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Aug 25 2010

Film Review: The Lives of Others and Quantum of Solace

It’s been a couple of decades since I watched a James Bond film. I saw almost all of the Sean Connery originals, then a couple of the Roger Moore versions, and then gave up on the franchise, thus missing out on what George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan added to this iconic figure of cold war fiction.

But the book Bottlemania, this years’ common reading choice at my university that deals with the crisis of water, mentioned that Quantum of Solace (2008) starring Daniel Craig had as its villain someone who was trying to corner the supply of fresh water and so I decided to check it out to see if it had any possibilities as a program to tie in with the book.

If Quantum of Solace is any indication of where the Bond franchise has gone since the Moore days, then I have clearly not missed anything by giving these films a wide berth. Ian Fleming’s stories were always highly improbable but Quantum of Solace raised the improbabilities by several orders of magnitude, substituting non-stop action for storytelling and making the film laughable. The film has a grand slam of chases, involving separate ones for cars, on foot, motorcycles, boats, and airplanes, the first four occurring within the opening half hour. All this left almost no time for any dialogue, let alone plot advancement, but did leave room for plenty of corpses, mayhem, and destruction. The amount of broken glass alone was astounding. When the pace slackened a bit later, the film improved but by then it was too late. I had started laughing at the film’s absurdity, like with No Country For Old Men, and once that happens it is hard to take the film seriously. Like the characters in No Country, Bond seems to have discovered the amazing healing power of new clothes.

The old Bond films with Connery had a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality with humorous banter leavening the action. The Moore Bond went even further and became somewhat campy, with a sly wink to the audience that the film was not to be taken seriously. Craig’s Bond, on the other hand, is dead serious, never cracking a smile let alone making a joke. The filmmakers seem to have decided to strip out everything that stands in the way of action and the film is a lot poorer for it.

The plot, such as it is, consists of the usual evil arch villain seeking to corner the market on some commodity, in this case fresh water in Bolivia. On top of this is slapped a thin veneer of geopolitical clichés and world weary cynicism about the corruption of governments, no doubt to give the film a patina of gravitas. There is also double-crossing galore so that you are never sure on whose side anyone is, not that anyone seems to care. To make it worse, the villain looked like a weenie and resembled New Orleans governor Bobby Jindal, so that at any minute you expected to hear him talk about what the gulf oil spill was doing to the shrimp industry

The apex of absurdity, the jump-the-shark moment in the film, occurred when the villain and his fellow plotters hold an important meeting. Where would be a good place to discuss their top secret plans? What could be better than during a live performance of the opera Tosca? There they all are, dressed in tuxedos, scattered all over the concert hall, and talking to each other through wireless transmitters while the opera is going on. Really, I kid you not. The whole point of this seemed to have been to show Craig in a tuxedo. Of course, Bond immediately figures this out, gets hold of one of the devices and listens in, spoiling this plan.

Here’s the trailer for the film:

I watched this waste of time the day after seeing The Lives of Others (2006), a German film that takes place in 1984 (before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989) and tells the story of a playwright and his actress girlfriend and the member of the East German secret police Stasi who is monitoring their lives through the bugging devices scattered all over their apartment.

It is an excellent film that won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.

What is interesting is that unlike Quantum of Solace, how suspenseful this film was. For all its fast-paced action, the Bond film had no drama. You knew how it was going to end and who was going to win. There was no mystery. Each character’s motivations were obvious and their actions predictable. One did not feel any connection with any of them.

In The Lives of Others on the other hand, there was no fast-moving action or physical violence or even the threat of violence. There was no ominous music signifying impending danger. But there was a lot of suspense as you wonder what the characters will do as they are placed in increasingly complex morally challenging situations. Will they stay true to their principles and their friends and lovers or give priority to their careers and the government and the state? The viewer is drawn in and made to empathize with all three main characters as they grapple with decisions about what to do, and you constantly wonder what you might do if you were placed in such situations.

Of course, it is somewhat unfair to compare films made for purely mindless entertainment like Quantum of Solace with serious films like The Lives of Others. They are made for different audiences and the only reason I compare them is because I happened to see them on consecutive days. But they do illustrate how important it is to have the audience care about the characters and the issues involved. The kind of plentiful action that Quantum of Solace had was, quite frankly, boring, whereas watching the main characters in The Lives of Others struggle with moral dilemmas was deeply engrossing.

POST SCRIPT: If real life had a soundtrack…

Ominous Music Heard Throughout U.S. Sends Nation Into Panic

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Jared A

    The Lives of Others is a pretty great movie. Even though it’s recently produced, it’s a good introduction into understanding preunification german cinema. Now more than ever Americans really should steep themselves in preunification German filmography, especially east german films.

    A lot of Americans have this preconceived idea that West Germany (capitalist) was “the good guys” and East Germany (socialist) was “the bad guys”. And yes, there was a lot more oppression in east germany, but in actuality, it was much more complex then this. Despite all of the oppression from the stasi and the corruption from the ruling elite, many people tried there best to salvage the freedoms and ideals that they believed their country aspired to. I think that understanding nonconformist art in this way is very important for americans to start thinking critically of their own country. It’s an important tradition that I wish was mainstream. Specifically, what it means to care so strongly about your country and people that you must condemn it.

    These are both west german and east german films that I recommend:
    Goodbye Lenin!
    Das Versprechen (The Promise)
    Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun)
    Das Schreckliche Mädchen (The terrible girl)
    Die Verlohrene Ehre der Katarina Blum (The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum)

    I got most of my education in this from Prof. Yang at CWRU who teaches a very nice german film class there.

  2. 2
    Alex Rifman

    Excellent post! I would like to add another awesome German movie to this list. If you enjoyed “The Lives of Others,” you will most certainly enjoy “Die Welle,” which I believe translates to “The Wave.”

  3. 3
    HP Bryce

    I have to agree with you that the new vision for the Bond films is lacking. Rodger Moore IS 007. Why break a method that is working? I should just stick to watching Japanese horror movies. A much better plot than what anyone is making in the western world.

  4. 4
    Sean

    @HP Bryce

    I am sorry to say that I totally disagree with you, there is no way Rodger Moore IS 007, he almost killed off the franchise with his comedy moments.

    Sean Connery is way better and Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig are close contenders too.

    However I do agree with your statement about Japanese horror movies

  5. 5
    Bond

    James bond movies have been going downhill ever since Roger Moore. Nobody has the style that Sean Connery had. He was just a stud.

  6. 6
    Dan

    Yes, I watched that cheap theatrics secret police film The Lives of Others and glad it was finished…surprised I stayed awake.

  7. 7
    james

    I have not seen the Lives of Others, but I have seen Quantum of Solace. I like the comparison you did of the two films, but in the end they sound like they were made for two different audiences.

    I also agree with others in that the Connery Bond films top the standard of Brosnan/Craig.

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