Archive for April, 2016

Borderline

Posted: April 29, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Lawrence Block

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I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Block for a long time, since I first borrowed his books from the library way back in the 20th Century. I especially like his novels focusing on alcoholic ex-cop Matt Scudder. In addition his book ‘Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print’ has long been my go to writing manual, and as is often the case such books tend to venture into territory that’s autobiographical at times (see also Stephen King’s On Writing). In his book Block talks about his early days as a writer, where he wrote all manner of things including soft core porn and sex manuals! As such it was interesting to read a book, newly reprinted “for the first time in 50 years”, from his early years, featuring a novel plus three short stories from the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Borderline was originally published in the early 1960s under the pseudonym Don Holliday. There are four main characters whose lives intersect as they cross between the towns of El Paso in Texas and Juarez in Mexico.

Marty is a professional gambler, Meg is a recent divorcee looking for excitement, Lily is a young hippy lured into performing in sex shows, and then there’s Weaver, an ugly man with an ugly soul and a straight razor he plans to use on as many women as he can before the police catch him. There’s Cassie too, the woman who lures Lily into the sex shows, but the story doesn’t focus as much on her as the others.

The first thing to say is that anyone expecting modern Block might be disappointed. Borderlines is the very definition of pulp fiction; nasty, lurid and exploitative and it won’t be for everyone. None of the characters in the book are particularly likeable and much of the violence is brutal, and is pretty much all directed towards the women.  When first published it was titled Border Lust, and there’s as much sex as there is violence and given this was first published in less enlightened times much of it would have been described back then as “abnormal”. So there is a lot of lesbian sex here, and a lot of titillation. It’s to Block’s credit that, for the time and given the type of story he was writing, he treats his female characters well, even though they’re all essentially victims.

This is a story about the crossing of lines, with the physical border between El Paso and Juarez serving as a metaphor for less tangible lines. So Meg crosses lines with her regard to her sexuality just as Weaver crosses moral lines as his fantasies become horrifying reality. As an interesting aside; whilst reading this book I had cause to re-watch Scicario which features the border between El Paso and Juarez and things have clearly changed a lot!

Initially at least I rather enjoyed Borderlines, even back then Block’s prose was perky and his pacing top notch, and he can make even unlikeable characters engaging. The book was an exciting read to begin with, however the further I got into it the less I liked it. What began as a guilty pleasure too quickly devolved into something that just left me feeling guilty. There’s a little too much exploitation and I wonder if even Block had had enough whilst writing it because it suddenly speeds to a conclusion that manages to be both satisfying and deeply unsatisfying at the same time.

The short stories are of variable quality. The Burning Fury is the story of a lumberjack slowly getting wasted in a bar as he tries to ignore the advances of a lady of the night. It’s well written but I could tell where it was headed right from the start. A Fire at Night is a tale about an arsonist admiring his fiery handiwork. It’s probably the weakest story in the collection, although I have to admit the ending did at least catch me by surprise.

This leaves Stag Party Gal, which is more novella than short story and is probably the most enjoyable story within the book.  Mark Donahue is about to marry a society dame, the only trouble is that Karen, a woman he had been seeing, has been calling him up threatening to make trouble for him. As such he hires gumshoe Ed London to watch his back until he can get to the church on time.

Everything’s going swimmingly until the night of Mark’s bachelor party when Karen pops out of the cake and is promptly shot dead. Mark is arrested for her murder and it’s up to Ed to clear his name.

On the surface Stag Party Gal is a fairly generic detective story, and I recall even Block admitting that London wasn’t one of his better creations (his main defining character trait is that he smokes a pipe!) and yet it’s a thoroughly engaging story, and even though it’s an early Block P.I. tale, and even though London isn’t a patch on Scudder, it’s very easy to see the proto-Scudder within the prose. London basically solves the case by talking and re-talking to various people until something shakes lose, which is basically what Scudder does (and as Ian Rankin some of these stories are quite brutalnoted in the notes to his first Rebus book, Scudder and his modus operandi provide more than a little inspiration for Rebus).

There is sex and there is violence, but it’s a far tamer story than Borderlines. Yes the men are all portrayed as two timing weasels and the girls are all tarts (with and without hearts of gold) and yet somehow they all grow beyond their initial characterisation, and if not fully realised they’re more than cardboard cut-outs. The eventual solution is a little limp, but mystery stories rarely live up to their premises. What I can say is that if I was going to read any story in this collection again it’d likely be this one.

So overall these stories are very much a product of the time they were written. If you’ve never read Block before I wouldn’t recommend these as a starting point, and even if you have read Block before I would stress that some of these stories are quite brutal, though the Scudder series in particular treads similar ground, particularly when it comes to violence, with time Block has learned to use violence more sparingly than it is here.

As an example of a top draw writer in his early days these stories are fascinating, and it’s amazing to think that block was writing things of this quality in his early twenties. Frankly I’m more than a little jealous, I’d barely graduated beyond writing lurid post-apocalyptic action stories in long hand by that point…

 

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By William Philpott

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There’s a lot of History out there, so even as someone with an interest in history there are an awful lot of gaps in my knowledge, and in particular I’ve felt for a while that I didn’t know enough about the Great War, or World War 1 as it came to be known, certainly I didn’t feel as well versed as I do about World War 2, and I had been planning to find myself a decent book on the subject. As such I was thrilled when I got this book for Christmas.

Philpott is Professor of the History of Warfare at Kings College London and this is clearly a thoroughly researched book that covers the entire conflict and, unlike a lot of histories of the war, it doesn’t just focus on the Western Front, and so attention is given to the war at sea, the Eastern Front, the Middle East, and Italy. Attention is also given to various home fronts.

Since the 1918 the First World War has been constantly reappraised by historians, politicians and by the man or woman in the street with an interest. Was it a tragic loss of human life, the horrific destruction of a generation’s youth, or was it a necessary, and even inevitable, evil? Although he does include quotes from those involved, Philpott’s book is not a tale of the ordinary man in the trenches, it is a high level overview, specifically of the strategy that eventually evolved to fight the war, that of attrition, that the only way the Allies or the Central Powers could win was by wearing their opponents down until they literally could not fight on any more. Philpott’s overview is therefore quite dispassionate, which may not appeal to everyone, nor will his conclusion that attrition was the only way to win the war and, rather than meaningless slaughter, was the best response to the emergence of fully industrialised warfare. In this at least he does offer evidence to support this hypothesis, detailing countless occasions when supposed lightning strikes and breakthroughs designed to deal the enemy a crippling blow proved failures in the end that cost more lives than the drudge of trench warfare (Gallipoli is just one example of this.)

Whether you agree with Philpott’s conclusions or not, this is still a very factual overview of the conflict and is to be recommended on that basis.

It’s not an easy read however. The text is densely packed, and at times it is a little bit of a slog to get through; much as the soldiers of World War 1 had to fight for just a few feet of ground at a time, on occasion it was a struggle to get two or three pages further on with each session, and this isn’t helped by the author’s occasionally awkward prose, and a surprising amount of typos—a complaint I’ve seen mirrored in other reviews of this book—and I do think it perhaps needed more editorial input.

Overall this is a recommended read; it’s just not an especially quick or easy read.

Do pay attention 007

Posted: April 9, 2016 in James Bond

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It’s no secret that, whilst there are a lot of things about Spectre that I like, overall I found it somewhat disappointing. As such I decided to write a bit of a wish list for what I wanted from the next film, Bond #25. Apologies in advance, it kinda ran away from me! It might give you the impression that I really hated Spectre, which really isn’t the case, the film does frustrate the heck out of me though and I hope the producers learn a few lessons from it (don’t show the whole film in the trailers might be one thing…)

WARNING! This post will contain spoilers for Bond films, the latest Mission Impossible outing and also Austin Powers: Goldmember!

Run time

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Is that the time?

It’s not that I have a problem with long films per se, but three out of the last four Craig era films have run to over 140 minutes, and in fact those three films (Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale) are also the three longest Bond films ever (ironically Craig’s other outing, Quantum of Solace is the shortest Bond film ever) and to find the only other 007 entry to exceed 140 minutes you need to go back to 1969 and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Now sometimes a film needs the extra breathing room, OHMSS certainly did to convince us that Bond and Tracy were in love, but I’d argue Spectre didn’t need to be the longest Bond film ever, in fact though I hate to admit it there were moments towards the end when I considered checking my watch.

So the first item on my wish list is for them to dial back the running time a bit, I don’t want a ninety minute Bond film but, to me, barring a few exceptions the 130ish minute run time of films like Goldeneye and The Living Daylights works just fine. Sometimes less is more, and inextricably linked with the running time, in my opinion, is the issue of…

Pacing

Quite a few recent Bond films have felt a trifle uneven. In particular Spectre and Casino Royale, although this isn’t just about the Daniel Craig era; Die Another Day is a hell of a Bond film up to the point when it suddenly isn’t. Part of the problem is this newfound desire to front load a film with action. In Casino Royale we have two major set pieces that take place within the first half of the film, then it changes tack to the more intimate struggle over a game of cards before finally seguing into a romance story (but more on that later) before they jam another action set piece in at the end because they obviously felt the original low key ending of the book wouldn’t work. Interestingly it’s this final set piece that skews the film, because all the way through it’s been about mano a mano conflict; Bond vs the free runner, Bond vs Dimitrios, Bond vs the Miami bomber, Bond vs the African General, Bond vs. Le Chiffre… yet suddenly at the end it becomes Bond vs a bunch of random goons.

Now I’ll forgive this with Casino Royale because they were adapting a book where, in fairness, not a great deal of action occurs, in fact I’m pretty sure Bond doesn’t actually kill anyone; the Bulgarians blow themselves up, the SMERSH assassin kills Le Chiffre and Vesper tops herself. I’m less forgiving of Spectre because they were starting with a blank slate, yet rather than rising to a crescendo the films aims high early on then stumbles towards a fairly bland conclusion where Bond shoots down a helicopter, with a pistol, at distance, from a moving boat, at night…frankly I find that more ludicrous than Q inventing an invisible car.

Spectre isn’t alone in this pacing issue, in fact it isn’t even the only culprit of 2016, just take Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, a film that gives us fantastic action scenes during its first two thirds but ends with characters running around darkened London streets just shooting at each other (sound familiar?). In both instances it’s like the writers didn’t know how to finish the film.

Of course it would be a boring world if all films followed the same pattern, and plenty of great films have stuck their biggest set piece at the start, the classic example being probably the greatest Star Wars film; The Empire Strikes Back, which sticks the final battle at the start of the film, of course its finale gives us a great running gun battle and, more importantly, arguably the best lightsabre duel in the whole damn franchise. It didn’t just feature Darth and Luke having a bit of a natter before Luke shoots down Darth’s Tie Fighter, with a pistol, from distance, from a moving boat, at night…

Now one factor that impacts on pacing is…

Pre-title sequence.

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The pre-title sequences have been a staple of the franchise since From Russia with Love (though I’d argue Goldfinger, as in so many ways, is the film to really set the template). Often described as a mini-movie in their own right they’re an initial blast of action before we settle down for the film proper. Usually they’re part of the film’s wider storyline (OHMSS, The Spy Who Loved Me, Goldeneye, Spectre) but on occasion they’re pretty much standalone (Goldfinger, Octopussy, Casino Royale).

Now there’s always been a certain trend of trying to outdo what came before, but I’d argue that, starting with Goldeneye, the trend has been to up really the ante with each successive pre-title sequence, which is fine, I mean the pre-title sequence to Goldeneye is fab, but the film still has great set pieces later on and the finale is just as explosive. Fast forward to the last two films and we’ve seen expansive action sequences before the titles play. In Skyfall it’s Bond chasing a guy on a bike trough Istanbul and onto the top of a train, in Spectre it’s Bond, er, chasing a guy on foot through Mexico City and onto a helicopter. The point being that in many ways you could argue that each sequence is almost more action packed than what follows. Certainly in the case of Spectre. Whatever your view of Skyfall’s Straw Dogs finale (and after some initial hesitation I love it) it’s quite an explosive action packed end to the film, unlike Spectre. Part of the problem does seem to be Sam Mendes who seemed to have taken a view that the pre-title sequence had to be huge and full on and spectacular. Which is fine, I just think this can be counterproductive. I mean I love the Mexico City stuff, it’s a fantastic opening, but does any other set piece in the film really compare to it? Plus lord knows how much of the budget they spent on it.

Once again I’ll cite Rogue Nation to suggest this isn’t just Bond’s problem. That film starts with Tom Cruise actually strapped to the outside of a plane and you can argue the film is downhill from there.

spywho-parachuste-xlargeSo that’s my next wish, dial back the Pre-title sequence. Just a little. I realise the days of Bond just having a punch up with a man dressed as a widow, or having a very bullet ridden coitus interuptus, or of Bond not even featuring at all whilst we watch a bunch of guys be killed by Voodoo snakes, are probably over, but The Living Daylights has a fab little opener, and the The Spy Who Loved Me is iconic just down to one man with some skies and a parachutes. Or give us something leftfield like introducing the bad guy first, as in The Man with the Golden Gun.

 

The pre-title sequence should make are hearts pump, but it should leave us wanting Mo(o)re, and the film should then give us more.

Onto another direction now

Stop psychoanalysing Bond!

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Seriously this has been going on since Goldeneye and it has to stop, or at least take a break. We get it. 007 is not a nice man. He’s a killer, he’s a womaniser; he’s a misogynist, he drinks too much he (in some incarnations) smokes too much. Frankly we’d figured all this out by 1965. It’s interesting to get the odd titbit of back story re him being an orphan etc., but the whole warrior monk thing is getting a little tired.

I don’t need to hear any more about how terrible his life is, and I certainly don’t need to see another scene of him discussing this with a woman on a train…

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Personally I like it when Daniel Craig acts how pissed off 007 is rather than when people tell him how screwed up he is, and I kinda liked how Timothy Dalton essayed the part. His Bond had as much disdain for the job Craig’s does, yet took a curious kind of pride in the fact that he was very good at it, and covered up any chinks in his armour with unbridled hedonism. Hey if I’ve going to be a government sanctioned assassin I’m going to enjoy the best food drink and women I can because it’s going to be a short life.

And talking about Dalton neatly brings us to…

Bond going rogue (again!)

Firstly a mention for my friend Kay who first flagged this particular issue up for me.

The year is 1989 and Dalton’s just had his licence to kill revoked! Sometimes I have to remind myself how big of a deal this was. I mean sure, 007’s gone off-piste on occasion, he hasn’t quite followed orders and once or twice he’s taken annual leave and gone after the bad guys (OHMSS, The Man with the Golden Gun) but prior to Licence to Kill he’d never gone properly rogue, I mean MI6 send people out to stop him.

It’s important to remember when Bond going AWOL was a big thing given that once we hit the 21st Century it seems to be all he does. There are five 21st Century Bond films and you can argue he goes rogue in four of them. In Die Another Day he escapes custody on board a Royal Navy ship before attacking Chinese intelligence and then sneaking into Cuba! In Casino Royale he hacks into M’s computer then toddles off to the Bahamas to conduct his own private investigation. In Quantum of Solace he ends up with both MI6 and the CIA hunting him down, and Spectre starts with him acting in an unauthorised capacity and pretty soon he’s half inching Government property and encouraging his co-workers to effectively betray their employer. If I was to be mean you could argue that, since he fakes his own death at the start of Skyfall, that counts too, but I’ll be generous given that it’s not like he uses his newfound freedom to demolish half of Copenhagen or anything, he just lazes about having sex getting drunk and playing with scorpions, and so Skyfall becomes the exception that proves the rule.

It’s lazy writing. It’s a cheap way to establish drama but it is essentially false. We know M will forgive Bond and welcome him back into the SIS fold in the end. We know Q and Moneypenny won’t get more than a slap on the wrist. In fact all it does is make M seem weak.

So, for Bond #25 I’d like it if M gives Bond a mission, and Bond carries it out. Oh sure it won’t be easy, he’ll have to cut corners and exceed his orders a smidgen, but on the whole he’ll do as he’s told.

And since we’re talking about Bond’s backroom support…

Leave M/Q/Moneypenny/Tanner etc. at home this time.

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Bond and Q take time out to watch Paddington

I’d like it on record that Ralph Fiennes is probably one of my favourite actors and I think he’s a great M, I think Naomie Harris is wonderful as Moneypenny, and though he doesn’t always get much to do there’s a nice continuity with Rory Kinnear as Tanner. And as for Q, let’s face it Ben Whishaw pretty much steals every scene he’s in.

But just because I like these actors, it doesn’t follow that I want them shoehorning into the wider plot to the extent they have been recently. Again it’s something that worked in Skyfall yet feels contrived in Spectre, to the extent that, let’s be honest, Bond doesn’t thwart the villainous plan at the end, instead Q and M do. Just try and imagine Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewellyn abseiling into Blofeld’s hollowed out volcano…on second thoughts don’t.

I’m not suggesting M stays in his office, Q tinkers away in his lab and Moneypenny just types from now on, make use of these fine actors if you can, but if the plot doesn’t need them then the plot doesn’t need them so forcing the issue isn’t going to help. And talking of plot…

Plot/Script

Looking back at the leaked Sony emails a couple of years ago it’s clear that Spectre had script problems from the get go. Before footage had even been shot execs were commenting that the first half of the film was really strong, but that the latter half was weaker. John Logan wrote the initial script. Now Logan had worked on Skyfall, but from here on out would be holding the reins alone because Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were stepping down after working on every Bond film since The World is not Enough. Their retirement didn’t last long because they were quickly brought back in when Logan’s initial script wasn’t deemed good enough (I seem to recall mention of it lacking action) but even this wasn’t sufficient, because suddenly after a while Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow and Black Mass) was recruited to do yet more work on the script.

Sadly even four experienced writers couldn’t give us a coherent story, although in fairness I wonder if part of this wasn’t down to orders from above about just what had to be included, so I lay some of the blame with the producers—it’s very easy to blame the writers when they’re just dealing with a shopping list of elements and trying to squeeze them all in.

The trouble with Spectre is that there’s too much going on plot wise. The Nine Eyes/electronic snooping angle may be current, but they don’t seem to know quite what to do with it. So Spectre can read all of our emails, they don’t even hint at what damage this could do, and having a giant countdown to when the programme goes live is again a cheat to create drama because the script doesn’t make the scheme itself dramatic enough.

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And then there is Blofeld. Last seen (officially) in Diamonds are Forever the producers finally had the rights back to use Spectre, and what use is Spectre without Ernst Stavro Blofeld? The trouble is they handle him so badly. There’s the issue of casting but I’ll come to that later, so let’s look at the more wince inducing element of the character. Namely that he’s hated Bond since they were both boys, when they were effectively raised as brothers for a short time. Setting aside the logic of a villain with Daddy issues just one film after we had Silva with Mommy issues (but more here on Blofeld’s motivations) the issue of them having history and effectively being brothers is not only ludicrous, but it highlights a factor the producers seemed eager to distance the character from. Namely Austin Powers. Before production started they were at pains to say that care had to be taken because Dr Evil had made Blofeld a bit of a laughing stock. That’s fine, that makes sense. So why then— in the name of Red Grant’s ghost! — did they lift a plot from Goldmember where Austin Powers and Dr Evil are found to actually be brothers! And then we get to the “reveal”. I think everyone with half a brain knew Blofeld was going to be in the film, and I think most people suspected that Oscar winning action Christoph Waltz was going to play him. Sure I and some other people wondered if this wasn’t a double bluff. Maybe Andrew Scott would actually be Blofeld, maybe they’d even go completely left field and Monica Bellucci would turn out to be Ethel Stavro Blofeld. But no. It was the guy you expected it to be, so why go to the trouble to hide this? Why reveal it to Bond when the name means nothing to Bond? It’s the same mistake JJ Abrahams admits he made in Star Trek Into Darkness, first in trying to hide the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan, and then having a big reveal when, yet again, the character means nothing to Kirk and Spock, only to the audience.

Finally there’s the issue of trying to link every single Craig era Bond film together. For all that people said the Craig era was riffing on the Bourne films, really it’s been apparent, certainly from the last two, that in actual fact what they aspire to is the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. As such they’ve tried to link everything together, and personally I don’t think it was needed. Sure I can accept that Quantum was a branch of Spectre, and if that is the case then it makes sense for Le Chiffre, Mr Green and Mr White to all have been working for Blofeld at some point. I’m less enamoured with the idea of  Silva being a Spectre stooge because it demeans the character, plus there was no evidence that Silva answered to a higher authority and wasn’t just master of his own destiny (quite the reverse in fact, he was presented as the head honcho). Going back to the 60s, Bond encountered Spectre in every film, every film except Goldfinger of course. Now maybe old Auric was working for the good old Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, and maybe he wasn’t, again there’s no evidence either way, and again he is presented very much as the man in charge. The point being that the existence of Goldfinger didn’t dilute the films around it, so why does everything that’s happened to Craig’s Bond have to tie back to Spectre and Blofeld? It’s laziness to try and force connections between these films and I don’t see what there is to gain except to feed into the “author of all your pain, James” line, but if Blofeld really had that much of a downer on 007 why hasn’t he just offed him before now?

Sadly if Danial Craig returns then I suspect the next film will have to tie into Spectre/Madeline and Blofeld. And talking of Blofeld…

The Villain

Or rather the casting of the villain. In this case I think the only Craig era film that’s really got this right is Skyfall. Silva is a big, bombastic, megalomaniacal and clever adversary. He’s also (or at least he was until Spectre) not a henchman.

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Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor, and a heck of a screen presence, and sod Anthony Hopkins his Hannibal Lector is pretty much definitive if you ask me, but he is slightly hamstrung in Casino Royale because he’s always on the back foot. For starters he isn’t a Bond villain in the classic sense, he’s a banker, a money launderer for Quantum (as we find out later, and in fact a moneyman for Spectre we find out later still). Thanks to Bond’s meddling he owes money to scary African warlords who turn up in his hotel and threaten him without a by your leave—can you imagine anyone breaking into 006’s hotel room to threaten to chop his girlfriend’s arm off? Or Scaramanga’s? Or Drax’s? To be honest the moment Le Chiffre comes alive for me is during the torture scene, and it’s a shame Mikkelsen didn’t have more agency (as I recall the character in the book does, even though he’s beholden to SMERSH).

Next we have Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace who is, you’ve guessed it, another middle manager! Now I like QoS more than the average Bond fan, but despite being creepy as heck Greene is a pretty limp villain. Which brings us onto Blofeld and Chistoph Waltz. Now Waltz is a damn fine actor, an Oscar winning actor, and he plays villains very well (See Inglorious Basterds or Water for elephants) and he’s equally good as a hero, he’s the best thing about Django Unchained for me, but at his best he plays, you guessed it, bureaucratic villains—think of his Nazi in Inglorious—and whilst playing the chairman of the board aspect(re) of Blofeld works, when it’s time to come face to face with 007 well, he’s a trifle limp isn’t he? Maybe it’s the material, or maybe it’s just that he’s suited to being a different kind of villain.

Now I want to try a thought experiment. I want you to imagine another universe where Waltz is Le Chiffre and Mikkelsen is Blofeld and tell me that wouldn’t be better all around?

So my request for the next Bond villain is to make him more of a threat, make him more physical and frankly give him a grandiose scheme that adds up to more than reading all our emails, and if Waltz has to return as Blofeld, at least give him something to sink his bloody teeth into.

Now tangentially from Waltz is my next bugbear…

Stop hiring Oscar winners for the sake of it!

Seriously, it sometimes feels like the producers have recently acquired certain pretensions that the franchise is better than it actually is and nowhere is this clearer than in its recent recruitment policy. The director of the last two films has been an Oscar winner, the last two Bond villains have been Oscar winners and one of the writers involved in the last two films, and the man hired to be the lead scribe going forward until they realised he wasn’t up to the job, is an Oscar nominee.

So far this policy has yielded varying results. Mendes directed a great Bond film, followed by an ok Bond film. Bardem was a memorable villain, Waltz not so much, and Logan hasn’t proven up to the task of taking over from Purvis and Wade.

Which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t hire Danny Boyle to direct the next film and have Daniel Day-Lewis as the Bond villain and Jennifer Lawrence as the Bond girl; but people should be hired because they’re the right fit for the role rather than because of their supposed reputation. At the moment they seem fixated on golden statues the way they were fixated on famous American women in the Brosnan era (suffice to say Hatcher, Richards and Berry do not feature in my best Bond girls list).

But aside from on telly, how well known was Sean Bean before he was the villain in Goldeneye? Or Toby Stephens who, no matter what you think of Die Another Day, makes for a sneeringly effective villain. I’d probably seen Famke Janssen in an episode of Next Gen, but other than that she was a complete surprise. And as for directors…well…

Director

Martin Campbell has directed arguably two of the better Bond entries in Goldeneye and Casino Royale, yet if you look at his back catalogue it isn’t sprinkled with mammoth successes and really you could argue that he’s a very workmanlike director. That isn’t meant as an insult, quite the contrary. By contrast Mendes is more of an auteur, which is fine, and it isn’t the first time the producers have gone a little left field in their choice of directors, and Skyfall is pretty darn magnificent, but in returning to the fold Mendes was faced with the unenviable job of outdoing himself, and in hindsight maybe they should have gone with someone else.

The other problem with getting an artistic director is that you set the bar pretty high. Skyfall looked absolutely beautiful (down in no small part to the cinematography of Roger Deakins) and, some shonky plotting and lack of a decent Bond girl aside, is a near perfect Bond film, but it does beg the question of “where do we go from here?” I appreciate they tried to do something different with Spectre, but in essence it was another film that looked great, featuring another top drawer actor as the villain and with a script you could drive fleet of trucks through. Only not as good.

Frankly it says a lot that Mendes was still editing Spectre just a couple of days before the premiere.

So really what I’d like to see for the next film, is for them to get a director like Campbell again. Workmanlike is an ugly term which doesn’t do justice to what I’m suggesting but someone with solid action credentials would be good, because at times that was another slight failing of Spectre—and I appreciate this may not be down to Mendes—but whilst several action sequences are top drawer (Mexico, Austria) some are less so. The Rome car chase is beautiful, cool, and at times very funny, but lacks drama. Bond is effectively trying to get away from a single guy and there’s so little tension he even has time to make a phone call in the middle of it. By contrast look at the Berlin car chase at the start of The Man from UNCLE which has Solo and Gabby being perused by a single adversary, yet which manages to look great, be cool, funny and actually be exciting as well. The worst bit of Spectre though is Bond and Madeline’s escape from Blofeld’s observatory lair as 007 basically walks along shooting at guys who just step out from behind cover one at a time. As someone else described it, it’s like playing a video game on easy and I can’t believe someone couldn’t have made that better. It’s just annoying because it wouldn’t have taken much. I can’t help feeling that was one of the bits added in to up the action quotient but personally I think you could jettison it and the film wouldn’t be any worse off for it.

So yes, a more bread and butter director for the next one if possible. Of course this means they’ll probably get Christopher Nolan but, and here’s words I never expected to utter, maybe they’d be better off getting Guy Richie? It does seem pretty certain that Mendes won’t do another one which means…

The Soundtrack

…We should get a new composer. Now I actually liked Thomas Newman’s Skyfall soundtrack, the trouble is I’m not sure he did anything new for Spectre, just basically rejigged his previous score, so with Mendes gone hopefully we should get someone new, or maybe someone old? I mean David Arnold’s still around right? Whoever it is I want two things from the next Bond film’s soundtrack. Firstly I’d like a decent title track, I don’t care if it got to #1 and I don’t care if it got an Oscar, The Writing’s on the Wall was awful!  Secondly I’d like them to stop being embarrassed to thread the 007 theme throughout a film, seriously it’s a great and iconic riff. USE IT!

Ok, nearly done now, I appreciate that this rant is almost as long as Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale combined. Just one more thing, or rather one more person.

The Bond girl

It’s fair to say I’ve been vaguely disappointed by the Bond girls of the Craig era (and actually the latter stages of the Brosnan era if I’m honest). Admittedly Eva Green and co are probably a step up from Denise Richards and Halle Berry, but it says something to my mind the last great Bond girls were probably Natalya and Xenia in Goldeneye.

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Best Bond girl EVER!

Eva Green is gorgeous, and a good actress, but she’s hampered by the character of Vesper who, as in the book, feels insipid, and it’s hard to warm to her, especially given that, as in the book, she goes from hating to loving Bond with the turn of a page. Of course she at least doesn’t fall in love with him as quickly as Madeline Swann does, another pretty French actress with talent lumbered with a thankless role. I don’t mind Bond falling in love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is my favourite Bond film after all, just don’t have it happen as if by magic in the final third of the film, at least Bond and Tracy had most of the film to fall for one another, and it’s a romance that feels much more organic, as is another favourite of mine between Bond and Kara in The Living Daylights. I’m not even sure the L word is spoken in that film but it’s clear from the chemistry between Dalton and d’Abo that they’ve fallen for each other big time. Craig at least had chemistry with Green which he doesn’t have with Seydoux, though ironically the sparks are a flying between him and Monica Bellucci in the few minutes they’re together. In a lot of ways Bellucci is almost my favourite Bond girl of the Craig era, because she might only be in the film for five minutes, but she owns those five minutes. Honourable mentions for Gemma Arterton as Fields and of course Naomie Harris who makes for a fab Moneypenny. In reality though I think the best Bond girl of the Craig era is actually Olga Kurylenko’s Camille, ironically perhaps the only Bond girl that Bond doesn’t actually sleep with (unless they got up to something in that cave of course). For starters she doesn’t just turn up halfway through the film, she has a backstory and she has agency and she doesn’t swoon the moment Bond smiles at her.

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My second and fourth favourite Bond girls respectively

So what do I want from the next Bond girl? A good actress for starters, and someone who has genuine chemistry with Bond (whoever Bond happens to be) and I’m shallow enough to admit that I want to fancy her, but I want her to have agency, I want there to be a point to her existence beyond being someone for Bond to shag, and though I realise this just isn’t how things are done, but I’d like her to be comparable in age to 007, Seydoux is almost 20 years Craig’s junior.

It doesn’t help matters that 2016 gave us two great Bond girls who weren’t actually Bond girls. Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation and Alicia Vikander in The Man from Uncle (actually you can almost make it three with Elizabeth Debicki in Uncle) Admittedly two of those women are younger than Seydoux and Fergusson is only slightly older—give me a break ok, this isn’t an exact science! All I know is that all three made more of an impression on me than Madeline Swann did!

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Third best Bond girl

So that’s it, that’s what I want from the next Bond film. A leaner run time, a less convoluted plot, better action scenes and a larger than life villain whose plan—ludicrous though it might be—at least isn’t dull. Less shoehorning in of Q and co, and a Bond girl worthy of the title. Not much to ask is it?

Well, I suppose there is one more thing (sorry) and perhaps the most controversial thing of all…

A new Bond?

This is hard, because I like Daniel Craig as Bond, I like him a lot (despite being very dismissive when he was cast: I’m an idiot!). Yes he seems a trifle dour sometimes, and yes it is hard to feel sympathy for a man who gets paid millions to be James Bloody Bond yet seems to utterly despite the role, but the truth is that as 007 he’s good, he’s VERY good.

But the rigours of the role clearly take it out of him, and he must surely have made enough money to last a lifetime now. There’s also his age to factor in. He’s only 48 now, which is actually only a couple of years older than Roger Moore was when he started, but the role is much more physical now, and the audience less forgiving of a Bond they perceive as too long in the tooth. Plus we now seem to be set for three year gaps between films, which would make him 51 by the time Bond#25 comes out.

It’s also worth considering that Craig has done four films now, and that whilst Spectre was a commercial success, critically it did not go down nearly as well, which seems awfully similar to Die Another Day, Brosnan’s fourth film. Finally of course Craig’s Bond got to ride off into the sunset with Madeline, which is a better swan(n)song than Brosnan ever got.

I think the producers are at a crossroads now. Persevere with Craig and Bond#25 will have to tie in to Spectre, with Blofeld and Swann which might mean another bloated film, alternatively they can revert to a new actor and a clean slate (hopefully retaining Fiennes, Whishaw and Harris).

Who knows what will happen. I just hope they’ve learned a few lessons from Spectre. Whoever is 007, whoever directs and whoever the villain and the girl are one thing is certain, Paul Starkey will return (to the cinema to watch it multiple times, then buy in on Blu-ray to watch multiple times more!)

One final thing (this post has now become a Marvel film complete with Samuel L Jackson turning up after the credits) would it kill them to have Bond and a bunch of commandos fight for control of the villain’s secret base at the end again? I miss that. Go on, just for me, please?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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“Weren’t you in Diamonds are Forever?”