We expect some promotional puffery in the weeks leading up to the new James Bond film, Skyfall. But Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 is less a puff, more a hagiographical hurricane. Batten the windows: here are two hours of Bondomania in a documentary lovingly unleashed by Sony Pictures on behalf of Sony Pictures, with everyone in the hurricane’s path invited to pay, learn and enjoy.
The story of this franchise is extraordinary. A former English wartime spy, Ian Fleming, writes a series of novels about an English postwar spy – pulp thrillers with a public-school edge – and in 1962 a screen adaptation starring an unknown Scot blows the roof off the world’s box office. Stevan Riley’s film subpoenas every character witness available, from the Bond actors to two American presidents, both Bond fans, the late R. Reagan and the living B. Clinton. Everyone swears to 007’s complexity and variety as a hero: something you can hardly argue with since he has been played by a Scot, a Welshman, an Irishman, an Australian and two Englishmen from opposite ends of the class scale.
Some witnesses speak bad Fleming-style prose, as if it is infectious. Christopher Lee reminds us that Bond “was not exactly averse to the company of ladies” – in plain English a womaniser – and Croesus-worthy metaphors proliferate around the growing saga, from the moment that producer Harry Saltzman spends so much money on the Dr No book rights that he has none left to make the movie. “A goldmine he couldn’t dig up,” someone puts it. Whereupon Saltzman forms his partnership with mini-mogul “Cubby” Broccoli, the man whose forebears brought to America the vegetable once famously repudiated by another US president. “Cubby”’s daughter Barbara now sups with world leaders, having inherited the “goldmine” and presumably the vegetable.
The funniest talker is George Lazenby, the Aussie (non) actor who blagged his way into one appearance as 007, flopped, and later remembers Polanski introducing him at a Monaco party as “George, the redundant actor”. (“I had to look up ‘redundant’ … ”) The producers’ long-running feud with the late Kevin McClory – the rogue rights-claimer who made Never Say Never Again – is pithily if one-sidedly presented. “We need to talk about Kevin,” they must have said, “but we won’t feature him or his words on the show.” Whenever the pace flags (not often) there is another blasting big-screen Bond excerpt, reminding us how hard to resist this series has been: a charmed combination of cool Britannia, hellraising machismo and world apocalypse so narrowly, yet so frequently, averted.
Shyness is a sickness or crime in America. (Or so you’d believe from some movies.) A shy teenager is a deserter or runaway in the war of life; his blushes are the red badge of cowardice. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an amiable dash through the clichés of high school insecurity written and directed by Stephen Chbosky from his own novel. The hero Charlie (Logan Lerman) wants to be hailed, hugged, even medalled as a social soldier. So he emboldens himself to party with extrovert Sam (Emma Watson) and her gay half-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), is crash-coursed in literature by kindly teacher Paul Rudd, and wins his regimental colours by biffing a homophobic bully.
It’s sad really. Can’t shy people be recognised and loved for – or regardless of – their shyness? It’s not a psychopathic disorder, though here given an originating trauma as glibly unconvincing as the inciting incident in a sub-par Hitchcock movie (Spellbound or Marnie). Elsewhere, Wallflower is a perky comedy with a few high-flying perceptions, mostly licensed to Watson, who acts with the freedom of a Hogwarts escapee who has finally outrun the dogs. “Welcome to the island of misfit toys,” she says inventively to our hero, and later, “You’re like a sexy English schoolboy.” Actually Lerman is like, but surprisingly isn’t, an offspring of co-producer John Malkovich. The cherubic JM campiness is there, but with a prettier, more normalised turn. Lerman is the cast’s best in show, low-key but lovable, and refusing to do histrionic handstands while the rest play up, play up and play the “aren’t we adorable” game.
Liberal Arts is that maddening thing: a likeable independent movie worth three and a half stars, whose rating I must round up or down. Let’s give it four. Writer-director-star Josh Radnor plays a Visiting Professor of Clive Owen Lookalikeness, or so you’d conjecture, at a New York humanities college. (Actually, he is an admissions tutor with Eng Lit sideline.) Think of Owen, add a beard and brains, and hook him up with a 16-years-younger girl (Elizabeth Olsen) who opens the 35-year-old’s soul by giving him a mix-tape of classical music. The film drifts on sweetly, intelligently, Rohmerianly. It sets aside time, as every movie should, for a Richard Jenkins cameo: here a crusty, emotional prof who can’t handle retirement. The script’s musings on age, and on whether it is a tyranny, an irrelevance or both, form the subtle spine in a movie with a loose, louche, invertebrate-seeming charm.
In Sinister, a “look, no budget” horror film in the style of Paranormal Activity (juddery camera, rudimentary lighting), a crime-scene house is moved into by the author of true-crime books (Ethan Hawke) who scents a bestseller and hasn’t told his family. They think the house is just a suburban des res with a big tree in the backyard. But from that tree were hanged the prior residents. The ensuing plot has the cogency of one of those dishes you cook up, one inspiration-free night, from everything left over in the fridge. A bit of dead sausage; a mouldy tomato; some cornflakes; that aardvark pâté you never opened …
Here we have a scorpion in the attic, then a snake. A bulletin board in Hawke’s study is pinned with grisly cuttings about other slaughters. Spools of old Super-8 film are found. Hawke’s little kids act creepy. Vincent D’Onofrio is a Consultant Professor of Freaky Crime or somesuch. When all else fails – and it regularly does – something will jump out from screen right, make a scary face, then vanish screen left. By the time Hawke had “solved” the mysteries I was jotting my day’s must-do list on a blank space in the press handout. (“Clear fridge; remove dead sausage; replace aardvark pâté … ”)
In Taken 2 the audience, happily and consentingly, is Taken 2 the cleaners. We are tricked, bamboozled and led a dance. In Istanbul – pronounced “East-End-Bull” in early scenes as if to threaten us with that worst horror of all, a mockney British gangster film – special agent Liam Neeson is weekending with ex-wife Famke Janssen and daughter Maggie Grace (the one kidnapped in Taken) when another violent abduction happens. The victim is Taken 2 an underground hellhole beside the Bosporus. Neeson powers up his direction-finding savvy – here based on detonating grenades all over the city – and the plot thickens and quickens like a Semtex time bomb. Good fun, and very oriental. Two minutes after seeing it, you want another.