Directing Bond: Will Bond Change with Better Directors?
Besides being absolutely fantastic and looking absolutely superb, there’s something a little different about the latest James Bond mission, Skyfall. Whether the presence of said difference is immediately noticeable or subtle and subversive is up to the audience, but one thing is clear: Skyfall is better because of its director. Yeah, screenwriter, cinematographer, Craig, Dench, etc. But the twenty-third entry into the longstanding 50 year old franchise has a particular man helming the picture: Sam Mendes.
Mendes won an Academy Award for Best Director for his work on the “is the grass really greener?” satire American Beauty, and has made his interesting mark on film with such works as Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road, and his stage production revival of Cabaret. With each film, Mendes has added his own elements, evolving his style, etc. While I don’t necessarily want to jump into the “is he an auteur?” argument, I do want to make this point: his reputability as a director is a rare thing for the Bond franchise, and his expertise as such obviously shows in the work.
As mentioned in my review for Skyfall, the last time a director of that kind of caliber was hired for a Bond film was for The World is Not Enough. Michael Apted, director of the Up documentary series, didn’t quite make the impression other directors have made. One could argue that Martin Campbell is a good director, but his films, such as Edge of Darkness and Defenseless, are significantly smaller and hardly well received. (Yes, he also did Green Lantern and the Zorro films.) But his two entries into the Bond franchise, GoldenEye and Casino Royale, are two of the best in the entire history of James Bond.
There is Marc Forster, whose film Stranger Than Fiction ranks amongst my very favorites (though, that is partly due to the screenwriter, Zach Helm), and Finding Neverland, which is very imaginative, but his entry into the Bond series, Quantum of Solace, is one of the most disappointing and forgettable films ever. Just ever. I like to pretend it never happened. Poorly directed, incoherently edited, and with a rambling script (that remained unfinished due to the 2008 Writer’s Strike), Quantum of Solace is also the only Bond film to be a direct sequel. Which is, well, not a good thing. In an attempt to follow the adrenaline packed Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace is a half-assed rehash of all the things that made its predecessor great. So, there’s him.
So, besides Mendes, Forster, and Apted, Bond’s history of directors hasn’t been terribly start studded. More than half of the Bond films were directed by one of three people: Terrence Young (3), Guy Hamilton (4), or John Glen (5). Then there were some sporadic choices, but no one with the name that Mendes has, and pretty much no one with that much prestige.
But now that Bond has been directed by an Oscar winner, and a guy who was once married to Kate Winslet, what does that mean for the future of Bond and his missions? I’m not going to spend time speculating who might direct the next Bond films, but one has to wonder what kind of people will direct the Bond films.
Mendes definitely added an element, and with him he brought a team of incredible people. Roger Deakins for cinematography, John Logan for screenwriting, and Thomas Newman for the score. So, with a stunning arsenal of a crew, does that mean that the people behind Bond’s future missions could be just as prestigious as the director?
Mendes’ films, from American Beauty to Revolutionary Road, are marked by their seamless balance between darkness and style. The best of Skyfall feels at times like the best of a spy thriller worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. World weary though Bond may be, he’s still the best character the spy genre. So, thus Mendes’ dark, almost cynical look at Bond fits the film perfectly, blending it effortlessly with Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography.
So, if other people take the helm of a Bond film, does that mean the Bond films will steadily get darker, more vulnerable, and look damn good? Will the next director continue to take Bond in a direction where a new canon is being created? Does this mean that the Bond films will look better, be directed better, — maybe just be better films? What do you think? What’s next for the quality of the Bond films?
Skyfall Into Place: Skyfall
Like many past traditionalists, I was initially skeptical of how Daniel Craig would be as James Bond when he took the role in 2006 just before Casino Royale would blow my mind. Actually, I was probably unfairly vehement. Having grown up watching Connery, Moore, Brosnan, et al., the very different nature of Craig’s demeanor, not only how he looked, was off putting. However, I have since come to realize that Craig’s acceptance of the role is one the best things that ever happened with the franchise. Fifty years, twenty-three films, and enough martinis to make any sane liver quiver, Bond returns once again in Skyfall, and he is never more potent and more relevant than now. As a long time Bond fan, I can definitely say that Skyfall is not only one of the best Bond films ever made, but one of the best films of the year.
After a mission that goes wrong and results in 007’s death, a mysterious cyber terrorist begins taunting MI6 by posting the names of undercover agents on the web. With the whole of the English government on the watch, Bond resurrects himself from the dead, so to speak, to find the man behind the threats and, in doing so, must travel back into the past to acknowledge things about himself he hasn’t wanted to for year.
The nice thing about the Bond films is that every so often they will feel the need to prove their relevance, regardless if we asked them to or not. Bond is, essentially, a “relic of the Cold War” as his prickly boss M (Judi Dench, then and now) once described him in 1995’s GoldenEye We, even the Americans, still needed a cartoonish action hero to believe in in From Russia with Love; we still liked having that security in The Living Daylights, and we definitely were aware that whatever peace had been reached after the Cold War might not last forever, acknowledged in GoldenEye. Aside from those films, and maybe another couple in there, Bond’s evolution and acknowledgement of the world around him has been minimal at best; that is, until Casino Royale. With Martin Campbell’s gritty and real action epic, Bond was pretty much created from scratch to fit a very post-9/11 world. Why do that? Why not just continue making random action film after random action film? Because, thankfully, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson realized it was time for a change. Maybe they took a nod from Nolan’s Batman Begins, but they knew that this was a new world with new dangers not like the ones from before. And they needed a character who would fit that.
That is the beauty of the character, one could suppose: he is, if anything, flexible. Even if he and his films didn’t always acknowledge whatever context was needed, you knew perfectly well that he could if he wanted to. With a character like Bond that has no strict canon, even in the novels, save for a few details, this flexibility seems inherent and necessary. Not only does reinvention from scratch help with context, one can play around with origin stories, which Casino Royale showed could be done successfully. You could make your character three-freaking-dimensions, even if it meant getting the occasional accusation that your Bond was more Bourne than, well, Bond. (Accusations are silly, and I like to blame it on Marc Forster. Actually, I like to pretend that mediocre mess Quantum of Solace never actually happened.) And that flexibility and acknowledgement of change brings us to the twenty-third Bond film: Skyfall.
Skyfall does both of these things: it acknowledges the context of a very contemporary and very real universe and it continues to dabble into Bond’s past and origin, without ruining the so-called canon. And not only does it do these things well, it does these things so well, that Bond’s 50 year screen history seems comparably young yet obviously there.
Casino Royale hinted and alluded to the post-9/11 thing a little bit, especially when M refers to the stocks crashing, but the rest of it was primarily built subtly around the style of the film. Skyfall aims to be more overt about the changes, and this, surprisingly, works in the film’s favor. There is, shall we say without spoiling, a very analog versus digital argument in the film that thematically travels in the three Craig films, and is in this one put to an end, I suppose. There is a complete and total admittance that this is a new world; there are terrorists that we fear with technologies we can hardly fathom; that we do need a hero. And that’s what James Bond is for, right?
To my recollection, there are only really two Bond films that have gone at any lengths to explore the protagonist’s past, the two being GoldenEye, in which Bond’s former partner 006 (played by always-going-to-die Sean Bean) returns from the dead and tries to steal money via satellite and Casino Royale, where, as you know, we start from scratch. The interesting aspect of Craig taking on the role of Bond is that there seems to be a new part of the canon being made. As aforementioned, the previous Bond films never paid much attention to continuity and they didn’t have to. This might actually be changing slightly, as least in terms of back story. We get, for the first time, a look waaaay back into Bond’s past. Think origin story, sort of. In Skyfall, we get a peak and Bond’s psyche and self-destructive nature; how hard he is willing to push himself; and how is indeed willing to serve Queen and Country, the Queen being M.
Skyfall is, in a way, one of the weirdest James Bond films primarily because it has one hell of an arsenal of cast and crew. While it has had Judi Dench as M since 1995, she was never really fully utilized until now. She has a role in the film; an important one. Through M, we are allowed to explore what kind of person Bond is and what he is willing to sacrifice. Yes, here, Dench is stunning, real, and raw, and M, for the first time in the franchise, is more than just “the boss”. Ralph Fiennes joins the cast as a government person named Mallory. He fits in with the cast quite well, almost immediately able to pick up the pace when it comes to repartee with Bond. We have Naomi Harris as Eve, both talented, agile, and stunningly gorgeous. We have Berenice Marlohe, whom, I suppose, while certainly adding something to the film, might be Skyfall’s one “weak spot”, though hardly marring the experience. She’s good, no doubt, adding to the Asian atmosphere and certainly introducing Bond to something key, but perhaps inessential in several ways. We have Ben Whishaw as the new, young, snappy Q. Whishaw is actually quite adept at creating a new persona for his new Q while being able to, again, glide into that traditional verbal jousting. Aaaaand, of course, you have your Big Three: Bardem, Mendes, and Deakins.
Javier Bardem should, no doubt, go into the hall of fame for making awful hairstyles into iconic traits of some of the nastiest villains on screen. YES, you heard me, I’m including Bardem’s Silva in that superlative! Maybe it’s Bardem’s theatricality (sans scene chewery), maybe it’s the weird blonde hair, maybe it’s the connection to Bond’s past, but Silva is, name notwithstanding, the most memorable Bond villain to come around in ages. He has, in the (comparably) short time span of 2 hours and 45 minutes, earned a place in the Rogues Hall of Fame, next to Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, Alec Trevelyan, and Le Chiffre (or maybe I remember him because he’s played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelson?). There is something very wrong and very twisted about Silva that seems so much more damaging than most Bond villains. Maybe a little Freudian on the part of excellent screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, but Bardem’s new villain is one of the most menacing and, dare I say it, one of the most memorable since Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The last “good” director, as in reputable, they got to direct a Bond film was, arguably, Michael Apted in 1999 for The World is Not Enough. Apted is well known for directing the Up documentary series (in which a number of kids from different socio-economic backgrounds are followed and caught up with every seven years; there’s, like, 8 films in the series), but his entry in the Bond franchise is, sadly, known as one of the weakest. This time, we get the Oscar winner of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road (which is the most depressing film I think I’ve ever seen, in case you were wondering). Does the high caliber of the director make a difference? Here, it looks like it does. AND WHAT A DIFFERENCE. When the film could have had a lot of dull moments (like the ones really anal people complained about in Casino Royale), Mendes makes these moments barely a lull in the story and, instead, a way to further character examination. The film is arguably one the most perfectly paced in the franchise, with nary a dull moment. It balances the high drama and character study with the thrilling action without much fault. Oh, yeah, the film is one of the most thrilling action films of the year, with set pieces worthy of any Bond film. Mendes’ mark on the Bond series will be indelible.
Which, I suppose, leads me to Deakins. Roger Deakins is very well known for working with the Coen Brothers on films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink, etc. So, getting him to do cinematography for a Bond film is, quite honestly, one of the best decisions ever made. Skyfall is one damn fine looking Bond film: the best looking Bond film of the franchise. Without taking away from the story or even the atmosphere of it being a Bond film, the film looks stunning. Golds, blues, and impeccable lighting fill the film throughout, making you wonder, “Damn, why hasn’t Bond looked this good before?”
The last thing to address is brief: it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise, and much like the fortieth anniversary, which coincided with the release of Die Another Day, there are some clever allusions in the film (much cleverer and much more subtle than the aforementioned film). There’s the DB5 from Goldfinger, there’s an allusion to an exploding pen, etc. But while the first two acts of the film is filled with these little references, they all serve a greater purpose: to acknowledge that there is kind of a history and then to, essentially, make way for a new one. I posit that one of the cleverest decisions made on the crew’s part was to include the innocuous anomalies to the franchise and then discard of them towards the end as we “enter Bond’s psyche” and look into his past. That, I think, was done to really show that the character of James Bond, Agent 007 has truly evolved from just a dapper dandy playing baccarat or poker to a human being facing the world’s new demons at the same time he’s facing his own.
Skyfall isn’t just a great Bond film; it’s a great film period, and one of the best of the year. Exploring new facets of Bond and M, acknowledging the context of the world and universe the film takes place in, and truly allowing the character evolve is all the things this film does right. There’s stunning direction, a bravura performance each from Craig, Bardem, and Dench, and the film looks incredible (see it in IMAX!). If this is the direction Bond is heading towards in future films, count me in. The film left me shaken and stirred. And, most importantly, it reminded me that it’s true: when it comes to saving the world, nobody does it better.
Fasten Your Seatbelt: Drive
I do not drive, personally, so generally speaking I can’t speak from experience about the thrill of driving a car in any situation whatsoever. But if driving is anything like the thrill of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, maybe I should stop procrastinating on getting my license. Winding Refn’s near masterpiece of a film, Drive, is a sucker punch to the gut, something that can be as subtle as, to use driving analogies, strolling down a street at midnight and something as thrilling as getting into a car chase.
Winding Refn hones in his mastery of the medium in this film, which was pretty up to scratch anyways, as evidenced in his previous works like Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Here, the director and the star become one, in a way. Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver/getaway driver is a silent enigma, his introversion and solitude reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault and Melville’s Le Samourai. The director’s piece is just as silent as his driver, using long tracking shots, slow pans, and very little dialogue. The script, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) changes the original novel’s format, written by James Sallis, making it into a more linear story line with a more coherent plot. As opposed to a standard and conventional driving thriller, it becomes a character study, almost a silent psychoanalysis of its protagonist. Heady though it sounds, that fact does not affect the thrill of watching the film.
What is it about this film that makes it so spellbinding? I am honestly not quite sure. The mood of the film is spelled out in its music, much of the time, using neo-1980’s sounding tracks that are, in a way, characters themselves. The music, though, helps underline the character of the Driver, someone so contemplative and one whose expressions could be used to fill a book that the character remains complex and not completely readable. A film that transcends every genre you could try to pigeonhole it in (neo-noir, crime, action, thriller, etc.); the music acts somewhat as a narrator. Illustrating the complexity of Gosling’s Driver with No Name, the music’s tone shifts appropriately to whatever the mood is in the current scene, reflecting the feeling of Gosling’s emotions. It makes complete sense that the music would play an integral part into the construction of Winding Refn’s film. What else do you do when you’re in the car, especially as a passenger? You stare out the window, contemplating the meaning of life and you listen to music. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, where sometimes the Driver is aware of the music and others when only we, the audience can hear it. It may be only conjecture, but if the music can be accepted as both an underlining of who the Driver is as a character as well as a narrator, the music can not only be seen as soundtrack to the film but also to the Driver’s life. It is almost as if the Driver is perfectly conscious of the music playing in his head, the mental playlist he has created that describes who he is. Regardless of what it is, the use of songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” accentuate the gritty mood for this masterpiece.
Every emotion is discernible on Ryan Gosling’s face and, while that may be true, it doesn’t make him easier to read. It does, however, make his performance that much more interesting and powerful. He is a mystery, one whose past is unknown to anyone in the film, even to the two closest people to him in the film, Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the boss of an auto-repair shop, and Carey Mulligan, the woman whom he falls for and whose husband he attempts to help so that she and her family are safe from the men after her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Perhaps this is a defense mechanism, but nevertheless, the Enigmatic Driver never really reveals himself to anyone. Gosling’s portrayal of such a stunning character, a silent one who is mostly influenced and moved by the sheer atmosphere, is incredible. Well known for his romantic leading roles in stuff like The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling feels much more at home here in a hybrid crime drama-neo noir. He is able to delve into character and become the Driver, an important aspect of the film. Without him, the film would probably fall to pieces. Because the film is so contemplative and devoid of dialogue, it would take complete dedication for an actor to really jump into the role. What Gosling does with the character is make it his own, creating a perfect amalgam of the existential hero from so many great films. It is not a derivative character, but one molded and shaped at Gosling’s (and Refn’s) will. He is one of the most elusive and intriguing characters in recent memory.
The supporting cast is great, filled with interesting and colorful characters. Mulligan plays Irene with a sensitive fragility, just as quiet as the protagonist, and just as tender. This mutual tenderness may be why the two characters work so well and fall in love with one another so easily. Even though it’s a quiet portrayal, it is not so understated that it is not noticeable; it is a perfectly noticeable role. The silence between the two, especially when in the car, is their own form of communication. They are, to some extent, kindred souls. They are able to create intimacy without anything physical. Just a look and just the music on the radio; that’s all they need. It reminds me of the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia says, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. Where you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
Albert Brooks plays against type in a stunning turn as a mobster who, originally, planned on investing in this Driver to race cars for him. Shame that didn’t go so well. This Brooks, who is certainly not the same guy we love and kind of loathe in Broadcast News or even Finding Nemo, is violent, unpredictable, and smarmy. He takes pleasure in getting as much as he can and at any cost. It is honestly a little shocking to see Brooks in such a violent role, verbally and physically, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy, Cronos) also shows his villainous side as a foul mouthed, ruthless Jewish mobster who owns, of all things, a pizzeria. With a slight Stallone-esque mumble, Perlman remains just as fearful as normal.
Ryan Gosling may be the star of the show, but an element of the film that accentuates the existential tone of the film is Drive’s superb cinematography. Newton Thomas Sigel, who worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, creates a perfectly constructed symphony of slowly moving images. Slow and swift, the tracking shots throughout the film again accentuate the tone of the film. The film is so beautiful looking that you could blindly pick a random still from the film and it would be a work of art. The lighting is extraordinary, the tones shifting from scene to scene to reflect the mood of the Driver. Looking at this film wowed me and intoxicated me, for it is a stunning film to see.
Cut to the chase (scenes)? Yes, it can be a rather violent film. But the violence comes out of nowhere, which shook me to my core. The shocking inclusion and unexpectedness of the violence is perfect. Refn has said that the film is a bit of a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, and like that film, its violence quakes on the screen. Drive, with its somewhat glacial pacing and quiet and serene mood, lulls you into a false sense of security and then, to put it bluntly, blows your mind. The car chases are just as exciting. Resembling the car chases more like Bullitt and The French Connection, in that the cinematography and look is cohesive and discernible (as opposed to chaotic, ahem Fast and the Furious), the chases pumped adrenaline into my veins. Tense and taut, the chase scenes were memorable and exciting.
Drive is a memorable exercise in subtlety as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. It is fair to say that the film was robbed of several Academy Award nominations this year: Director (Refn, who luckily won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Cinematography, Actor (Gosling), Supporting Actress (Mulligan), Editing, and Supporting Actor (Brooks). It managed to nab one nomination and an important one for the film, Sound Editing. Sound plays a huge role in the tone, making one feel there with the characters. It is not complete silence, as the whirring of cars pass by. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.