Movie News: Skyfall (2012)

Daniel Craig: Of human Bond-age

With post number 700 (geddit?),Picturenose marks the imminent release (26 October 2012) of Daniel Craig’s third entry into the 007 canon, Skyfall (2012), for which critical raves are already flying in thick and fast – ahead of our review, which will be with you by 25 October, a look at how Craig has managed to live the dream and act the part so successfully with his immersion into the role of the world’s most renowned super-spy.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to November 2006. There had not been a Bond film made since Lee Tamahori’s truly appalling Die Another Day of 2002 – indeed, while DAD of course made mountains of cash at the box office, the critics were justifiably bemoaning (some even wishing for) the end of the most successful franchise in cinema history.

Pierce Brosnan, who had to be fair walked the walk and talked the talk with a fair amount of success during his four-film tenure as James Bond (though his interpretations suffered from scripts that were only intermittently any good, ie parts one and three), was unceremoniously (some might say unfairly) dumped, and the Broccoli behemoth went into a hiatus the likes of which had not been seen since the end of Timothy Dalton (1989, Licence to Kill) and the beginning of Brosnan (1995, Goldeneye).

Who was to follow Brosnan? How to move away from the utterly predictable exotic locations/shaken martinis/cheesy one-liners and villains/bonk fests that the series had become? Then, in late 2005, the announcement was made – Bond needed a reboot, so why not take the series back to its beginnings, namely Ian Fleming’s very first book, Casino Royale? This had previously only been made as a horrendous 1966 spoof and, fact fans, as a 1954 episode of US TV thriller series Climax! by William H. Brown Jr, which marked Bond’s first onscreen appearance, with Barry Nelson as American(?) spy James (Jimmy) Bond, whose mission it is to beat crime boss Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) at cards. Surprisingly faithful in places to parts of Fleming’s yarn, it nevertheless simply did not work, due in no small part to the heresy of having a Yank play Bond.

Anyway, back to Bond’s roots was the idea, with our man being ‘reintroduced’, even though this would in fact be the 21st film of the cycle, as a somewhat trigger happy young-blood who has just been granted his licence to kill double-O status, but who has much to do to convince M (Judi Dench) that she has made the right decision to promote him. This was all well and good with the worldwide Bond appreciation society, but what did not go down well at all with a moronic sub-section of this fraternity was the choice of one Daniel Craig.

There was even a website devoted to the cause, (which still exists, amazingly enough), with the intelligence level of the objections ranging far and wide from ‘Craig’s too young’ to ‘Bond had black hair, not blonde’. Ho-hum. But then, something truly unexpected happened – Casino Royale, which had Martin Campbell (who had given the Bond franchise a previous reboot with Goldeneye) at the helm and the screenwriting team of Robert Wade, Neil Purvis and Paul Haggis on board, went on to become the most critically lauded entry in decades (even earning its star a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor) and the most successful Bond film ever. How do you like that,

As Craig himself subsequently said: “There’s a passion about this because people take it very close to their hearts and they have grown up with James Bond – and so have I. But I was being criticized before I had presented anything, so it was name calling. It is a huge challenge, a huge responsibility – Bond is a huge iconic figure in movie history.”

But Craig, again stressing the human aspects of the character, added: “In fact, I find it very easy playing Bond. I think he’s hilarious. He gets himself into some extraordinarily funny situations but, I wanted that, if Bond took his clothes off, he looked like a man who did what he did, which was kill people for a living. I thought the only way to do that was to work out and get fit and buff and get physically into shape.”

And the box-office pundits are predicting that Skyfall, which sees Bond’s loyalty to M put through the severest of tests, will likely top even Casino Royale’s success, and will certainly erase the memory of Marc Forster’s second Craig installment, Quantum of Solace (2008), which in this writer’s opinion was hugely under-rated, but did nevertheless represent something of a gloomy stutter for the writing team and Craig himself.

Never mind – while Bond’s rejuvenation has been the very definition of a team effort, it would have all been for naught without the presence of Craig at the centre, the man who has finally (better than even Connery ever did) given the world Bond as Fleming first imagined him – a professional killer who is merciless when duty calls, but also human and haunted. A Bond who bleeds.

Born Daniel Wroughton Craig in 1968 in Chester, he was the son of a former merchant seaman turned steel erector while his mother Olivia was a teacher who after her divorce took Craig and his older sister Lea to live in central Liverpool when he was four. His mother, who had attended Liverpool Art College and won a place at RADA (which she didn’t take up) spent a lot of time at the city’s famously left-wing Everyman Theatre, then in its heyday with Bernard Hill, Julie Walters, Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, and Craig thus learned to enjoy the onstage life and the Green Room early, which was what convinced Craig that he too would become an actor, when he was aged just six.

And Craig’s immersion into the role of Bond, both onscreen and off (which reached its apogée recently with him in character as 007 accompanying none other than Queen Elizabeth II to arrive at the London Olympic Games Opening Ceremony by parachute) must have come as a surprise to many, particularly those who had him typecast only as rough, tough and ready northern totty, a new Jimmy Nail, etc, etc, ever since his breakout role as Geordie Peacock in the BBC’s exemplary drama series Our Friends in the North, back in 1996.

Not that Craig’s performance in Simon Cellan Jones/Pedr James’ series wasn’t good, because it very much was, but the actor then chose, surprising many at the time, to turn his back completely on B-list celebrity trivia, and go elsewhere to hone his acting talent. A series of roles in art-house and European productions followed, such as Elizabeth (1998) and Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), before Craig’s natural, human intensity first caught the eye of Sam Mendes, who drew an excellent performance from him in Road to Perdition (2002), then he delivered a standout lead role as a nameless coke dealer in Layer Cake (2004), before Steven Spielberg took an even better performance from him in the excellent Munich (2005) as a gutsy, driven but still very human assassin.

This was Spielberg’s most adult pic to date – the experience and characterization was to prove fertile ground for Craig’s next role, namely as the driven but human Bond. Now, the wheel has come full circle, with Skyfall’s director Mendes once again directing his protegé, but this time as his star. Now, however, Craig avoids the red-carpet mileu to a large extent, which has only ensured his elevation to the status of a ‘cool’ 007 in the eyes of many. And what then of the future? Well, Craig is contractually tied to Bond for two more films, but what is certain is that this actor, as his work prior to and during 007 has shown, will never allow himself to be pigeonholed.

M: Bond, I need you back.
Bond: I never left.

Cloclo (2012)

Renier reigns

I’ve not really seen that many biopics in my time – it’s not a genre that I deliberately avoid, it’s just it’s rare that I am sufficiently interested in the lives of the rich and famous to want to spend a couple of hours learning about them. However, Cloclo (2012) by French director Florent-Emilio Siri (L’ennemi intime (2007), Hostage (2005)) is something else again, not least because it has at its centre a performance by Jérémie Renier as France’s über-chanteur malheureux Claude François that is nothing short of astounding.

Truth be told, I was a big fan of François (or ‘Cloclo’, as the French affectionately moniker him) before watching the film – he first came into my orbit with the simply splendid Podium (2004) by Yann Moix, starring Benoît Poelvoorde as Cloclo impersonator par excellence Bernard Frédéric, but Moix’s film, while still very respectful to the memory of CF, was nevertheless a very broad (and very funny) pastiche of the man and his music.

Bravely, in that it is only eight years since Podium swept all before it, Cloclo instead opts for the straight story, a faithful and, considering that it was produced by François’ sons, unflinching look at the tragically short life of a singer-personality who is still a legend in la France.

Born the son of a shipping-company owner in Egypt, we see a little of Cloclo’s early life, and the beginnings of his vexed and ultimately completely estranged relationship with his father Aimé (Marc Barbé), who completely rejects his son’s musical ambitions and subsequently disowns him.

A pity that more could not have been made of this relationship, or lack thereof, because it is just about the only lacuna in an otherwise immaculately complete account of Cloclo’s life which, you may not know, ended on 11 March 1978, when François electrocuted himself trying to mend a light-bulb while standing in his bath.

Now, let me tell you about Renier – even at my first look at the poster for the film, which shows François’ face in profile, I knew that I was in for a treat – as one of Bernard Frédéric’s competitors remarks in Podium, ‘he’s not an impersonator this guy, he’s a clone’, and the same can absolutely be said of Renier (L’enfant (2005)) in Cloclo.

And it’s not just a question of the look being absolutely spot on – Renier mimics the body language, posture, voice and on-stage rythmns of François so well, I guarantee that after 30 minutes or so, you will be convinced that Cloclo lives.

Very little more to be said, really – it opens in Belgium and France on 14 March. You must see this film.

128 mins. In French, Italian and English.

‘They’re young, they’re in love, and they make movies…’

“A film is a ribbon of dreams. The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins.”

Thus spake the late, great Orson Welles, a man who knew more than most (at least, in his younger days) about why cinema was and is the most vibrant expression of creativity on the planet.

The best directors tend to be those, be they a Spielberg, Kubrick, Von Trier or Truffaut, who do not lose the sense of awe that childhood and being young inspire, and who are able to translate this into shared experience for all people, for all times.

And there is no doubt that the young, and young at heart, are still responding to the art form – a recent study, conducted by Time in the US, found that 30 days after studying a book, children remember only 30% of what they could recall the next morning. However, three months after seeing a film, they remembered 90% of what they were able to describe the morning after. In the US, the number of young people who visit the cinema every week is around 28 million and, of these, 11 million are under 14.

At a European level (Eurostat 2006) more than 82% of 16- to 24-year-olds went to see at least one film in the study reference year, a share that was twice high as for those aged 30 and over.

In 17 European countries, more than 50% of young Europeans aged 16–24 went to the cinema between one and six times in the year preceding the survey. Moreover, in Belgium, Ireland, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Austria and Iceland more than 35 % of people in this age bracket went to the cinema more than six times per year. To a lesser extent, cinema was also popular among young people aged 25–29 – in all countries under review, more than 40% of people aged 25-29 went to the cinema at least once in the year preceding the survey. In Ireland, Spain and Luxembourg, respectively 29%, 33% and 35% of the population aged 25–29 went to see seven or more films in the year preceding the survey.

It has been found that onscreen sex is most disturbing to cinema addicts aged 16, cinemas excite children three times more than adults, and girls who have been ‘led astray’ in life believe that cinema was a contributory factor to their tough times.

No country for old men?

On both sides of the Atlantic, hiring young directors, who are far more likely to be in touch with their peers’ tastes, senses and sensibilities, is becoming ever more the norm – many of today’s top filmmakers began shooting features when they were young. Taking a random sample of directors who broke through in the 1990s and 2000s – many of them were about 30 when their first features came out: Keenen Ivory Wyans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988)), Michael Bay (Bad Boys (1995)), David Fincher (Alien 3 (1992)), and Spike Jones (Being John Malkovich (1999)). A little older on their debuts were Alex Proyas at 31 (The Crow (1994)), Cameron Crowe at 32 (Say Anything (1989)), James Mangold at 32 (Heavy (1995)), Karyn Kusuma at 32 (Girlfight (2000)), McG at 32 (Charlie’s Angels (2000)), David Koepp at 33 (The Trigger Effect (1996)), Allison Anders at 33 (Border Radio (1987)) and Mark Neveldine at 33 (Crank (2006)).

And these, in fact, are the older examples – there are numerous current directors who completed their first feature in their twenties. Quentin Tarantino, Reginald Hudlin, Roger Avary, and Joe Carnahan began aged 29, Sofia Coppola and Brett Ratner at 28, and Peter Jackson and F. Gary Gray were a mere 26.

Fancy some (perhaps) even more famous names to round out the list? OK.

Dementia 13 (1963): Francis Ford Coppola, 24. (You’re a Big Boy Now was released when Coppola was 27.)

Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967): Martin Scorsese, 25.

Dark Star (1974): John Carpenter, 26.

THX 1138 (1971): George Lucas, 27.

Night of the Living Dead (1968): George Romero, 28.

The Sugarland Express (1974): Steven Spielberg, 28. If you count the TV feature Duel, subtract three years.

Targets (1968): Peter Bogdanovich, 29.

Dillinger (1973): John Milius, 29.

Blue Collar (1978): Paul Schrader, 32.

Good Times (with Sonny and Cher) (1967): William Friedkin, 32.

Easy Rider (1969): Dennis Hopper, 33.

It’s simple, really – Hollywood and European film studios were essentially run by the old men, who had brought the system to the brink of collapse. The twentysomethings tore down the barricades and made a place for young filmmakers – and guess what? They’re still here today and, for the good of our collective “ribbon of dreams”, long may that continue.

Tribute: Norman Wisdom

A very British star

Paul Stump examines other sides of the late Norman Wisdom than the clown of popular cliché.

It’s hard to imagine anything less apt to open a tribute to the recently deceased king of British film comedy, Norman Wisdom, than any reference whatsoever to Richard Wagner – as I hope the following will make clear – but here goes.

Upon seeing the composer’s specially constructed Festspielhaus Theatre on its Green Hill in Bayreuth, the Austrian dramatist Hermann Bahr was moved to stress that: “Someone who stands on this Hill of Sound will unhesitatingly answer the question ‘what is German?’, by pointing to this opera house and saying ‘that is it!’.”

Bahr does not clarify – it was very much a you-had to be there thing, as much about what the spectator did not witness as what they did. Much the same could be said for Wisdom’s comedies. Although famously a cult figure in Stalinist Albania, Wisdom is perhaps one of the most quintessentially British things in cinema; infinitely more so than Connery as Bond or Howard and Johnson as the putative lovers in Brief Encounter (1945).

In the weeks following the comic’s death on 4 October 2010, aged 95, a great deal of piffle has been repeated about the universal nature of comedy and particularly slapstick, an art at which Wisdom had only one British peer – Chaplin – who recognised that fact. What was British about Wisdom was where his humour came from, and where it went in the hearts and minds of his numberless devoted followers. Wisdom’s schtick was common enough – the ‘Little Guy’ overcoming the vissitudes of a hostile world through his ability to raise a smile from the humblest tug of the forelock.

His stock-in-trade, learned on that fabulous British music-hall treadmill that spun off Fred Karno’s army across the Atlantic, to Hollywood and comedy history, was the role of the ‘Gump’; a non-Yiddish klutz or nebbish, physically stunted, an all-thumbs doomed to professional and personal disaster.

He debuted the character in the 1920s, when the majority of his audience had emerged from the Great War in which young men had been fed into a trench-warfare meat-grinder by men assumed to be their social and intellectual superiors (significantly, one of Wisdom’s most inspired and most often-shown filmed routines is that of his Pitkin in The Square Peg (1959) as a workman labouring in a manhole and using its cover to bellow orders across a parade ground, reducing the ranks to a shambles while he remains unseen, much to the apoplectic chagrin of the drill sergeant.

Wisdom’s Gump got his laughs by lampooning the pomposities of self-appointed panjandrums, be they bureaucratic stuffed-shirts, ‘yellow brigade’ staff officers, presumptuous knowalls or symphony conductors. Authority got it in the neck from a tiny chap in a sausage-skintight suit, a cap and a physique that couldn’t say boo to a goose – and it brought the house down from Golders Green to Glasgow.

What audiences saw were their own prejudices about the respectable, the too-smart, the effeminate, the refined, repeatedly confirmed with every pratfall; these prejudices have long been rooted in the British psyche and remain there to this day, which explains the extreme duration of what was as much love as admiration in the country of Wisdom’s birth for one of its funniest sons.