Novecento

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento (more widely known as 1900) is a marvelously insane film, as vital as it is unsubtle. Bertolucci’s images always carry more charge than the dramatic and thematic constructs he uses as a foundation for them, and, in this regard, Novecento, shot by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, offers an embarrassment of riches.

Since watching it, I have been thinking about how much I enjoy sustained viewing experiences. Novecento has a runtime of over five hours (and, in its original cut, was actually released as two films). With any film of that length, your investment naturally ebbs and flows, and classic cinematic epics were designed in ways to accommodate that, to allow your attention to drift and to circle back to the object of your attention.

I can enjoy a film like Novecento and still walk away emotionally and intellectually energized, but most recent two-and-a-half hour blockbusters exhaust me. Our recent blockbusters pummel you with stimulation, desperate to keep you immersed.

I am reminded of a quote from Raúl Ruiz, taken from his Poetics of Cinema 2:

“There are those who believe that the best thing that can happen is for us to be fascinated by a film from beginning to end. Hence, they believe detachment is useless and boring. There is an expression that is widely used by film fabricators in Hollywood: ‘When you lose your spectator (that is, when you are no longer fascinating him), you lose him forever.’ According to this criterion, detachment is not only unnecessary but also dangerous. It’s not what I think. I have a few reasons to believe that detachment is indispensable, and not only so that we may apprehend the film rationally–we already know that reason doesn’t have a good name in the practice of art–but so as to experience the film’s events in their full complexity. We mustn’t forget that to experience a work of art is not simply letting oneself be fascinated by it, a mere falling in love with it, but rather it’s understanding the process of falling in love. For this one needs the freedom to move away from the loved object in order to return to it freely. The amorous encounter with the work of art is a practice that can be summarized in the following formula: ‘To love renders one intelligent,’ which certainly contradicts the formula which states being in love is more like being hit on the head by a club.”

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

The opening of The Lost World is, by some measure, the best sequence in any of the Jurassic Park films, our purest glimpse of Spielberg the Sadist since his camera watched dispassionately as a young girl was dragged beneath the waves by an unseen menace at the start of Jaws.

Jaws presents a vision of nature that is not just indifferent, but opposed, to humanity. Civilization only extends as far as the shoreline. The thrust of The Lost World is similar. Its Isla Sorna is a hostile space, a space out of time where prehistoric monsters roam free. To dare to journey there is to put yourself on the menu.

Here, the fodder is a young girl, brought to the island by extremely wealthy parents on a cruise. Spielberg spares us the undoubtedly horrifying images as she’s pecked to pieces by dinosaurs, but he lets us hear her screams and see the terrified face of her mother. The film then hilariously and chillingly smash cuts from the mother’s scream to Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) yawning in front of a poster in a subway station, as human-made an environment as has ever existed.

These are the film’s two worlds, and The Lost World suggests that regardless of which realm invades the other, the outcome won’t be good for humanity. Even those with good intentions, the environmentalists sent to protect this dinosaur paradise, are at risk; if you fix the broken leg of a baby Tyrannosaurus, you’re still dealing with a Tyrannosaurus.

In the film’s giddy monster movie coda, Spielberg unleashes the T-Rex on San Diego. To the T-Rex, the modern city looks like just another territory to conquer, its swimming pools serving as new watering holes, humanity’s domesticated canines making for easy prey. As it effortlessly prowls through the streets, it becomes comically clear that the king of the dinosaurs could easy become the king of the metropolis, a dark echo of the original film’s declaration that “life finds a way.”

Lighting the Fuse – The Mission: Impossible Films

Before Tom Cruise reworked Mission: Impossible into a cinematic showcase for his talents, Mission: Impossible was a television series, and a very good one. Created by Bruqce Geller, Mission: Impossible rode to success on the wave of 1960s spymania. It took a little inspiration from Jules Dassin’s heist film, Topkapi, offering a new, complicated challenge each week for its team–the Impossible Missions Force–to tackle and overcome. While the show had a recurrent cast of characters, each episode was driven less by its characters than the nature of the mission–often sketched in hazy terms during the episode’s opening moments–with each episode deriving its charge from the surprises present in watching the expert team maneuvering past any obstacles. At its height, the show was tremendously clever, and it had a groove all its own courtesy of Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable music.

That music would be the one major element of the series to successfully make its way into every installment of the blockbuster film series of the same name (although none of the film composers who rearranged it could give it anywhere near the same punch that Schifrin did), though, at the start, its relationship to the television series was more discernible. The first of the movies, Mission: Impossible (1996), functioned as as a quasi-sequel to the original television series, albeit with a revisionist bent. Filmmaker Brian De Palma, whose aptitude for clockwork suspense sequences made him a natural fit for the material, was given the task of reshaping the property into a star vehicle for Cruise. The suspenseful opening of the film introduces a version of the TV show’s team, led by an aging Jim Phelps (Jon Voight, taking on the role originated by Peter Graves), only to memorably eliminate them all one-by-one during a mission-gone-bad. Young Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) survives, and is subsequently identified by the CIA as a traitor. He goes on the run and fights to prove his innocence. Using this framework, De Palma made the series into a vehicle for his own skepticism of the American state, which Mission: Impossible portrays as both deeply sinister and comically inept. Hunt’s journeys through the underworld lead him to the revelation that the true foe is Phelps himself, no longer a patriot, having been so disillusioned by the end of the Cold War that he’s now willing to murder his friends and betray his country.

Despite the film’s reputation as an action blockbuster, it’s more of a chilly spy thriller with a few intricate heist sequences in the tradition of the original series (the break-in to the CIA headquarters in Langley, in which De Palma exhibits his gift for sustained suspense, is, by far, the best of them). Its only true action setpiece, the memorable train sequence, occurs as a kind of outrageous victory lap after the film has dramatically and thematically resolved. The film’s true climax occurs moments prior. Hunt exposes Phelps’ scheme using the same tools of surveillance Phelps manipulated earlier in the film, rewriting Phelps’ false narrative (De Palma’s follow-up feature, Snake Eyes rephrases many of the same ideas explored in Mission: Impossible, including the basic structures of this resolution, but with more conviction and depth).

Cruise’s boyish charm and intense focus had not yet begun to mature into the gravitas he now brings with him to his performances, and the film’s Ethan Hunt, a thinly drawn member of the IMF team who has to rise from the middle of the ranks to the position of leader, remains a weak focal point for the film’s drama. Accordingly, the character’s personality changes significantly in the next few films. In Mission: Impossible II, Ethan Hunt would transition into a confident daredevil and ladies’ man, a kind of American James Bond with luxuriously flowing hair.

Mission: Impossible II marked Cruise’s apex as a marquee star and solidified Cruise’s reputation as an adrenaline junkie, eager to push himself beyond his physical limits.The film introduces us to Cruise’s Hunt while he’s engaged in a precarious rock climb, complete with a harrowing jump-stunt that Cruise proudly performed himself. The sequence, and the remainder of the film, is infatuated with Cruise, with his straining musculature, with his piercing eyes, with his clenched jaw, treating Cruise’s Hunt less as a character than a demigod, an exemplar of human physique.

Mission: Impossible II departs dramatically from the template of the original television series, making only the faintest gesture toward the Impossible Missions Force being a team-based operation (Ving Rhames comes over from the original film, though he has little to do, and he’s paired with a new supporting character, John Poulson, who has even less to do). The heist sequences give way to gun ballet and motorcycle acrobatics. If this resembles Hong Kong action cinema, it’s something a bit stranger; there’s a Limp Bizkit song on the soundtrack and Hans Zimmer’s score plays the Lalo Schifrin title theme on wailing rock guitar.

Cruise’s original conception for the Mission: Impossible franchise was that it would function as a big-budget version of The Hire, with auteurs reinventing the stylistic landscape of the series with each installment. So the franchise shifted from Brian De Palma to Hong Kong action film maestro John Woo, who had, at that point, been working in Hollywood for the better part of a decade. Woo conceived of the film’s major action setpieces before the film had a story, and Cruise brought screenwriter Robert Towne, who’d helped bring Mission: Impossible together, to give the sequel a story.

Mission: Impossible II borrows the narrative framework of Hitchcock’s Notorious, weaving it into a thriller about corporate malfeasance and the development of a bioweapon, the Chimera virus. The storytelling approaches of Towne and Woo do not have much overlap, and Mission: Impossible II feels oddly stranded between them, playing to the strengths of neither. The sequences where Woo feels like he gets to cut loose feel less integrated into the film than they feel like digressions from it, injecting operatic melodrama and gun ballet into the cracks of script written as a more conventional Hollywood action thriller. The cast, Cruise included, struggle when tasked with going to the extremes of theatricality that Woo requires of them. Still, while Mission: Impossible II is considerably weaker than the preceding Hollywood pictures helmed by Woo (Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off), when Woo still delivers sequences of pure, passionate cinema in which image and physics yield to the impulses of emotion. Mission: Impossible II‘s climactic beach fight ranks among the best sequences in Woo’s body of work.

J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III backpedaled away from the Ethan Hunt, Action Hero posturing of the second film. III paints Ethan Hunt as a veteran agent looking to get married and settle down (a moment that famously coincided with his highly publicized relationship with Katie Holmes). Here, Hunt has spent so long in the world of espionage that he has difficulty letting it go, and, by the end, his personal life and his professional life become hopelessly enmeshed.

This was the first Mission: Impossible film to use Cruise as a human ragdoll, deriving action thrills from the spectacle of the human body surviving punishment (as it did during its much-publicized stunt where Cruise is flung into the side of a car by the force an explosion). Still, this third entry lacks the showmanship of its predecessors. Abrams’ direction is undistinguished and frequently clumsy, particularly when tasked with the construction of intricate action sequences (III‘s helicopter chase is the most awkwardly assembled action setpiece in any of the Mission: Impossible films).

The script, written by Abrams with frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also lacks refinement and structural clarity, unable to build any momentum from its best ideas. What little momentum the film has largely stems from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Owen Davian, a flimsy role that Hoffman manages to turn into something forceful through the application of intensity. The film’s opening, its most memorable scene, comprises of a flash-forward that finds Ethan and his new wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), at Davian’s mercy. Davian interrogates Ethan under the threat of killing Julia. It unfolds as a series of close-ups of a desperate, powerless Cruise and an unyielding, ferocious Hoffman. Alas, when the film returns to the scene later, it is none the richer for the addition of context.

Despite its considerable weaknesses, III established a new template for the franchise, which would increasingly become more mindful of continuity and more unified in its embrace of III‘s tone. The team dynamic would be given slightly more weight, and a cast of regulars would start to coalesce. The fourth film, subtitled Ghost Protocol, was the one to cement this template, finding an comfortable balance between Hunt and his teammates. Director Brad Bird came on board to direct his first live-action feature, and he restores the series’ showmanship even if he doesn’t restore its pronounced auteurist signature. Bird constructs the film with the understanding that the property’s real villain is the “impossible,” and so the plot itself exists merely to serve as a skeleton on which he can hang sequences with clearly-defined, ever-mounting obstacles for Hunt and his team to overcome.

Bird brings the dynamism of an animator to the film’s setpieces, the most impressive of which tasks Ethan Hunt with scaling the heights of the Burj Khalifa. Hunt (and by extension, Cruise) seems to push himself further and harder here than he has in any preceding film, taking hits and damage, fighting his way to the finished line in just the nick of time. There’s a resignation that accompanies Hunt’s characterization here. He’s found that he can’t give up the spy game and, accordingly, all he can do now is throw himself back into it with near-suicidal abandon. The film’s climax progressively breaks down Hunt’s body until Hunt is left nearly immobile.

In its follow-up Rogue Nation, Hunt’s appetite for inflicting damage on himself becomes one of the film’s jokes, though hope looms on the horizon. Rogue Nation gives Hunt a new love interest in Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a double-agent enmeshed in the machinations of the mysterious Syndicate. Rogue Nation works very well when it focuses on the two of them. Faust and Hunt have a cool, appealing chemistry; they’ve both been in the game long enough to have acquired their share of scars. In the other, they see a kindred spirit and perhaps the glimmer of a less dangerous life.

Alas, Rogue Nation gradually falls apart the longer it goes on, struggling to balance its too-large ensemble (it carries over most of the Ghost Protocol gang) along with the demands of its story (its third act was dramatically reshaped over the course of production, transforming what was to be its climactic airplane stunt into a throwaway gag for the film’s opening). Writer and director Christopher McQuarrie may be a careful craftsman, but he lacks the panache to make a sequence more than the sum of its pieces. Still, when all of the pieces are in place, as they are during the film’s opera house setpiece (which is, by far, the best clockwork setpiece since the CIA break-in in the De Palma film), Rogue Nation offers plenty of amusement.

Cruise and McQuarrie re-teamed for its successor, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which, going by the promotional materials, will hit a number of familiar beats while again pushing Cruise to the limit. Here, he’s doing dangerous helicopter stunts and a daring HALO jump. He even injured himself during a rooftop chase sequence (the footage of Cruise breaking his ankle has been utilized in the finished film). If the Mission: Impossible series has become increasingly overburdened by its own ever-increasing ensemble of regulars, this series, in which Cruise/Hunt always goes to extremes, is a welcome presence in a time when more and more stuntwork is generated in a computer. Here’s to watching Cruise do the impossible one more time.

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part II

Quantum of Solace‘s title sequence opens on the Palio di Siena. The Palio, a quick and brutal horse race with roots all the way back in the sixteenth century, takes place twice a year (once in July and once in August). The footage of the Palio used in Quantum of Solace was captured months before the rest of shooting began, when the film was still in the midst of development. Matching footage was shot roughly half a year later.

The Palio’s utilization as a setting for a big Bond setpiece is a welcome nod to the travelogue elements of the original Bond novels and films. While the brisk pacing leaves little room to enjoy the ambiance of the race, touches such as this nevertheless grants Quantum of Solace a sense of place that escapes the other Craig Bond films.

Bond drops Mr. White into a chair. MI6 staff subsequently stabilize Mr. White’s condition while preparing him for interrogation. Moments later, M will threaten Mr. White with torture, indicating that the room’s equipment is meant for that purpose. M never gets an opportunity to deliver on her threat.

As we saw in Casino Royale, Dench’s M seems to enjoy travelling around the world to deal personally with critical situations. This character trait almost certainly has more to do with the filmmakers wanting to put M and Bond in the same room than any narrative justification. Certainly, such travel seems risky for such an important government official. M will nearly die during the course of her time with Mr. White. (Early versions of the story for Quantum of Solace actually included M’s death partway through the film, a narrative element was removed and then later used in Skyfall.) Given Mr. White’s importance as an asset, though, it’s not especially difficult to imagine why M would choose to personally attend his interrogation.

When Bond and M meet, they launch into a flurry of exposition that bridges the events of Casino Royale and establishes the trajectory of Quantum of Solace. Quantum of Solace makes no real attempt to explain the events of Casino Royale, casually referencing its characters with the expectation that the audience is already fully aware of the details.

M notes that the CIA will be unhappy with MI6 now that MI6 is pursuing the investigation without their involvement. Bond is unconcerned. Bond reminds her that his deal with them was only for the now-deceased Le Chiffre: “If they wanted his soul, they should have made a deal with a priest.” Bond once again draws a comparison between himself and the priesthood.

M notes that Bond looks “like hell” and asks when he last slept. Quantum of Solace will play up the notion that Bond has been having trouble sleeping since Vesper’s death, and this dialogue is the first gesture toward that idea. Still, it’s an odd remark. Bond looked like he was in good shape at the end of Casino Royale, and it seems more likely that his haggard appearance at this moment has less to do with how well he’s sleeping and more to do with the fact that he was just minutes ago engaged in an intense car pursuit.

During the course of this briefing, M provides us with our first glimpse of Vesper’s boyfriend. Here and elsewhere throughout the film, Forster and his editors seem to work to move past exposition as quickly as possible, which, coupled with the film’s hazy sense of narrative progression, tends to make the film a little murky. As important as Vesper’s boyfriend will be for Bond’s arc in this film, he won’t be mentioned again until a good while later. Still, the narrative confusion is intentional, at least to some degree; Quantum of Solace will routinely suggest that Bond, reeling from grief, isn’t sure what he’s pursuing or why.

As always, Bond and M’s relationship hinges on issues of trust, and M voices her doubts that Bond will be able to separate his duties from his personal feelings. “It’d be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved” is extraordinarily awkward phrasing, though this is hardly the first or last time that M’s dialogue is overripe and overstated. Her doubts prove to be well-founded, given the way Bond deceives her in this scene.

Jesper Christiansen’s Mr. White remains one of the highlights of Quantum of Solace. It’s a shame that the film does not give him a greater role, given that Mr. White is certainly a much more compelling villain than Quantum‘s “proper” villain, Dominic Greene. (It’s worth nothing that the original cut of Quantum of Solace did grant Mr. White a brief final scene just before the end credits.)

Christiansen has a lot of fun lacing White’s dialogue with arrogance and venom. Mr. White needles Bond about Vesper, telling him that his organization intended to blackmail him in the same way that they had blackmailed Vesper: “I think you would have done anything for her.” Given that the film will go on to hint that this is standard operating procedure for the Quantum organization, Mr. White’s suggestion is actually fairly plausible.

After telling M that his organization has people everywhere, Mr. White illustrates his point by directing Mitchell, M’s bodyguard, to spring into action. The ensuing scuffle is some of the most inept filmmaking in the Bond series; thanks to the editing and shot construction, the chain of events is almost entirely obfuscated. Thanks to the muddled editing, it actually appears that M has been shot, but what we’re meant to be seeing is that she’s actually been thrown out of danger. After the scuffle–during which Mr. White takes a bullet–Bond pauses to make sure M departs the room safely, but the shot is so unclear that it’s hard to tell that the person leaving the room is M and not Mitchell.

Bond pursues Mitchell down into the tunnels of Siena, a chase that is intercut with the horse race taking place above them. Forster seems fond of this sort of intercutting (the Tosca sequence in the film will similarly juxtapose Bond’s action against events occurring nearby).

The Siena chase, which moves from the underground to the rooftops and then back down again, offers some of the same propulsive physicality that distinguished Casino Royale‘s Madagascar chase, and the stuntwork is really quite good. Such a shame, though, that it rarely receives the attention or space it deserves. The editing has been done in such a percussive style that most all of the connective tissue has been removed, with characters teleporting from position to position over the course of an edit (an especially clear example occurs when Bond leaps on to the bus and then somehow gets back onto the rooftop in a flurry of a few brief shots that don’t seem to follow one another).

The Siena chase does have one feature that distinguishes from other Bond setpieces: a genuine interest in its collateral damage. While racing through the crowd, Mitchell fires at Bond, but misses him and hits an innocent bystander instead. The film does not forget this innocent victim, but actually interrupts the progression of the chase to cut back to her body and the confusion of the crowd around her. No other Bond film pays such attention to the ways in which the violence of Bond’s world intrudes on the life of everyday people.

This attention does sit somewhat awkwardly with the Moore-era gag where Mitchell disturbs an old lady attempting to transport groceries up to her apartment, who subsequently mourns the loss of her tomatoes. Such is Quantum of Solace schizophrenia: it wants to push the hard edge of Casino Royale even further, all the while contorting to still evoke classic Bond escapism.

The Siena chase climaxes with a sequence that takes Craig’s Bond’s indestructability to a new extreme. Bond and Mitchell tumble down from a belfry, crashing through a glass window into gallery in the midst of renovation. They tussle in mid-air, dangling from ropes and scaffolding, slamming into each other and their hazardous surroundings. Alas, even though the editing is more intelligible here than it is elsewhere throughout the Siena sequence, the editing still fails to render the action with sufficient clarity and showmanship.

At least the sequence ends well. Bond hangs precariously from a rope, trying to reach the Walther PPK that lies just out of reach, as Mitchell recovers his weapon and takes aim. Bond gets his weapon in the nick of time and swings himself around, firing a single, fatal shot. The film lingers on Craig’s cold gaze just long enough.

Bond heads back to the interrogation room, passing by the destruction and chaos left in the wake of his pursuit of Mitchell. A sense of futility seeps in. After all that violence, Bond has achieved nothing at all. Mr. White has vanished, leaving nothing but an overturned chair and a pool of blood.

Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera

The first opera I ever attended at the Metropolitan Opera was Puccini’s Tosca.

Under general manager Peter Gelb’s guidance, the Met had just tossed aside the sturdy, if creaky, Zeffirelli production of Tosca for a new staging by Luc Bondy, part of a broader initiative to reinvigorate the Met. Bondy’s stark, uninviting production did not prove to be a hit with critics or audiences. Bondy tossed aside the grandeur of Zeffirelli for a haphazard vision that did little to enliven the material. Still, I found the experience delightful. I had never heard Puccini’s score performed live, and, as performed by the Met’s orchestra, it was truly thrilling. I further enjoyed seeing and experiencing the Met itself, an exemplar of mid-twentieth century architecture that finds some strange coherence through its incongruous impulses.

This past Friday, I once again journeyed to the Met for yet another Tosca, this one staged by director David McVicar. The McVicar production exists more or less as an apology for the despised Bondy production, promising a lush and traditional take on a beloved classic. The critical response to McVicar’s staging of Tosca has been muted, as if it would be unseemly to praise a production that takes no significant risks. But who needs big risks when you’re dealing with Tosca? It’s an opera that rarely benefits from innovation.

McVicar’s new staging is certainly attractive. The audience greeted John Macfarlane’s sets with applause, and rightly so; they’re elegantly composed and ornamented. There’s an impressionistic aspect to the way they employ color and texture, further accented by the painterly quality of David Finn’s lighting effects.

But what truly distinguishes this new Tosca is its dramatic clarity. McVicar puts the opera’s characters first, deriving the most striking moments of his staging through their interactions. McVicar loses his way a little toward the end of Act I, during which he needlessly crowds the set with anonymous extras wandering through the cathedral. Otherwise he remains in command of the material, adding flourishes that accentuate some of the opera’s more incredulous turns (including a fairly clever rendition of Cavaradossi’s final moments).

The orchestra, under the command of Bertrand de Billy, sounded as vibrant as ever. Jennifer Rowley played the title role, stepping in for Anna Netrebko, who was ill. Rowley’s firy, complex Tosca was a marvel; she demonstrated breathtaking vocal command throughout her performance, but especially on her very fine rendition of “Vissi d’arte.” Michael Volle’s Scarpia proved to be a terrific match for Rowley’s Tosca, and the great battle of wills between them in Act II proved to be the highlight of the night. The third link in the trio, Yusif Eyvazov’s Cavaradossi, demonstrated great vocal force, but otherwise dynamism and expressiveness; he seemed to struggle with Cavaradossi’s quieter moments.

If this Tosca will do little to make waves in opera history, the Metropolitan Opera now successfully has an updated, contemporary Tosca that will nicely align with many of the other staples in its repertoire. As it looks to other classic productions to update (of the Puccini tentpoles, I’m personally hoping they develop a new version of Turandot,, which, unlike Tosca, would benefit from conceptual innovation), they could do worse to follow the example set by McVicar’s Tosca.

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part I

Quantum of Solace derives its peculiar title from Ian Fleming’s short story of the same name. In the Fleming story (which bears no relationship to the film), it refers to the minimal amount of comfort two people need to find in one another to preserve a healthy romantic relationship. In this film, it speaks to what Bond needs to find in the wake of Vesper’s death, while also (nonsensically) alluding to the name of the villainous organization that drove her to suicide. The title was chosen very late into production; screenwriter Paul Haggis’ proposed title was Sleep of the Dead.

As noted earlier, Casino Royale was always envisioned as being the first part of a two-film arc, and while the sequel was subject to many frantic rewrites that shifted the emphasis of the sequel, the majority of Quantum‘s components can be traced back to that original story outline. Quantum of Solace was always intended to pick up shortly after Casino Royale ended off, allowing the audience to see the aftermath of Bond’s confrontation with Mr. White.

Casino Royale ends with a blast of triumphant iconography, and Quantum of Solace immediately seeks to undermine that sense of Bondian bombast. Casino Royale ended with David Arnold’s robustly orchestrated version of the Bond theme, but Quantum of Solace opens instead with ominous underscore. The studio logos lead into the full-shot introduction, a beautiful vista of an Italian lakeside mountain (the iconic gunbarrel opening, which was given an origin story of sorts in Casino Royale, is withheld for the end credits both in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, returning to its traditional place at the beginning of the film with Spectre). The warmth that suffused Casino Royale‘s images of Italy has been drained away.

Quantum of Solace will be, in many ways, more aesthetically refined than Casino Royale was–the cinematography, the score, the production design, and costume design are generally stronger here than in Casino Royale–but the aesthetic here is fairly stark and chilly. The luxury and exoticism of the Bond series will be present, but will be pointedly juxtaposed with third-world squalor, and even when it does appear, it will rarely seem especially inviting.

As the camera sails across the water to the Italian shore, edits give us glimpses of Bond’s eye, the hood of the Aston Martin, the spin of the wheel, guns being readied. It’s a bit of atmospheric calm before the hysterical impatience of the car chase overwhelms us, and it’s one of the film’s more elegant flourishes. The car chase that follows, alas, is somewhat obnoxious, taking the frantic, dizzying editing popularized by the Greengrass Bourne films to absurd heights (both editor Rick Pearson and second unit director Dan Bradley worked on the Bourne movies before joining the Quantum team).

Bond had flirted with quick-cut editing in the 1960s, as Peter Hunt worked as an editor to develop an impressionistic action-editing style that reached its apex when he graduated to director on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Hunt’s approach to action still paid close attention to what was in the frame at any given time (indeed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its sumptuous use of widescreen shot composition). Quantum of Solace is much sloppier. The car chase has little sense of geography, and feels pasted together from shots that have no real business occurring in sequence (there’s even a preposterous cut to a shot that is, essentially, of nothing; we get the glimpse of a back-fifth of a car as it leaves the frame).

After the clean, carefully dramatized action of Casino Royale, this is something of a crushing disappointment. This frenetic onslaught of image and sound robs these action scenes of any opportunity for suspense; there’s little-to-no attention paid to geography, and it remains quite difficult to register exactly what choices are being made when and by which characters. In this regard, the car chase will not be the worst sequence in the film, but it’s still significantly more exhausting than exciting, and unfortunately squanders some very fine stuntwork.

Eagle-eyed viewers will note that Craig is actually not wearing the same clothes he was wearing at the end of Casino Royale. Taking over from Lindy Hemming, costume designer Louise Frogley decided to shift designers (the suits in Quantum of Solace, which, incidentally, are the most attractive and best-tailored suits of the Craig era, were provided by Tom Ford, whereas Casino Royale‘s suits were provided by Brioni), and instead of replicating the Brioni three-piece suit outright, she shifts to a two-piece suit with a similar color and pinstripe pattern.

Bond escapes Siena and wheels his battered Aston Martin into Siena, Italy, and the film gives us the first appearance of one of the film’s recurring motifs: the title card for each locale lists the city’s name in a unique font, often using the architecture of the location to frame the text. It’s a clever idea, if not always well-implemented (the text is occasionally too stylized to read easily). Part of me wishes that the subsequent Craig films had made it a recurring feature of the era. The end of the pre-title sequence sequence will offer another stylistic flourish: a freeze-frame of Bond’s smug look as he tells Mr. White to get out of the boot of his car.

These touches are rooted in a fundamental dissonance that runs throughout Quantum of Solace, wants to cling to some semblance of playfulness in its approach to the material even as it gets particularly nasty and severe. The title cards are not, by themselves, too incongruous, but there are uglier displays of this dissonance. When Quantum of Solace‘s climax juxtaposes a buffoonish, impotent henchman getting his pants blown off by an explosion with an attempted rape, Quantum of Solace manages the dubious distinction of achieving a level of distastefulness that no prior Bond film had ever managed to achieve.

The title song for Quantum of Solace was originally going to be provided by Amy Winehouse, though she was unable to complete the track, and Jack White and Alica Keys were brought in to provide the Bond series’ first duet. The resulting tune, “Another Way to Die,” may not be the worst example of songwriting ever attached to a Bond film (“Another Way to Die” is oddly structured and lacks a good hook, but the camped-up lyrics, which hearken back to the Bond songs of the early 70s, are amusing enough), but, as performed, it’s nearly unlistenable. If White or Keys had sung the song in isolation, the track might have been passable, but whenever they sing together, the result is unpleasant. The underlying cause of this unpleasantness might be the poorly-implemented raw analog production more than the vocals themselves.

Composer David Arnold did not have a role in composing the theme, but after Quantum of Solace was concluded, he collaborated with lyricist Don Black, Bond veteran, to work  thematic material from his score into a song for Shirley Bassey, “No Good About Goodbye.” “No Good About Goodbye” may just be a so-so pastiche, but it’s much better than “Another Way to Die,” if only because it’s performed by the great Shirley Bassey.

At Marc Forster’s request, MK12 designed the title sequence of Quantum of Solace, interrupting Daniel Kleinman’s run as the title designer since 1995’s GoldenEye (MK12 also designed the location title cards and the intricate computer interfaces used by characters throughout the film). The sequence, which features a shadowy Bond traversing an empty desert while haunted by shadowy women, lacks verve and imagination, though it offers at least one spectacular image: Bond, tumbling through space, falls through a zoetrope of female silhouettes, which circle around him like Saturn’s rings.

The title sequence’s final image is of Bond firing a bullet into a sand dune and scattering sand everywhere, which may or may not serve as an effective metaphor for Quantum of Solace‘s general imprecision and dubious trajectory.