Remembering John Barry

Susannah York, Pete Postlethwaite, Peter Yates and now John Barry: at this rate the obituaries section of the BAFTAs is going to be longer than the awards. In a sad start to the British film year, the loss of John Barry at 77 is a reminder of how much his music has haunted us, far beyond the world of Bond. From The Lion in Winter to Dances With Wolves, The Black Hole to The Scarlet Letter, his music is instantly recognisable, but his melodies absolutely distinct. Those swirling strings, those dissonant riffs and perhaps above all those brutally triumphant minor chords created a world of mystery, romance and danger. And always, too, there’s ambiguity: even his sweetest love-songs are tinged with melancholy (and the most melancholic are heart-breaking), even his most heroic themes spiked with doubt. Barry will inevitably be best remembered for Bond, but for a reminder of his versatility here’s the opening of the anti-Bond, The Ipcress File, scored just as memorably, just as melodically but utterly differently: the mark of a great screen composer.

And here’s Barry himself, talking about his work on Bond:

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What’s Wrong With Quantum Of Solace?

I realise that I’m pretty much alone in the world in my admiration of Quantum of Solace, the last Bond movie. But why do so many people have such a problem with it? My colleague Fred Hogge has come up with the solution in this terrific post about the film, and the Twenty Minutes That Make No Sense. It’s the kind of clear-eyed, rigorous analysis that most newspaper critics have all but given up on, which is one of the reasons why reviewing is in such a fragile state: read and learn, Peter Bradshaw

Sherlock Holmes And The Problem Of Scale

There’s been a lot of talk about Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, much of it around its apparent betrayal of its source. How dare he portray Holmes as some kind of scrappy action hero? That’s almost as bad as putting on a fake Cockney accent when your mum is Lady Leighton. But —

Holmes is a kind of scrappy action hero. Conan Doyle’s original has studied boxing, martial arts and swordsmanship. He’s handy with a revolver (although, just as in the movie, he generally forgets to bring his own), strong enough to bend a poker (why does that sound like some kind of Victorian double entendre?) and agile enough to take on — and knock out — one of London’s champion boxers. He wears tails in the drawing room, rags on the street and a ratty dressing gown at home, and he tends to smell of whatever vile chemical he’s been working with that morning. He’s also a manic depressive, a voracious reader of the tabloids and a regular user of cocaine, which would guarantee him a top job in television, were it not that he’s also highly intelligent with a genuine interest in people.

I love the Sherlock Holmes stories (not the novels: apart from The Hound of the Baskervilles they’re pretty tedious) and grew up on the Jeremy Brett series, but Robert Downey Jr. is as good as any Holmes we’ve seen: dangerous, mercurial and brilliant, you can see why Watson loves him, Lestrade loathes him and London’s villains tremble at his name. Ritchie and his screenwriters (Simon Kinberg, Anthony Peckham, Michael Robert Johnson and Lionel Wigram) also restore Watson to his rightful role as brave companion rather than bumbling fool, and in doing so have freed Jude Law to be a terrific character actor rather than a reluctant leading man. There’s also sparkling support from Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler and Mark Strong, who manages to play the fiendish Lord Blackwood without even a moustache to twirl. And there’s London. We’ve grown so used to Victorian London on a BBC budget — fifteen orphans and a hansom cab — that it’s a thrill to see it with a Hollywood one. Crammed with people, choked with smoke, this is a throbbing, pungent industrial metropolis. Reflecting this, Ritchie sets his action less in drawing rooms and libraries than in dry docks, slaughter houses (a very scary sequence involving Rachel McAdams and a giant bacon slicer) and laboratories: this is the port and factory of the world.

So why, after a hugely enjoyable first hour or so, is the movie ultimately disappointing? The problem, as so often with big thrillers, is a massive misjudgement of scale. In the first half of the movie, Holmes and Watson are — well, being Holmes and Watson: cracking conundrums, annoying the police and searching for a missing midget (they’re always in the last place you look). In the second half they’re saving the world, and this is where the film goes awry. As Stalin famously put it, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”, and nowhere is this truer than in big budget films. Do we care about Ms McAdams being turned into pancetta? Hell, yes. But do we care about Mark Strong and his followers taking over the world? Well — not really. Time and again, film-makers feel that to increase the suspense of the audience they must increase the scale of the story. But in reality, the opposite is often true. When a story becomes too big it becomes statistics, and the audience stops caring what will happen, because we lose any real sense of threat.

Hitchcock always understood that the “big” story — the stolen military secrets — was essentially irrelevant: that what we cared about was Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. James Bond has been successfully reinvented by focusing on Bond and the people around him, rather than lasers in space. And the best episodes of the relaunched Doctor Who have been its smaller, more intimate stories — Blink, The Girl In The Fireplace, Silence In The Library — rather than its “end of the universe” epics.

Sherlock Holmes is a hugely confident, clear-sighted start to a franchise. It’s funny and charming and exciting, and I’m looking forward to more of Downey, Law and McAdams. I’m also looking forward to more Moriarty, the villain in the shadows of this film. But let’s not forget that Conan Doyle’s climax was not the entire world in peril, but Holmes and Moriarty, alone at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls.

My favourite films of 2008

The film year is a slightly stretchy one. Different release dates means that different movies qualify for BAFTAs, BIFAs and Oscars. But, with a little licence, and in alphabetical order, my favourite ten films from 2008 were —

Oh. Wait. What does favourite mean? I mean the movies that I’ve talked about, thought about, argued over and looked forward to seeing again. They’re not necessarily the most artistic, or the most significant, or the most ground-breaking, although I think there are films on this list that count as all of those. They’re the films that have had the most effect on me — and the ones I wish I’d worked on. So —

FROST / NIXON I saw this on stage and thought that Frank Langella gave a fine performance; then I saw it on screen and thought it was one of the best I’d ever seen. Langella looks very little like Nixon, but he absolutely inhabits the man and, with the help of Peter Morgan’s script and Ron Howard’s direction, he makes you feel deeply for him, without ever diminishing the scale of his crimes. While the play felt very much a two-hander, the film gives the whole cast room to breathe: there are terrific performances too from Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and Rebecca Hall, who brings a radiant, sly intelligence to her role. And Michael Sheen’s Frost is fascinating: his performance is a kind of cubism, looking at the man from every angle without ever quite seeing the whole. I’ve written elsewhere about Peter Morgan that he makes every story a thriller, and watching last week’s hushed, tense audience at the Curzon there was no doubt that he’s done it again.

HELLBOY 2 I’m not a big fan of superheroes, partly because they’re super. When you have a character who is virtually invincible — and guaranteed to win — it’s hard to create a story in which anything really feels at stake. But with Hellboy 2 Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, has created another beautiful, dark fable, in which the future of mankind hangs in the balance. Like Tim Burton, del Toro is often dismissed as a “visual” director, as if this were somehow detrimental to the craft. What matters, and what both Burton and del Toro have (as opposed to imitators like Gore Verbinski or Brad Silberling) is a deep knowledge of art and symbols, and an uncanny understanding of the emotional power of images. Del Toro, too, wears his heart on his sleeve; where Burton can drift off into irony, del Toro’s films feel intimate and heartfelt, even when he’s working on a truly epic scale. This is a Hollywood summer blockbuster that loves its villains as much as its heroes (and mourns their eventual defeat), and is confident enough in its pacing to detour, in the middle of a hundred million dollar movie, into this

MAN ON WIRE I called this “the best superhero movie of the summer,” and I still think so. You can check out my review of it here.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN I’m not an uncritical fan of the Coen brothers; I found Burn After Reading perhaps the most joyless comedy ever made. But I’ve thought a lot about No Country, which sits alongside Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There: beautiful, sombre, slightly supernatural stories that search for meaning in a brutal world. I wrote last year about the overlap between No Country and The Seventh Seal, and another look at the film only reinforces that impression. The film’s denial of a sense of closure — the murderer is never caught and the climactic killing is offscreen — is a key part of its philosophy: we search for structure, narrative and purpose, but life tends not to offer them. Does this make it irredeemably bleak? I don’t think so: what it suggests is that there’s no point in being shocked by the world’s brutality, but that equally there’s something to be won by standing up to it. It’s just that you have to find your solace in the battle, because there’s not going to be an end to the war. 

PERSEPOLIS and WALTZ WITH BASHIR Two very different movies, both reinventing animation in a brilliant and satisfying way. You can see what I wrote about them here

QUANTUM OF SOLACE The most tonally daring, most artistically innovative, most faithful to Fleming movie of the series — and the most successful Bond movie at the US box office to date. Do you think the audience might be trying to tell us something, Hollywood? Let’s hope that more producers take the same kind of risks, and with the same kind of success. My original review is here

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Check out my review above.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY Along with Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, this was one of the films last year that most felt like innovation in cinema, and made me hopeful for its future. The bold decision to trap the audience within the single eye of its hero, Jean-Do Bauby, for the full first twenty minutes of the picture was a risk that paid off brilliantly as the film developed and we got to know and love him more. It also features my single favourite performance of the year, by Max von Sydow, still mesmerising at 80, as Bauby’s father, conveying more emotion in a look than any lengthy speech could show. It’s wonderful, uplifting cinema.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD Not quite so uplifting but exhilarating in its way, this is a fable torn from American soil, a monumental origin myth told on an epic scale. Propelled by Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary score, it’s a film of unstoppable momentum, from its first long silent sequence to its last, exhausted gasp; and it’s dominated by Daniel Day Lewis, whose performance comes as a reminder of a older, richer school of acting than today’s drab “realism”: you’re reminded of Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, even Gregory Peck, alongside of course John Huston and his role in Chinatown. I wouldn’t call it a date movie, and it’s certainly not an easy watch, but it’s a rare historical movie — The New World is another, even better — that feels absolutely rooted in its period, and changes how you view the time. 

I was talking to a friend the other evening who said, “I think that films are getting better”. And she’s right. Yes, there’s too much of the same old cynical product — is there anyone whose heart lifts at the poster for Bride Wars? — but there are creative people out there who are as good as any in the past. The movie business is simple: they make the movies they think will make money. So all we have to do as the audience is to turn up, pay for the good stuff — rather than downloading it for free — and send out a clear message: if you make them, we will come.

From Goldfinger (1959) by Ian Fleming

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“The ice tinkled cheerfully against his teeth. That was it. That was an idea. He would spend the night in Miami and get drunk, stinking drunk so that he would have to be carried to bed by whatever tart he had picked up … It was time he let himself go. He was too tense, too introspective. What the hell was he doing, glooming about this Mexican, this capungo who had been sent to kill him? It had been kill or get killed. Anyway, people were killing other people all the time all over the world. People were using their motor cars to kill with. They were carrying infectious diseases around, blowing microbes in people’s faces, leaving gasjets turned on in kitchens, pumping out carbon monoxide in closed garages. How many people, for instance, were involved in manufacturing H-bombs, from the miners who mined the uranium to the shareholders who owned the mining shares? Was there any person in the world who wasn’t somehow, perhaps only statistically, involved in killing his neighbour?”

Quantum of Solace

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Quantum of Solace is a terrific James Bond film. It’s also the least like “a James Bond film” — no “Bond, James Bond”, no “vodka martini: shaken, not stirred”, not even a casino scene — and one of the most like an Ian Fleming novel, both for better and for worse.

For worse: like the novels, it’s sketchily plotted, erratically paced, and the villain’s grand plan never feels like much of a threat.

But for better, and also like the novels: it’s short, punchy, and violent. Bond is a lone operative, uncertain of the bigger picture, improvising as he goes along. He likes good clothes, smart hotels and straight-talking women; and he’s self-loathing, angry and drinks too much. The film’s dialogue also, at best, captures the crisp simplicity of Fleming: Bond in this film talks like Fleming’s Bond, and the humour comes from his character, not the cheesy one-liners of old. 

Quantum of Solace also has more location filming than any previous Bond, and it shows. The film has Fleming’s journalistic eye for detail: the locations feel authentic (though many double for somewhere else) and the extras have been carefully cast. In the old days, if you wanted Moscow you’d put up a Cyrillic sign in Borehamwood; here every place Bond visits adds its own distinctive tenor to the story.

Quantum is essentially an emotional journey for 007 as he hunts down those responsible for his dead love Vesper’s betrayal and death. Along the way, however, he discovers the sinister Quantum organisation, a secret society of global power brokers who manipulate governments, undermine leaders and no doubt go on holiday with Oleg Deripaska. They also enjoy the opera, using the spectacular lakeside theatre in Bregenz as a cover for their annual convention in one of the best staged sequences in the film.

The second unit director of Quantum of Solace was Dan Bradley, the stunt maestro of the Bourne series, and it shows: this is more action movie than suspense film. One element I missed from Casino Royale is its sense that Bond is not immortal, and that when he’s hurt he bleeds. Here, while often damaged, he feels unstoppable, raw wounds healing at the click of the editor’s mouse. But what we lose in physical vulnerability we gain in emotional power. This is an angry, damaged, vengeful Bond — if a licence to kill were a loyalty card he’d be hitting the top tier by the second reel — who is still trying to figure out who he can trust, and where his loyalties lie. The film plays like an action variant on Eyes Wide Shut: a series of encounters with M, Rene Mathis, Felix Leiter, Mr White, Agent Fields, Dominic Greene (a splendidly slimy Mathieu Almaric) and Camille, each of which tests Bond’s moral and emotional judgement, until the bleak but tender coda, in which at last we feel that he has found some peace — and a renewed sense of purpose. 

And I guess that’s what I love about this film. It’s not perfect — the villain’s plot is rather fumbled, and some of the action is clunkily staged — but it’s a proper movie, with interesting characters, some wonderful images, and space, despite its brevity, for its emotional moments to breathe. And at last we have a Bond we can believe in, both as a man and as a hero. If there’s one thing I would ask for in the next installment it’s the one thing Fleming never failed on: a truly worthy adversary for Bond. Deliver that, and with Daniel Craig’s commitment to the character the next Bond movie could be the best so far.