Blu-ray Review: Quantum of Solace (2008)

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I. An Introduction

Bond couldn't have arrived on Blu-ray at a better time in history. Not only is the format war between HD-DVDs and Blu-rays officially over but the parent studios of James Bond-- Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and United Artists-- find their discs distributed in tandem with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Sony Pictures. The Blu-rays produced by Fox and Sony boast unprecedented and consistently exceptional quality that makes even average films far superior in your living room than at the multiplex.

Gone are the problems of artifacting or muddy browns and gray that appear in the Blu-rays offered by some other competitors-- Sony and Fox manage to exceed our expectations. Fox in particular, hot off the triumph that was the restoration of The French Connection to a Blu-ray disc that even its director William Friedkin called the best version of the film ever made available has also managed to elevate downright shoddy fare like Max Payne or The Boondock Saints to ridiculously sophisticated levels.

In the case of this Bond-- the effect is immediate as we discover that not only the picture offers mind-blowing depth that makes you feel like you're speeding along inside the boat with Bond and Olga in Quantum but the strains of Tosca in Forster's opera sequence come through as though we were front row center at the performance.

The previously distracting and overly video game styled CGI and hyper cut feel of Quantum of Solace still cause to its let-down in comparison to the predescessor Casino Royale (a.k.a. the purest and best James Bond film made thus far) but when transferred digitally to Blu-ray, it's a bit smoother, absorbing it as though it were one of Sony's video game systems. However, before I go more in-depth on the subject of the Blu-ray, here's a reprint of my original review of Quantum of Solace seen on the largest screen in Arizona back in November.

II. The Theatrical Review

As that rare breed of feminist who can still recite every single entry of the James Bond franchise from memory and manage to overlook its eye-roll inducing moments of the Playboy lifestyle as the quintessential late 20th century hero managed to charm the dress off of every woman in sight and knock every man out cold, I must say I was looking extremely forward to catching Quantum of Solace.

Yet this morning looking over the majority of blurbs at Rotten Tomatoes, I realized the reactions were similar to the great political divide in America-- much to the left and much to the right with very few people falling in between. We had the gleefully upbeat freewheeling praise on one side and the witty puns of shame on the other like "The Spy Who Bored Me," and "License to Confuse," as the detractors seemed to make like Catskills comedians all answering the "It was so bad-- how bad was it?" style of jokes. Yet I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt, still fondly recalling some of my favorite Bond movie moments that remain as vivid as when I first watched the movies along with my older brother.

My first Bond film onscreen was seeing Pierce Brosnan's debut as the smug and seductive variety (essentially shaking together pieces of both Connery and Moore into a human version of that famous martini), in the excellent Goldeneye. Yet, following the fun diversion of Michelle Yeoh as an ass-kicking martial arts Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies, the franchise seemed to have run its course with the atrocious The World is Not Enough (save for the gorgeous theme song by Garbage that is Shirley Bassey Goldfinger good) and Die Another Day.

That is, however, until Bond went blonde and both the women and men had much more fun with Casino Royale, an epic old-fashioned style spy film with a worthwhile romance and the best Bond girl yet with Dreamers star Eva Green's sultry and stunning yet smart and sophisticated Vesper Lynd. Of course, it didn't hurt that Daniel Craig stepped into the lead role, really wearing more than just the suit with his incredible looks but also taking the emotional depth of work he'd completed in art-house dramas and injecting it into Ian Fleming's hero.

Starting at zero as Bond earns his '00 status in the opening sequence of Royale, it seemed as though we'd been given the chance to begin again, reinventing the character so that he resonated with contemporary society. And then a funny thing happened on the way to the sequel with the smash success of the Matt Damon's Bourne Identity action trilogy featuring rapid-fire editing and shaky camera work.

More specifically, movies became video games and while the action in Bond was always on a different level-- from the opening of Monster's Ball, The Kite Runner, Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland director Marc Forster's first turn at the wheel with the opening car chase in Quantum of Solace, we realize that we're presented with the cinematic equivalent of chaos.

While Bourne's style took some getting used to but ultimately served the film well, especially considering it had the brains to balance the buoyant editing and camerawork and a shaky camera helped get us right into the action in this year's Cloverfield and Eagle Eye, when it comes to Quantum, it's hard to keep up and frankly, we realize we could care less.

As our eyes strain to figure out which character just landed another blow or dove off a high structure and our ears feel as overpowered as though we're right near the speaker at a Metallica concert, Solace is a barely comprehensible, illogical, irritating, and downright ludicrous mess that's not only one of the biggest disappointments of the year for a Hollywood blockbuster but doubly tragic when it followed what is quite possibly the best Bond film ever made.

With an homage to Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, Diamonds are Forever, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and countless other Bond movies thrown into its succinct 106 minute running time (despite it feeling endless), on the surface it seems to follow the events from the previous film. With his lover Vesper dead, Bond decides that the best way to get closure is to get even, wreaking bloody havoc on anyone that crosses his path, while trying to uncover just who was behind her blackmail and responsible for her demise.

Managing to axe every lead like a wicked madman in some spectacular stunt work that comprises fights which go from one location to the next in typical Bond chase fashion-- instead of relishing in the excitement as we did in so many other beginnings-- the shoddy camera work, pointlessly pretentious inter-cuts to other high culture events, and distracting editing ruins every single action sequence. This is especially apparent in an airplane crash that looks so computer generated, for a moment, I felt like the reel had accidentally switched to James Bond: Quantum of Solace-- The Video Game.

Following the first forty minutes which finds us barely engaged with a Bond so icy and one-dimensional, Craig could've just been played by a stand in or one of those gorgeous eye-candy posters of the man adorning the walls of local Sony stores, and a plot that somehow finds us trying to take on the evil "fake-environmentalist" (yep, not exactly in the same realm as Odd-Job, Jaws or even that freaky diamond dude in Die Another Day), we start getting some semblance of an actual story. Yet, it's one of those that's so off-the-wall and barely plausible that it's almost as meaningless as the film's title itself which is destined to leave your brain as soon as the final credits roll.

Instead, it's obvious Forster just wanted to set aside art-house pretensions (aside from one excellent scene in an opera house that is pompous yet wonderfully staged) and leave the heavy lifting to the fight-choreographer, a cinematographer and editor who may need to switch to decaf and lay off the Red Bull, and stuntmen who no doubt are in traction at a hospital somewhere, if all of their limbs are still intact that is.

Headache-inducing and nowhere near as classy or superbly entertaining as Bond at his best whether it's in Goldfinger, Goldeneye, Casino Royale or some of the wildly unbelievable yet engrossing string of films starring Roger Moore like For Your Eyes Only and The Spy Who Loved Me, Quantum of Solace may boast a better Bond than Timothy Dalton but film-wise, I'd rather sit down and watch Dalton's The Living Daylights again for some much needed solace after Solace.

Or maybe I'll just grab Casino Royale and wistfully pine for what could've been had the filmmakers either quit while they were ahead or stayed away from video poker and slot machines and just continued to play Baccarat... since obviously Royale's Texas Hold 'Em led them astray. And while it's always good to try something new, it's called gambling for a reason and maybe it's time for the franchise to take a good long look at itself and question whether or not they need to make a meeting, go through twelve steps, and try something different instead of playing things so fast and loose, we don't even recognize the man in the tux any longer.

III. The Solace of Blu-ray

As previously mentioned in the introduction-- the film plays much, much better on Blu-ray. While all of the problems listed in the review remain with the movie itself-- the viewing experience is vastly superior, making the recent advent of 3D at the cineplex seem all the more intriguing and timely given 2008's poor ticket sales.

Simply put-- when we're given this wonderful of a motion picture experience at home without the annoyance of talkative patrons, popcorn filled floors, or high ticket prices-- the best bang for our buck turns out to be Blu-ray instead of the Box Office.

Testing out the disc in every different picture setting, I found it never failed to impress in its clarity and managed to make the most even out of basic television speakers simply via the HDMI cable. The sharp richness in the colors-- especially during the opera sequence which damn near sparkles like crystal as the tuxedo clad Bond walks down a solid white hallway and later tries to pick out one man in a sea of similarly dressed attendees doesn't falter in the slightest with unrivaled focus and clarity from the far left side of the screen to the right.

Overall, the Special Features run the typical gamut you would expect (with the interesting absence of filmmaker commentary or deleted scenes) and consist of the uninspired music video for Jack White and Alicia Keys' loud "Another Way to Die," that aside from its addictive chorus sounds a bit dissonant (as if matching the editing chaos of Solace) along with numerous featurettes.

With a few ranging from very brief typical "electronic press kit" stuff to more polished and professional lengthy behind-the-scenes endeavors complete with narration-- one of the standouts was Bond on Location which takes us into the process of Forster's determination to scout for and discover imaginative locations that one wouldn't normally expect in a Bond world.

Noting that Daniel Craig's turn in Casino Royale suddenly had given the world a Bond with whom we could relate (as opposed to the dry wit of Brosnan, perfect coif of Dalton, Moore's take-it-in-stride and Connery's penchant for misogyny), the Swiss-German director Forster speaks about the challenges and extremely high expectations in making what would be a direct sequel to the previous film in trying to keep up the momentum of the previous film's phenomenal storytelling and audience interest.

Realizing the inherent need to make it better, throughout the featurettes, the answer to that challenge to Forster and his endless crew of stuntmen, trainers, assistant directors, helicopter pilots, etc. went with the old adage of "size matters," by doubling the amount of action in the work, remaining on the road in endless location changes for several months, and sometimes having the Bond machine operating in a few different countries at the same time while a principle crew worked in Panama and a different unit simultaneously going with their version of Forster's Bond playbook (if you will), working on elaborate plane stunts in Mexico.

Treating the locations as though they were characters, Forster's attention to detail included ensuring that the extras were just right as we see extras arriving after hours of traveling down river, then on bus, to appear in the background of a shot.

Likewise, juggling the decisions that for every camera position in the air sequence, three helicopters must fly in and three must fly back out-- you marvel that Forster had the ability to keep everything straight but throughout the film, we get the sense that the otherwise enormously talented filmaker felt the unimaginable weight of the entire franchise on his back. And instead of continuing the style and rhythm established previously in Royale, the rush and pressure to just get it done and get Bond in theatres, must have translated to the editing and hyper-real style that never fully manages to engage.

Yet, even though some sequences threaten to cause eye strain and a trip to the optometrist-- particularly in a fight ripped right out of Bourne-- on Blu-ray, you can get lost in the majesty of it all, relish in the locations and beauty and take advantage of the slower speed on your remote so that they don't whip by in a nanosecond.

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