Secret Pop

Nov 18, 2006

Elusive Villainy
Note: I'm not going to assume I need to provide a spoiler alert. I read Casino Royale when I was in grade school, so I already knew a lot of what was going to happen. But if you are fearful that you will not be able to be authentically mystified if you have read any plot points before seeing the film, I encourage you to read this entry later. Cool? Cool.
I got to see the press screening of Casino Royale on Tuesday, which should have resulted in a review of some kind, but I forewent promptness for truly skillful procastination. Partially because I was supposed to go see it a second time on Friday and partially because I am unreliable.
I think I shared some misgivings with Bond fans the world over that Daniel Craig was too thuggish to play the smooth operator with the casual aplomb that made the previous good Bonds good and the previous less than good Bonds less than. But with just the prologue and the opening titles and a few minutes of the first scene behind me, I had already decided. Daniel Craig is no Sean Connery, but he's no slouch. And David Arnold is almost John Barry, and that's saying a goddamn mouthful.
I was really entertained by the opening titles. Even though I am being made to feel a little antsy by the sudden fashionability of vector animation in live action features. Maybe it started with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Or with a commercial for a breakfast cereal. I don't know. The fact that it seemed derivative kind of rankled me at first glance, but then I decided to lighten up and appreciate the witty image transitions. At one point, I thought, "Spirograph?" But the rest of it went down pretty smoothly. Especially at the climax. By the end of the opening titles, I bought Daniel Craig as Bond. Blue-eyed thuggery and all. And then that first action sequence. An ambitiously choreographed chase/fight scene that was so action-packed, so intense, and so mostly free of Bond witticisms that you wouldn't know you were watching a Bond film were it not for the David Arnold score, which reminds you that music in action films is seldom as good as it could be, especially when you weigh the impact of techno music against a full orchestra. And in this first scene, Daniel Craig is so tough and so sure. So rough and tumble. In a way, it felt like a deliberate attempt to unseat the notion that this is a guy who cares about his shirts. His pursuit of his quarry is so comparatively unballetic, it recalls that moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy stops that Cairo swordsman with his pistol instead of his whip. Just a lot of "to hell with this." This Bond is deliberately rugged, deliberately more of a bleeder, and deliberately less wry. And for my part, I like it.
Some of the shots through the latticework of the cranes and the construction site reminded me of a documentary I once saw about William Wyler, who noted I think it was William Wellman and his habit of shooting action and dialogue through deliberate visual obstructions. I doubt it was any sort of homage. But it proved that I am never not thinking about everything else I've ever seen or heard. Annoying.
There are times the film feels like an outright Sony commercial, with VAIO, Sony Ericsson, and Cyber-shot product placement that receives better framing than some of the featured actors. The second movie -- the one that begins right when the movie should have ended -- is where this is most prominent. There are times when I wish my comfort with technology didn't make it so difficult to sell me on fictitious application interfaces or make it so hard for me to ignore the preposterous notion that MI6 computers actually sport military intelligence wallpaper. But I'm learning to be less of a pain in the neck in this respect. I can't, however, be less of a pain in the neck when it comes to wardrobe. I have never seen uglier dresses in a Bond film. Not even in Live and Let Die. Just plain abominable. So, in addition to the fact that I didn't find either of the Bond girls especially compelling, every time they came on screen, I scowled at their low-budget couture and -- in Eva Green's case -- the low-budget way they wore it.
The Body Worlds exhibit is prominently featured early on in the film. I chuckled to myself, remembering the time Beulah and Justin and I visited the exhibit during its visit to Los Angeles. I remembered all the installations that prompted Beulah to snicker and say, "Look at the anus."
Daniel Craig doesn't walk well. There is something overly erect about his posture. Something forced and unnatural. It's not a deal breaker. But I can't not notice. Especially when the hallmark of 007 is his appearance of being at ease in even the most harrowing situations. He's got an unmistakably excellent physique. But it's a shame he can't appear a little more relaxed in it. Also, you can totally see his package in every outfit they put him in.
A Photoshop reference? *shakes head*
I have two big complaints about this movie. One is the clumsy narrative exposition that kept making me want to cry out, "I get it! Stop telling me what's going on. I'm on top of it. Seriously. Shut up. Honestly. Christ." I just think that if you constantly have to provide a play-by-play, maybe you're not doing your job directorially. It's like being made to read the libretto before going to see an opera if you've any hope of knowing what's going on. In movies, everything you need to know is supposed to be right there. If you're constantly having to be reminded what to notice and what to pay attention to, the cinematic storytelling is failing. And the filmmaker thinks you're probably a low-scorer on your various standardized tests. "I'll stake you. And by that I mean that I will put up the money for you to play. And by that I mean that I will transfer money into your name so that you can stay in the game. Get it? No? Okay, let's try some other synonyms. P.S. Guess what. I'm with the CIA."
The second complaint is the overly sentimental and inexplicable affair between James Bond and Vesper Lynd. I never bought this for a minute. She is obnoxious and unappealing from the outset, and she never does a thing to redeem herself or to win him over. So the fact that they fall in love at all is implausible. And the way they fall in love -- essentially all verbally and without the slightest shred of real sexual combustion -- is just plain nauseating.
Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Le Chiffre, was pretty great, if you ask me. And I noticed that, now that my sister is dating a Swede, I can spot those Scandinavian and Danish accents right off. And it occurs to me that this is what the sum of your life experience gets you. There are things you know and things you don't. And there are things you will know because of things you just found out. And you should never wish you could go back to some other time in your life, because -- if nothing else -- you wouldn't have been as quick to notice when a guy probably speaks fluent Danish.
Ultimately, I think the movie was twenty minutes too long, and the clarity of the story was irreparably fractured by the unfortunate abandonment of the original story line when it neatly wraps itself up, leaving ample (and awful) opportunity for the exploration of a pasty, wooden love affair between two people who have no reason to smile at each other. I also think that the movie spends too much time trying to analyze James Bond as a man, providing unnecessary and in some cases illogical back story to his character. I don't want to know why he is cold or why he is suddenly no longer cold. I don't want to know what makes him tick. And I certainly don't want to see M mothering him over the telephone. I want to see the mission. Period. That is the directive I would give if I were making this movie at my imaginary high-budget film studio. Show me the mission. And that is not a reference to Jerry Maguire.
So, yes. As was foretold, this film takes a much less refined and much more sober view of the work of the secret agent. The pugilism is more brutal, the victories more costly. This is not the James Bond you fell in love with, if you fell in love with any of the others that came before. But it is James Bond, in the end. It's a movie about a secret agent, and that was always all that mattered to me.

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