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New Escapist Video! On “GoldenEye” and an Unchanged Bond in a Changed World…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with the Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film channel – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

With that in mind, here is last week’s episode. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of GoldenEye, we took a look back at the first James Bond film of the nineties, which introduced the suave secret agent to a whole new generation. Indeed, the genius of the film lay in its understanding of Bond. It presented a version of Bond that had no changed, even as the world around him had.

New Escapist Column! On “GoldenEye” and a James Bond Out of Time…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Because GoldenEye is twenty-five years old this month, it seemed like an appropriate time to look back at one of the more underappreciated entries in the franchise.

GoldenEye arrived in a changed world, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many of the underlying assumptions of the Bond franchise were no longer relevant to the new world order. At the same time, the Bond franchise was in an existential crisis following the commercial disappointment of the previous film and the longest gap between installments to date. However, GoldenEye hit upon a novel solution to this problem: instead of fighting against the idea of Bond as a man out of time, it would embrace it.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On the Understated Power of Pierce Brosan’s Bond…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last week. With the release of No Time To Die pushed out, and St. Patrick’s Day relatively understated, I thought it was worth taking a look at Pierce Brosnan’s tenure playing James Bond.

Brosnan is often overlooked in assessments of the James Bond franchise, largely overshadowed by the (deserved) reappraisal of Timothy Dalton’s vulnerability in the role and the (deserved) celebration of the emotional complexity that Daniel Craig brought to the icon. This is a shame, because there’s a lot to like about Pierce Brosnan’s interpretation of the superspy. Most obviously, there’s a sense in which Brosnan’s interpretation of the character refused to be tormented and tortured by the work that he did. Brosnan played Bond as a man uniquely attuned to the demands of his job, an unchanging man in a rapidly changing world. The result is a character who seems unflinchingly brutal, but who also collapsed his patriotism into satisfaction of his more personal vices.

Whether intentional or not, Brosnan’s interpretation of the character makes the audience uncomfortable, particularly the joy that he takes in violence and the sense in which little really matters to him beyond satisfying his own urges. It’s a provocative approach to the character, one that stands in marked contrast to the more considered introspection of the the two performers either side of him. Brosnan’s Bond often seems to be challenging the audience, asking whether we enjoy the callous violence and detached brutality as much as the protagonist does, without offering us the “get out of jail free” card that Dalton and Craig’s more solemn portrayals afford viewers.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On the “Just Create New Female Characters” Argument…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last week, on an interesting and age-old debate.

The question of how best to foster diversity in cinema and wider pop culture is a challenging one. Whenever the suggestion of race- or gender-shifting an existing character like the Doctor or James Bond comes up, the responses are always the same: “just create new characters!” It’s a strong argument conceptually, because it’s rooted in the (entirely correct) moral presumption that women shouldn’t need to repurpose old characters, but instead should have new characters. However, it also glosses over the economic and cultural realities of the current cinematic climate. The debate is more complicated than it might appear.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: The Rhythm Section

Perhaps the most revealing distinction between The Rhythm Section and the James Bond franchise is that the characters in The Rhythm Section appear to have done their beer sponsorship deal with Stella Artois rather than Heineken.

That’s a little facetious. After all, it seems highly likely that Heineken paid a great deal more to sponsor No Time to Die than Stella Artois paid for a few minutes of screentime in a late January release from producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Nevertheless, there is something to it. Although the marketting copy is keen to sell The Rhythm Section as something of a gender-swapped teaser for No Time to Die“from the producers of James Bond,” boasts the trailer and the advertising – it’s to the credit of director Reed Morano that she is interested in something a little bit more complex and sophisticated.

Taking a shot at it.

Of course, The Rhythm Section doesn’t entirely work. It is a messy and clumsy film. At points, this seems to be a deliberate stylistic choice and a clear point of contrast, an attempt to imbue the classic spy movie format with a sense of the chaos that informs and shapes the real world. At other moments, it feels like a miscalculation and an error in judgment. The Rhythm Section is an earnest attempt to crash the trappings of an espionage revenge thriller into a more intimate personal drama about grief and trauma, but sometimes the mix goes wrong and the film veers into the realm of indulgent self-parody.

Still, there’s a lot to like about The Rhythm Section in spite of its imbalances. The film is genuinely trying something something ambitious, even if it occasionally buckles under the weight of those attempts. At its best, The Rhythm Section suggests a new spin on an old formula. At its worst, it is at least anchored in a compelling central performance amid overwrought clichés. The Rhythm Section might not hit every note perfectly, but it manages to keep time.

Spy, craft.

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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part II (Review)

Spyfall, Part II certainly takes a sharp turn.

In hindsight, despite its literal holiday trappings, it seems fair to position Spyfall, Part I as a “holiday special.” It is consciously designed as a “romp” or a “runaround”, with a whole host of homages to something that audiences enjoy. In the case of Spyfall, Part I, that piece of pop culture happens to be the James Bond franchise. In Voyage of the Damned, it was The Poseidon Adventure. In A Christmas Carol, it was… well, guess. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it was generic superhero films.

Master of his domain.

It is retroactively possible to identify Spyfall, Part I as part of the show’s “holiday episode” genre because of the sharp way in which Spyfall, Part II pivots away from the defining features of the preceding adventure. Director Jamie Magnus Stone is replaced by Lee Haven Jones, which is most likely a result of production block scheduling. That production block scheduling reflects the distinctions between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, because Spyfall, Part I needs to use South Africa as a shooting location while Spyfall, Part II is produced in a more traditional manner.

However, Spyfall, Part II distinguishes itself from Spyfall, Part I in more than just its production choices. The episode marks a very sharp departure from Spyfall, Part I. For all its flaws, Spyfall, Part I knew what it was doing. It was doing Doctor Who as an elaborate homage to James Bond, while flooding the screen with production value, a star-studded cast, some exotic locations and a big “moment” on which it might hang a cliffhanger. Spyfall, Part II lacks even that sense of purpose, to the point that it’s hard to tell exactly what the episode is meant to be about.

Hangaround.

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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part I (Review)

The name’s Doctor. The Doctor.

Spyfall, Part I offers a solid start to the season, if an unspectacular one.

Of course, Spyfall, Part I is all about spectacle. In some respects, showrunner Chris Chibnall is building off the successful elements of his deeply flawed first season of Doctor Who. Spyfall, Part I capitalises on a number of the core strengths of those first ten episodes. The location shooting in South Africa affords Spyfall, Part I an impressive sense of scale and spectacle. As in episodes like The Ghost Monument and Rosa, South Africa is able to stand-in for a variety of exotic locations that would normally be outside the scope of Doctor Who. Chibnall is able to pitch Spyfall, Part I as a genuinely globe-trotting adventure.

No agency.

More than that, the production continues to look lavish. Chibnall retains the anamorphic lenses and the modified aspect ratio from the previous season, lending the series a polished and cinematic appearance. The guest cast for Spyfall, Part I is absolutely stacked, especially by the standards of Doctor Who. Stephen Fry has had a long a complicated relationship with Doctor Whostarring in audio dramas, writing for the television show, critiquing the television show – and he finally makes his television appearance here. Lenny Henry is a suitably big draw, particularly for the role he ultimately plays.

Spyfall, Part I is a good old-fashioned runaround adventure, consciously built around setpieces and action beats that would have seemed impossible for Doctor Who even a decade ago. However, there is something frustratingly hollow in all of this. Spyfall, Part I is positioned as both a season premiere, a New Year’s Day Special, and the first episode of Doctor Who to air since Resolution. That is a lot of weight pressing down on the episode, a lot of expectation, and a lot of outside context. Spyfall, Part I is a new beginning for the series, but it feels more like another day at the office than a statement of purpose.

What the tech is going on?

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New Escapist Column! “No Time to Die” and that Missing Killer Instinct…

So the trailer for No Time to Die, the new James Bond movie, dropped yesterday.

I wrote a bit about my reaction to it at Escapist Magazine, primarily how I was a little underwhelmed by how generic it all felt. It lacked the strong statement of purpose that defined the trailers for movies like GoldenEye, Casino Royale and Skyfall. It seems to be designed to assure audiences that all the required plot elements are in place, but it never actually makes any strong statements about what the movie is supposed to be.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

An August Tribute: “The Avengers” and Deconstructing Bond…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing The Avengers on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

This is not a defense of The Avengers.

There is no defending The Avengers. The film is legendary and spectacular failure. There is no belated reclamation project under way, no attempt to salvage its reputation twenty-odd years after it landed in a smoking crater. The film’s production history is storied, and disastrous. The film was subject to internal power struggles within Warner Brothers, falling between a changing of the guard and sabotaged at a test screening with a hostile audience. Twenty-five minutes of the film were unceremoniously cut out, and the score was radically rewritten. The result is monstrous.

More than that, there is little to indicate that The Avengers could ever have been a good film, even its pristine and uncut state. The flaws with the movie run deeper than those definable absences. The two leads share no chemistry, despite the fact that the film hinges on their dynamic. The plot is complete nonsense, haunted by the shadow of countless rewrites rather than simply lost in the edit. The film’s surrealism is halfhearted rather than committed, flirting with deranged brilliance but always landing somewhere on the uncomfortable side of mere camp. The Avengers is bad.

And, yet, in spite of all that, something interesting beats at the heart of The Avengers. Part of this is a result of the movie’s intrinsic late-nineties-ness, the way that it captures the mood of that moment. It is very much a post-Cold War story, its stakes framed in environmental terms that reflect the anxieties of the cultural moment. (Remember when mankind healed the hole in the ozone layer?) Similarly, the movie’s flirtation with the surreal and the notion of collapsing reality echoes (better) films like The Truman Show or The Matrix or Dark City or eXistenz or Fight Club.

However, the most interesting aspect of the film remains its central performance from Sean Connery. At the time, Connery had just successfully reinvented himself as a box office draw in the late nineties, building off the success of his collaboration with Michael Bay and Nicolas Cage in The Rock. The late nineties were were busy time for Connery, with projects including Entrapment, Playing by Heart and Finding Forrester. The actor was undergoing what might be characterised today as a “Conneraissance.”

In the middle of that “Conneraissance”, there is something rather strange about The Avengers, in large part because it’s a performance that exists in dialogue with his most iconic role. Of course, there’s no getting around Connery’s time as James Bond. The Rock rather heavily implies that Connery’s character was a version of James Bond arrested around the time of Diamonds are Forever. However, The Avengers goes one step further. The Avengers doesn’t just cast Sean Connery as a Bond villain. The Avengers casts Sean Connery as James Bond as a Bond villain.

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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 4, Episode 10 (“Our Man Bashir”)

The Pensky File will return…

Thrilled to join Wes and Clay over at The Pensky Podcast for another episode of their look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The dynamic duo are fast approaching the midpoint of the fourth season, one of the greatest seasons of television in the Star Trek canon and probably one of the greatest twenty-odd episode seasons of television ever produced.

I was particularly excited to join the pair for a discussion of Our Man Bashir, an episode in which Bashir and Garak become embroiled in a life and death struggle while playing out one of Bashir’s spy fantasies. My position on Our Man Bashir is pretty out there, but I genuinely believe that it’s one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. Do I manage to convince Wes and Clay? You’ll have to listen to find out.

Along the way, we discuss everything from the popularity of James Bond in America, to the evolution of Julian Bashir as a character, to the economics of the holosuite to Avery Brooks’ distinctive performance style. It was, as ever, a huge pleasure and privilege to join the two for the discussion.

You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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