Yesterday, it all ended with a tweet: “Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli and Daniel Craig today announced that due to creative differences Danny Boyle has decided to no longer direct Bond 25.” And with that simple admission, the possibility that the Bond franchise, already on a creative downward spiral again – is it really twelve years since Casino Royale? – might find a way out of its self-imposed doldrums vanished completely. Say what you like about Boyle and his movies, but even his misfires are still more interesting than the successes of many of his contemporaries. Boyle at the helm of a Bond movie, even one with the increasingly uninterested Craig in the lead role, was an exciting prospect. But “creative differences” have reared their ugly head (again), and the chance to see what the idiosyncratic director would have made of his first proper action movie has fallen by the wayside.
There has been talk of a falling out over the casting of the movie’s chief villain, with Craig putting his foot down over Boyle’s choice of Polish actor Tomasz Kot (Craig apparently also has the final say over the casting of the female lead – what’s that about?). If this is true, then it raises a larger question: why on earth would Eon Productions have hired Boyle in the first place, someone who has made a number of disparate yet successful movies that carry his own unmistakable stamp on them, and ask him to direct their latest mega-budget installment? Why ask someone who has a clear vision in regard to the movies he makes to come on board as a director for hire? And leading on from that, what was Boyle thinking? Here’s something he said in an interview just last year: “I love scale and I love films that will play for everyone, and those are the films I like watching more than anything, so James Cameron – I bow down in front of him, absolutely. But I can’t handle those kind of budgets; I like having a much lower ceiling that you’re constantly battling.”
Perhaps then it’s all for the best. If Eon can’t let a director of Boyle’s calibre make basic decisions relating to casting, then what is he there for? And what hope now for Bond 25?
Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Farrah Mackenzie, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Macon Blair
And… he’s back! Four years after he announced his retirement from directing, Steven Soderbergh returns with a stripped-down version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and damn, is it good to have him back. Soderbergh’s refreshing indie sensibility has been missed in the interim, and while many of us took the news of his retirement with a pinch of salt, it’s still reassuring to know that he’s retained the same levels of enthusiasm that made his movies so highly anticipated. A project that Soderbergh was originally asked to find a director for, Logan Lucky proved too tempting for him to pass up, and so we have a high stakes caper movie that re-establishes him as one of today’s most accomplished movie makers, and reminds us all of just how much he’s been missed.
The plot is quite a simple one: after one setback too many – being laid off, learning his ex-wife and their daughter are moving away, he and his brother getting into a fight with a race car sponsor – Jimmy Logan (Tatum) decides there’s only one thing for it: to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To do this he enlists the aid of his brother, Clyde (Driver), an Iraq war veteran who has a prosthetic left hand, their sister, hairdresser Mellie (Keough), convicted safecracker Joe Bang (Craig), and his two brothers, Fish (Quaid) and Sam (Gleeson). Carrying out the robbery isn’t as simple, though. It requires Clyde getting arrested and sent to the same prison where Bang is currently “in-car-cer-a-ted” so they can break him out on the day of the robbery (and then get him back in before anyone realises he’s gone), disabling the credit card system so that all sales on the day are cash sales, using nearby construction tunnels to gain access to the pneumatic pipe system that transfers cash to a main vault, and using an industrial vacuum to make the biggest “withdrawal” in Charlotte Motor Speedway history.
Of course, while the plot may be simple, the execution of the robbery is anything but, and the script throws in enough twists and turns and unexpected obstacles to keep the audience guessing as to whether or not the Logans – operating against a family “curse” that always seems to keep their endeavours unsuccessful – will get away with it. At the same time, Jimmy’s plan does depend on a number of things going their way when he couldn’t have any idea that they would, such as the obtuse behaviour of a couple of security guards, and the all too convenient silence of a witness, but these minor gripes aside, the robbery and all its components are assembled with a sureness of touch and a witty, deadpan delivery that makes it all the more enjoyable. As Soderbergh flits confidently between the Speedway, the prison, and the pageant Jimmy’s daughter, Sadie (Mackenzie), is taking part in, the rhythm and pace of the movie improves on its somewhat slow start, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, from what happens to Clyde’s prosthetic hand, to the putting out of a very dangerous fire at the prison.
The heist itself is the movie’s centrepiece, expertly constructed and put together by Soderbergh (with help from editor Mary Ann Bernard – no, wait, that’s also Soderbergh), and embellished by a carefree, 70’s-infused score courtesy of David Holmes. But the wraparound sections don’t have quite the same lure or sense of involvement, so that some viewers could be forgiven for wondering if some of the early staging is necessary, or if the extended postscript (which explains much of what happened “behind the scenes” of the robbery and its planning) could be any more perfunctory in its nature. In essence, the movie is like a three-act play, except that it’s only the second act that makes an impact. Soderbergh directs the other two acts with his usual skill, but the way in which the script is structured, and the way that some scenes take longer to conclude than is necessary, hampers the movie as a whole, and though there are moments of beautifully observed comedy in each, this is akin to grunt work: it needs to be done so we can all appreciate the cleverness of the robbery itself, and then the cleverness of how Jimmy et al avoid the attentions of dogged FBI agent, Sarah Grayson (Swank).
Also along the way, some of the script’s other vagaries are allowed to unsettle the viewer and the flow of the narrative, such as MacFarlane’s grandstanding British race car backer, the awkwardly named Max Chilblain, and a minor subplot concerning an old flame of Jimmy’s, Sylvia (Waterston), who runs a mobile clinic that’s starved of funds. MacFarlane brings an odd British accent to the role – part Cockney, part something else entirely – but forgets to attach a character to it, while Waterston’s contribution is reduced to just three scenes. Tatum essays yet another quietly determined everyman who everyone underestimates, while Driver is taciturn and rarely shows any emotion. For the characters, these are good choices, and they’re matched by Keough’s confident, strong-willed turn as the third Logan, while Craig has a field day as the occasionally camp, but always expressive Joe Bang. Everyone in the cast looks as if they’re enjoying themselves, and it comes across in the free and easy way in which the characters interact with each other.
But this is still very much a Steven Soderbergh movie, made with his usual flair and utilising the same casual shooting style that he’s been employing for nearly three decades. A Steven Soderbergh movie always feels loose, even his more serious features such as Solaris (2002) have a sense that they were shot quickly and with a minimum of fuss and effort, and Logan Lucky is no different. This is a movie that entertains and holds the attention (for the most part) and which serves as a validation of Soderbergh’s inherent skill as a director, cinematographer and editor. As a return to movie making it may not be as strong a choice as other movies on his resumé, but it does serve as a reminder that he’s been sorely missed.
Rating: 7/10 – an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, and a clear return to form for its director, Logan Lucky doesn’t quite manage to impress all the way through, but this really shouldn’t put off anyone from seeing it; if you’re a fan, you’ll like it for what it is, and if you’re a newcomer then this is as a good an entry level movie as you could need.
As remakes go, Murder on the Orient Express has its work cut out for it – or does it? When it was first made in 1974 with an all-star cast that included John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, its labyrinthine plot – adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie – required a cool head to keep up with it all, and to follow the various strands of its complex narrative. And the solution to it all still ranks as one of Christie’s more ingenious and surprising resolutions. So, with that in mind, perhaps it’s best that over forty years have passed between the original and this new version, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and featuring Branagh himself as the Belgian detective. Another strong point for the movie is that Branagh is working from a screenplay by Michael Green, who has provided scripts for two other highly anticipated movies this year, Logan and Blade Runner 2049. With a starry cast that doesn’t quite match the A-listers of 1974, this version still has enough acting firepower to ensure that audiences are kept on the edge of their seat – unless they’re focused entirely on the humongous moustache that Branagh sports as Poirot.
When Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from directing movies after making Behind the Candelabra (2013), it was regarded as a definite loss. An idiosyncratic moviemaker with a great deal of smarts and an enviable career (few directors could release movies as disparate as Erin Brockovich and Traffic in the same year), Soderbergh’s retirement always seemed to be less of a retirement and more of a break. And so it proves – hurrah! – as he returns with a spirited caper movie that features a great cast (including some newcomer called Daniel Craig), the kind of convoluted plot that won’t be as straightforward as it looks, and Soderbergh’s bold, feast-for-the-eyes cinematography. The script is by another newcomer, Rebecca Blunt, but from the trailer it looks as if Soderbergh has allied himself with the kind of tale that suits his eye for the ridiculous and his talent as a storyteller. If Soderbergh brings his A-game, this could well be one of the funniest, and most enjoyable movies of 2017 – and it could make a star out of this Craig guy.
If you’ve never heard of Shirley Spork, Marilynn Smith, Louise Suggs, or Marlene Bauer Vossler, it’s not so surprising. They were pioneers in a sport that didn’t encourage female players, and they helped to legitimise women’s involvement in that sport. In 1950, they and nine other women players formed the LPGA, the Ladies Professional Golf Association, an achievement that The Founders covers through a mixture of contemporary footage and interviews with the four surviving founder members. It’s an inspiring tale, and shines a light on yet another example of the institutional sexism that permeated sporting life in the US, where women were deemed unable to play as well as their male counterparts. It’s the first feature-length documentary for its directors, Charlene Fisk and Carrie Schrader, but in telling the story behind the founding of the LPGA, they’ve hit on a piece of recent history that has a wider relevance even today.
There’s been an awful (awful) lot of speculation recently about whether or not the next James Bond movie will see a different actor in the role, or if Daniel Craig will relent on his apparent assertion that he’s done with the part. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that the role has changed hands, but in amongst all the talk of Tom Hiddleston or Idris Elba or Jamie Bell stepping into Bond’s shoes, one thing seems to have been overlooked. It’s not about the role per se, more about the nature of the Bond movies and their need for reinvention. Putting aside the involvement of George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton, this week’s question is:
With the franchise showing continual signs of decreasing returns in terms of quality once an actor has reached his fourth outing, should the producers now look to limit an actor’s involvement to only three movies before rebooting the whole set up again and again?
Since stepping into the shoes of everyone’s favourite British secret agent – no, not Johnny English – Daniel Craig has made fewer and fewer movies between 007 outings (between Skyfall and Spectre he made just one short movie, and even that was a promo for Spectre). But before he became licenced to kill, Craig’s career was full of interesting choices and appearances in movies you wouldn’t have suspected he’d be in the running for. From his debut in The Power of One (1992), Craig has given undeniably powerful performances throughout his career, and worked hard to vary the kind of movie he appears in (though he doesn’t seem to be anyone’s first choice for a romantic lead). While he can sometimes seem aloof in person, on screen he has a definite presence, and a physicality that can be a character in its own right. Here are five movies where the latest James Bond has shown he’s not all about gadgets and guns and glamourous women.
Munich (2005) – Character: Steve
In Steven Spielberg’s absorbing, somewhat controversial take on Mossad activity during the early Seventies, Craig’s low-key performance as South African driver Steve is one that rarely takes centre stage, but when he does, Craig displays a fierce determination to get the job done. While it might be regarded as a minor supporting role, Craig certainly doesn’t play it that way, and as a result, more than holds his own against fellow stars Eric Bana, Ciarán Hinds and Mathieu Kassovitz.
The Mother (2003) – Character: Darren
In this emotionally tense, absorbing drama, Craig plays the lover of a grandmother (played by Anne Reid) looking to regain some meaning in her life following the death of her husband. It’s a dour piece with tragic overtones, and Craig’s performance (as the handyman having an affair with the grandmother’s daughter as well as the old lady herself) is one laden with unnerving hints as to his true motives, and which is far subtler than might be expected.
Hotel Splendide (2000) – Character: Ronald Blanche
In this rarely seen, obscure drama, Craig is the head chef of the titular hotel, and one of many characters sucked into a bizarre mystery surrounding the return of the hotel’s former sous chef (played by Toni Collette). With everyone made to behave oddly, Craig fits in well amongst the ensemble cast, and he gives an unexpectedly moving performance that acts as an emotional anchor for the viewer.
Infamous (2006) – Character: Perry Smith
Perhaps Craig’s most well-known role outside of the 007 franchise, Infamous sees him play one of the two murderers immortalised by Truman Capote (played here by Toby Jones) in his book In Cold Blood. As the object of Capote’s “affection”, Craig uses his physical presence to good effect, and his character’s emotional and sexual confusion to even greater effect, resulting in a complex performance that really sees him stretch as an actor.
Layer Cake (2004) – Character: XXXX
Matthew Vaughn’s ambitious British gangster movie is given a boost by Craig’s taking on the lead role, a drug dealer aiming to quit the industry but who finds himself “asked” to find someone’s missing daughter. Craig’s cynical, world-weary yet smug performance keeps the movie focused when it wants to head off in other directions, and his confident swagger works as a clue as to how he might play a certain iconic role, should he be asked (oh, right, he was).
Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona
And so, here we are again, back in familiar territory: after a run of three movies with a new actor playing James Bond, and with the material getting worse and worse, we arrive at a fourth movie that neither grips or excites, boasts a decent script or direction, and which labours through its extended running time like an asthmatic running a half-marathon. We could be talking about Die Another Day (2002), but instead we’re talking about Spectre, the latest in the oft-rebooted franchise, and possibly Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond (he may do one more but nothing’s definite yet).
It’s been a relatively short nine years since Casino Royale exploded onto our screens in a welter of frenzied, punishing action sequences, and one of the best Bond scripts ever. It was everything you could ever hope for from a Bond movie, and then some, and for many fans it went straight to the top of their favourite Bond movie list. There were some psychological aspects to it in terms of Bond’s behaviour, the best Bond villain for an age, and as an “origin story” it worked much better than most. But most of all it was fun with a capital F.
And then there came the inevitable stumble with Quantum of Solace (2008). A straight-out revenge flick but with James Bond as the central character, it was basically a direct follow-up to Casino Royale that suffered from a weak villain and a mid-section that dragged as if the writers had lost focus on the story they were telling. But it did have some great action sequences, just as tough and brutal as before, and a great performance from Craig. (If you watch it back to back with Casino Royale as a four hour movie it plays a lot better than on its own.)
Now at this stage, the producers brought on board Sam Mendes to helm the third outing for Craig, and he delivered the most successful Bond movie to date: Skyfall (2012). But while critics and fans heaped praise on the first Bond movie to make over a billion dollars at the box office, less easily swayed viewers could see the cracks starting to show as the writers tried to include a mystery relating to Bond’s past. And there were problems elsewhere, where the script showed signs of laziness (the train crash – how could Silva have “known” that he and Bond would meet at that particular place and time for the train to come crashing through the ceiling?).
That laziness has been extended to Spectre, with its tired action sequences (only the fight on the train between Bond and Mr Hinx has any energy or verve about it), eggshell thin characterisations (why does it seem as if Vesper Lynd is the only female character in the Bond franchise with any depth?), nonsensical reason for the villain’s actions (whatever happened to blackmailing the world’s leaders into not killing them with hijacked nukes?), and nods to previous entries in the franchise that only serve to remind audiences of the good old days when Bond just got on with the job and didn’t have to deal with questions about his lifestyle or any emotional scarring arising out of his childhood.
There’s also the absurd plot about linking all the world’s security systems under one (though it looks as if Waltz’s character is already doing that anyway), and then there’s Christoph Waltz’s ersatz-Blofeld scampering around like an escaped inmate from Bellevue, and providing none of the menace required to make his character a match for Bond’s determination and drive; in fact, he has more in common with Elliot Carver, Jonathan Pryce’s crazed media tycoon in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) (but that’s still not a recommendation). Waltz is a good actor, but he’s all too often an actor making his own decisions about playing a role, and without, it seems, much instruction from the director. Here he tries the playful über-villain too often for comfort, and for the head of an organisation that included Le Chiffre and Raoul Silva as mere agents, looks entirely like someone’s younger brother who finally gets to play with his bigger brother’s toys.
Once again, the female characters are there for decoration, with Seydoux going to sleep in a hotel room fully clothed and then waking up some time later in her slip, and Bellucci wasted as the wife of a man Bond kills in the opening sequence. Harris though, does get more to do as Miss Moneypenny (we even get a glimpse of her home life), but beyond that it’s business as usual, with no other female roles of note, and the focus firmly on the macho posturing that occurs elsewhere throughout (even Whishaw gets a moment out in the field where he encounters some danger). Fiennes is a grumpy-looking M (though he does get the movie’s best line), Scott is a slimy-looking C, and Bautista is all the more imposing for being dressed in bespoke tailoring throughout. The returning Christensen is a welcome sight but he’s only there to reiterate what he said in Quantum of Solace (though “we have people everywhere” now becomes “he’s everywhere”), and his one scene is over far too quickly.
Returning as well, of course, is Mendes, whose handling of Skyfall meant he was always going to be asked to return, but perhaps it would have been better to go with someone who could inject some much needed energy into proceedings. Mendes is good at the MI6 stuff, prowling the corridors of power and highlighting the power games surrounding the shake up of the security services that serves as the political backdrop for the movie, but “out in the field” he’s less confident, and on this evidence, less engaged. There are too many scenes that go by without making much of an impact, and too many scenes that could have been more judiciously pruned in the editing suite. Instead, Mendes does just enough to make Spectre a facsimile of Skyfall, but without the emotional ending (here Bond rides off into the sunset with Seydoux’s character, but you know she won’t be back for the next movie).
If Craig decides not to play Bond one more time then the producers will need to go back to square one and start afresh – again. If they do, then let’s hope this whole let’s-give-Bond-an-origin-story-he-doesn’t-need angle is dropped in favour of seeing him do what he does best: being a one-man wrecking crew with no time for niceties. In many ways, Ian Fleming’s creation is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”, but it’s what we’ve loved about him for over fifty years now, and in their efforts to give us a “new” Bond for contemporary times, the producers have lost sight of what makes him truly Bond: he doesn’t do introspection or guilt, and because of that he’s good at his job. (And if a reboot is in order, then let’s get Martin Campbell back in the director’s chair – he seems to know what he’s doing.)
Rating: 5/10 – not a complete stinker – it’s production values, along with Craig’s still committed performace see to that – but not the best Bond outing you’re likely to see either, and proof that the series, in this stretch at least, is heading downhill fast; when even the action sequences in Spectre feel tired and lacklustre, then it’s time for the producers to take a step back and work out where they really want to take Bond next, because right now, it doesn’t look as if they know.