Saturday, October 6, 2018

'Johnny English Strikes Again': A Bit Repetitive, But Nonetheless a Welcomed Return

Without doubt, any James Bond fan who also had a good laugh with Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean in the 1990s will adore the Johnny English trilogy. The first one, simply titled Johnny English, came in 2003 shortly after Die Another Day was released and with the same team of writers behind the 20th Bond adventure. It was funny, yet it felt a little weak and cheap at times. Much better was 2011's Johnny English Reborn, with a much more developed plot, bugdet and locations, plus the inclusion of a former Bond girl like Rosamund Pike. In that film, Atkinson went a bit further than just mocking 007 and added some Inspector Clouseau antics that made that film more richer.

So, what can we expect from Johnny English Strikes Again?

The third entry of the "greatest" MI7 spy played by Rowan Atkinson has the development of the second one, but the structure it's sadly very similar to the first one, and that's what disappoints a little. Like in the 2003 entry, the threat comes from someone who befriends an important person in the British Government (in this case, the despotic Prime Minister played by Emma Thompson) and wants to ridicule the country from the inside. It all sounds very much to John Malkovich's Pascal Sauvage, but here the villain has some links with Skyfall's Raoul Silva with his obsession of technology and data - which is the way he hacks into the British Secret Service and leaks the identity of every agent. This is what leads to MI7 to hire the retired Johnny English (now a Geography primary school teacher, secretly training kids as potential agents) once again with a number of former operatives in their eighties, two of them played by Charles Dance and Edward Fox.

To get the job done, English reunites with Bough (Ben Miller, who appeared in the first film) and heads to Antibes, from where the prime suspect has apparently initiated the hacking to MI7. As the attacks begin to become more and more frequent (one includes dealing with the London Eye), English thinks the best way to defeat this mysterious villain is to avoid the use of smartphones or any kind of 2.0 technology, which leads to incredibly funny situations.

This is perhaps the most positive point of the movie, the dealing with the old and new ways. How English tries to familiarize with the technology he trivializes and how that takes him to cause panic: for example, the brilliantly done the virtual reality scene where he ends up attacking innocent turists and citizens thinking he has infiltrated the enemy field.

Johnny English Strikes Again is overall funny, but the humour is a bit toned down in comparison to the previous entry. It lacks that punchy feeling Reborn had seven years ago. Also, there are too many parts dedicated to the Prime Minister and her troubles. Some scenes, also, are a bit over the top and predictable, particularly if you watched and remember well the first entry. And while Olga Kurylenko's character is fantastic (and she looks much prettier here than in any film before!), her relationship with Johnny feels a little bit rushed towards the end.

In the end, despite its small flaws, the return of Johnny English is more than welcome and we can always hope another one is coming in the next couple of years!

Nicolás Suszczyk

Thursday, September 20, 2018

'The Ipcress File': Revisiting the Winning Formula of a 1960s Spy Classic

A man wakes up to a noisy alarm clock at 8 am. He puts on his glasses to correct his myopia. Prepares some coffee, gets dressed in a decent-looking grey suit and takes a look at the horse racing results on the newspaper. He makes his bed, where he finds a cheap-looking diamond imitation necklace (perhaps from some “company” he had a while ago). As he tidies the sheets, a Mauser handgun can be seen hidden, which immediately makes us connect this urbane middle-class man with a man of danger.

This is the beginning of 1965’s The Ipcress File, directed by Sydney J Furie, produced by Harry Saltzman and starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, the protagonist of the Len Deighton novel of the same name (although his identity remained anonymous in the source book). As we join Harry during a common pre-work breakfast session, the film’s credits are displayed and John Barry’s catchy theme tune (aptly titled “A Man Alone”) is played. A mix of jazzy trumpets and wind instruments feel like a strange mix of urbanity with mystery, two words that fit our leading man very well.

It appears a “brain drain” has been going on in Great Britain: physicists who disappear or leave the country in the peak of their career. Dr Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards) is the last name in the list of missing experts, so Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) transfers the “insubordinate and insolent” Sergeant Palmer to an intelligence section dedicated to investigate the whereabouts of Radcliffe and the threat behind the missing physicists, led by one Major Dalby (Nigel Green). While Dalby has a preference for bureaucratic leg work, the disobedient Palmer prefers to tackle his sources and have a more direct approach to the job in hand.

More than five decades after its release, The Ipcress File continues to be a gem among the spy fiction world. It’s very representative of the 1960s but its influences can still reach relatively recent productions: the brainwash scene has been imitated in a chapter of 1988’s Noble House and some shots of the initial confrontation between James Bond and bent MI6 section chief Dryden in 2006’s Casino Royale were strongly inspired by this film, as director Martin Campbell said.

By the time this film was released, James Bond was at his high with the release of Thunderball, who made the character a popular myth. But while Bond was what every man wanted to be and couldn’t get to be, a man surrounded of the finest things and travelled to the most exotic places, Harry Palmer was almost his exact opposite: a man that we all could very well be, someone with a dull and rather monotonous life.  

We see Bond and we know he’ll win, we see Palmer and we doubt if he’ll reach that far: both Dalby and Ross have some contempt for his intelligence, however, he saves the day thanks to his ingenuity and improvisation when locked and brainwashed by the opposition.

Visually, the film is a masterpiece: cinematographer Otto Heller knows how to balance the colour palette (the visuals are colourful or desaturated when needed), take full advantage of the width of the lens and provide some clever shots of people who you barely payed attention is spying at the leading characters. John Barry’s soundtrack is among his finest albums ever released: the title tune is repeated often in different versions, although some tracks are filled of enigmatic cues for the scene Palmer is tortured by starving and imprisonment before he gets the Ipcress treatment.

Action is not abundant throughout the film, although there’s quite a lot of suspense and thrills as well as the minefield of treachery the somewhat innocuous Palmer has to go through, with both Ross and Dalby blaming (and framing) each other until his wits and reflex acts lead him to the truth. Much like he did for the Bond films, Peter Hunt’s editing is key to ensure an entertaining pace to the film and to show the key moments in a clever way -notice at the assassination of one of Palmer’s friends as he waits for the red traffic lights to turn green- or to give a faster pace to the many days where Palmer is captured, tortured and imprisoned in a place we are meant to believe is Albania – once again, a huge set by another Bond genious, Ken Adam.

Director Sidney J. Furie and screenwriters W. H. Canaway and James Doran delivered a fantastic film, a product that goes from an investigative story to an intricate spy movie filled of suspense and some humour when needed. The Ipcress File is a good testimony for a film where all the key elements of a movie are well blended and the goal is achieved with great success.

Nicolas Suszczyk

OFFICIAL BOND 25 NEWS: Cary Joji Fukunaga Directs, Release Date Set for February 2020

It was announced today by producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, with Daniel Craig, that True Detective's Cary Joji Fukunaga will direct the upcoming James Bond film after Danny Boyle's departure last August. The release date, originally set for a November 2019 release, will be delayed three months and is now set for 14 February 2020. 

“We are delighted to be working with Cary. His versatility and innovation make him an excellent choice for our next James Bond adventure,” said Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.

Daniel Craig will play James Bond for a fifth (and probably last) time. After screenwriter John Hodge departed the project with Boyle, it is understood that the film will be based on the original treatment penned by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, who have been in the series since 1999's The World Is Not Enough.

What else can be said? May James Bond be your funny Valentine this time, ladies!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

EON Productions: Bond's First Line of Defence

James Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli during a premiere for 2015's SPECTRE.

Oscar-winning British director Danny Boyle has left Bond 25. In a very short statement, EON Productions and Daniel Craig announced he was no longer directing the upcoming James Bond film due to "creative issues". For some, this is bad news. On the other hand, others are relieved.

While this may delay Bond 25's schedule a bit, there's something rather important to point out. There are some good news inside the bad news. This is the fact that this is the perfect example to prove how much producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli defend their franchise, the legacy of the great producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli (with Harry Saltzman during the first 12 years) and previously Ian Fleming, who created James Bond.

Since 2008, EON showed interest for auteur directors like Marc Forster and Sam Mendes, the first one helming Quantum of Solace that year and the second one behind Skyfall and SPECTRE in 2012 and 2015, respectively. Following this logic, in May this year Danny Boyle was announced as the director of Bond 25, with his long time collaborator John Hodge as screenwriter.

Boyle and Hodge had an apparently innovative idea, which EON liked enough to discard the original script penned by the regulars Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, present in the series since 1999's The World Is Not Enough. This way, the shooting was announced for December 2018 with Annapurna and Universal distributing the movie by November 2019.

The bomb was dropped last Monday when Boyle decided to leave the director chair empty. 

Depending on the time it takes them to find a new director, this could delay the November 2019 release date of the film. However, it is good to take into account that EON may have had another filmmakers shortlisted before going for Boyle. Plus, there's the possibility they re-hire Purvis and Wade and focus on their original idea. Back in July 2017, even before Daniel Craigannounced his return to the role, EON released a statement announcing November 2019 as Bond 25's release date and that Purvis and Wade were working on the script. In that case, they could reach that deadline after all.

But the good news inside the bad news is that this ordeal with Boyle's departure reaffirms the fortitude of producers Wilson and Broccoli and the zealous way in which they defend their James Bond saga, inherited from the legendary producer Albert R. Broccoli who, in 1962 with his then partner Harry Saltzman, knew how to build a solid cinematographic identity for the character: a pop-culture myth that has survived more than five decades, geopolitical changes, entire generations, globalization and many changes in the actors portraying the leading role.

Rumours and insiders point out that Boyle's departure was due to his insistence to cast Cold War actor Tomasz Kot as the leading villain, in his idea a Russian nemesis in a script based on a "modern-day Cold War". Apparently, Daniel Craig, who has a say in the casting, felt the Polish actor was "too left-field" for the role. Other sources point out that Barbara Broccoli was infuriated with Boyle bringing his whole crew for the movie, namely John Hodge who caused the forced departure of Purvis and Wade in favour of the Boyle/Hodge idea.

Following with more speculation, it's also probable that Boyle wanted to gamble too far with his style and the particular stamp every one of his movies has. We can see that in both Trainspotting movies, the drama Slumdug Millonaire and Trance to understand what that personal stamp is (narration, vocal song soundtrack, surrealism, etc). 

The origins of the big screen James Bond: Sean Connery surrounded by producers Albert R. Broccoli (left) and Harry Saltzman (far right) with author Ian Fleming (sitting).

The thing is we'll never know exactly what idea he proposed for the upcoming James Bond adventure, but probably he wanted an abrupt change, either in the artistic or story field. Other speculation point out the Russia angle as proposed by Boyle was a political gamble that could have gone too far. Remember that EON always wanted to avoid political feuds as much as possible to make everyone line up in Bond's side. This way, in 1963's From Russia With Love, SPECTRE replaced the Russians from the same novel as the main enemy. In You Only Live Twice, it's Blofeld the one who wants to frame Russia as the responsible part in hijacking an American space capsule to provoke World War Three, and in the 1980s we have the figure of the charming KGB leader General Gogol (Walter Gottell) who ended up joining the British to achieve world peace. 

Moreover, while Donald E. Westlake and Bruce Feirstein worked on treatments based on Hong Kong's handover to the Chinese in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, the plot veered to a multimedia tycoon trying to provoke a war between China and the United Kingdom to increase his ratings and the historical milestone was set apart, the main reason being that EON didn't want to dare a Bond film set on a very political event set the same year the movie was going to be released in case something went wrong with the ceremony.

Back to the artistic aspect, the producers made a mistake in letting Marc Forster take many artistic determinations with Quantum of Solace. Namely, the interpolation of a Tosca performance with a shootout between Bond and Greene's goons held at the same theatre complex in Austria. Something alike happens minutes before as 007 chases an MI6 traitor over the roofs of Siena, Italy, and the scene is intercut with the traditional Palio horse race taking place nearby.

Probably Boyle aimed something along these lines and it felt like too much for Bond, who has a very established formula and "dogmas" whom an audience wouldn't like to be touched. Sam Mendes, another drama director, avoided to impose his aesthetic seal too much on his two James Bond movies, yet in the line of his films, the story whirls around the protagonist recent or remote past.

Depending on the kind of director they end up choosing for Bond 25, we could say Wilson and Broccoli learnt from the mistakes of their past. But the most important thing to point out is that they still keep in mind the message "Cubby" Broccoli left them: "Don't screw it up. Everyone's going to try and mess with it".

With this determination, it's very clear that EON holds its legacy with a very firm hand and there's the certitude that the legacy they knew to build, inherit and hold is in capable hands, despite some occasional hit and miss.

"Cubby" Broccoli always insisted that in a James Bond movie, the star is always James Bond and no-one else. Therefore, when you make a James Bond movie, you are not making a Daniel Craig, John Hodge or Danny Boyle movie.

You are doing a James Bond movie.

Nicolás Suszczyk

Friday, August 3, 2018

Ready to Save the World Again: Heroes, Guardians or Spies?

Something got me thinking after my latest view of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, which made me relate it to the whole James Bond and the many heroes of the fictional spy world. It deals with the very last scene of the recent Christopher McQuarrie film, so I should advise to stop reading now if you don’t like to be spoiled.


Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is convalescing from his body wounds after the death-defying chase and fight he had with his enemies in order to avert a nuclear bomb going off. His former wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), is happy with her new husband and she thanks him for letting her be where she belongs and for the fact that, thanks to his work, they’re all safe and sound.

Remember that in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, we know that Julia had to break up with Ethan and became a “ghost” in order to preserve her life. In this new film, thanks to Luther (Ving Rhames), we know they were happy for a while until they realised they belonged to different worlds and that their marriage was avoiding Ethan to “save the world”.
In a similar way, we understand that a man like James Bond (despite being much more a loner than what Ethan Hunt is) can’t engage into serious relationships or think of a family because of his dangerous life. The two times he tried, the girl died, either gunned down by the villain (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) or committing suicide after revealing herself as a double agent (Casino Royale).

So, the question to debate is: what kind of heroes are Ethan Hunt and James Bond?
There’s often a mediatic manoeuvre or a popular culture feeling of placing spies, detectives, policemen, and any other kind of action heroes in the place of Batman, Superman or even Zorro. But at what point operatives belonging to government intelligence (or branches of it) take the place of justice seekers that are many steps above security forces or the army? Or even these agencies as a team?

Even tough Alec Trevelyan asks Bond if he’s “ready to save the world again” in GoldenEye, that doesn’t give him superhero qualities. While 007 is a successful professional and one has the feeling the world depends on him, he could perfectly retire one day and let someone else to do the job. The same goes to Hunt and he did it at the end of Mission: Impossible – III. The only reason he left Julia was, essentially, because audiences wanted a new M:I movie just like audiences wanted a new James Bond movie after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Are we really assuming that these men didn’t have a normal childhood and teenage years and were adrenaline addicted since they were born, as the Young Bond novels often makes us believe? Of course, they’re not per se Bond adventures but we have a 13-year-old boy escaping captivity, getting tortured and averting a villainous scheme against the world, something highly trained operatives in their 30s or 40s failed to achieve just because of bad luck.

It’s not that I dislike –from a marketing point of view- the heroic qualities one gives to the big screen and literary secret agents, and that in the fiction it looks like they’re the only ones who can beat a lunatic man after an army has failed. But when that involves fiction, it all feels a bit cheesy.

Batman, Superman and Zorro have double lives, they have an inner feeling to save the world they live in and the whole nation or town depends on them, which makes the idea of the initial Alejandro-Elena break up in The Legend of Zorro, where he wanted to go back in action again because he seemed to be one step above the militia and the only one for the job.

But what’s the case of MI6 and the Impossible Mission Force? The British Intelligence Service has many operatives, some bearing the 00 number just like James Bond to perform an assassination in the course of the mission. This way, 009 was sent by M to kill Renard in The World Is Not Enough, 003 to recover a microchip from Zorin Industries’ plant in Siberia in A View to A Kill, and there are two occasions where M threatens Bond to have him replaced by 008: Goldfinger and The Living Daylights. That should leave the door open for James Bond (as a human being) to retire one day.

Likewise, the IMF is formed by a group of five or six operatives with a team leader: Jim Phelps in 1996’s Mission: Impossible and Ethan Hunt in the other five adventures, taking the place of Phelps when he was revealed as a traitor and killed in action.

His marriage with Julia Meade in the third film of the saga meant us believe he was leaving the field. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol let us know that she had disappeared of Hunt’s side to find a new life and in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, it looks like it’s thanks to that break up that the world is in safe hands because Ethan was doing the role of a guardian.

In the case of James Bond, the girls he loved turned up dead, so he came back to his life as a “hero”. In the case of Ethan Hunt, Julia was still alive, far from him and the safety of the world was bigger than the love he felt for her. The point is: if Ethan retired and stayed next to her, is there something that any of the other IMF team operatives couldn’t do? As spectators, we know that Hunt is the hero and is more capable than all of the others and has the role of a leader, but does that reasoning extends to each of the characters of the fictional world?

It feels a bit far-fetched to have supporting characters also believing the marketing propaganda of the movie they belong to.

Nicolás Suszczyk

Friday, July 6, 2018

There Is No Substitute: Martin Campbell's Unique Approach to James Bond

Martin Campbell with Famke Janssen and Pierce Brosnan on the set of GoldenEye

The choice of Martin Campbell as the director of two James Bond films was much more than the assured success of in the return of a very popular fictional character. GoldenEye and Casino Royale are not just the introduction of two different actors in the leading role, but very good films and classic on their own. The quality of these two movies has rarely been surpassed in the series and the visual impact of these productions gives the audience the feeling of being blended into the plot. The luxury world that Ian Fleming utterly described on his books is thoroughly adapted in both Campbell movies and, thanks to many cinematic resorts, it feels as equally rich as the one Fleming described.

When James Bond returned after a six year and a half hiatus to the theaters in 1995, he had to prove he was there to stay. GoldenEye had to be much more than a very good action/adventure film to ensure audiences that Bond was still relevant for the new millennium and to establish Pierce Brosnan as a strong leading actor in the role.

EON Productions took notice of Martin Campbell's talents as a director after the success of 
the ecological thriller Edge of Darkness in 1985 and the sci-fi adventure No Escape in 1994, which proved that Campbell was not only the right man for the job, but that he could deliver an artistic tour de force for the much awaited return of 007.

While John Glen brought solidity on the previous five Bond films starring Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton, Campbell and his crew delivered a unique, rich and dramatic take on Pierce Brosnan’s first 007 outing, taking every possible advantage of the cinematic experience a Bond film could offer.

GoldenEye: the leader of Janus reveals surfaces from the shadows to reveal his true identity -Alec Trevelyan, former 006- to a shocked Bond. Supreme quality chiaroscuro techniques by DP Phil Méheux.

GoldenEye: breathtaking opening shot of the movie showing the Verzasca Dam in Lugano, Switzerland. It doubled for a part of a Chemical Weapon laboratory in Archangel, USSR. 

Trough behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, it’s easy to notice how the New Zealand-born director has taken the job very personally and put all of his energy and mind on the film, with seven days schedules that went from four in the morning to late in night. He has also been supervising every little detail that would go unnoticed to any other filmmaker.

 Overall, the Martin Campbell movies are all about the details. While the text, the dialogues of his films are outstanding, the first notion Campbell transmits on his films is that the action speaks a lot: it takes a single blow with a towel and another quick judo jab to establish Brosnan’s Bond as a trained, professional government agent who leaves an attacking assailant unconscious (or most likely dead) as he tries to attack him from behind on the Manticore yacht. "When Brosnan kills, he kills very hard and fast. I made all his actions very economic. One punch does it. It's just very simple and economic, no fussiness. I made him stand still a lot,” he commented.

GoldenEye brought back well-choreographed fighting scenes into the series that harkened back to that memorable Orient Express fight between Bond and Grant in 1963’s From Russia With Love, something he wanted to deliver to the character with Sean Connery’s Bond on mind. Take the 007 vs 006 scene in the antenna in Cuba, where you have the feeling that both men want to see each other dead in the most brutal way. Of course, this effect was achieved also by the sharp editing of Terry Rawlings, very reminiscent to John Glen’s fast-paced editing of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

When Bond isn’t fighting, he’s living by the highest possible standards. Campbell knew it was hard to bring back the apparently outdated James Bond in a world and a time where action heroes were the Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger types. Instead of adapting Bond to this kind of heroes and their stories, Campbell noted that one thing those screen action supermen lacked the sophistication of 007 and that precisely was the key of his success, offering GoldenEye “as a window for that kind of hero.”

GoldenEye: Bond reflects on his future confrontation with his former friend, Alec Trevelyan, on a Cuban beach as Natalya approaches him.
GoldenEye: Bond kisses Natalya in a cuban beach. Courtesy of editor Terry Rawlings, the image cleverly fades into the burning fire of a hearth showing the passion between the two.

With his longtime collaborator cinematographer Phil Méheux, Campbell gave the film a unique look, much more atmospheric and dramatic than ever before. This was very important to differentiate Bond’s style from the blue collar heroes around. While these men’s scenarios are the dark alleys and urbane settings, Bond’s playground is on a luxurious hotel and in exotic spots such as Monte Carlo or the Caribbean. Following the orders of Campbell, Méheux offered eye-popping visuals of the Manatí beaches in Puerto Rico (you’d never think there was a dumpster there behind the lens of the camera!) or the Principality of Monaco at night, where a tuxedoed Bond parks his Aston Martin DB5 before some gambling in the famous casino, brilliantly replicated by Peter Lamont on the Leavesden studios.

The color palette of GoldenEye was rarely surpassed in future Bond films. Bond’s encounters with Trevelyan are a good example of that as the ally-turned-enemy emerges from the shadows twice: when he first meets his friend at the Archangel facility he’s covered by the dark until a shade of light reveals him as a good guy, Bond’s ally and teammate. Later, in the statue park, he comes out of the shadows again until the light reveals him as Janus, the treacherous crime syndicate leader holding a grudge to Bond and England. These brilliant chiaroscuro techniques of Phil Méheux helped to bring a special mood to the tone of the story and the meaning of each location. The facility, the statue park and the interrogation cell of the Russian military archives have this treatment.
GoldenEye: Bond and Natalya are interrogated by Mishkin at the Military Archives. Once again, the chiaroscuro techniques help to create the appropiate effect.

GoldenEye: Bond meets Xenia at the Casino de Monte Carlo, whose interior was recreated at Leavesden Studios. Notice the blend between the gold and red hues on the background to emphasize luxury.

In contrast, the casino scenes are “painted” with gold, red and brown gammas and the Monte Carlo harbor scenes in blue tones so we can get the sense of being in a coastal and vocational region of the world. For the scenes in Cuba, where Bond and Natalya seal their love, warm orange tones with deep green flora and black shadows helped to create the feeling of the hot Caribbean and to spread into the screen the “warmth” between the leading couple. It was not a coincidence that their kiss fades into the burning fire of a hearth, courtesy of the creativity of Terry Rawlings.

This attention for the details, as important as the dialogues and portrayal of the actors, makes GoldenEye a very visually strong movie where even the unbelievable is believable.
In 2006, the reboot of the franchise called for the introduction of a new actor in the role of James Bond and Martin Campbell was asked to helm the first official cinematic adaptation of Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig in the leading role.

Being the genesis of the character, the James Bond introduced here would be different from Brosnan’s style and much closer to the humorless Bond of the Ian Fleming’s novels. Casino Royale’s Bond had to be much darker and psychologically complex than his self-assured predecessor, and the overall tone of the film also had to be that way.

Casino Royale: a pre-00 Bond meets Dryden, the corrupt Head of Section M marked for death. This scene was shot in black and white film by Phil Méheux to take an unique approach to reintroduce a rebooted 007.

Casino Royale: a pastel palette is prominent as Bond arrives to Nassau to follow the lead left by a bomber he eliminated in Madagascar.

In contrast with GoldenEye, Casino Royale is not escapist at all. The story is crude and realistic and the new rebooted Bond has to play with all his wits, get hurt both physically and emotionally before achieving his objective. We see our hero bleeding and getting bruised much more than before, and one scene particularly stands out where 007 looks at him in the mirror as he drinks a glass of whisky minutes after strangling a man to death with his biceps.

The preceding scene, where Bond and lord of war Obanno have a cruel fistfight on a hotel stairwell, has the same intensity as the Bond vs Trevelyan fight at the end of GoldenEye, where the audience can feel they’re both facing dangers and could die at any moment. The scene looks expensive and –once again- the frenetic close shot editing –this time by Stuart Baird, from The Legend of Zorro- brings back vibes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  

Casino Royale: A helpless Bond is about to be tortured by Le Chiffre. The obscure setting with a few shades of light is what the scene needs to build fight and tension to the viewer, sympathising for Bond.

Casino Royale: James Bond finds out his Vodka Martini has been poisoned. A close up to  Daniel Craig looking at his drink achieves the desired effect. The casino atmosphere is still mantained with the gold background.

In the same way that GoldenEye reinvigorated the series after five somewhat repetitive Bond films in terms of style, Casino Royale brought fresh air after the three last action-hero type films of Brosnan in the role. Ian Fleming’s 1953 character was now adapted to a world surrounded by technology and with the international terrorism hanging like a shadow after the 9-11 attacks.

While Bond wouldn’t directly fight these fundamentalists, Le Chiffre, the Soviet Union treasurer in the original novel, became a banker for worldwide terrorists and African warlords whom Bond would have to face in the poker tournament the man is hosting to recover the clients’ funds he spent speculating in the stock market.

As much darker this James Bond had to be, the film isn’t without humor and style. If in 1995 Bond had to be an alternative for the blue-collar heroes like Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis, in 2006 he had to be an alternative for the likes of Jason Bourne or Chirstopher Nolan’s Batman version. And the alternative was based, once again, in the style of Bond – a very different style from the other heroes. Campbell insisted that not everything had to be changed and, while Daniel Craig’s portrayal was offering a much more grittier and muscular Bond than before, he would still move in the same exotic world, wear the same elegant suits and live in the same world of luxury everyone would desire to be.

Casino Royale: Bond tries a home-made emetic recipe to counteract the effects of the poison. The white, blurry lighting Dutch-Tilt shot by Phil Méheux and Stuart Baird's dynamic editing make the scene believable.
Casino Royale: After his ordeal in the hands of Le Chiffre, Bond is being taken care by Vesper Lynd. Green, a color associated to peace and hope, is prominent in this shot.

Casino Royale starts with a grainy black and white introductory scene, but as Bond accomplishes his two assassination missions and is promoted to 00 status, Phil Méheux uses every possible resort to give the film an unique glossy quality where the palette of colors give the scenes their proper mood: the freerunning chase in Madagascar is given an orange filter to give the sensation of hotness, the confrontation between Bond and a bomber in the Miami Airport is given a static blue gamma to make it look colder and darker and, once again, the casino scene is a mixture of black, gold, brown and green to emphasize the richness of the place Bond is playing, which is not any casino but a high stakes gambling spot where few people can be. For the ending scenes in Venice, the screen is filled with green, blue and white in the scenario, giving it a sort of Renaissance sculpture feeling. It is noticeable how James Bond recognizes Vesper Lynd for her distinctive red dress, different to what everyone else was wearing in that scene.

The highest point of creativity would probably be the scene where the secret agent is poisoned by Le Chiffre during the card game. As Bond goes to the bathroom, a bright and somewhat blurry white filter makes the audience feel the same dizziness Bond is feeling. Martin Campbell made sure this scene feels as realistic as possible with the artistic view of Méheux and the sharp techniques of Stuart Baird to create a unique and substantial effect.

Between the 11 years that separate GoldenEye from Casino Royale, Martin Campbell has refused to direct any other Bond film even after being asked to return. He claimed he didn’t want to repeat himself, and looks like a very conscious decision on his behalf considering his return was very welcome in 2006 and helped to calm –or silence– those who were with doubts about the success of Casino Royale. Both films occupy the number one place on many fan lists and are regarded as generational classics for many moviegoers.

Unlike the Archangel mission from GoldenEye, where half of everything was luck and the other half was fate, when it comes to a Martin Campbell movie nothing comes out of luck or fate. It’s a matter of talent, passion and experience. 

Nicolás Suszczyk

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Je t'aime, mon Québécois: Revisiting 'Allied'

There are no doubts that Robert Zemeckis is one of the most talented filmmakers ever. In more than one film he manages to touch the most unreachable strings of anyone's soul, giving the audiences the lowest emotional blows that no emotionally strong alpha male could ever resist. 2016's Allied is certainly not an exception as the story revolves in one of the world's darkest hours: World War II, when Europe was cornered by the deadly Nazi forces and the Luftwaffe dropped bombs all over England.

Theatrical poster for Allied.
It all began with a screenwriter Steven Knight remembering a story he heard when he was 21 years old, about an Allied officer marrying the female agent he had to work with. A time after their son was born, his superiors ordered him to kill her with concrete evidence that she was a German double agent.

This was the basis of Allied, where Canadian RAF commander Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is sent on an assasination mission in the French Morocco, where he meets his liason Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), posing as his wife until the mission is accomplished. At first, they'll resist falling for each other, but the physical and emotional connection between the two will grow significantly after they get the job done and miraculously escape alive.

Years later, after Max and Marianne marry and have a daughter, he is summoned by Section V of the Secret Intelligence Service and told that Marianne Beausejour was dead and replaced by a woman looking very much alike, and that their target in Morocco was actually a Hitler dissident. Max is ordered to run a "blue dye" on her: leave a fake important message to see if she reports it to Germany. If she does, he'll have to kill her or they'll be both executed for treason.

The story is also very reminiscent to the very las pages of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, where Bond discovers his very much beloved Vesper was a double agent after she commits suicide not bearing with the guilt and the posibility they could both be hunted down. In comparison, Allied extends that premise by having Max presented with the facts and having to act, standing on a crossroad between the flag and the woman he loves.

While Brad Pitt feels a bit unemotional on his performance as Max, Marion Cotillard makes an exceptional role. Perhaps one of the best of her career. The French actress is incredibly convincing as both a cold and self-reliant agent of the French Ressistance and as the caring and loving wife every man would dream of. Despite the cloud of doubt floating avobe the loyalties of her character, it's hard not to fall for her and not to feel her every time as much as his husband does. She was, without a shadow of doubt, the right actress for the role.
Marianne (Marion Cotillard) and Max (Brad Pitt) in a scene set in Casablanca in the fiction.
The detail of the production design by Gary Freeman and the costumes by Joanna Johnston is outstanding.

"C'est moi. This is the real me," she tells Max as she hugs him in tears, while she's giving birth to their daughter Anna in the middle of an air-raided London.

Robert Zemeckis brings back the glory of his Forrest Gump days with this movie: the soundtrack -also by Alan Silvestri- has the same emotional charge as the one of the highly acclaimed 1994 film. A good mixture between the soft wind instruments underlining the ill-fated romance between Max and Marianne and the intense and fast percussion cues of the war scenes. The setting of the movie in the 1940s was also very detailed: Marion Cotillard's costumes designed by Joanna Johnston resembled the times with very chic designs, so was Brad Pitt's black tuxedo and cream three-piece suits, very suitable for the hot climate of Morocco.

"The movie is a romance at its core, so the production design was always done with an eye towards being romantic", commented Zemeckis. "When we start the film in Casablanca we wanted it to evoke the Casablanca that we know from the movie Casablanca".

The happy days of Max and Marianne.

Production designer Gary Freeman took attention to every detail to turn the Moroccan city into a North African version of the French Riviera as it was during the days where Morocco belonged to France. It is with the great team work made by Freeman, Silvestri and Johnston that we fall in love with an exotic and romantic story right from the very beginning: the people in charge of the set design, the soundtrack and the costume design succeed in making the film beliavable, sexy and intense.

As the story moves to London, the costumes and sets change to provide a darker related to the days of Wartime. The Special Operations Executive office were based on Winston Churchill's claustrophobic offices inside a bunker and the cottage where Max and Marianne live has small rooms as it was fashionable back then. Gary Freeman often used the same location or building to prepare three different sets, and the changes went unnoticed.

The same happened with Marianne's clothing, which are much opaque incomparison to her colorful costumes from the Moroccan scenes. And the cinematographic palette offers an abrupt change between the gold and red hues of the desert and nightclubs to the desaturated colours of the Wartime London, showcasing Max's inner feelings as he is facing the posibility that his wife may be betraying him and his country.

Allied is a masterpiece, a movie that seduces and makes you cry. It can be defined as a war film, a drama or a romance, with the balance inclined much more towards the latter. A story on how could true love prevail over war. On how true love could prevail over masquerades, betrayals, deceit and even death.

Nicolás Suszczyk