Archive for April, 2021

The Usual Suspects

Posted: April 19, 2021 in Book reviews, Film reviews

By Christopher McQuarrie

In the aftermath of a brutal gun battle on board a ship in San Pedro Bay, twenty-seven people are dead, and there are only two survivors. One is a badly burned Hungarian mobster, the other is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, a con artist with cerebral palsy. Verbal has somehow managed to wangle immunity for almost all of the crimes he’s been involved in, but still US customs agent Dave Kujan flies in from New York to interview Verbal. His interest is in a former cop turned hardened criminal Dean Keaton, a man who may or may not have died during the gun battle in San Pedro.

Verbal explains the series of events that led to he, and Keaton, winding up on the dock. It began weeks earlier when Verbal, Keaton and three other criminals (Michael McManus, Fred Fenster and Todd Hockney) are arrested in New York in connection with the hijacking of a truck full of weapons. Used as a line-up they are quickly released, and just as quickly decide to team up to rob some corrupt cops. After one successful job they embark upon a second in LA, but things don’t go to plan and they find they’ve been brought together at the behest of Keyser Söze, a mythical Turkish gangster, quite literally the bogeyman.  Söze claims they’ve all stolen from him in the past, and now to clear their debt he wants them to attack a ship in San Pedro Bay.

Kujan is convinced Keaton is actually Söze and that he survived the massacre in San Pedro, but is he right?

Okay clear spoiler warning here. This review relates t the script of a 25 year old film with one heck of a twist in the tail and if you somehow have managed to avoid that spoiler for goodness sake just go and watch the film! Otherwise carry on reading.

McQuarrie won the best original screenplay Oscar for this, and it’s easy to see why because it’s exceptionally well put together. It’s a lean script, without an ounce of fat and with not a single extraneous scene that doesn’t contribute something towards the plot. Yes you could argue that the characters are thinly drawn yet none quite feel like mere cyphers, and this is a script that comes down to it’s plotting, an elegant case of misdirection, a magic trick using words instead of smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to see why this won an Oscar and it’s a great example of writing that I think every script writer, or aspiring script writer could learn from reading.

The Film

Reading the script inspired me to watch the film again, for perhaps the first time this century! Given I’d watched it so recently after reading the script it seemed churlish not to say a few words about the film as well.

Now obviously this is a film that comes with a lot of baggage these days, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Kevin Spacy. Heck you can even throw in the late great Pete Postlethwaite in brownface with a dodgy Indian accent for good measure. Oh, and the sole female character exists only in relation to Keaton.

But still, this is a very good film—how could it not be coming off of that script—and yes it’s directed very well, and damn it if Spacy isn’t annoyingly good. With hindsight it seems much more obvious that Kint is Keyser Söze, heck in that early scene on the boat you can make out it’s Spacy and hear his voice, of course much of that might just be knowing what to look for! Similarly the big reveal feels a little less special, and damn Kint must have really good eyesight given how far away from the noticeboard he is.

But the measure of a good film, especially one dependant on a twist, is how enjoyable it is when you know what’s coming, and this was still a hugely enjoyable film, and the decent cast make the best of wafer think roles (kudos to del Toro who damn near steals the show). A sharp, violent thrill ride that still holds up a quarter of a century later.  

The Lady in the Lake

Posted: April 6, 2021 in Book reviews

By Raymond Chandler

When PI Philip Marlowe is hired by rich businessman Derace Kingsley to find his wife, Crystal, he has no idea how what seems like a simple case will skew into something with wider implications. Supposedly Crystal has eloped with her lover, a gigolo named Chris Lavery, only Lavery is still in Bay City, and there’s no sign of Crystal with him.

Marlowe’s investigations will take him from Bay City up into the countryside and Little Fawn Lake, where Kingsley has a cabin. Suddenly it isn’t only Crystal Kingsley who might be missing. What happened to Muriel Chess, wife of the caretaker of Kingsley’s cabin, and what, if any, connection is there between the two women and the wife of Dr Almore, a woman who died months before, and who lived across the road from Lavery? And how is thuggish cop Al Degarmo involved?

My third Chandler novel, and yes I am reading them all out of order, but this doesn’t seem to matter so I’ll continue doing so. The plot of this book felt somewhat more organised than in the other books I’d read, and I had wondered if this was an original story by Chandler, but no, checking after finishing it becomes apparent that yet again Chandler cannibalised three of his short stories. For saying that it’s impossible to see the joins, he knits the distinct elements together well, and I’ve no desire to dig deeper into the matter because the novel worked just fine for me, in fact for once Chandler caught me on the hop with the final reveal, and what at first seems a relatively simple tale is far more serpentine than I’d imagined, with great characters and a notable femme fatale.

It’s interesting to see Marlowe out of his comfort zone and away from LA, and to see references to soldiers guarding the dam on his way to the lake, this was written not long after Pearl Harbour and American found itself once more at war. There’s a great little section that talks about how politics and policing needs good people, but doesn’t always pay enough to attract them which is still quite pertinent almost a century later.

Though at times it’s a little old fashioned, particularly grammatically, I continue to adore Chandler’s prose. Before the next Chandler novel I might investigate his short stories, though I am nervous of chancing upon the basis for some of his books.

All in all a fine outing for Philip Marlowe.

Skyfall (2012)

Posted: April 1, 2021 in James Bond

Little did we know we’d have to wait four years to get out next taste of Bond. An unusual gap (it was then anyway) but not without precedent; there was four years between Die Another Day and Casino Royale after all, and of course the gap between Licence to Kill and Goldeneye had been even longer. This was mainly down to MGM suffering financial difficulties, but the gap did at least allow plenty of time to polish the script, and of course ensured that a Bond film would come out in 2012, an auspicious year given it would be cinematic Bond’s golden anniversary; 50 years since Dr No. Could anyone back then have envisaged 007 would still be going 50 years later?

Skyfall is at once a very familiar Bond, reintroducing many tropes that were jettisoned after Die Another Day; Moneypenny and Q return, as does a Bond car fitted with gadgets. In many ways Skyfall is the outlier in the Daniel Craig era, because it seems separate to the wider “plot”, quotation marks intentional because clearly the wider plot has been made up on the fly. Skyfall is the one Craig Bond film where Vesper doesn’t get a mention, where neither Quantum nor Spectre are the overarching bad guys, no matter what the retrofitting of the next movie will tell us.

Yet for all that familiarity it is a film that plays with the franchise in some very unusual ways. A film that celebrates 50 years of Bond, while at the same time deconstructing it. This is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. That wants to portray 007, and possibly by extension the UK, as tired and old, while still saying there’s a place for both of them. That glories in patriotism without ever feeling jingoistic (no surprise that Skyfall came out the year of the London Olympics, when a more open Britain wowed the world. 2012 seems a long time ago now.)

 Mallory makes it plain he thinks James is too old for this. “Why didn’t you stay dead?” Watch Bond and Q’s first meeting where they discuss Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’, as Q says “Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time.” He might as well be talking about Bond. Moneypenny’s comments about cutthroat razors being “very traditional” before adding “old dog, new tricks.” Silva laughs at Bond’s old-fashioned notions, and later as Kincade says “Sometimes the old ways are the best”. Most telling of all is M quoting Tennyson. “We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.”

Watch as aspects of Bond’s existence are torn down. MI6 headquarters, the Aston Martin, the house he grew up in and, most noticeably, the death of Judi Dench’s M. Bond emerges from all of this though, and the world of 007 is reset. M returns to a very traditional office with leather quilted doors (and returns to being a man). Moneypenny is back in the office, Q is back in the lab, and Bond is back on active service like he’s never been away. As an aside I’ve discovered that in M’s new office there’s a picture of Trafalgar, primarily it shows HMS Victory, but by her side is the Temeraire, back in her heyday. The ship is reborn, as is 007.

The pre-title sequence in Turkey is great, and foreshadows Silva’s issues with M not once, but twice. She insists Bond leave his fellow agent to die, then further orders Moneypenny to “take the bloody shot” despite the fact 007 is in the way. The chase is thrilling and its finale as Bond plunges into the water is excellent, segueing into a great title sequence accompanied by Adelle’s banging Bond tune (second best of the DC era after You Know My Name).

Yes the hard drive full of agents’ names is a clear rip off of the NOC list from Mission Impossible, but it’s purely a McGuffin so who cares, especially as it’s quickly forgotten by the time we’re halfway into the film. It isn’t important except as a means for Silva to torture M.

I’m still not entirely sure why M is stopped on the bridge, coincidence, are those copper’s Silva’s men? Again, it isn’t important. Agents are dead, MI6 has been attacked, so it’s time for Bond to return from enjoying death.

The scene between 007 and M in her home is a joy. The two of them have so much chemistry and despite it all M’s still the one in charge. “You’re not staying here.”

Bond’s evaluation shows he’s broken in more ways than one, and frankly even before M tells Tanner that he failed the tests it’s bloody obvious he has. M despatches him to Shanghai where he kills Patrice, then, aided by Moneypenny, follows a trail to Macau and the mysterious Sévérine who he convinces to introduce him to her boss.

 Sévérine’s fear bigs up Silva, and nine times out of ten this kind of talk falls flat when we actually meet the bad guy (see Renard in TWINE or Blofeld in Spectre) but here it works, because Silva doesn’t disappoint. In all seriousness few characters make an entrance quite as memorable as Javier Bardem does here. Silva is affable and terrifying, camp as a row of tents yet with a reptilian edge that’s creepy as anything. Truly one of the best Bond villains.

Of course, his grand scheme is preposterous. If he wanted to kill M he could have easily done what Bond did and break into her home, yet it works because of the nature of the character. Look at that entrance, and his later arrival at Skyfall. Look at his home (based on Battleship Island) he loves theatricality. The idea of sneaking into M’s bedroom and murdering her in her sleep wouldn’t have crossed his mind. Instead we have a ridiculous scheme likely years in the planning, and yes it relies on a hundred different contrivances.

But I don’t care.

At the end of the day the script is so good (thematically and in terms of dialogue), the direction so assured, and Bardem, Craig and Dench so on top of their game that it doesn’t matter that you could drive a truck though the holes in Silva’s plan.

Some people dislike the final act, it’s a bit too Home Alone, though you could argue it’s more Straw Dogs, and to be honest the first time I saw the film I was a bit sniffy, but subsequent viewings shifted my view, especially once the lightbulb moment struck. For fifty years Bond has been waltzing into the villain’s secret base and blowing it up, this flips it. Skyfall isn’t the villain’s lair, it’s 007’s and it’s the villain that shoots it up (yes technically Bond blows it up but it’s already a ruin by then, and after all Blofeld blew up that volcano when he knew the game was up.) You have to give kudos to a film 50 years into a franchise that can do something so different.

Practically everything about this film is superb. Newman isn’t a patch on Arnold, yet his mournful score works, rising to triumph as required when Bond is, well Bond. Yes it would have been nice to have a bit more of the Bond theme but you can’t have everything.

Mendes’ direction is flawless, aided and abetted by the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Skyfall is arguably the most beautiful Bond film, a fact made even more impressive when you realise so many of the lavish foreign locations were shot in the UK. M stood beyond those Union flag draped coffins, Bond and Patrice’s fight in Shanghai, Scotland…why Deakins didn’t win the Oscar for this is anyone’s guess.

The set pieces are superb, from the pre-title sequence to Bond and Patrice’s second fight, Bond despatching henchmen in the casino and proving Silva wrong on the island (though maybe that was Silva’s plan all along eh?) the underground chase is exciting, but for me the highlight of the film is the inquiry, beautifully shot, Dench’s recitation of Tennyson is lovely, and Newman’s score as Bond runs to the rescue is the icing on the cake; bonus points for Mallory and Moneypenny kicking arse into the bargain.  

Yes I can see why some didn’t like this film because it’s so nostalgia heavy (and one day I will sit down and list all the bloody homages because there are dozens of them) and because it doesn’t seem to be the same 007 as Casino Royale and Quantum. Maybe that’s why I like it. However good Casino Royale is—and it is amazing—I can never shake the suspicion that its slightly embarrassed to be a Bond film, whereas Skyfall embraces it.

Outside of the central trio, hats off to Whishaw, Harris and Fiennes who are flawless. Whishaw is the very antithesis of Llewelyn yet still manages to have the kind of snarky interplay with 007 we’ve known and loved. Similarly Harris has fun with a much more active Moneypenny, and the question remains, how close did she and Bond get in Macau? That leaves Fiennes, who frankly is one of the best actors on the planet so of course he’s great. Mallory has a lot of depth given his limited screen time. At times something of a prick, at others honourable and the only one at the inquiry who wants to hear from M, and the old soldier who can still take down a bad guy. Dench was a fantastic M, but here at least Fiennes proves a more than able successor.

There is an argument that the film’s treatment of women isn’t great. From Bond using Severine, a victim of the sex trade, to get what he wants, to the death of our first female M, and then of course there’s Moneypenny. That Eve is portrayed as a more than competent agent here is great, but that just makes her eventual decision to jack it all in to become a PA all the more galling. It’s a shame because Harris is really very good.

Skyfall isn’t perfect, like most Craig Bond films it’s too long (though the pacing never feels quite as off as it does with Casino Royale, Silva’s plan is ridiculous and the fact that every female character ends up dead or behind a desk isn’t a great look for a 21st Century Bond film.

And yet…

Skyfall remains my favourite Bond film of the Daniel Craig era. Gorgeous to look at, glorious to listen to, full of nuance and jam packed with great performances. I could watch the inquiry scenes on a loop and not get bored, listen to Bardem talk about rats over and over again. For me this is the pinnacle of Craig’s tenure (unless No Time to Die takes its crown.)

Mommy was very bad, but Skyfall is very good.

One film left in my re-watch, same core cast as this one, same director, yet a film I have very different feelings about. But who knows, if this process has taught me anything it’s that films I thought I loved I now dislike, and films I hated I’ve occasional reappraised with hindsight.

So maybe Spectre will be great!