Saturday, June 20, 2009

"You look like hell"

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)

 Olga Kurylenko is a revelation in the new Bond.

MARTIN Campbell’s reboot of the 007 phenomenon - CASINO ROYALE (2006) - not only redefined the series but gained international praise that the Bond films had never enjoyed even in their 1960s heyday. Its direct sequel, Marc Forster’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE, deeply divided fans and critics alike, and carries on the story seemingly minutes later, with the elusive Mr White (Jesper Christensen) now in the boot of Bond (Daniel Craig)’s Aston Martin. It’s a high-speed, hyper-edited opening typical of the whole film; with a total running time of just over one hundred minutes, it moves with insulting velocity across Italy, Haiti, Austria and Bolivia; but consider how many Bonds - including Campbell’s film - that run out of steam as they drag themselves drunkenly across the two hour mark.

In Haiti, Bond observes pouting Camille (Olga Kurylenko) - actually a Bolivian agent - and boyfriend Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a petulant eco-criminal busily finessing the oil and water reserves of South America for his own gain under the manipulation of his overlords, the Quantum organisation. At the inception of the cinematic Bond, successive villains were revealed to be minions to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of Spectre. But with the rights to Spectre currently under dispute, their place is taken by the mysterious Quantum, who can even infiltrate to the level of M (Judi Dench)’s private bodyguard. We learn nothing of the organisation, yet there is a complication - hinted at in the novel Thunderball (1961) - that Spectre is a subcontractor for the British Secret Service and the CIA. This notion that M’s superiors and allies are as likely to back Quantum as oppose it is underpinned by world-weary spy Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), when he states, “When one’s young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong. As one gets older, it becomes more difficult.”

Gemma Arterton offers Daniel Craig his only sex scene.

Ian Fleming wrote about pain, fear, and the combination of courage and endurance. That is very much what we see in Craig’s Bond. Craig’s engaging performance is the glue that holds the film together; he's even more intense in this revenge-based tale, traumatised almost into a dream state over the betrayal of Vesper in the last instalment, motivating a morose martini binge which seem to provide Bond with the recipe for dulling his feelings while still keeping his reflexes sharp. The closest to any tenderness displayed by Bond is in the scene where he hugs a dying Mathis before he disposes of his corpse in a dumpster (“He wouldn’t care.”) Kurylenko also greatly impresses, not only with her smouldering beauty, but with the ability to hold an onscreen presence with Craig. Camille, having had her family raped and burnt alive by a deposed Bolivian dictator, also has her mind on retaliation; Kurylenko’s scarred heroine is so fixed on murdering her enemy that it’s possible she technically doesn’t even count as a Bond Girl. As the main villain, Polanskiesque Amairic is erudite, charming but ultimately a physical weakling, his smirk bringing a wickedly childish spite to this role. Greene is an interesting foil but underwritten, never really getting the chance to have the kind of show-stopping scene his predecessors have enjoyed, even within the climax set in an Adamesque Bolivian desert hotel.

The overall scheme by Greene may not be very compelling (water rights in Bolivia, anyone?), and there is no development arc to any of the characters, but QUANTUM OF SOLACE is so refreshing because it departs from many conventions: it is a Bond Film, rather than a Bond Movie. There is no introduction of “Bond, James Bond,” no gadgets, cringe worthy quips or scenic padding, nor does he sleep with the leading lady (instead, there's a just-for-fun fling with MI6 emissary Ms Fields (Gemma Arterton), who enters in an impossible trenchcoat and exits in a surrealistic homage to Shirley Eaton). But QUANTUM OF SOLACE is cursed by the worst theme ever in the Bond canon - a first-ever duet - teaming Jack White and Alicia Keys for Another Way to Die. This makes Madonna’s song for DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002) seem like Goldfinger, as the duo screech like banshees through inane lyrics and embarrassing disjointment.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Family Values

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY (1969)
THE CHILDREN (2008)
MUM & DAD (2008)

MUM & DAD is the sickest movie ever to bear the BBC Films logo.

HOME-BASED dysfunction and horror go together like Norman Bates and Mother. The template made in PSYCHO (1960) has divided into two distinct, transatlantic lines; while Britain produced Freddie Francis’ MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY and Pete Walker’s FRIGHTMARE (1974), America's more influential variant came out of Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). The family is problematic in horror because of repressed violence and sexuality; perhaps this is why US films are more powerful, as they concentrate on more overt, baroque situations, and also act in direct contradiction of the American Dream. Francis’ film - for example - has a more underlying, sardonic approach typical of British fare.

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY is the story of a wealthy family who live in an isolated, Victorian mansion. Their lives are devoted to acting out a fantasy from which they never go out of character, and rarely speak in any way other than baby talk. They are free from the divisiveness of growing up and puberty; even though “children” Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are in their twenties, they sleep in giant cribs and dress like sixth-formers. Sonny and Girly regularly seek out loners to bring back to their house to play “The Game”; when the “new friends” refuse, they are “sent to the angels.” One day, they kill a male prostitute (Michael Bryant)’s girlfriend (Imogen Hassall) and convince him that he was responsible. And after bringing him back to their house, he seduces each of the women and turns the family against itself. It’s a playful allegory of the breakdown of the nuclear family of the 1950s as a result of the free love movement of the 1960s, and has echoes of PEEPING TOM (1960) as Sonny films his killings for Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and Nanny (Pat Heywood), and even predates THE SHINING (1980)’s axe through the door and FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)’s cooking pot scene. But it’s a tedious affair hindered by weak casting: Bryant, in particular, is totally out of depth to convince that he has any sexual prowess to control the females.

HOLLYOAKS veteran Hannah Tointon plays a teenage daughter caught between bickering parents and murdering minors in THE CHILDREN.

Openly acknowledging its debts to MUMSY and FRIGHTMARE, Steven Sheil’s micro-budgeted MUM & DAD is the story of Heathrow Airport cleaner Lena (Olga Fedori), a Polish girl estranged from her family. She is befriended by chatty co-worker Birdie (Ainsley Howard) and her mute brother Elbie (Toby Alexander), and when Lena misses her last bus home, the Pole accompanies them to their nearby house - an undesirable suburban semi under the Heathrow flight pass - where she is drugged and chained. Birdie and Elbie’s parents - known only as Mum (Dido Miles) and Dad (Perry Benson) - abduct surrogate children who are forced to co-operate in thieving from airport luggage, and subject them to gruelling ordeals as they are forced into the deranged family unit.

MUM & DAD is a brave attempt at British Torture Porn under the shroud of Fred and Rosemary West, and works both as a study of the English underclass and as symbolic of the way Britain exploits foreign labour. Benson’s Dad is a beer-bellied, thick-spectacled, brutal letch, and the sight of his flabby, naked arse is only championed by what may well be cinema’s most disgusting masturbation scene involving a slab of bloody, unidentifiable meat. Miles is equally unsettling as the outwardly warm maternal figure, and Howard’s cheery performance adds another dimension to the depravity (though a secret, drooling child hidden on the top floor - perhaps Mum and Dad’s true offspring - is the most grimmest element).

“In a happy family you must always have rules.”

Tom Shankland’s THE CHILDREN also offers an off-kilter look at family life. Set in an isolated, (slightly) snowbound locale over a New Year family get-together, the children soon become sick and turn into killers; the smugness of the upper middle-class parents is slowly peeled away by their children’s alternate whining pleas for comfort and vicious attacks. While ostensibly well meaning and providing their kids with encouragement, the two sets of parents are too caught up in their own concerns to detect the problems with the increasingly broody children, and even when realisation finally hits, they still allow prejudices and assumptions to blind them.

The subgenre of monstrous minors never appeared onscreen until after World War II; strictly speaking, they arrive in the 1950s, following the displacement of so many children whose potential where uncertain. THE CHILDREN draws from a rich legacy of problem child cinema - THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) and THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971), to name only two - in exploring fears of innocence lost. Unlike these supernatural forebears, however, Shankland’s film is seated in the present’s fixation with illness and pandemics. The reason for the children’s behaviour is not explained - a virus is the most likely, and there is a playful reference to MMR jabs - and the dinner scene, where the tide turns, is an undoubted highlight. While the killings tend towards the OMEN-styled novelty variety (such as a lethal combination of toboggan and garden rake), they are nevertheless carried out with infectious, ghoulish glee.