Monday, 1 August 2016

I remember everything: "Jason Bourne"

Warning: Significant Spoilers for Jason Bourne and The Bourne Supremacy follow

It's funny what you remember and what you don't. I remember seeing The Bourne Identity back in 2002- and during the first big fight scene between Jason Bourne and an assassin, my mother began singing the ''Secret Agent Man'' theme from the 60s TV series Danger Man. I don't know why I still remember that, but I just do. And it can't help but fuel the nostalgia for the Bourne series. I was 13 when the first film came out. I was still in junior high. And by the time The Bourne Ultimatum came out in 2007, I had just finished high school and was about to enter university in the fall. I know you're probably wondering why I'm getting so personal. Personally I feel it's hard to separate certain films for franchises from the periods of my life in which they came out. And it being nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum and with a new Bourne film being released- simply titled Jason Bourne- I've been watching Jason Bourne movies for more than half my life.

The Bourne Identity- directed by Doug Liman- was filmed before the events of 9/11 and released less than a year after the tragedy. Back in 2002- and more so now-it was a pretty old-fashioned action film, less concerned with bombastic action set-pieces and more on smaller scaled encounters. It even had a pretty tidy happy ending for the most part. When Paul Greengrass took over the franchise with The Bourne Supremacy and the subsequent The Bourne Ultimatum, he took what Liman established and brought a raw and contemporary edge to the franchise. The franchise became a little more darker and morally ambiguous, no- doubt influenced by the 9/11 era that the original film existed outside at its time of filming.

Jason Bourne- again directed by Greengrass- begins with former government agent Jason Bourne- real name David Webb (Matt Damon)- living off the grid and taking part in illegal fighting rings. He's regained his memory yet is still unable to find any kind of real peace. When Damon first played Bourne back in 2002, he was in many ways still the fresh-faced kid from Good Will Hunting and was an unusual choice for an action film role. Now at 45, Damon has played the character for a significant portion of his career and the character has aged with Damon- and vice-versa. Bourne doesn't speak much in the film but Damon conveys the weight of Bourne's emotional and physical journey throughout the series in his body language and face.

Now in a post-Snowden world, Jason Bourne has a strong focus on the theme cyber-hacking. In the beginning of the film. Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), former C.I.A operative and current ally of Bourne, hacks in to the C.I.A's mainframe so she can expose the agency's black ops program. She discovers information on Bourne's father Richard Webb and Bourne's recruitment in to the Treadstone program. Nicky finds Jason and informs him of what she's been working on. He and Nicky escape from a team sent after them but Nicky is killed by an assassin known as the Asset (Vincent Cassel). 

Nicky's death-which recall's the death of Bourne's former lover Marie's (Franka Potente) in the first act of The Bourne Supremacy- is surprisingly poignant. Bourne is a character- like other action heroes- marked by tragedy. Nicky was one of the last people he had any real connection to and now she's gone. Bourne a survivor in the purest sense of the word. He outlives both his enemies and his loved ones. What's most impressive about the franchise is despite Bourne miraculously surviving events that would have killed someone in reality, he never feels too ridiculous or super-human. Greengrass always makes you feel the weight of every collision, punch and- in one instant- concrete landing. As "cool" and exciting as the action is in the franchise, there's a real sense of pain to it. When Bourne walks away from a fight, he may be the "winner" but I think Bourne regrets every life he's taken or person he's hurt. 

As in all the Bourne films, while the movie is ostensibly about him, there's also a great deal of focus on the government officials who are after Bourne. While Joan Allen's Pamela Landy unfortunately doesn't return or is even mentioned, we are introduced to two pivotal new characters- C.I.A director Rober Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, an actor who fits perfectly in to this series) and Cyber-ops division head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), who persuades Dewey to let her attempt to bring in Bourne from the cold, so to speak.    
Vikander- a recent Oscar winner for The Danish Girl- is one of the most naturalistic young actors working today. While the role feels its written for someone older, Vikander brings a maturity- coupled with a youthful ambition- to the role of Lee. Without giving away the ending, Lee feels like she's going to be a pivotal character moving forward in the franchise. Lee isn't Pamela Landy 2.0- unlike Landy, she's not as trustworthy and in a reversal of the Bourne/Landy dynamic, Bourne is the older one in this pair.

Jason Bourne reveals the final emotional piece of the puzzle, revealing why Bourne volunteered for the Treadstone in the first place. There's also the story thread involving Aaran Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) as the CEO of a social media enterprise called Deep Dream. It was secretly funded by Dewey, who wants to use it as a means of mass surveillance. This plot feels like it's supposed to be the larger thematic arc running through the film but the themes of hacking and surveillance needed a little delving in to. In some ways Jason Bourne feels only like half a film; and Bourne's emotional storyline doesn't have much to do with him protecting peoples' privacy. But I guess that's the point; Bourne's never been out to save the world. It's not that he doesn't care about people; it's just that all he can really do in this world is survive. 

Both Bourne and the Asset's motivations- when his connection to Bourne is revealed- concern revenge against each other- but the film isn't merely a revenge story for Bourne. Revenge is just another way for Bourne to justify some kind of existence. The tragedy of Jason Bourne and Jason Bourne is he's no better off at the end of the film than he was at the beginning. He may not even realize why the Asset hated him. 

The climatic action sequence of the film- the car and SWAT van chase through Las Vegas stands as one of the best action sequences in recent memory; it's genuinely exciting and is a testament to how practical stunt-work. 

I do feel the previous three Bourne are better and that Jason Bourne needed to flesh things out to create a more complete story. It's ending certainly sets things up for another installment- this isn't the grand finale for the character.  Ideally, the next film may change things up a little more. Still, Jason Bourne is still a solid piece of action cinema. I do hope Jason Bourne gets a happy ending one day. Maybe it's naive of me but It's the least I can hope for a man I've known half my life.  

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Some Thoughts on Anton Yelchin

Often you don't realize that a certain actor is one of your favourites or means a great deal to you until you're given a chance to truly reflect. Anton Yelchin's death at the age of 27 in a car accident has made me realize how much I really liked him as an actor. 

I feel he was one of those actors it was easy to take for granted. He never had a role that made him a superstar, nor did he give the super flashy performances that called attention to themselves. He was a quintessential "every-man" actor, grounding often fantastical premises with a specific kind of relatability that was neither over or underdone. 

In films such as the Fright Night remake, Joe Dante's Burying the Ex, and the recent Green Room, Yelchin was the unorthodox hero. His presence was humourous but his played it straight, allowing you chuckle at the unexpectedness of his characters being in such a situation- but you could still accept him as the hero.      

He had a similar effect in the romantic dramas, Like Crazy and 5 to 7. He wasn't a typical romantic lead in either film but he was so charming and open you believed Felicity Jones and Berenice Marlohe could fall for him.  

I also really enjoyed his role as Pavel Chekhov in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, nailing the vocal mannerisms defined by Walter Koenig while also subtly making it his own. And his version of Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation matched up better with Michael Biehn's performance in the original than Jai Courtney's in Terminator Genisys.  

When an actor dies at such a young age one can't help but think of the massive hole left by their absence, the performances we'll never get to see. And it feels- like someone else said- he was just getting started. All we can do is appreciate the work he gave us. Art is the closest thing we as people have to immortality- and Yelchin lives- like others we lost too soon- through his art. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

A Haunting in Enfield: "The Conjuring 2"

Warning: Mild Spoilers

James Wan knows how to make a horror movie. Some may shrug their shoulders at that claim, thinking "So what?" But only a genuine film-maker who understands how to engage and manipulate his or her audience can work in the archetypal haunted house sub-genre- as Wan did in the first two Insidious films and the original The Conjuring (2013)-and make the cliches and familiar beats feel fresh and genuinely intense. He isn't interested in subverting your expectations of the genre; he's more concerned in reminding us of the pure thrill of being frightened by ''what goes bump in the night."

The Conjuring 2 begins with a prologue re-introducing us to Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), the ghost-busting couple of the original film-and dramatised versions of the real life Warrens. The Warrens are investigating the notorious Amityville murders of the DeFeo family, committed by the oldest son, Ronald DeFeo. During a seance, Lorraine enacts the murders- and in one shot, instead of Lorraine's reflection, DeFeo is seen in a mirror. In her vision, Lorraine encounters a demon dressed as a nun. After being shaken out of the vision, Lorraine no longer wants to investigate hauntings-especially when later she begins to see visions of Ed's death.

We then jump to the film's main plot, which is the 1977 haunting of the Hodgson residence in Enfield, England. As with the first film, the Enfield haunting does have basis in fact though there is scepticism regarding whether there was a supernatural presence in the house. The England setting provides an interesting contrast with the original film, which focused on a quintessentially American ghost story- the haunting of the Perron family at their farmhouse in Harrisville. 

The Conjuring 2 follows a similar formula to its predecessor as the Warrens are introduced at the beginning and confined to the background while we spend time with the family being haunted. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) is a single mother raising her two daughters Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Billy (Benjamin Haigh), and Johnny (Patrick McAuley). Wan always wants to make the audience feel the experience of actually living in a haunted house- before our protagonists come to save the day. He does the same thing with the original Insidious- where Elise (Lin Shaye) comes in to help the Lambert family. 

It takes a little too long for the Warrens' story to meet up with the Hodgson's. And the whole movie can't help but feel too long in general. In his other horror films Wan uses a loose narrative framework on which to hang his set-pieces- and The Conjuring 2 feels like this approach taken to its logical extreme- in both good and bad ways. Wan doesn't seem interested in making a tight or lean film but The Conjuring 2 still works due to Wan's relish in scaring you. The film is arguably too unrelenting and I don't know how the film will play on re-watch- but it's the rare horror movie which gives too much rather than too little. 

This is also a horror film which demands to be viewed on a theatre screen. Wan uses the frame to great effect and there are several wonderfully staged sequences in this film. One of the best- if not the best- doesn't even include every camera movement or editing. There's a close-up on Ed talking to the spirit of Bill Wilkins behind him (who communicates through Janet but won't speak while everyone is looking). The background is out of focus but we can see the image of Bill as he take over Janet. At first I didn't notice the effect but when I did it added a subtle creepiness of the scene.   

There's another sequence earlier where Wan places the camera at angle so we're in one of the boys' room but can see out in the hallway. Wan loves making us wonder what's in the shadows of a house at night- one of the purest fears we can have. 

Cinematographer Don Burgess (replacing the original film's John R. Leonetti) invokes the feeling of 1970s Northern London. The look of the film is blends stylization and naturalism. His camera-work- including a tracking shot through the Hodgson household- is fluid and unnerving. 

Regarding the performances, Farmiga and Wilson provide warmth to an unsettling story. They make you believe in Ed and Lorraine's bond. In both films are like a light in the darkness. When they arrive at the Hodgson, it does feel that's there finally hope for the family. There's a charming scene where Ed plays the guitar and sings Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love With You." It's a scene which gives the audience and the characters some relief. 

Janet and Lorraine have a conversation where we finally see how Janet is affected by the haunting. It's also the first of two scenes where each of the Warrens recount to Janet how they felt different, unable to open up and put their faith in anyone until they met one another.

I was impressed with Wolfe's performance as Janet. She's no doubt the breakout actor of the film. Wolfe plays Janet with an authentic maturity while retaining a child-like quality. You feel the weight the haunting is taking on her even though her innocence is still intact. I also liked O'Connor's portrayal of a working-class mother, which was sympathetic without overdoing anything. The always reliable character actor Simon McBurney also does fine work as Maurice Grosse, the paranormal investigator who precedes and then assists the Warrens. He has nice scene with Lorraine where he tells her the death of his daughter makes him hope there is some kind of afterlife. It's a lovely scene that adds dimension to the character of Grosse. 

It also underlines Wan's optimistic side. Unsettling as the Conjuring and Insidious films are, Wan believes that good can overcome evil and life can move on after unspeakable horror. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, moving on and being able to heal is an idea that speaks to everyone. And Wan also believes its the family bond that can get us through emotional and physical trauma. This not only applies to the families the Warrens aid but to the Warrens themselves. What I loved most about The Conjuring 2 is it ends not with a jump scare or a sequel tease but with two people in love dancing. Its such a perfect summation of these two films and Wan's horror output these past five years that I feel a Conjuring 3 isn't necessary. But with the world a continuingly dark place, we may need Farmiga and Wilson to continue being that light in the darkness. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Essential Films: "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

The Essential Films: A series of writings on films I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.  

Warning: This essay contains spoilers. 

What's remarkable about John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate- based on Richard Condon's 1959 novel of the same name- is balances being a satire, a thriller, a science fiction "what if" story, a black comedy, a love story, and ultimately a tragedy- sometimes in the same scene. It remains cohesive throughout- never showing its seams and propelling us through to it's devastating climax. George Axelrod adapted Condon's novel and the film's cohesiveness and humanity owes a lot to him. 

The film's plot is outlandish enough to undermine the paranoia regarding communism in America during the 50s (which involved witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy) yet also works as a genuine nightmarish vision of the lengths those in power will go to for ever more control.

The dramatic irony of the film is the two Republican characters who supposedly want to weed communists in America-John ''Johnny'' Iselin (James Gregory) and his wife Eleanor (Angela Lansbury)- are actually part of a communist conspiracy. The liberal Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver)- who is a so called communist- is the most decent political figure in the entire film.

Eleanor's son from another marriage, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is a veteran of the Korean War. In the pre-title sequence Raymond and and the other members of his platoon are captured and taken to Communist China. Two days later the surviving soldiers return to America and credit Raymond with saving them. The platoon's captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) recommends Shaw for the Medal of Honor.  When asked what they think about Shaw, Marco and Corporal Al Melvin (James Edwards), they automatically say "Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life"

Both Marco and Melvin have nightmares about Raymond being brainwashed and killing two of the soldiers. These nightmares are in fact real. Raymond is to kill the presidential nominee for the Republican party. By doing so, Iselin- the vice-presidential candidate- can become President.

The flashback/nightmare sequences are master-classes in understated surreality. The captured soldiers believe they are at a ladies' tea and garden party. As the camera moves 360 degrees we move from the subjective point of view to the objective- the soldiers are in the presence of officials from Korea, China and Russia. The lady speaking is actually Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who demonstrates the power of hypnotism by having Shaw strangle a fellow soldier. In a notable bit of dark comedy, Marco is yawning as Raymond strangles the soldier. The matter-of-fact nature of Marco's yawning makes the act of murder more horrific. We then cut to Marco waking up screaming, which puts an exclamation mark on the scene.

What brought me back to the film- and a big reason why I feel the film lives on so vividly in our minds- is at it's heart The Manchurian Candidate is a tragedy. And like all great tragedies, even when we know the ending we come back, subconsciously hoping the outcome will be different. Sinatra is the star but the film is really about Raymond, a man who's been suffocated by his mother his entire life and hasn't had experienced much true experience. The only time he's been in love is with Jordan's daughter Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish). Raymond and Jocelyn met during the summer before Raymond entered the army. Raymond tells Marco that Jocelyn made him a lovable person. This is one of the great summations of romance I've ever heard in a film. Love can make us better people.

Mrs. Iselin broke up the relationship due to Jordan being a political enemy. Raymond meets Jocelyn again at a party held by the Iselins and they decide to get married. When Jordan tells Mrs. Iselin that he plans to stop the Iselin's political plans Mrs. Iselin hypnotizes Raymond. She sends him to kill Jordan. In the process Raymond also kills Jocelyn.

Marco attempts to undo the programming but Raymond still falls under the hypnosis and goes to assassinate the presidential nominee. But at the moment he's supposed to kill the nominee Raymond resists his programming and kills The Iselins. Marco barges in and Raymond shoots himself in front of Marco. Raymond's chance for happiness died with Jocelyn and one can only sympathize with Raymond's decision to end his life. Harvey is perfect in the role of Shaw. He makes Shaw cold and stern and then slowly shows us the wounded heart at the core of this man. 

Sinatra brings a convincing sense of inner pain to the role of Marco. There's a sense that Marco has seen a lot through the years and he's been worn down by life. What stands out to me on re-watch is that Marco isn't really the hero of the film. He participates in the plot and has his own character arc but his ultimate role is that of a witness to the film's events. . In the last scene Marco reads the citations for the Medal of Honor winners. Marco invents one for Raymond:

"Made to commit acts too unspeakable to be cited here by an enemy who had captured his mind and his soul. He freed himself at last and in the end heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country. Raymond Shaw. Hell! Hell!" 
Marco had said earlier in the film that despite saying how brave and warm Shaw was, deep down he knew he thought Shaw was unlikable and repulsive. But why the film's end Marco has grown to appreciate Shaw as a man and see him as a hero- finally worthy of the Medal of Honor.  Gone is the shallow automatic response to his feelings towards Shaw and in it's absence a profound human one. Marco has gotten a piece of his humanity back. Coming back to the idea of the film as a tragedy, in the final scene Marco reminds me of the character typical in Shakespearean tragedy who comments on the horrible events that have unfolded.

Lansbury- in an Oscar-nominated performance- is brilliant as Mrs. Iselin. The way she shifts from the atypical overbearing mother and condescending wife to a more sinister power-hungry and fanatical political figure is masterful. The scene in which the assassination plot is described displays acting and direction completely in sync. The result in a unforgettable portrayal of political ambition. Mrs. Iselin never planned for Shaw to be the assassin but he was chosen so the Communists would have power over her. But she swears revenge on them. In her own twisted way Mrs. Iselin loves her son. This is punctuated by a concealed kiss on the lips.

I feel John Frankenheimer remains a somewhat underrated director- despite a prolific career. He began a TV director- directing live television episodes of shows such as Playhouse 90 and Climax!- and then made the transition to film with The Young Stranger (1957). He followed that up with two films starring Burt Lancaster, The Young Savages (1961) and  Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)the latter being nominated for 4 Oscars- though Frankenheimer would never receive a Best Director nomination for his work.

Frankenheimer's compositions and camera angles give the film an off-kilter, hallucinatory feeling throughout. Lionel Lindon's stark and rough black & white cinematography underlines the cold and bleak nature of the film. Look at how Frankenheimer shoots the murder of Bobby Lembeck- the platoon's youngest soldier. We see Shaw from Bobby's perspective- a perspective that's indifferent to the violence that's to be afflicted on him.

Lembeck has a innocent smile on his face, making the murder all the more upsetting and unusual.

Frankenheimer  shows us Lembeck's murder with out really showing it- in two succinct shots. A high angle shot has Lembeck falling over in his chair, followed by a shot of blood splatter on a poster of Stalin. The shots move by so fast we don't really see a bullet go through Lumbeck's head. Credit goes to Ferris Webster's Oscar-nominated editing, which creates the distinct pace and feel of the sequence and overall film. Since this is Melvin's dream, we see him wake up screaming- as did Marco earlier. The murder becomes almost impressionistic and Melvin's screams add to the horror.

Another evocatively directed scene is the murder of the Jordans. Shaw comes to the house late at night. Jordan tells Shaw he's happy to welcome him to the family. In the above both Jordan and Shaw are enveloped in shadow, contrasting Jordan's happiness at having a son-in-law and our knowledge of what is to come.

As Shaw pulls out his gun, Frankenheimer doesn't show Raymond's face. He's no longer Jordan's son-in-law- he's his executioner. 

Several shots later we see Raymond in a low angle show. He looms over us, making even more ominous.

The bullet goes through the milk carton Jordan is holding- concealing the violence while also punctuating the act.

Jocelyn races down and is killed by Shaw. After the murders Shaw is in the mid-ground while Jordan and Jocelyn lay dead in the foreground and background, respectively. Frankenheimer uses every part of the frame to great effect. Shaw is almost like a spectre in this shot- just as dead as his two victims.  

This is a film I would love to see on the big screen. It's images are so absorbing that I feel a theatre screen can only magnify the effect

Here are some other images that stand out:

With Mrs. Iselin in the background, she's like a devil on his shoulder. Ultimately  Marco will become an angel of sorts.

The image of Jocelyn as the Red Queen blends the two things that dominate Raymond's psyche: Jocelyn and the game of solitaire that unlocks his programming. It also underlines Shaw's troubled relationships with women.

Mrs. Iselin cares not about who her husband really is...only the image which she can project unto the public.

Now, I need to talk about the film's most unusual sub-plot, that of the relationship between Marco and Rosie Cheney (Janet Leigh). Rosie first meets Marco on a train to New York a Marco attempts to discover the truth about Raymond. They exchange an odd bit of dialogue, which has led some to theorize Rosie is Marco's handler or an agent of some kind. The back and forth between Marco and Rosie comes across as code rather than naturalistic dialogue. Moreover, when Rosie comes to bail Marco out of jail she says she's broken up with her fiance after meeting Marco. Her falling in love with Marco is very sudden- which isn't entirely unique to this film. While one can chalk it up to Marco requiring a love interest, in this movie you have to suspect everything.

Before I wrap things up, I want to focus a little more on the character of John Iselin. He's clearly a stand-in for McCarthy but his wife is the one pulling the strings. However Iselin is still dangerous- as Jordan points out when he's speaking to Mrs. Iselin. Jordan says Iselin is viewed as a fool but he does not. I couldn't help but think of Donald Trump during Jordan's speech.The film uses the figures of the Iselins to comment on McCarthyism. The film says there is evil in America but in the form of those pretending to act in the country's best interests. 

I want to mention another person involved with the film's production. Firstly, David Amram's score that invokes the melancholy and surreal nature of the film. Seco 

The Manchurian Candidate was made in the 60s, set in the 50s- yet remains somewhat out of time- an eerie else-world. Yet it still speaks to its time and ours as well. I appreciate the film now more than I did a decade ago. It's an evocative masterpiece that-akin to the brainwashing done to characters at the centre- imprints itself on our psyches- haunting us more than 50 years on.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Some Thoughts on the R-Rated Cut of Batman v. Superman and Pre-release Backlash

I don't know if there's ever been a film with more pre-release backlash than Zack Snyder's upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (henceforth abbreviated as BvS). The film is the follow-up to Snyder's 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel, a film I believe to be the most controversial and polarizing superhero/comic book based film ever made. The divided reaction to Man of Steel accounts for plenty of the scepticism surrounding BvS, as well as bias towards Marvel Studios' light-hearted output- as opposed to DC and Warner Bros.' more serious fare. Man of Steel struck many as too heavy, visually colourless and violent for a character like Superman. Even with the inclusion of the more acknowledged-as-dark character of Batman, similar criticisms have been directed at BvS; though I feel the film looks brighter in colour and much more "comic-booky."

This week the film became even more controversial with the announcement that there would be an R-rated cut of the film once it hits Blu-ray/DVD. This announcement sent the internet in to a fury. People criticized the announcement of this R-rated cut as a desperate attempt to capitalize on the success of Fox's Deadpool starring Ryan Reynolds, which has become the highest grossing X-Men related film in the franchise's history. Personally I think it's a stretch to suggest that the people behind the film featuring three of the most iconic superheroes- Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman- would feel a desire to chase the coattails of a Deadpool movie, particularly since the R-rated cut is not going to be in theatres.

Moreover Deadpool is financially successful but it's success is relative to it's budget, which is estimated at 58 million. BvS is 200 million. BvS has no reason to look to that film's success; and-again- this R-rated cut is going to be an optional extra on home video.

I think it all comes down to certain peoples' perception of WB and DC being desperate and incompetent, even though they appeared to have finally worked out the kinks in mapping out a plan for cinematic universe. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman is already filming with BvS' Gal Gadot and David Ayer's Suicide Squad- featuring the first big screen appearance of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as well as several other notable DC villains- is coming out this August. 

I understand why many people don't like the idea of Superman and Batman being in a movie that even had an R-rated cut in the first place. These characters were made for children and children today still love these   characters. There's a fine line between being a little more adult and being unnecessarily violent. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (henceforth abbreviated as TDKR) is clearly an influence for Snyder- around the time of The Dark Knight's release back in 2008, Snyder had discussed wanting to film an adaptation of Miller's seminal graphic novel. 

Film critic Bob "MovieBob" Chipman believes TDKR to be an outdated story and that 90s comics, which TDKR anticipated, were a horrible time for the comic book medium- it was a time where stories became darker and grittier, essentially going for a more mature audience. I find that Chipman is against more serious comic-book based films, preferring the tone of Marvel Studios' films. He has labelled BvS "90s Comics: The Movie." I don't personally feel BvS is going to- or attempting to- reflect the 90s era of comic book writing. As with all adaptations of comic book characters, there's a mixing and matching of different eras and influences. TDKR is an influence but BvS is also likely to be it's own entity. And while some feel the entire enterprise is going to be grim and joyless, as evidenced in the trailers, there's going to be humour from Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor and even Batman himself ("I thought she was with you.") Even the subtitle, "Dawn of Justice" implies a sense of hope and heroics. 

I see people on-line jumping to conclusions and believe Superman is going to be brutally murdering people in this film; they even that the whole movie is going to be a gory bloodbath. Snyder has directed a hard R-rated superhero film before- 2009's Watchmen- but since BvS is being released as PG-13, whatever R-rated content may be minimal. There's been speculation the R-rating may involve a flashback involving Jared Leto's the Joker (who's set to appear in Suicide Squad) murdering Jason Todd, the second Robin- similar to how Joker killed him in the comics. I do believe any R-rated footage will most likely involve Batman. This isn't to say Batman is going to be straight-up murdering people- but there may be a little more blood in the R-rated cut involving his scenes with criminals. And we have to remember this is a Batman who's been at it for 20 some years. He's become more brutal towards criminals. Superman may be the one who ultimately brings him back from and the edge. 

BvS may not be aimed directly at children but I sincerely believe it's characters will still be heroes, still be people kids can look up. The R-rated cut will be for older audiences who want to see a different version. Whether the R-rated cut becomes the "definitive" version as with the longer cuts of Watchmen or other films, won't be answered for quite some time. 

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?