No(,) Time To Die (2021)

Following the tonally inconsistent, motivationally uniform “Spectre” (2015), is the (mostly) tonally consonant, inspirationally wayward “No Time To Die,” a title which should be commended for being better than “Quantum of Solace.” And much like “Quantum of Solace,” as a title, the more you think about some of the character decisions in “No Time To Die” the less sense it makes.

In one of the most egregious scenes in the film, Bond scrambles to crack the defenses of Lyutsifer Safin’s fortress as the aforementioned antagonist exits his besieged island base with a detachment of bodyguards and appears to escape. However, Safin later returns, without his men, and opens fire on Bond. Which prompted me to ponder why he would return at all, given that he knows his base is compromised and maintains no personal animus against Bond? If there was some unstated reason for his sudden and overwhelming compulsion to kill Bond, why would an obviously cautious man like Safin attack a dangerous assassin without his men? You might think the answer to the query is, “He wouldn’t, that would be profoundly reckless,” but the correct answer is, “So the plot can conclude by nanite-inspired missile-seppuku.” This is but one of many such scenes.

In another, Bond, in an attempt to infiltrate a terrorist gathering, is put into contact with an alcoholic female CIA agent named Paloma, who sheepishly confesses she’s only a couple weeks into the job, and proceeds to handily dispatch numerous trained killers with spin-kicks and double-fisted uzi-fire while wearing nothing but a party dress and high heels. I hardly need remark that its more than somewhat unconvincing, particularly given that the actress in the scene looks as if she weights scarcely more than ninety pounds and the absurdity marshals stridently against the film’s prevailing somber tone. If the filmmakers really wanted Paloma to be a convincing CIA agent, they should have had her prod Bond into an agency-organized lockdown protest, then have him arrested for domestic “extremism.”

Some of this insensibility is rendered lucid by a little knowledge of the production, which was delayed by the egress of its initial director-writer duo of Danny Boyle and John Hodge, then came the Wuhan pandemic, an onset injury of its lead and consequent, consistent rewrites. The director C.J. Fukunaga, in a interview with Esquire, elaborated upon the writing process for the project, noting that “with Bond [25], we were still writing when we’d wrapped. I was even writing in post.” He also noted that “there are pieces that Ralph Fiennes says in the trailer that neither Ralph nor I knew exactly what he was saying it for.” Obviously not ideal. Some of these problems (such as lines like “people want things to happen to them”) are doubtless a result of the rushed timetable, others, however, (such as the Paloma scene) are clearly the result of judicious planning.

I haven’t touched yet upon the political propaganda in the film, which isn’t as obnoxious as the trailer made it out to be, and probably all the more potent for that. In addition to being subtle, it is also brief and so easily removed for distribution in profitable foreign markets.

Though much was made of her in promotional material, the new and insufferably smug 007, Nomi, isn’t in the film much and was so extraneous to the plot she could have been cut from the script entirely. If that had been the case audiences would have been spared the worst line in the film, delivered as Nomi holds Safin-acolyte Obruchev at gun point over a deadly pit of nanites and askes if he knows what time it is, to which she replies, “Time to die!” A retread of The Last Jedi pit-drop scene. Trend developing.

I don’t wish to wax wholly negative. The opening is tense. Obruchev is a fascinating character and his misadventures are amusing; the initial revenge arc is interesting (though it is ultimately supplanted by a world-imperiled-via-superweapon plotline, which proves far less compelling); the acting is solid; the score, by Hans Zimmer, is keen (particularly Safin’s ethereal, understated flute motif), and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is often quite striking.

Despite all these merits it left little overall impression. Even Bond’s death felt tepid. And its easy to understand why. If Bond were a real person and a statue was erected in his honor, many of the same people who made this film would advocate for its removal.

Fancher’s Manifesto of Motion and Minimalism (review: ‘The Wall Will Tell You, The Forensics of Screenwriting,’ by Hampton Fancher)

“Incidents, yes, but no incidentals.”

The Wall Will Tell You (2019, Melville House Publishing) is a compact (80 pages long) writing guide, consisting entirely of themed blocks of aphorisms and admonitions concerning screenwriting techniques for narrative flow, characterization, themes and other associated topics.

Fancher’s own writing, showcased in films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Minus Man (1999) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), tends to exactitude and concision, so it was unsurprising to me that the primary focus of the book is minimalism and motion. He implores the reader to, “Clarify, stay with the objective. There are exceptions, but if you digress, it better be pertinent to something your story or characters are up to…,” and later notes, “Exposition is the bugbear of screenplay writing. Best be sly with that, don’t open your hand. The closed one is more enticing.” I induce Christopher Nolan disagrees.

Given the useful but obvious nature of much of the advice (for example, “A character concerns us because of what she does, what she says and that she says it in situations the outcomes of which are uncertain.”), experienced authors are unlikely to get much out of the tome other than appreciation of Fancher’s style and the occassional memorable maxim (“The hidden heart is more revealing.”), having likely come across most of the material (if not the deft articulation) on their own; however, for those who find themselves struggling to put together their first manuscript or despairing over their second, I’d highly recommend it.

No Time To Know (review: ‘Tenet,’ dir. Christopher Nolan)

Tenet (2020) revolves around CIA agent “The Protagonist” who is kidnapped and tortured by eastern europeans after a raid on a opera house. The agent takes a cyanide capsule to avoid divulging sensitive information, per his training, and wakes up on a boat where a mysterious man tells him the affair after the opera house was a test of loyalty which he passed. The mysterious man then explains The Protagonist is now a member of a secret extra-governmental group who find each other via the code word “Tenet.” In short order, The Protagonist learns the shadow organization into which he’s been inducted has discovered objects which move backward in time and is tasked with finding out who is inverting them so as to prevent a time-manipulation catastrophe.

Though technically impressive, Tenet functions more as a exposition dispensary and concept exhibition than a compelling drama. The film has been widely described as “confusing,” so I was surprised the script takes pains to tell the viewer just that, several times, as if the director-screenwriter judged it insufficient for his tale to merely be confounding. If one writes a scene which is meant to horrify, the desired effect is unlikely to be bolstered by having a character within that scene say, “This is really scary. I am afraid.” But that’s precisely the way Tenet is written. For example, a blonde scientist, in a explanation of inverted weapons, tells The Protagonist, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Feel what? One cannot feel the entropy of a bullet moving forward in time (without being shot or shooting), so why expect someone to be able to feel the same quality when the same object is moving backward in time? Later, one of The Protagonist’s confederates says blithely of time manipulation, “What happens happens.” Expounding that one must let the chips fall where they may. Yet the Tenet organization is predicated upon a philosophy thoroughly contrary to the views expressed by its own members; they exist (in so far as can be gathered from the scant information concerning them in the film) to understand how inversion works and to use that understanding to stop the negative consequences of its application from happening. Telling a new member of Tenet not to bother with understanding time inversion or to not worry of its future consequences is akin to telling a paratrooper not to bother learning how to operate parachutes and to just “go with the flow.” Because of this, such lines come across as PSAs to the audience, rather than anything a obviously intelligent person in a serious organization would say to another.

And though as previously mentioned, the film itself constantly touts how perplexing it is, it isn’t confusing in terms of its plot (ie. a mad man wants to use time inversion to end all life on Earth and the Tenets want to use time inversion to stop him), but rather, its presentation, which consists of people who one knows nothing about being introduced at a rapid pace to explain things vaguely to The Protagonist, who one also knows little about, to get something from somewhere which is unclearly and curtly articulated until the next action scene. This isn’t helped by the fact the sound design is so poor and the expository dialogue so abundant that there are only a handful of scenes of dialogue in the entire film that are at all audible. In almost every scene where two or more characters are talking (invariably quickly and quietly) background sounds are played at the same or higher volume, often in combination with electronic music thrumming even louder. Its bad enough that the film constantly explains its plot, but its far worse that one cannot even hear most of these incessant explanations.

Terrible films are like truffles filled with mold. Tenet is more akin to a truffle with all the filling cored out. Hollow, with little to savor.

Corbet’s ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ (2015)

“That’s what I wrote with ‘The Tragedy of War’ – not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good.”

Charles Marker, The Childhood of a Leader

Written by Brady Corbet and Mona Fastvold, ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ (2015) is a peculiar film, as it is a historical drama, wherein the historicity of the period is peripheral; a mystery, wherein the mystery is never made the focus of the characters’ attentions; a horror film without a monster, and a story of a individual’s political ascent, wherein the political aspirations of that individual are never mentioned.

The plot revolves around a young boy named Prescott (the titular leader) who lives with his mother and father in a expansive manor in a unspecified swatch of French countryside in 1919. Such a setting might have been idyllic, if not for the post-war malaise, the father’s perpetual absence, the mother’s weakness (and pretense to stoicism), the boy’s increasingly anti-social behavior and Scott Walker’s jarring 100-piece orchestral score, which sporadically strides over the elegantly shot scenery like the behemoth emanations of Prescott’s inner condition, precursor to the discord, and eventual order, that follows.

Though the film was marketed as a tale concerning “the birth of fascism,” the topic is not central. Rather than fascism, or any of the other prominent 20th Century ideologies, the film takes, as its principal concern, a far broader theme: the abdication of responsibility; the mundane and nuanced slithering of those fearful of obligation’s iron hand.

The eye-glassed academic, in a discourse with Prescott’s father, absolves marxism of responsibility in the wake of communist atrocity. The father eschews his duty to his family in favor of duty to his government. Both the housemaid Mona, and the language tutor Ada evade their obligations to the family through accommodation of Prescott’s bad behavior, which the latter ignores and the former encourages. The mother refuses responsibility for her sordid affair with Charles Marker by hushing the betrayal, just as Marker abdicates responsibility to Prescott’s presumed father by not informing him the boy he raised is not his son, and that his wife, contrary to her facade of prim and beautific religiosity, is a treasonous whore.

Due the cumulative weight of his childhood familiar’s indecent evasions, Prescott, as an adult, in the absence of a firm hand or a righteous tongue, willfully ascends as the bulwark against such a dearth. It is both the revelation of Prescott’s parentage, as well as his political ascension, which is meant to horrify, and yet, only the latter has any potency in that regard, since the character of Prescott’s reign is never fleshed out; all that the ending makes explicit is that Prescott has become the leader of a government and that his subjects adore him. In the absence of action demonstrating insidious characteristics, one can only speculate, even as the score barks at the audience “Be concerned!” Yet it was clear, as the credits rolled, that Prescott was the only character in the film able to rise above degradation, the only one shown not to be a coward.