‘Quantum of Solace’ – Not the Best Bond, But Not the Worst Either

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

So, what’s all this talk about wanting the old James Bond back? A lot of talk from fans about the latest 007 film, “Quantum of Solace,” is that they miss the Bond who had all the gadgets, knew all the best wines, had his martinis shaken and not stirred, and always bedded the most beautiful women. Wait a second, isn’t this what we were all getting sick of after “Die Another Day?” Didn’t we want to see the Bond franchise revitalized? Isn’t that why “Casino Royale” was so damn good? That it didn’t give us the same old Bond and gave us a tough new one who you could for once say honestly was the best one since Sean Connery? Did everyone get amnesia?

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Quantum of Solace,” said he wanted the producers to remember that James Bond is not an action hero. Not an action hero? Is that what you see here Ebert? Because that’s not what I see here at all. Instead, I see a man who is devastated by loss and betrayal, and who is trying to keep his head on straight to do his duty while trying to get his revenge. Maybe when we get the next film, we can get the Bond we know back, but this one still has issues to sort through, and he is still early into his British spy career. There are still bumps in the road he must navigate through before he reaches the heights of sophistication.

“Quantum of Solace,” as I’m sure you all know by now, is not the equal of “Casino Royale” which was easily the best Bond film in years. Following it must have been daunting for everyone involved as the bar had been set higher than ever before. The early reviews for Craig’s second go around as 007 had me curbing my expectations before going to see it, but I probably should stay in the habit of curtailing my expectations in general. It is a flawed film which has several problems that might derail others, but what keeps it afloat is Craig’s great work as Bond, and how he gives us an MI6 agent who is not just going through the motions. Also, he continues to share one terrific scene after another with the always fantastic Dame Judi Dench who reprises her role as M.

This 22nd Bond film is the first in the long-running franchise to act as a direct sequel to a previous installment as it starts off just mere moments after Bond nearly shot off Mr. White’s (Jesper Christensen) leg. It also literally starts off with a bang as Bond is pursued in a high-speed chase with the minions of Mr. White right on his tail. This brings me to one of my criticisms which I kind of see as a double-edged sword. A lot of the action scenes are filmed with the same shaky camera work we expect from the Jason Bourne movies. Seeing a James Bond movie instantly remind you of Bourne is not a good sign. At the same time, it gives the action sequences here a visceral urgency to where I felt those car crashes instead of just watching them passively. I have really come to love car chases like this one.

The QUANTUM of the movie’s title refers to the new evil organization which is the SPECTRE of the new millennium. Their goal is, of course, world domination and control over everything that can be sold at a high price. As a result, the Bond villain here is a man who wants control the world’s last natural resource, but it’s not the one you might think. As played by Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), Dominic Greene speaks to the public of saving the planet from global warming, but then we see him talk to an Army general about how they managed to talk some sense into the local government about not raising the minimum wage for workers since it would, you know, cut into the profits. Basically, Dominic is like the head of Wal Mart and someone we want to see get a huge bitch slap on a regular basis, perfect for today’s Bond movie.

But as Bond villains go, Dominic Greene is far from being one of the most threatening of the bunch and he will probably not go down as one of the series’ most memorable. Still, I love the glint of anger and overconfidence Mathieu shows us in his eyes, and his work is greater proof of how some of the best screen acting can be done without saying a word. Seeing him getting pissed when Bond spoils his well laid plans is quite a kick.

The Bond girl this time around is Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko. One of the best ever? No, but she is far from being among the worst. Kurylenko’s performance during the first half is a little too stiff, and her character seems underwritten. As “Quantum” goes on, however, she gets better once her real motives are revealed to us which involve revenge against a devious military official who murdered her family. The parallel between Camille and Bond is they are both after the same thing, revenge. It makes their relationship towards the climax all the more interesting.

But the real key relationship of “Quantum” is between Bond and M. The scenes between Craig and Dench are some of the best here, and it is no love affair between these two. It’s a mother and son kind of relationship if you can picture as both are estranged from one another, and are constantly to get back on the same page with each other. M wants to trust Bond but feels as though she cannot, and Bond wants to go after the one who almost had her killed. Talk about tough love.

Dench has been playing M since Pierce Brosnan debuted as Bond in “Goldeneye,” and she has been a huge asset to this franchise. She has continued to be a strong presence and has gotten even better since Craig began portraying Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Right from the start, the actress makes M into the kind of person who will not take bullshit from anyone no matter their government or nationality. She is a real pleasure to watch in just about anything she does, and I love how she easily intimidates her male assistants who constantly tremble in her presence.

“Quantum” also features other strong performances which need to be noted. Jeffrey Wright returns again as Felix Leiter, the first actor to play the role consecutively in close to 20 years. His cool approach to Felix is great, and hopefully we will see him playing this character again. Giancarlo Giannini returns from “Casino Royale” as Mathis, and this could have been problematic as his character had betrayed Bond previously, and having him be the only person Bond can trust could have been far-fetched to say the least. But thanks to Giannini’s performance, he makes Mathis’ presence believable in story and welcome as his sadness over the death of Vesper gets him to team up with Bond. His final scene is actually quite touching as he encourages Bond to forgive himself. These character moments never get as much credit as the stunts do in a Bond film, and this one has them to give us a rest from the visceral action scenes.

Marc Forster, best known for “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” takes on the directing chores this time around. He almost seems as unlikely a choice to direct a Bond as Michael Apted was when he helmed “The World Is Not Enough.” His handling of the action sequences may be confusing to some as the editing is done in a rapid-fire manner, but they are still thrilling if you can get past this. While Foster doesn’t bring anything new to this franchise, he does keep things moving at a steady pace. At under two hours long, this is the shortest Bond film ever. Given how stringent the Broccoli family is about keeping 007 confined to a certain formula, I’m not sure how much freedom Forster was given to work with on this one.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are back along with Paul Haggis who is doing his usual screenplay polish here. Their work here is not as strong as it was on “Casino Royale,” and the characters are what really made it so good as it benefited all the other elements of that film like the action sequences. “Quantum Of Solace,” on the other hand, seems to exist more for the action sequences than the story which is a little frustrating, but they do still keep the central character of Bond very interesting and complex. They deal with the different layers of 007 and keep him from becoming a one-dimensional schmuck. There is some good work here, but not everything is as fleshed out as it could have been.

I also need to point out how David Arnold has been composing the scores for the Bond franchise since “Tomorrow Never Dies.” I love how his scores really complement the action scenes in all their ferocity. I also admire how he was able to move over seamlessly from the Brosnan era to the Craig era and didn’t simply repeat the same musical themes over and over again. I ended up buying the soundtrack a couple of days before the movie was released, and it is a great listen.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I should bring up “Quantum’s” title song “Another Way to Die” which is performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Everybody is trashing it, but it’s actually not bad. For me, it actually sticks in the head as opposed to other Bond theme songs which go in one ear and out the other. Look, I love Sheryl Crow, but here theme to “Tomorrow Never Dies” was one of the least memorable to where I can’t remember any of the lyrics.

Yes, “Quantum of Solace” is not one of the best Bond movies, but it is far from being one of the worst (for that, see “The Man with The Golden Gun”). It has screenplay problems and some characters could have been better developed, but the things which did work won me over for the most part. And once again, Daniel Craig proves to be one of the best Bonds ever as he gives this iconic character a rough edge and dimensions which have been absent from the movies for far too long.

No, he is not the old Bond we grew up with, but I am fine with that because this one is far more interesting to me. So please stop whining about wanting the old Bond back. We may get him back in a future installment now that Bond has moved on from his revenge cycle, but at the same time, I hope Craig doesn’t lose any of the edge he has brought to the British spy.

Whatever happens from here will be very interesting even if we have to wait another few years for the next film. All the same, James Bond will return…

* * * out of * * * *

‘Casino Royale’ – James Bond Reborn and Reinvigorated

I came into “Casino Royale” with guarded expectations. When it came to the James Bond films which starred Pierce Brosnan, I found they were best enjoyed with lowered expectations as they veered to the more openly ridiculous films of the Roger Moore era. But once this particular Bond film started with something other than the standard gun barrel sequence, I quickly realized how serious the filmmakers were about reinventing and reinvigorating this long running franchise.

To put it mildly, “Casino Royale” proved to be the best Bond filmI have seen in years, and it was far and away one of the best movies of 2006. For once, we had a 007 movie which actually bothered to take itself seriously, provide us with a villain who was not going after world domination, and a Bond woman who is not just here for display. After seeing the franchise descend into self-parody for far too long, I was stunned at how much effort the filmmakers and producers put into this installment

This film also marked Daniel Craig’s debut as 007. These days, it is hard to believe many were quick to write him off and say how wrong he was for the role of Ian Fleming’s iconic character. What a joy it was to see him have the last laugh on everyone. Right from the start, Craig makes this character is own and gives Bond an edge I felt this British spy had been lacking after Timothy Dalton departed the franchise. But moreover, Craig gives Bond a shocking vulnerability to where it seemed criminal he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance. Seriously, he was that good.

“Casino Royale” also marks the return of director Martin Campbell to the Bond franchise as he previously directed Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as 007 in “Goldeneye,” a film I did not give enough credit upon its release. Rather than simply repeat what he did before, Campbell paints a whole new canvas for Craig to work with, and he gives us a number of thrilling actions set pieces throughout which quickly prove to be the most thrilling this franchise has seen in some time, and they get extra support from the enthralling music score composed by David Arnold.

As I said earlier, this Bond film does not contain a villain bent on world domination, and I was thankful for this as those villains had long since become overused in this or any other franchise. Instead, we get Le Chiffre who is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor who has since become famous for his own interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Le Chiffre may have an Achilles heel or two with his asthma and an eye duct which lets out tears of blood, but he is a formidable foe with his mathematical genius and brilliance at playing chess. Mikkelsen also dares to make Le Chiffre an especially vulnerable Bond villain as his immense ego gets pierced as easily as Bond’s does, and this leads to a scene of painful torture which we have not seen since “Licence to Kill.”

I also have to say how “Casino Royale” does a great job or making Poker such an exciting game to watch. Playing cards in a movie does not sound like something which would lend itself much to cinema, but Campbell milks Poker for all it is worth here to where seeing Bond stare Le Chiffre down is such an immensely satisfying delight.

Now let us go to the Bond woman of this piece as calling her a Bond girl would be an unforgivable insult. She is Vesper Lynd, and she is played by an actress as wonderful as she is beautiful, Eva Green. So memorable in “The Dreamers,” she quickly makes her strong presence known upon her first meeting with Craig on a train speeding to Montenegro. Seeing them stare one another down is a terrific sequence as this Bond film presents us with the first real love story it has had since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this is saying a lot.

If there is a holdover from the Brosnan era, it is Dame Judi Dench who gives audiences the most intimidating version of M yet. She never took it easy on Brosnan, but she goes ballistic when it comes to Craig as his Bond just reached 007 status. Dench makes M a tough nut to crack and a superior who truly means business. If there are any vulnerabilities to this character, we do not see them here as she makes clear to Bond she is not one to be trifled with. Dench is a thrilling presence in “Casino Royale” as a result, and it made me glad she would continue to inhabit this role for a few more films.

In a sense, this franchise has come around full circle with “Casino Royale” as the producers finally got the rights to Fleming’s book after so many years. But more importantly, they came to realize that this franchise needed a serious reboot even though “Die Another Day” was an enormous hit at the box office. While I am not always a big fan of origin stories, movies like “Casino Royale” and “Batman Begins” remind me of how necessary they are and of just how good they can be.

We don’t hear Craig utter the words “the name’s Bond, James Bond” until the very end, but this is perfect as it shows how we have many great adventures to look forward to from here, and we certainly did.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Mamma Mia!’ – Maybe You’ll Like It, Maybe You Won’t

Mamma Mia movie poster

I never got to see the musical of “Mamma Mia” when it was onstage, but I’m not really surprised it became a big hit. The musical tells the story of a young girl on the verge of getting married and of how she ends up secretly inviting three of her mom’s previous boyfriends to her wedding. The catch is one of these men may actually be her father, and she would like whoever it is to give her away at her wedding. But when her mother realizes these three men have arrived, it makes her weep for the past she thought she had forever lost, and all of this is done to the tune of ABBA’s greatest hits which include “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me,” and “S.O.S.” among others.

I’m not sure I am the right person to be reviewing this movie because I don’t fit into its demographic, and I have never been a big fan of musicals. I don’t despise them, they just never really appealed to me as much as they do to my friends. There are a few musicals like “Evita” and “West Side Story” which appeal greatly to me, and the film adaptation of the “Hairspray” musical provided me with one of the most entertaining times I had at the movies in 2007. But “Mamma Mia” is not in the same league as “Hairspray” or even “Moulin Rouge.” Maybe it’s because those movies brought us into their musical world so deeply while we watched them and did things others in this genre dare not do.

“Mamma Mia” on the other hand, didn’t draw me in as much, and this is regardless of the boundless energy that all the actors had when onscreen. You come out of it thinking that they must have had the time of their lives while making it. I certainly don’t want to take away from the effort put into the movie by everyone involved, but instead of feeling excited by all that was going on, I instead felt alienated from the whole venture. There was this cloying feeling I kept feeling throughout which made me believe this movie was less than genuine in its emotions.

The other big issue I had with “Mamma Mia” is the fact it is basically a musical founded upon a gimmick: centering an old-fashioned love story around a number of ABBA songs which people all over the world have listened to over and over again. Plus, seeing other actors sing ABBA songs feels a bit off putting as it reminds me of how infectiously good the original versions are. The actors certainly do their best, and Meryl Streep belts out a tremendous version of “The Winner Takes It All” which reminds us again of the great singing voice she has. We should have never forgotten this fact, but it has been a long time since we saw Streep go country in “Postcards from The Edge.”

The one thing that I really did admire about “Mamma Mia” is it shows without a doubt how actresses over 40 do have a place in today’s Hollywood, and that their experience is invaluable to movies like these. Hollywood is ruthlessly notorious for going after the youngest of actresses to star in movies, but many of these actresses have no real-life experience to draw on as of yet. The actresses in “Mamma Mia,” however, end up stealing every single scene they are in. Whatever you think about the movie as a whole, the elder actresses (if you really want to call them that) are the best reason to check it out.

Streep continues to make us all aware of the fact she is one of the best actresses, period. She brings a strong life force to her role of a woman working alone on an island with her daughter, feeling she is past her prime in life while her two sisters convince her nothing could be further from the truth.

Two of my favorite performances in come from Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and they are a gas to watch throughout. Baranski has basically been a professional scene stealer ever since she co-starred as Cybil Sheppard’s best friend on “Cybil.” Since then, she has stolen scene after scene in movies like “Bulworth” and “Bowfinger” among others. Her performance as Tanya, the often-divorced sister of Streep’s character is a hoot, and there is no doubt she had a blast playing this role.

Julie Walters is probably best known to today’s audiences as Ron Weasley’s mother in the “Harry Potter” movies, but never forget she can be a hell of an actress when you give her the right part. Watching her shamelessly trying to seduce Stellan Skarsgard’s character to the tune of “Take A Chance on Me” is a highlight, and she plays her role with no inhibitions whatsoever. I hope we see her in movies which use her for more than just a supporting role.

The role of the bride to be, Sophie Sheridan, is played by Amanda Seyfried. She is very fetching here and she has a wonderful voice to boot. She also has the wonderful privilege of working with Meryl Streep, and they play off of each other wonderfully.

The three potential fathers of Sophie are played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pierce Brosnan. Colin’s effortless charm has never faded in the slightest ever since he played Mr. Darcy on the BBC miniseries “Pride & Prejudice.” As for Skarsgard, it is great to see him in a role where he is acting ever so serious like he did in “Insomnia” (the original) or “The Hunt for Red October.” This brings me to Pierce Brosnan, and while he is always a good actor, I need to be honest and say the man cannot sing. He just can’t! After watching him sing “S.O.S.,” I got that cringe inducing feeling as did the rest of my family while we were all watching this movie. As a result, we watched the rest of the movie in fear of him singing yet again. Did he sing again? Oh yes! Brosnan has had a long and celebrated career which included playing James Bond, but please, please, please don’t let him sing in the future! PLEASE!

In spite of all the strong elements “Mamma Mia” has, I still felt indifferent to it. In the end, I don’t think I fit its target audience. If you like musicals, then I would not stand in your way of watching it, but I can see why I didn’t bother with the film while it was in theaters. I certainly don’t hate “Mamma Mia” as there is a lot about it to admire, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as “Hairspray” or “Moulin Rouge” did. I enjoy the music of ABBA as much as the next person but listening to it here does not leave me with the same musical exhilaration. Perhaps you will feel differently.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *