Thursday, November 30, 2006

Casino Royale

*ing Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench

Like most other Bond fans, I've watched every Bond movie made so far, with the sole exception of the earlier Casino Royale. And like every Bond fan, I've worshipped at the altar of Sean Connery. I rate Goldfinger among the best movies I've seen. It was a perfect example of the Bond formula - gadgets, gorgeous women, a megalomaniacal villain, a great climax, memorable one-liners and oodles of style. To me, everything that followed it simply tried to repeat it, with minor changes and mixed results.

So you will understand how much it has taken me to say this: Of all the Bond movies I have seen, Casino Royale is the best. And of all the actors who have played Bond over the years, I rank Daniel Craig's interpretation to be the best. Yeah, even better than Connery. If you have a problem with that, go read someone else's review.

There, I've said it. Now I can actually review the movie.

After twenty movies, the makers decided to reboot the Bond franchise. And to do that, they went back to the superspy's origins, in Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale. It is an interesting move, not only because it gives them the freedom to break a few rules, but also look at Bond as an actual human being, not a lawn ornament in a tuxedo with things going bang around him.

One of the best indications of this comes right at the beginning, in a low-key opening sequence filmed in black and white. The editing rhythm, the dialogue and the gritty look make you wonder if you walked into a different movie altogether. You expect Guy Ritchie or Steven Soderbergh to make something like this, not in a Bond movie. And yet, it is effective in introducing both a new Bond and a new actor in the role.

The story involves a terrorist financier named Le Chiffre, who has set up a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. M sends Bond, apparently the best poker player in the service, to compete against him. Not without misgivings, mind you: Bond isn't exactly the flavor of the month in the MI6 right then - his effectiveness seems to be matched by his lack of subtlety. At one point, M says, enraged by his latest faux-pas, "Earlier, when one of our agents did something this embarassing, they at least had the decency to defect. God, I miss the Cold War!" (Thank heavens they retained Judi Dench - where would a line like that be, without her to deliver it?)

The first act, which sets up the plot, involves two well-executed chase sequences. Both longer than necessary, both saved by the fact that they're well done. The first one involving what is, I believe, called a "free-running sequence" is especially splendid. The last few Bond movies had crossed the line from live action to cartoons. It was good to see something relatively plausible. The rest of it is standard stuff - cars, women, beaches... no surprises.

The second act involves a lengthy poker game, interspersed with violence. Low-key stuff, mostly. Interesting, but not thrilling. The more interesting parts here are the interactions with Vesper Lynd, the woman sent by thhe Treasury Department to keep an eye on Bond. And for the first time in the series, you have Bond engaging in an actual conversation with a woman - not about plot points, not about trading innuendoes, but about each other. The dialogue, while not great, is a few notches above the pedestrian. Heck, one conversation on a train goes on for so long, I kept wondering when the makers would lose patience and blow something up.

The third act is where the meat is. For one, it involves a lengthy torture sequence that might serve to explain why Bond's definition of safe sex involves not a condom but a Walther PPK automatic (see Goldeneye for an explanation of that comment). For another, it spends a considerable length of time on Bond and Vesper. And most importantly, this is where you see Bond as a human being rather than as an action hero or a ruthless spy. You see him fall in love. You see him change. (I must add, in all fairness, that this is also the segment where you hear some really bad dialogue. There were moments where it compared with the tripe that Anakin and Amidala exchanged in Revenge of the Sith. Yeah, that bad. But if you can get beyond that, you will find that this is a pretty good concluding act.

Since this is a movie with more focus on plot and character than on action, much depends on the performances. Thankfully, there isn't any seriously weak link. Eva Green plays a perfect foil to his character as Vesper Lynd, the woman Bond falls in love with. The actress, once described by
Bertolucci as "so beautiful it's obscene", brings charm, sass and vulnerability to a role that has traditionally been ornamental in the Bond movies. She's given some phenomenally ripe dialogue to utter at times, but manages not to make you cringe too much. And of course, it does help that she really is so beautiful it's obscene. Judi Dench plays the tough-as-nails M as well as one would expect. Mads Mikkelsen is just about adequate as the bad guy, but since he's not after world domination, he manages to get away with an understated performance.

Which brings us, finally, to Daniel Craig. And to the question of why I consider him the best Bond ever. So here's why.

For anyone who is familiar with the franchise, the idea of a Bond origin story automatically brings back memories of the first Bond film, Dr. No. While Goldfinger has long been my favourite, I am quite fond of this one for one simple reason: it showed Bond as a resourceful, yet fallible spy. To me, Dr. No represents Connery's finest work as James Bond - he actually had to act, and create a character that audiences would love. After that outing, the last part was a given, and he simply had to embody the part. Sure, you can see him evolving through the first three movies, but these were mostly incremental changes.

Daniel Craig faces a similar, yet different challenge here: He has to create the James Bond who could've plausibly evolved into the Connery of Dr. No, and yet, he has to do enough to make the role his own in the future. It is to his credit that he absolutely nails it. He brings dimensions to the role that none of the others even suggested. By the time you hear him uttering the immortal line of introduction ("The name's Bond. James Bond."), with the John Barry theme playing in the background, you feel exhilarated.

There has been much hoo-hah on the Internet about the unsuitability of Daniel Craig for the role. Some even started a website called Folks, I dunno what you're having for dinner, but I think humble pie for desert is in order.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Freeze Frame #2: Pride and Prejudice

I quite loved the latest Jane Austen adaptation starring Keira Knightley. I thought it had a lot of life in it, and featured a great performance by Knightley as Elizabeth.

P&P has never quite appealed to me as a book - I found it to be nice, in the way that Hum Aapke Hain Koun would be nice if you went into the movie hall expecting nothing. It was obvious that there was a lot of social commentary there; I just didn't find myself captivated by it. Watching the movie, however, changed some things. And it was this little, barely noticeable pause, that did it for me.

There's this twit called Collins that wants to marry Lizzie, and she says no. Obviously, Mrs. Bennet finds her refusal unacceptable, so Lizzie turns to her dad for help. And the dad says, with trademark wry humor, "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day on, you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

Back when I read the book, this scene seemed to play for laughs. It's a good line, and conveys the father's support of his daughter at a crucial juncture. And Donald Sutherland is the kind of actor that can deliver a good line like that as well as anybody else in the business.

But no, what made all the difference for me in the movie was, after Lizzie has thanked her father and run off, and Mrs. Bennet has stomped off, the camera holds for a moment on Sutherland's pensive face. He has just given his daughter the support that she deserves, but in doing so, he has also quashed hopes of a financially advantageous marriage for one of his five daughters. It was the right thing to do, maybe, but not easy.

Freeze Frame #1: Insomnia

There's a scene in Insomnia where Al Pacino tries to get some sleep in his hotel room, but since it's daylight 24x7 in Nightmute, he can't get any sleep. So he papers all the windows so the light can't come in, but it still keeps streaming in through the gaps.

Background: Pacino plays a cop who has been called to Nightmute, Alaska on a special assignment, to investigate a homicide. Back home, there's an ongoing Internal Affairs investigation that might well lead to his doorstep. And to complicate everything, he sets a trap for the killer, and while chasing him through the mist in a forest, he shoots his partner accidentally. He covers it up by blaming the killer, but the killer knows the truth and blackmails him.

The movie is all allegory: Pacino is in a place where it's always day, and he can't get any sleep. But the condition referred to in the title is not of his body, but of his conscience. And I thought the scene in the hotel room brilliantly encapsulated it.

You don't see there, a man who can't sleep because the sunlight is streaming through his hotel room window. You see there, a man who can't sleep, and wishes it were because the sunlight is streaming through his hotel room window.

Freeze Frame!

This is going to be a series of short posts about specific moments in movies that I loved. Sometimes it's the way it was set up in previous scenes, sometimes it's the acting, sometimes it's the unsaid stuff that speaks volumes... mostly, though, it's me feeling kicked about what I saw in that scene, or what words I found to describe it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Holy Cow of Bond movies

I watched Casino Royale a few days ago. awesome movie, with a mesmerizing performance by Daniel Craig in his first Bond outing. There were a lot of dissenting voices when he was first chosen, but after this movie, I can't imagine anybody still objecting.

I have this long-overdue rant about Sean Connery as James Bond. Everyone talks about the actors who played Bond other than Connery, and the verdict, even at its most flattering, is that the guy was the best since Connery. Why is that?

Take Daniel Craig, for instance. The guy's delivered a brilliant performance as Bond in his first outing. he's given the role additional depth, and really made it his own. and yet, NOBODY ever
says, "He's the best Bond ever." Taste is subjective, and the guy definitely delivered a brilliant performance - there should've been at least a few who thought he was better than Sean Connery. But no, everybody tiptoes around that possibility, for fear of desecrating some superspy holy cow. I'll admit that Connery was damn good. I'll also admit that, despite my line about the subjectivity of taste, Roger Moore was godawful in A View to a Kill, no matter which yardstick you use to measure performance. But is Connery unbeatable by default?

Personally, even after a single outing, I prefer daniel craig over all the other Bonds *including* the venerable Connery. For me, the difference is this: Connery basically had to embody a particular personality, and you could see it evolving over time, movie after movie. Whereas with Daniel Craig, he's had to do a lot more heavy lifting in this outing - he has an actual character arc, an almost unheard of phenomenon with Bond movies. The guy has the looks, he has the talent, and he has the ability to convey the aspect of a predator.

Part of this is a matter of chance. Casino Royale was the first Bond novel - like a superhero origin story, it described how Bond came to be the Bond the world knew from then on - so it has a lot more focus on the character. But then, Connery had the advantage of being the first in the role (barring an ill-fated tv adaptation earlier to that), so it kinda evens out. Both Craig and Connery had their advantages, and they used it well. And at the end of the day, I think Craig did better. I don't expect that everyone will/should agree with me on this. But it's statistically
impossible that nobody does. that's what gets my goat.

Friday, November 10, 2006

On the new Don

Note: This isn't really a review. In fact, if you haven't seen the movie, I suggest you don't read this post, coz there be spoilers!

You have been warned. Now, on with the post.

Generally, when I review or rate a movie, I do it on the basis of the following question: Did it achieve what it set out to achieve? Not that asking this question makes my review any less subjective. It just allows me to love both Citizen Kane and Main Hoon Na without feeling all conflicted about it.

With remakes, there's an additional layer to that: How does the movie rate, if you did not know that it is a remake? And, how did the maker of this movie view it, in the context of the original? I'm distinguishing here between remakes and rip-offs - this post is about movies where the maker acknowledges what inspired him/her.

But with Don, despite the fact that it shares some major plot points and dialogue with the Amitabh starrer, I'm not entirely sure I could call it a remake. It's more like, Farhan Akhtar has taken some of the original movie's ingredients and added things of his own to the mix. And since what he has added is significant, you can no longer look at it as the same dish.


For one thing, the Iftikhar role is redefined. Boman Irani seems to be rehashing the same role up to a point, and then it is revealed that he has his own agenda. That he is not really a conscientious cop but a drug lord in hiding, using Vijay to eliminate his arch enemy in the business.

It adds an interesting layer to Vijay's struggle to prove his innocence, until we realize, right at the end, that it's not Vijay at all - there's been a double switcheroo, and we've been watching Don playing Vijay playing Don all this time. Nice little trick, that.

The surprise ending now makes you wonder: since the movie more or less followed the same broad outline as far as SRK's charcter was concerned, is it still consistent given the final twist? As in, is every one of SRK's actions justifiable, given that he is actually Don playing Vijay playing Don? I can think of only one weak spot: after SRK's escape from the plane, he goes back to meet Priyanka and tries to prove his innocence. Why woould he want to do that? As far as he is concerned, Boman Irani is dead. And as he mentions right at the end, there was nothing in the disc he gave Boman in the first place. So he might as well just escape.

The plausible explanation for this would be, I guess, that he wanted to get away clean - prove his innocence as Vijay, then stage his own death so that no loose ends are left. The problem with that explanation is simply this: If he wanted to do that, why did he reveal his identity to Priyanka through an oblique clue right at the very end? He was clearly smart enough to know that it would give the game away. Was it just him showing off? Or was it the writer showing off?

Apart from that, I think it's a good twist. And when you look back on it, you see a lot of scenes where he's given you little clues to the truth - like when he goes to visit Arjun Rampal's kid at the school and initially doesn't seem to recognize him, and so on.

But to me, the more impressive thing is the way Farhan Akhtar recognized a crucial choice in the script and chose wisely. Boman Irani reveals his true identity at the end of the first half. And until the major players (Arjun Rampal and SRK) get to know this, there seems to be no reason for this to be revealed to the audience. It seemed at first as if he had spoiled what could've been a major surprise by telling us early.

But here's why I think he did it: By telling us about Boman, and getting us to focus on that twist, he kept us engaged on that front while quietly preparing us for the surprise ending. The fact that
the man who we thought was Vijay is really Don, is a bigger surprise than the fact that Boman was actually a drug lord. By sacrificing the latter, he made the former more powerful. Smart piece of decision making there, I thought.