Review – No Time To Die, Northampton Filmhouse, 18th October 2021

No Time To DieAh, Mr Bond – we’ve been expecting you. For some time, as it happens; the best part of two years. Ah well, good things are worth waiting for, as I’ve said in almost every review over the last couple of months. If you are one of my wonderful loyal regular readers, gentle reader, you’ll know that I am currently undertaking a James Bond Challenge where I’ve gone back to Dr No and am working my way through the entire oeuvre. Currently I’m stuck between The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me, and I confess it’s been several months since I’ve strayed into the world of MI6. This review won’t be in the style of my usual James Bond Challenge posts, more an instant reaction to what we saw in the Northampton Filmhouse on Monday night.

James BondA retired Bond is approached by his old pal and CIA agent Felix Leiter, to help find scientist Valdo Obruchev who has been working on the Heracles project under direction of M, but has been kidnapped by SPECTRE villians. Heracles is a bioweapon containing nanobots that infect like a virus upon touch and are coded to an individual’s DNA, rendering it lethal to the target but harmless to others –  definition courtesy of Wikipedia. Spoilers abound online everywhere, so I’ll try not to add to them, apart from mentioning there are a number of villains and a number of potential Bond Girls in this film, and I have to say I did get a little confused trying to keep track of them all.

Madeleine SwannDespite the most up-to-date cinema techniques, and some fabulous gadgetry from Q – Bond’s Aston Martin has more tricks up its sleeve than the late Paul Daniels – there’s a distinctly retro feel to the film. Old colleagues and adversaries reappear. There’s a massive laboratory on a secret island that gets bombed to smithereens – where have I seen that before? There’s a pool of obviously radioactive water and anyone who falls into it dies a horrible death – that rings a bell or two as well. Bond visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd who dies in Casino Royale; and the film is bookended with verbal and musical reminders of We’ve Got All the Time in the World, the ironic accompaniment to the death of Teresa in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Above all, there is the return of Madeleine Swann, from Spectre, as Bond’s love interest, and a highly explosive and dramatic climax. All these elements (and there are probably many more) borrow from previous films. Of course, there are fresh themes too. Sexual equality in MI6 comes to the fore with the presence of new spy Nomi. Madeleine has childcare issues. But I was struck at how similar so much of the content was to so much of the content in the earlier films.

Miss MoneypennyVisually, it’s the usual treat for the senses. The car chases and motorbike scenes through the streets of Matera are absolutely brilliant – and it definitely comes across as somewhere you’d like to go for a relaxing holiday when all this has died down. Billie Eilish’s Grammy Award winning theme has been a significant commercial success in its own right, but to my ears is instantly forgettable.

PalomaA friend advised me that I shouldn’t see this film until I’d seen all the other Daniel Craig Bonds in sequence (and of those, I’ve only seen Skyfall) and, whilst that was impractical and surely a film should always stand on its own merits, I completely get what he means – there will have been many nuances that I missed. Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining and enjoyable film – at two and three quarter hours it’s more than a tad too long – and it throws up a very complicated problem for the next Bond movie, which is promised in the most final of final reels. There are a number of very significant fatalities in this film; I’ll say no more. Woman of the hour Phoebe Waller-Bridge was apparently brought in to smarten up the script and inject more humour into it; I can only say that without her input it would have been the least humorous of any Bond film I’ve seen!

NomiDaniel Craig is, of course, superb in the role of Bond; dignified, yet crusty, totally believable as an individual with none of that basic silliness that some earlier Bond actors gave us. I’ve still only seen a dozen Bond films but I’m sure that this film shows Bond at his least suave and most gritty. This was always going to be Craig’s last outing as Bond, and he certainly does him justice. Léa Seydoux is very charming and convincing as Madeleine, getting deep down into the emotions that you don’t normally associate with a Bond movie. Lashana Lynch is excellent as the no-nonsense Nomi, struggling to manage the inevitable competition and comparison she feels when Bond comes back to work, and I loved Ana de Armas as Paloma, Felix Leiter’s CIA assistant who gets the job done with refreshing ease and breeziness.

QFrom the recurring cast of characters, Ben Whishaw has really made Q his own; so much more hands-on than the Desmond Llewelyn characterisation, Q is now a genuine nerd effortlessly masterminding massive computer systems, taking Bond through precarious procedures with detailed precision. I still haven’t quite got a grasp on Ralph Fiennes’ M – he seems like a dark, distant mysterious bloke and I can’t see how he would motivate excellence in the workplace.

SafinWhich brings us to the villain of the piece (the main villain, that is), Rami Malek’s performance as Safin, the deeply disturbed son of parents murdered by Mr White (Madeleine’s father) on Blofeld’s orders. Seeking revenge against all things SPECTRE – and from there, the rest of the world – Safin is a vengeful psychopath, and Rami Malek excellently conveys his quietly unhinged rage against everything. He’s had mixed reviews on this performance; if you’re looking for a maniacally twisted, outrageous evildoer then you might find Safin dull as ditchwater. Instead, he’s traded venom for veracity in an understated performance that gets to the heart of the character. Basically, you can’t have both.

MAll in all, a pretty good Bond movie, and one from which there’s no turning back (or there isn’t until the next one comes along). Good characterisations, great chases, and an engaging – if sometimes perplexing – storyline. I normally need to watch a Bond film three times to understand it fully, and I’m sure it will be many years before I see this again! If you’re a Bond aficionado, you’ve probably seen it already, and I’m sure you enjoyed it.

Review – Knives Out, Northampton Filmhouse, 19th December 2019

KO PosterRegular readers (bless you!) of my blog will know that I am an Agatha Christie fan and am currently re-working my way through her oeuvre on my Agatha Christie Challenge. So it was a no-brainer that I would want to see Rian Johnson’s homage to her style, Knives Out. And, in the best tradition of not telling you whodunit, I promise I won’t! Mr Johnson made us promise at the beginning of the film anyway, and I’m not going to be the one who told you that the policeman did it. (Damn!!!)

A very grim familyIt may be an homage to Christie but the first few scenes are pure Sleuth, mixed with a spot of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. The walls of the Thrombey family mansion are crammed with posters celebrating the works of the great writer and patriarch Harlan Thrombey, and there’s even one of those laughing sailor dolls lurking around, which made me think this was going to become a psychological two-hander. But, no – the doll is mere window dressing, and there’s precious little that’s psychological about the plot – the motive is much more basic than that. Poirot would actually be really disappointed.

HarlanSo, who killed Harlan Thrombey? That’s not a spoiler – he’s revealed with his throat slit within the first minute of action. At least it’s one of those thrillers that starts with the crime and works backwards, which is much more likely to arrest your attention than when you get all the clues and motives first and then the crime happens about an hour later. And there’s indeed a host of suspects, brought to life by a star-strangled cast, each one outperforming the others in terms of their suspiciousness and lack of likeability.

A grim familyAnd that’s a major problem with the film as I see it. The suspects are all (bar one) varying degrees of unpleasant, and heavily caricatured – Rian Johnson has said that the hokey cult 1970s musical Something’s Afoot, which was a Christie spoof populated by stereotypes, was an influence on this film, and I think it works to its detriment. There’s only one sympathetic suspect – and it very much turns into her story – but the rest of them are so vile that they deserve everything coming to them. It was this lack of interest in the characters’ outcomes that decided Mrs Chrisparkle to give in and go to sleep after hanging on for the first 90 minutes.

Blanc and MartaYes, there are some wonderfully quirky moments. I enjoyed Detective Blanc’s rendition of Losing My Mind from Sondheim’s Follies whilst waiting in the car; these cops obviously enjoy their musical theatre as there’s also a fleeting reference to Hamilton. There’s a comic moment in the heat of the final denouement which is very nicely done (although completely predictable). A suspect deliberately stomping through the mud to obliterate footprints is very funny. But, on the whole, the film comes across as overwhelmingly dark – not dark as in film noir, but dark as in why doesn’t someone open the curtains – and what’s meant to suggest suspense and eeriness just ends up being gloomy. It lacks light and shade, as though its dial is firmly set to murky.

JoniAs Detective Blanc, Daniel Craig has adopted a vocal drawl unlike any other known to man – kudos to him for keeping it up for over two hours. It’s an engaging performance nonetheless, although at times he feels a little more like Clouseau than Poirot. More entertaining vocal tics come from the constricted cords of Toni Collette, as Joni the Insta Influencer, and it was a pleasure to see Frank Oz in the cameo role of the Thrombey family lawyer. But it’s Ana de Armas as Marta who makes the film watchable as the only character with whom we can really connect, and her marvellous performance smashes the movie into the realms of 3 stars from me.

CopsAs for the solution to this heinous crime – well, as a Facebook relationship status might confess, it’s complicated, and I challenge anyone to answer successfully the question that Mrs C put to me on the way home – so, whodunit? – in full. I had to re-read the synopsis online twice in order to be certain that I fully understood exactly who was guilty of what. Gimme the ballAnd, believe me, I was paying attention. It must have been the accents.

Backbeat, the word on the street says this could be the first in a series of films featuring Detective Blanc. They may have to consider subtitles.

Another film seen – Skyfall

SkyfallIf you are a regular visitor to these pages, dear reader, you will know that we don’t go to the cinema much. In fact, the last time was approximately 22 months ago, and I don’t even think I’ve watched a film all the way through on dvd or on tv since then. I’ve always considered the cinema to be an inferior art to the theatre by virtue of the fact that it isn’t live. When you see a play, it is actually happening, then and there right in front of your eyes (or behind a tall man in front of you if you happen to be in Row C of the Milton Keynes theatre stalls). But a film isn’t real. You can’t go close to the stage and get spat at by the actors. Every performance is identical – the actors cannot grow into their characters as a run gets longer. There is no possibility of a mishap. That shared experience of interaction between the audience and the cast becomes just a one-way street.

However, there’s a lot you can do on a cinema screen that you can’t do on a stage. You can transport the audience to exciting locations. You can depict extraordinary effects. You can make it seem like a man can fly with no strings attached. You can safely engulf a building in flames or plunge deep into water and stay dry. But mainly, as it seems to me at the moment, you can crisply and cleanly kill lots of people without an instant’s thought as to the consequences.

Judi DenchI’d forgotten how much I loathe cinema violence. Even before Skyfall started, the four or five trailers we saw that were considered suitable for a 12A certificate each contained scenes of violence. Even the “comedy” film they were trailing (didn’t look that funny to me) started off with several instances of people being punched in the face. I’m afraid I find it all very depressing. At some point in recent years the comedic effect of slipping on a banana skin (riotously funny I’m sure you’ll agree) has become a much more painful reality. Wit has been sacrificed for action. So many people die in your average action film nowadays that I’m surprised they’re not all sponsored by funeral directors.

Take Skyfall for example – the opening, action-packed, chase scene has a vast number of instances of destruction on the streets of Istanbul; true, I don’t think you saw anyone actually die, but all those car accidents, damage to peoples’ shops and wares in the bazaar, and then the digger on the roof of the train terrorising its passengers, will all have led to massive injuries and a severely overworked Turkish Health Service. And if you say to me it’s just entertainment, and that you’re not meant to think that deeply about those unseen consequences, I will reply that’s a major reason for the increase in general violence in our society today.

Javier Bardem Rant over. I know I’m an old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t get out much. Actually I get out a huge amount, but you get my drift. You won’t believe how long it has been since I last saw a Bond film. I think I’ve seen them all up until… Diamonds are Forever, which is 1971 according to wikipedia. James Bond’s no longer Scottish, who knew! But the reviews of Skyfall have been very positive, and with nothing much else to do on Sunday afternoon, we thought we’d give it a try.

Fresh rant: I hate it now that when you go to your local Vue you get no sense of the artistry of cinema whatsoever. The box office (ha!) is now a basically a long bar that is an homage to gluttony. Every supersized sugary drink you could ever not need, combined with the biggest range of chocolates and sweets all paying reverence to a bottomless pit containing metric tonnes of syrupy popcorn. The assistant looks shocked when you just ask for tickets to the film. I used to mock the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle when she would complain bitterly that they never show you to your seat anymore – but she was right, it was one of the first symptoms of that slippery slope that today means you have to fumble around trying to find your seats whilst fat cinemagoers lunge to protect their two hours’ worth of calories as you try to squeeze past.

Albert Finney And breathe, and relax. Destruction aside, that first scene of Skyfall is amazing. Seriously, if they (presumably) had to observe some health and safety precautions it must have taken meticulous care to produce that extraordinary race around Istanbul and the Grand Bazaar. The scene ends with a gunshot and the wounded body plummeting into a river, where you see it plunging down a vast waterfall. I ask you, how on earth did he manage to survive that? Ridiculous!

Berenice Lim Marlohe Nevertheless, it’s a pretty good story all in all, and it held my attention throughout. There were a few scenes that I thought were a little too long – I got a bit bored in the long preamble to the final encounter between the good guys and the bad guys, and Mrs C thought the opening credits took away all the momentum of the first scene. As an old mate pointed out, Bond films are still as sexist as hell – the scene where a woman is murdered whilst balancing a glass of whisky on her head, with Bond’s reaction: “waste of a good whisky” kind of leaves a dirty taste in the mouth. I did like the way that earlier Bond gadgets made a reappearance though – I found that quite reassuring. The acting was very good – I particularly liked Judi Dench’s M – she could make reading the Argos catalogue sound like Shakespeare, and it was good that you got to see both her tough exterior and vulnerable insides. Javier Bardem was a suitably snide and vindictive villain, and there was excellent support from Rory Kinnear as Tanner, M’s assistant, Ben Whishaw as Q and Albert Finney as Bond’s parents’ old gamekeeper. I thought Berenice Lim Marlohe was going to turn out to be an excellent new Bond girl – alas I was wrong, more’s the pity. To be honest, I’m still grieving for Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Daniel CraigAnd what of Daniel Craig? Gentle reader you will already have made up your mind years ago as to whether he’s good at this game – but actually the only time I’ve seen him before was when he waited for the Queen during the Olympics Opening Ceremony. In comparison to the suave, sophisticated and, let’s face it, smug Sean Connery, he’s a very terse, unshowy Bond. Economic with the communication skills, he’s actually much more like what I would imagine your typical secret service “spy” to be like. Although to be fair I think I do actually know a spy in real life and he’s not like that at all! I enjoyed Daniel Craig’s performance very much and particularly liked seeing the unfit, not-up-to-scratch Bond of the early part of the film – makes you think there’s hope for everyone.

So we both enjoyed the film, despite a few heavily far-fetched moments (surviving that initial gunshot, derailing an empty underground train) and despite the wanton death and destruction of men, women and property. I wonder how many security guards were shot dead in the course of that film? You know they’d only be on minimum wage too. It’s not right.

Given I haven’t seen any Bond movies between Diamonds are Forever and Skyfall, tell me two or three really good ones from the years in between that I ought to see – I’d appreciate your suggestions!