Top Ten.. War Films

War films have always been a huge part of why I love cinema. I spent a large portion of my childhood watching old war movies with my Grandad, and that probably explains why I came to be so fascinated by both history and film. Next month sees the release of Christopher Nolan’s new war epic, Dunkirk, and to celebrate I thought it would be appropriate to assemble a list of my top ten favourite war films.  I’ve loosely and arbitrarily defined the genre as “films which are about war”, rather than films which happen to have a bit of war in them or use war as a setting (so Dr Zhivago, Casablanca, and Barry Lyndon, for example, did not qualify). I also can’t claim to have been in any way objective or comprehensive – this is an entirely subjective collection of the war films which I enjoy the most. My honourable mentions go to The Great Escape, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and The Thin Red Line, which just failed to make the cut.

10. Das Boot (1981)

dasboot

No film has ever established a sense of claustrophobia as effectively as Das Boot. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of a German U-Boat in the Second World War, the film examines the psychological toll of intense confinement at sea, and strikingly captures the excitement and terror of naval combat. It’s the distant nature of submarine warfare which gives Das Boot its unique character, as glimpses of the enemy are fleeting. Instead, the camera remains trapped within the oppressive metal hull of the U-Boat, forced to exist intimately alongside the crew just as they live and work alongside each other. It’s a heady and immersive atmosphere which benefits from authentic set design and ingenious use of sound, bringing the audience constantly closer to the actors on screen; tension becomes suffocating while brief moments of relief are jubilant. Director Wolfgang Petersen has gone on to helm a number of American action films, including Air Force One and Troy, but none have come close to this maritime triumph.

9. Zulu (1964)

zulu

Zulu is the quintessential film about a siege, a classic tale of outnumbered heroes desperately defending themselves against overwhelming odds. The film avoids the jingoistic trappings which could so easily have defined it, and the bloody consequences of battle are never shied away from. The result is a three dimensional and often melancholic tale of heroism, punctuated by rousing battle scenes and superlative performances. Michael Caine is a revelation in his first major role as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, an upper-class officer whose preconceptions about his enemy and the very nature of war are rapidly challenged. Meanwhile the South African locations are vividly captured in bold technicolour photography as John Barry’s iconic soundtrack swells underneath. Zulu adopts an unrelenting pace almost immediately, and the first act is a masterclass in building tension. The taut structure unsurprisingly served as the inspiration for, among others, the Battle of Ramelle in Saving Private Ryan and the Battle for Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. An undisputed classic of British cinema, Zulu remains a touchstone within the war genre.

8. Land and Freedom (1995)

landandfreedom

Land and Freedom is an atypical film from Ken Loach, a name usually associated with kitchen-sink dramas about tragedy in the North of England. This story focuses on the tumult and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, told through the experiences of a Liverpudlian, David Carr, after he volunteers to fight in late 1936. Although historical accuracy is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of drama or the director’s political leanings, it’s one of the few English-language films to address the Civil War in Spain, and isn’t afraid to confront its political complexities. Indeed, the film’s central characters spend more time debating land collectivisation than they do fighting fascists, but Loach never loses sight of the humanity at the heart of his story. Thus, with Land and Freedom, a human perspective is given to a conflict which is often confusing and opaque, and the result is an emotionally affecting and heart-wrenching experience.

7. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

bridgetoofar

The last of the truly epic war films, it would be impossible to make a movie like this today. Chronicling the last major allied defeat of the Second World War, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far plays out with a mind boggling scope. The screen is decorated with unquantifiable numbers of aircraft, troops, and ground vehicles, while the credits are the stuff of fantasy; Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal, Liv Ullman, Hardy Kruger, Elliot Gould – the list goes on and on. The film undeniably creaks under its own weight at times, and Robert Redford’s late-70s hairdo is one of many anachronisms, but the immense scale of A Bridge Too Far remains an impressive achievement. Above all, it demonstrates the potential of film to transport audiences to another time and place, communicating history as a living, palpable reality.

6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

privateryan

It is difficult to overstate the influence of Saving Private Ryan on the war genre, or even cinema as a whole. Steven Spielberg’s visceral style captured the brutal sights and sounds of battle with a greater verisimilitude than had ever been seen before, and in doing so reinvented the popular understanding of the Second World War. Bookended by two combat sequences which remain as shocking today as they were almost twenty years ago, Saving Private Ryan exposed war for the hell that it is; an unrelenting and confusing frenzy of gore, death, and destruction. However, to define the film by its moments of violence is to do it a disservice. At its core, Saving Private Ryan is the story of men at war, and how they are able to come to terms with, if not justify, their actions whilst remaining in touch with their own humanity. The film’s most effecting moments are not firefights, but conversations, a fact which been largely missed by its many imitators. An overdose of Spielbergian sentimentality undeniably creeps in at times, but the movie remains a mature reflection on the corrupting and dehumanising influence of war. The pervasive influence of Saving Private Ryan may be observed as recently as last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but Spielberg’s anti-war epic remains unmatched.

5. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

eagles

Not every war film can be a profound, anti-war lecture on man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes, watching people pretend to kill each other can actually be a lot of fun, and this is never truer than in Brian G Hutton’s Second World War thriller, Where Eagles Dare. In 1944, an allied commando team is parachuted into the Austrian Alps in order to rescue a captured American general, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Twists and double-crosses ensue as a complex and rewarding plot unfolds, which goes far beyond the usual expectations of escapist entertainment. More importantly, Where Eagles Dare combines an infinitely hummable soundtrack with an array of superbly executed action set pieces, whilst Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood offer effortlessly charismatic lead performances.  The ultimate “blokes-on-a-mission” movie, this is the best example of a genre which includes classics like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and Inglourious Basterds – a perfect accompaniment to a lazy bank holiday or Sunday afternoon.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

screenshot-lrg-34

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now often feels more like an ordeal than a movie. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, this film is the definitive cinematic treatise on the Vietnam war; a bloody, surreal, and darkly comic odyssey down the Nung River. At every turn, Coppola fills the frame with iconic images, from the opening shot of a jungle doused in napalm to a swarm of helicopter gunships descending on a beachside village. The eclectic soundtrack relies as much on The Doors as it does Richard Wagner, providing a perfectly intoxicating backdrop for the increasingly hellish events on screen. By the time of the climactic montage of death, it’s difficult to argue with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz as he whispers his final words; “The horror. The horror.” Perhaps more impressive than the film itself is the story of how it was made, an astounding tale which is excellently chronicled in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

3. Paths of Glory (1957)

pathsofglory

Stanley Kubrick’s First World War drama spends most of its time in a picturesque chateau far behind the front lines, but still provides a powerful commentary on the inhumanity and callousness which guided the so-called Great War. The first act of Paths of Glory contains one of the most visceral sequences of trench warfare put to film, showcasing Kubrick’s rarely observed talent as a director of action. Kirk Douglas has never been better than in this dominating performance as Colonel Dax, a French officer who defends his three of his men against trumped-up charges of cowardice. The emptiness of death hangs over the film like an unbearable stench, serving as a constant reminder of the utter hopelessness and terror of war. Despite its cynicism, however, the film’s final moments are a plea to the essential goodness of the human spirit – a much needed tribute to humanity within an atmosphere of oppressive inhumanity.

2. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

riverkwai

Set in a Japanese forced labour camp in Burma during the Second World War, Bridge on the River Kwai serves as a powerful testament to the madness and futility of war. What the film lacks in historical accuracy it more than compensates for in drama, as the perilous construction of the eponymous bridge is contrasted against the allied commando unit who are despatched to destroy it. Alec Guinness stars in an Oscar-winning turn as Colonel Nicholson, a British commanding officer who’s pride and upper-class fortitude lead him to unwittingly collaborate with his Japanese captors. It’s a brave and complex story for a film made so shortly after the war’s end, and was not without controversy upon its release. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson’s script deals in weighty and existentialist themes, but they’re packaged within an exciting World War Two adventure and complemented by David Lean’s characteristically stunning cinematography.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence

David Lean’s finest cinematic achievement and probably the most beautiful film ever made, it feels like a disservice to call Lawrence of Arabia a “war movie”. Of course, this First World War drama deals heavily and effectively in epic battle sequences and sweeping desert panoramas, but these serve as an accompaniment to the nuanced character study which forms the centre of the film. Peter O’Toole’s performance as the enigmatic and controversial TE Lawrence is rightfully iconic, masterfully moving between charisma, melancholy, and madness, while the camera lingers lovingly over his absurdly striking features. Over the nearly four-hour runtime, Lawrence remains a frustrating and impenetrable figure, a perfect cipher for the confusion of war and what it does to the human soul. In its final act, Lawrence of Arabia moves beyond the personal to cast a cynical eye over the political machinations which control and manipulate conflict for their own benefit. It’s a multi-layered experience which reveals more upon every viewing, and should be seen on the largest screen possible.

New Articles on Den of Geek!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to write a couple of pieces for the amazing people over at Den of Geek. Hopefully this relationship will continue for the foreseeable future, but to find everything I’ve written for the Den so far you can click here.

Alternatively, I will be using this blog to curate all of my work which has been featured on other websites, just head over to the Other Stuff I’ve Written page for the full list.

For now though, here are my first two articles for Den of Geek:

Bond 25, and the untapped stories of the novels – Den of Geek
bondden

Putting the film back into films – Den of Geek
projector

Keep checking back for more content!

Lots of Love,

Mark.

2016 – A Year In Review

It’s been one hell of a year. When looking back over the events of 2016, films might be the very last thing on your mind. But amongst tragedy, political turmoil, and the ongoing collapse of Western civilisation, the cinema screens of the world have provided a few moments of much-needed respite.

Of course, not all has been entirely well in the world of celluloid. Some of the industry’s finest talents have sadly left us this year, including Alan Rickman, Guy Hamilton, Anton Yelchin, Robin Hardy, and Gene Wilder. Meanwhile, the DC Universe, for which hopes had been so high, remains floundering, facing a renewed critical mauling with every entry. And the avalanche of lacklustre sequels and reboots has continued unabated, bringing Ben-Hur, Ghostbusters, Independence Day: Resurgence, and a multitude of others too depressing to name.

sevignybeckinsale-xlarge
“Whit Stillman made a triumphant return with Love and Friendship

Amidst all this, however, a few beacons of light continue to shine through the tumult. In May, director Whit Stillman made a triumphant return with Love and Friendship, a bitingly funny and lavishly decorated adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan. Starring Kate Beckinsale, with supporting appearances by Chloe Sevingy and Stephen Fry, Love and Friendship was a welcome surprise in the dour summer line-up, and a testament to the cinematic potential of Austen’s prose.

Summer also saw the UK release of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, a beautiful and haunting film set in the Amazon rainforest during the early twentieth century. Telling the parallel stories of two western explorers, the film is rooted in a familiar adventure narrative, owing a clear debt to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its many imitators. However, this time the focus is transposed from the outsider to the native point of view, providing an unvarnished perspective on the horrors and barbarity of colonialism. David Gallego’s monochrome photography perfectly captures the tragedy of a civilisation and a people since lost to time.

Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, was another surprising coup which left critics rightly bowled over. A gritty heist film with neo-western inflections, Hell or High Water wisely distinguishes itself with a focus on snappy, amusing dialogue and a cast of genuinely sympathetic characters. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine both provide first-class performances as two men on opposite sides of the law, but equally adrift in declining rural America. A film which reaffirms your faith in old-fashioned, character driven storytelling.

The funniest and most charming movie of the year arrived in the form of Hunt For the Wilderpeople, a distinctively New Zealand-flavoured hit. Directed by Taika Watiti, the darling of kiwi comedy, Wilderpeople pitches screen legend Sam Neill alongside newcomer Julian Dennison, both bringing superb chemistry to a script that deals in equal parts hilarity and pathos. For anyone tired of the vulgarity and excess that characterises much of the modern comedy genre, this film provides a necessarily witty antidote.

wilderpeoplephoto
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, “the funniest and most charming movie of the year”

It’s also been a great year for documentaries; Ava DuVernay delivered a scathing critique of modern America’s prison-industrial complex in the made-for-Netlifx 13th, while Mat Whitecross’ Supersonic gave a visceral insight into the heights of Britpop. My pick of the bunch, however, would have to be Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s exhaustive take on the heady days of Beatlemania between 1962 and 1966. For Beatles fanatics such as myself, the film is a gratifying tour of songs and characters that have become an essential part of my brain’s wiring. For novice audiences, the heavy use of original concert footage helps to illustrate why those four musicians were such a phenomenon. It may not open your eyes to a great injustice or inspire you to change the world, but as entertainers The Beatles remain unparalleled.

As summer came to a close, films with a greater social consciousness came to the fore. I, Daniel Blake, the Palme D’Or winning drama from Ken Loach, went on general release. The film acts as an enraged indictment of the political status-quo, detailing how the country’s most vulnerable people are being condemned to a precarious and pitiful existence. Paul Laverty’s screenplay is wholly human in both its warmth and its anguish, while the central performances by Dave Johns and Hayley Squires have a painfully clear ring of authenticity. For anyone who wants to understand the impact of austerity politics beyond a series of faceless statistics, I, Daniel Blake will outrage and enlighten you.

daniel-blake
I, Daniel Blake will outrage and enlighten you”

If the dreary reality of Ken Loach’s Britain is too much for you, then Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival has an altogether more hopeful outlook. This magnificent sci-fi is imbued with a palpable sense of awe and wonder, but never loses sight of its essentially human heart, anchored to an astonishing centrepiece performance from Amy Adams. After the moribund programme of blockbusters this summer, it is a joy to see mainstream film-making that is ambitious not only in spectacle, but in ideas. Dealing in substantial themes, from personal loss to geopolitical tension, Arrival feels all-too-relevant in the growing uncertainty of today’s world, but does so with an accessible and life-affirming vigour. Villeneuve has emerged as one of the finest and most versatile directors currently working, a reassuring sign for next year’s Blade Runner sequel. You’ll be left with plenty to think about once the credits roll, leaving the cinema on a thoughtful and wholly positive note.

All things considered, then, 2016 hasn’t been a bad year for film-goers. Admittedly, I can’t pretend to have been entirely comprehensive in my praise – a student’s budget can only provide for a limited number of cinema tickets, after all. And of course, at the time of writing, some of the year’s most anticipated pictures are yet to be released, with upcoming titles including the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, and Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence. Yet, as the curtain falls on 2016 and we look forward to another year, it’s becoming increasingly risky to count on anything. As long as they keep making movies, I’ll make do with that.

 

This article was first published in Exeposé, Exeter University’s independent student newspaper. To find more of my work for Exeposé, click here.

What are film critics for?

This article was first published in Exeposé, Exeter University’s independent student newspaper. To find more of my work for Exeposé, click here.

audience.jpg
Like lambs to the slaughter.

Alex Proyas, the much maligned director of I, Robot and Gods of Egypt, recently called film critics “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”. As part of a bizarre Facebook rant, Proyas said that critics “have no personal taste or opinion”, and would soon be going “the way of the dinosaur or the newspaper”. Popular film critic Mark Kermode, never one to take a beating lying down, responded that if he really was a “vulture”, then surely that made Proyas’ films as good as roadkill.

Although Proyas may hope to blame critics for the financial failure of his films, the reality is that professional movie criticism has very little impact on the box office. To take just one example, Michael Bay’s Transformers saga has received intense critical savaging with every new installment, yet the two most recent entries soared past the $1 billion mark at the global box office. A similar story is true of the various Pirates of the Caribbean sequels; universal derision within critical circles, but unadulterated hits among the film-going public.

This apparent paradox has felt more prescient recently, as a number of 2016’s biggest films received a notably poor reception in the press. The newest entries in the fledgling DC Universe, Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, are both sitting on a decidedly “rotten” rating on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, the two films have earned a comfortable profit during their theatrical runs, despite a quibbling notion of “under-performance”. As far as the money is concerned, these big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Positive reviews have a similarly negligible impact on a film’s chances at the box office. Star Trek Beyond and the controversial Ghostbusters remake were both released this year to a surprisingly upbeat press response, but neither has really succeeded in earning its keep, thus bringing the future of both franchises into doubt. Of course, critical darlings often fail to reap millions – you’ll rarely see a blockbuster sweeping the awards ceremonies – but the authority of critics remains ineffectual even when their praise is focused on mainstream fare.

If the influence of critics is really so limited, then why do people appear to care so deeply about what they have to say? Part of this phenomenon is surely down to the growth of review aggregate websites. Pages like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic attempt to condense often hundreds of reviews into some kind of binary compromise, usually a rating out of 100. While this is helpful if a film is genuinely loved or hated on a mass scale, it entirely fails to take diversity of criticism into account. By aggregating a broad range of opinions into a single figure, these websites rob film reviews of all their nuance, enforcing a consensus that may not actually exist. Many film buffs will no longer go to a single reviewer that they know and trust, but rather check if the assembled might of the world’s press have deemed a picture “rotten” or “fresh”.

The result is that far more weight is given to critical consensus than is really warranted. Narratives are quickly built around a film’s quality or popular reception, and these narratives don’t always reflect the lived reality of the cinema going public. Outside of the critical bubble, audiences remain as fickle and easily pleased as ever. The job of the critic is not to decide which films succeed and which do not, and the truth is that they rarely do.

Top 5… Best Suits in Cinema

More or less since the dawn of celluloid, men’s clothing and the world of cinema have been intrinsically linked. Typically dressed by the world’s best tailors and fashion houses, Hollywood’s leading men act as a rich and diverse record of style throughout the twentieth century. As an enthusiast of both film and classic menswear, I’ve assembled a list of my personal top five suits in cinema. I can’t pretend that I’ve been in any way exhaustive or impartial – instead you’ll find a slim selection of my favourite suits to ever grace the silver screen.

5. Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959)

grantedited

Roger O Thornhill, New York ad man and victim of a mistaken identity, is one of Cary Grant’s most iconic roles. It’s fitting, then, that his wardrobe is similarly recognisable. This two piece, woven in a subtle grey and blue check, is worn for most of the film’s runtime, even as our hero is violently pursued by planes, trains, and automobiles. Blending American and British styles, this suit is a perfect example of late fifties tailoring, worn with panache by one of Hollywood’s most stylish men.

4. Michael Caine in Get Carter (1971)

caineedited

Get Carter was a landmark moment in the heritage of British gangster films, but also indicated a major transition in Michael Caine’s career, pitting him as a remorseless and vengeful London gangster, Jack Carter. Directly as he steps off the train in Newcastle, Carter’s suit clearly distinguishes him from his surroundings; the sombre, close-cut three piece is immediately distinct from the casual tweeds he encounters in the North. Tailored by the legendary Douglas Hayward, Caine’s suit makes few concessions to the fashions of the time, creating a sense of timeless style that remains as impressive today as in 1971.

3. James Stewart in Rope (1948)

jimmyropeedited

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s more overlooked films, Rope is never short on beautiful tailoring. Jimmy Stewarts’s Rupert Cadell, however, is a cut above his co-stars. The three-piece suit, crafted from a heavy wool and featuring large, peaked lapels, is a beautiful demonstration of late forties opulence. Other details include a pinned shirt collar, a classic but stylish touch which helps to establish Stewart’s character as a one of taste and refinement.

2. Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

thomascrownedited

Steve McQueen was a man who looked good in more or less anything, and The Thomas Crown Affair is an effective demonstration of this fact. From business suits to casual knitwear, McQueen never fails to cut an elegant figure. His first suit of the film, however, is in a league of its own. This grey three piece, featuring a peculiarly straight-bottomed waistcoat, exudes an impossible level of cool. The list’s second example of Douglas Hayward tailoring, McQueen’s suit also illustrates how a relatively limited colour pallet can achieve eye-catching results

1. Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964)

connery-edited

The fifty-year history of the Bond franchise is littered with stunning outfits, but this three-piece example from Goldfinger surely remains Bond’s finest sartorial moment. Produced by Sean Connery’s usual tailor at the time, Anthony Sinclair, the Goldfinger suit is defined by its ageless appearance and superb detailing, from a subtle Prince of Wales check to the waistcoat’s notched lapels. Paired simply with a white shirt and navy knitted tie, the suit is an unfussy but masterful take on classic tailoring.

“Drama is Conflict” – A Barry Lyndon Retrospective

Barry Lyndon is a powerful reflection on eighteenth century life and the fallibility of the human condition.

Captura-de-pantalla-2013-11-15-a-las-12.37.13
Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry, later Barry Lyndon. Copyright 1975 Warner Bros.

It has become something of a cliché to refer to Barry Lyndon as “overlooked”. For any number of reasons, Stanley Kubrick’s 1976 masterpiece appears to have escaped the general acclaim that follows many of his other films, at least outside of critical circles. Nevertheless, it remains one of my all-time favourites. Cinematography, music, and editing all combine to produce a spectacular film of unparalleled beauty. Now in its fortieth year, the picture is receiving a cinema re-release across the country. This, one hopes, will do something to redress its relative obscurity.

Barry Lyndon is often criticised as being about nothing in particular. It may be very beautiful, they say, but why should we care about Redmond Barry himself? Such arguments, however, depend on the assumption that we are supposed to care about him. But Barry’s life is not one of any real significance. Watching him drift through existence is almost a voyeuristic act; he fights battles, beds women, and cheats at cards, as if in a series of paintings, but we are never invested in his travels, nor do we understand his passions and motivations. He remains impenetrable.

This is no mistake. As we study Barry, our struggle to comprehend him prevents us from feeling either sympathy or detestation. Kubrick himself said that cinema is unique as an art form in that it provides an “objective reality”, an unvarnished vision of life, supported in Barry Lyndon by an impartial, third-person narrator. Barry’s experiences are presented at face value, which, despite great sound and fury, amount to very little. As if we are appreciating a Gainsborough portrait, what we see is what he get.

Captura-de-pantalla-2013-11-15-a-las-12.47.16
Copyright 1975 Warner Bros.

If you are able to detach yourself from grasping the central character, however, then Barry Lyndon is about a great deal. Despite its title, the film isn’t really concerned with its characters – they exist to serve a much wider narrative. Fundamentally, it is a story that hinges on conflict. The world of the film, and Barry’s life itself, is defined by conflict – of the heart, the head, and the sword. Obviously, the picture begins during the Seven Years’ War; a destructive struggle fought on a global scale, which the narrator tells us would take “a great philosopher and historian” to explain. Barry finds himself fighting for two different armies in this campaign, and he is seen to commit acts of great bravery and cowardice. If Kubrick has a central message, perhaps it is that life is too frustrating and paradoxical to be understood in broad strokes.

As soon as Barry escapes the war, the inferno of battle is repeatedly supplanted by another form of conflict. At first he is a spy for the Prussian government, before changing sides and conspiring with his intended target. Again, Barry is presented as an individual with whom allegiances are as quickly made as they are broken, a man who is never contented and always seeks another path. Ultimately, it is this internal conflict that will contribute to both his rise and his downfall.

Barry is quickly made a free man, and he uses this new volition to seek out fresh quarrels on his journey to prosperity. He competes for the affection of Lady H Lyndon, a married woman of great status and wealth. While this battle appears to have been won with the timely demise of Lady Lyndon’s husband, Barry finds a new enemy in the oedipal devotion of her son, Lord Bullingdon. It is never quite clear who is the more responsible party in this dreadful feud, but Barry, whose life has thus far been a series of struggles, is only able to fight fire with fire.

Of course, not all of Barry’s conflicts are self-afflicted. In the latter part of the film, he is set upon by a timeless and altogether less palpable enemy – class. Despite his continued efforts to rise above his station, Barry remains, as Lord Bullingdon puts it, an “Irish upstart”. He is unable to reconcile his tumultuous past with his newfound position, reaching a devastating climax as he lashes out violently, and publicly, against Bullingdon. For the assembled congregation of gentry, Barry is a discordant outsider.

Captura-de-pantalla-2013-11-15-a-las-14.00.41
Copyright 1975 Warner Bros.

For a film so rooted in conflict, it is appropriate that Barry Lyndon is bookended by two pistol duels. During the final, disastrous confrontation, many of the film’s predominant themes are exposed. Barry clearly hails from a different world to that of his opponent, Bullingdon; a world of hardship rather than privilege, and brutality rather than manners. Nevertheless, he faces the duel with more honour and courage than his high-born enemy could ever muster. As Barry fights with equal parts defiance and mercy, Bullingdon is a snivelling and pathetic sight – the premature discharge of his pistol is an unsubtle, emasculatory metaphor. Here, conflict is again used to highlight the inconsistency of the human condition.

Of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick stated that “drama is conflict”. Conflict raises Barry into the immense fortune that he desires, and conflict brings this ideal world crashing down around him. While it may be difficult to empathise with, or even to understand the film’s characters, their individual battles offer a window into eighteenth century life – its culture, its prejudices, and its hypocrisies. Not only do they seek conflict, but they inhabit a world in which conflict seeks them. Conflict propels them forward, encouraging both humanity and ruthlessness, but also stops them dead in their tracks. Put simply, Barry Lyndon is not a film about characters, but what happens to those characters. Our role is not as jurors or judges, but spectators.

 

For anyone interested in reading more about Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick was interviewed by Michel Ciment following the film’s release. Available here, the interview details some of Kubrick’s ideas and processes, as well as some interesting trivia about the making of the film.

Every James Bond Film Ranked

As the longest running franchise in film history, the Bond pictures have had their fair share of ups and downs. Below you’ll find my ranking of all 24 James Bond films in the official Eon Productions series, from Dr No (1962) to Spectre (2015). Enjoy, and feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts.

1. From Russia With Love (1963)

fromrussiawithlovebdcap5_original

From Russia with Love isn’t just the quintessential Bond film, it’s the perfect spy thriller. Only the second film in the series, From Russia With Love pinned down Bond’s signature style without finding itself bogged down in formula, focussed on a complex and believable cold-war plot. The 115-minute runtime is littered with iconic dialogue and action sequences, while the best Bond, Sean Connery, provides a relaxed and charismatic performance. Highlights include Bond’s fisticuffs with the psychopathic Red Grant and a visceral shoot-out in a Turkish gypsy camp. It simply doesn’t get better than this.

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

large_ohmss_blu-ray_44

Perhaps the most sorely overlooked Bond adventure, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service treats the spy with a maturity and a depth otherwise unseen until the turn of Daniel Craig almost 40 years later. The non-actor George Lazenby flounders somewhat in the central role, but he is elevated by arguably the best supporting cast in Bond history, as Telly Savalas provides the finest on-screen portrayal of Blofeld and Diana Rigg shines as the enigmatic Tracy di Vicenzo. With a water-tight script lifted directly from the pages of Fleming, director Peter Hunt delivers some of the most exciting action sequences of the franchise. In its final moments, the film packs an emotional punch that’s not to be missed.

3. Casino Royale (2006)

large_blu-ray_casino-royale01

After a decade of mediocrity, Casino Royale breathed new life into the world’s most famous spy. Re-invigorating the character for the 21st century, Casino Royale restored the series’ reputation for a post-Bourne, post-Austin Powers world. Daniel Craig gives a nuanced and fearsome portrayal of a young, reckless 007, taking Bond back to his roots with a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel. More than forty years since the beginning, Casino Royale proved that Bond still reigns supreme.

4. Goldfinger (1964)

large goldfinger3

Probably the most iconic and influential of all the Bond films, Goldfinger nailed the character and formula of the series as we know it today. Released at the height of Bond-mania, Connery had fully relaxed into the role by this point and gives a performance that is equal in parts deadly and charming. While director Guy Hamilton struggles to deliver truly exciting action sequences, he imbues the film with an irresistible sense of style and wit, resulting in a picture that has resonated with audiences for decades.

5. Skyfall (2012)

James Bond: Skyfall (2012) Blu-ray Screenshot

Released to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bond franchise, Skyfall asserted the enduring relevance of the Bond character. Although the plot is often contrived, Skyfall makes up for it with an emphasis on character. Classic figures such as Q and Moneypenny were reintroduced and updated for modern audiences, while Javier Bardem appears as Roaul Silva, a villain hell-bent on a personal vendetta. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Skyfall is probably the most beautiful entry in the Bond canon, with a sense of artfulness not typically found within 007.

6. The Living Daylights (1987)

large_blu-ray_living-daylights01

The first episode in Timothy Dalton’s all-too brief stint as 007, The Living Daylights brought Bond back to basics following Roger Moore’s departure. Dalton instils the character with a humanity and brutality rarely seen outside of Fleming’s writing. Meanwhile, the narrative is rooted in topical concerns of the day, placing Bond within the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The villains of the piece are somewhat lacking in personality, Bond’s eclectic mix of allies, both reluctant and otherwise, help to add warmth. Often overlooked, The Living Daylights is essential viewing.

7. Thunderball (1966)

large thunderball  blu-ray5

Following in the footsteps of the wildly popular Goldfinger, Thunderball went on to become the most successful Bond film, accounting for inflation, until 2012’s Skyfall. Dispatched to the Bahamas to locate two stolen nuclear warheads, Connery’s Bond continues to delight, alongside another first rate cast of supporting characters. Thunderball was an ambitious project, at times too ambitious. The action set-pieces take on an unprecedented scale, but lengthy underwater sequences often outstay their welcome. Nevertheless, Thunderball remains an exciting entry in the Connery era, with a high-stakes plot that remains relevant today.

8. Goldeneye (1995)

large_blu-ray_goldeneye02

Arriving six years after Timothy Dalton’s truncated run of films, Goldeneye was the first Bond to emerge into a world without the Soviet Union. Pierce Brosnan faced weighty expectations, as many doubted that the new 007 could compete against modern action blockbusters. Thankfully, Goldeneye delivered with aplomb, much thanks to the slick direction of Martin Campbell and Sean Bean’s performance as the vengeful villain Alec Trevelyan. Judi Dench makes her first appearance as M, and her censure of Bond as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” remains a classic moment.

9. For Your Eyes Only (1981)

large for your eyes only blu-ray4

The highest rated Roger Moore adventure on the list, For Your Eyes Only was also the actor’s most down-to-earth effort. Dispensing of the gadgets and absurdity that plagued Moonraker, this film saw Bond on the trail of heroin smugglers rather than a maniacal billionaire. The serious tone also allows Moore to deliver his most mature performance, pitted against a compelling female lead, Melina Havelock. Perhaps a little slow-moving at times, but nevertheless the closest Moore came to Fleming’s original hero.

10. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

large_blu-ray_spy_loved01

Alan Partridge called it “the best film ever made”, and The Spy Who Loved Me certainly has some stand-out moments. The pre-titles ski chase has a strong claim to being the finest opening of the series, and Carly Simon’s title song, ‘Nobody Does It Better’, remains a timeless classic. But while it’s a fun ride from beginning to end, I struggle to really invest in a film that refuses to take itself seriously. Some excellent sequences are occasionally denigrated by misplaced comic relief, often playing for laughs rather than tension. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to resist the larger than life charm of the film, particularly as events pick up during the action-packed finale. For fans of Roger Moore’s distinctive interpretation of Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me has everything you’re looking for – for everyone else, it’s well worth a watch.

11. Dr No (1962)

large dr no blu-ray6

It feels somewhat unfair to put the first Bond film below the top ten – after all, it did an admirable job of setting the template for the next fifty years of 007 and introduced the world to the talents of Sean Connery. It’s also full of some absurdly iconic moments: the first “Bond, James Bon”; Honey Rider emerging from the sea; and Bond’s icy exchange with Dr No over dinner. But the film itself simply isn’t as watchable as many of its descendants, limited by a minuscule budget and an unseasoned production team. Filmmakers and cinema lovers everywhere all owe a great debt to Dr No, but it’s most profound legacy lies in the greatness which would follow.

12. Licence to Kill (1989)

large_blu-ray_licence-to-kill01

Arguably the darkest entry in the franchise, Licence to Kill was a notable break from the Bond formula. Dalton’s second and last appearance as the spy is a personal story of revenge. The usual MI6 proceedings are dispensed with as Bond goes rogue, and therein lies both the film’s major strength and its weakness; while Licence to Kill works as an effective crime thriller, it feels distinctly generic, akin to a Die Hard or Lethal Weapon sequel. Although the gritty, sadistic edge of Licence to Kill is often welcome, Bond is most successful when he distinguishes himself from his peers.

13. Spectre (2015)

Spectre

The most recent Bond film saw the return of Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and his eponymous criminal organisation, the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. The second directorial effort of Sam Mendes, Spectre features some outstanding action and another superb performance from Daniel Craig. Unfortunately, the plot crumbles under its own weight during the final act, including the frankly embarrassing revelation that Blofeld is, actually, James Bond’s foster brother. With a wealth of world-class talent listed in the credits, there’s a pervading sense that a much better film lies beneath the surface, but Spectre has enough Bondian thrills to be worth the entry price.

15. Octopussy (1983)

large_blu-ray_octopussy03

One of the more forgettable Bond adventures, Octopussy nonetheless has some excellent episodes – the second act, which sees Bond dispatched to East Germany, hits all the right notes of tension and excitement. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is somewhat less consistent and the action is often let down by some miss-timed comedy. Again, Octopussy saw the Bond producers reacting to change rather than provoking it, and many of the film’s India sequences feel reminiscent of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Octopussy is an enjoyable romp with a few stand-out chapters, but as a whole the film is a bit of a jumble.

16. Quantum of Solace (2008)

large quantum of solace2

Quantum of Solace has been increasingly derided since its release, with some going as far as to rank it among the worst entries of the series. Admittedly, the whole film does feel somewhat rushed; action scenes are frenetic and choppily edited, and the dialogue in between has little room to breathe. However, there are clear flashes of brilliance throughout Quantum of Solace – with additional time to flesh out the script and a more competent director, it could have been a stellar entry in the series. I suspect that history will look more favourably upon Quantum; a flawed but unapologetic attempt to continue what Casino Royale had started.

17. You Only Live Twice (1967)

large_you_only_live_twice_blu-ray_2

The first Bond film to properly deviate from its source material, You Only Live Twice was filmed from a script by children’s author Roald Dahl, and the result is more or less what you would expect. It’s an impressive, larger than life spectacle, with some terrific action and stunning use of Japanese locations. Unfortunately, this grandeur comes at the expense of plot, which is a mess of idiocy, inconsistency, and contrivance. Connery also delivers a less than enthusiastic performance, clearly tiring of the role that had launched him into stardom. It’s undeniably fun to watch a team of ninjas storm a secret volcano base, just try not to think about it too much.

18. Live and Let Die (1973)

large live and let die blu-ray4

Once a favourite of mine, Live and Let Die has slipped down the rankings as years have passed. There are scenes which still elicit a grin, such as Bond’s ingenious escape from a crocodile farm, and Moore does a good job in establishing his own, distinctive version of the character. However, the film feels bloated, and some peculiar dialogue and character developments leave many scenes feeling more awkward than tense (particularly the villain’s baffling demise). Clearly in his infancy, Moore’s Bond was yet to find a place in the world after Connery’s final departure.

19. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

large_blu-ray_tomorrowneverdies02

More or less the definition of mediocrity, Tomorrow Never Dies was the Bond franchise on autopilot. Much of the film is an exercise in Bondian box ticking, with some overly explosive action sequences thrown in. There’s nothing here to really offend – Michelle Yeoh and Teri Hatcher are competent female leads, and I’ll always have a soft spot for Jonathon Price as the media-mogul Elliot Carver. But Brosnan’s portrayal of Bond, and the film’s script as a whole, seems like a regurgitated amalgamation of what has come before, leaving little chance for the film to discern itself. Tomorrow Never Dies feels like greatest hits album, just with all the number ones left out.

20. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

large_blu-ray_golden_gun01

The Man with the Golden Gun is a picture with so much potential – Christopher Lee creates a classic villain in the form of Francisco Scaramanga, the world’s deadliest hitman, and his intense confrontation with Moore’s Bond hints at a far more interesting story. However, what should be an exciting cat-and-mouse plot is buried within nonsense about solar power and the real-world energy crisis. The dull narrative isn’t helped by action scenes that are devoid of tension and comic relief characters who evoke more cringes than chuckles. A few excellent scenes arise during the final act as Bond and Scaramanga finally come face to face, but it’s too late to save the slog that is the first hour and a half.

21. A View to a Kill (1985)

large_blu-ray_a-view_to-a-kill05

Roger Moore’s stunt double has a good claim to being the star of A View to a Kill, as the 57 year old Bond looked just about ready to trade in his licence to kill for a free bus pass. In another bizarre bit of casting, Christopher Walken plays the villain of the film, Max Zorin (a performance which partially inspired Heath Ledger’s Joker), while pop star Grace Jones features as his henchwoman May Day. Both actors seem to have walked in from the set of another film, and no one really seems to know or care what’s going on. Even John Barry’s superb soundtrack feels like it belongs to something much more exciting. A mystifying experience all-round.

22. The World is Not Enough (1999)

large_blu-ray_world-not-enough02

One of the most boring films ever made. Action is shot with all the deft and exhilaration of a Toyota advertisement, while the drama is about as well executed as an episode of Hollyoaks. The film actually takes some interesting risks with the Bond formula, personally implicating Judi Dench’s M within the plot, but the execution is so poor that it’s a chore to sit through. Robert Carlyle’s Renard must go down as Bond’s most ineffectual foil, while Denise Richards is laughably miscast as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones.

23. Moonraker (1979)

large_blu-ray_moonraker03

I can understand why this film exists. The Bond producers clearly watched Star Wars take the world by storm and thought ‘we’ll have some of that’. But Moonraker represents the Roger Moore era at its absolute worst. The “comedy”, for lack of a better word, is incessant, and robs every scene of all possible intensity. Henchman Jaws returns from The Spy Who Loved Me and is more bumbling than ever, whilst Moore swaggers through the film with an eyebrow cocked and a quip for every scenario. The most insulting thing about Moonraker, however, is that some truly spectacular stunt work and music is wasted on this embarrassment of a film. By the time Bond gets into space you’ll wonder how it ever got this bad.

24. Diamonds are Forever (1971)

large_blu-ray_x-dimainds

Sean Connery demanded a record breaking amount of money for this, his last official Bond film, and made no secret of being in it for the cash. Badly aged and wearing the world’s worst wig, Connery looks more like your mate’s sleazy Dad than a suave superspy. With most of the budget having gone to the star, Diamonds Are Forever skimps on pretty much everything else, from the preposterous script to the pitiful special effects. Worst of all, Diamonds isn’t just a boring, uninvolving, gruelling state of a film, it’s actually quite offensive. The henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd are two dated homosexual stereotypes, more suited to a Carry On film than a James Bond thriller. Most shockingly, this is the better Bond film to feature a diamond encrusted space laser.

24. Die Another Day (2002)

dieanotherdaybdcap2_original

An absolute car crash of a film. Watching Die Another Day is a bewildering, depressing experience, like walking in on your parents mid-coitus. I’ve struggled to pin down the exact moment that the film jumps the shark; is it the start of the Madonna title track, or when Bond stops his own heart in order to escape a hospital? Perhaps it’s John Cleese introducing an invisible car? What’s clear is that by the time Bond para-surfs a tsunami and flies a helicopter out of an exploding plane, you’ll have lost all sense of who you are or what you’re watching. There’s also a worryingly long sex scene between Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry, in which we appear to see Brosnan actually climax. Harrowing stuff.

Mark Kermode at the BFI Southbank

Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank is a brilliantly entertaining evening for film buffs and Kermode enthusiasts everywhere, although the uninitiated may find themselves lost.

DSC_1984

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the film critic Mark Kermode. Indeed, the influence of his books and radio podcasts are at least minimally responsible for the blog you’re reading today. Despite this mild obsession, however, I had only managed to glimpse Kermode in person once before, during a chance encounter outside a barbers in Falmouth. When given the chance to see the great man, and his quiff, live on stage, I seized the opportunity without hesitation.

Roughly once a month, Kermode hosts an evening in the BFI Southbank, taking up the largest screen in the complex for an hour and a half discussion of all things cinema.  Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank, as it’s formally known, is a loosely structured romp through the past and present of the film industry, including Q&A, video clips, special guests, and music.

As I assumed my seat seats, an air of enthusiasm was immediately evident. The room seemed to be a haven for the dedicated mass of film fans who had assembled, eager to hear their oracle speak. As one of the few first timers in the audience, I felt almost as an outsider within a peculiar cult. The show began with a few questions Kermode had specifically selected from Twitter, ranging over a broad spectrum of topics, from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death to William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III. It was a marvel to see the UK’s finest film critic in full flow, his trademark energy and passion pouring onto the stage and traversing an eclectic range of topics.

The first guest of the night was Hadley Freeman, Guardian columnist and eighties film aficionado. The pair discussed the recent Ghostbusters remake in mostly damning terms, contrasting it unfavourably with the 1984 original. They were quick to assert that the all-female reboot was by no means a failure, more an exercise in mediocrity, but their conversation nevertheless cooled my own expectations for the film.

Having had little idea of how the night would play out, I was delighted when Kermode welcomed the second guest, composer David Arnold, onto the stage. Arnold has provided the scores for five James Bond films, among a number of other projects, and I am unashamed to admit that his music has accompanied some of the most formative moments of my life. Arnold provided an animated presence, as his anecdotes often broke into wandering tangents and humorous asides. He was ostensibly on stage to make a defence of the 1985 “comedy” Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, an understandably guilty pleasure, but Arnold appeared most enthused when discussing the thought processes behind his work on the Bond films. Indeed, the highlight of the evening came as the composer took to a piano for a rendition of the song “Only Myself to Blame”, originally sung by Scott Walker on the soundtrack album for The World is Not Enough.

With the evening having flown by, it all came to an end following another round of audience questions. The show, admittedly, was not for everyone. The vast majority of the audience appeared to be seasoned regulars, and a certain level of specialist knowledge was required to stay on top of the discussion. More casual film fans may find themselves lost in a morass of Kermodian obscurity and inside jokes. For the well initiated, however, Mark Kermode will return with another show in September, and a ticket comes highly recommended. It was a joy to witness Kermode’s laidback charisma and somewhat terrifying knowledge of film trivia in the flesh, supported by a pair of interesting and eloquent guests. The rest of the world might be going to hell, but at least some respite may still be found within the world of cinema.

Life on Film – Tokyo Story and Boyhood

Tokyo Story
Tokyo Story (1953)

I recently watched Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) for the first time. It’s an interesting and quite slow paced portrayal of life in post-war Japan, telling the story of an elderly couple visiting their grown children in Tokyo. Although there’s little in the way of plot, the film masterfully contrasts the hurried indifference of a new generation with that of the old Japan – through the experience of a single family, Ozu captures a moment of transition for all of Japanese society.

While watching the film, I found myself drawing comparison to a much more recent picture; Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Filmed intermittently over a 12-year period, Boyhood chronicles over a decade in the life of a single boy, from elementary school to university. While the backdrop of these two films would struggle to be more different, both Boyhood and Tokyo Story attempt to capture and portray life as it truly happens, without a strictly structured plot or the usual embellishments of cinema – they simply provide a snapshot of the human experience. The two films were also critically acclaimed; Tokyo Story was rated as the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound Directors’ poll, while Boyhood has the rare honour of a perfect 100 score on metacritic.

Despite the acclaim, Boyhood is a film I have never been able to get behind – on both of my viewings I’ve found myself achingly bored. I’ll accept that my opinion resides within the minority, but Boyhood is an interminably dull tale of very normal things happening to a slim selection of non-characters. What’s more, every shot is framed in a flat, televisual style which, as far as I can see, is devoid of any real craft or cinematic value. As a result, it’s difficult to engage with the film on either a technical or an emotional level, and I find myself longing for an injection of melodrama. Indeed, my criticisms of Boyhood were only accentuated by the achievements of Tokyo Story.

Byhood
Boyhood (2014)

The essential success of Tokyo Story is that Ozu is able to take life and make it worth watching. Although the film is heavy on dialogue, it’s always staged in a visually interesting manner, disposing of the typical shot-reverse-shot approach and confidently breaking the 180-degree rule to bring the audience closer. Moreover, it consistently feels like the events on screen, no matter how mundane, have a point to them; the characters and their separate stories all contribute to an understanding of Japanese society as a whole, giving you something palpable to take away from the experience. The existence of this over-arching narrative means that Ozu’s social-realist approach is anchored to a story that is worth telling.

Boyhood, on the other hand, fails to be anything more than a series of events occurring, and the result is a film that’s crushingly dull. It may have taken twelve years to make (and the advertising wouldn’t let you forget it), but I fail to see how this contributes anything when the aging characters are such uninteresting husks. Admittedly, Linklater’s long production time is a technical triumph, allowing the audience to experience the passage of time in a way that feels tangible, but it’s impact is hollow against a script that is devoid of genuine drama or effective character development.

In recording reality, Linklater appears to have forgotten the essential truth that most people go to cinema to escape the depressing reality of life, not watch it unfold over an excruciating two-hour-forty-minute period. Of course, a realist approach can be a powerful storytelling tool, ably illustrated by Tokyo Story, but Boyhood has none of the artistic weight or social commentary that makes Ozu’s film so valuable. Much like the visual effects of today’s comic-book sequels, the realism of Boyhood is undeniably impressive, presenting life itself with a plainness rarely seen. Underneath, however, there simply isn’t enough substance to justify the feverish praise with which the film was lavished.

At least that’s what I think.

Where next for James Bond?

With the next film years away and the future of the Bond series in question, it’s time to speculate where it could, and should, be going next…

goldfinger1
Copyright MGM/Eon Productions.

It’s a difficult time to be a Bond fan. Only a few months have passed since the release of the twenty-fourth film, Spectre, yet we have already been cast adrift, caught in limbo between film releases. Only the tiniest morsels of news are fed to us, either from tabloid reports or the ever-unreliable internet rumour mill. This time around the wait feels even worse, as Daniel Craig has become Schrodinger’s Bond, simultaneously returning for the next film and never coming back.

On the other hand, all this time does give us more opportunity to speculate. The producers of the Bond franchise, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, have a lot of decisions to make about where to go with the series, especially following the lukewarm reception of Spectre in certain critical circles. A new approach is desperately needed if the series wants to remain a brand leader, with fresh blood on the writing team, in the director’s chair, and maybe even with Bond himself.

Personally, I’d like to see Daniel Craig return for a final film, just to give himself the chance to go out with a bang and conclude the Blofeld/Spectre can of worms that they’ve so clumsily opened. But recent events, including Craig’s less than enthusiastic remarks, have made such an outcome increasingly unlikely. And if Daniel Craig’s heart isn’t really in it, perhaps that’s for the best.

Fleming007impression
The original drawing of James Bond, as commissioned by Ian Fleming.

So if Dan’s out, who should replace him? This is the area that gets the British press really excited; rarely a month goes by without a new, exclusive story about the next actor to take on the role. Tom Hardy has asserted that he’d “smash it out of the park” if given the opportunity, whilst Poldark star Aidan Turner reportedly “had talks” with Bond producers just last month. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston has spoken cagily of the role as an “extraordinary opportunity”, and even Peep Show’s Olivia Coleman was suggested as an April Fools’ choice by the Daily Mail. One name that refuses to go away is Idris Elba, revealed to be the favoured choice of Sony Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal in 2013. It’s been a discussion so overwrought that the actor himself has claimed that he “can’t even talk about it anymore”. Elba’s candidacy for the role has been elevated much thanks to apparent controversy of casting a black actor as James Bond. It’s quite a ridiculous debate, but has incensed a lot of anger on the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the internet.

Despite all this sound and fury, Idris Elba isn’t going to be James Bond. Much like another bookies’ favourite, Damien Lewis, Elba is simply too old. He’ll be 44 this year, and assuming that the Bond films will continue to run on three year cycles, that doesn’t give him much time before he has to hang up the holster. As much as I may like Idris Elba, I don’t think any of us want to see a repeat of Roger Moore’s geriatric turn in the dinner jacket, who typically seemed a step away from cashing in his licence to kill for a free bus pass.

Many of the popular younger choices are also unlikely – Henry Cavill, for example, already has an iconic character to his name and a schedule full of DC Universe sequels. If you’re the betting kind, you’d be wise putting money on thirty-something British actors without any hectic franchise commitments over the next decade. Indeed, if Daniel Craig’s casting is anything to go by, the next 007 may well come out of nowhere.

My personal choice would be the legendary Michael Fassbender. The German-Irish actor has already proven his suave credentials with Inglourious Basterds and the recent X-Men films, and he has the cruel, ruggedly handsome appearance of Bond as he is described in the novels. Unfortunately, it seems doubtful that an actor as busy and prestigious as Fassbender would tie himself down to a series of Bond films, and there’s been a distinct lack of buzz around his claim to the role. Nevertheless, a man can dream.

Looking at the most probable names currently in circulation, Aidan Turner certainly seems an attractive prospect. He’s demonstrated his diverse acting chops in a number of television appearances recently, but is yet to find a major, starring role on the big screen, which would likely make him one of the cheaper options for the film’s investors. He’s also youthful 32, which puts time on his side if he’s keen to beat Moore’s record seven films in the official series. My girlfriend likes him too, so it would at least make my life easier during the inevitable repeat viewings. Tom Hiddleston isn’t a million miles off either, and he’d certainly bring some star power and an existing fan base to the role. But I can’t help but feel he’s a little too obvious and a little too Brosnan – it would be disappointing to see the producers making such an obvious choice.

Beyond the casting of James Bond, the rest of the personnel need to be accounted for. Ideally we’ll see the return of the recurring cast of MI6 characters, with Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Wishaw as Q, and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny. Behind the camera, however, a change-up is seriously needed. The writing team needs a comprehensive overhaul, with the talentless Neal Purvis & Robert Wade jettisoned for good. Towards the ends of last year, rumours spread that the production team had contacted Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner to work on the next Bond instalment (which, despite the claims of the Daily Express, is not going to be set in the 1960s). Although this news should be taken with a grain of salt, such a move would be hugely welcome, choosing a writer with proper dramatic credentials and none of the fanboy-baggage that plagued Spectre’s derivative script.

camera-973107_1920
Who’ll be behind the camera this time?

Of course, with Sam Mendes almost certainly gone for good, a new face is required in the director’s chair. Although much of the Bond fandom is calling for the return of Martin Campbell, the helmsman behind Godeneye and Casino Royale, I think we can aim a little higher than that. Whatever one thinks of Sam Mendes, he was at least a director that brought his own creative vision to the franchise and appeared to be more than the dull journeymen we’ve been dealt for much of the series’ recent history.

Ideally, three names come to mind when filling the director’s spot for Bond 25. The first, and probably most optimistic, is Christopher Nolan. He’s made no secret of his love for the James Bond films in the past and has paid direct homage to them multiple times, perhaps most notably during the snowy climax of 2010’s Inception. When asked about his chances of directing his own Bond film, the 45-year-old has been cagey, asserting that “it’s not a no, but it’s not a yes”. Nolan might be a little too expensive and a little too controlling for the folks at Eon Productions, the company behind the 007 films, but the opportunity of combining Nolan’s name and the Bond brand would surely be too great to pass up.

Looking elsewhere, there are a number of smaller scale directors with the necessary abilities to helm a Bond film. Last year Denis Villeneuve was acclaimed for his crime-thriller Sicario, which highlighted his deft hand for action in addition to character drama. He’s also been very vocal about his admiration for the James Bond films, stating that he’d “love to do a James Bond movie one day”. Taking a more left of field approach, Atonement director Joe Wright would also be an interesting choice. 2011’s Hanna illustrated that he could direct action compellingly, and his penchant for long takes lends his films an artistic flair that often elevates quite pedestrian material. Although his recent catalogue has been somewhat hit and miss, with a quality script he could create an exciting and visually distinctive Bond film.

end swlm
A simpler time, when you always knew what you were getting. Copyright MGM/Eon Productions.

With the cast and crew dealt with, the fundamental question facing Bond 25 is what direction to take the film in a broader sense. Do we go for a stripped back, Casino Royale style spy thriller, or continue to incorporate more absurdist and humorous elements in the vein of Skyfall and Spectre. I’ve always preferred the films that stay closest in tone to the realistic, cynical edge of Fleming’s novels, and would welcome a return to such a style. But I’m not really averse to a more whimsical quality, and with the immense popularity of the Marvel and Star Wars brands recently, that certainly seems to be the direction that Hollywood is going. While Spectre is a film I love dearly, it’s confused tone was undeniably an issue; it was a film that wanted to have its cake and eat it, often acting like a Moore style romp against a surprisingly gritty personal story, and the final product just felt a bit muddled. As long as we don’t have any more Fiat airbag gags, we’re moving in the right direction.

More than anything, however, the producers need to scale down the budget and reassess what it is they are trying to do with Bond films. Skyfall’s unprecedented, billion-dollar success came in a perfect storm that has proved impossible to replicate. James Bond should be, first and foremost, an espionage thriller. It is not an action franchise, and it has no place competing with blockbuster superhero films and sprawling, Hollywood mega-sagas.

If Casino Royale taught us anything, it’s that when in doubt, go to Fleming. In stripping the series back to the core elements and reassessing what made Bond great, the franchise was able to make itself relevant again. References to old films are fun, but if you’re just drawing attention to iconography that was done better before, the result is a film that can’t stand on its own two feet. Likewise, bogging the films down in personally motivated stories and inter-connected plot threads only makes Bond’s world feel heavily contrived. Bond 25 should obviously pay respect to what came before it, but be bold in blazing its own trail.

These are just a few of my thoughts as a long term, and probably unhealthily obsessive, James Bond fan. In a world where big-budget action franchises are only growing larger and larger by the day, I want Bond to show everyone else how it’s done, not limp along in the rear. 007’s fertile heritage consists of industry leading stunt work, special effects, set design, and most importantly, writing. A film is nothing without a taught, intelligent script, and that’s what Bond will need if he’s going to thrive for another fifty years.