After a few beers, I decided to write a self-indulgent blog entry. I like escape movies, so long as they’re mindless. But I’m afraid James Bond has become a serious “art film” subject. Thank God for Jaguar Paw.
First, the “new” Bond flick. Although Daniel Craig is a welcome replacement for Pierce Brosnan, who was almost as bad as Roger Moore and George Lazenby, he has a bland, dull voice, neither weak nor strong. However, his body language and broad smile are reminiscent of Sean Connery. After Connery, Dalton was the best Bond. Critics considered him dull—but he was fantastic and should have been “kept on”, as the Brits say.
Craig recalls Moore’s blue eyes, while eclipsing Connery’s sculpted face. His similarity to Richard Burton is distracting. (Too bad Burton never had a 007 role.) James Bond has to have great non-verbal skills to contrast with his emotional vacuousness. Craig has them in spades, for better or worse. Not since Connery has Bond been so physically tough. Yet, oddly, he has never been so emotionally fragile, a disturbing contrast and, especially in James Bond, a big turnoff. Indeed, I was startled by how much Craig reminded me of Chris Cooper’s performance of Robert Hanssen in the recent ‘Breach’.
Chris Cornell’s powerful voice is perfect for the title track, ‘You Know My Name’, one of the best of the recent Bond songs, although not as memorable as Sheryl Crow’s ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’.
Things go wrong from the start. The pre-title sequence is drab and sterile. Then, surprisingly, Bond is presented as the focus of the title sequence, which hitherto featured exclusively women.
Next, the first long action sequence plays out without a shred of evidence why Bond is laboriously pursuing the astonishingly agile bad guy. As a result, in addition to controlling the chase, the “Crouching Tiger”-like baddie acquires our instinct for fair play. Within minutes, I was cheering for him—not a great start. But James either shoots or blows up everyone in sight for no apparent reason, which makes for anxious viewing in 2007. This is the first of many signs that Bond is deeply flawed. Nothing “secret” about this agent. He is now self-absorbed and even verbose—jarring in the Nietzschean “man of action”.
We’re constantly reminded of his imperfect nature, especially by his mumbling. He’s blonde and fair skinned, which makes him look out of place at the beach. His love interests are both contrasting brunettes. As in the title sequence, one can sense the tide of gender stereotypes reversing. Although hairless below the jaw, he’s become less superhuman, which is thought provoking, but ultimately a drag. Obviously, the producers conducted market research and focus groups. Bond is very contemporary now; heroine as much as hero. This is a shame, since 007 was originally an iconoclast, especially as played by Connery. Now he is apt to sob and quote Lorca. This is the Harlequin Romance version of Bond, more for the career girl than the teenaged boy. Imagining Connery in this role is impossible.
Played by the overrated Judi Dench (a previous nod to political correctness), “M” is a fatuous buffoon, resembling more a foul-mouthed Henry Greenstreet than the great Bernard Lee. And her London flat features a gas log fireplace, Holiday Inn lobby style. Is this a joke?
Off to Huntington Hartford’s Paradise Island—often duplicated, never imitated—that looks here like a cross between Las Vegas and Long Beach. Bond arrives in a Ford (?!), and we’re treated to an obnoxious Goldfinger reference in order to laugh, one more time, at fat German tourists. (It’s a British thing.)
We also have to be reminded throughout this rather long flick that we live in a “wired world”. Early reviews said there were no more exotic gadgets, but there certainly are boring ones: cell phones, computers and cameras that reek of product placement deals.
The gender weirdness in the beach scene—man as Venus, woman as Centaur—would’ve been preposterous in previous Bond movies. One of the few reliefs in the first half is Demetrius, played by the talented Simon Abkarian, whose few minutes on screen are memorable.
In contrast, as the love interest, Eva Green expresses no heat or passion. Her overdone eyes distract from her allure, while her forced smile makes her dreary and boring. The first brunette, Caterina Murino, who plays second fiddle, is refreshing by comparison and a superior actress. (However, the female surprise is the extraordinary Ivana Milicevic.) From the moment Green and Craig engage in their first tedious exchange, the movie begins to crash. One of the biggest howlers is that Bond reveals himself to be an orphan who is attracted only to married women. So much for reticence and British reserve. They should have turned Milicevic loose on him. She has a feline quality, outlandishly beautiful with a large, bowed mouth and flaming brown eyes. She ultimately disappears in a dungeon—alas.
Except for the pleasure of seeing the wonderful Giancarlo Giannini—who shines in roles that stink—the second half of ‘Casino Royale’ is a pain. For example, the villain is thinly sketched for being on camera so long. His use of an inhaler, while interesting, serves only to conjure up memories of Jules Danskin, played by the great Richard Masur in ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’, one of cinema’s most colorful bad guys.
The plot is thick and dull, which is unusual in a Bond flick. The “ideas” of terror, the arms trade and—of course—gambling, slowly push events along. The actors pose in molasses. If you like poker, you’ll find the casino scenes exciting. Most of the action sequences are shot at night or indoors (easier and cheaper to film), hard to see, and thus not very exciting. The heart attack scene is truly disconcerting. Who would expect a youthful, fit special forces soldier to have a personal defibrillator? Bond isn’t a hero—he’s a basket case.
Additionally, the sound quality is poor. Craig swallows most of his words, which works in spy novels but not in movies. The music is spooky and understated, like a second-rate Hitchcock film. But it is very effective in the main casino scenes. In fact, the terrific fight with the Ugandans in the stairwell is the action highlight of the film.
In conclusion, ‘Casino Royale’ is too heavy-handed. One of the telling features of genuine art is its own concealment. This tries to be art and fails, and few things are as unwatchable. Also, the romantic entanglement isn’t tangled. It seems sterile and lifeless, as if the characters were department store mannequins. The “new” Bond is cerebral, hung up and even frightened at times. He preens in front of the mirror. He’s complex and “willing to commit”. He’s not the Bond of the past. He comes across as the reincarnation of Richard Burton—a nice trip down memory lane, but nothing new.
I thought Clive Owen was a shoo-in, but apparently he’s not sufficiently sullen and bitter. Apparently, today’s audience wants a screwed up hero—the “James Dean effect” finally trickling down to the level of escapist entertainment. Owen would’ve been perfect 25 years ago, which is where my image of JB lives.
That ‘Apocalypto’ was made at all is a miracle: a glimpse of ancient Mayan life, using mainly non-actors and entirely in sub-titles. Mel Gibson has created riveting action, spectacular costumes, dream-like settings and a beautifully simple drama Compared to Bond, Jaguar Paw is a demi-god.
The stunning flick moves up and down a mythical pathway (literally) through the Yucatan. Three major tests face our hero and the tale is capped with a breathtaking conclusion. I’ve never seen such an amazing set as the Mayan city, nor costumes as splendid in any film. The editing is fast paced and the photography uses all the technology available to deliver an exciting experience. It is as if Gibson had been given the Mayan priest’s mojo.
Plus, it’s refreshing to see children and old people as normal parts of a movie, odd as that sounds. Gibson is an old-fashioned humanist. At times the music—always mysterious—sweeps through the film like a tropical storm. The success of the use of mostly non-actors and subtitles is astonishing. Jaguar Paw, Flint Sky, Zero Wolf or any of those other characters make Bond look silly.
In short, ‘Apocalypto’ is a great flick due to Gibson’s quirky genius. He wouldn’t run a focus group if his life depended on it. From a marketing standpoint, this movie should have been DOA. Yet it sold remarkably well, because Gibson studied Kurosawa, one of the masters of ensemble action. ‘Apocalypto’ is a bit like ‘Seven Samurai’. An ancient, divinely inspired slave culture, versus a rural village in Japan under oppression by warlords. The dreamy action is similar, as is the humility of the main characters. ‘Apocalypto’ reminds me also of ‘Cleopatra’ or ‘Ben Hur’ when they came out—the same groundbreaking use of costume, sets and camera technology.