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Skyfall (2012)

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Since the world has been cajoled into celebrating fifty years of exposure to James Bond which, at times, was rather like contracting a contagious disease, I offer the following memory of standing in the rain outside the Odeon in Newcastle, queueing to see Dr No. We Geordies were a hardy lot. Not for us the covered pavements you see in some parts of the world. Our sense of enthusiasm to be infected by all things Bond drove us to risk pneumonia as the wind blew down from the North Pole bringing pre-sleet inundation from the sky. Ah, yes, what better way to introduce Skyfall (2012), the latest outing. At least, for this one, I didn’t need to queue (going at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning solves that problem, and my pensioner discount made it affordable).

Daniel Craig looking suitably battered

 

So what does this film add to the franchise? The answer is slightly surprising. It’s an exercise in nostalgia where the past comes back to bite us in unmentionable places. In a reasonably positive way, it’s celebrating Bond by shaking the kaleidoscope to create a brand new pattern out of the same pieces of coloured glass. We start with the mandatory prologue as Bond and young woman are in pursuit of a missing hard drive. A foreign adventurer has shot various British agents guarding it in Istanbul (more exciting than leaving it on a bus in Tooting High Street, I suppose, but without any explanation of what MI6 was doing with it in Turkey) and now makes his getaway across the roof of the Grand Bazaar (particularly picturesque at this time of year and surprisingly robust as motorbikes charge all over it) and out of the capital on a train. Thanks to the instruction, “Take the damn shot!”, our tyro markswoman shoots Bond and not the adventurer which, for the second time, leads to Bond reading his own obituary (sadly, the scorpion didn’t sting him even though, thanks to the immunisation therapy he received in Die Another Day, he would have survived that as well with nothing more than a small rash).

Judi Dench looking comfortable in her action heroine role

 

Filled with nationalistic fervor, our hero does his Lazarus act when he sees a news flash of the MI6 headquarters in London blowing up. Even though he’s obviously not completely recovered, he’s sent back out into the field in pursuit of the man who should have taken the tyro markswoman’s bullet. This leads to the mandatory fight with the ultimate villain’s henchmen (look out behind you, it’s a monitor lizard — what better way for bad guys to get shaken but not stirred by jaws full of venom) and the sight of the only woman he will sleep with (off camera — proper decorum is shown after the tasteful naked shower scene). So before you can say, “End of Act One”, Bond is being introduced to the ultimate villain. Fortunately, Bond has been equipped with a radio tracking device so MI6 is able to send helicopters to rescue him and arrest the villain. This is, of course, all too easy. Even the poor quality help available from Freelancers.com would search Bond and find the device in his pocket (not his shoe, you note — Q explains they’ve decided not to do silly gadgets any more). So here we have the villain in the same plastic cell that failed to hold Magneto and with the key he bought from Jim Moriarty in Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012) which opens any door, anywhere in the world. Ah ha, it’s all a cunning plot to be caught with Bond the only agent on the planet that could have followed that particular trail of breadcrumbs to catch him. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for the villain — the idea he could escape retribution for his naughtiness is inconceivable. In the World of Bond, no bad deed goes unpunished. So that’s it, really. There are an amazing number of bullets fired and explosions both big and small. Many die, as you would expect. And Skyfall is burned to the ground (which is just as well because it was full of unhappy memories).

Javier Bardem is full of creepy menace

 

So there you have it. As frequently happens in any film straying over the two-hour mark in length (143 minutes in total), it flags a little in the middle but, for the most part, it maintains interest and has satisfyingly arty moments. The lighting effects during the fight in Shanghai are rather beautiful and it’s always good to see the mist rising in a Scottish glen. Daniel Craig continues to impress. There’s a wonderful physicality about him that plays out well in these big screen adventure stories. Judi Dench is given a pleasingly robust part and does well under fire, particularly when she has a gillie to lean on. Javier Bardem does enough to be ranked among the better Bond villains. There’s a creepy menace about him which convinces. Ralph Fiennes is introduced as the next M. Now that he’s finished being Voldemort, he can get back to protecting the Muggles. Naomie Harris recovers from the shock of shooting Bond and makes life safer for agents in the field by taking up the role of Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw does a surprisingly good job as Q. Rory Kinnear as the stock character Bill Tanner rounds out the cast.

 

So this is all good news with the shaking of the kaleidoscope done with great professionalism by Sam Mendes. When there’s nothing you can really do but move the mandatory set-pieces around and make them as pleasing as possible, the themes of personal revenge and the need to take responsibility for past actions without flinching, play out well in these modern times. Everyone on show here has something in their pasts to affect their present behaviour and such a character dynamic makes a welcome change to the Bond catalogue of stock elements. In the next film we may learn how Bond lost his parents and why being an orphan made him into the efficient killing machine we see today. When you put all this together, Skyfall is one of the best Bond films for a while and one of the best thriller, action films of the year.

 

For Heaven’s Eyes Only by Simon R Green

June 28, 2011 1 comment

There are two questions floating around in my head after finishing For Heaven’s Eyes Only from Simon R. Green. The first is, I suppose, rather trite: what do we expect from a book? The second: what’s the effect of humour when it doesn’t match our own? As to the first, I could talk about wanting to be entertained or hoping for some intellectual stimulation. We pays our money and we wants good value. So, in our search for a book, we cast about for authors who can lift us up when we’re down, can give us a white-knuckle ride when we want thrills, can offer us the brain food to keep our mental processes ticking over, or whatever. That’s what these marketing gurus get paid to do when they classify books by genres, hoping to pander to our expectations through the jacket artwork and the blurbs. So how should we react when what’s billed as a fantasy/horror book turns out to be attempted humour?

Well, I suppose there’s humour and humour. Sometimes an author can invert our expectations and have fun subverting the genre. In short doses, such playfulness can actually be very amusing as our barbarian with rippling muscles turns out to be a gay librarian, or we glimpse the life of our prime minister as a Vegan vampire. Notice I said “short” doses. The problem with one-trick ponies is that, as the name suggests, their repertoire of tricks is limited and, after you’ve seen the same thing three or four times, the experience quickly grows boring. So you couldn’t write an entire novel about a straight orangutan appointed as a librarian, but you could get a smile by briefly meeting him in a novel about something else.

So let’s take this head-on by briefly considering two other authors. In the Laundry novels and short stories, Charles Stross explores Lovecraftian ideas in different styles. So, for example, The Atrocity Archives “borrows” from Len Deighton, The Jennifer Morgue channels the James Bond films while, theoretically, The Fuller Memorandum draws on Anthony Price. Notice how the targets to pastiche or lampoon change so that we don’t get too tired of the joke. Moving on to Kim Newman, he created the character Richard Jeperson based on the 1960s and 70s television shows The Avengers, Department S, and so on. These stories are a mostly affectionate look-back at the kitsch culture of the time, again varying the themes so we can be reminded of the horrors of the time without being overwhelmed. In a sense, my test for accepting or rejecting such work is whether the joke drives the plot or the plot just happens to include elements we might recognise from other work. This gives us a kind of litmus test to decide whether the story can stand on its own or is only “good” because it apes another’s style or creativity. To answer this for Charles Stross, I think the best of the Laundry stories draw their inspiration from the Lovecraft universe while mocking the idiocy of bureaucracies and drawing inherent humour from the situations in which the characters find themselves. Depending on the readers to recognise ideas from the work of others is a slippery slope to unoriginality.

Simon R. Green in an environmentally friendly setting

So back to Simon R. Green and For Heaven’s Eyes Only. This is the fifth in the Secret Histories series about Eddie Drood/Shaman Bond and his ever reliable witch partner, Molly Metcalf. Essentially, Green is out to have “fun” with everything even vaguely Bondian. This runs the gamut from incorporating versions of entire scenes from Bond films — like that bit in Tomorrow Never Dies where Bond has only seconds to steal the plane and fly it away from the mountain-top, weapons-for-terrorists sale convention before the cruise missile launched by the British navy hits — to sly little jokes and references that only the true aficionados would pick up. If you can be bothered to wade through all the detail, you can’t help but admire Green’s determination to pack every last possible joke in the text, no matter how feeble. Except, no matter laudable this input of effort, it’s all for nothing.

The real problem lies in the completely unsympathetic nature of Eddie Drood. This is a man in a suit of impermeable armour who, when his dander is up, will kill every one and thing he considers “evil”. It’s like he and the other Droods are on a holy mission to exterminate the bad guys. This is tiresome. When they can just stand there and absorb more or less whatever the enemy throw at them, there’s no sense of danger or hazard. These are men who can decide who lives so, to put it mildly, when they are not personally at risk, their morality in killing the opposition is decidedly grey. For Shaman Bond, we also have the Adam West/Batman syndrome. Wearing my Batman disguise, I’ll just sit at this table in the back of this busy restaurant and no-one will notice me. So Shaman Bond infiltrates meetings, stands at the back or next to the bar, and becomes invisible until it’s convenient for the enemy to notice him. I don’t mind an author making the same joke once or twice but, like the other repeated jokes, it gets tedious as the series continues.

For Heaven’s Eyes Only has a weak plot with the overall effect depending on you liking a non-stop James Bond pastiche. In other books, the cliffhanger ending might have rescued some of the situation and led to enough curiosity to generate sales for the next in the series. Unfortunately, it just caps the idiocy of what has gone before. How can this be a surprise to Eddie and Molly when their protocols call for regular contact with the other Droods? Since this book goes on for 368 pages, you’d better be a real fan to read it and find it exciting all the way through. If you’ve already read the other four, to embark on this as the fifth volume requires a degree of fortitude I can only vaguely understand. It’s so far above my own levels of courage and endurance as to be almost superhuman.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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