"Didn't they miss something?" I thought after Leo's roar subsided in the movie theater. I shouldn't have worried. What I was disappointed to see "missing" comes along eventually... and in a manner that telegraphs exactly what this film is... the creation of an icon.
Craig is outstanding right out of the gate, easily outshining every other Bond save Connery. And his Bond isn't like Connery's, nor is it beholden to such previous screen incarnations as Simon Templar or Remington Steele. Craig is doing what this movie is doing, which is to regroup and reform the series, updating it but keeping to the spirit of Ian Fleming's character. James Bond is a deeply disturbed individual who manages to find a niche, and while this is barely alluded to in any of the other films, here it is all front and center; Fleming's concept of 'accidy,' his revulsion of his own occupation but the ease with which he connits murder, and, most of all, his own arrogance. This Bond has not yet gotten to the point where he is rash but not careless, and the character makes several mistakes over the course of the film. This is something that the Moore and Brosnan pictures had a tendency to avoid showing happen, leading more to the sense of invincibility they had which worked against identification with the character. Furthermore, the stuntwork has been severely scaled back in this film, and Bond, while highly trained and in good physical shape, is not superhuman.
The only actor carried over from the previous pictures is Judi Dench, who, despite having the same role, plays a very different character here than she did in the Brosnan features; this is an M with a more soft-spoken demeanor, but her soul is of cast iron. Her relationship to Bond is one of the film's best qualities; she is much, much more experienced than he is and recognizes his abilities but also finds his impulsiveness troublesome. He, while not wanting to admit his mistakes, nevertheless feels the need to prove himself to her, an element which finally makes the move of changing M from a man to a woman fill its potential. Similarly, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is a more interesting figure because while he knows Bond is only playing to foil him, he is playing for his life. This makes him more desperate, and therefore more dangerous as well. Fleming's taste for the grotesque is most vividly felt in with this character's visage. The cast is invested as a whole, which helps to focus the tension. There are no retarded gadgets like automotive submarines or invisible cars on display here; everything seen in the film is either mainstream technology or entirely plausible. Bond has to rely on his wits, not his toys.
I'm not exactly certain what they're going to do now. The film concluded with the now-familiar "James Bond Will Return" credit, but doesn't list a new title. I have to wonder, since they're obviously re-starting the series, if they plan to go back to the Fleming well again, and adapt some stories that have already been made into films. I'm not saying that this is the best idea out there, but the film series got really weird when they ran out of Fleming source material. Interestingly, the last Fleming title, The Living Daylights, is one of the more old-fashioned of the films, actually incorporating a pretty close adaptation of the short story from which the film's title is taken. After such an effective adaptation of the first Bond novel, I'm rather curious as to whether or not they could keep that flavor, which was so right, if they remove themselves too much from it. In general, the better Bonds have indeed been the ones that are reasonably close to the books (From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service), so I'm curious if the series' 'newfound piety' will bring them full circle.
The title sequence is nicely retro, although I wish that Daniel Kleinman would give the morphing a rest. While some of his title sequences are very good (the one for Goldeneye is killer), they often lack the poetic elegance of Maurice Binder's use of shadows, silhouettes and outlines. The change of the central game from baccarat to hold 'em poker works just fine for me; while some have decried this move as dumbing the story down for the masses, I actually consider this an effective updating of the story, considering that the bets in question are commonplace in high-stakes poker today. Besides, you'd have to explain baccarat to the audience (the novel had a primer on the game, if I'm not mistaken), and it's not really all that interesting to watch.
I recieved my copy of Birdman of Alcatraz today. Now, I enjoyed the movie and really loved the score. It was therefore not too difficult, upon popping the disc in and opening up the booklet and reading Robert Townson's notes, to believe some of the hyperbole that he showers upon the score on the first page. But the score lives up to his claims, and it is absolutely sublime, and it is one I am extremely happy to have. The mono sound on the disc is very clean except for the main title, and because the score is very intimate, much of it was very closely micked so it sounds pretty damn clean. I have to agree with Townson that this score is unfairly judged in context of Elmer Bernstein's oeuvre, and that it is as evocative as anything in To Kill a Mockingbird or Rambling Rose. I can't really express how pleased I was with this release. This really is one of the gems of this recent Bernstein cornucopia we've been experiencing.
Back to Barry for a moment.
A recent thread on the Film Score Monthly Message Board inspired me to pull John Barry's High Road to China off the shelf. It is a marvelous score and I was actually surprised anew at how heartfelt this score comes across as. It is prime Barry, with a versatile main theme that can either soar (I used the opening on my first Flight compilation), or convey a moment of great tenderness. The action cues are pretty exciting too, built on the fabric of the tension cues, but this is by and large a romantic score rather than an action one, and Barry's main theme is one of my favorites of his. It was one I walked out of the theater humming when I saw the movie (which has a bad rap, but isn't bad, actually).
I saw The Lion in Winter that night on television, too; I didn't appreciate the movie at the time, but I loved the score. I also noted that it was John Barry, whose name I was starting, at nine, to recognize from my James Bond film addiction (my grandfather, being the techie that he was, had a VCR before anybody else did and so many of my childhood summers were spent devouring movies).
Now, I have two versions of High Road to China; the Southern Cross gold release and the Supertracks expanded, remastered edition. I prefer to listen to the Supertracks edition, which has better sonics (although the stereo channels are switched on a few tracks, something which the normally snide Ford A. Thaxton admits to in the aforementioned thread) and the complete score, which isn't really that much longer than the Southern Cross release. However, I do like the original album for some of its own merits, so I decided to keep both.
Now, I have a lot of CDs that have more than one issue that I'm keeping. The original E.T. album, for example. The Varése Sarabande Escape from New York. The Polydor Dune. The Milan Conan the Barbarian. The Varése Supergirl. After a while, you're talking about a fairly significant amount of doubles. My solution was to put the discs into 2 CD slimline jewel boxes. That way I get to keep the disc and all of the artwork while not expending too much space on one score. This is useful not only for preserving different versions of scores, but also the liner notes, which do not always get carried over to new releases; High Road to China is an example of this, as the Supertracks release does not have the track-by-track analysis Royal S. Brown wrote for the original LP. And one would think that at least one of the more recent incarnations of the Star Wars soundtrack album would have included Charles Lippincott's original sleeve notes.