Posts Tagged ‘Quantum of Solace’


Why So Bleak, Buddy?

December 19, 2008

41ma4tuqp7lIn the wake of yesterday’s post about Blackbird, a play reflecting on a relationship between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl, a thought came up: Why is it that we’re attracted to dark, desperate stories? And how broad is that “we” anyway? Are Tara and I, for example, among a minority seeking out darker, complex, challenging stories while others look toward entertainment just for that: entertainment? Or is that “we” societal? I recall, for example, wanting to read William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness back in 1990, and when my mother got it for me for Christmas, Dad asked what it was about. “Styron’s depression,” I told him, and he looked puzzled: “Why would anyone want to read about that?” he asked.

Why indeed?

no_country_for_old_men_coenA similar conversation came up last year with my parents, who each year try to watch all of the contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in advance of the Academy Awards. Last year’s slate was, of course, an uphill battle, including No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, Atonement… well, you get the picture, and even the fifth film, Juno, had an underlying seriousness. Many critics commented that it was the bleakest (that was the word) bunch of contenders ever and that it must represent something larger about our world. That question came up again just a few weeks ago in a Washington Post article entitled “No Country for Upbeat Films.” Since last year’s Oscar race, we’ve had more dark films that have attracted both critical acclaim and big bucks at the box office: The Dark Knight anyone? Quantum of Solace, the bleakest Bond film yet? And the road ahead doesn’t look much cheerier — literally: the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes out next year. The Post article says that “bleak is chic. Hopeless is hot.” And then proceeds to ask why, offering at one point the idea that bleakness “gives us a strong hit of humanity. It strips away the banal. It raises our pedestrian struggles to grandiose heights.” 

annakareninaSo is it that goodness can’t show us humanity? that comedy or even happiness can’t reflect human nature because it’s inherently banal? Tolstoy himself hinted toward something similar in that oft-repeated opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”


As Tara and I talked about it yesterday, we came up with something a little different. It’s not that darkness shows us something more real about humanity or even that extreme emotional states of any kind capture something truer about who we are. A bad man doing bad things is ultimately boring; a good man doing good things is even more boring; but either a good man doing a bad thing or a bad man doing a good one…? Well, that’s got potential.

At least in our case, it’s the idea of complexity and of a layering of emotions that seems to draw us toward thinking of a novel or a film as more important or successful or interesting. Juno, as one of my students pointed out last semester, succeeded in her mind as a great work of art because at one minute she was laughing and at the next she was crying. Blackbird, to our minds, succeeded the other night because it wasn’t relentlessly bleak but instead because it tempered that bleakness with heart — even if it then broke that heart. 51bh1mkn2elTragedy isn’t necessarily a higher art form than comedy — any survey of Woody Allen’s films will turn that idea on its head pretty quickly — and it’s not entirely the dexterity with which an artist navigates between those two poles either. Instead, it’s that artist’s ambition and ability to earn something deeper than simple laughs or simple tears or simple fears, slapstick or sheer sentimentality or that punch in the gut.

At least that’s roughly what we came up with. Thoughts?

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Bond Reborn As Bourne?

November 16, 2008

14quantumxlarge1That’s the big question that seems to be running through all the recent (and largely negative) reviews of Quantum of Solace these days. Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post began her review with the statement “It took two men to kill James Bond: Austin Powers and Jason Bourne” (and she makes a good case for that thesis), and Peter Travers over at Rolling Stone said: “Bond seems to have come down with a serious case of Jason Bourne penis envy, leaping across rooftops from Bolivia to Haiti like a jug-eared Matt Damon.” Making a comparison between the first Daniel Craig Bond movie and the latest, Pajiba critic Ted Boynton notes that “where the foot chase scene opening Casino Royale offered bold, steady tracking shots showing mesmerizing stunt work and flinch-worthy hand-to-hand combat, Quantum too often trots out the nauseating Quake-o-Vision style of The Bourne Supremacy.” 

True, it’s hard to miss all the similarities to the Bourne movies, from the protagonists’ driving passions in each case to those rooftop scenes to that frenetic editing. (Revenge is a great plotline, no matter what, but that editing was really way over-the-top, not just derivative of the Bourne movies, but Bourne done bad.) But while the new Bond film may have been influenced by the skillful artistry and tremendous success of the Bourne trilogy, I don’t think that you can simply conflate the two characters or these movies. The Bourne trilogy may have provided the impetus to revitalize the Bond franchise, but that’s a good thing (and I say that as a longtime fan of the full series) and it’s certainly provoked the filmmakers to examine Bond a little more closely as a character — a real plus for these films, and something that the new film’s harshest critics seem to miss. Has Bond become “little more than a deranged, if well-dressed, serial killer,” as Hornaday claims? Or is Pajiba right in discussing “Bond-as-blunt-instrument,” elaborating that “Craig’s Bond is an expensive, unpredictable super-weapon, and as with a nuclear missile or a biological WMD, nasty collateral consequences nearly always occur when he is deployed”?

While Pajiba may provide the more nuanced (and ultimately more politically persuasive) position, I do think that there is some attempt at exploring psychological motivation here — again slightly influenced by Bourne but exciting and illuminating in its own right. While we know how revenge motivates Bourne through parts of the trilogy, we as viewers are not sure here exactly what’s driving Bond: Is it revenge for what happened to Vesper at the close of Casino Royale? Is he pushed ahead by allegiance to the Crown, looking after the best interests of the British Government even after that government seems to have turned his back on him? And in a related subplot with Felix Leiter (played by Jeffrey Wright), what are the ultimate responsibilities when ideas of personal integrity and morality conflict with political and institutional policy? 

I won’t argue that Quantum of Solace delves very deeply into these questions — a much better moral thriller along those lines is something like Michael Clayton from last year — but the film does keep those questions up in the air almost as often as Bond himself is up in the air, jumping those rooftops or hanging from scaffolding or piloting that burning plane. (And to that end, it’s worth noting, of course, that the film also succeeds as a nearly nonstop thrill ride.)

Some of the movie’s final scenes (spoiler alert) begin to examine more completely Bond’s motivations and the potential for his emotions to color his decisions or to impact his sense of duty. Of particular interest is a nearly dialogue-free scene between Bond and the equally vengeance-minded Camille (new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) huddled together as a hotel incinerates around them — importantly, the second building that has burned down around Camille. And a final series of scenes at the end extend that idea, with Bond tracking down Vesper’s boyfriend and then debriefing M (Judi Dench) in snowy Russia with a forced sense of detachment, a pair of encounters whose resolutions provide a sense of closure without being too pat or predictable. And with questions about Quantum still up in the air at the end of this installment, there’s promise (surprise surprise!) of more layers of this storyline opening up in the next Bond. Mark your calendars now for Bond 23 in 2010?  

— Art Taylor

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Getting Ready for Bond (James Bond)

November 3, 2008

Early reviews are already being posted for Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond film due on November 14, in which Bond seeks vengeance for the death of Vesper at the end of 2006’s Casino Royale. “Bond’s Depths Emerge in Bleak Tale,” says the headline of the BBC’s review. “Our hero is an angry, embittered man, out for blood,” says the film critic at The Daily Mirror. “Vesper’s death hangs over Bond like black crepe, spurring his sense of revenge and most of the plot,” writes Richard Corliss of Time

Tara and I have recently been working through all the Bond films — each of which I’ve already seen (multiple times in most cases, having also read all the books years ago), but most of which are completely new to Tara. Last night was 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, the film in which Sean Connery returns as 007 after his brief “retirement” from the role for a single film — On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which starred George Lazenby. Until Daniel Craig came on the scene, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was one of my personal favorites among the Bond films, since it gives Bond his first real relationship and, as a result, a greater level of complexity. [Brief spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen this one.] In that film, after an interesting courtship, Bond marries Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, only to see her killed in the movie’s final moments by an assassin working for Blofeld. The film’s closing image is of Bond’s grief — a departure, of course, from the usual closing image of him cavorting with yet another young, nubile conquest. It’s a unique moment, to say the least. In the wake of that film and that scene, what’s particularly disappointing about Diamonds Are Forever is that it gives only a small nod to the idea that Bond might actually have been upset to have seen his wife killed; his “revenge” against Blofeld at the beginning of Diamonds Are Forever seems to have little weight or meaning — really just business as usual, isn’t it? And the rest of the film, unfortunately, begins to indulge in the buffoonish shenanigans that would continue for much of those early-70s’ Bond flicks. Don’t get me started on that Southern sheriff in Live and Let Die.

Novelist Sebastian Faulks, author of the latest Bond novel Devil May Care, commented in a Vanity Fair interview that he had trouble giving Bond any inner life: “I haven’t given Bond psychological depth, because he doesn’t have any,” said Faulks. “I don’t know what his inner life is. When I was writing, I tried to make Bond have a moment of introspection, and it just wouldn’t come.” 

The beauty of the last Bond film, Casino Royale, is that we do see Bond’s complexity — even more than we saw in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service nearly 40 years ago. And with Quantum of Solace promising even more…. Well, I can’t wait.

— Art Taylor

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