Sunday, 8 November 2015

Shaken, Stirred, and Ranked: My Personal Ranking of the James Bond Films

I don't think there's a film series that I have a more nostalgic affection for than the James Bond franchise. It's been a series that has been apart of my life for so long it's weird there was a time when I hadn't seen them all multiple times- yes even the bad ones. For me, they define escapist entertainment. In a time before constant superhero films- these where the films that dominated that market for fantastical thrills and comfortable formula. These rankings are highly personal. This isn't an attempt to rank them objectively- though matters of quality to play a part. When ranking the films I'm going more by preference. This isn't a concrete ranking. If I went back and re-watched some films, they rank higher. And as long as they keep making Bond films the list will always change. Having just seen Spectre-which I will also include in these rankings- it makes things a little more difficult. So, with that being said, here are my rankings. Warning: spoilers below.

24. Diamonds are Forever

After the mixed critical and audience reception towards On Her Majesty's Secret Service- the first film in the franchise not to star Sean Connery in the role of Bond (George Lazenby took over leading man duties then left the role)- the Bond producers paid Connery a then record 1.25 million to reprise the role. A big reason I don't like the film is it's a terrible follow-up to OHMSSDiamonds are Forever forgoes what made OHMSS so good- the epic sweep, the fidelity to Bond creator Ian Fleming's work, and the film's emotional core- and trades it in for a production that feels very cheap in comparison to previous Bond films, an inconsistent Bond Girl (Jill St. John as Tiffany Case) and a camp tone that would define subsequent films in the franchise. Diamonds are Forever is a Roger Moore Bond film without Roger Moore.

With the exception of the pre-title sequence- in which Bond hunts down Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray) the film essentially ignores the events of the previous film- both emotionally and thematically. Bond's wife Tracy was murdered at the end of OHMSS but you never feel Connery is carrying the weight of losing a loved one. As others as pointed out, the film plays out more like a follow up to the last Connery Bond film, You Only Live Twice. And even viewing it on its own terms Diamonds are Forever still isn't that good of a film- Bond or otherwise. However it does have some bright spots: the Las Vegas car chase is one of the series' better set-pieces, Natalie Wood's sister Lana Wood is charming as Plenty O'Toole, and Jimmy Dean as a Howard Hughes inspired businessman named Willard Whyte is humourous. 

But I think the most memorable aspect of the entire film is probably Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as the not so ambiguously (and yes, pretty offensive) gay hitman duo, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd., respectively. Also, Shirley Bassey's theme song is one of the series' best (it's in my top ten):  Davies in the Dark: My Top Ten James Bond Themes.

23. Live and Let Die

In the early 70s the Bond producers struggled with how to bring the Bond series in to the 70s. Live and Let Die, the first with Roger Moore in the role, was their attempt to make a Bond film in the style of the Blaxploitation films of the time- which included films such as Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Superfly. This attempt at relevance doesn't click and the racist overtones regarding the portrayal of African Americans (almost every Black person in this film is a villain) makes it one of the more troubling Bond films.

The film also introduces the most ill-advised character in the entire franchise- Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). Nothing against James as an actor or a person- he commits to the role- it's just that Pepper such an unnecessary character, and one more obnoxious than funny.

Yaphet Kotto adds some class to the film as the villain Kanaga/Mr. Big, and Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi is possibly the scariest Bond villain of all. This is certainly the creepiest of all the Bond films- though I feel the supernatural isn't a natural fit for the franchise. The Bond films are often fantasies but other than here they avoid anything resembling magic or voodoo. Jane Seymour makes her film debut as Solitare, a psychic who works for Kanaga. Seymour is lovely but Solitaire feels like a character who's only purpose is to be manipulated by Kanaga and then Bond.

Moore makes a fine debut- giving a distinctly different performance than Connery. Moore was more of the English Gentleman type as opposed to Connery's more rugged approach. It was the beginning of the longest run any actor had as the character- 12 years and seven films.

22. Octopussy 

Moore's penultimate outing as Bond- Octopussy- has one of the best extended climaxes in the series history- the train sequence, nuclear bomb diffusing, raid on villain's, and fight on the wing of the plane. It also features a really good pre-title sequence. But the film is stuck between seriousness and silliness-  there's a Tarzan yell while Bond swings from a vine, and putting Bond in a clown costume.

Maud Adams makes her second appearance in a Bond film as the titular character (the only time a Bond film was named after it's Bond Women). She played the villain's lover in The Man With Golden Gun, making this the only time an actress played two separate Bond Women. Adams is one of the more mature Bond Women, playing someone who's more morally complicated than previous women in the franchise.

21. The Man With the Golden Gun

It's funny that Guy Hamilton made Goldfinger- often considered of the best if not the best Bond film- then followed it up with the considerably weaker films- Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and his last film for the series- The Man With The Golden Gun. Hamilton is akin to the Joel Schumacher of the Bond franchise- a director likely capable of doing more serious fare- but boxed in by the whims of the studio to craft a much campier film.

The Man With The Golden Gun is an "in between" film for me. Enjoyable in several ways but brought down by a useless Bond Woman, the return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper- whose racist bigotry would launch a thousand think-pieces if he appeared in a film today- and one of the most off-putting moments for Bond in the franchise.

It also squanders its villain, Francisco Scararmanga (Christopher Lee) and a intriguing premise- what if Bond met an assassin that could be the death of him? It doesn't delve deep enough in to the parallels between Bond and Scararmanga- and Scararmanga wanting sell a device called the solex agitator-  which can convert the sun's ray in to a weapon- feels tagged so there can be a Macguffin. Lee is great, however, committing to the character so well you wish he was in a better film.

The dojo escape and car chase are fun set-pieces. The corks-screw car jump is one of the best stunts of the series but it's undermined by a comedy whistle sound.  And Scararmanga's demise feels ant-climatic- though it is a good pay-off to the Bond mannequin in the pre-title sequence

Britt Ekland is painfully gorgeous as Mary Goodnight- a MI6 operative stationed in Hong Kong. Ekland lends charm to the role as well but Goodnight may be the most useless Bond Women in the series history- causing more trouble than actually helping.

The scene in which Bond psychically assaults Scararmanga's lover Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) doesn't fit with Moore's portrayal. It's too mean and it makes Bond un-likable. Connery could arguably get away with that kind of scene but with Moore it's just off-putting. 

20.  A View to a Kill

Moore's last film was the first of his I ever saw. This swan song isn't great but it does have redeeming qualities. Chief among them is Christopher Walken (the first Oscar winner to appear in a Bond film) as businessman Max Zorin. Zorin  is one of the more psychologically interesting villains in the series- the result of Nazi experiments on pregnant women by Dr. Hans Glueb/Dr. Carl Mortner (Willoughby Gray), whom became a father figure to Zorin. Zorin now wants to destroy Silicon Valley so he can corner the market on microchips and Walken's quality as an actor makes you believe in Zorin's psychopathy. I wish there had been a little more done with the character but Walken elevates the film and the role.

The Eiffel Tower pursuit, fire truck chase, and blimp fight are all stellar set pieces- even with the obvious Moore stunt doubles. The scenes between Bond and Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee, who played John Steed on the TV series The Avengers, along with Bond Women Honor Blackman and Dianna Rigg) are so fun you'd like the whole film to be a buddy comedy with Moore and Macnee. Sadly, Tibbett is killed off rather early in a scene almost worthy of being called Hitchcockian.

The huge weak spot is Tanya Roberts as Stacy Sutton. Roberts gets a few cute moments but she's one of the weakest Bond Women. Grace Jones and Zorin's henchwoman and lover Mayday is more interesting- when she realizes Zorin has betrayed her and she sides with Bond, it has some actual dramatic heft. And there's a fun little interlude when Bond runs in to a former lover, Russian spy Pola Ivanova (Fiona Fullerton). It's neat to meet a Bond Women from a previously unseen adventure.

This was also the final film for the definitive Miss Moneypenny- Lois Maxwell.  

19. The World is Not Enough 

The World Is Not Enough was the first Bond film I saw in theatres and it was a pretty big deal to see one of these on the big screen. It's difficult to rank this one since while I feel it's one of the more underrated Bond films, it may be my least enjoyed of the Pierce Brosnan era films. The World Is Not Enough has some ambition in regards to subverting Bond formula expectations and it has authentic human drama- but it undermines itself by falling back in to formula and not following through with its themes.

Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) has emotional depth not often seen with Bond villains. She is the daughter of oil tycoon Sir Robert King (David Calder) and was kidnapped years earlier by the terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) and held for ransom. M (Judi Dench) persuades King not to pay the ransom. MI6 agent 009 was sent to rescue Elektra and kill Renard. 009 put a bullet in his head. It didn't kill Renard but it's travelling through his brain, killing off his senses and rendering him immune to pain. During her kidnapping, Elektra made Renard her ally. They hatch a plan that results in King's murder. But the major part of the plan is to destroy Istanbul, making Elektra's pipeline more valuable.

Elektra may be the only Bond villain whom you can call tragic. If this was a Daniel Craig film, it would've ended with Bond killing Elektra but it continue in the typical Bond fashion and pretty much forgets Bond and Elektra's relationship. Denise Richards isn't very good as nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones and she's only here as a fall-back girl for Bond. The film would've ended with Bond being haunted over Elektra's death. Instead, the final line is a Moore-worthy Christmas joke. Brosnan- in his third film as Bond- handles the dramatic parts really well. This is arguably his best performance as the character- though Goldeneye is the better film.

Marceau plays Elektra as both victim and villain, making her one of the best Bond Women and villain of recent times. Carlyle is under-served by the script, not given enough to completely flesh out Renard and his psychology. Michael Apted- director of the Up series and Coal Miner's Daughter- may be the most high-brow director to ever helm a Bond film. His direction is elegant and he makes the film consistent with the established tone of the previous Brosnan films. The World is Not Enough ranks somewhat low here but it is an admirable attempt and shaking up the franchise.

18. Die Another Day

Die Another Day was the first Bond film of the 21st Century but it moves counter-intuitive to the direction of other modern spy films such as the Bourne series and the Craig films- Aside from Bond being tortured in North Korea, the film isn't attempting a more grounded approach. Instead, we have an invisible car, a space laser, and a North Korea Colonel transforming himself in to a British billionaire.

Die Another Day is a fascinatingly isolated film in the Bond series. It's very different in tone and style than the previous Brosnan Bond films and the next film in the franchise was the reboot, Casino Royale. Even if Brosnan had continued in the role his next probably would been toned down substantially- the Bond usually get back to basics after going too over the top. The film often feels like an attempt at an updated version of a Moore era film.

Quality-wise Die Another Day is the worst of the Brosnan era but I admit I actually enjoy the film. There's a certain kind of ambition in throwing the most bizarre things at the screen and playing it very matter-of-factly.
Halle Berry as NSA agent Jinx is clearly the series attempt at another Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) from Tomorrow Never Dies but I feel Berry kind of overdoes her performance. Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves is fine but it never feels Graves and Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) are the same guy, though I guess that's intentional. At this point Brosnan had become another Roger Moore- and I mean that in the best way possible. Brosnan is so comfortable in the role by now he could've played the role a couple more times- and aged more gracefully than Moore did- without a problem. Though I am glad we got Casino Royale. 

17. Quantum of Solace

Daniel Craig is often seem as the heir apparent to Timothy Dalton's no nonsense performances as Bond. If Casino Royale was Craig's The Living Daylights (Dalton's first)- a grounded but still Bond-flavoured and romantic adventure- than Quantum of Solace is his Licence to Kill- a brutal and streamlined affair where Bond's mission is personal. As opposed to Licence to Kill however, in Quantum of Solace- getting revenge isn't as straightforward for Bond. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) was the one who betrayed him and killed herself- so the question is- on whom does Bond take out his pain and anger. This makes Quantum of Solace a more complicated "revenge" film than others of its kind.
The film was a victim of the writer's strike of 2007-08. Craig and director Marc Forster had to rewrite scenes and make decisions on their own, which is why the plot and story can often seem thin and underdeveloped. The film also struggles in being both a direct follow-up to Casino Royale (the first time this has happened in the series) and being its own film. Stylistically Quantum of Solace has a different feel than Casino Royale. Ideally, Martin Campbell (that film's director) should have returned, making the two films feel more like one long story.

Even with its problems Quantum of Solace is one Bond film which has grown on me over the years. The shortest Bond film on record, it's a solid little thriller. Camille (Olga Kurylenko) doesn't match Vesper but I like how she has her own objective and doesn't end the film by sleeping with Bond. Her and Bond go their separate ways, which feels way more natural as a conclusion to their story. Dominic Greene (Mathau Almaric) isn't all an all-time great villain but Almaric gives the character a dose of personality. And Craig brings humanity and brutality to the role of Bond.  

16. Moonraker

Moonraker is often considered the worst Bond film but honestly I think this is one Moore's best films. The success of Star Wars in 1977 made the producers cash in on the film's popularity but I feel Moonraker owes more to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well the previous film in the franchise, The Spy Who Loved Me. That film's director, Lewis Gilbert, returns for his last Bond film, concluding a trilogy of sorts that began with You Only Live Twice.

There's a lot of visual beauty in this film. The scenes in space are genuinely haunting. Hugo Drax's (Michael Lonsdale, possibly the driest Bond villain) to essentially murder everyone on Earth and re-populate it with those he considers perfect specimens of humanity feels genuinely apocalyptic and practically mythic. And I love Drax's line about these people's offspring: From their first day on Earth they will be able to look up and know that there is law and order in the heavens."

The campy elements of the film are what people remember but the film does have a dark edge to it. The scene where Drax's personal pilot Corrine (Corrinne Clery) is chased through the forest by Drax's dogs after her betrayal is worthy of a horror film- visually poetic and terrifying. There's also the sequence in which Bond is almost killed by a G-force machine. It's  rare moments in the series where we feel Bond could actually be killed. After Bond sabotages the machine with a wrist-gun, Bond stumbles out. It's one of Moore's best acting moments in his tenure as Bond.

Holly Goodhead (Lois Childs)  is a competent and capable Bond Women, who doesn't take any of Bond's shit. Jaws (Richard Kiel) makes his second and final appearance in the series, the only henchman to appear more than once. This is the one where Jaws falls in love. Yes, it's silly but I still find it kind of sweet. Also of not  is Jaws and Dolly (Blanche Ravalec)'s relationship is communicated almost completely visually. And Jaws teaming up with Bond makes sense since he realizes Drax will eliminate him and Dolly for not measuring up to his standards.            

The film has several outstanding set-pieces, including the pre-title sequence where Bond is pushed out an airplane, the G-force scene, the cable-car confrontation, and lasers in space. If you haven't seen this one in a while, take another look. It has its problems it's one of the better pure Bond films.

15. Thunderball

"Here comes the biggest Bond of All!" the posters for Thunderball promised. And they were telling the truth. Thunderball was the first epic Bond film. It's clear the film-makers behind the film knew- after Goldfinger's success- what they had on their hands with the Bond franchise. They pulled out all the stops to create something that would top every thing they'd done before. And more so than Goldfinger, Thunderball is completely recognizable as the archetypal James Bond film.

And it features what may be my favourite pre-title sequence- Bond killing a SPECTRE agent at his own "funeral," and who's dressed as his grieving "widow." Bond then escapes using a jetpack. There's something quaint but still awesome about Connery getting away from the bad guys- it's the series at it's most fun.

SPECTRE plays its largest role to date in the series, stealing two nuclear warheads and holding the world ransom. SPECTRE Number 2 Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) is in charge of the relationship. His mistress is Domino (Claudine Auger), whose brother- pilot Francois Derval (Paul Stassino- was killed by SPECTRE so they could hijack the plane he was piloting- the same plane with the nuclear warheads. This gives Domino more weight as a character- and she's the one who gets to kill Largo at the end, which is great.

Terence Young was brought back to direct- his last time doing so- after not directing Goldfinger and he handles the larger scale masterfully, while retaining sensibilities he brought to Dr. No and From Russia With Love. The underwater battle is filmed and edited beautifully (editor Peter R. Hunt would go on to direct OHMSS) with John Barry's score building up the suspense. It's a vision of all hell breaking loose.

14. Dr. No

Dr. No- the first Bond film- is a little creaky but it still works due Connery's performance as Bond. While Connery would get even better in his next two films- right from the moment he introduces himself (maybe the most iconic character introductions in film), he is James Bond. Connery gives one of the great star-making performances. His Bond is seductive, ruthless and determined. The scene where he kills an unarmed man in cold blood is shocking in its bluntness.

While the Bond films are often standalone films the existence of the sinister organization SPECTRE would be established in this film- if only by name- and would run through the Connery films. This film's villain Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) is a SPECTRE operative. Wiseman has a cold and alien-like quality to Dr. No, making him one of the most intimidating villains Bond has faced through the series. Dr. No is kept in the shadows throughout most of the story- the film is almost over before we actually see him in the flesh. This helps build up a sense of mystery and mystique for the character.

When Ursula Andress stepped out of the ocean (in the role of Honey Ryder) she set the precedent for all Bond Women to come- exotic, beautiful, sexy and "totally unavailable to anyone apart from him" as Jonny Lee Miller's character said in Trainspotting. 

It's funny that Dr. No has "The End" over its final image. This was only the beginning.  

You Only Live Twice

13. You Only Live Twice

This is where the Bond franchise truly and completely had become a genre unto itself. It's also where Connery wasn't quite as in to the role as he had been earlier- but even so, You Only Live Twice is the Bond formula done right. The final volcano battle would become a template for future Bond climaxes- This film's director, Lewis Gilbert, would essentially remake this climax in both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. 

This is where we finally see Blofeld's face. Donald Pleasence is entertainingly creepy as Blofeld, essentially the inspiration for Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films, but he doesn't quite live up to the Blofeld of From Russia With Love and Thunderball.

I really love the film's atmosphere- the beauty of Japan, Nancy Sinatra's wistful and moony theme song. Little Nelly is one of Q's essential gadgets. The also marks the end of an era- the last Connery film of the 60s. And neither Diamonds are Forever or the unofficial Never Say Never Again would capture the feel of the Bond film in their 60s prime. 

12. For Your Eyes Only

After the success of Moonraker the Bond producers decided to bring Bond back down to earth- literally and figuratively. For Your Eyes Only- which was originally supposed to be the follow-up to The Spy Who Loved Me- is the most grounded of the Moore Bond films and the most stripped down film in the series since OHMSS. Appropriately enough the film begins with Bond laying flowers on the grave of his beloved wife Tracy. The gravestone- marking Tracy's death as 1969- brings to the foreground that not only does this Bond have a consistent history but this Bond is ageing in real time.  Bond would be de-aged when Dalton and Brosnan took the role- but here the gravestone brings some weight to Moore's often light approach to the character.

Moore is good in the film, handling the serious aspects of the film quite well but I think the film would've been even better if Dalton had started his run as the character here. Of the films post OHMSS (for which he was offered the role but at 24 he deemed himself too young) this feels the most suited to Dalton's approach.

Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) is wooden but it kind of fits the one-track mind of her character. She wants revenge on Greek smuggler Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover) who had her parents killed when her father- a marine archaeologist- was looking for a sunken ship with the A.T.A.C- a device on board which can control nuclear submarines. Kristatos plans to sell the A.T.A.C to the Russians. Glover makes for one of the most realistically evil villains in the Bond canon. He's not bent on world domination. He's just greedy and remorseless.    

As Kristatos' rival Milos Columbo (Topol) is a bright spot, one of the enjoyable Bond allies. The climax of the film- which features Bond climbing up a mountain to Kristatos' hideout is refreshingly simple compared to other Bond climaxes but hugely suspenseful.

11. Spectre

Spectre is one of the most difficult Bond films to rank- largely because it's so new and the only film in the series I've seen just once. It's last half hour or so brings it down but it has some great intrigue and build-up. It's bravado pre-title sequence is one of the series' cinematically bold openings- beginning with an extended long take. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema gives the film a look that envelops you in its universe. The first Spectre meeting has a understated creepiness that both invokes and updates the Spectre scenes from the Connery films.

Craig- more than any actor to have played Bond- wears the character's history on his face and in his soul. Unlike prior Bond actors, there's an emotional arc running through Craig's tenure as Bond. I'll have more to say about the film in a later review but Spectre is the most thematically ambitious of the Craig films thus far.

10. Skyfall 

Of all the Bond films this may be the one on which I'm most conflicted. Skyfall has plenty of things I love- the new Q, Sam Mendes' elegant direction and Roger Deakins' glorious cinematography, Ben Whishaw as Q, Javier Bardem as the film's villain, former MI6 Raoul Silva, Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, and the simple but still grand climax at Bond's childhood home, which takes a page out of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Of all these elements are among my favourite in the franchise. But I've never thought of Skyfall as the absolute best Bond film. I feel it sometimes feels more like the outline of a story rather than a fully developed one.

Still, Skyfall ranks this high for me because it's one the rare blockbuster made this decade that feels legitimately artistic on a filmmaking level. I think the choice to make Q a younger, slightly more arrogant man is brilliant and Whishaw is a worthy successor to Desmond Llewelyn. Ralph Fiennes and Harris are also great heirs to Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell, respectively. Silva's introduction is my favourite in all Bond history- moving towards the camera until he towers over Bond and us.

Most blockbusters these days climax with the end of the world at stake. Skyfall's conclusion is all personal- Silva hates M (Judi Dench) and wants to eliminate her. A master hacker, Silva is lured by Bond and M away from technology to duke it out old school. People have compared the film's climax to Home Alone but as I said earlier, it's more like Straw Dogs. I feel the Home Alone demeans the film- and I love Home Alone. The film ends with failure for Bond but ifailure is something even the greatest spy has to push through, of which the film reminds us when the new M (Fiennes) asks Bond if he's ready to get back to work and Bond responds, "With pleasure, M. With pleasure."

9. The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me is pretty much the perfect Bond film- it's outlandish without being too campy, and has enough heart to make you care about the central relationship. And it's certainly best of the Roger Moore era. After attempting the fit the Bond formula in to blaxploitation and kung fu films, the Bond producers decided to just make a straight up Bond film-taking You Only Live Twice and updating and giving it a 70s update. To direct the film they got that film's director, Lewis Gilbert, to helm the film. The resulting film is a prime example of the Bond formula done right.

I feel early 70s Bond films felt cheap but The Spy Who Loved Me is suitably grand. Right from the start it tells us this is going to be a bigger film- with Bond skiing off a cliff on the run from assailants- then unveiling a Union Jack parachute. Even today it's a spectacular stunt.

Richard Kiel as the steel-toothed assassin Jaws is my favourite henchman of the entire series- operating almost as a slasher movie villain while still providing some humour as he occasionally bungles the mission. Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) is deliciously diabolical, though the character is clearly a stand in for Blofeld. As Russian agent Anya Amasova, Barbara Bach isn't a great actress she and Moore have great chemistry. This is also the first film post OHMSS to to mention the death of Bond's wife Tracy. Anya recounts Bond's history and this leads to Moore's most human and vulnerable moment in his entire run as the character. Overall, an incredibly solid entry in the series.

8. Tomorrow Never Dies

Tomorrow Never Dies is one of my most re-watched Bond films. While I wasn't as in to it when I first saw it-largely because it wasn't Goldeneye but it's one that I've come to really enjoy. The villain's scheme is worthy of a great satire- a Media tycoon named Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce)-reportedly based on Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell- plans to start a war between the UK and China as means to gain exclusive broadcasting rights in China. It's a classic Bond scheme from the 60s/70s but with a modern twist. This was the first film in which I ever saw Jonathan Pryce and the role of Elliot Carver will always define him for me. He does expert scenery chewing and for me is one the most Bond villains.

Bond's former lover, Paris (Teri Hatcher) is married to Carver. It's an interesting new angle on the Bond Woman trope- what if a former flame resurfaced and was married to the villain. This sub-plot needed to be explored a little more before Paris is murdered- but thankfully fellow spy Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) is such a strong presence in the film, one of the few Bond Women to transcend that label- until the ending where the filmmakers resort to formula and pair her and Bond romantically.

Roger Spottiswoode (director of the 48 Hours films with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte) makes a slicker looking film than Goldeneye. While Goldeneye was about the ghosts of the Cold War and the old world still hovering over everything, Tomorrow Never Dies pushes forward in to the modern world, making way for the approaching 21st Century.

7. Goldfinger

If Goldfinger isn't the greatest Bond film, then it definitely still the most important in regards to the series' evolution. This is where the series began it's shift from being adaptations of Fleming's novels to being a genre unto itself. This is where elements- present in the previous two films, Dr. No and From Russia With Love- were really solidified in to what we think of when we think of Bond- the gadgets are more in the forefront, we have a Bond girl with a double entendre name-Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), a pre-title sequence that acts as its own mini-adventure, the imposing henchman (Oddjob), and a tone that isn't specific to a typical spy yarn.

Goldfinger also has the most iconic imagery in the franchise- Shirley Eaton covered in gold, Oddjob's razor blade hat, Bond nearly being castrated by a laser beam, the ejector seat ("You must be joking") and several others. While it does has gender issues (the barnyard scene) and as well as structural ones-Bond spends most of the second half of the film captive and doesn't get to save the day in a traditional way- the film is maybe the most re-watchable Bond film- and despite it's problems, it transcends them due to its style and effortless sense of entertainment.

Shirley Bassey's theme tune is the quintessential Bond theme song- brassy, sexy, and sinister, Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger is a wonderful mix of smart and stupid, and of course, there's Connery as Bond. Connery was in his prime here as Bond- and I don't think he ever recaptured that magic in his post-Goldfinger films. And Blackman and Eaton remain two of the sexiest Bond women of all time.


6. From Russia With Love

While we don't often think of any of the Bond films as sequels (with the exception of Quantum of Solace), From Russia With Love- the second Bond film- is one of the best sequels ever made. Terence Young returned to the director's chair and made a more refined and complex entry in the franchise.  Of all the Bond films From Russia With Love feels the most like an espionage thriller- which is the main reason why I like it so much.

The plot involves the sinister organization SPECTRE and their plan to steal a Russian Lektor cryptographic machine. SPECTRE Number 3, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) manipulates a young cipher clerk named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to defect to the British- along with the Lektor. Tatiana tells the British she will only defect to Bond. Tatiana believes Klebb is still working for the Russians- so both Tatiana and Bond are being played by SPECTRE.

The plot mechanics are never too confusing and they add an emotional complexity to the Bond/ Bond Girl relationship not always found in these films. Connery was great in Dr. No but his performance is more polished here- and I'd say it's his best performance in the role. Lenya's performance makes Klebb one of the most unsettling villainesses in movie history. Robert Shaw is totally convincing as the ruthless assassin Red Grant- his fight with Bond on the Orient Express is the best fight sequence in the entire franchise. And more than 50 years on, the sequence in which Bond being chased by that helicopter- an homage to the crop-duster sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest- is still suspenseful. This film has several climaxes- and it's on the best examples I can think of where they all feel organic to the plot and story.

This film also marks the first appearance (kind of) of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE. While the image of Blofeld is often associated with Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, not seeing Blofeld's face, only hearing his voice (an uncredited Eric Pohlmann), is actually effective in making Blofeld an ominous figure whose spectre (pun intended) hovers over the film's proceedings. Along with Blofeld, this was the beloved Desmond Llewelyn's first appearance as "Q."

5. Licence to Kill

While he only portrayed Bond twice Timothy Dalton is my favourite Bond. I find his two films- The Living Daylights and this one- along with Casino Royale and OHMSS-the most emotionally compelling Bond films. Dalton's more serious sensibilities as an actor worked with The Living Daylights but Licence to Kill was specifically fashioned to his strengths as an actor. After Bond's friend, former CIA and now DEA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who played Leiter in Live and Let Die) is brutally attacked by drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi)- whom Leiter and Bond had helped capture earlier.

Felix's new bride, Della (Priscella Barnes) is also murdered. I like how this parallels Bond's wife, Tracy being murdered on their wedding day. There's even a reference to Bond's marriage- one of the few in the series- before Felix and Della are attacked. Bond resigns from MI6 and goes after Sanchez- eventually teaming up with CIA agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell's no nonsense performance plays off well with Dalton). Even Q gets in on the action.

While the stakes are smaller in this film- no take over the world scheme- they feel weightier because they are personal.  Even when Bond has to prevent Sanchez's larger scheme, the final confrontation between Bond and Sanchez is down and dirty, with a great punchline. I like how Sanchez comes to think of Bond as a potential friend and partner, genuinely feeling betrayed when he discovers Bond's motives. Davi never goes too far over the top, and he's one of the genuinely threatening Bond villains.

This without a doubt the most violent Bond film- Felix's leg gets bitten off by a shark, a man's head explodes, and Benicio Del Toro (as Sanchez's henchman Dario) gets shredded. One could argue the violence is gratuitous but it fits the world the film explores- and Dalton's Bond knows how to survive in it.

4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service  

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was once the unwanted child of the Bond franchise. But time has been kind to the film and now it's often considered one of the best in the series- earning praise from film-makers Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan (Inception's snow fortress climax is essentially a love letter to this film's climax), and even Martin Scorsese. The film one of the most ambitious in the series- particularly at the time. Not only did the producers cast a virtual unknown- Australian model named George Lazenby- but they gave the character and the story an emotional weight not seen in any of the previous Bond films.

To find Blofeld (Telly Savalas), Bond makes a deal with Marc-Ange Draco (Gabrielle Ferzetti)- head of a European crime syndicate. Bond will court Draco's troubled daughter Tracy di Vicenzo (Dianna Rigg). While at first Bond isn't interested in being a married man, he and Tracy do fall in love. After thwarting Blofeld's scheme, Bond and Tracy are married, only for Tracy to be gunned down by Blofeld's henchwoman, Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat). The film ends with Bond cradling the dead body of his wife. It's hard to imagine a franchise film today ending in such a tragic manner- and it arguablt them until Casino Royale to really attempt anything like it.

I love the way this film balances grand scale while still very character focused and true to the spirit of Fleming's original novel. It's also one of the Bond films that's just outlandish enough without becoming overly campy. Peter R. Hunt- an editor on the previous Bond films- took the director's chair this time around, and brings an new visual flavour to the franchise- particularly in the action scenes, which were ahead of their time in terms of editing. John Barry's score- including the lyric-less theme song- is maybe his best work in the entire series. Salvalas is the most grounded Blofeld- and delivers an villainy suave performance.

While it'd be easy to say the film is good in-spite of Lazenby, he brings a certain humanity that I don't know if we would've gotten with Connery, as great as he was. It helps that he has an exquisite actress to play off- If they ever attempt to redo this story I'd love to see Rebecca Hall play Tracy.

3. Goldeneye   

After a six year hiatus following Licence to Kill- the longest in the franchise history- Bond entered the 90s with Pierce Brosnan (he almost got the role after Roger Moore retired but his TV show Remington Steele was renewed for another season) filling out Bond's tuxedo. Goldeneye is a seminal film for me- it's the film that made me a Bond fan- and of course the video game was a big part of that too. And I feel Goldeneye still holds up fairly well.  Director Martin Campbell- who would go on to helm Casino Royale a decade later- knows how to handle big set-pieces while never losing track of the human story underneath. Goldeneye is largely about the remnants of the Cold War/the past still pervading over everything- and Campbell's direction invokes that theme both visually and atmospherically.

Brosnan is the most accessible Bond- he's serious but not as serious like Dalton, not as cheeky as Moore. He's not a misogynist like Connery and is a more seasoned actor than Lazenby. And he's more traditionally handsome than Craig. While I think Brosnan got better in his subsequent films he's quite good here, giving giving an understated performance that still delivers plenty of humorous moments.

Goldeneye also boasts one the best ensemble casts in the series. Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) is one of my favourite Bond Women- smart, with a vulnerability that masks a inner toughness. Former MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) may be the best Bond villain of the last twenty years- a man who knows Bond better than any previous villain. Famke Janssen never got a role as memorable as Xenia Onatopp- who kills men with her thighs. Alan Cumming will always be Boris "I'm invincible" Grishenko to me. Tcheky Karyo and Gottfried John lend authenticity to their roles Defense Minister Dmitri Mishkin and General Ourumov, respectively. And Robbie Coltrane as ex-KGB agent Valentin Zukovsky delivers some of the best lines in the series.

This is also Judi Dench's debut as M. Her role isn't as prominent as Skyfall but she makes her a character feel fully rounded even in her short screen time. And to further emphasize that this is a modern Bond film, Dench's M is the first woman to ever point blank call Bond a misogynist.

2. The Living Daylights 

If there's a true heir to From Russia With Love in the Bond cannon, I'd say it's The Living Daylights, which isn't surprising Dalton (making his debut in the role) wanted to take Bond back to his routes as a more serious character.

The Living Daylights shares the same kind of intricate plotting as From Russia With Love. where both Bond and the Bond Woman, cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo) are both being played by the villain of the film- Russian General Grigori Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), who fakes a defection to the British and has his girlfriend Kara pose as a sniper sent to kill him. Koskov convinces MI6 that General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) is killing British spies. In fact, Koskov just wants Pushkin out of the way so Koskov's and arms dealer Brad Whitaker's (Joe Don Baker, who would go on to play Bond's CIA ally in Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies) opium scheme can go through.

Koskov isn't a classic Bond villain but he's a great "love to hate" villain. He's slime-ball who'd definitely sell his own mother out if it got him ahead. Whitaker is the more interesting villain of the two, a man who admires men like Hitler and Genghis Khan- and whose villainy has an unsettling jolliness to it.

I admire the complexity of the film's plot even if you can pokes holes through it. The film is softer than Licence to Kill. It fits pretty comfortably between seriousness and lightheartedness, never feeling too tonally inbalanced. Dalton keeps it grounded and D'Abo's innocence and spunk plays off wonderfully with his world-weariness. She helps make him likable. Their relationship is one of the most touching in the series and makes The Living Daylights one of the genuinely romantic Bond films.

1. Casino Royale

From it's stark black and white opening, to it's twist on the gunbarrel sequence, all way to its heartbreaking climax, Casino Royale- along with Batman Begins- is an example of a reboot/origin absolutely working- making the franchise feel fresh again. Going back to Fleming's first Bond novel and updating it to the 21st Century, the Bond producers found a way to avoid the typical contrivances of movies like this. It doesn't ignore the fact there were 20 previous Bond adventures but it's never too self-referential. There's not the usual "This is the first time the character did this" quality. This isn't Jimmy Bond, it's just Bond without the edges sanded off.

There was controversy surrounding Daniel Craig's casting as Bond but his performance is one of the most acclaimed performances as the character. It's maybe my favourite performance by Craig thus far. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is the Tracy for his iteration of Bond, someone who'll always haunt Bond. Her death is more dramatic here is in the book but it actually works better- at least for this kind of film.

While keeping Judi Dench in the role of M is unavoidably distracting, continuity-wise but Dench fits in with the tone of the Craig films quite well- and the relationship between her and Craig is an defining element of the Craig era.

Martin Campbell returned to direct, creating a distinct atmosphere different from Goldeneye- but like Goldeneye balances big scale action and human drama. While the action set-pieces does make the film a tad bloated, thy are spaced out  as to never undermine the character stuff. Even the climax in Venice has an emotional urgency rare in blockbuster cinema. It's the closest the series has come to matching the impact of Tracy's death. While Vesper's death isn't as blunt- and the film continues beyond that point- the film is less about the tragedy of Vesper's death than it is the birth of Bond. When he finally delivers his famous introduction, first uttered by Connery more than 40 years prior, he- and the film-earns it.

So yeah, that's my very rough ranking of the Bond series. Chime in below. What are you personal rankings and what's your favourite Bond film?

Monday, 2 November 2015

It's Not Binary: "Steve Jobs"

There are two specific scenes in Steve Jobs which illustrate both the ways Jobs thinks and how others view his thought process. In one scene Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg)- who co-created the original Macintosh computer- asks Jobs (Michael Fassbender) why he wants people to dislike him. Jobs says he doesn't want people to dislike him, he's just indifferent to whether people like him.  In an earlier scene, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) states that being decent and gifted are not binary. For Jobs indifference to people's feelings towards him isn't intrinsic to behaviour which will cause people to dislike or outright hate him. After Herztfeld tells Jobs he never liked him, Jobs says he always like Hertzfeld. This line is both funny and sad, revealing a complicated man beneath the supposed binary thinking. Steve Jobs is largely about the distinction between telling people how we think and our more complex thought processes. 

The script for the film comes from Aaron Sorkin and it's hard not to draw comparisons to the film for which he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar- the David Fincher directed The Social Network- the film about the founding of the social media site Facebook by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg. Both centre around figures who revolutionized our relationship with technology (and without people like Steve Jobs there'd probably be no Mark Zuckerberg), question the morality and importance of the men at their centres. And what ultimately unifies the two films is they're more character studies than biopics. Neither film is too interested in how the outside world is affected by Jobs' and Zuckerberg's achievement- they zero in on the personalities behind the innovation, using said personalities as metaphors for the technology they helped redefine.

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The narrative conceit of Sorkin's screenplay is it's divided in to 3 segments, each taking place just before a product launch- the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. In each segment Jobs has to prepare to unveil something new to the world while also dealing with personal issues-largely involving his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and their daughter Lisa. Chrisann wants Jobs to provide for her and Lisa financially. Jobs denies being Lisa's father but there's never really any doubt in Jobs' or anyone else's mind that he's her biological father. Jobs' denial of his fatherhood is more about not wanting to accept responsibility than not believing their blood relation. Jobs' colleague Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) persuades Jobs to embrace being Lisa's father- later on in the film Hoffman will tell Jobs that being a father is supposed to be the "best part" of him, not the technology he helped create. Wozniack- who co-founded Apple with Jobs wants recognition for the Apple II team but Jobs feels this acknowledgement to underminw the unveiling of the Macintosh. The film also explores Jobs' relationship with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple and the man who would eventually fire Jobs from the company.

Having all these conflicts arise just before each launch is convenient and not entirely realistic- but the narrative structures serves a thematic purpose- Jobs in a bubble where the personal and the professional can never be completely severed. Moreover, the fact Jobs only appears to know a small group of people highlights hi isolation from the rest of the world. We never see him in any situation that is just purely casual- every thing is related to work or invention.  

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The film is directed by Danny Boyle- one of the most visually dynamic directors working in the medium today. Aside from a few Boyle-quse touches, Boyle's visual style is much more restrained than in his other works. While I would've liked for Boyle to do more composition and camera movement-wise, the film isn't bland as cinema. Visually, the most interesting technique Boyle brings to the film is how the three segments are filmed in 16mm, 35mm, and digital, respectively, to capture the feel of each time period and the advancement in technology. This works very well in creating a particular sense of place and time without seeing much of the outside world.    

Even the film-makers have admitted that Fassbender doesn't look like Jobs. I actually think this woks in the film's favour. The disconnect between the appearance of Jobs and Fassbender allows us to view the man at the film's heart on his own terms. Fassbender isn't playing Steve Jobs so much as he's playing "Steve Jobs"- just as Jesse Eisenberg was playing "Mark Zuckerberg." Fassbender is one of my favourite actors working today- and as Jobs he never pushes too far in one direction- he's not so off-putting as to stop the audience from engaging with the character but he never goes too soft with his characterization either- there's a humanity to Jobs but even by the film's end he's still working on being a better man.

Sorkin can never be accused of being too subtle but his screenplay is more restrained than expected. Sorkin's dialogue- like David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino- has a particular rhythm that when every one is in sync, really sings. While the film is centred around Jobs the film also acts as an ensemble piece- and honestly I don't think there's an off performance amongst the cast. 

Winslet is both Jobs' conscience and the conscience of the film. Winslet brings a solid balance of warmth and sternness to Hoffman. She's one of the only people working with Jobs who's not afraid to be honest when speaking with him. And in many ways Hoffman is Jobs' only true  friend. 

Daniels (who led Sorkin's The Newsroom for 3 seasons) is excellent as Sculley- someone who easily could've been written and performed as the villain of the film- the man who fired Steve Jobs. In a bravado sequence during the 1988 segment the film cuts between Jobs' and Sculley's conversation in the present, the early days of their relationship, and the night Jobs was fired. This sequence is a mosaic of two men's relationship- how it began and where it was during that period of time. 

Rogen brings a quiet but clear sense of betrayal to his portrayal of Wozniack. Wozniack tells Jobs that computers aren't paintings, to which Jobs always replies "fuck you." But Jobs contradicts this philosophy by not giving the Apple II team credit. If computers are truly art can't Jobs acknowledge artists?- is it because they aren't him? Because it'll distract from his art? Maybe it's because Wozniack's words still stick with Jobs: 

"What do you do? You're not an engineer. You're not a designer. You can't put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius?" 

While this speech comes from Wozniack- it's also the film questioning the love we give our idols without truly understanding their exact importance or the other people who contributed to history. After Wozniack asks this question, Jobs says he plays the orchestra. That may be the most succinct if somewhat simple answer to Jobs' importance to the technological revolution.

Waterston- who I thought gave a potent performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice- is far less elliptical here than in Anderson's film. Waterston makes Chrisann  sympathetic without sanding off the character's edge. Chrisann isn't always the most pleasant person to be around. I don't think she has a proper pay-off but the relationship between Jobs and his daughter Lisa is the more important arc. 

Lisa is played by Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Solo and Perla Hanley- Jardine in 1984, 1988, and 1998, respectively. There's a subtle consistency between the three actresses, and Hanley-Jardine carries the weight of Lisa's complicated relationship with Jobs. I feel the culmination of this arc feels a little too pat and sentimental- and the final moments don't feel they match the more morally complicated character the film was portraying.  

I've seen people complain about the number of Steve Jobs films we've gotten since Jobs's death at the age of 56 in 2011. How many movies does one man need?, they ask. Steve Jobs may not be the definitive account of Jobs' life, or even the last film someone makes about his life. But as a character study, Boyle, Sorkin, and Fassbender have created a dense and entertaining portrait of a man who became- and remains- a symbol in an ever changing industry. Computers may not be paintings but symbols are everlasting.  

Friday, 2 October 2015

My Top Ten James Bond Themes

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A major aspect of the James Bond tradition is the theme song. Over the past 50 odd years artists such as Paul McCartney, Madonna, Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, and- for the previous film, Skyfall- Adele, have contributed to this tradition. The latest artist to perform the theme tune for a Bond film- this November's Spectre- is Sam Smith. Last week, Smith's song- entitled "Writing's on the Wall"- was released to a mixed reception. I've only listened to the song once and I feel it doesn't have the invigorating power as "Skyfall". I hope over time it does grow on me; hearing it in a theatre over the main titles will likely add a much needed component.

But now I want to take a look back at the previous theme tunes and discuss my top ten favourite amongst them. This is purely a personal preference list rather than an attempt at objectively ranking the songs. Warning: spoilers for certain films will follow.

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10. "The World is Not Enough"- Garbage

An easy joke to make about The World is Not Enough's theme song- sung by Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson- is it's garbage. For me, I enjoy this song's ominous passion- particularly when coupled with it's sci-fi/almost-apocalyptic music video. In the video a robot- played by Manson- kills the real Manson, takes her place at a concert and  kills everyone with a bomb concealed in its body. Also of note: the song appears to be from he perspective of Elektra King (Sophie Marceau)- making this the only theme song to be told from the villain's perspective. 

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9. "A View to a Kill"- Duran Duran

The story goes that at a party Duran Duran bassist John Taylor came up to Bond producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli and drunkenly asked him when they'd get someone good again to sing a Bond theme. This eventually led to the band and  long time Bond composer John Barry writing the theme song together. At the time "A View to a Kill" was the most high energy Bond theme since "The Man With the Golden Gun." It has a certain goofy appeal- talking about dancing in to a fire- and some vivid imagery- "crystal tears, fall as snowflakes on your body." The song would have been a great way to usher in a new actor as Bond but A View to a Kill has a 58 year old Roger Moore (actually, a stunt double) surf-boarding to the Beach Boys' "California Girls." Still, this is one of the most fun Bond themes in my opinion.

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8. "Goldeneye"- Tina Turner

To begin the Pierce Brosnan era of the Bond franchise- and the return of the franchise after a six year hiatus- the Bond producers enlisted the vocals of a legend for Goldeneye's theme song- Tina Turner. Turner is only a couple of years younger than Shirley Bassey (the only artist to perform more than one Bond theme) and the spirit of Bassey is felt throughout the song. Written by U2's Bono and the Edge, the song is one of several Bond songs about Bond himself- or at least about one woman's perspective of him. Turner is the woman in the shadows, feeling betrayed by Bond and wanting revenge. The song feels classic yet works as an introduction to a new age of Bond.

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7. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"- John Barry

The only Bond theme to be purely instrumental- aside from Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme"- John Barry's theme for On Her Majesty's Secret Service encompasses the epic sweep and dramatic energy of the film that redefined the Bond mythology (Bond gets married and then his wife is murdered by his arch-nemesis Blofeld). It's dark, exciting and quintessentially Bond. Moreover, Barry's overall score is arguably his best work in the entire series. And Barry's theme is posed to make to a comeback-a version of the theme is heard in the latter part of the second Spectre trailer. Also of note: David Arnold (composer of Casino Royale and several other Bond films) did a fantastic remix of the theme with the Propellerheads.

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6. "Diamonds Are Forever"- Shirley Bassey

Along with the return of Sean Connery to the franchise (after George Lazenby's single outing as Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Shirley Bassey came back after seven years to record her second Bond theme (her first being "Goldfinger.") This song has an undertone of tragedy- it's about a woman who's been spurned by love and finds solace in diamonds- they "won't leave in the night." "I don't need love,/ For what good will love do me?" she asks; "Diamonds never lie to me." Love is finite but diamonds are truly forever. It's tragic, with a tinge of anger and defiance. The song doesn't fit Diamonds are Forever's campy tone but on its own terms it's the most emotionally haunting of all Bond songs.

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5. "Skyfall"- Adele

After Casino Royale's rock-infused "You Know My Name" and Quantum of Solace's Alicia Keys/Jack White sing-off "Another Way to Die," the series went down a more classical route with it's theme for Skyfall. "Skyfall" begins with "This is the end," seemingly commenting on Bond's (Daniel Craig) death in the pre-title sequence; It even mentions drowning (which is what almost happens to Bond). In the film Skyfall is the name of Bond's childhood home; but in the song the sky is literally falling- with two people having to face it together- which ties in to Bond and M (Judi Dench) making a final stand at Skyfall. This is one of the best examples of tying the film's themes in to the main song. The song is also just plain excellent: moody, soulful, and ultimately triumphant.

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4. "The Man with the Golden Gun"- Lulu

What I love about this song is how upbeat it is considering Lulu (who was in 1967's To Sir, With Love with Sidney Poitier and also sang the film's theme song) is singing about a ruthless hitman- Francisco Scaramanga (the late Christopher Lee). My favourite part of the song is how Lulu digs in the word "kill," especially in the second-last verse. Like "A View to a Kill," there's not much depth to the song but I find this song giddy fun.

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3. Live and Let Die- Paul McCartney and Wings

I think "Live and Let Die" is the most musically ambitious and unique of the Bond themes. It begins softly- with Paul McCartney telling someone that "When you were young/ And your heart was an open book/ You used to say, Live and yet live." McCartney then says if the world gets too much for you, say "Live and let die," a much more sinister proverb. The song then shifts in to an almost satanic guitar riff (which matches the supernatural theme of the story). And in the actual film, the head of the woman in the title sequence turns in to a flaming skull. "Live and Let Die" was the first Bond theme to be nominated for an academy award, to be followed several years later by Carly Simon's "Nobody it Better" from The Spy Who Loved Me. "Live and Let Die" was a new sound for a new era of Bond (this was Roger Moore's debut in the role). While the Bond songs would become ballad-y in the late 70s/early 80s, "Live and Let Die" was an energy charged message that Bond was here to stay.    

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2. "Goldfinger"- Shirley Bassey

The gold-standard for all Bond songs to come. Like most everything in Goldfinger, it's theme defined what a Bond theme. This was Bassey's first time recording a theme (she'd come back for the aforementioned Diamonds are Forever and finally for Moonraker), and her vocals are brassy (matching Barry's score), seductive and overpowering. The song serves as a warning about the film's villain: "Pretty girl, beware of his heart of gold/ This heart is cold." The song has a wonderfully sinister vibe and reaches an almost epic climax with Bassey's drawn out final note. Also of note: singer/actor Anthony Newley (who co-wrote the song with Barry and Leslie Bricusse) recorded a demo of the song before Bassey did her version. It's an interesting and creepy take on the iconic song:

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1. "You Know My Name"- Chris Cornell

"You Know My Name" is a perfect song title for the film that reinvented of the character of James Bond. Chris Cornell's gnarled and forceful vocals ushered in Daniel Craig's tenure as Bond. We had a new Bond and a new continuity but we still knew who this guy was- we knew his name. The song is told from Bond's perspective- we're asked "If you take a life do you know what you'll give?"- which reflects the pre-title sequence in which Bond earns his 00 status by killing two men. "The coldest blood runs through my veins," we're told, reminding us how brutal the character of Bond can be. The song establishes the arc of the film- Bond in his first mission, having to be willing to die to do this job, the odds (the poker game, Vesper Lynd) will betray him. The song's grit and slight tinge of melancholy sets the stage for what is my favourite Bond film. 

Those are my top ten Bond themes. Tell me, what are your favourites and what are your thoughts on Sam Smith's addition to the Bond theme canon.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Some Thoughts on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Note: To anyone who reads this blog regularly- and many thanks if you do- I apologize for not writing recently. I wish I could say it was due to family troubles or poor health- but it really comes down to procrastination. But now it's time to get back in the swing of writing about what I love- movies.


While many lament the amount of the superhero/comic book movies coming out, 2015 is less another  year of the superhero than it is the year of the spy film. So far this year we've gotten several films that have their own take on the genre- the stylized ultra-violence of Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service, the subversiveness of Paul Feig's Spy and the old fashioned craftsmanship of Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation. This fall we're getting the 24th James Bond adventure with Sam Mendes' Spectre, which may be the most serious-minded of this year's espionage offerings. And for those who want a more classic Bond film, Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fits the retro 1960s bill.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.- based on the series of the same name which ran from 1964 to 1968 and spawned both a one-season spinoff (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) and a 1983 TV movie (Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.)-is the latest film adaptations of a 1960s spy show (Get Smart, I Spy, The Avengers, and of course Mission: Impossible have all gotten the big screen treatment, with only Mission going on to become a film franchise). It came out in 1964 just around the time the third Bond film, Goldfinger was about to be released. I feel the '60s is what defined our cultural image of the spy franchise, particulalry since the US and Russia was right in the middle of the Cold War.

And the Cold War is when the film's story takes place, in 1963- the year before the series debuted, and the film operates as a quasi-prequel to the series. For me, I think it a was wise decision to not to update the story to modern day; there's something more appealing and fun about setting in this time period then 2015, especially in when most spy films are modernized.

We're introduced to Napoleon Solo (current Superman Henry Cavill), a C.I.A agent who's in East Berlin to extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a scientist (Christian Berkel) who may have been a Nazi during WWII. They are tailed by a KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) but escape. However, Solo and Kuryakin have to work together when it's revealed Gabby's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) is connected to a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvanni and Elizabeth Debicki). The Vinciguerras plan to use Gabby's father to build a nuclear bomb.

What I like most about the film is it's low-key tone. While it does have the requisite action set-pieces, there's no Marvel-movie third act climax or huge Mission: Impossible-style stunts. The film allows the characters to interact and despite Ritchie flashy visual style, the film is uncommonly laid back. Unlike the two Sherlock Holmes films, where the Ritche-isms often felt forced, his sensibilities feel more attuned to this type of material. And instead of the greasy/grimy aesthetic of those films, cinematographer John Mathieson provides The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with the same sleek and warm look he gave to Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class- another film that was set in the 60s and riffed on classic Bond films.

Cavill's smooth Americaness and Hammer's rugged Russian-ness are a good match. One thing I picked up on about both these men is they both have dark backstories but while Solo has smoothed the edges off, becoming the perfect tool for the C.I.A, Kuryakin wears his roughness like a coat and is quick to lose his temper. There is one scene when Kuraykin has to allow himself to be robbed to keep his cover as an architect but he assaults the robbers instead. Kuraykin then tells Solo, "A Russian architect would have fought them, a Russia agent would have killed them."

Vikander (who was very good earlier this year in Alex Garland's sci-fi tale, Ex Machina), gets a slightly more interesting part then to be expected from a male-centric spy film. There's one scene (which you may have seen in the film's trailer) where Gabby does a dance behind Kuraykin in her pyjamas. This leads to them dancing and her slapping him; and then ending with her wrestling him Kurayakin to the ground despite her being tinier then him. This sequence has this wonderful blend of adorability and sexiness that's the most authentic scene in the film- and a real star moment for Vikander.

The other female role in the film- Victoria- is a little thinly sketch but I do like the idea of a female being the lead villain instead of being subservient to a man; and Debicki is clearly relishing playing the kind of femme fatale that wouldn't be out of place in a Connery-era Bond film. And rounding out the cast is Hugh Grant, who plays Alexander Waverly,  one of the section chiefs in U.N.C.L.E. (the role originated by Leo G. Carroll in the original series). Grant is on the sidelines for most of the film but becomes a bigger player in the third act, when his and Gabby's roles in the story become clearer. Grant is fun in his brief role and appears to be entering the character-actor stage of his career.

One major difficulty in reviewing a movie like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is- like the previously mentioned Kingsman- by the time the movie was over, I wanted to see the next chapter. This is both a positive thing- since I liked the characters enough to see where they go from here- but it's also a indicator of a problem in modern blockbuster filmmaking- the need to set-up a franchise right off the bat. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. isn't at all as bad an offender as The Amazing Spider-Man films in this regard but it does feel a little like a big budget T.V. pilot- establishing characters but saving deeper exploration for later. This works for T.V. but I wished we had learned more about the characters this time around.

However, despite my reservations about the set-up-esque nature of the film, I think the film is genuinely likeable film and it's own low-key charms and game cast make it a worthwhile tribute to what I would say is the golden age of the spy genre.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

20 Years of "Forever": A Look Back at "Batman Forever"

June 16 marked the 20th anniversary of Batman Forever's North American release. I was six at the time and Batman Forever was the Batman film for me growing up- a film I watched a lot on VHS. Which isn't a surprise since the film's main goal was to be a more kid friendly film than the previous two films in the franchise, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)- both directed by Tim Burton. After Batman Returns was criticized for being too dark and grotesque, Warner Bros. felt uneasy about another Burton-directed Bat film. Burton almost did direct the third installment  but eventually dropped out ( I wrote about what that film might've been like here: Joel Schumacher- known for films such as The Lost Boys, St. Elmo's Fire, and Falling Down- was hired to make a more light, less depressing take on the Batman mythos.

Batman Forever is often lumped in beside Schumacher's follow-up, 1997's Batman & Robin as the low-points of the franchise. But we have to remember that before Batman & Robin put the franchise on ice until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins in 2005 Batman Forever was received fairly well by audiences. It was more accessible and mainstream than Batman Returns, which is more Burton than Batman film and not really a superhero action film either. Moreover, Forever also out-grossed Returns at the box-office. 

The last time I watched Batman Forever before revisiting it for this retrospective was after seeing Batman Begins. Due to being older and having just seen Nolan's darker take on the character, I found myself appreciating Burton's vision more and being disappointed we never got a third film from him; though I still enjoyed Batman Forever. However, seeing the film just recently, I can see it's flaws more clearly.

For one, it's a very tonally awkward film. The scenes featuring Edward Nygma/Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) are very broad and comedic, whereas the scenes with Bruce Wayne/ Batman (Val Kilmer) and Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell) are more realistic. I wish Jones had played Two-Face more subtly, particularly since Carrey's performance is flamboyant and over the top enough for ten movies. You needed a straight man in the scenes with Carrey and we never get that with Jones hamming it up like he's playing the Joker.

I also feel Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), the psychiatrist Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) brings in to analyze Two-Face, is a little too shallow. To be fair, that's part of her character arc as she's first attracted to Batman but then  falls for the man behind the mask, telling Batman a girl eventually has to grow up. The idea of a psychiatrist being Bruce Wayne's love interest, with Bruce's own alter ego being his romantic rival is a great idea that I wished the filmmakers had unpacked more. This plotline highlights the duality of Batman and the superhero archetype in general. Batman isn't just Bruce in a suit but a different persona- both literally and metaphorically. The love triangle between Bruce/Batman/Chase is also reminiscent of the Clark Kent/Superman/Lois Lane relationship in the Christopher Reeve Superman films.

At the film's climax, Riddler (having found out that Bruce is Batman) makes Batman choose between Chase and Dick (now having taken on the mantle of Robin). Nygma was a Wayne Enterprises employee who felt betrayed when Bruce rejected his idea for a box that enables Television signals to beam directly in to a person's brain. "It just raises too many questions," Bruce told him. Riddler wants to make Bruce suffer but he's also fascinated in the riddle of who will eventually win over- Batman or Bruce? Which persona wins out? Batman saves both Robin and Chase, which you can argue is a little too neat. But it pays off when Batman tells Riddler, "I had to save them both. You see, I'm both Bruce Wayne and Batman not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be." Batman is no longer a psychological burden for Bruce but someone he chooses to be. He'll go out and fight crime but he'll be more psychologically and emotionally well rounded.

I do like Val Kilmer's performance. I won't say he's better than Michael Keaton or Christian Bale but I feel he's probably the most underrated of the four actors who've played the character in live action. Supposedly Schumacher wanted to do a adaption of Frank Miller's seminal Batman: Year One, which was an influence on Batman Begins. I've would've liked to have seen Kilmer in a film between that was cross a between Burton's gothic sensibilities and Begins' exploration of Bruce's psyche.

More so than Burton's films, Schumacher does attempt to explore the motivation behind his crusade as Batman. There is a deleted scene where Bruce remembers reading his father's diary after his parents' murder. On the night they were murdered, Bruce's father wrote his in diary he and his wife went out that night because Bruce really wanted to go see a movie. Thus guilt was a large incentive for him to dawn that suit and battle crime. I feel this deleted scene should never have been cut, since it adds more depth to Bruce's character and makes his becoming Batman more understandable. The flashback to young Bruce encountering the bat in the cave is a striking scene, nightmarish but Bruce's narration also reflects how terror can also inspire us to do great things.

Another character revealing moment- this one in the film- is when Bruce and Dick are talking about the nature of revenge. Dick is dead set on killing Two-Face for the murder of his parents. Dick  is taken in by Bruce and eventually discovers  that Bruce is Batman. Bruce tells Dick that after he kills Two-Face, the pain won't go away. He'll keep going out to find another "face" each night until revenge becomes his entire life. Dick says Bruce couldn't understand because his parents weren't killed by a maniac, to which Bruce replies, "They were."

This exchange reads to me like the most direction connection- aside from Gordon and Alfred (Michael Gough) reprising their roles from the Burton films- that this film is still connected to the previous films. In Burton's Batman, Bruce's parents were killed by Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) years before he became the Joker (a maniac). And Batman did kill Joker at the end of that film. So, Bruce does get revenge but he still has to go out each night. Revenge hasn't changed anything.

Despite having these connections to Burton's films, in other ways Batman Forever was a reboot before the word became a staple in Hollywood. Gotham City looks and feels completely different from Burton's, we have a distinctly different tone and direction for the franchise. This film  isn't a hard reboot like Batman Begins but it's closer then other franchise installments got to a full on revamp until Nolan's film. Batman Forever came out the same year as Gdeneye, Pierce Brosnan's first outing as James Bond. Goldeneye-like Batman Forever- isn't a complete reset but it did set out to shift the direction of the franchise. Furthermore, Bond got his own Batman Begins the following year in 2006- Casino Royale.

Coming back to the Bruce/Dick relationship, I think the problem with his arc is he gets everything he wants. He's persistent in wanting to be Bruce's partner and despite Bruce being adamant about working alone and wanting Dick to lead a normal life, He eventually has to put aside those reservations and team up with Dick. It feels like Bruce isn't really given a choice, rather then reaching his acceptance of Dick as a partner organically. And while Dick doesn't kill Two Face personally, he gets the satisfaction of seeing him die when Batman causes Two- Face falls to his death.   

While I've grown to prefer Burton and Nolan's film to Schumacher's take, Batman Forever gave me cinematic Batman I highly enjoyed and that's what matters. And in an age where superhero films can feel very "assembly line" Schumacher crafts a flamboyant mixture of comic book, camp, darkness and sex, a film that owes something to Adam West and Frank Miller. It doesn't completely work but it- and Batman & Robin- remain fascinating pop culture products of their time.