Sunday, November 25, 2012

Quantum of Solace - Dir. Marc Forster (The Bond Project #22 - JM)

Quantum of Solace (2008)
Dir: Marc Forster
“Like a Bullet”
Jay Maronde

                Director Marc Forster scored a major Bond triumph with the 22nd official Eon James Bond film. Quantum of Solace, while not as long or initially as highly-rated as its predecessor Casino Royale, is an amazingly beautiful film which simultaneously features some of the best acting, directing, writing, and action of the entire Bond Canon. Much of this is due to the times surrounding the production of the film, but I believe Forster’s guidance was not only essential, but the true reason why this Bond is so fantastic.
                Marc Forster is the first non-British-Empire-born Bond director EVER. He is of Swiss-German descent, which he maintained gave him some insight into Bond’s character, as Bond’s mother was supposedly Swiss. But if it weren’t for Daniel Craig very strongly recommending him to the producers, he probably would never have gotten the job. For what it’s worth, Forster has repeatedly stated in interviews that he would never have taken the reins had he not previously viewed Casino Royale and really liked the new character development of Bond and the much colder realism. Regardless of the reason Forster was chosen, it was an excellent decision as the Bond he produced is so very little like any other Bond and yet an utterly stunning marvel of a film.
Forster’s influence is very strong throughout the film as the rough draft of the script for Quantum was finished only hours before the Writers’ Strike. Forster and Craig essentially re-wrote large sections of the film themselves, reworking dialogue and even huge plot sections daily while filming. The result of this “automatic director’s cut” is a film which is not only remarkably visually stunning but also has very little dialogue, which is again evidence of Forster’s skill as a director.
Numerous scenes require zero dialogue and the film shows with its images what happens—much in the way that silent films of yore had to tell their stories with expressive acting and well-placed camera angles. The entire pre-credits sequence only features five words of English. The remainder of the film’s opening is probably the most fantastic car chase ever put on film. Moreover, when Forster requires dialogue it is almost always short, pithy, and perfectly Bond. One of my favorite James Bond lines ever occurs in Bolivia when Bond and Strawberry Fields (which by the way is an amazing Bond name, but we will get to her later) arrive at the hotel, and as Bond peruses his luxurious hotel suite, he turns from the bedroom, looks at Fields, and says in a way that only James Bond could: “I can’t find the, um,… the stationery… could you come and help me look?”   Clearly Bond isn’t looking for paper. But Forster manages to maintain the cold reality of James Bond the assassin while at the same time having Daniel Craig completely out-suave all the Roger Moore movies combined. Forster also manages to reference all four major elements and pay homage to numerous Bond and non-Bond classics including Goldfinger, DR. No, North by Northwest, and Citizen Kane. This movie is shorter—quite possibly the shortest of all the Bonds—clocking in at far less than two hours. Forster commented that he wanted to the film to be that way: “Quick and hard hitting, like a bullet.” This fast-paced style of film works incredibly well for a Bond film. There are no gaps in the action, the movie doesn’t drag, the story is central, and much of the ancillary nonsense common amongst Bond movies has been completely removed to keep this rapid pace. In the end this provides for a delightful film that provides more and more enjoyment with each and every viewing.
                Part of what Forster wanted in his “bullet-like” film was to have intense, realistic action. To this end the film features some of the best action sequences in the Canon. First off, the movie starts with a riveting car chase that I feel is easily the best I’ve ever seen, and I have seen plenty of car chases. I will gladly grant the haters that the sequence is short, but the action is so remarkable, the driving is so incredible, and the scenery and cinematography is so thrilling that the sequence easily stands next to the great car chases in film history. They certainly paid for it, as the production team destroyed six $300,000+ Aston Martins during the filming—one of which had already been purchased by a well-funded Bond aficionado—even though it was completely destroyed and Daniel Craig never even sat in it. Shortly after the car chase, Bond is propelled into a remarkable foot chase which pays a great reference to Citizen Kane when Bond and the henchman fall from the roof thru a glass ceiling and into an atrium with the camera steadily following in perfect Welles-ian fashion. Later Bond engages in a dramatic boat chase scene, ostensibly so Forster can achieve the water element of the story. But while the scene is great and Bond obviously kicks serious ass, the beauty is that Bond is driving a boat with the same name as Quarrel’s boat from Dr. No. After some more of the movie plays out, Bond flies an old DC-3 in an epic plane chase sequence that not only references the air element but also pays tremendous homage to North by Northwest. The scene ends with the Bond Classic “jump from an airplane with no parachute and solve that problem on the way down!” Here again Forster shines—as rather than hiring numerous stuntmen to perform and ending up with a lot unbelievable (not in the good way) distance shots of stunt doubles falling, he had the stars Craig and Kurylenko actually perform the scene themselves with the assistance of an indoor sky dive facility. Quantum of Solace is the only Bond film to feature a car chase, a foot chase, a boat chase and a plane chase. All of these action scenes serve not only to advance the plot, but also to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
                All of Forster’s great direction would have been completely moot had he not had amazing actors to work with. There are few unnecessary characters and all the actors have obviously been pushed to the peak of their performances by Forster who is known for filming constantly even during rehearsals and sometimes even using the rehearsal shots in the film cut. Daniel Craig is back as the coldest, most real Bond ever. He not only is doing a lot of his own stunts but you almost feel like Craig stayed in character between films to be able to really understand the coldness of the soul brought to a man who professionally kills people. Craig literally suffered for the making of this movie, requiring eight stiches and plastic surgery to his face after a mis-choreographed fight sequence gone wrong. He also lost the tip of a finger (which had to be surgically re-attached) in another “too real” scene. Craig has commented that he felt Casino Royale physically was a walk in the park comparatively even though his training was far more extensive for Quantum.
Craig isn’t the only star however, as he is backed up by a fantastic cast who all purposefully aid Forster’s vision.  To not mention Dame Judi Dench would be completely remiss, as she plays one of her larger roles in the Franchise to date, and she is excellent as the MI:6 chief torn between trusting  her best agent and a whole world who is against her and Bond. Her scene with Bond in Bolivia is another excellent example of Forster’s well-thought filmmaking style, as when Bond is “removed from duty”( in classic Bond franchise fashion) Dench is dressed all in white as Craig is dressed in black so as to symbolize their opposing sides of good and evil.
Another very famous and very important woman in the film is Olga Kurylenko as the resplendent undercover Bolivian Agent Camille Montes. Numerous times in the history of the Bond franchise there have been co-stars next to Bond who are supposed to be the “female equivalent of Bond,” some sort of tough female agent who is supposed to be Bond’s equal (be they allies or enemies)—but compared to Kurylenko, they all fall drastically short. This film, for the first time in the Canon, really features a lady agent who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bond. The two never make love—there is only a fleeting kiss as they part ways—but more importantly she is just as personally troubled as Bond and is more than willing to use her sex to achieve her mission objectives (exactly as Bond always does). This is further evidence of Forster’s well-planned directorial style.
                Another delightful cast member (so delightful she deserves her own paragraph) is the Lovely Strawberry Fields, played masterfully by the utterly gorgeous Gemma Arterton. Miss Arterton was chosen from over 1400 applicants for the role and while her performance is fleeting, she is radiant, first as the paper pusher sent to intercept Bond, and later in the greatest self-referencing homage in any film franchise ever, when she is covered in oil and left dead in Bond’s hotel a la Goldfinger. Arterton (who, yes was born a polydactyl (6 fingers and toes on each hand and foot)) and her strawberry hair were already a physical homage to all the remarkable red-headed Bond ladies throughout the Franchise, but the oil scene in which she really suffered through being painted completely black was such a fantastic homage that die hard Bond fans still gasp every time they see her lifeless black body.  It’s also worth noting that the viewer never learns her name is Strawberry Fields until the end credits roll, as no matter how many times Bond asks her name, she always responds, “Just Fields.”
                Any Bond movie would be lacking without a strong villain and Quantum of Solace surely took note of this fact with numerous villains and henchmen throughout the film. First off there is the special type of old illuminati evil that is Mr. White (once again played by the resilient Jesper Christensen, reprising his role from Casino Royale). While Mr. White is once again devilishly good, the real star on Team Bad Guys is one Dominic Greene (played by the French actor Mathieu Amalric). Mr. Greene is one of the few Bond villains in the Franchise and who has no outward physical deformities, but he is still a really, really, creepy looking villain. Amalric, who has publicly stated numerous times that this was the role of a lifetime and that he felt unable to refuse the honor as there was no way his future self could have ever explained to his children that he turned down the role of a Bond villain, apparently asked Forster several times to include some form of prop or effect or something to make his character more villain-ish, but Forster staunchly refused, citing his realistic vision of the film. While it may not seem like a compliment, I personally think that Amalric is more than freaky enough as a Bond villain. The scene where he arrives in Austria and hops into his waiting limo as CIA agents look on always reminds me of a snake who has dislocated its jaw to enable to consumption of overly large prey, and his fight with Bond at the end of the film is just as dramatic and far more gripping than any other final battle that Bond has with any of the other villains in the entire franchise. His scene with Bond and Camille at the party is another point where the film’s writing and directing are beyond reproach, as when Bond and Greene meet, Greene says to Bond, “My friends call me Dom-min-nic,” and Bond retorts, “I’m sure that they do.”
Amalric’s slick non-American sounding way of saying Dom-MIN-nic is first off evil in just the particular way that you would expect a super villain to be evil. Bond’s retort is priceless, perfectly pithy, perfectly-Bond, and the look that Amalric shoots back in response is a special kind of evil. In interviews Amalric has stated that he tried to base the character of Greene on a cross between Tony Blair and Nicholas Sarkozy (who he claims is the worst villain the French people have ever known) but whatever his methods, he isn’t just creepy or weird, he is downright evil in a way that is rarely expressed so well on film.
While on the topic of villains, this review would be completely remiss without mentioning the stunning performance of Joaquin Casio as General Medrano. Casio was absolutely the perfect casting for the coup leading serial rapist General Medrano. He looks the part, he sounds the part, and his impressive physical size next to Kurylenko and his other attempted rape victim make him a great casting decision—but he almost didn’t get the role, as during pre-production none other than AL PACINO expressed interest in the role.  Negotiations betwixt Pacino’s people and the Eon productions team were rather extensive, and it never came to fruition, but as a big Pacino fan myself I can only imagine what might have been.
                While this film relies heavily upon fantastic action, writing, and acting to get its points across, I feel that the music department at Eon certainly deserves a mention for its outstanding work in this film. First and foremost the title song “Another Way to Die,” performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys, is exquisite. The song is not only very Bond-ish, but also a very good pop rock song easily worthy of a place on the Billboard charts. This song was actually the second choice of the producers, as Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson did record a demo for the song but the producers felt that they needed to pass, as due to Winehouse’s “personal issues,” they couldn’t be assured of a timely delivery of the song. Someday that demo tape is going to go up for auction and it’s going to be worth a lot of money. But the music doesn’t just play a role in this singular part of the film as it does in many Bond movies. The score throughout this whole film is absolutely critical as it enhances every scene from the very first moment as the film opens with low strings and a long pan to the car chase, all the way through the very last moment when the iconic James Bond theme plays.
Also of note is the delightful opera scene which was really shot during an actual performance of Tosca at the real floating opera which is really in Bregenz, Austria. The opera scene is a gorgeous piece of cinematography, and it was a matter of outstanding luck that the real Bregenz Opera was actually performing during the time of filming. Tosca, with its own convoluted plot line of revenge, is perfect as a backdrop, and the uber-postmodern opera house with its giant eyeball sets fit perfectly into the James Bond Mythos. The music team also scored Bond’s escape from said opera house perfectly using the music from Tosca to provide an amazing backdrop for another essentially silent segment of the film. At all points in the film the music seems to carry the viewer seamlessly from one segment to another much the way an organ player would have in a classic silent film of yore.
                I’m going come right out and say it: Quantum of Solace is the best of the Bonds. The film is easily the best-planned and executed Bond film in a very long time—but more importantly to me the film’s brevity is really at the heart of what makes it so special. Forster wastes not a frame with uselessness. The film is really as he desired and described: like a bullet. Many have complained about the fact that this is the only direct sequel in the franchise, but honestly the film only really deals with leftover issues from Casino Royale at the very beginning and very end, leaving the rest of the movie as a monument to epic filmmaking, and evidence of what a wonderful director can do with a very large budget.


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