Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Suit Is Not Enough

It's 1999. We don't want to see a Bond film instantly dated with fads or references to the Millennium Bug so we have a convoluted romp centred around irradiating the Black Sea in the name of love. Oh, and the Millennium Dome.  Oh, and the Clampers.

Yes, before it was the O2 and a soulless gig venue bastard-hard to get out of at the end of the night, the Millennium Dome was a humble white elephant prime for pre credit sequence chase.  It takes quite a while to get there. We begin with Pierce Brosnan being suave and mildly racist in a bankers' office in Bilbao recovering some ransom money.  Quite why 007 is being sent on an errand like this is unclear. Anyway, a flashbang later and Bond is off pursuing a would be assassin after jumping through a window to (quite ingeniously) escape la policia.  Bond picks up the chase after the money he recovered is used to ventilate the building that we-weren't-supposed-to-know-about opposite the Tate Modern.  Cheeky bugger nicks Q's boat. A neat little boat that manages to be able to not only submerge long enough for Brosnan to do his trademark tie adjustment but can also drive through a restaurant.  We're not up to Moore era silliness but as with Tomorrow Never Dies we're veering ever closer.  To cut a cheesy chase short we end up at the Dome (no sign of the Mitchell Brothers) and watch a hot air balloon go pop and drop Brosnan onto the roof.  What looks like a giant tent seems to be made of fibreglass. And we're into Garbage after the longest pre credit sequence so far.


Bond is put on the inactive roster before convincing his doctor of his 'stamina'. Saves him from resigning again, I suppose.  My GP doesn't wear French knickers but Dr Molly Warmflash does, albeit not for very long when Brosnan is around.  Much to Moneypenny's chagrin Bond is given a mission. The money recovered in the pre credit sequence was a ransom paid to release Elektra King from Renard (the former KGB and now super-terrorist). Bond is now tasked to protect King from Renard returning after a mumsy turn by M.  Renard is a freak with a bullet stuck in his head which is killing off his senses and turning him into a superman before it kills him. An interesting premise, perhaps Robert Carlyle will be allowed to run amok as Renard.  Perhaps not.  Much is made of Renard meaning 'the fox' but Carlyle is largely wasted and reduced to a dodgy Russki accent in a windbreaker. A real shame compared to the performance in Cracker that made him famous.  Brosnan's baddies have been lacking in true menace and distinction. Carlyle gets about as much screen time as Curt Jurgens' Stromberg did but has none of the grandeur.

Come on shoot me. I won't feel shit.

It tends to be a mark of US TV series' that are running out of ideas to draft in special guest stars to keep the ratings up. So far Brosnan's Bonds have been hinting at this (Teri Hatcher) but now fully embrace the idea. Hence a cringeworthy skit with John Cleese and the fulsome arrival of Denise Richards. Richards might walk like a bloke but I won't hold it against her.  John Cleese is presented to us as 'R', he's replacing 'Q'.  Unfortunately the played for laughs scenes fall flat and the slapstick juxtaposes awkwardly with the poignant goodbye to Desmond Llewellyn.

Never let them see you bleed
Llewellyn's retirement deserved more, even more so when it preceded his passing after the premiere. It's a marked annoyance that this movie wasn't even dedicated to his memory on it's DVD release.  You're genuinely sad to see Q lowered through the floor as you realise that you'll never see him again.  For the scenes as Moore's stooge there were always the times he gave Connery the verbal slap he needed. Then there were the shirts. Those amazing Hawaiian shirts.  We miss you Major Boothroyd.

Bond is drafted to Baku to give protection to Elektra King.  Of course, she is reluctant to accept but as is true of the Brosnan era, is swayed by our new 'vulnerable' Bond.  A roll in a puffa jacket is followed by a roll between the sheets before we become truly suspicious of King. She pops along to a casino and the return of Robbie Coltrane and slips him a million before Bond schleps off to Kazakhstan. His tour of the furthest reaches of the UEFA playground is done posing as Davidov (apparently a double agent for King and Renard).

Don't all nuclear scientists dress like this?
Enter Dr Christmas Jones; a nuclear scientist. Bond, now posing as a Russian nuclear maestro, hops down a missile silo to discover Renard stealing a nuke. The foxy bastard gets away with it as Jones blows Bonds cover trapping them in the rigged silo.  A typically explosive escape sees Bond introduce himself properly to Dr Jones.  Jones now, for unknown reason, accompanies Bond back to Baku where we find M out of the office. In truly predictable style M's sojourn from behind her desk ends in disaster as she is kidnapped by King. After faking his own death in a tunnel Bond now has to stop Renard and rescue M.  It's all too much.

An infodump from Coltrane in a caviar factory and we now piece together King and Renard's schemes.  Rather tediously all about oil with a smattering of revenge.  A fist fight on a submarine before Renard is on the receiving end of a nuclear dildo and we all reach the predictable climax. Twice in Dr Jones' case, leading to the most cringeworthy oneliner EVER. Even Roger would've had objections to that one.

The World Is Not Enough is pleasant enough but as pointed out by King, it's a 'foolish sentiment'.  What could have been a tense exploration of Stockholm Syndrome and revenge is wrapped up in a tailored three piece suit and played for cheap laughs. It's now symptomatic of the Brosnan era that Bond is all style over substance.  It's a shame as when I first watched the Brosnan Bonds they were enjoyable and fresh. Now they can be viewed as what they are: marketing vehicles for a franchise trying to tap the MTV generation fifteen years too late.  The script has improved since Tomorrow Never Dies but the pacing is still appalling and everything seems rushed.  The trouble is it's going to get (a lot) worse before it gets better.

James Bond will return but you'll wish he bloody hadn't.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Go to jail. Do not pass 'Go'. Do not pick up £200

So let me get this right. Barclays Bank has been found to have been fiddling the LIBOR figures. Now my limited understanding of LIBOR is that it's the interest rate charged between banks as they lend each other money. A figure that changes daily. So if Barclays were fiddling it they can't have been doing it alone. The other banks trading with Barclays must have been fiddling too, knowingly or unknowingly.

The trouble is that banks and banking are all so complex now. It's not savings accounts, mortgages and chequebooks any more. It's all derivitives, hedge funds and commodities. Legalised gambling. Gambling with the money we trust them to look after for us.

I can put up with a bank giving me 0.5% on my savings as they make 6% on my money because I have to. There isn't much choice. Having said that I did leave one of the 'Big Four' for The Co-Operative a couple of years back.

The only time we ever see problems with the system are when the banks get caught out like this. The PM has come out and promised 'serious questions', Bob Diamond has given up his bonus. How magnanimous. Trouble is, this all sounds like the start of a slap on the wrist and sweep it under the carpet move.

The Government can't directly make Barclays change but we are not too far away from having two national banks. The Government should step in and make Lloyds open their books to scrutiny. Punish anything and everything, force the banking market to change. It was an old saying that it's best to hurt a man in his wallet. This won't work with the banks. They don't care if their share prices tumble.  They're all subsidised and practically worthless anyway.

The FSA are scrabbling around the edges. The Government are near silent bar soundbites and sniping. This is unbelievable. In it's simplest form this was fraud. Barclays fiddled LIBOR to make their balance sheet look sexier so they could borrow more and make more money. Fraud, plain and simple. Fraud is a crime. The US Department of Justice are investigating so why can't we. I don't want Bob Diamond to resign. I want him (and his cronies) behind bars.  I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Live and Let Roger Moore

1973. Bond finally turns his back on Scotland and Sean Connery and says 'hello' to Roger Moore.
Keep it down Roger
The signs are good, despite a lack of Q. Moore is English and thanks to Simon Templar and The Persuaders, reasonably popular. From these roles it's clear Moore will bring a fresh approach to the Bond series. Moore is so very English and this juxtaposes strangely with Live And Let Die.  How would it have looked if Clint Eastwood had have taken the job?

Bond is going very 'pop culture' with this instalment and, although it's happened with every film, it's a bit jarring.

Live And Let Die is Richard Roundtree away from being a full blown blaxploitation picture with Moore sticking out like a stiff upper lip.  Having said that, Moore's debut is also his best effort as Bond.  Bond began to take a worrying change of direction in Diamonds Are Forever and Live And Let Die sees this change accelerate. It was lighthearted, played for laughs, tongue in cheek. A million miles from the splendour of From Russia With Love. Was this change a result of Moore's casting or was Moore cast to fit in with the new aesthetic?  It's not fair to say Live And Let Die was just a big screen version of The Saint but that's how Moore plays it. We're dangerously close to a Bond film that will simply be all fast cars and fast women with a choreographed punch up at the end before the villain is carted off to prison.

The book of Live And Let Die tells the story of Bond's pursuit of Mr Big who has been smuggling retrieved Caribbean treasure to sell on the black market to fund his Moscow paymasters. The story of Bond hunting doubloons in New York is a little dated so now we have Mr Big as a heroin dealer. Drug dealing. Not exactly espionage but Bond is drafted due to the demise of several Brits previously involved with Mr Big.  Most of the book ends up in License to Kill but some elements remain. The main element from the book retained by the film is voodoo. Live And Let Die drowns in it's lighthearted play with voodoo as Mr Big's mystique is stripped away and turned into hokum.  This is particularly apparent when Bond manipulates Tarot cards to get Solitaire into bed.  Mr Big is essentially using voodoo superstition to protect his poppy plantations. Plantations which provide two tons of heroin for him to give out free. This 'junkie welfare' will create many more addicts, drive the (hinted at Mafia) out of business and leave Mr Big peerless. It's not a satellite armed with lasers or stolen nuclear missiles but it sounds like an effective plan.

Bond shuttles around Harlem and the Caribbean before ending up in Louisiana, trapped on an crocodile farm. Bond has gone from the cigar chomping fop of earlier hang gliding scenes to a resourceful and adaptable hero in the space of one scene. The crocodiles snap closer to Bond before he makes his escape in the best stunt of the film. The best because it is understated and the result of a tense build up.

Unfortunately, all this hard work is undone moments later in a waterborne chase. Sheriff J W Pepper is ingrained into your soul during the speedboat scenes which seem to last forever. Pepper is drafted in for comic relief. The trouble is that we don't need relieving.

The never ending boat chase brings us toward the film's conclusion; Mr Big's final burst towards Bond and the rescue of Solitaire. But we're not quite over. There's still just enough time to recall From Russia With Love in a train sequence which ties up all the loose ends.

This is Moore's best Bond as it's not too silly. There is an up in the count of one liners and the eyebrow is just under control but despite this Moore can still put a little steel into his Bond. His treatment of Rosie is up there with Connery's Bond at it's misogynist worst.  The trouble is Moore peaks too soon. This isn't the first time we'll see this happen but it's no less disappointing.

Live And Let Die was nominated for an Oscar. Before you get too excited, it was for McCartney's title song.  He's been dining out on that song for years now.

McCartney, at every bloody gig, EVER.

James Bond (and Q) will return, but then, so will J W Pepper.  Politicians speak of the economic collapse causing a lost decade. Bond is on the brink of his own lost decade.

Big Things Have Small Beginnings

I'll try and avoid spoilers but be careful, just in case.

I'd been super duper excited to see Prometheus since it was announced Ridley Scott was making another Alien (ish) movie.

The story was being kept secret. It wasn't to be a prequel but it was to retain some of Alien's DNA. This could only be a good thing. Alien is one of my favourite films. I could happily watch it on a loop, recite the script but still flinch when John Hurt's chest gives way and give up hope when Ripley can't get Mother to cooperate.

So, eventually Prometheus got a release date.

I'd tried to avoid any leaked storylines although I'd happily immersed myself in the viral marketing designed by Fox under the guise of the insidious Weyland Industries.  A corporation seemingly so benevolent, yet perversely evil.  We know more about this fictional company's selfishly evil future than it's past

The natural want is to compare Prometheus with Alien. I'll try to resist because Alien was dark, tense and claustrophobic whereas Prometheus is grandiose, epic in it's proportions. Entirely different in approach.

Essentially, Prometheus is about man doing what man does best. Exploring in a hope of answering our Ultimate Questions but biting off more than we can chew.  The film opens with sweeping landscapes that would put Peter Jackson to shame. Indeed, the beginning feels very Lord of the Rings as we are brought over vast mountains and crashing waterfalls before focusing on an 'Engineer'.  Before long we are transported to the less than glamorous Isle of Skye where we meet Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace).

True to form it is clear that Shaw is to be our main protagonist. Strong and determined yet vulnerable and inquisitive with just a little hint of Bjork. Shaw has reached into our ancestral history to find an invitation to our future. A map to the stars.......

Our first taste of space is a clever and poignant montage of the android David occupying himself whilst his colleagues are in hypersleep. Micheal Fassbender's portrayal of David echoes David Bowie's The Man Who Fell To Earth.  There's a measured intensity to Fassbender as he effortlessly acts everyone else off the screen. Deeper motives of the android are hinted at with a look or an innocent question.

This in itself is symptomatic of one of Prometheus' main problems. There are a great many hints dropped, questions stated that are not adequately explained or answered. Prometheus is no longer a stand alone film but the entry level to a new franchise.  This leads to Prometheus' other problem; awful pacing. This is a two hour film. The first hour sees tension explored and built subtly before, quite literally, all Hell breaks loose in a black oily mess.

There is a feeling that there is almost too much going on in the second half of the film.  There are parts which are painfully predictable.  Having said that, it's not as bad as George Lucas cramming three films worth of story into the last 40 minutes of Revenge of the Sith but you get the idea.  There are too many crew members on board Prometheus and it's hard to see many of them as anything more than cannon fodder. Although you're pleased to be relieved of an atrocious Scottish accent. Even Charlize Theron is wasted to a certain extent, her character, Meredith Vickers, begins to develop but then is simply overshadowed.  We hurtle toward conclusion and two scenes that are so disappointingly blatant in their set up of a sequel via some amazing set pieces and visual effects.

Prometheus is sumptuous, visually fantastic. The depth of the world Scott generates is more than impressive and for once not belittled by the now omnipresent 3D.  Costume and set design feel like they have been reverse engineered from Alien yet expanded and immersing.  Despite this there's a nagging doubt at the back of your mind. Was this really the film Ridley Scott wanted to make?  How much of it was cut to make it a neat two hours in length.

I enjoyed Prometheus, I enjoyed it a lot but then I was preprogrammed too as I've enjoyed practically all of Scott's past work and the Alien franchise as a whole. As a result I wanted more. Rather than be disappointed I'm now looking forward to the director's cut (there HAS to be one) and, hopefully, the sequel, where we'll get some real answers.  Let's just hope we don't end up in Zeta II Reticuli too soon.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Jubilee and why I'm not that bothered

A few (or a lot) of you won't like this. This past weekend and it's extended bank holiday have all been about celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. So we got an extra day off, don't forget they stole May's second bank holiday, and squeezed down the Mall or in front of the tellybox for the promised extravaganza.

Let's just pause a second. You do know what you're supposed to be celebrating, don't you?

No. It's not the Queen's birthday.

No. It's not 60 years since her father passed.

No. It's not 75 years of reign (Victoria fiddled that one).

Come on, you do know you're recent history don't you?

It's a celebration of 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II reigning as monarch.

OK, I'll admit that's impressive. 60 years and second only to Queen Victoria. This doesn't take away from the vast hypocrisy that now infects the UK population. Every day a large number of people will be critical of the Queen. She is, after all, only the Queen through genetic luck. The Queen and the Royal Family as a whole are emblematic of the rigid class system in the UK right now. As has been alluded to since the global economic crash there is now an even bigger gulf between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.  They've been called the 1%, they've been called Tories, they've been called upper class.  Yet now Facebook and Twitter are awash with people who are 'very proud to be British'.  The hypocrisy is becoming galling.

But nevermind our objections and hardships in the face of austerity, let's have a party to celebrate someone being alive and 'in charge' for a substantial amount of time. Now take a look at your granny. Did anyone give a shit when she notched up 60 years of being alive, or being a mother? No, mine neither.

We're all being told we will have to work longer, harder and it will cost us more. We all have to take steps now to look after ourselves come retirement. Be it at 68 or two days before the grave. So let's take a long weekend to whip up some bizarre hero worship of someone who was born into good fortune, land and wealth.  The Kardashians ears are pricking up.

It's interesting to note that this is one bank holiday weekend that the Government don't think will harm our fragile economy. Let's remind them of that the next time they roll out that excuse.

The celebrations began in earnest with a flotilla down the Thames. The BBC whipped into a frenzy as the rain poured and the crowds massed. Conveniently quietened were the stories of public transport systems creaking under demand. Not so easy to ignore were the stories of Work Fare 'volunteers' being made to camp under London Bridge before providing security. Say it quietly but don't forget the Olympics are coming.

And what of the Olympics? No pressure now on the organisers. Despite showering themselves in the glory of a broken ticketing system, dodgy sponsorship deals and white elephant building, they now have to follow the Jubilee weekend.

Undeniably the Jubilee celebrations have been a spectacle. The sight of Buckingham Palace drenched in the Union Jack will live in memories for a very, very long time.  The guest list for the concert less so.  Obvious highlights were Grace Jones and Kylie (purely for the outfit) but did we really need a cadaverous Cliff Richard or McCartney going through the motions? Just be grateful they didn't book Coldplay.

A firework and laser show that was reminiscent of Independence Day now means that the Olympic's opening and closing ceremonies will probably look like an episode of Art Attack with Kajagoogoo on repeat. We'll see.

I'm not overtly anti-Royal, I just see the Royal Family as anachronistic. The rest of the world love them and spend their cash coming to see their palaces, so that's a good thing I suppose. I just wonder if we'd be all that bothered if the Royal Family wasn't there.  The French and Germans don't seem too fussed.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Don't get any ideas Rupert

Brosnan gets a second run out as Bond in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies and he's comfortable in the role now, maybe a little too comfortable.

Bond via a brainstorming session for The Matrix

Having successfully kick started the franchise with GoldenEye Brosnan now takes an unhealthy step towards Roger Moore territory.  This sees Bond take a step back from the vulnerability coupled with ruthlessness that worked quite well in GoldenEye. It's been replaced by a dangerous case of checklist Bond as if the writers were on autopilot.

Number one on the checklist: a big, bold, stunt driven pre credits sequence. Once you accept that terrorists go shopping at what looks like an outdoor Costco for their guns/bombs/nuclear weapons, the pre credit sequence for Tomorrow Never Dies is pretty damned good.  Bond enters by giving a terrorist lookout a light and knocks him out with a punch and the line 'filthy habit'.  It's now that it clicks that Brosnan's Bond is the first not to smoke (for now). You half expect him to say 'just say no'  Anyway, the Russians have failed to notice a plane armed with nuclear missiles has gone missing and ended up at TerrorCo and now Bond has to escape before Chernobyl looks like a picnic. And escape he does from all those white Eastern European terrorists with their designer stubble. It's as if al Qaeda didn't exist in the 90s.

If it's good enough for Sean, it's good enough for you Pierce

Checklist item number two: an overbearing megalomaniac villain. Step forward Elliott Carver. Jonathan Pryce is forced to ham it up as William Randolph Murdoch as Carver seeks to engineer a war to gain control of a TV contract aided by a poor head henchman and an iPad predecessor that can do EVERYTHING.  The worst part of Carver is his catchphrase of 'delicious' not to mention his karate act.

 I might be wearing my PJs but I can spot a good headline

Carver's plans centre around a stealth ship. A handy bit of kit sailing around with the even handier ability of sinking a Royal Navy ship in Chinese waters only for it's wreckage to end up in Vietnam. Let's also ignore that the technology used to make the stealth ship invisible seemingly means it's radar doesn't work and so Bond and Wai Lin can float right up and knock on the door.

Further to trying to turn Brosnan into Roger Moore for the 21st century we have checklist item number three: a big henchman of limited acting ability. Mr Stamper. The producers missed a trick by not casting Dolph Lundgren as Mr Stamper and so we have an almost pointless character. Just some bleached blond hair running around in a tight T shirt. Don't even get me started on his hero worship of Dr Kaufman.  Even his death at the end is rubbish.

The checklist continues by throwing Bond into far off locations. We end up in China for the first time in a few years, presumably to remind the world that Hong Kong still belonged to the UK. The set pieces bouncing around the Far East are pleasant enough even if they are saturated in BMW product placement.

Brace yourself for the continuation of the checklist. Delving heavily into the Roger Moore book of Bond cliches we have Q developing a remote controlled car. Bond can now drive his BMW with a Sony Ericsson. What's he going to be able to do if he gets his hands on an iPhone?  Having said that Q's appearance is a genuine high point in the film. He's held with such affection we can forgive the crocodile submarines and talking cars.

Tomorrow Never Dies leaves you with the feeling that Brosnan's Bond may have peaked to soon with GoldeEye. This is Bond by rote, lazy and uninspired and it's more than apparent the film suffered from rushed rewrites and no basis in Fleming's stories.  Tomorrow Never Dies is littered with one liners and innuendo, from cunning linguists to celebrity overdoses.  There's a hint of tiredness as the film casts names in minor roles in the same way ailing US TV shows cast bigger and bigger special guest stars before being cancelled and so we see Teri Hatcher getting the gig ahead of a then fairly unknown Monica Bellucci.

 You can see why Brosnan had the hump Monica didn't get the part

Looking back, Pulp should have done the theme song and the producers can count themselves reasonably lucky they were up against Cameron's indulgent Titanic at the box office.  James Cameron's juggernaut proved that at least there was something that was truly terrible in the cinema.

James Bond will return but first he needs a nap to recharge his batteries. The next instalment needs to be made with a considered approach to get the series back on track. Thank God it's not the 20th movie of the series.