake (directed by Niels Arden Oplev), a couple of aspects stood out.

In terms of characterisation, the remake is a big step up from the 1990 iteration. With the original, the characters felt like sketches - with this one, the filmmakers have come up with a group of clearly defined characters with a believable motivation for joining together on this crazy experiment. In the original, the characters were united by a sense of hubris - a belief that, since they were the most talented students in the school, they could handle the experiment they were undertaking.

With Flatliners '17, the characters are driven by their own personal motives which are then fed into the particular 'sin' that haunts them. Courtney (Ellen Page), the instigator of the experiment, is driven by a desire to see a loved one who she wronged. Unlike Kiefer Sutherland's lead from the original, she uses guile to get the other characters to help her. More believably, two of the characters, Ray (Diego Luna) and Marlo (Nina Dobrev) are not even a part of the experiment and are pulled in when  Jamie (James Norton) and Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) are unable to revive Courtney.

The characters and their sins feel far more interesting, and the movie focuses on how each character is struggling to deal with the pressures of medical school. Related to this is a subtext about class and privilege which is missing from the '90 version. Marlo and Jamie are from wealthy backgrounds - while Marlo has worked hard, she is also carrying a dangerous level of self-belief in her worth as a doctor, and has used that as an excuse to cover up a crime that could jeopardise her future. Jamie is a rich playboy with no real interest in medicine - he's coasting through school, living on a boat and a steady diet of one night stands. His only goal is to become the next celebrity doctor.

Jamie, the movie's resident d*bag
By contrast, Luna's Ray is a former fire man with a genuine desire to help people. And Clemons' Sophia is a straight A student driven to the brink by her mother's desire to see her become a doctor. She is under the most pressure (she brings up the fact that her mother sunk her life savings into her education), and her sin is an outgrowth of that desire to please her mother. Sophia has the most relatable motive for flatlining - when Courtney emerges from the experience with a boosted memory, Sophia becomes anxious to try it out so she can ace the exams.

Sophia. She doesn't like Jamie that much
This leads me to my next point: the execution of the 'flatlining' concept. In the original, the characters experience slight augmentation of their mental facilities, but the filmmakers do not dwell on it. Here, the filmmakers show how the experience does benefit them (Jamie gets smarter; Sophia gets the confidence to leave home). It gives the other characters a reason to try it. And once the cast have 'flatlined', the movie exploits the premise in ways which relate back to their characterisation. It gives the movie a bit of a kick when events start to go out of control.

Watching the original, my biggest issue was that the characters' sins, the punishments they had to endure, and the manner n which they were resolved, all felt underwhelming. No spoilers, but no one died in the 1990 movie, a factor which really undermined the experience - there were no real sense of stakes. In the new version, this aspect is amped up so that the movie actually manages to be scary. Going back to characterisation, each character's sin feels like an extension of their character, and so their eventual redemption (or lack there of) feels more earned. And unlike the original, there are real consequences for the cast - and not everyone makes out alive.

Even with these qualities, the movie is no masterpiece.

The direction was a little puzzling - maybe it was just the aspect ratio, but there were a couple of sequences where I felt like I was watching a TV pilot - it had a televisual aesthetic, but with a bit more money and style behind it. There were also some incredibly cheesy scare moments which relied too heavily on jump cuts and sound design. There were a few cool mis-drirects, but they were in the minority.

And while I enjoyed the concept of flatlining here more, I felt the movie was a little fuzzy around the rules of the sins and how they interact with reality. I did enjoy the fact that the movie does not stop for a massive exposition dump - the filmmakers focus on showing not telling, and it makes the movie less cheesy than it could have been. However there were a few set pieces where I felt the internal logic was a little inconsistent.

Vaguely relevant picture
When I was walking out of the movie, two questions were running through my mind: Did I actually like the movie, or did I like it more in relation to the original? If I saw this movie with no knowledge of the original, would I like it?

In comparison to the original, Flatliners '17 is a massive improvement. The performances are solid, the premise feels more fleshed out and there are a few decent scares. Unlike the dour original, the movie also has a sense of humour.

However, ultimately I don't know if this movie is good enough to stand on its own.  

It's a decent remake, but unless you know the original I think you could get more mileage out of re-watching one of the Final Destination movies.

Lady Macbeth 
A young woman, Catherine (Florence Pugh), is married to a wealthy man who imprisons her in his large house and spends no time with her. Eventually, Catherine acts out and falls for a rough groomsman (Cosmo Jarvis). Desiring more control over her destiny, she takes drastic measures to ensure her happiness.

It is a rare treat to go into a movie with no context. I cannot remember the last time I went into a movie with no idea what it was about. Before going further, if you are interested in watching this movie, don't bother with this review - just go watch it.

The title is something of a misnomer. Based on an 1865 Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, it is a shorthand for the main character's murderous intentions. Adapted by playwright Alice Birch (Revolt. She said. Revolt again), the location has been moved to 19th century Victorian England, a suitably terrifying context for the novel's focus on nightmarish gender restrictions.

Directed by William Oldroyd (it is his debut), Lady Macbeth is a chilly affair. Costing about half a million pounds, the movie benefits from its limitations. The action is largely restricted to the house and immediate surrounds, which works the sense of confinement that Catherine experiences. There are only a few characters in every scene - we get enough extras to get a sense of the scale of the estate, but it also works for the characters' sense of isolation.

The photography reinforces this isolation, framing characters in single shots, or cutting from long shots to tight close-ups. Scenes in the house are framed in repetitive patterns and formal composition, with few variations in shot choice or editing pattern. It often feels like the characters are caught in an endless loop of routine and ritual. Scenes are bracketed by exterior shots of fields and forests obscured by fog - in this place, even the elements are restrictive.

As far as the acting goes, Pugh is the standout. Her understated, venomous performance provides the bitch black heart to proceedings, as she moves a sympathetic victim, to sardonic rebel to cold-blooded murderer. As her lover, Cosmo Jarvis is also good - especially once he becomes a partner in one of her murders, and begins to unravel. As Catherine's traumatised maid Sarah, Naomi Ackie is given an extremely limited palette to work with, but wrings a lot of sympathy out of the role.

While it is to draw comparisons with gothic literature (ala Wuthering Heights), the genre this movie is most aligned with is film noir. While noir is associated with the forties, detectives and mysteries, like all genres, the definition of a noir is more elastic. While there are many different definitions, for me the genre boils down to a protagonist (or 'fall guy') who is trapped in a series of events that he (or she) cannot control. The defining aspect of the genre is that the noir protagonist rarely escapes their predicament (think back to Double IndemnityIn A Lonely Place or the more contemporary Chinatown).

In Lady Macbeth, Catherine is not just a femme fatale, but is a victim of circumstance. Her control over the situation is never absolute, and she never attains the freedom she desires - at the end she is trapped in an empty house with a baby on the way. Despite her schemes Catherine is ultimately a fall guy stuck in a situation she cannot control. She is a poor woman whose marriage is framed as a financial transaction. Trapped inside her husband's house, under the thumb of her puritanical father-in-law, and abandoned by her husband, she eventually cracks under the pressure. Once she kills, she does not discover freedom but more pressures that push her further away from her goals. At that level, Lady Macbeth is interesting. But what makes the movie genuinely incisive and troubling, is the way the movie frames gender inequalities through the lens of white privilege - in this case, Catherine's relationship with Sarah.

Framed in the background, or lower within scenes, Sarah is the genuine victim of the system. She is the reason why Catherine never faces any real retribution for her sins. It is not cleverness which saves Catherine but her status which shields her from punishment. When her schemes backfire on her, she uses the people below her on the social food chain as scapegoats - and none is worse off than Sarah, someone who is incapable of fighting back.

Enough rambling. Lady Macbeth is a bleak but incredibly engrossing picture, and one of the best films I have seen this year. Go check it out. 

Thursday, 28 September 2017

JAMES BOND: The music

For me, the music is the most important element of the James Bond franchise. Even more so than any of the other trappings, the soundtrack - particularly the James Bond theme - is the element which ties the franchise together and gives the movies a depth and cool that - more often than not - they would otherwise lack.

Dr. No

Like the movie, Dr No's score is an embryonic version of what was to come. The centrepiece is the James Bond theme. Written by Monty Norman, based on a musical he had previously composed, the theme was arranged and performed by the John Barry Seven. Barry's arrangement elevated Norman's composition and landed him the job of scoring most of the films between 1963 and 1987. This theme remains a mainstay of the series and an aural signature for the character.

Most of Norman's score is missing from the soundtrack album, which is made up of source tracks Norman recorded with musicians in Jamaica. The most interesting track is 'The Island Speaks', an atmospheric piece which plays during Bond's journey to Dr. No's island.

The rest of the album is interesting as a curio. One track which re-appears in a couple of different versions, is 'Dr No's Fantasy'. Another, slower version is confusingly named 'The James Bond Theme' - it's interesting and kind of eccentric, but it's not quite strong enough to stand up on its own.

Hopefully, Norman's full score gets a re-release at some point in the future. As it stands, this album is only notable for the first appearance of the Bond theme and the song 'Jump Up'.

From Russia With Love

Monty Norman was replaced by John Barry for the sequel, and the series' musical signature was cemented. This score introduces the first of Barry's alternative Bond themes. Entitled '007', it is more staccato and orchestral - there are points where it sounds like a wireless set relaying information. More adventurous and romantic than the Bond theme, Barry would re-use it in four later Bond scores.

The rest of the score is fantastic. Atmospheric, tense and evocative of its various locales without tying itself down the same way Dr No does. It's a classic adventure score, filtered through Barry's jazz influences.

The title song is serviceable, but lacks a little punch. More successful are the instrumental versions of the theme which reoccur throughout the film (the version which plays over the opening credits is great, especially when it segues into the Bond theme halfway through).


Packing as much style and swagger as the movie it accompanies, after fifty-something years there is something evergreen and exciting about John Barry's Goldfinger score. From 'Bond Back In Action' through 'Dawn Raid on Fort Knox', it is  a triumph. Even the incidental tracks, like 'Into Miami', are great. The song is solid gold, and Barry lays it through the score in a way that ties the whole thing together.

The one downside to Goldfinger, score and movie, is that future films and composers would try to use it as a template, to much diminished effect. 


The movie is a little middling; the same cannot be said for the score. It is not as propulsive as Goldfinger, but it is more atmospheric, and slower-paced, which makes it more enjoyable as a listening experience.

This is the first time in the series history where most of the score is built on the melody to a song that did not make the film. 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' was recorded by Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick, but the producers felt the song should have the title of the movie. The result is a soundtrack which is about 15% influenced by Tom Jones' title song. His song is fine, but I think I like 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' - it's too bad it never had a shot. The result is richer - I don't think 'Thunderball' is as interesting in instrumental form is 'Kiss Kiss...'

Barry develops a 'mystery' theme through tracks like 'Moving the Body' and 'Searching for Vulcan' which is very memorable (every time I go swimming, it starts playing in my head). It gets its most muscular workout in the build-up to the underwater battle ('Underwater Mayhem...').

A bit more stately than its predecessor, Thunderball is the aural equivalent of a day at the beach.

You Only Live Twice

A bit overshadowed by the scores either side of it, You Only Live Twice remains a really enjoyable Bond score. The song is not an all-timer, but it ranks just below the first division, and Barry makes good use of its melody in the rest of the score. Despite the movie's focus on spectacle, the score feels more geared toward romance than action. 'Mountains and Sunsets' is one of the best single tracks in the franchise, and had its main notes incorporated into the Robbie Williams' song 'Millennium'. The one off-note is the re-appearance of '007', feels awkward and out of style with the rest of the score. This version also feels a bit stiff and cold.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

All of the previous scores in the franchise, no matter how good, were leading up to this.

Influenced by Barry's misgivings about new Bond George Lazenby, OHMSS is the most mature and tonally sophisticated soundtrack the franchise has ever produced. The main title theme is a glorious one-off. Like Dr No, which opens with the James Bond theme, Barry developed an instrumental theme that carried through the movie. Powered by a Moog synthesiser, bass guitar and horns, it is propulsive and exciting, but leavened with a melancholic edge. One has to wonder if - had Lazenby continued - Barry would have re-used 'OHMSS' as a secondary character theme ala '007'.

The other centrepiece is 'We Have All The Time In The World', sung by Louis Armstrong. A beautifully understated ballad, it is the only real love theme in the franchise's history. Barry weaves between 'OHMSS' and this song throughout the score, only occasionally pulling out the old standby.

The Bond theme is also affected by the movie's fatalism - Barry uses an electric piano in place of the usual guitar for the melody, which undercuts its swagger. It makes more sense when Barry segues into the familiar theme over the closing credits. It is almost like the series formula reasserting itself following the death of Mrs Bond.

Top to bottom the best score the series ever had - the title theme is one of Barry's most successful experiments, and, most significantly, the score feels so of a piece with itself that when the Bond theme pops in, it feels incongruous.

Diamonds Are Forever

A weird revision of his brassy Sixties style, Barry tips his hat toward contemporary trends (particularly funk), while retaining his focus on traditional orchestration. This is the point in the franchise where the quality of the film and the quality of the soundtrack  begin to diverge.

Built around one of the series' all-time greatest songs, Diamonds Are Forever is one of Barry's most location-inspired scores. Track to track, this score oozes with the cheap glitz and sleaze of Las Vegas. It's not as good as OHMSS, and a step down from his work in the Sixties, but it remains one of my personal favourites. The electric piano which popped up in OHMSS returns, but is less obvious - there is a strange beat where Barry uses it to briefly echo the previous score's version of the Bond theme (pay attention during the pre-credit sequence when Connery's face is shown).

Aside from the song, the highlights are Wint and Kidd's theme - off-kilter and creepy - and '007 and Counting', which is the one time where the score hits the feeling of Barry's earlier scores. The one bummer is 'Moon Buggy Chase', which is shrill and repetitive (it is almost like Barry hates the scene as much as the viewer).

A bit more throwaway, but still a lot of fun, Diamonds Are Forever is the runt of the Connery run.

Live and Let Die

George Martin was a genius, and in terms of replacements it is hard to argue against him. It helps to have that song, but Martin's soul and funk-inspired score is extremely addictive. 'Whisper Who Dares', 'Trespassers Will Be Eaten', 'Boat Chase' and 'Underground Lair' are worthy of Barry himself. The score is a bit dated, but the injection of funk works so well it almost does not matter. Built off a great song, Live and Let Die still has a solid case for being the best James Bond score not penned by John Barry.

The Man With The Golden Gun

John Barry returned for his seventh tilt at the wheel, and while it is solid, there is something underwhelming about the whole package.

It could be the song, which I don't hate, but as a foundation for a score it is not on the same level as the previous scores. There is something a bit irritating about having those opening notes repeated over and over again - they just don't stack up to a 'Goldfinger' or a 'You Only Live Twice'.

Contradictorily, the most fun track is the western saloon-style instrumental of the title song, which plays during the pre-title funhouse set piece. It's just as eccentric as Lulu's version - maybe that's why the more traditional orchestral variations fall flat, they lose some of the song's character.

The Spy Who Loved Me

This soundtrack is the first real dud of the series, which is depressing since it was composed by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch, and features one of the best songs ever made.

The main problem is that it is very inconsistent, and, for the CD release, there is not much of it - the best parts of the score are not on the album (where is the music from the car chase?). The first few notes of 'Bond 77' are great, but then it turns into a disco dance tune, and the rest of soundtrack follows suit. If this was played in a club I would dance to it, but in the movie it is a total misfire.


My god what a study in contrast in tone between film and music - John Barry returns to deliver the limpest score of his tenure. The song is flaccid, but overall his approach is all wrong for the OTT nonsense onscreen. It is ultimately too slow and stately, which kills any sense of excitement. A very strange approach, especially considering how the film feels like a live action cartoon.

It's not a complete wash. Barry's score for the space sequences is beautiful, as he augments the orchestra with a choir. Otherwise, it is like the theme song - completely forgettable.

For Your Eyes Only

At the dawn of the eighties, John Barry took another break, and Rocky composer Bill Conti took over. Like the previous Barry stand-ins, Conti went for a contemporary tone. Once again that tone was disco, which was basically dead by the time this movie was released.

This score is so odd - in its own way, it hits the emotional beats of each scene, but the disco style is such a clunky fit that the it just sounds like the score to a Magnum PI episode. The disco influence on the gun barrel music is so overt every time I watch the movie I expect Moore to moonwalk backwards into frame.

'Melina's Revenge' is a personal favourite - it is actually two tracks combined; the first half covering the death of Melina's parents, and the second half is the music from the pre-title sequence, which plays as Bond takes over control of the helicopter and gets rid of Blofeld. It is very seventies, but the way the music kicks in is just magic.

The title song is memorable, although it's not a particular favourite of mine. To Conti's credit, he makes good use of its melody throughout, which might explain why the disco aesthetic is not as smothering as it could have been.


Octopussy is a score (and a movie) that has slowly risen to become one of my favourites. As with Moonraker, Barry goes heavy on the strings for a more expansive, classical sound. For some reason, this score works for me in a way that Moonraker did not. 'Bond Look Alike' and 'Palace Fight' in particular are great fun, managing to be a little playful while also building a bit of tension. It feels like the score to a light caper, which is perfect for this, the Moore-iest of Moore Bond movies.

I have grown to tolerate the theme song, although that may have more to do with Matt Gourley's incessant praise of it on the James Bonding podcast. The big problem is that it does not feel big enough - it feels more like one of the franchise's secondary theme songs ('If There Was A Man' from The Living Daylights; 'If You Asked Me To' from Licence to Kill), rather than something to anchor the movie on.

A solid outing for Barry, Octopussy marked his brief return to being James Bond's fulltime musical accompaniment.

A View To A Kill

Once again John Barry saves a terrible film with a score it does not deserve.

This score is absolutely beautiful. I used to dislike Barry's eighties scores - I missed the brass and jazz textures, but I have come to really enjoy the emphasis he placed on strings. There is something rather melancholy and beautiful about his instrumental version of the title song, particularly the use of a flute solo to stand in for Simon LeBon.

The Living Daylights

The arrival of a new Bond also marked the end of an era, as John Barry's last stab winds up acting as a fitting finale to his tenure.

Aside from some dated synths, this ranks as one of his best scores. The song is okay, but that is due to Barry's contributions, which overcome the nonsensical lyrics. In addition, his re-orchestration of the song in the score is terrific.

Part of this score's strength may be because this is the only time in the franchise in which all of the film's musical themes are based on songs: aside from the title song, we get the Pretenders' track 'Where Has Everybody Gone', which is another first in that it is the only time a henchman gets an identifiable theme tune of his own. It's a cool song, although I feel like it could use a bigger female vocal - if franchise mainstay Shirley Bassey had sung it, it would probably be better known. Barry's orchestral versions of the song ('Necros Attacks'; 'Inflight Fight') are also dynamite.

Barry also bases the romantic theme on another Pretenders song, 'If There Was a Man', which plays over the end credits. The song is adult contemporary cheese, but the orchestral versions in the score are really good (the album includes an alternate instrumental which is far better).

I criticised the synths, but I have to say Barry uses them well, especially in 'Ice Chase'. They don't overwhelm the orchestra like they do in the late nineties films.

Overall a superb summation to John Barry's work on the franchise.

Licence to Kill

When John Barry was too sick to return, the producers enlisted Lethal Weapon and Die Hard composer Michael Kamen to give this darker movie a more contemporary edge. The results are, as usual, underwhelming.

The main problem is that it lacks a real signature of its own. The most obvious problem is that it does not incorporate the melody of the song into the score. It is not a deal-breaker, but there is no other theme in the score to give it some character of its own.

Kamen's version of the Bond theme is fine (the slow-build which plays as Bond rises out of the water behind the sea plane is great), but the rest of the score does not amount to much.


Eric Serra was famous for his synth scores to Luc Besson movies like Le Femme Nikita and Leon, but he was out of his (fifth) element on this movie. The biggest misstep in the franchise, GoldenEye was such a miscalculation that it is the one time in which another composer was hired to re-do parts of the score.

'The GoldenEye Overture', which plays during the pre-credit sequence, is fine and works with the scene, but overall Serra's techno aesthetic is totally at odds with the movie's tone. It is a testament to the movie's other qualities that the score does not torpedo it.

The 'standout' examples of how badly Serra bungles the task are 'Ladies First' (which plays during his flirtatious chase with Xenia Onatopp) and his rejected music for the tank chase. Composer John Altman was brought on at the last minute to quickly come up with an orchestral score for the tank chase which made heavy use of the James Bond theme. Altman's contribution was left off the soundtrack album, but you can find a version of it floating around on Youtube.

Otherwise the score feels like a mash-up of bad elevator music and the soundtrack to a late eighties porno.

Tomorrow Never Dies

The arrival of David Arnold as composer led to a decade of musical stability for the Bond franchise.

Tomorrow Never Dies is one of his best soundtracks, even though it features the elements that would derail his later scores for the Brosnan era: a big dollop of Barry (strings, brass, and horns) with contemporary textures (in this case, drum'n'bass).

Unlike his later Brosnan-era scores, while it features elements of techno, with Tomorrow Never Dies Arnold makes sure that they are subordinate to traditional brass and strings.

Barry-like touches are present throughout ('Hamburg Break-In' echoes Barry's "Bond Back In Action' from Goldfinger), and Arnold brings back the James Bond theme in an energetic arrangement that re-invigorates the old standby.

And while the Sheryl Crowe song is dire, Arnold's own Bassey-esque 'Surrender' (sung by kd lang) made it to the end credits. Like Thunderball, Arnold composed the score with the melody for this song as the backbone, but Crowe's song wound up getting the prime slot.

One of the best scores in the series, with Tomorrow Never Dies the Bond series got its mojo back.

The World Is Not Enough

More techno-influenced than Arnold's first score, and not nearly as fresh, The World Is Not Enough does earn points for being a little more tonally varied than its bold, brash predecessor. Arnold lends this score more pathos to match the more mature intentions of the film.

As a score this one actually ranks with Barry for doing a better job at hitting the tone than the film it accompanies. The action cues are fantastic, but the real highlight is 'Elektra's Theme', which features throughout the movie as a motif for the characters' affect on Bond and the narrative trajectory. 

I am lukewarm on the title song - objectively there is nothing wrong with it, but there is something lacking from it. Maybe it is just fits the template too closely, with no defining character of its own.

More offbeat is 'No One Else To Blame', a moody ditty Arnold came up with to play over the end credits. Sung by Scott Walker, it hits the downbeat tone of the movie - clearly the producers agreed, since they had Arnold go back and replace it with an up-tempo version of the James Bond theme, to leave the viewers on a high note (the song is included on the soundtrack album).

Die Another Day

While not as bad as GoldenEye, this score represents the nadir of David Arnold's tenure. The movie is out of ideas, and, sadly, so was the composer. He struggles manfully to bring drama and excitement in 'Hovercraft Chase' and 'Anatonov', but his music lacks variation and nuance. Once again, he is hamstrung by a terrible title song (which was produced too late to be used in the score), but overall Die Another Day comes off as loud, hollow and tied to its time.

Casino Royale

Purposely depriving himself of the James Bond theme, which had become something of a crutch in his previous scores, Arnold rises to the occasion with tracks which accentuate the movie's tone and themes. His romantic theme for Vesper Lynd is lovely, and while 'You Know My Name' is a bit middling as a title song, Arnold's uses of its melody in the score are glorious (particularly on the heart-pumping 'African Rundown'). When the Bond theme finally makes its appearance, it is glorious. One of the best scores in the franchise.

Quantum of Solace

Not a bad effort (and better than the song) but Quantum of Solace is a bit of a dip in quality from Arnold's previous score. 

He continues the restraint of his work on Casino Royale, utilising the familiar theme for only a few minor moments and picking up 'Vesper' in a few places to ensure thematic continuity. However Arnold's largely at the mercy of the movie, which is the most relentlessly action-oriented in the franchise. He makes a lot out of the movie's quieter moments, injecting lashings of pathos ('I Never Left') and comedy ('Field Trip') in among the action cues.

On that front, Arnold is on great form: 'Time to Get Out' and 'Pursuit at Port Au Prince' are great. The real highlight may be 'Night at The Opera', which gets the pulse racing without leaning into the percussion or synthesisers.

Quantum would perhaps have been more memorable if the melody of the score was tied to the title song, but this is another Arnold joint where contemporary taste overruled musical unity. Arnold later used the melody of this score for the song 'No Good About Goodbye' for Shirley Bassey. Rumours persist that this song was rejected in favour of the White-Keys track. I have no idea what the truth is, but the song is so close to the melody line that runs through Quantum that it is hard to dismiss as a coincidence. 


With the arrival of Sam Mendes in the director's chair, Skyfall also marked the series debut of his favoured composer Thomas Newman. An Oscar winner with a solid pedigree, on paper Newman sounds like a great stand-in for David Arnold. But that is not the case.

While it is not terrible, Newman's score for Bond 23 is relatively anonymous. As always, the big problem is a lack of memorable melody - Adele's 'Skyfall' gets referenced in 'Komodo Dragon' and it is great, but it is missing from the rest of the movie. 'New Digs' has some nice agitated guitar and Newman reaches some Barry-esque romanticism with the evocative 'Severine' and 'Modigliani', but otherwise it sounds like Modern Blockbuster Score 101.

Even the Bond theme, when it reappears, feels a little uninspired - Arnold always gave it a bit of panache and originality, but Newman seems to be going for the original vintage, with no flavour of his own.


Following his middling effort for Skyfall, Newman returns to deliver a score with even less character than his first. Like Skyfall, it is not without its good points: the opening track, 'Los Muertos Vivos Estan', features Tambuco on percussion. By itself it boasts more energy and swagger than anything else on the album. But once again, the score feels indebted to a contemporary aesthetic that is heavy on simple themes and motifs, but light on strong melody. It does not say much that the most memorable track on the album is the instrumental version of Sam Smith's insipid theme song.

Here's hoping whoever gets the gig for Daniel Craig's swansong can end his era on high note.