Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Film Review: Skyfall

  • Publisher: MGM / Columbia 
  • Production Company: Danjaq / EON Productions 
  • Genre: Action 
  • Release: 26 October 2012 (UK), 9 November 2012 (US) 
  • Director: Sam Mendes 
  • Producers: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson 
  • Writers: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan

The Girls: Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), an MI6 field agent who, by the end of the movie, retires from field work and transfers herself to the position of M's secretary. While generally competent, she ends up accidentally shooting Bond in the opening scenes, and so their relationship, although never quite romantic, becomes playfully rocky. 5 out of 5.  Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a femme fatale in the employ of Silva. What would otherwise be yet another shallow love interest is tempered by her backstory: a former prostitute, she's only working for the villain to stay safe and wants Bond to help her out of her ordeal. But quite frankly, this is easy to forget. Shot by Silva. 3 out of 5.

Other Allies: The role of Q officially returns, played by the young Ben Whishaw. This iteration of the character comes across as someone who loves the opportunity to prove himself, exemplified in such lines as this boast to 007 in their first meeting: "I'll hazard I can do more damage with my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Gray than you can do in a year in the field". 5 out of 5.

Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), chairman of Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee. Succeeds the role of M from Judi Dench, whose character is shot and bleeds to death.

Kincade (Albert Finney), the gamekeeper at Bond's old home, Skyfall. Picture Harry Potter's Hagrid with a shotgun and you've got the idea. Fun Fact: Sean Connery was at one point considered for the role. 4 out of 5.

The Villain: Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), real name Tiago Rodriguez, an independent cyber-terrorist and former MI6 operative. After attempting to disrupt the Hong Kong handover in 1997, he was arrested by the Chinese, for which he still holds a grudge against M. It is refreshing in this respect, that his evil plans entail not money nor world domination, but revenge against one specific person whom Bond (and we, the audience) have grown attached to. Javier Bardem's performance may come across as awkward in some points, no doubt exacerbated by his bright blond hairdo (and the actor having been typecast as that guy from No Country for Old Men), but then again some of the most memorable Bond villains have had their own moments of charming awkwardness. But Silva makes it work because of his personality - he's playful, something of a man-child. Bringing down business and even governments via illicit network activities is something of a hobby to him. He even does stunts like challenging Bond to a William-Tell style competition, involving Sévérine and a glass of scotch (which is how she dies). In doing all this, Silva gives us something the James Bond reboot has thus far lacked - a well defined, perhaps even iconic, antagonist. Stabbed in the back by Bond. 4 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Patrice (Ola Rapace).  ...I got nothing.

The Gadgets: While Q maintains more of a tech-support role, he provides Bond with some new equipment: a Walther PPK pistol with a handprint lock (see Licence to Kill), and a small yet undisguised radio homer (see Goldfinger). During his first scene, Q leans on the fourth wall with such lines as "If you were expecting an exploding pen, we don't go for that sort of thing any more." Bond also drives the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, complete with machine guns and ejector seat (the latter of which he hilariously threatened M with). It gets shot and blown up by Silva's forces during the climactic conflict. Bet you weren't expecting one of these fate-spoilers for an inanimate object, eh? 4 out of 5.

The Locations: Turkey, England, China, Macau, and Scotland. Fun Fact: Is it any coincidence that the first James Bond film to have scenes filmed and set in the People's Republic of China was released during a Year of the Dragon? You make the call!

The Theme Song: Performed by Adele. Her brand of neo-soul is a perfect fit for a James Bond theme, carrying with it an air of sophistication, danger, and retro aesthetics which perfectly represent a modern-day interpretation of 007. Combined with the lyrics, about making a last stand against certain doom, and this sets an appropriate dark tone for the film. On the other hand, having the word "Skyfall" used so often (I count 15 times) may seem unnerving, almost to the point that it loses all meaning, but inspires a moment of Fridge Brilliance when you learn that the name refers to James Bond's childhood home, and the setting of the film's climax. In fact, given the extra context, I might even consider this as another image song, from the point of M just before the final conflict. 5 out of 5.

The Opening Credits: Motifs include water, blood, blood in water, and shadowy interpretations of some of the film's sets, including the MI6 bunker and the cemetary outside Skyfall. There is also a specific death motif, which works in its own way. In cultures such as that of the tarot cards, death represents not the end of existence, but the change from one soul to another, in that the latter entity carries on the former's wishes in his or her own way. This makes the death of M and her replacement by Mallory even more poignant, but even without that knowledge, this sequence is dark and foreboding enough to provide the same atmosphere. 5 out of 5.

The Novel: The title refers to the name of James Bond's childhood estate in Scotland, where the climax takes place. While the screenplay was not adapted from one of the novels, this being the 50th anniversary of the Bond films, there are numerous references to the other films - thankfully, more subtle and in a lesser quantity than in Die Another Day. In particular, its plot happens to share some major elements with The World Is Not Enough. A terrorist attack on the MI6 headquarters? Check. 007 sufferring a shoulder injury? Check. A villain with a vendetta against M? Check. But unlike Die Another Day, Skyfall becomes more than the sum of its parts. Read on.

The Plot: Our story starts in Istanbul, where 007 and fellow agent Eve are on the trail of a stolen hard drive, containing a list of undercover NATO agents. Their pursuit of the assassin who took it, Patrice, ends with Bond fighting him on a train and Eve providing sniper support. On M's orders, Eve takes the shot... and hits Bond by mistake. Cue opening credits. We return three months later to M, who is being pressured by intelligence chairman Gareth Mallory to retire. On her way back to MI6's headquarters, their computer network gets hacked and her office blown up. Bond, who had survived Eve's mistake and has been hiding out, hears news of the attack and returns to London to get his job back.

After passing his physical and psychological evaluation (not really, but M gave him passing marks anyway), Bond takes out the shrapnel from his shoulder and, with Q's help, identifies Patrice and tracks him to Shanghai. They fight, and Patrice falls off a building before Bond can interrogate him, but he picks up a clue leading him to a casino in Macau. Meanwhile, the hacker from before releases the identities of five agents on the Internet, with the threat of doing the same again every week. At the casino, Bond picks up the money that was supposed to go to Patrice, as well as the attention of Sévérine, a girl working with him. They ride to an abandoned island where they are taken prisoner and meet the man behind the attacks: Silva, an ex-MI6 operative who tried to disrupt the Hong Kong handover in '97 and got captured by the Chinese. He taunts Bond and kills Sévérine, but thanks to the homer given by Q, is taken in by MI6.

Back at their makeshift HQ, Q and Bond try to decrypt the hard drive Silva stole, but in doing so, accidentally unlock their prisoner. Bond chases Silva through the London Underground; the chase leads to a court inquiry where M is being questioned. Silva tries to assassinate her, but Bond rescues her and they drive off together. Intent on laying a trap for Silva on their terms, Q helps by leaving a trail of digital clues leading up north to Skyfall, James Bond's childhood home in Scotland.

Lightly armed, Bond, M, and the caretaker Kincade rig up the Skyfall estate with a series of traps, and eventually Silva's men arrive. They fight off the first wave, but M gets grazed in the leg, and things get complicated when the man himself arrives with a helicopter. Bond brings it down too, and Silva gives chase all the way to a nearby chapel. Silva corners M and tries to shoot them together, but even though Bond comes in and throws a knife in his back, M bleeds to death nonetheless. With all said and done, Mallory takes the place of M, and Eve Moneypenny serves as his secretary. You are now free to turn off your TV.

To date, Skyfall is the latest Bond film to be released, and is thus the last film I'll be covering on the 007 Golden Jubilee. But Skyfall serves as the perfect ending to this year-long event, as it represents the end of an era for the film franchise. The changes that were brought on by Goldeneye have come full-circle, not the least because of one shocking event: the death of M. There has not been a similar event of this emotional magnitude throughout the entire franchise. Yes, there have been the deaths of women with whom Bond has planned to settle down (Teresa Draco and Vesper Lynd), but they were introduced within the same films. And then there's Q's retirement planning from The World Is Not Enough, but this mainly works with the paratext that Desmond Llewellyn would die just after the film's release.
At the end of it all, we have the traditional setup of M, Q, and Moneypenny, all in (what looks to be) the same set as in the Connery through Dalton eras. This brings to point the film's motif of old versus new. This also becomes the focal point of M's inquiry, with Mallory insisting the business of human intelligence in which she specialises in is no longer applicable to the 21st-century balance of power, and Q also makes comments along these lines. Even the props signify this, such as the old Aston Martin ripped straight out of Goldfinger, and the traditional Walther PPK gun, now with that handprint lock. But M's rebuttal during the inquiry comes in the form of a Tennyson poem:
"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
The lesson the movie leaves us with is that sometimes the best solution is not to completely ignore or take on the old ways, but to have them adapt to the changes happening around them in the world. In short, what we get is a reconciliation of the old guard and the new. I eagerly await how the new MI6 will adapt to the world yet again, but for now, to have the death of a recurring character, and all the consequences that go with it, turn Skyfall into an epic, and unforgettable entry in the series. 5 out of 5.

I'd like to take a moment to discuss one of the issues I've commonly heard about this film: the pacing problems, or the illusion thereof. Throughout the first few acts, director Sam Mendes provides us with a cavalcade of memorable settings: the fight with Patrice in the Shanghai skyscraper, the island casino in Macau, and the nearby ghost town where Silva has staked his claim. (It's also refreshing that the shaky-cam abuse which plagued Quantum of Solace has been toned down significantly. Heck, some long scenes are even done in one take!) Yet the climax takes place in the dark, dusty Skyfall estate and the wilderness surrounding it. After having been spoiled by the preceding visuals, the final fight becomes something of an aesthetic letdown, and thus seems to drag on for longer. It's not that the buildup isn't tense, after all, they are preparing to end the matter of Silva, but you'll wish they could just get on with it. The same goes for the post-opening scenes, when James Bond re-joins MI6. Of course, these problems become less apparent upon repeated viewings, when you know what to expect, and there aren't necessarily any scenes which I would cut out; they all serve their purpose.

The Call: 95% (A)

For this, and for Silva's more awkward moments, it is with a heavy heart that I deny Skyfall a perfect score. However, I would like to introduce a new feature at this point: the Dragon Award. The Dragon Award symbolises a work in which, whether or not any flaws are present, they cannot diminish the significance of its good parts, and thus represent something which you simply must experience in your lifetime. You could look at it as even better than a perfect score. X-factor, man.

Now to go back through my reviews and retroactively award more of these babies... In the meantime, that's it for the 007 Golden Jubilee. Stay tuned to my YouTube channel, and I plan to re-record these reviews on video, as part of a new celebration: the 007 Diamond Jubilee. To whet your appetites, and learn my justification for celebrating this franchise into 2013, the trailer is available here. And finally, current rumours indicate that a 24th James Bond film is being planned for release in 2014.  (Edit: This was eventually released in 2015, as Spectre.  Read my review of it here.)  Only time will tell how it will handle to the changes brought to the series over the past few years, but when it arrives...

...James Bond will return.  And so will I.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Game Review: Mercenaries

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
  • Publisher: LucasArts
  • Developer: Pandemic
  • Release: PlayStation 2 / XBox, January 2005
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate (US$10-30)

North Korea has always been a fascinating subject for me, despite how sad the whole thing is.  The government has allowed large chunks of its population to starve, established the most extensive and longest-lasting propaganda operation in modern history, imprisons those who try to break that image and lock them up into nigh-unlivable prison camps, lavishes all its attention on a military who would be willing to launch an all-out assault on the West at the slightest provocation, and if you were to ask any of the authorities about this, they would deny it to their last breath.  So yeah, you'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany, at least not in this galaxy.  From time to time I have entertained the thought of taking a little tour in North Korea, but it would inevitably end with me attempting to assassinate the leader and/or getting "disappeared", so forget about it.  That's why I've done the next-best thing: experience it in a video game.

Our fictional North Korean head of state, and the game's villain, is General Song, who seized power from his father and started building up the military.  When the Australian navy caught him shipping weapons to terrorists, the United Allied Nations put up a US$100 million bounty for his captured.  (In other news, I think I have a solution to the Syrian crisis.  Anyone got $100 million, three mercenaries, and a bunch of bunker-buster bombs lying around?)  Who's going to take them up on it?  One of three playable mercenaries: Chris Jacobs (formerly of US Delta Force), Jennifer Mui (former British SIS), and Matthias Nilsson (former Swedish Royal Navy).
Killing a faction's soldiers automatically lowers your
relationship rating with them. (XBox version shown.)
And how are they going to get to General Song?  By taking contracts from multiple factions: the not-United Nations, South Korea, China, and the Russian Mafia.  A good number of missions will pit you against other friendly factions, and by killing their soldiers, you'll ruin your relationship with them, up to the point that they'll refuse to work with you and their soldiers will open fire on you.  In order to fix your standing with them, you'll have to pay a bribe (the cost goes up each time) or kill soldiers from a rival faction (AN & South Korea vs. China vs. Mafia) in front of troops from the faction you're trying to patch things up with. (This mechanic was notably improved in the sequel.)

But it pays to play the sides against each other: your rewards for completing story missions are cash, ordinance and supplies, and the locations of North Korean officials.  Arranged into a "Deck of 52" cards like what was used during the Iraq War (i.e. General Song is ranked as the Ace of Spades), capturing or (for half the reward money) killing these high-value targets (HVTs) fills up an intel meter, viewable in your PDA's menus.  The "number cards", 2 through 10 of each suit, are scattered around the map, and clearing missions for each faction will give you hints on their locations.  On the other hand, the "face cards", the Jacks, Queens, and Kings, have missions dedicated to capturing them, and they fill up a bigger chunk of the intel meter.  You can unlock the Ace missions without having captured or killed all of the HVTs in a particular suit, but while I do admire this flexibility, completing an Ace mission will permanently lock you out from finding any remaining HVTs, so beware if your goal is 100%-completion.  You might also want to save before and after attempting to capture an HVT alive, lest an errant explosion kill him or her against your wishes.  Save Scumming: it's how the pros do it!

Call a helicopter to pick up HVTs,
but clear the landing site first!
(XBox version shown.)
And now for the feature which sets Mercenaries apart from the Grand Theft Auto trilogy which inspired it.  In this game, you are able to order airstrikes, vehicles, and supplies anywhere from your PDA (the PDA bit was sadly left out of the sequel).  However, instead of getting your supplies from each of the factions, all business is conducted through the Russian Mafia, and if your standing with them has soured, they'll lock you out of their services until you bribe them or what-not.  Another little thing I was pleased they included: you not only have a lifebar for your character's health, but also the life of your current vehicle, something which oddly has been missing from the Grand Theft Auto games.  Then again, the vehicle physics are on the light side, with most collisions tossing your car around like a tornado-induced tailspin, so forget about it.

The world of Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction consists of two large maps, one for each half of the game's story.  When you take that into account, it becomes understandable that the loading times are on the unfriendly side, and a heaping helping of fog limits the real estate that is drawn on screen.  (The latter, if not the former, was also improved in the sequel.)  Nonetheless, frame rates are generally stable, and there's quite a bit of bloom lighting to be had, but the washed-out colour palette may not be to everyone's taste.  Of course, I'd imagine the real North Korea is similar in that regard.  There's not a lot of music to be had, either, but when it does play, it's grand orchestal fare which would fit well in a movie.  Then again, you could watch the upcoming remake of Red Dawn to get the same effect.  But you'd miss the personality of the voice-actors, including Phil LaMarr (Chris), Jennifer Hale (Jen), and Peter Stormare (Matthias), who leave no doubt that they love blowing stuff up.

It's true that Mercanaries is nowhere near a perfect game.  One of the game's weakest points is the AI.  Take for example the helicopters you call in to extract high-value targets.  It takes effort to find a suitable landing spot, since even the slightest bit of uneven terrain and the chopper will reject your call.  Even if you do manage to bring it in, there's a possibility that it could touch down on a stray rock or car, and get tossed around.  And it appears that the computer-controlled North Korean soldiers have no qualms about letting their unit leaders (read: HVTs) get blown up by stray explosions, which is why I stressed the importance of saving.  (Save early and often, like voting in Florida! >:-) )  So whilst Mercenaries: Playground of Desctruction is rather unpolished, it takes the wide-open-sandbox genre in directions few have bothered to go down, and is certainly worth a try for such reasons.

Control: 3 airstrikes out of 5
Design: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Graphics: 3 airstrikes out of 5
Audio: 3 airstrikes out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Film Review: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace
  • Publisher: MGM / Columbia 
  • Production Company: Danjaq / EON Productions 
  • Genre: Action 
  • Release: 31 October 2008 (UK), 14 November 2008 (USA) 
  • Director: Marc Forster 
  • Producers: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson 
  • Writers: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis

The Girls: Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), Bolivian intelligence agent. Quite notably, the only leading lady in a Bond film to date whom Bond does not share a romantic interest in. Her mission is revenge, and thus she is less a traditional "Bond Girl", but a fully-fleshed out character, complete with motivations, who just happens to be a girl. And it couldn't be more refreshing. 5 out of 5. Miss Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), envoy from the British embassy in Bolivia. Killed offscreen and coated in oil. (You can stop reminding us of other, better Bond films now.) Yet another shallow love interest, not that she tries to fall for him, of course. But by my estimation, she probably has the least screen time before she is first implied to have had sex with Bond. 2 out of 5.

Other Allies: Jeffrey Wright returns as Felix Leiter, and is at odds with his boss Gregg Beam (David Harbour), the CIA's section head in South America, who has been bribed with potential (and non-existent) oil for ignoring the planned coup in Bolivia. Fired, presumably with Leiter taking up his post.

The Villains: Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric), an executive of the criminal organisation Quantum. Killed offscreen by Quantum agents. He also maintains the cover organisation Greene Planet, which allegedly performs environmental services, and gives him a cover story for the desert land he buys. Still, there's no excuse for his hammier moments. 3 out of 5. General Medrano (Joaquín Cosío), an exiled Bolivian army general seeking to take over his country's government with the help of Quantum. Shot by Camille, and good thing, too - he had killed Camille's father and raped/killed her mother and sister when she was young, and he doesn't stop there. This dude is an unforgivable monster, but not unwatchably so - I guess it's a good thing we never get to see his heinous acts on screen. I'll tell you one thing, he should've been the main villain. 4 out of 5. Jesper Christensen returns as Mr. White, the leader of Quantum. Until Spectre, still at large. Bet you didn't see that one coming.
Other Henchmen: Elvis (Anatole Taubman), Greene's bowl-cut bodyguard. A tad goofy-looking, but he doesn't have much of a role; he's just kinda there. 1 out of 5.

The Gadgets: 007 doesn't use any unique tools in the field. However, MI6 links Mitchell's counterfeit money to Edmund Slate with the help of their new computer system, including a table-sized touchscreen.

The Locations: Italy, England, Haiti (filmed in Panama), Austria, Bolivia (filmed in Panama and Chile), Russia.

The Theme Song: "Another Way To Die", performed by Jack White (The White Stripes, "Seven Nation Army", "Icky Thump") & Alicia Keys ("Fallin'", "No One"). This marks the first duet to be used as a James Bond theme, and I have to say... why couldn't this have gone to just one or the other? It's true the two are good performers who combine their strengths. For example, if I were the producer, I would've had Keys go solo on the vocals and relegate White to the crunchy guitar riffs (which unfortunately sound too similar to Chris Cornell's Casino Royale theme) he's famous for. As it stands, I guess some tastes weren't ment to go together... Fun Fact: At one point, the song would've gone to Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, but the latter's drug problems precluded that possibility.  3 out of 5.

The Opening Credits: This time around, the opening credits were designed by the company MK12, who had worked with director Marc Forster before on Stranger than Fiction. Features scenes of shadow-Bond walking the desert, with the usual images of guns and girls once again in play, and the use of dusky blues and oranges. Fun Fact: MK12 were also responsible for the snazzy OS used by MI6's computers, as well as the overly fancy location titles.  4 out of 5.

The Novel: The title comes from "Quantum of Solace", one of the short stories in For Your Eyes Only, but the two are unrelated. The story is nothing but an anecdote about a civil servant and a flight attendant and, like The Spy Who Loved Me, wasn't worth adapting directly. As for the title, "Quantum of Solace" refers to an amount of hope, no matter how tiny. And when that's gone, when the quantum of solace drops to zero, then the relationship is over, as explained in the book. In the film, Bond appears to get his quantum of solace from avenging the death of Vesper Lynd, which becomes a character flaw he must overcome.

The Plot: When we last left Bond, he had captured Mr. White, leader of the crime cartel Quantum, and delivers him to a safehouse in Siena, Italy. Cue opening credits. We return to Bond, M, and company interrogating him about Quantum, when one of the bodyguards shows his true colours: he shoots M and lets Mr. White escape. Bond chases the phony guard, eventually killing him. M is not pleased: not only because an assassin got so close to her, but because 007 killed the man when he could've interrogated him as well. But they manage to investigate his London apartment, and a series of counterfeit dollar bills leads Bond to Edmund Slate, a geologist working for Quantum in Haiti.

When Bond encounters Slate, he kills him, too, only to discover that he was assigned to assassinate Camille Montes, a Bolivian agent. He follows her to Dominic Greene and ex-General Medrano, where the two are making a deal: the latter is trading off a plot of desert land over to the former, in exchange for Quantum assisting in a coup-de-etat of the Bolivian government. Medrano then takes off with Camille, presumably to rape and kill her, but Bond rescues her. Too bad she was trying to kill Medrano herself...

MI6 helps Bond track Greene to an opera in Austria, where he eavesdrops in a conversation on the Bolivian land sale, AKA the "Tierra Project". He gets found out, and a chase ensues, ending when Bond drops a man off a roof. Unfortunately, this guy is a bodyguard for a mister Guy Haines, a member of UK's Special Branch and an advisor to the Prime Minister (and secretly, a member of Quantum). Once Greene has his body shot, MI6 finds out and cuts off Bond's passport and credit cards, trying to bring him in. However, Bond gets some fake cards made out by Mathis, and the two head for Bolivia.

Touching down in La Paz, Bond is accosted by Miss Fields from the British Embassy. Before she can take him back to London, the three of them are invited to a fundraiser party held by Greene. Bond reunites with Camille and they leave together; however, the police stop them and discover Mathis planted in the trunk. The shoot him and try to pin it on Bond, but he and Camille get away, renting a plane for a flight over the Atacama desert. A fighter jet summoned by Medrano shoots them down, but they survive the crash and Camille shares her story: When she was young, General Medrano killed and/or raped her family, which is why she tried to kill him in Haiti.

On their way out of the cave, Bond and Camille discover not only a lack of oil, but that Greene has been damming up the water supply. They return to his hotel room to discover Fields dead, and the CIA trying to capture him. Thanks to a tip from Felix Leiter, Bond and Camille raid an eco-hotel in the desert, where Greene and Medrano finalise their deal. Oh, and since the land Greene bought holds a majority of Bolivia's water supply, Quantum gets a monopoly as the country's utility provider. But Camille kills Medrano, and she and Bond abduct Green, interrogate him in Quantum, and leave him in the desert with naught but a can of motor oil to drink. We end our adventure in Kazan, Russia, where Bond encounters Yusuf Kabira, Vesper's ex-boyfriend and a Quantum agent, and surprise, surprise: he doesn't kill him, but takes him to M for questioning. You are now free to turn off your TV.

Full disclosure: When I saw Quantum of Solace in the theatre, I was confused by the plot, since from what I had read I was assuming Greene's plan was to poison the Bolivian water supply. The plot we got, involving a governmental coup-de-etat which never even got started during the film's running time, was not the typical fare audiences were used to. After all, it's not like there's a time bomb or something that spells out the climax for the audience. (Fun Fact: Production coincided with the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-08, so some fans blame the lacklustre screenplay on that unpleasantness. But if the film's writers were British, how would that have affected them?) I'd prefer to look at this film from Bond's point of view. Having been shell-shocked from the death of Vesper last time around, he goes into the film not caring whom he kills, even if keeping them alive would be a preferable choice for MI6. And the villains seem to take advantage of this: even when Bond doesn't kill a person of interest, they find some way to blame it on him. But when he reaches the end of the pipeline, namely Kabira, one of the last men involved with Vesper, he does the right thing and lets him live. Much like Casino Royale, this film is a quest for Bond to conquer his ego, and no amount of implausible recoveries or shaky hand-held cameras will make me ignore that. For this, I would even go so far as to list Quantum of Solace among the franchise's underrated gems, among the likes of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Licence to Kill.  4 out of 5.

The Call: 80% (B-)

IchigoRyu will return in

Monday, November 5, 2012

Film Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale
  • Publisher: MGM / Columbia 
  • Studio: Danjaq / EON Productions 
  • Genre: Action 
  • Release: 16 November 2006 (UK) / 17 November 2006 (USA) 
  • Director: Martin Campbell 
  • Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli 
  • Writers: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis

The Bond: The Bond franchise took a brief hiatus after Die Another Day, during most of which Pierce Brosnan was still set for the lead role. One concept for the next film was an adaptation of Casino Royale, directed by Quentin Tarantino, filmed entirely in black-and-white, and co-starring Brosnan and Uma Thurman. That never came to be, but vestiges of it can be seen in the final product, which came about in 2006. But before then, our new Bond was unveiled: Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, Munich). He received a cold reception from the press and public upon his unveiling, for the sole fact that his hair was blond. Sound familiar? But once we saw him in the finished product, I'm proud to report that all the haters shut up. Craig brings with him all matter of emotional depth, from frustration (when Vesper won't let him continue the poker game), to snarking in the face of danger (during his torture scene with Le Chiffre), and one of the best 007 love affairs since On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Also he has a thing for married women. Huh. 5 out of 5.

The Girls: Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, The Golden Compass), an envoy from Her Majesty's Treasury, and sent to oversee Bond in the poker game. Her cover story is Bond's wife -- in a suite with two bedrooms, no less -- and with all the witty banter between them, she plays the part wondrously, on both sides of the fourth wall. Commits suicide by drowning, in an attempt to atone for her sins against Bond. (And that resolves her sins... how?) Fun Fact: Her name can be read like "West Berlin", which was intentional when Ian Fleming first created the character - like the city of Berlin was during the Cold War, her loyalties are split down the middle. 5 out of 5. Solange Dimitrios (Caterina Murino), Alex Dimitrios's wife. Shallow love interest ahoy - only this time, she's already married! Killed off-screen by Le Chiffre's men. 2 out of 5.

Other Allies: Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Gianini), Bond's contact in Montenegro. A deliciously manipulative agent who has Le Chiffre's allies arrested behind the scenes, but to be honest, his actions bear little on the plot. That is, until Le Chiffre mentions that Mathis was a double-agent working for him. Bond has him arrested, only to learn that Vesper may have been behind his misfortunes instead. More to come in the next movie's review. 4 out of 5. Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), CIA agent and player in the poker tournament. Barring Never Say Never Again, this marks the first time Leiter was played by an African-ethnic in the EON canon. 3 out of 5.

The Villains: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker for terrorists and a math genius. A cut over one of his tear ducts means he cries blood from time to time, but this effect is too subtle to notice. His acting is strange, but he does something few Bond villains ever do: show vulnerability. Read on. Shot by Mr. White. Fun Fact: According to cutscenes in the Quantum of Solace video game, his birth name is Jean Duran. 4 out of 5. Stephen Obanno (Isaac de Bankole), leader of a Lord's Resistance Army unit. Strangled by Bond. 2 out of 5. Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), leader of Le Chiffre's criminal organisation. Both of these guys are after Le Chiffre, for having fooled around with their client's money. Mr. White bears special mention: while he plays a bigger role in the next film, he has a defining moment here when he shoots Le Chiffre for fooling around with his clients and their money. Captured alive by Bond.  5 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan), a freelance bomb-maker operating out of Madagascar. The actor was one of the founders of free-running and/or parkour, and thus he uses it during his chase with Bond. Which leads to one hilarious moment when he leaps up through a gap in a wooden wall, but Bond just rams through it. Quite a turnaround from the car chases of old, where Bond always displayed more finesse compared to the bad guys. Shot by Bond. 5 out of 5. Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), organiser of the planned Miami airport bombing. What can I say about somebody who doesn't have many, if any at all, lines to his name. Stabbed by Bond. 1 out of 5.

The Gadgets: After 19 film appearances by 3 actors, the character of Q was retired for this reboot, and thus there are no gadgets in the "traditional" sense. However, there is a lot of cellphone tracking going on. Bond drives an Aston Marton DB5 (same as in Goldfinger, sans gadgets), and an Aston Martin DBS (also sans gadgets).

The Locations: The Czech Republic, Madagascar (filmed in the Bahamas), the Bahamas, the United States (Florida), Montenegro (filmed in Czechia), and Italy.

The Theme Song: "You Know My Name" performed by Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave). This alt-rock song is brought to you by the first solo male singer of a Bond theme since Thunderball, which is appropriate, since "You Know My Name" also serves as a sort of image song from James Bond's point of view. Also of note: the Monty Norman theme is not used until the end credits; rather, "You Know My Name" is sampled for many of the film's leitmotifs. 5 out of 5.

The Opening Credits: Playing card and other gambling motifs, because... casino. One of my favourite effects is the CGI men in suits who fight and break up into suits (i.e. hearts, diamonds) when hit. Notably, the only woman in this sequence is a headshot photo of Vesper. Yes, shying away from the traditional naked-silhouette girls is a departure for the series, and I couldn't be prouder. 5 out of 5.

The Novel: Casino Royale was Ian Fleming's first 007 novel, published in 1953. In the book, the centrepiece game is a baccarat duel held in France, and Le Chiffre was originally working for the Soviet's SMERSH directive (see also: The Living Daylights).  In this movie, the game is Texas Hold 'em poker, and the titular casino is in the former Yugoslav nation of Montenegro.

The Plot: Our story starts in grayscale, with James Bond conducting his first two assassinations on men involved in selling British state secrets. Cue opening credits, during which the 00 rank, and licence to kill, are assigned to Bond. We return to Uganda, where LRA officer Stephen Obanno is conducting a business deal with the terrorist banker Le Chiffre. Then we jump over to Madagascar, where 007 is spying on Mollaka, a suspected bomb-maker. When his cover is blown, he chases the man through a construction site and into an embassy, where he shoots him, blows up part of the building, and steals his cell phone. A text message on it leads him to Alex Dimitrios, working for Le Chiffre in Nassau.

After seducing his wife Solange, Bond takes a clue from her and follows him to Miami. After Alex leaves a bag at a science museum, Bond kills him and finds the guy who took the bag. He tracks him to the Miami International Airport, where he intends to blow up the Skyfleet prototype jumbo jet. In the chase that ensues, Bond clips the bomb to the hitman, so he blows himself up instead of the plane. The plot was an attempt by Le Chiffre to play the stock market: he shorted stocks of Skyfleet, meaning if the stock's price went down (i.e. due to a terrorist attack), he would've made money. Instead, he lost over US$100 million of Obanno's money, and to make it up, Le Chiffre hosts a poker tournament in Montenegro. In order to catch Le Chiffre, M signs up Bond for the game, and sends a representative from the Treasury, Vesper Lynd, to oversee their investment.

In the casino, they are met by Rene Mathis, who helps them deal with Obanno's men as they deal with Le Chiffre. As the game progresses, Bond and Le Chiffre both go all-in on a hand, and Bond loses. Vesper refuses to give him the money to continue, since the money lost from Her Majesty's Treasury could potentially pay for terrorism. So Bond tries to kill Le Chiffre on his own, but is stopped by CIA agent Felix Leiter, who volunteers to pay for Bond's buy-in. The game continues, coming once again to an all-in showdown, and this time Bond wins. But Vesper gets captured and Bond gives chase, only to crash his car. Also Mathis was a double-agent for Le Chiffre, or so Bond is told before he passes out.

Bond wakes up only to be tortured by Le Chiffre, who is trying to learn the account and password for his winnings. But then comes his boss Mr. White, who kills Le Chiffre for wasting his clients' money. After waking up again, Bond has Mathis arrested, then he starts a dating montage with Vesper, ending up in Venice. As the two are setting up a vacation, M calls and tells him that the money he was was not yet deposited into the treasury. So he follows her and discovers that she stole the money, with intent to give it to Mr. White to protect Bond from his organisation. A shootout in a sinking building ensues, after which Vesper locks herself in an elevator cage and lets herself drown, to atone for her betrayal. Mr. White makes off with the money, but thanks to a clue Vesper left behind on her phone, Bond catches up with him at his villa. To be continued...

Despite being adaptations of the same novel, this Casino Royale is the polar opposite of its comedy adaptation from 1967 (which I had attempted to include in this special, but was unable to), mainly in that it is a great film. Its strengths lie in its sharply-written dialogue, the vulnerability of its characters, and how they react to them. Daniel Craig's Bond snarks in the face of danger, Eva Green's Vesper struggles to get over her trauma, and Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre lives in fear of his clients and superiors with whom he's betrayed their trust and money. (And to think all this could've been avoided if he simply bought and sold that Skyfleet stock the normal way, instead of betting against the market.) And with the absence of Q, Moneypenny, gadgets in the traditional sense, and supervillains bent on creating physical catastrophes, this is a changing of the guard the likes of which have not been seen since the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Only this time, actual good has come out of it - like following the more realistic Ian Fleming approach once again. I have admitted to liking Timothy Dalton as my favourite Bond actor, but Craig handles the role much to the same effect - and with better hair, too.

The Call: 95% (A)

IchigoRyu will return in
Quantum of Solace

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Top 10: Psychic Characters

So I thought about doing a Halloween episode, but I couldn't get my ideas out quite fast enough.    But it's just as well: after the recent unpleasantries, some communities have pushed back their Halloween festivities.  Like where I live, communities that have lost their power as of All Hallow's Eve, the trick-or-treating will take place on 7th November, one week later.  Plus, in the harder-hit New Jersey, governor Chris Christie (R) himself commuted Halloween to Friday the 2nd because, in his own words, his power knows no bounds.  On that note, I'm counting down the top ten characters whose powers also know no bounds - psychics.  Magic users may come twelve for ten cents in fiction (or a dime a dozen, whichever's cheaper), but to qualify for this list, it has to be reasonably established that they can screw over the laws of physics with no outside implements - merely the power of their mind.  And being a mere fortune-teller won't be enough - the more ways their powers have manifested, the better.  So sorry Solitaire, but it looks like the James Bond franchise shall remain unrepresented on this list.  But why psychics, you may ask?    Well, just one scroll through this list should cement the idea in your mind that psychics are unstoppable and awesome.  In fact, it was one entry in particular that influenced me so pervasively, that I was enamoured with them ever since and even incorporated them as an integral part of my spy fiction saga, Sapphire.  (Which I totally need you to read and spread the word of, by the way.)  Who might I be referring to?  Read on and find out.

10) Rei Hino / Sailor Mars
from Sailor Moon (TV, 1995)

As a member of the Sailor Scouts, it's a given that miss Hino has elemental powers of fire in her superhero form, Sailor Mars.  But unlike her peers, she exhibits some powers even as a civilian.  Working part-time at a Shinto shrine with her grandfather, Rei occasionally delves into some fortune-telling to help her friends with the plot, and has also used some slight telekinesis to "help" her in a contest.  Ignoring her fire-fighting, pardon the pun, Sailor Mars' ESP isn't well-built enough as a character trait, if you ask me, but taking a look at the whole picture is enough to put her on the list.  Bonus points for her re-characterisation in the abridged series.

9) Rose
from Street Fighter Alpha (Game, 1995)

Like the last entry, the impact of Rose's powers is lessened in a world where chi-powered fireballs and levitation are apparently the norm.  But fortune telling is apparently not so pervasive.  In fact, Rose bases her fighting style around her abilities, here called Soul Power, channeling her energies through magical orbs and her scarf.  Oh, and not only does she levitate in some of her victory poses, her aforementioned scarf seems to have a gravitational field of its own, 24/7.  Beat that, Chun-Li.

8) Neo
from The Matrix (Film, 1999)

Does it count if the psychic powers only manifest themselves in an alternate universe?  I'll let that slide, but it won't help Itsuki Koizumi, seeing how sparingly his powers are brought out.  Thomas Anderson Neo, on the other hand, doesn't have to worry about this problem.  Neo's war is fought in the Matrix, a computerised copy of the real world, and over the course of his martial-arts training, he manages to mentally manipulate the digital space and time in this world.  The classic bending-a-spoon-with-your-mind trick is referenced mid-way, and after a Jesus moment near the end, he starts doing stuff like blocking bullets and flying.  And they said no one could be told what the Matrix is...  Too bad they never made any sequels.

7) Mao
from Code Geass (TV, 2008)

In the world of Code Geass, certain characters possess supernatural abilities through contracts made by "witches", such as the green-haired C.C. (pronounced "C2").  First and foremost among these is lead anti-hero, Lelouch vi Britannia, who gains mind-control abilities, no doubt an important tool to help this chessmaster usurp the Britannian throne.  But I went with Mao, who only appears in three episodes.  Mao's geass powers give him the ability of mind-reading - specifically, hearing the thoughts of everyone within half a kilometer, beyond his control.  Which sucks if you're Lelouch, facing off with him in a chess match, with your little sister held hostage, to be blown up upon defeat or rescue attempt.  I won't spoil how our little Lulu gets out of this one, but suffice it to say, Episode 16 sealed Mao's place on this list.

6) Matilda
from Matilda (Book / Film, 1988)

Writers have used all manner of explanations for the development of psychic powers in certain characters.  From her eponymous Roald Dahl book, Matilda Wormwood's case is perhaps the most sympathetic.  Her whole life she's been dominated over, whether it's her parents who want to stop her reading, or her school principal Ms. Trunchbull whose methods of punishment include locking up perceived misbehavers in the Chokey, a sharp-walled stand-up closet.  To be fair, it's never explicitly stated that this suppression was the cause of Matilda to spontaneously gain her special abilities, but I've accepted that to be the case, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

5) Anyone who's ever used the Force
from Star Wars (Film, 1977)

I'm cheating a little with this entry.  The Star Wars franchise has presented us with an entire demographic of psychic users, called Jedi.  Or Sith, if they've gone evil.  If I had to nominate just one person from this franchise, I'd give the nod to Anakin Skywalker, whom some of us choose to refer to solely as Darth Vader.  From superhuman reflexes in a podrace as Anakin to ripping up the scenery in a fight with his son as Vader, this guy deserves his awesome reputation.  ...As Vader, anyway.

4) Todd Ingram
from Scott Pilgrim (Comic / Film, 2006)

In the world of Scott Pilgrim, nothing's ever played exactly straight.  For one, Todd Ingram gains psychic powers just by following a vegan diet.  (Since this excludes dairy and eggs, and apparently requires attending a Vegan Academy, yeah, it's not as easy as it sounds.)  How does this work?  Straight from the horse's mouth, he claims this is because it unlocks the 90% of one's brain that is filled with curds and whey.  ...Yeah, he's not the sharpest bent spoon in the drawer.  But more than anyone on this list thus far, Todd feels like someone who is impossible for our protagonist to overcome.  So much, in fact, that Scott has to trick Todd into breaking his vegan diet (in the film; in the comics it was a more sudden deus-ex-machina) in order to win.  Bonus points for being played by Brandon Routh - better known as SUPERMAN - in the movie.

3) Sabrina
from Pokemon (Game / TV, 1998)

Sabrina's first incarnation was in the video games, where she is the Gym Leader, or boss, of Saffron City and primarily uses Psychic-type Pokemon, which in the first generation are overpowered and render type-advantages counter-productive.  But the version that stuck for me was from the 1998 anime, being the first time I saw and was aware of psychic abilities in action - and what a trip it was.  From her humble beginnings bending spoons, to imploding her own house, to transforming Brock and Misty to dolls, Sabrina exuded awesomeness on a level which in retrospect I would compare to Chuck Norris.  Yeah seriously, that's what I thought of her at the time, and her standing has not lessened much over the years.  Combine that with the abilities of her Pokemon Kadabra, and she truly came across as unbeatable.  How did our hero Ash manage to conquer her?  Turns out his new ghost Pokemon Haunter made her laugh - and via some convenient mind-link, made Kadabra laugh, rendering it unable to fight and Ash the winner.  Bear in mind that Sabrina has remained introverted (i.e. no laughing) ever since she discovered and developed her powers as a child, and it brings a satisfying end to her 3-episode story arc.

I realise this is a roundabout way of saying it, but my point is, when you're young and impressionable, even the most minor characters can leave the biggest impressions.  So if she's so near and dear to my heart, how did she not clinch the top spot?  Read on.

2) Tetsuo Shima
from Akira (Comic / Film, 1988)

To digress a little, has anyone read Eragon and the Inheritance Cycle?  It's not particularly original, or even good, and I plan to tackle it somewhere along the line, but that's beside the point.  In the Inheritance universe, magic users are limited in their powers, in that spells take physical energy, specifically, as much as it would take to perform the same action by physical means.  How that would work when a fireball is involved, you tell me.  I bring this up because Tetsuo Shima has no such limitations.  Bringing down a skyscraper?  Pulling a satellite out of orbit?  Pulling off a Big Bang in a parallel dimension?  Assuming that wasn't just some fancy aesthetic animation, it's all in a day's work for our boy.  And I haven't even mentioned the titular boy - even though we never see him intact in the film, anyone who can spontaneously blow himself up and induce World War III is not to be trifled with.

1) Psycho Mantis
from Metal Gear Solid (Game, 1998)

With all I've said about everyone else on this list, how could another psychic possibly top that?  By extending the reach of his or her mind's eye into the realm of the player - yes, you.  That's where Psycho Mantis comes in.  When you reach this boss in Metal Gear Solid, he will make comments about your playing and saving habits, telekinetically shake your controller (sure, it's just turning the rumble on, but it's the atmosphere that counts), and even react to select game saves on your memory card.  And that's just the tricks directed at the player - he has some surprises in store for our hero Solid Snake as well.  He levitates 24/7, casts chairs and planters across the room, and turns invisible (but for Thermal Goggles), which would be tough enough, but he can also predict and dodge all your attacks, be they bullets, blasts, or body blows.  Which has led to one of the game's most famous not-technically-cheats: plug/assign your controller into player 2's port.  There are reasons why Metal Gear Solid has achieved legendary status among the gaming community, and without Psycho Mantis, it just wouldn't be the same.