Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The World Is Not Enough: The Brosnan Era encapsulated

A couple years back, I reviewed The World Is Not Enough. The review was not that good, so here's hoping this one is more interesting.


When MI6 is attacked -- and one of M's (Judi Dench) friends is killed, James Bond leaps into action to protect the dead man's daughter from a nihilistic terrorist with a bullet in his brain and a death wish. But as Bond is drawn deeper into a vast conspiracy, he begins to question exactly who the enemy is...

The key theme of this review is to try and nail down not so much the flaws of this movie, but the ways in which it represents the era in which it was made: for better, and worse.

Now with hindsight, and four Daniel Craig movies, we can begin to appreciate the Brosnan era (1995-2002) in context with the rest of the series. At the time, Brosnan was seen as one of the best Bonds -- so many articles would refer to him as 'the best Bond since Connery'. This was probably due to the fact that his predecessor Timothy Dalton had been such a strong break from tradition and -- since he only made two movies -- he was seen as  a failure. Brosnan's movies were always seen as more classical and faithful to the franchise formula and its tropes. Their popular success cemented his status as a return to the glories of 'classic' Bond.

Now, the Brosnan movies feel like a bridge between the 'classic' run (1962-1989) and the Craig era's revisionism. Especially in this movie, the darkness and psychological complexity that Dalton's movies tried to bring in is still present in Brosnan's era. However, it is softened and balanced by a strict adherence to the Bond formula. I still have a making-of magazine from this movie's release which followed the then-company line that Brosnan was bringing a new layer of 'humanity' to Bond.
There is certainly something to this -- this movie definitely features Brosnan's best acting -- but these attempts to flesh out the character are often juxtaposed against elements which undermine these attempts at greater complexity. As I've stated in previous reviews, the problem with Brosnan's run is the lack of a consistent identity and tone. To watch a Brosnan movie is to bear witness to a never-ending battle between the series' two impulses -- 'realism' versus escapism. Scene to scene, the Brosnan movies are constantly oscillating between the Bond formula and attempts at new ideas. It's a debate that his series never settled.
The World Is Not Enough is the prime example of the identity crisis at the heart of Brosnan's Bond. The story is interesting, the characters are complex, and both components present potential sites for delving into Bond's character. But somewhere along the line in the movie's development, someone got scared.
Every time it feels like the movie is going to do something new, the movie immediately compensates with something familiar that completely undercuts it. Take our leading ladies. The Brosnan Bonds always kept the trope of duelling love interests -- early films tended to play with this trope, but in the Brosnan era it became a rule. And not for the better.


Sophie Marceau's Elektra, the woman Bond has to protect, is an interesting character who makes for a more engaging partner to Bond. But the introduction of Christmas Jones, above and beyond the deficiencies of the character, completely deflates her impact. The introduction of another woman, who is more of a clear-cut heroine undermines the revelation that Elektra is the real villain.


Having two women just reminds viewers of past movies, where one woman (who is bad) will die, and Bond will escape with another woman (who is good). Christmas serves no narrative function beyond giving the movie a happy ending.

By being a complex character with motivations and backstory that violate the Bond formula's strict good-evil dichotomy, Elektra is too problematic to exist by herself. The series producers were clearly too scared to end the movie on a downer, with Bond alone, and so you end up with a character like Christmas. She is purely there to tick a box.


The film is filled with half-assed moves like this. The attempts at focusing on character interaction, and presenting Bond as a detective, are balanced by unnecessary gadgets and action scenes that seem to exist purely to fill a quota. The ski chase and the helicopter assault on the caviar factory could be cut out entirely, and you would not notice -- that's how little they affect the plot's trajectory.


The World Is Not Enough stands as one of the great 'what ifs?' of the Bond franchise. It features the most intriguing premise of his movies, one of the series' most under-sung (and only female) villains, and Brosnan's most complex and human performance as Bond. Had the filmmakers stuck to their guns, TWINE could have been a contender. While GoldenEye will always be his best showcase, this movie is the one Brosnan movie that hints at something genuinely great that could have pushed the series in a more interesting direction.
While TWINE has mostly faded from the popular consciousness (save for the albatross of Dr. Christmas Jones), its legacy is nothing to sniff about. It was only two movies later that its writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade wrote Casino Royale, which delivered the more complex characters and relationships that TWINE had hinted at.

And in 2012, TWINE had the supreme compliment of two remakes: the film's switchero villains plot was cribbed by The Dark Knight Rises (which also cribbed its opening plane stunt from Licence to Kill). If you replace Elektra and Renard with Talia and Bane, it's the same exact relationship.


The second was within the Bond franchise itself. In Skyfall (also written by Wade and Purvis), the story mimics TWINE in several ways, from Bond sustaining an injury that endures through the story, to the attack on MI6, to a villain with personal connection to M (Judi Dench), and  a third act based around Bond protecting his boss from being killed.


So while TWINE is not a great movie, its promise, and the promise of the Brosnan era, has continued to have an on-going effect on the Bond franchise and the pop culture space around it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

FRESH MEAT Season One: In Vod We Trust

The Midnight Ramble's deep dive into Brit TV on Netflix continues with the uni-housing set Fresh Meat.


It's a basic set-up: a couple of unlikely people are thrown together in a house just outside of university: rich prick, anti-establishment rebel, creepy weirdo etc. On paper, who cares, right?

After a decent but unexceptional pilot, the show rapidly picks up steam. After a few episodes, the show's dynamic has gelled and the characters have begun to break out of their archetypes. Unlike American shows of a similar ilk, Fresh Meat has its feet on terra firma. Occasionally, we get doses of real events (the show deals with effects of the Coalition government's austerity measures, and one episode is set during the massive 2011 student protests) which gives the show an added sense of verisimilitude.

By Episode Three, ostensible leads Kingsley (Joe Thomas) and Josie (Kimberley Nixon) have faded to the background, while other members of the ensemble begin to spread their wings. The main reasons to watch are Zawe Ashton as Vod and comedian Jack Whitehall (most well known in these parts for his appearances on Graham Norton) as the entitled blue blood JP.


Vod is a party animal with an eye for casual sex, drugs and booze. She also has a penchant for anti-establishment causes and doing the opposite of whatever the curriculum dictates, She is also incredibly honest, and possessed of a strong moral centre. Unlike the other characters, she is happy with herself. Her arc is basically about realising that she needs to change ever so slightly if she wants to make her way in the difficult world waiting post-university.

JP is the resident 'posh' guy who considers himself a cocksman and is unashamedly class-conscious, despite his appropriation of the language and the style of American hip-hop. Over the course of the season, he finds himself increasingly at odds with his amoral posh set.

In Episode Three, we get the tendrils of future plot lines: namely introvert Howard's (Greg McHugh) attempts to find a romantic partner, and rich girl-turned-goth chick Oregon's (Charlotte Ritchie) desire to live up (down) to the 'glamourous' Vod. Regarding the former, Howard invites Vod to see a movie. She accepts but then realises Howard (below) fancies her. She decides to confront him.


The scene between Vod and Howard is rather sad, and a sign of how good the writing is. Vod doesn't beat around the bush -- she tells Howard she is not interested. TWIST ONE: Howard reacts with disbelief. He had no interest in Dod, and just wanted a companion for the movies. With God chastened, Simon storms back to his room. Cue TWIST TWO: he pulls out a gift-wrapped box of expensive chocolates with a note for Vod. The scene ends with him quietly eating them on his bed.


With Oregon (above), her pursuit of being like Vod leads her into an affair with her lecturer, Tony Shales. This continues to have ramifications throughout the show's run.

Episode Six hits an emotional high that the show has not reached before. It's ultimately a story about mortality. It starts on a blackly comic note, with the indestructible Vod barely surviving an overdose, and then with the news that JP's father is dying. Vod and Oregon take JP home -- despite the fact that he is in the middle of a massive LSD trip. En-route, Oregon takes a detour to reconnect with her childhood companion, a horse. At this point, Vod learns that her friend is not as edgy as she says she is.

Episode Eight is based around JP's dad's funeral. He spends the episode wanting to escape so he can join his posh mates at the expensive party he has bankrolled. The episode gives JP a chance at redemption -- ejecting the posh set who have manipulated and abused him, he turns the party into a celebration of his father.


I haven't really mentioned Kingsley and Josie that much, but that's because they are boring. With Episode Four, the writers seem to realise that Kingsley is a boring tool and come up with a scenario out of an 80s teen comedy: Kingsley is still a virgin, but by the end of this episode he has turned into a lothario. Apart from that, their storyline is vaguely insipid. It's an after-effect of being juxtaposed with the more OTT characters, but it also seems to be part of the show's overriding thesis:

The supposedly normal characters are actually the least normal. They are the most confused and the most unsure of who they are. Vod and Howard might seem weird, but they are at least true to themselves, whereas Oregon tries to live down her privilege, while JP tries to preserve his; Kingsley and Josie are guilty of a more pedestrian form of dishonesty: they realise that they are attracted to each other, but do not do anything about it until it is too late.

Overall, a solid season lifted by some great characters -- and those who aren't that interesting get shoved into some interesting directions.

Previous reviews



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

00 Zero: The Worst Bond Movies

James Bond fans all have their bete noir of the franchise. These movies are mine.

The Man With The Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974)



I know there are fans of this movie. They are insane.

This movie takes one of the best villains in the series and anchors him to a dead weight of a script and a director who is clearly checked-out.

This movie features two of the most comatose women in the Bond series -- when critics (justly) charge the series with two-dimensional female characters, this is the prime example.

The primary flaw is the script. Originally, the story was solely based around Bond's duel with Scaramanga. Perhaps fearing that this premise strayed too far from the formula, the producers demanded rewrites which forced the addition of a MacGuffin for Bond and his nemesis to fight over.

The Solex agitator, a gizmo reflecting the energy crisis of the early seventies, is singularly uninspired. More importantly, it distracts from the contest between Bond and the villain, padding out the narrative and sapping the story of any sense of momentum. Simply put, the addition of this gadget throws the movie's focus, and it winds up feeling a bit aimless.

On top of that, we also get unnecessary set pieces (the kung fu school; the car chase with Sheriff JW Pepper) which add nothing to the story.

To see the ways in which these duelling plot lines cancel each other out, take another look at the climax. We get a luncheon between hero and villain, which teases the dichotomy that was clearly the original intent of the early scripts. This is followed by the duel, which while a bit underwhelming, is totally serviceable: the trick with swapping out the wax dummy is one of the few high points of the movie.

What ruins it is that we then have to get through a second climax, so that Bond can retrieve the Solex. Since the villain has been vanquished, this is just pointless time-wasting with no sense of tension.

Lots of Bond movies have garbage scripts, but they can be saved by some flashes of style. Not here. The whole movie is let down by extremely slack direction from Guy Hamilton, who was clearly sleepwalking through the picture (considering this was his third in a row, it's easy to see why the movie feels so tired).

While not as egregious as later films in the franchise, Golden Gun is profoundly un-involving. Moore and Lee deserve better.

Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979)


Moonraker is another movie with fans. I'm guessing they use this movie to cure their insomnia, because this movie is BORING.

On top of being mind-numbingly formulaic, the film moves at a snail's pace -- you can actually hear room tone during the dialogue scenes, that's how slow this movie is. The final space battle, which is supposed to be the action highpoint, is also slow and goes on too long. When Drax's space station explodes, it seems to go on for what feels like two hours.

On top of all that, series MVP John Barry's score is far too stately and string-driven. Moonraker marks the point where Barry ditched the brass, and emphasised the strings. His latter scores suffer a bit from this change. The music is not bad (the Space March is great) but it only adds to the movie's pacing problems.

Though Michael Lonsdale offers a few sardonic one-liners, his Hugo Drax lacks personality, and just comes off as 'stock Bond villain'. That description extends to the rest of the cast. Moore and co-star Lois Chiles have no chemistry. The age gap does not help either.

I have to say Moore is singularly unlikable here. The writing is the culprit here -- Bond comes across as a gormless chauvinist with none of Moore's trademark charm or the witty repartee that made his Bond watchable. It's probably the Hamilton effect -- four movies in, Moore was probably a bit bored.

A dull, soulless re-tread of its predecessor, Moonraker is filled with stuff which should be fun, but it just lies there like an open can of sardines.

A View To Kill (John Glen, 1985)


Sorry Roger, I love ya but this one is just heinous.

This movie holds the dubious distinction of being the one I've seen the least. I watched it once when I was younger, and once again at the start of last year. And my feelings remain the same: it is terrible. A View To A Kill is the cinematic equivalent of purgatory -- it feels like nine hours of aimless wondering with no goals or points of reference.

Chris Walken and Grace Jones are often heralded as saving graces, but that's a low bar. They get nothing interesting to do, beyond the occasional bit of business. Walken appears to be checked out for most of the movie, while Jones gets scuppered by the horrifically stupid script.

In their favour, they do manage to be more sympathetic than Tanya Roberts' Stacey Sutton, a character so stupid and loathsome she rivals Kate Capshaw from Temple of Doom as one of the most regressive and annoying female leads of all time.

I'm not even going to touch Moore's age. It is what it is.

As with all these movies, the script is the real villain. It really is just a series of pointless tangents, with no sense of momentum or peril -- we spend what feels like three years at Zorin's estate where he breeds race horses, and then move on to San Francisco, where more inconsequential bullshit happens. We do get introduced to leading lady Stacey, but then spend the rest of the movie hoping Mayday or Zorin will get rid of her.

And then something about a mine blowing up. And Mayday saves the day. And Stacey doesn't hear the massive blimp behind her and gets captured. So Bond goes after them and the movie finally ends in the most un-engaging  end fight between Zorin and Bond on top of the Golden Gate bridge.

I still cannot believe that Duran Duran's theme song is associated with this movie, because its quality is directly inverse to the awesomeness of the title song.

Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)



Lazy. That's the word that I associate with this movie. It's just a childish collection of cliches thrown together with no care or passion.

Tomorrow Never Dies is a bit formulaic, but it has a sense of fun. The World Is Not Enough is a mess, but it has ambition and ideas. This movie is just junk.

It starts with a pre-credits sequence. First is the garbage techno music over the gunbarrel, then there is the surfing into North Korea.

Then we get the hovercraft chase, a boring overlong set piece which feels like a missing scene from a Michael Bay movie. And to top it all off, it ends with that excruciating line: 'Saved by the bell!' Spoken after Bond is literally saved by a bell.

The movie is rife with terrible one-liners. They don't even rate as puns. Every character sounds like they were written by a 12 year old who wanted to write James Bond fan fiction.



The acting is appalling -- Brosnan and Halle Berry appear to be acting in different movies -- heck, they seem to be acting in different languages. Toby Stephens manages to be even more cartoonish than Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies -- and far less fun to watch.

The gadgets are pointless -- sure the invisible car is dumb, but they don't even use it in an interesting way. It just drives around an igloo for a bit, and then the invisibility cloak disappears and it turns into a regular gadget-based super-car.

The CGI is godawful and omnipresent. David Arnold's score is working overtime to try and save the movie, but it does not come off.

Director Lee Tamahori's stylistic choices (especially the speed ramping and fast cutting) don't feel Bondian at all. It feels like a substandard action movie from the early noughties. Bond movies are at their worst when they are simply cribbing from other movies, and Die Another Day is a magnificently horrible example of this strategy at its worst.

Like the other movies on this list, Die Another Day is an example of the Bond franchise reaching the end of its rope: benefit of ideas, energy and relevance, the series was in need of a break and a re-think. I guess we can be thankful for that.

Previous reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

The Living Daylights

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Friday, February 17, 2017

MISFITS Season Two (Part Two)

Three episodes in, and Misfits's sophomore season features that most hackneyed of long form cliches, the macro-plot. Let's see how it works out...



Episode Four
The Future Simon plot is now the main order of business, which means more gratuitous nudity from Antonia Thomas. Enough already. The sad thing about the shift to Future Simon means that Nathan Stewart-Jarrett's Curtis really gets short-changed -- although once Curtis and Alisha break up, it means he gets more scenes with Ruth Negga


On the bright side, the villain of this episode is particularly inspired: Tim (Matt Cross) believes that he is a character, Jimmy Cisco, in a GTA-style game, and that our gang are the people who have double-crossed him. One of the series' most memorable villains, Tim would return repeatedly throughout the show's run.

Joshua McGuire, Antonia Thomas's future Lovesick cast-mate, briefly guest stars as another young offender with the power to teleport. After an epic intro scored with Edwin Starr's War, the overconfident teleporter is shot in the head by Tim/Jimmy. At the hospital, his heart is removed and ends up in Nikki's chest, saving her life and giving her his superpower.

I think my underlying problem with the Alisha-Simon love story is that she falls for him because of what he is going to become, rather than the person he is. Their story becomes weirdly Oedipal, but there does not appear to be much awareness on the creatives' part

Episode Five
This episode guest-stars the great Zawe Ashton as Simon's first girlfriend Jessica. Considering what she goes through here, I'd like to think the events of this episode are a traumatic prequel for her character Vod from Fresh Meat.

Ashton as Jessica
Vod


Episode Five is a story of love and men acting like animals (and vice versa).

Nathan, that upstanding gent, pervily checks out Jessica while she is getting changed in the changing room. The lights go out and Nathan winds up dead. Did Jessica do the deed? Considering how much of a douchebag Nathan is in this episode, the rest of the gang and the viewer could  not care less.

While Nathan wonders what the hell happened, Simon also meets Vod-sorry, Jessica, who immediately becomes smitten with him. Still mourning Future Simon and his pale buff-ness, Alisha has started following Simon around like a weirdo (nice digs at the costume party though -- the filmmakers have finally broken through to my baser instincts). Speaking of baser instincts, in an odd but poignant subplot, Kelly has brief relationship with a strange man who turns out to be a gorilla (anyone catch the foreshadowing in the first episode?).

This episode feels weirdly rushed and abrupt at points -- Simon and proto-Vod's romance speeds to the finish line before you really get to register what makes them click. I was scratching my head at why Vod would want to go out with Simon in the first place, but considering how all the other male characters are constantly leering or pawing her, his non-confrontational peeping tom vibe might seem refreshing.

Considering the somewhat childish way she is attired, and her hesitancy around the opposite sex -- and how protective her dad is -- I guess the filmmakers wanted the viewer to infer that she's a bit sheltered.

BTW, the twist that it's Vod's dad whose killing her suitors/stalkers is blindingly obvious from minute one.

Episode Six
Episode Six features one of the series' most interesting plots, and one of the series' best one-off antagonists: Brian (Jordan Metcalfe), a man with the ability to control and manipulate milk products.


It should be goofy, but it plays like the Misfits version of JohnnyBates/Kid Miracleman: an ostracised man who is completely ignored by everyone suddenly finds something that makes him special. When that status is usurped, and he is tossed aside, the poor schlub uses his power to prove that he should not be ignored. It's a creepy conceit that the show exploits to the full.

The opening sequence, in which we are introduced to Milk Man, is wonderfully Tim Burtonesque. Played without dialogue and using 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King', we track Milk Man before the storm, where he sleepwalks through life -- a prime example of a wallpaper person, he is ignored by everyone.

This episode displays an admirable ruthlessness -- the Milk Man stacks up a massive bodycount, including Nikki. It gets incredibly bleak: the colour palette used for the hotel is very bland, which helps emphasise the tackiness of the media circus around the teens.

The episode even manages to work in Simon's discovery of Future Simon and his future relationship with Alisha, without it feeling wedged in. His actions in trying to defeat the Milk Man show his growing maturity. It's somewhat unmade by having Curtis use his powers to kill the Milk Man before he becomes famous and exposes them.

Christmas Special
Thankfully, the Christmas Special provides a nice resolution to the season and Nathan's story: he meets his female equivalent and they leave to go to Vegas.

As well as a season finale, it also acts as a tidy reboot -- a former drug pusher with the ability to remove and/or provide superpowers provides the characters with the chance to give up their powers. Like Superman II, this change is ill-timed as our uh, heroes then have to contend with a messianic cult leader who claims to be Jesus.

In one of the most shocking moments of the series, Nikki dies (again). What makes it worse is that Curtis cannot go back in time to save her.

In another interesting development, Simon rebels against comparisons with Future Simon, which goes some way to making this whole time travel business less ridiculous.

 The season ends (again) with our heroes buying new powers.

Final thoughts
A great build over the first season, Season 2 manages to expand the field of play with a bunch of cool new concepts and storylines. The time travel stuff jars a bit, and a few characters (Curtis) are sidelined, but ultimately it's a great sequel.

MISFITS Season Two (Part One)

After a bit of break, here's the next instalment in whatever the hell this is. The Misfits Revisits? Whatever. Read on.


Reviewing the second season of Misfits is something of a melancholic experience. It represents the end of the show's original line-up, with Robert Sheehan's Nathan making his exit with a new girlfriend and a baby in tow.

But that's Episode Eight. Let's take things back to the beginning, where our (anti)heroes have gelled as a team, and have figured out what they are doing.

Episode One
Episode One is an interesting spin on The Thing, with our heroes forced to dealing with an enemy who can imitate them. This enemy is a young woman who Simon met in the psych ward has gained the power to shape shift. Enraged that he has new friends, she uses her ability to turn our heroes against each other. Overall, it's a neat idea for a bottle episode, and uses the location of the rec centre effectively.

The mysterious figure introduced at the end of the first season returns, this time with a lair which resembles Batman's digs from The Dark Knight (2008) and some serious parkour skills. We also get my personal favourite of the probation workers, the wonderfully disinterested Shaun (Craig Parkinson).

Episode Two
Episode Two introduces some dimension to Nathan: it turns out he has a half-brother. A half-brother who has their dad (Dexter Fletcher) tied up in the boot of his car.

Once this situation is resolved, Nathan and his brother Jamie join the rest of the gang at a club. Here, I noticed a plot hole: When the group is at the club, Alisha is wearing her usual get up, with no sleeves. How is there not a bunch of sex-crazed people surrounding her?

Like a bunch of teens, they take some pills to get the party really started. However, the drugs reverse their powers: Kelly says whatever is in her head; Simon becomes the centre of attention; Alisha repulses everyone she touches; and Curtis jumps forward into the future (giving us the first appearance of Ruth Negga as Curtis's future love interest Nikki). The fun ends in tragedy when the ice-powered girl Jamie has sex with bursts into flames.

In the end, Nathan learns that his power comes with a darker dimension: he can see the recently deceased. It turns out his brother died in the girl's self-immolation. He fulfils Jamie's final wish by trying to mend fences with their dad.

Thankfully, since this is Misfits, the show ends on wonderfully barmy note: thinking they have discovered the masked man's hideout in one of the estate's flats, the gang break in and Nathan defecates on the bed. Only then do they discover that the flat belongs to Nikki. 

Episode Three
The masked man plot begins to supplant the 'freak of the week' format. Nathan and Kelly get involved with a super-powered tattoo artist whose tattoos allow him to mind control his customers (he forces Kelly to fall in love with him and Nathan to fall in love with Simon).

Meanwhile, Alisha is saved from a mugging by the masked man -- when he helps her to her feet, she notes that he is unaffected by touching her. Intrigued, she tries to repeat the experience, figuring that the masked man will turn up to save her. She provokes a random stranger and when he gives chase, she trips down on a flight of stairs and knocks herself out. 

The masked man comes to her aid and takes her to his lair, where she is shocked to discover her saviour is Simon. Claiming to be from the future, this buff confident version of Simon gets Alisha all hot and bothered. He forbids her from telling anyone about him, claiming it will ruin his 'plan'. Alisha starts treating Simon better.

It's sad that it takes a look at Future Simon in the buff to make her treat his younger self with a little respect -- I'm not really a fan of pre-determined narratives anyway, but here's a little bit of wish fulfilment here which is a bit contrived  -- the time travel angle also takes away from the characters' agency in a way I don't like.

Plus there's the scene where Future Simon sneaks into Alsiha's room which is just weird and stalker-like. Granted, it's to return the necklace the mugger stole, but it's... weird. He also starts talking about how they are pre-destined to become lovers. 

Thankfully, the script presents Alisha as (a bit) confused and conflicted about the whole idea. The focus on touch helps -- it makes sense that the character is so starved of physical contact that she jumps at the first chance to have a proper relationship. 

Sadly this leads to a trope of this show that I could not stand -- a prolonged love scene that goes on way too long -- long enough to wonder why Future Simon doesn't get more sun. Dude looks like a corpse. 

This was also the episode where I began to notice how often the filmmakers turn Antonia Thomas into a sex object. Re-watching the first episode, she is introduced in a long shot focused on her body, with her head peaking into frame as she pulls on her overalls. This episode features Thomas wearing only a sweatshirt, which is strategically hanging off her shoulders. Bits of business like this are strewn throughout her tenure on the show, and while her power is based on her sexuality, this focus on her body comes off as gratuitous. 

Moving on from Mulvey of it all, I will admit that Alisha and Future Simon's final embrace, in soft focus, is a nice moment. Despite an over-emphasis on shaky cam and insanely shallow depth of field, this show has always had a great sense of style.

Meanwhile, Curtis bonds with Nikki after the gang's antics last episode. She gets a heart transplant and gains the ability to teleport at inopportune moments.

To be continued...

Previous reviews

MISFITS Season One

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bond 25 speculation: Is Craig's era over?

It's been awhile since I wrote one of these. Nothing appears to have changed, production-wise, but it's time to address the orange-haired elephant in the room.


Following the release of Danel Craig's fourth Bond film Spectre there were the usual cries for renewal. Craig was too old, the movie wasn't good, other movies were doing it better. Over a year after its release, I am struck by a more existential notion: in the wake of Brexit, Trump and the wave of nationalistic populism sweeping the globe, is his version of Bond outdated?

Just as Brosnan's Bond was made redundant by 9/11, did the events of 2016 do the same for Craig's? As much as I love Craig, and would like him to end his run on a strong note, I think his time has passed.

Post-2016, the idea of Idris Elba, or just of a Bond of colour, feels necessary if this character is going to have any relevance going forward. 

James Bond is the most enduring figure of an old tradition, the British spy thriller. Originally a literary genre in which genteel Englishmen foil the plans of dastardly foreigners trying to destroy western civilisation. This racist aspect of the genre, present in the novels featuring Bulldog Drummond and Fu Manchu, was replicated in Ian Fleming's books, through villains such as Mr Big in Live and Let Die and the eponymous Dr. No.


While the films broke from this race-based dichotomy, the underlying ideological framework has remained largely in place. In the current environment we have now -- of hyper-nationalism and rising economic inequality -- that framework, while considerably diluted from its source material, is extremely problematic. On top of that, having a blonde haired, blue-eyed Bond in 2017-2018 seems archaic.

This situation is not new. The Bond series has adapted to previous shifts in world events (the Cold War; 9/11), and it can do so again. But that might mean Daniel Craig's iteration has to make for another take that helps the franchise avoid spiralling into irrelevance. In a post-Trump world, a black Bond is not so much a gimmick as it is an opportunity to re-frame Bond's underlying ideology: who does the defender of the status quo stand for when the status quo has disappeared?  


Colour-blind casting of Bond may raise some hackles, but a) nothing in the character requires him to be white and b) there is no set character of Bond. His most common attributes (the guns, gadgets and women) are all cosmetic. All of the actors who have previously played Bond never played the character. Furthermore, the franchise has shown no fidelity to anything -- there is almost no continuity between movies, characters are re-cast frequently, and every movie feels like a reaction to the success/failure of its immediate predecessor.


The final point of this rant is that when it comes to Bond, anything is possible. If Idris Elba or someone else is cast as Bond, it does not matter. Just so long as the movie is good.


Previous BOND 25 rants


If Daniel Craig Returns


Directors





Monday, February 13, 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Hidden Figures

This movie snuck up on me. I hadn't even heard of it until a couple of weeks ago. In light of recent orange-hued events, watching this movie felt more necessary and important.


Hidden Figures is set in the early days of the space race, in the run-up to John Glen's circumnavigation of the globe in 1962. As you probably already know, the movie focuses on three African American women who managed to fight through the prejudice of Jim Crow-era Virginia to become essential parts of the space programme.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae star as, respectively,  Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. Johnson was a maths prodigy who invented the maths that allowed Glenn's capsule to return to Earth; Vaughn taught herself how to use the massive IBM computer that was intended to make her team redundant, and Jackson fought to become qualified as an engineer.

The movie is based largely around Johnson, and her rise from a glorified calculator to a key member of the team that eventually put man on the moon.

The cast are all great (Kevin Costner is also very good as their boss) but this is Taraji P. Henson's show. Henson has been great before (she even salvages her corner of Joe Carnahan's messy Smoking' Aces), and this role is another terrific showcase for the actress. Her role on TV phenomenon Empire may have raised her profile, but this is the first real chance she's had to stretch on the big screen in a while.

I would go into more detail, but this movie has had plenty of good notices. Suffice to say, Hidden Figures is a good story well-told. There is nothing particularly unique or new about it cinematically. It is just good, clean story-telling, based around a trio of great performances. It's an old-fashioned Oscar season movie, but it's a great example of the kind. Check it out.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

xXx 3: The Ego Has Landed

I was considering giving this a miss till it turned up on Netflix, but then How Did This Get Made? announced they were going to roast it, and now I feel like I have to get in front of this thing before its stupidity is spoiled for me.


I'll be honest. I only watched the first xXx for the first time in 2015, and I cannot remember a single thing about it. The trailers for this one looked awesomely bonkers, the cast looked good and you had DJ Caruso, a decent genre director, stepping in for Rob Cohen, one of the most incompetent mainstream filmmakers I have ever had to endure (his movies, I mean. I'm sure he's totally pleasant in person).
A kajillion years after his last mission, extreme sports dude Xander Cage is brought back into the fold after his boss Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is assassinated. He is tasked with hunting down an elite team of daredevils who have stolen a MacGuffin that can do bad things. To accomplish Mission Extreme, Cage assembles his own team to take them down.

For the first 10-15 minutes, xXx 3 is the movie you thought the first movie was. Insane stunts, extreme sports, explosions and a bombastic monologue from Samuel L. Jackson (ending with another explosion).

My log line review of xXx 3 is that this is a movie marinating in its star's ego. Producer-star Diesel is smart enough to surround himself with an international cast ala his other franchise, but this is not an ensemble adventure. This is Vin+ rather than the Fast crew redux. From the movie's title through the action sequences and appalling one liners, everything in this movie is constructed as an edifice to the church of Diesel.

As director, DJ Caruso is a few steps above previous helmers Cohen and Lee Tamahori, and adds some style to proceedings -- the video game-style intros to Diesel's team are great -- but ultimately the movie lacks the wit and style Justin Lin brought to the Fast movies. He also commits the sin of over-cutting his action scenes -- a major shame considering the talents of Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa, whose showpiece moments are cut like confetti.

The big reason for the movie's leaden tone may be that the sandbox Lin and the other FnF directors had was bigger -- the group dynamic of Dominic Toretto's crew means there are plenty of characters to provide the humour and charisma that Diesel lacks. Here, it's the Vin-only show and the effect is considerably less interesting.

The film tries to present Cage as the ultimate badass, but this doesn't work when you have people like Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa doing their own stunts. Against their respective pedigrees, Diesel and his stunt doubles are nowhere near as compelling. It would help if there was any sense of self awareness or self-deprecation on Diesel's part, but no.

Scenes in which Cage seduces a squad of computer-hacking hotties, or physically matches Yen in a fist fight, are presented without any sense of irony. Cage is the best hero who ever lived, but he never does or says anything to warrant his inflated sense of self-importance. What makes it worse is that the entire movie is built like a homage to the original movie, but that would only work if the original movie was some kind of enduring classic that had left a mark on the genre. On that count, the movie's effect is deflated.

The rest of the cast are whatever. The actors who can act don't embarrass themselves, and the ones who can't make no impression whatsoever. International luminaries Deepika Padukone and Yen prove they're better than the material by actually committing decent performances. Toni Colette snarls her way through the movie as Diesel's new CIA foil, but it's hard to tell whether it's a character choice or the actress's own disdain for the material.

The movie tries to complicate its plot with a couple of obvious twists, and a few too many villains, but that's really not the reason to watch. The movie should be a collection of ridiculously extreme stunts, but outside of an opening number involving Cage skiing through the jungle, the movie's set pieces are a bit small scale and rather uninspired. The film's airplane-set finale is entertaining, but like the rest of the movie, it's not as cool as it thinks it is.

Ultimately, xXx 3 is not as good as Diesel's other franchise, and not really worth seeing in the theatre. Diesel's self-importance is good for a few laughs (his one-liners are awesomely terrible), and a few moments hit, but if you're looking for a dose of mindless escapism, you're better off waiting for Fast 8.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Tomorrow Never Dies: James Bond marmite

When a British warship is sunk in the South China Sea, Jimmy Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is put on the case. All the clues point toward media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). Bond soon finds himself in a race against time, as the megalomaniacal Carver prepares to celebrate the launch of his new satellite network with perfect news story: World War III.

I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid. However, of all the movies I watched then, I remember my enjoyment declining dramatically with each subsequent viewing. Before now, I don't think I'd watched this one in over a decade.

The truth is that Tomorrow Never Dies is an extremely flawed movie, but one whose weaknesses are harder to pinpoint than the roaring dumpster fire of Brosnan's one real failure Die Another Day. Tomorrow Never Dies is not bad in the same way, but it is singularly worse than its middling reputation suggests.

Before tearing into it, it's worth noting that this movie had an extremely troubled production. A release date (December, 1997) was chosen before the script was written. After the script was completed, based around the handover of Hong Kong, the producers realised the plot was going to become outdated and the script had to be dramatically re-written. This was in January. Mindful of the time crunch, the production team then went to war over which direction the story should take. Eventually, the spate was settled, and filming could start. IN APRIL.

So this movie was screwed from the beginning, and with this in mind it's surprising how coherent the movie wound up being.

Time for the dissection.

One of the chief criticisms thrown at Tomorrow Never Dies is that it is formulaic. This is an easy charge against a lot of Bond movies, but Tomorrow Never Dies is an especially poor example of filmmaking by-the-numbers.

Typically Bond movies do not work like other movies -- the main characters don't learn or evolve, and the plots don't really deviate from a few set blueprints. Usually there's no real sense of dramatic tension. Whatever excitement they have comes from the way the filmmakers juggle the formula -- or don't. The problem with Brosnan's second movie is that it makes the cardinal sin of revealing who the villain is and what his plan is right at the top of the movie.



The Spy Who Loved Me is a perfectly generic Bond film, but unlike Tomorrow Never Dies, we don't know who the villain is or his plan until the movie is half over. There is a suspense there based on a lack of information -- a sense of mystery which makes the film compelling (at least on the first go-around). Tomorrow Never Dies fails to achieve even this modicum of tension.

Instead of following Bond as he uncovers the mystery of the sunken ship, we already know what has happened, and since it's a Bond movie, we can track how the whole thing is going to unfold. 

Outside of the script, the other weakness of this film is the direction. On the face of it, there is nothing obviously wrong with Tomorrow Never Dies. The action moves at a good clip, and you are always aware of where you are in a scene. However, when it comes down to key aspects of scenes -- like performances and tone, the problems become more evident.

Roger Spottiswoode started out as an editor for Sam Peckinpah, with strong work on the controversial Straw Dogs and the brilliant Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He made the jump to directing in the 80s, where he achieved a certain level of success. Sadly, his most notable credit outside of Bond is Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!, regarded as one of the worst movies of all time.


The problem with his direction of Tomorrow Never Dies is that every aspect of the movie is based on one note. Brosnan's Bond is a smooth, unflappable hero, Carver is a villain with all the shading of a pantomime character, Paris is the jilted lover and Wai Lin is... really good at martial arts? Part of the problem is that the script never fills the characters out convincingly, but this problem can be compensated for dynamic performances (see Javier Bardem in Skyfall).



However, this is not the case in Tomorrow Never Dies. Brosnan is stuck playing Bond as an unruffled action hero -- he's always cool, but that's not really conducive to the movie. And Jonathan Pryce plays his villain like a guest villain on Scooby Doo. There is no sense of escalation or underplaying -- as a public figure, you would think he would present himself in a more positive light. But no. He's just evil, from beginning to end. Ultimately Bond and Carver are just stock figures going through the kinds of sequences you would expect in a James Bond movie.

Spottiswoode's key weakness is the tone. The scene which really illuminates how poor the direction is Bond's confrontation with the sadistic Dr Kauffman. It's a great scene -- Bond enters his hotel room to find Paris dead and a news channel playing on the TV, reporting her and Bond's 'suicide'. This confrontation is tense, brutal and has a certain pathos -- which is immediately negated by the NEXT scene, the car chase in the parking garage.


A massive set piece featuring plenty of gadgets and explosions, the scene feels completely at odds tonally with the scene in the hotel room. At no point does it seem like Bond is effected by Paris's death -- and that means when Bond and Carver finally face off, the intended emotional payoff is missing. That sense of schizophrenia when it comes to tone (especially evident in the over-abundance of quips) is a major drag on the movie's impact.

Tomorrow Never Dies never sinks to the depths of being outright terrible, but it is a seriously flawed film that lacks the compensations of strong characters or direction to mitigate an extremely predictable script. GoldenEye has its patchy moments, but Martin Campbell's direction and the strength of the script mitigate the movie's flaws in a way that its sequels' do not.

It is disappointing because there are many aspects of the movie which are terrific.

First of all, David Arnold's score is one of the best scores in the series -- a perfect, swaggering encapsulation of what makes Bond great, topped off by a wonderful end title credits song from kd lang.

Bombastic and tinged with shades of Shirley Bassey, it is a pity that lang's effort was relegated to the end credits. It is, pound-for-pound, the best theme song the series had between Duran Duran's 'A View To A Kill' to Adele's 'Skyfall'.

The action sequences are solid examples of late-nineties action set pieces. They may lack a certain panache, but they get the job done.

And the script, while overly simplistic and stuffed with obvious exposition, does feature some great one liners -- especially from Elliot Carver. The scene where he chats to Bond and Wai Lin while writing their obituaries is up there with the best.

At the end of the day, Tomorrow Never Dies is leaps and bounds better than the later films in Brosnan's run, but it does represent the beginning of the end. The oscillation between the serious (Bond's relationship with Paris) and the silly (the remote-controlled car) would become impossible to maintain as pop culture and society in general out-paced the Bond franchise's ability to keep with the times.

Previous reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

The Living Daylights

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

MISFITS Season One

After a bit of a break, The Midnight Ramble is back with some more rants about TV.


Misfits is a great example of genre framed through the prism of UK TV. Lacking the budgets and special effects of their American cousins, the emphasis on a limited number of characters in a single location and their conflicts pays dividends that more expansive shows like Heroes could only dream of.

Simon (Iwan Rheon), Nathan (Robert Sheehan), Kelly (Lauren Socha), Alisha (Antonia Thomas) and Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) are teen delinquents who have to do community service. On their first day, they get struck by lightening during a freak storm and wake up with powers: Kelly can read minds, Simon can turn invisible, Curtis can see the future, Alisha can bring out a person's baser impulses just by being touched, and Nathan, uh, is super annoying.

On the downside, their probation officer is turned into a psychotic monster by the accident and our gang end up killing him. Forced to hide the body, the group have to stick together and learn how to deal with the effects of the storm on themselves and the people around them.

Robert Sheehan was the breakout star of the first two series, and I can see why. He's crazy and charming and obnoxious and Irish and has those dreamy eyes that makes teen girls swoon and everyone else want to punch him. He's clearly the 'wildcard' of the cast, and Sheehan provides a gonzo energy that leads to some of the series' more surreal moments. I found him a little OTT for the first couple episodes, but eventually he won me over.

The rest of the cast are really good, although character development is somewhat uneven. Kelly and Curtis are the least well-served, and their episodes, while good fun, are a case of interesting bottle concepts rather than catalysts for major character revelations. It's a minor flaw here, but with hindsight it is more glaring. Both characters would get more interesting character moments later on, but in looking back, it comes off a little 'too little too late'.

Episode Two begins with our heroes on sanitation duty. They discover a naked man, who turns out to be Nathan's mum's boyfriend. Our heroes have to spend time with the elderly -- Nathan has a brief tryst with a beautiful woman. It turns out she was affected by the lightning storm and is really an 82 year old woman. At the end we learn that their mysterious tormentor is Sally (Alex Reid), the new probation officer.

Episode Three shifts the focus to Antonia Thomas' party girl Alisha. It is this episode where I started to realise how clever the central conceit is: all of the characters' powers are an extension of their deepest, darkest desires. Alisha's sexual allure is already her power, and the storm has merely augmented it to the most ridiculous extreme. After she forces herself on Curtis, Alisha realises that her power is incredibly isolating. She can never have a genuine intimate connection with anyone.

The other It is revealed that Sally is Simon's online crush. it is great that the show has managed to construct an antagonist who has a genuine, understandable motivation. She is not a villain per se, but she is the perfect example of how creator Howard Overman is able to create a believable antagonist, without superpowers or out-sized motivations. Her arc is an extension of the show's desire to be messy and complicated.

Speaking of messy and complicated...

In Episode Four, Curtis is visited by his former girlfriend. This triggers one of Curtis' recurring time jumps as he travels back to the day he was caught buying cocaine. Finally given a chance to save his Olympic dreams, Curtis repeatedly tries to correct the timeline, However,  this leads to unexpected repercussions. In a nice twist, while he is able to bring the events back into relative order, Overman throws in a curveball (he did not break up with his girlfriend) that brings a new wrinkle to his already weird relationship with Alisha.

Heading into the home stretch, in Episode Five the focus shifts to Simon. After Sally finds her boyfriend's credit card in his locker, events take a turn for the worse. She tries to seduce him so she can find more evidence that the misfits were involved in her boyfriend's death. The episode ends with Simon killing Sally. At the time, it comes off as a brave character choice -- Simon has walked the line between creepy and sympathetic to this point, and the episode finale, with the invisible teen stalking the woman through the darkened community centre, manages to juggle between the two readings without turning him into an outright villain.

Coming so soon (in Netflix time) after that ending, Episode Six comes across as a somewhat incongruous finale, in which Nathan is forced to become a hero, and finally discovers what his superpower is. Guest-starring Downtown Abbey's Jessica Brown-Findlay as a super-persuasive super-moral girl, our heroes have to deal with her zombified cult of devoted conformist followers. Meanwhile, Simon is descending into dementia, as he sends time with Sally's frozen corpse.

Anyway, the episode ends with order restored, the tease of a new mystery and a major character death/resurrection.

All in all, the first season of Misfits is a tight, but rather scrappy introduction to our oddball heroes. Neither realistic nor particularly fantastical, it is a great example of lo-fi genre fare.