Archive for February, 2021

by Becky Chambers

In a bid to leave her old life behind, Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the spaceship Wayfarer as a file clerk. She quickly fits in amongst the multispecies, and somewhat unconventional crew and life is good. But then the crew get an offer they can’t refuse, the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel from a distant part of the galaxy. They’ll each earn a fortune, the trouble is they have to take the slow way there, and they’re going to have to pass through hostile terrain. Can the plucky crew survive the challenges the universe has in store for them?

There are books I love, and books I hate, but perhaps the saddest books are those that disappoint. The blurb of this book hooked me, and the opening chapters reeled me in. Yes, there’s more than a hint of Firefly here, but compared to some homages I’ve read this was at least well done. Chambers’ world building was good, and her characters leapt off the page.

The concept is great, the universe is nicely put together, and the characters (mostly) interesting…

Yet in the end I felt a little cheated.

 Why’s that, you ask? Well in the main because there’s one vital ingredient missing from the story of this crazy diverse crew. Drama. I was tempted to add plot as well, but there is a plot, sort of. I was about a third of the way through before I realised they really were taking the long way to that small angry planet, and worse they were taking the episodic route as well. This was originally self-published and at first I wonder if it’d been released in instalments, because it has that feel about it. Episode 1: shopping. Episode 2: Space insects. Episode 3: Pirates… etc.

This is fine, the characters are interesting enough that the fact that they meander from one situation to the next didn’t bother me that much. The trouble is the lack of drama. Seriously, every problem they face is resolved quickly and easily with the minimum amount of fuss or danger. It gets to the point where I stopped getting excited as the next big thing showed up, because I knew the tension was going to be sucked out of the situation within a page or so, and regular as clockwork it was.

Don’t get me wrong, as a Trek fan the idea of characters resolving issues through chat rather than gunplay isn’t anathema to me but at least mix it up a little.

And don’t get me started on the disappointment of what happens (or maybe what doesn’t happen) when they finally reach the titular small angry planet.

I did enjoy it up to a point though. Chambers’ prose is excellent, and while I’ve read better world building, I read an awful lot worse. Characters like Jenks and Kizzy and Dr Chef and Sissix were fun and interesting. I just wish they’d had more difficulty reaching that small angry planet, and, you know, maybe spent some time there.

Perhaps for all my protestations of being an optimist, in the end I’m too cynical for this nicest of nice stories, or maybe I just want something that isn’t quite so wet. In the end I’d still recommend it as a decent read, just don’t get your hopes up for edge of the seat excitement.  

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Posted: February 10, 2021 in James Bond

Following up a monumental hit like Casino Royale was always going to be tricky, but likely Eon didn’t imagine it would wind up quite as tricky as it did. A speedy production schedule was further complicated by a Writers’ strike. A bare bones script was fleshed out by director Marc Forster and Daniel Craig on set, the only people allowed to work on it. The result is a film that feels raw and unfinished, and a film many see as a poor follow up to Casino Royale and a poor Bond film in general.

Let’s be honest here, it’s no Casino Royale, and it’s clearly a film that proved problematic to make. And yet…there is a lot to like about it, and while it wasn’t initially intended to be such a sequel to Casino Royale, the two films bookend each other well, which I like.

After all Casino Royale begins in snowy Eastern Europe and ends in sunny Italy. By contrast Quantum of Solace begins in sunny Italy and ends in snowy Eastern Europe. There’s a nice symmetry to that.

The film opens with a car chase. I’ve no idea how Mr White’s associates realised he’d been taken prisoner, but here they are, chasing 007. It’s a pre-title sequence that’s grown on me over the years, to the point now where I quite like it. Still, the nod to Jason Bourne is obvious (i.e., shake the camera a lot and make it hard for anyone to see what’s going on) But it’s gritty and in your face, and features a nice denouement. Shame about Bond’s “It’s time to get out,” though, not exactly a witty pun.

M proceeds to try and scare Mr White, with clear allusions to Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, but he doesn’t seem easily spooked. His line about having people everywhere is followed up by M’s bodyguard trying to kill her. Here the quick edits work to the film’s advantage, because for a second you genuinely believe M’s been shot (clearly ridiculous, they’d never kill Dame Judi off).

Bond’s quickly in pursuit and a rooftop chase across Sienna ensues. I wonder if this was supposed to be the pre-title sequence, especially given it ends with Bond shooting Mitchell, which would have meant another novel gun barrel moment. The film could just as easily have started with Bond arriving at the safehouse, but then I suppose the film would have had one less action scene and would have been even shorter. Which is fine, Quantum of Solace’s brevity is one of the things I like about it.

Some claim this is another sop to Bourne, where Matt Damon chases someone across the roofs of Tangier. Everyone forgets that Dalton was chased across the rooftops of Tangier decades earlier, and that even before this there’s a deleted scene from OHMSS where Lazenby tracks someone across the rooftops of London, who who’s ripping off who Mr Bourne?

It’s a decent set piece, even if half the time it feels more like a travelogue as we get treated to footage of the famous horse race. I guess they used this to pad the film out.

The first half of the film definitely has a frenetic feel to it. Bond hops from Italy to London to Haiti to Austria and then back to Italy before he heads to Bolivia. The lack of much linking footage is jarring, you almost feel like Bond’s teleporting from place to place.

The tip that sends Bond off to Haiti is pretty thin, and within minutes Bond has arrived and killed the guy (Mr Slate, I guess Quantum stole their codenames from Reservoir Dogs). The fight is short and brutal, and yes feels a tad Bourne’ish. Before you can say “really 007” Bond’s met Camille and almost been killed by her. Again it’s frantic, and isn’t a great introduction to Olga Kurylenko’s Bond girl.

Quick as a flash we’ve met our bad guy, the somewhat underwhelming Dominic Greene, although I think Mathieu Amalric makes the best of the material he’s given, and it’s nice to have a Bond villain who isn’t disfigured. On the plus side we get to see the world’s worst street sweeper (whose brush never touches the ground) and Joaquín Cosío’s wonderfully creepy General Medrano.

Greene hands Camille over to the General (which is what she wants) which is when our boy decides to “rescue” her. Again the stunts are well done but it’s hard to see what’s going on. Gotta love Bond handing Camille off to some bewildered busboy though, one of the traits I love of Daniel’s Bond is how easily he disposes of things once they’ve served their usefulness. Car keys, mobile phones, his father’s shotgun (oops getting ahead of myself) and even people (poor Mathis).

Next thing you know 007’s in Austria and my head’s spinning. Quantum’s hugely public meeting has it’s advantages I guess, a good excuse for rich folks from across the globe to head for Bregenz, but feels a trifle silly as well. Bond being Bond he reveals he’s listening in, cue a nicely done running gun battle with Tosca as the soundtrack. Pretty soon Bond’s accused of killing a Special Branch officer and he’s forced to go on the run. Bond rogue you say? Sigh. Luckily Stevie from Miranda covers for him, so no one knows he’s on his way back to Italy to find Mathis.

“What have you done today?”

Now if the first half of the film feels like a mess, I’d argue the second is much better. The film finally gets the breathe. We get two lovely conversations between Bond and Mathis, one at his home the other on the plane, and once we hit Bolivia the film we get some plot. Giancarlo Giannini and Daniel Craig have wonderful chemistry and it’s a shame he’s killed off. Gemma Arterton’s Agent (Strawberry) Fields is great (again shame she’s killed) although Bond’s seduction of her is clunky (“Would you help me find the stationary?”). Have to say this film does feature one of my favourite jokes in the franchise. We’re teachers on sabbatical…and we’ve won the lottery. Don’t tell me Daniel can’t do funny.

For a film with an unfinished script there’s some neat dialogue. Greene saying Camile is all right “once you get her on her back” obviously a reference to her scarring, and his comment that she and James are “both damaged goods”.

Bond and Camille discover Quantum’s real plan, stage a coup in Bolivia and as reward get a worthless patch of desert, only it isn’t worthless because you’ve ensured all the water flows there. Seriously there are people who don’t get the plot of this film which always surprises me.

The exploding hotel is wonderfully daffy, and Bond and Camile’s attack is nicely done.

As Bond girl’s go, Camille is up there with the best and it’s refreshing to find a character who not only has agency, but also has her own narrative arc. She isn’t interested in Greene, she just wants to kill Medrano, and in the end she does—without 007’s assistance. That she is perhaps the only lead Bond girl who doesn’t shag Bond is the icing on the cake, but she isn’t there as a sex object (gorgeous as Olga Kurylenko is) and nor is she 007’s sidekick. She’s a woman with her own mission and luckily for 007 it runs parallel with his.

Dominic Greene gets better as the film goes on, and his last-ditch desperate fight with Bond works well because he isn’t a fighter, which makes him unpredictable. Have to say as well that his fate must be one of the most coldblooded in the franchise as Bond leaves him in the middle of the desert with only a can of motor oil to drink.

Cue an epilogue in Russia as Bond meets Vesper’s villainous boyfriend and reveals to a Canadian agent (Castle’s Stana Katic) that she risks being duped the same way. Nice use of the flimsy plot of Fleming’s short story 007 in New York. It’s also a nice way to show how much Bond has grown, from the man who thought one less bomb maker in the world was a good thing, to a man who’ll choose to spare the man he wants to kill, because he’s more useful alive.

There’s nice material for Dame Judi to get her teeth into, it’s nice to see Felix again (shame rewrites robbed Jeffrey Wright of a meatier role) and yes that is Stranger Things David Harbour as the slimy Gregg Beam.

Quantum of Solace is also perhaps the most political Bond film, with references to coups tacitly supported by the US (and by extension the UK) and mention of corporations and poverty. It’s clunky, but ally this to a film about the control of utilities and it clearly tackles themes Bond has rarely tackled before (of course you might feel Bond shouldn’t get political.)

If there’d been no writers’ strike I wonder what kind of Bond film we’d have got? Sadly we’ll never know, but Forster’s direction is decent, and Arnold’s soundtrack is great, and Craig gives it his all. It’ll never be one of my favourite Bond films, but for me its far from being the worst, and the second half just about redeems a mess of a first half at least. Rough and ready it may be, but it still ends up better than some Bonds that had far more time spent on them.