#21, JAMES BOND IS DEAD

The death of James Bond came in 2002 with the release of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity. Within just a few months, depending where you were on the planet, came Die Another Day, the absurd fart that tragically rounded out Pierce Brosnan’s squandered turn as the world-revered British spy – 2 hours of silly invisible cars, laser-shooting satellites and Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning cleavage. The franchise had turned so far in on itself, aware of and responding to the very clichés and set pieces that it was responsible for bringing in to existence, that the whole thing was just a sad, self-conscious farce. Like with many celebrities, and franchises even, fame was not healthy for James Bond. People only went to the cinemas to see Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, I believe, to try and remember what Bond used to be, like picking up a picture of your beloved great-grandparents before they went mental and died.

In the awkward, collar-fiddling echo left by our 60-year-old protagonist lying on a beach picking flawless diamonds from the belly-button of his delicious, mocha-skinned, 30-year-old sidekick, Jason Bourne woke up on a fishing trawler in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with three bullet wounds in his back and no idea who he was, and all of a sudden the way in which we engaged with action movies changed. We left the world of self-assured, glossy action, where our heroes may well take out a battalion of nameless henchmen without even getting a trace of gunpowder residue on their cravat, and had suddenly been thrown in to a world where our hero didn’t even know who he was, let alone how action heroes should behave in his, or any, situation.

If I may go so far: Bourne’s amnesia beautifully symbolised the action genre itself waking up from a deep sleep, full of fantastical, far-fetched dreams, in to the real world. In this world, our hero’s abilities are indeed still fatal and slick (and thus, still entertaining to watch), but he is unaware of these abilities’ origins, he is reluctant to use them, and there is no back-catalogue of movies, spin-offs, video games or fan fiction to inform him or his writers how they should be applied. The knowing wink, the cheesy green, the hat-off to tradition and the reflexive nostalgia have all been, quite literally, forgotten.

Similarly, our villains are no longer cartoonish millionaires stroking cats in underground lairs, or platoon after platoon of uniformed cannon-fodder. Instead, the enemy is the government, the enemy is a result of one well-meant experiment that went terribly wrong, and the people responsible are just as unsure of how to handle the whole affair as our hero is. Compare this dissonance and underlying sense of governmental ineptitude to, say, oh, I dunno, a film called On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Times do change indeed. Our hapless henchmen, the supporting villainry, are now either innocent policemen simply doing their jobs, or, if we’re lucky, full-blown, well-rounded characters the likes of Clive Owen’s extraordinary and compunctious hitman who goes after Bourne in a tense farmhouse seige, then reflects with Bourne on the nature of their pointless, violent, shared existences before dying a meaningless death—as meaningless as the deaths of any of the hundreds of jumpsuit-clad Japanese henchfolk in the volcano climax of You Only Live Twice, but at the same time profoundly meaningful, because there is only the one of him.

Essentially, Bourne is an action hero in a world where action heroes quite simply don’t exist, and therefore there is no well-trod path to follow (should one wake up in the Mediterranean Sea as one). It is this contextual shift which allows Bourne’s adventures to delight, excite and amaze, through their tension and innovation, by exploiting moralistic grey areas surrounding notions of nationalism and duty, and throwing our characters in to real, recognisable cities where the people around them aren’t just women prime for the shagging and second-class enemy spies ripe for the garrotting, but hell, just real people, oblivious to the death and turmoil and subterfuge having taken root in their world. It’s as exciting as it was the first time Mr Bond donned that white dinner jacket, saved the world and won at poker, all in time for tea. But just for very different reasons.

The Bourne Identity was shot and edited, almost expressionistically, in a manner befitting the psychological conundrums of its protagonist. The action is gritty, fast-paced and extremely brief but, like real-world violence, when it arrives it is unmistakeable and incredibly watchable. Even Bourne’s specific martial arts style, a Filipino discipline known as Kali, is based on the implementation of everyday objects in combat, allowing us the pleasure of watching Bourne putting down Euro-trash hitmen with kitchen knives, flower vases, telephones and rolled up newspapers alike. Like the film itself, Bourne in combat is drawing from the real world to make everything a little more practical, a little more down-to-earth, to suspend the disbelief of increasingly well-entertained and film-literate audiences just that little bit more convincingly. What’s more, the action and intrigue is all there to illustrate a personal and harrowing character journey; throughout the Bourne trilogy (let us pray they leave it at that), Bourne will discover who he is, the things he has done, and he will fight to redeem himself, even if it kills him. It all makes the emotionless, patriotic mass-murder of the enigmatic Mr Bond sound like rather bad cinema, doesn’t it.

Of course, let us not overlook who was hired as director to round out the Bourne trilogy. Identity was a hit, but ostensibly a fluke – it was Paul Greengrass who really nailed this rebirthing of the genre in The Bourne Supremacy. Paul Greengrass, known also for Bloody Sunday and United 93, both films of extraordinary emotional impact, detailing with profound grit and realism two shocking events of cultural and historical significance; the 1972 Irish civil rights massacre and the 9/11 terrorist attacks respectively. Amusingly, the clout and seriousness with which Greengrass approached the Bourne films seemed to trigger what I thought an absurd advertising campaign for his and Matt Damon’s next collaboration, Green Zone, labeling it as “Bourne Goes Epic”. It seems the masses are more willing to accept the world of Jason Bourne as credible and watchable than they are the Iraq War.

And look, that’s all fine. But the fact remains that Bourne killed Bond. And I liked James Bond.

2008′s Quantum of Solace was essentially indistinguishable from its trailer -

- but trailers are supposed to be rapid-fire, non-sequitous shots of things exploding in places you don’t know the significance of. In fact, the only real time the film slowed down long enough for me to recognise goodie from baddie was a scene in which Bond spills his heart to the smouldery love interest Olga Kurylenko, about his lost love from the previous film, and his pain, and his mission for revenge, and she nods, and agrees that revenge is awesome. I am able to catch my breath, yes, but then it also hits me – what the fuck is going on here? You’re James Bond, dude, if she’s the good girl, then just shag her already, and if she’s the bad girl, then just shag her now and casually allow her to die in some horrific fashion later. You can even make a quip about it, so what’s the hold-up? In all seriousness though, I don’t actually have that much of a gripe with the content or plotlines of either of the post-Bourne Bond films, Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace – if crying about your feelings in a cave in the South American desert is what it takes to redeem the franchise, then hey, go for it.

But as well as taking the majority of their emotional cues from Bourne, modern action films, of which Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are two very profitable ones, also seem to be copying and pasting Greengrass’ visual style, and herein lies the real problem. If the scene is a lonesome, troubled hero, throwing down with a lone assassin in a kitchen somewhere in Berlin, then please, by all means, put the camera on your shoulder, whip-pan till your fingers fall off, shoot tight, cut fast, give the viewer a scintillating mess of immersive action. We are here in the character’s mind, in the real world of Robert Ludlum, Doug Liman and/or Paul Greengrass, where these things don’t actually happen, so to approach the scene with a level of naturalism is perfectly acceptable, even admirable.

If the scene is James Goddamn Bond, throwing down with a billionaire Eco-terrorist in an exploding hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, then put the camera on a fucking tripod and let us see what the fuck is going on. Quantum of Solace, though I found it immensely enjoyable, forgot that it was a James Bond film, and forgot that James Bond can be done well, but still be a romp, a hedonistic delight. We are never going to know James Bond, because he is a myth, a role played by many actors, who has appeared in film, literature and video games since 1953 and most likely will ad infinitum. He stands for enjoyment, the birth of blockbuster cinema, even. How can we ever, possibly, in the space of 100 minutes come to know him? And if we do not know him, then how can we ever enjoy his exploits without being shown their true scale and spectacle? The neo-Bond films stole the Bourne formula, but tried to retro-fit it to a cinematic emblem that is too strong and recognizable to be changed in a few short years by one minor trend. It only curdles the milk.

It is not only the Bond franchise that believes itself capable of Bourne’s “thinking man’s action film” heights. Just the other day I sat through The Expendables, Sly Stallone’s puzzling excuse for him and a few other aging pals to wear Ed Hardy, blow up some Spics and smash a crate or two of creotene in between every take. But plot aside, you’d think maybe the reason for assembling a dozen of the badassest living action icons on one soundstage would be so that they could do all their own stunts, you could shoot the shit out of it, and at the end of the day you’d have a real meal of an action film on your hands. Yeah? Yeah?

No. Despite its wheelbarrows full of mindless action, The Expendables was shot as if by a blind boy holding a camera phone at a Prodigy concert. Our dear cinematographer seemed content to hold one extreme close-up shot of Mickey O’Rourke’s quivering lips for his questionable-at-best character monologue, but as soon as Meathead #1 threw a fist at Meathead #2, no-one knows what the fuck’s going on. Occassionally you would catch a telling glint from off of Eric Robert’s silver helmet of hair amidst the enormous explosions and animated squibbage, but other than that, no dice.

The trend only gains momentum. And it pains me greatly to broaden the circle of perpetrators to include one of my absolute favourite filmmakers, but…

Batman Begins: awesome film, wretched fight scenes. The Dark Knight: incredible film, let down only by fight scenes that, whilst decent, still belonged to a lesser film. And now, the almighty Inception: absolutely extraordinary film, but again, I found the action sequences themselves visually lacklustre. A friend of mine pointed out, following our second viewing of Inception, that Christopher Nolan had created an action film where you sat patiently through the obligatory action scenes and car chases, waiting with baited breath for another scene of people talking about stuff. Go figure. But he was right. For a film so thoughtfully and magically executed, and with cash coming out of its ears, I expect more than a slipshod chase down a few snowy mountain slopes where I literally cannot tell our hero from the henchmen. Wally Pfister and Chris Nolan upped the ante on nearly every cerebral level with that film, but, alas, the action scenes were shaky, wide-angled, edit-fucked ring-ins.

Does Nolan lack confidence? Or is he merely following the trend? Have a gander at the final showdown from Batman Begins, a flurried assortment of juicy foley effects and slick cutting. You know who wins in the end, but you have no idea how it happened. Could they not afford a real fight choreographer or something? Just follow this link right here that I have highlighted with a rather funky blue.

See? Even Adam West is confused, and he's the Goddamned Batman.

In conclusion, I suppose, when a franchise or a genre kicks on for long enough, it must adapt to the changing times in order to remain hip, profitable and further sustainable. But this assimilation may require the selling of that franchise’s soul, like the resurrected James Bond, and the technicalities of such a trade may defy the well-loved and long-established hallmarks of that genre. Francois Truffaut said that the first James Bond film, Dr No, marked the beginning of the age of decadence in film and the death of true cinema. What shall we do, then, when that decadence that killed true cinema dies also? Action films, spy films, films that aim to entertain for entertainment’s sake, are usually safe from the definitions and physics of the dreaded real world; that’s what makes them decadent. But now that the real world is inherently trendy, we might see even the modern age of pleasure-seeking cinema fade in to a de-saturated, hand-held ether, purely for the sake of the hip-pockets of the male American 18-25 demographic. May they all collapse in simultaneous epileptic fits the next time Daniel Craig raises so much as an eyebrow, my sorry self included.

#13, SEX AND THE CITY: THE MOVIE, OR, THE SELF-CONGRATULATING, NARCISSISTIC, FIRST-WORLD SEX PARTY OF 2008

Of all the places to be last Sunday, I was in Hobart, and of all the things to do in Hobart on a Sunday, I happened to sit down and watch Sex and the City: The Movie. Lately I’ve been catching a lot of the TV series in the opulent void of Foxtel that is my girlfriend’s house. Sometimes when Hannah and I stay up late, or cook dinner, we’ll end up going through five full episodes as Arena plays them back to back – and really, watching the movie was a very similar experience. It was slickly directed, tightly edited, looked good and made me laugh quite a lot, very much like the show (although it was painfully obvious at times just how eager big-name fashion labels were to cash in on the show’s success and drape the ageing cast of icons in their equally iconic apparel. The whole thing was a bit of a self-congratulating, narcissistic, first-world sex party). I really didn’t mind it at all, and sat through the two-and-a-half FREAKING hours quite contently. Now I think of it, the last film I enjoyed that went for that long was Casino Royale, and it had one hot brunette in it (like SATC) but only one crazy blonde, and both of them died.

There's always a but.

Maybe it was just me… or maybe it was Hobart… or maybe it’s simply a problem that comes from adding another two-and-a-half hour, four-pronged arc to an already neatly wrapped up story… but did anyone else feel like there was something being said in this film? Some subversive meaning to it all? Like the director, or the writers, or the studio, or the universe had some kind of ulterior motive in making this film? As the shoes and handbags and breasts and sushi flashed before my eyes I couldn’t help but feel like there was some kind of warning, some kind of caveat that lay beneath each scene, each moment and each motivation. I felt like Sex and the City: The Movie was trying to tell me something, and I felt like it was trying to tell me this: women are crazy.

Now some women are completely crazy. Not even rabid, extremist feminists (who are also crazy) would disagree with me on that. Some women, no different to men, are just downright, bat-shit, off-their-rocker mental cases. But most women, to be fair, aren’t crazy, they are most certainly not. So what exactly was this niggling feeling I had during this movie that made me want to smile politely and nod at everything that happened (the universal response to crazy)?

At the conclusion of the series, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is contentedly married to hubby Harry (Evan Handler, bald dude who also punches well above his weight in the rip-off gigglefest that is Californication). Samanatha (Kim Catrall) has flogged her breast cancer and, we are told, moves to LA to effectively settle down with a movie-star hunk. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) has moved to Brooklyn to raise the sixth Weasley child with husband Steve (punching his weight), and Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), still stylish, still making a suspicious amount of money for a columnist, still the source of hands-down the worst puns in film marketing history (“Get Carried Away”? I will murder you) finally, finally has nabbed Mr Big (Chris Noth) after six seasons of dilly-dallying and falling in to ponds.

An hour in to the film, Charlotte has done nothing, Samanatha has become sexually infatuated with her neighbour in LA, Miranda has deprived Steve of sex only to have him cheat on her, only to subsequently dump him, and Carrie has come to a mutual agreement with Big to get married, sending her off in to a whirlwind of 100-proof crazy and silly Vogue photoshoots that eventually gets Big feeling the pre-wedding jitters and sitting outside the ceremony in his car for an hour, until he sees Carrie, says he’s sorry and that he’s ready to get married, only to get a faceful of roses and gardenias and an incommunicado ex for the next six months. So to recap our four-pronged story here: boring, crisis, crisis, crazy/crisis.

Carrie Bradshaw: still crazy after all these years.
Carrie Bradshaw: still crazy after all these years.

Here is a bunch of characters whose stories have, four years previously, in the comfort of our living rooms, already come to logical and satisfying conclusions, suddenly sucked back in to the service of the big silver screen, necessitating more gratuitous sex, more juicy drama, and even thicker foundation. Like any bad sequel, the crises are obviously and brutally manufactured to give the fans another scrummy meal, and by the time the story comes full circle, the end point so comprehensively cancels out the crises that we are left back at square one, as if the film and it’s story had never even existed, and all anyone has to show for it is a $415 million profit at the box office. This is especially sad with character pieces, which Sex and the City has always been (much to its credit), because these characters are now just being made to dance for our sadistic enjoyment when they’ve already found their happiness, at the time the creators and the actors realised it was time to call it a day. But this vibe I was picking up on… it’s something in the way the way the film brings these crises about and then resolves them with almost patronising simplicity.

  • Samantha moved to LA, a town she hates, to pursue a committed relationship, which she hates the philosophy of and has never managed to maintain, and at the end of the film comes back to New York. Crisis, minus crises, equals zero.
  • Miranda deprives Steve, her adoring husband, of any sort of physical or emotional intimacy for the better part of six months – Steve reacts by sleeping with another woman. He tells her this straight away and spends the rest of the movie begging for forgiveness while Miranda leaves him, takes the kid and moves in to a new apartment, before finally deciding he does deserve forgiveness and takes him back. Crises, minus crises, equals? Zero.
  • And finally, in blue ribbon, pedigree crazy territory, Carrie goes to FREAKING TOWN with her exorbitant wedding plans, blows the entire thing out of proportion, in some cases even against her own wishes, freaks out when Big shows the slightest sign of nervousness and, even when he tells her he’s ready to be married following their encounter in the street, bashes him in the face with her bouquet, pisses off to Mexico where she nearly starves herself to death, throws her phone in the ocean, mocks her friend’s gastro-enteritis, dies her hair, remodels her apartment, hires an American Idol runner-up for her assistant, runs around bookstores hiding issues of Vogue, deleting all of Big’s emails and not contacting him for six months. All this, until she reads one of the million emails he has sent trying to reach her, decides he’s cool and goes back to him.

CRAZY

FOLLOWED BY A SUBSEQUENT RETURN TO NO-CRAZY

EQUALS NOTHING.

All these plot equations, though they bring us eventually to nothingness, are still written in the big notebook of crazy, using crazy-coloured crayons. The film amounts to two-and-a-half hours of women going against their instincts, losing their better judgement, and basically acting like children before realising the error of their ways and reverting to their normal state, whether that’s returning to their comfort zone or, more specifically, returning to their men. I don’t know who this should make more annoyed, die-hard fans, hardcore romantics or fundamentalist feminists. In the cases of Miranda and Carrie yes, their respective men did bad things. Cheating, and standing your fiancée up at the altar even for an hour are terrible things to do in the movie world or in the real world, but somehow or other the film was just so sympathetic towards Big and Steve (from Big’s desperate attempts to contact Carrie all day of the wedding for just one word of reassurance, to Steve’s lovelorn invitation for Miranda to join him for dinner on New Year’s Eve), and went out of its way to justify their actions nearly every step of the way. It occurs to me that this sympathetic portrayal of the men was the only way the filmmakers could ensure their audience would actually be happy with the happy ending. But it leaves the film in an awkward grey area where you don’t fully dislike the antagonists and can’t bring yourself to fully side with the protagonists either, and it all feels very out of place for a story that, throughout the series, so stridently advocated feminine independence and candidly depicted the realities of dating. It kills the authenticity of Sex and the City the series and gives us Sex and the City: The Fairytale.

The drama, the heartache, the hormones, the gratuitous sex, the reckless idealism. It had all the hallmarks of a classic teen drama, and in the final scene of the film as the four women clip-clopped over the New York gutters in to a trendy cocktail bar in their skin-tight dresses and lavish jewellery, it hit me quite suddenly that these women are all at least 45 years old. Is this strange, sad counter-point between their age and their behaviour over the last two-and-a-half hours some kind of subtextual condemnation of them as characters? Or was it all really just an unavoidable side-effect of exhuming a story 10 years after its original conception and trying to do the same thing all over again?

Wait, not that 45 or 50 year old women shouldn’t be able to go out and drink and enjoy themselves – I mean, these ones do have kids and families – but not that that’s their only role in life or anything – I mean, women should be able to own houses and vote and all that stuff – but hold on, I – wait – OH SHIT, UNEXPECTED SLOTH ATTACK!

Holy shit!

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