Another Movie Guy?: "Quantum of Solace," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

Quantum of Solace does not fulfill the promise of Casino Royale. Released two years ago, the first Bond to feature Daniel Craig had character development, something found in no previous Bond movie. The violence was spectacular, and I was made to actually care about what happened, which made the movie all the more suspenseful. Quantum of Solace has its share of chases and explosions, but not very well. The end result is sometimes entertaining, never enthralling.

Unlike earlier Bond movies which were self-contained, Quantum of Solace is a direct sequel to Casino Royale. When we last left Bond, he captured a man who had a part in the death of Bond’s lost love. Quantum of Solace picks up about 45 minutes later with Bond and M (Judi Dench) questioning Mr. White. Turns out White is part of a secret organization, Quantum, that is hell-bent on world domination and “has people everywhere.” He’s definitely right about the second part – M’s bodyguard is a Quantum member, and pulls a gun on her. Bond prevents the assassination, and kills the bodyguard ( but not before a wonderfully choreographed gun fight, the movie’s only highlight).  Bond spends the rest of the movie pursuing Quantum, and soon encounters the slimy  Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who wants to control Bolivia’s water supply. Greene’s plan involves installing a General as president, the same man who also happened to also have ruined the life of beautiful Bolivian secret service agent Camille (Olga Kurylenko). Bond teams up with Camille to take down the bad guys.

Plot, of course, is secondary to action and style. On both counts, director Marc Forster pales in comparison to his predecessor. The action sequences are too chaotic. With such quick cutting, there is no sense of space, and when one does not understand what’s happening, it is difficult to become exhilarated. In addition to the frenzied camera work, many sequences felt stale. The collapse of a Venetian mansion is new, an exploding office is not. The lack of style, however, is Quantum of Solace’s biggest misstep. Bond is so driven that he does not have time to be charming. Even his seduction scene is handled briskly, devoid of wit. That is not to say that Craig does a bad job. With his steely blue eyes and clipped dialog, he’s convincing as a man who is , as M puts it, “blinded by inconsolable rage.” The supporting performances are all done competently.  Dench is great (as usual).  As the villain, Amalric does not chew the scenery, and instead comes off as a sleazy bastard. For reasons I’d rather not reveal, Kurylenko is not your typical Bond girl. Camille and Bond only share common goals – these two have absolutely no chemistry.

At one point, and I’m paraphrasing here, a woman says to Bond, “There’s something coldly efficient about you.” The line is perfect summation of the movie. Quantum of Solace delivers most the things you expect from a typical Bond movie, but little else. Next time my expectations won’t be so high.

Here are other movies in which Dame Judi Dench plays a no-nonsense shrew:

Shakespeare in Love. Ms. Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her Queen Elizabeth portrayal in this romantic comedy. With only a handful of scenes, Dench is nonetheless memorable as a woman who easily commands authority, and loves a good surprise. Queen Elizabeth is secondary to the principal story, which concerns the titular young playwright (Joseph Fiennes) as he struggles to write Romeo and Juliet. Meanwhile, Shakespeare also falls in love with Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is engaged to an ass (Colin Firth). Naturally the two problems resolve when Viola, bucking the status quo, takes on the role of the titular star-crossed lover. Written by Tom “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” Stoppard, the movie is chock-full of annoyingly cute references to Shakespeare’s work. Director John Madden makes his vision of London unusually grimy – there is always dirt under the Shakespeare fingernails. The movie is pleasant enough, and contains some choice lines (“That woman is a woman!” chief among them). For most people, I think, Shakespeare in Love will always be the movie that stole Best Picture from Saving Private Ryan.

Pride and Prejudice. I’m not the most passionate Jane Austen fan, but I have vivid memories of being the lone male P&P defender in my high school English class. Since I did not eagerly anticipate the Keira Knightley adaptation, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. As a character both virtuous and stubborn, Knightley makes a terrific Elizabeth. Judi Dench is also memorable as Lady Catherine, someone so wrapped up in the union of families that she’ll humiliate anyone who stands in her way. Any Pride and Prejudice adaptation is only as good as its Mr. Darcy, and Matthew Macfadyen convincingly transforms (in Elizabeth’s mind) from a brute into a lovable gallant. Then at age 32, director Joe Wright has considerable skill. The camera swoops around the characters with confidence – an early dance sequence handles the choreography and important plot points adeptly. I know many die-hard Austen fans who prefer the BBC miniseries to Wright’s interpretation. Even though the Wright version lacks Colin Firth, it manages to stir my emotions in a way that few romantic comedies do.

Notes on a Scandal. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are two of the most talented actresses working right now, so it is a delight to see them in this unsettling drama. Dench plays Barbara, an aging teacher with an utter lack of empathy for her students. Blanchett plays Sheba, the quasi-Bohemian new art teacher upon whom Barbara fixates. The two are uneasy friends, so when Sheba begins an affair with a young student, Barbara becomes her confidante. You know from the title that Barbara betrays Sheba’s confidence, putting everyone’s world in upheaval. Needless to say, Sheba’s middle-aged husband (Bill Nighy) is not sure whether he should forgive her. The reasons for Barbara’s betrayal are complicated – her feelings teeter toward obsession. Barbara’s co-dependent tendencies keep her from being 100% shrew – in fact,  she sometimes seems jealous of the boy. All this may sound overly melodramatic, but the taut script by Patrick “Closer” Marber is more curious about what motivates these flawed characters. I should also note that Philip Glass, who I normally hate (The Hours is the worst musical score ever), does a really good job here.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I’m sure of my final answer.