Saturday, November 15, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

Update #2: I read over half a dozen newspapers' front pages daily, some large, some small. Among the small is the Wilmington, NC, Star News. There, of all places, I found this really nice article, published last night. It's less about the new movie than about the franchise itself and the relation between the books (yes, I've read them all), the movies, and the men who've brought Bond to life on screen. And for that very reason, all the more worth reading.

Update: Bottom line (in case you don't want to slog through all that below): worth seeing. B/B+
Saw this last night, at the last showing of opening night here in Charleston. Something of an act of faith, since yesterday morning I read Lawrence Toppman's review in the Charlotte Observer. Now I know how to value Toppman's critiques: not at all. He gave Quantum one and a half out of four or five stars (text says "By Lawrence Toppman (rates on a 4-star scale)" just below a graphic with one and a half of five stars highlighted--we'll see if my submission to the FAIL Blog makes the cut) and wasted a deal of time critiquing a few things that indicated he understood nearly as much about the Bond franchise as Harold Bloom understands about Cormac McCarthy.

If you're a Bond fan, you won't be disappointed. If you're a Daniel Craig Bond fan, you'll even be pleased. Craig is, I think, clearly the best Bond since Sean Connery. What the newest Casino Royale did was take us back to a purer Bond of sorts, a character more like the one that inhabits the books by Ian Fleming. Gone are the gadgets, gone are many of the tag lines. Craig's Bond is the first in a while that we might believe, like Fleming's, could start the day with scalding hot shower, finishing icy cold, if I remember correctly.

I'll never make much of a critic, really. The professional critic feels too obligated to point out every shortcoming of a film with deep analysis of its roots. This sort of exercise is less about the actual film in question than about, "See how much I know about FILM." So go read elsewhere if you want a good analysis of the film's shortcomings, especially its lamentably Bournesque elements, which you can't help but notice, sadly, yet they don't rob it of enough fun to make it worth seeing. Freneticism is here to stay in the action film, I'm sorry to say. Chalk it up to the tastes of a multitasking generation. If you want slow drama with long holds on facial expressions and pauses between lines that carry the weight of the world, this is not your film. Nor Bourne either.

So rather than belabor those points, I'll just mention two I think the film got really right. One is the switch inside Bond that Craig seems to capture just right. While others (Toppman included) may lament Craig's performance as one-dimensional, I disagree. And the scene that captures it best, I think, is his stopping long enough to cradle a dying friend in his arms, before depositing the body in a dumpster. The film's Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko, is touched by the moment, then appalled by its brevity. "This is how you treat your friends?" she asks. Without blinking, looking back, or slowing down, Bond replies, "He wouldn't mind." That ability to feel, and to turn it off, is Bond, Fleming's Bond. The other incarnations of him have, I think, played along a more level emotional field. Put another way, Toppman see's Bond's emotional graph as flatlining; I see it as having a greater amplitude, if a lower frequency. Craig's Bond feels deeply, dangerously so, and his method of dealing with it, is to channel it. Other critics have read this as his being "a brutish pitbull." I disagree.

The other thing I believe they got right is the film's focus on water as the precious natural resource being hoarded here. We are less than a decade away, I think, from our first, honest-to-God war over water. More on that some other time.

Lastly, the film takes us back to an older Bond drink, the Vesper, from a time before a tag line, spoken first in Goldfinger, single-handedly changed the preferred principal element of a martini from gin to vodka. The drink first appeared in the novel Casino Royale, and was revived, appropriately in the 2006 film. From the original Fleming:
"A dry martini," [Bond] said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."

"Oui, monsieur."

"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"

"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

"Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.

Bond laughed. "When I'," he explained, "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name."

-Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

I'll be trying this, just as soon as I can find that wine. Bond has six of them on the flight to South America in this movie. And still can't sleep.

Go see the movie. You'll not be sorry. And if you are, you'll know to go to Toppman for your movie reviews after this.

PS: The Wikipedia entry on "Shaken, not stirred" is worth the time, if you're any sort of a martini drinker at all.