Friday, 21 December 2012

To Dungeons Deep and Caverns Old: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Full disclosure: Until a few weeks ago I had never actually read J.R.R Tolkien's classic novel The Hobbit. I know, pretty shameful, right. Then again, I didn't read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books until the movies were coming out either, so I shouldn't be too surprised I didn't read this novel sooner. After reading the novel, I was excited to see the events of the novel on screen. Unfortunately, like everyone else, I had to be prepared only to see part of the story on screen. Director Peter Jackson, who is returning to Middle Earth more than 10 years after directing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, decided to expand The Hobbit in to three movies, making it a companion trilogy to The Lord of the Rings. Originally, when Guillermo Del Toro was going to direct, and even when Jackson took the director's seat, it was going to be a two parter but then in September, it was announced that extra footage would be shot in order to make a third film. The three films would incorparate events and information from Tolkien's appendices, written after The Hobbit, in order to increase the scale of the film, as well as tie the story in to the events from The Lord of the Rings.

Now, when it was announced that The Hobbit would be three films, I, like many other people, was disappointed and confused about the purpose behind expanding a slim book like The Hobbit into three films. It felt unnecessary and a little too indulgent, almost like Jackson was trying too hard to make this in to an event like The Lord of the Rings, which is a pretty big risk since you're inviting comparisons to an iconic and history making series of films, which you yourself directed. The Hobbit, while it does have a few epic battles, is a much smaller scale story than The Lord of the Rings, and I don't think that a film version could ever compare to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, even with Jackson at the helm.

Having finally seen the first film in this new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I'm still sceptical of the expansion of the novel. But I'm also more of two minds about it then I was before. On one hand, Tolkien's novel is very episodic, and if  adapted too literally in to one movie, events could end up being rushed and the film could feel like it was just bouncing from one unrelated event to the next. The extra material, taken mostly from Tolkien's appendices, helps give the story a more traditional flow, as well as tie it in to the larger mythology of  Middle-earth. On the other hand, the structure of this first film does suffer from having to create a three act structure around only six chapters of the novel, as well as trying to incorporate larger mythological exposition that relates to the return of the evil Sauron, the villain of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. And at nearly three hours, one can't help walking out of the theatre wishing the film could've been tightened up, or at least covered more ground from the actual novel.

Critic Joanna Robinson said she felt Jackson was underestimating the power of the source material and the beauty of its simplicity by expanding upon it. I see what see means, and somewhat agree with her. At the same time, I think Jackson, when faced with the task of going back and telling the backstory of Bilbo Baggins, had a dilemma on his hands. As wonderful as the source material is, going back and adapting it after tackling The Lord of the Rings is somewhat ant-climatic. While I don't doubt Jackson respects the source material, he probably felt that if he was going to adapt The Hobbit he'd need to expand upon it in order for it not to appear too small scale next to his original trilogy.

People have already made comparisons to George Lucas and the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace. It's an understandable comparison but at the same time feels a little forced, almost as if people want to hate Jackson and make him in to the bad guy- everything he's doing is wrong, he raped my childhood, etc. While I'm not saying you can't criticize Jackson's decisions, I don't think making him in to a villain who has ruined The Hobbit and by default his prior trilogy is the right way to go about things. As a director he has to make difficult decisions, as well as follow his own heart, even if things don't turn out perfectly.

Now, I realized I've been meandering and going back and forth without coming down firmly on what I actually thought about the film. Well, if you've stayed with me until now I can say that I enjoyed The Hobbit and felt that, while it does have structure problems due to being only one part of a larger story, it works due to a endearing central performance, and a solid sense of pace even at nearly three hours. The climatic action scenes are wonderfully staged and a return appearance by a fan favourite character makes for one of my favourite scenes of the year as well as one of my favourite scenes of the four Jackson-directed Tolkien films.

The film begins with a prologue narrated by the Hobbit of the film's title, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, reprising his role from the original trilogy), who plans to write down the story of his adventures for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). This is on the very day that The Fellowship of the Ring begins. He tells of the destruction of the Dwarf kingdom by the dragon Smaug, who steals their gold. The Dwarf king's grandson Thorin (Richard Armitage) and a band of Dwarves seek to retrieve the gold from Smaug. This is where the younger Bilbo comes in. The wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, also reprising his role) has the band of Dwarves meet him and Bilbo at Bilbo's home one evening where Bilbo is recruited by the Dwarves to be their "burglar." Due to his ancestry, Gandalf believes Biblo is the right man, er, Hobbit for the job. Biblo is at first very reluctant, since Hobbits are peaceful, care free creatures who don't go on adventures. Nevertheless, in the morning Biblo decides to go along on the journey with the Dwarves and Gandalf.

Martin Freeman plays the young Bilbo and as I mentioned earlier, he gives a really endearing performance. He strikes a nice balance between capturing the spirit of Holm's performance from The Fellowship of the Ring while still bringing his own sense of personality to the role. Freeman makes us wish he were our uncle, someone afraid of the larger world yet still itching to experience it. The appeal of the novel, of breaking out of your normal day-to-day and life and going on an adventure is encapsulated in the scene when Bilbo runs to catch up  with Gandalf and the Dwarves, replying to another Hobbit that he's "going on an adventure"- the joy of this scene and Freeman's performance is very touching.

McKellen, of course, was born to play the role of Gandalf, and as he did in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, gives Gandalf a combination of gravitas as well as whimsy and mischievousness. The film does have one problem that stems from the book, which is that on several occasions Gandalf disappears for a while only to reappear just in time to save Bilbo and the Dwarves. Gandalf's disappearances and reappearances wouldn't be as problematic if they were only limited to one, or if they had stronger thematic ties to the story, such as when Gandalf reappeared as Gandalf the White in The Two Towers.

Richard Armitage also does fine work as Thorin, the most developed of all the Dwarf characters. There's a scene late at night where one of the Dwarves recounts a battle between the orcs and the Dwarves, where Thorin cut off the arm of Azog, an Orc War chief. The Dwarf says that during this battle he realized Thorin was a Dwarf he could call king. it's a testament to Armitage's screen presence that we also believe Thorin could be King. On another note about Dwarves, on screen, it's harder to have all these Dwarves walking around then it was for Tolkien to just write that there are 13 Dwarves on the journey. It would've been nice to get more character development for some of them but I assume this series will mostly focus on Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin.
Seeing Gollum (Andy Serkis) again was a real treat. Andy Serkis, with the aid of motion capture technology, once again makes Gollum a fully realized dramatic character, tragic yet funny, disgusting yet adorable. The "Riddles in the Dark" chapter from the novel, where Bilbo discovers and takes Gollum's ring, which is actually the One Ring of power, forged by Sauron in order to rule Middle-earth, was one of the best parts of the novel, and so it goes for the film as well.  Bilbo and Gollum play a game of riddles that will either end with Gollum leading Bilbo out of a cave or eating him whole. The scene is both suspenseful and hilarious. There's also a very moving moment where Bilbo, who is invisible due to wearing the ring, has the oppurtunity to kill Gollum but doesn't. It brings to mind the moment from The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf tells Frodo that it was out of pity that Bilbo didn't kill Gollum.

The added material, specifically the scenes with Gandalf and the White Council, which features more returning characters and cast members, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Sauruman (Christopher Lee), ties in to the overall mythology of Middle-earth, Sauron and the One Ring of power. The wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) gives Gandalf information that hints at the possible return of Sauron, which we all know will happen, as well as that Bilbo's finding of the Ring ties in to the fate of Middle Earth. This material does give the film an assertive yet subtle foreshadowing of the epic battle that is to come in 60 years, which is pretty cool, but it also seems beside the point of the main thrust of the story. I do hope that as the films progress, the extra material concerning the future of Middle-earth and the main adventure of the novel are more intertwined thematically.

Coming back to the Star Wars comparisons, once the six films were complete, it became clearer than ever that this was the story of a father and son, the father's fall from grace and his redemption through his son. In Jackson's mind, it seems that he sees the story of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partly as a story about an uncle and nephew, two Hobbits who find themselves shaken out of their normal routines and see their lives tied in to the fate of Middle-earth. I'm willing to go with whatever vision Jackson has for this story, even if the films become too bloated. I think that the finished product will work better than any of the stand alone films. Not that you can't judge this film on its own merits, but that you ultimately have to be patient, particularly in this era where franchises are very serialized in terms of their storytelling. I feel The Hobbit Trilogy will ultimately have a better reputation than the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy and will honour and compliment The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I'm excited to see the next chapter in this trilogy, particularly with that great final shot- pure evil, waking up. So, if you're a fan of this world, go see this film, be open minded, and I think you'll have an enjoyable time.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Trailer Talk: "Star Trek Into Darkness"

A new trailer arrived last week for Star Trek Into Darkness, director JJ Abrams' sequel to his 2009 Star Trek reboot. It's been a while since  first film so it's nice that we're finally getting some footage to dissect. As many know, Benedict Cumberbatch, BBC's Sherlock Holmes, is playing the film's villain. There's been a lot of speculation about who the villain in the film actually is. This trailer still doesn't reveal this information, so the guessing amongst fans continues. Some believe Khan to be the villain, the genetically enhanced superman played memorably by Ricardo Montalban in the original series episode "Space Seed," as well as what's considered the greatest of all Trek films, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  I personally don't believe he's Khan. This is because, while the new series is taking place is an alternate timeline, the altered timeline still takes place within the established Trek universe, where Khan was written as an Indian Sikh. His race probably wouldn't be different due to the events of the altered timeline from the first film. From the set pictures and trailers, Cumberbatch doesn't have any makeup that would designate him as an Indian Sikh.

Another popular guess for who the villain is, is Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell, a character who appeared in the original series episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Mitchell was a friend of Captain James T. Kirk's and helmsman of the Enterprise, who, after an accident, gains god like powers that make him a threat to the Enterpise and the universe. While Mitchell only appeared in one episode,  I think the character could work for a feature length film. The trailer, as well as the above poster, showcases Cumberbatch as a one man destructive force, which would be line with Mitchell's powers. Mitchell would also be a more interesting and somewhat obscure selection for the villain than Khan, who, while definitive, would be too safe a choice.  Fans have also mentioned that Alice Eve, another new addition to the cast, has a strikingly similar hairdo to Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, a character who also appeared in 'Where No Man Has Gone Before." She along with Mitchell, also gained god like powers. While at first she was as power hungry as Mitchell, Kirk was able to convince her to help him defeat Mitchell. Could we be looking at a battle royale between two god like forces in this film? Now that could provide some exciting action scenes.

I enjoyed the hell out of Abrams Star Trek back in 2009. In preparation for that film I went back and started to watch the original Star Trek series from the 1960s. When I finally the film, it was a real pleasure and a thrill to see the original Trek characters reimagined for a new generation. Looking back, the film probably leaned a little bit too much towards the action blockbuster route, without much of the interesting and philosophical conversations and allegorical story elements that have a been a defining trait of the Trek mythology. I hope that in Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams explores more of how this world relates to ours as well as having those philosophical debates that will show the different points of view from Kirk, Spock and Bones' perspectives. The idea of having god like powers and whether any man or woman should have these kinds of powers, could provide some great brain food to go along with the action.

Like most teaser trailers, this teaser is more about setting the mood then giving away the entire plot, which is does quite well, with Cumberbatch's voice over telling everyone to enjoy peace while it lasts because he's coming back for vengeance. We get the sense that Cumberbatch is going to hit Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew very hard. I really love when movie villains bring hell down on the heroes, taking their established world and destroying it, like the Joker and Bane in Christopher Nolan's Batman films or Javier Bardem's Silva in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. And of course, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) in next year's Iron Man 3.  I am worried though, that revenge being the Cumberbatch's character's motivation isn't that compelling, particularly since revenge was Nero's (Eric Bana) motivation in the first film. I would hope there's something more three dimensional and unique about this guy then just being vengeful. I do love that final bit where Cumberbatch is in the captain's chair on the Enterprise, with he and Kirk just looking at each other, Cumberbatch basically saying, without words, "Yeah, this is my chair now, what are you going to do about it?"

The final moments of the Japanese trailer also shows what is very clearly an homage to Spock's famous "death" scene from The Wrath of Khan, with Spock's (Zachary Quinto) hand behind glass, with what appears to be Cumberbatch's hand pressing against it on the other side. Does this hint at some personal connection between the two. If Cumberbatch is Mitchell, then it'd make sense. So, I'm looking forward to seeing these characters again as well as what Cumberbatch will bring to the villain role. This is probably just behind Man of Steel as being my most anticipated of 2013's blockbusters. Again, I hope there's some depth to go along with the action, especially since the original did focus on making us care about these characters. And I hope, even with Gary Mitchell, that this sequel goes where no other Star Trek film has gone...before.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Noirvember: Even Criminals Have Dreams, or: The Maltese MacGuffin: An Essay on John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon"

Alfred Hitchcock once gave a lecture where he described the term MacGuffin: [W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." Later, in an interview with the director Francois Trauffaut, he illustrated the concept of the MacGuffin with a story:

"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers, "Oh, that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all."

Basically, a MacGuffin is what drives a story forward, something that everyone wants- but doesn't really matter what that is. The most famous MacGuffin, I would argue, is the Maltese Falcon, the object at the heart of John Huston's 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon. A jewel encrusted statue of a falcon, it was made by the Knight Templars of Malta to pay tribute to Charles V of Spain, but on its voyage across sea, pirates stole it, and, like Mr. Burns' teddy bear, it has travelled around the world for more than 300 years. Private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets caught up with the criminals looking for it, headed by Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). What's great about the Maltese Falcon, the object I mean, is that it transcends the usual definition of the MacGuffin, something arbritrary, and becomes important in defining the psychology of the villains of the film, particularly Gutman. The Falcon is part of the film's thematic concerns with obsession, history repeating itself, as well as fate, since it was made before any of the characters in this film were born, setting in motion of the events of the film. The idea of fate and of people being doomed from the outset is integral to the film noir universe.

The film, while shown through the perspective of Sam Spade, is at its heart the quietly tragic tale of a man obsessed with finding the Falcon, chasing a dream that's always just of out reach. As the title of this essay suggests, even criminals have dreams. Gutman tells Spade how he almost had the Falcon when a Greek dealer discovered it in a shop in 1923. Gutman went to find this dealer, only to discover he had been murdered and the Falcon stolen. "If I'd only known a few days sooner," Gutman sighs, and you can feel his disappointment and regret. For anyone who's almost had something that was still out of reach, even if it was something small, this is a painfully resonant moment.

At the end of the film, Gutman finally gets the Falcon, after it comes in by ship, but it turns out to be fake. At first he's speechless, and even more stressed out by his associate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) calling him a stupid fat idiot and crying. Gutman then tells Cairo there's no point in calling each other names and being upset. They continue on their journey in surprisingly high spirits. While re-watching the film, it struck me that maybe the chase is more rewarding than the actual prize, even if Gutman doesn't realize it. What would he do with the rest of his life if he found it? History repeats itself, with Gutman and Cairo continuing to pursue the Falcon, possibly running in to another Spade like figure. That may be Gutman's ultimate fate, in search of something he'll never have.

But for Brigid O'Shaughnessy, (Mary Astor) the hunt for the Falcon leads her to prison. Sam discovers that she killed his partner Miles Archer and decides to hand her over to the police. How we view Brigid is a complicated matter. Do we sympathize with her or are we annoyed and disgusted at her constant lying?  I feel it's a little bit of both. Sam is pretty ruthless in sending her over, telling her if she gets out in 20 years he'll be waiting and if she's hung, he'll always remember her. Any dreams she had of a better life, a life with Sam maybe, are down the drain. At the same time, Brigid's constant lies are pretty exhausting and she could've come clean earlier, or, here's a thought, not killed Miles at all. There was no real reason for her to kill him, except for trying to fram her accomplice Floyd Thursby. Sam also makes a good point when he says if he lets Brigid slide, she'll have stuff on him she'll be able to use whenever she wishes, and vice versa, which may lead to her killing Sam. That's not exactly a healthy relationship. Ultimately, the situation is tragic for both of them, since, as Sam says, maybe they do love each other. Sam watches as Brigid is taken by the police in to an elevator, creating a metaphoric image of her behind bars.

The villain I sympahize most with in the film is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), Gutman's gun man. He's just a kid and when Sam is trying to set him up as a fall guy, you see that Wilmer is on the verge of crying. I find myself actually wanting Wilmer to knock Sam out. I think this is because if I was Wilmer, I'd be in the same situation, being patronized and bullied by someone like Sam. Sam is kind of a bully in this film, whether it'd be "riding" Wilmer or beating up Cairo due to his "effiminate" nature. Spade also doesn't seem to care that his partner got murdered, kissing his widow the first chance he gets. In many ways, Sam is the least sympathethic character in the whole film.Though at the end of the film, he does show some nobility by saying that he even though he didn't like Miles, he was his partner and he deserves justice. Ultimately, Sam, while maybe not always the nicest guy, does remind of he is the hero of the film, even though he's an anti-hero.    

This was director John Huston's first film, and what impresses me most about the film is how Huston composes his shots, allowing us to see multiple actors in a single frame and seeing their body language. While the film's visual style is subtle, it's also quite dynamic. In the first scene, we Spade and Miles over Brigid's shoulder, highlighting them as an audience for Brigid's vulnerable girl act, which they like, even though they don't know Brigid's act hides darker intentions. Cairo's introduction is jarring, in a good way, when he's immediately standing over Spade's desk after Spade's secretary calls him in. It's startling and unnerving, showing how far down the rabbit role Spade is actually going.

The climax of the film, which is mostly exposition, and taking place in Spade's apartment, is a feat of staging as well as acting. Greenstreet is marvelous at delivering exposition while giving a sense of Gutman's personality. Huston also knows how to effectively isolate his actors in different parts of the frame. They're an audience for each other.  

The Maltese Falcon, like all film noirs, is very stylized, in its look and dialouge, and like those film noirs, reveals more depth on closer inspection. It's about the moral choices that define our futures, but also about how no choice is completely moral.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Licence to Kill"

On the commentary for The Living Daylights, director John Glen says the film was tailored to fit the new James Bond, Timothy Dalton's strengths. Still, it's easy to see The Living Daylights as a transition film for the series as it moved from the more comedic Roger Moore outings to Dalton's hard edged portrayal. With Dalton's next film, Licence to Kill, the series would go darker and more violent then ever before, a big risk since the series has always been a little more kid friendly. I really like this film, and as I mentioned in the previous review, rewatching both of Dalton's films reminded me how passionate, romantic and urgent they are. You really get involved in the character and they have a strong emotional centres.  There's some solid storytelling in both of them and they feel like genuine updates of Ian Fleming's novels.

The film takes a different approach to the usual Bond movie plot. The film begins with Bond and his CIA friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison) heading to Felix's wedding when Felix's colleagues in the DEA call him in to help capture drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who has appeared in Miami. Bond comes along and in one of those great practical Bond movie stunts, Bond, while in a helicoptor, attaches a hook to Sanchez's plane and pulls it out of the air. Bond and Felix then parachute down to Felix's wedding, leading in to the title sequence. Sanchez bribes DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill) who helps Sanchez escape. Sanchez has Felix's wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) murdered and feeds Felix to a shark, who bites off his leg. Felix is kept alive and Bond swears revenge, to which M (Robert Brown) revokes his licence to kill, an earth shattering moments in the franchise. Bond then escapes from M and continues his quest.

What makes the plot so engaging is that this is one of the rare Bond films where Bond truly hates the villain. While the world isn't at risk this time, the fact the mission is personal for Bond, risking his career and his life for his friend, makes the stakes feel even bigger than saving the world. You really feel sympathy towards Felix, especially when we realize that, like Bond, he too has lost his wife on his wedding day. Felix even mentions that Bond was married to Della when Bond is uncomfortable when Della teases Bond about getting married one day. It's always nice when Bond's marriage is mentioned in the series. It reminds us of how tragic a character Bond is-one of the only times he's made himself vulnerable to a woman, she's taken away from him. He can never truly escape from his profession and have a normal life. Fleming's vision of Bond was a man who could have his heart broken, and we believe Dalton is that Bond.

In an interesting twist, Bond infiltrates Sanchez's operation and makes Sanchez view him as an ally. In a variation on Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Bond makes Sanchez suspicious of the people in his organization, resulting in a pretty brutal sequence involving Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), who Bond frames for stealing Sanchez's money. It makes what Blofeld did to his minions look like mild spankings. The film's brutality, while it can occasionally seem gratutious, but at the same time, I've seen more violent films. Moreover, I admire the Bond franchise for actually making the violence sting and cringe-worthy. You really feel the deaths of the characters, even the villainous ones. It also suits the type of world Bond is entering, where drug lords like Sanchez are incredibly sadisitic. Davi is strong here and he doesn't have to work too hard to be believable as a drug lord. He does a fine job making Sanchez both terrifying and also charismatic at the same time, making us believe Sanchez could have this type of power.

Bond is joined on his mission by a CIA pilot named Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). Pam is one of the more tough as nails Bond women in the series- and while Lowell occasionally over does it with the toughness, she meshes well with Dalton's performance. A love triangle forms between Bond, Pam and Lupe (Talisa Soto), Sanchez's girlfriend. I believe this is the only legitimate love triangle in a Bond film, where Bond forms an actual romantic relationship with two women. While it's obvious that Bond will end up with Pam by the end of the film, it adds some texture to the story- as well as Pam's character when she becomes jealous of Lupe. Thankfully, the script makes Pam's jealously feel in character so it doesn't result in a pathethic version of the character.

Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets an expanded role in this film when Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) calls him in to help Bond. Llewelyn's performance is always a highlight and I like that Q's expanded role make sense in the context of the film-it doesn't feel forced, and there's a little more warmth between Bond and Q due to Dalton's performance. Dalton's "You're a hell of a field agent" shows how much Bond admires Q. On the other hand, Wayne Newton's cameo as a corrupt televangelist Professor Joe Butcher working for Sanchez, while humorous, feels like it belongs in a Roger Moore Bond film. It's a little too cheeky-clashing with the gritty nature of the rest of the film.

The finale of the film, involving tankers full of cocaine, is excellently staged- director John Glen establishes a pretty clear sense of geography and Dalton, while 45, was still an able physical performer. The final confrontation between Bond and Sanchez, where Bond lights Sanchez on fire with the leiter given to him by Felix, is a great emotional payoff to the film. Sanchez tells Bond that he could've had everything, to which Bond asks him if he wants to know why-finally showing him the leiter. Usually the Bond villain knows why Bond is trying to stop him. Here, it's only when the villain loses everything he finally knows why-it was out of friendship and love.

Unfortunately, this would be Dalton's final film as James Bond-due to the next Bond film being delayed so long that Dalton eventually bowed out. Licence to Kill wasn't a huge box office hit, which I think was due to a combination of audiences not warming to Dalton's portrayal or the gritty nature of the film, as well as Licence to Kill coming out during the summer when Tim Burton's Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming out. In retrospective, Licence to Kill is a really involving revenge action thriller that showed the lengths Bond would go to to help a friend. Up until Daniel Craig, Dalton felt the most believable as a rouge agent out for revenge. Six years later, the series would return with a film that's close to my heart, what I think is the Bond film of my generation. James Bond will return in: GoldenEye.

Friday, 9 November 2012

50 Years of Bond: "The Living Daylights"

The idea of a classically trained, Shakespearean actor taking on the role of an action hero sounds like the makings of an SNL sketch rather than an actual reality. But that's what happened when actor Timothy Dalton took on the role of James Bond after Roger Moore finally left the role he had played for seven films over 12 years, his final film being 1985's A View To a Kill. Dalton had been approached by Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli back in 1968 when Sean Connery had first retired from the role and Broccoli was looking for a new 007. Dalton, who was 24 at the time, thought he was too young and declined the offer. Dalton was approached several times during Moore's tenor, including after when Moore finally retired. Dalton had committed to another project at the time. Producers turned to Pierce Brosnan, who was eventually locked in to play Bond. Remington Steele, the TV show on which Brosnan was appearing at the time, had been been cancelled, leaving Brosnan free to play the role. At the end of the fourth season, NBC decided not to cancel the show. Even though NBC was willing to alter Brosnan''s schedule in order for him to play Bond, Broccoli reportedly did not want Brosnan playing both roles at the same time. NBC had a 60 day deadline in which to decide whether to renew the show or not. On the 60th day, they made the decision to renew it. In an ironic twist of fate, the delay on the new Bond film eventually became allowed Dalton to finish his work on the film Brenda Starr and then begin filming the Bond film, which was The Living Daylights.

Rewatching both this film and Dalton's subsequent, and final Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989), reminded me of what I love about the two Dalton Bond films, which is that they're two of the most emotionally resonant and character driven of the Bond series. It's been said that in preparation for the role, Dalton went back and read the original Ian Fleming novels in order to stay true to Fleming's original vision. The Living Daylights, despite featuring the trademark stunts and gadgets of the Bond films, is one of the rare entries in the series, along with From Russia With Love (1963) and Casino Royale (2006), that feels like an authentic spy thriller. It has the double crosses and black  and dagger intrigue that reminds us of what world James Bond was inhabiting at the time. Dalton also feels more human than Moore did in many of his films. From the first shot of Dalton in the film, watching a fellow 00 agent fall to his death via a Russian agent during what's supposed to be a routine training exercise, his eyes squinted, his jaw hardened, you know this is a more hard edged Bond. Dalton is almost like a proto-type Daniel Craig in that, like Craig, he's not as obviously suave or sophisticated as we imagine Bond to be but if you're willing to go with the interpretation of the character, Dalton provides a fascinatingly vulnerable and grounded portrait of the character. Moreover, Dalton's one of the strongest actors to play the part. I would say that, up until this point, Dalton was the best Bond since Sean Connery.

The plot revolves around the supposed defection of Russian General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), who Bond protects from a sniper, Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo), a cellist from the concert hall from which Koskov is sneaking out. Bond deliberately misses her, angering Saunders (Thomas Wheatley), the MI6 agent heading the mission. Bond gets Koskov out of the country. Koskov tells the British that the reason he defected was because General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), the head of the KGB, is ordering the murder of American and British agents. Koskov is later snatched back by the KGB at the MI6 safe house. In fact, the defection and the kidnapping are all part of a ruse by Koskov to have the British kill Pushkin because he discovered Koskov was embezzaling Russian funds as part of an arms deal operation involving arms dealer General Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker).

The plot is somewhat convoluted but I admire thaat the film takes its time to establish all the pieces of the plot and how everything clicks together. I also like realistic nature of the plot. No one's trying to conquer the world- it's essentially about corrupt military officials. What also makes the plot work is the emotional centre of the film, which is the relationship between Bond and Kara, who is actually Koskov's girlfriend, hire by Koskov to pose as a sniper. Bond pretends to be Koskov's friend so Kara will help Bond find him. Their relationship is actually quite touching, which is due to the contrast between the rough around the edges, devilishly handsome Bond, and the more innocent, angelic and free-spirited Kara, who begins to warm Bond's heart, even as she occasionally annoys him with things like having them go back for her cello when the KGB are after them. This brings me to an interesting characteristic of of the Dalton Bond, which is while he still has a thing for the ladies, he's not ready to jump in to bed with Kara the moment he meets her. Dalton's Bond is a harder nut to crack in many ways, in terms of his sexual appetite, which makes the relationship between him and Kara feel more authentic. It's not just a fling but something that is developing over time. And by the end of the film, you feel Bond and Kara could actually have a real relationship outside the events of the film.

Kara is also one of the more complex Bond women in the series history. Kara loves Georgi, and tells Bond she owes him everything, including her career. At the same time, she's falling in love with Bond, a man she eventually learns was hired to kill to kill her but chose not to. D'Abo is quite lovely in the role, both innocent and naive but still assertive and occasionally funny. You actually care about her fate and the ending of the film gives her a real happy ending. I think Koskov is an effective villain because he's not megalomanical.  Rather, he's a more down to earth, weaselly and smug type of villain, the type of guy you want to be taken down because he resembles something more authentically real world villain, a corrupt official. Don Baker, who would star as a Bond ally in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, GoldenEye (1995)and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), combines jovilaity and cold-bloodedness in his portrayal of Whitaker, making him a surprisingly intimidating foe.

One of my favourite parts in the film is the reunion between Bond and Saunders, where Bond asks Saunders to help him find information on Kara's cello. At first Saunders is reluctant, due to the red tape he'd have to cut through, but he eventually helps Bond out. Later on when Saunders gives Bond a lead on the cello, Bond tells Saunders thanks, to which Saunders gives him a slight smile. As Saunders leaves the cafe he and Bond are sitting in, he's killed by an explosion set by Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), of one Koskov's henchmen. I find this scene quite powerful because while Bond and Saunders really didn't like each other at the beginning of the film, Bond saying thanks is also him saying "You're okay." Their brief exchange implies Bond and Saunders had put their differences behind them and could become really good allies and maybe even friends down the line. With Saunders dead, that partnership can never happen. 

The film is an interesting time capsule in that Bond teams up with the Mujahideen, the Afghan resistance to the Pro- Soviet Afghanistan, and their leader Kamran Shaw (Art Malik), in order to defeat Koskov. The real life conflict in Afghanistan at the time becomes the backdrop for the climax of the film, a fight in the desert between the Mujahideen and the Russians. The highlight of this sequence is probably when Bond plants a bomb on a plane full of opium that Koskov is going to sell-Bond then has to fly the plane away during an attack. There's a terrific fight between Bond and Necros on a net outside the plane and when Bond finally gets back in the plane, he forgets for a moment there's a bomb in the plane. The Necros fight, as well as the bomb on the plane is a great way of creating overlapping suspense, and it's a very human moment when Bond forgets there's a bomb on board.

The Living Daylights may not be everyone's ideal Bond-nor Dalton everyone's ideal Bond. Personally, I really love this film. Romantic, adventurous, intense, funny and smart, this for me is an excellent Bond film and I wish  Dalton had the oppurtunity to take on the role earlier and made a few more films. He would play Bond only once more-in what I think is probably the darkest and most violent Bond film to date. James Bond will return in: Licence to Kill.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Six Possible Directors For "Star Wars: Episode VII"

Yesterday, it was announced that Disney had bought Lucasfilm, thus ow ning the rights to Star Wars and planning to release a new Star Wars film in 2015. With Star Wars: Episode VII in the works, and with George Lucas being a creative consultant on the film, one of big questions that looms heavy is who will take the director's chair. Most of the Star Wars films have been directed by Lucas, but with The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kershner, usually considered the best of the Star Wars films, a different director is just what the Star Wars series needs to create something fresh and exciting. Here are some directors who could be a good fit to take us back to that galaxy far far away

1. Duncan Jones
With Moon and Source Code, Jones provided audiences with two of the smartest and intricate sci-fi films of recent memory-as well as providing both with a strong emotional core to go along with the mind bending twists. With an even larger canvas to paint on, Jones could create his first real epic science-fiction film, as well as possibly providing some twists to the narrative that made his first two films fascinating to watch. Jones is also very good with creating characters that we sympathize with, due to the fact they're often confused about the situations they are in. One of the problems of the prequel trilogy was how unnatural a lot of the dialogue and performances were. Jones directed one of Sam Rockwell's best performances in Moon, and also did fine work with Jake Gyllenhall in Source Code. Jones would likely get strong performances from his actors that would make us care about them as well as believe they exist as human beings, just in another galaxy.

2. Rian Johnson
Like Jones, Johnson created a smart and intricate, thematically and plotwise, sci fi film with this year's Looper. And like Jones-he's mostly worked with a lower budget, creating smaller scale films that play around with genre conventions like Brick and The Brothers Bloom. With Star Wars, he'd be working on the largest scale imaginable. With Brick, he handled the film noir inspired dialogue very well, and if there's any Han Solo or gangster like characters, Johnson could have fun infusing it with that same type of sharp and funny dialogue. Looper also effectively dealt with the criminal underworld, so it'd be exciting to see what Johnson would do with the underbelly of the Star Wars univers And of course, if Johnson did end up directing the film, it's likely he'd find a part for friend and frequent collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt- and who wouldn't want to see Levitt as a Jedi knight or a Han Solo-inspired smuggler?

3. Alfonso Cuaron

 Cuaron made what I consider the best of the Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. What was great about Cuaron coming in for the third film of the Harry Potter series was that he brought a real personal touch to the series, providing a lot of visual invention that complimented J.K. Rowling's already complete creation. He also directed the bleak and gritty Children of Men, proving that he can also handle science fiction as well, albeit a more understated type of science fiction. Cuaron is also directing another sci fi film, Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded in space, so he'll have plenty of experience with the genre by the time the new Star Wars goes in to production. His Harry Potter film had a great blend of darkness with a touch of whimsy and magic, and with Children of Men, he combined grittiness and intense action. The Star Wars series has featured all these qualities, and if there's a Luke Skywalker-esque coming of age story, his work on Harry Potter and Y Tu Mama Tambien, is also a benefit to the film.

4. Brad Bird


With Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Bird made a surprisingly inventive, visually spectacular and quite fun film, which was quite a feat considering it was the fourth film in the franchise, as well as Bird's first live action film. Bird is best known for his animated films, The Iron Giant, as well as the two films he helmed for Pixar, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Since Bird was able to inject some new lifeforce in to the Mission Impossible franchise, he could do the same for what will be the seventh Star Wars film, eight if you count Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Bird has worked for Pixar, so he already has a connection with Disney. It wouldn't be too much of a surprise if execs at Disney were already considering him. Star Wars is great for combining intense action with a lightness of touch and a certain charm, which helped make The Incredibles and Ghost Protocol so entertaining. Both films also emphasized the idea of teamwork, with The Incredibles being all about a family work together and growing closer as a result. What was great about the original Star Wars trilogy was it featured characters who couldn't be any more different from each other, a farmboy, a princess, a space pirate and his furry companion, and two droids, working through their differences to save the galaxy and becoming a family. If the new Star Wars films feature this same kind of dynamic, Bird could make it both very entertaining as well as emotionally resonant.

5. Edgar Wright

Wright, as evident in his last film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, is a strong and inventive visual stylist and nearly every frame of that film was filled with energy. And with Shaun of Dead and Hot Fuzz, he gets what makes genre films great while at the same time poking fun at them. If Wright did direct a Star Wars film, it'd be great to see him self-consciously both reference and poke fun at some of the previous films, without going too far in to parody. He was able to handle a large cast of characters in Scott Pilgrim, which will be an advantage if the new Star Wars deals with a lot of diverse characters. His handling of the relationships between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz also gave those films a lot of heart, and the original Star Wars films, particulalry The Empire Strikes Back, benefited from the strong relationships between the characters. And the idea of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost appearing in a Star Wars film is very funny. The only problem is Wright will be probably be too buy with Ant-Man, unless Star Wars gets pushed back, which is a possibility, then Wright could be free to do it.

And an even bigger longshot....

6. Joss Whedon

Every one would just nerdgasm if this happened. Since Disney also owns Marvel, like Bird, Whedon already has a relationship with Disney, if you can cal it that. Unless Star Wars is delayed, he won't be directing the first of the new Star Wars films, what with him directing the next Avengers film. Still, with The Avengers, Whedon showed that he could handle big scale action while still incorporating a personal style that really felt like it understood and was passionate about the material. Whedon also knows how to work team dynamics, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers. As I mentioned earlier, if the new Star Wars has the same team dynamic as the original trilogy, someone like Bird or Whedon could make it work.    

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

50 Years of Bond: "For Your Eyes Only"

Despite the massive success of Moonraker-it was at the time the highrst grossing Bond film- the Bond producers decided that after taking Bond to space there wasn't really any farther you could go, so they brought Bond back to Earth, both literally and figuratively, stripping away some of the more fantastic elements of the franchise and crafting a more hard-edged and straight forward spy thriller- which would be For Your Eyes Only. I remember watching this year not long after I had seen Casino Royale, and after watching that film, For Your Eyes Only's down to earth approach really appealed to me, and it became my favourite Roger Moore Bond film. After the recent rewatch of The Spy Who Loved Me, that film may be my favourite Moore film, but this film still ranks pretty high for me among his tenure. Similar to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, it has a nice blend of the big action sequences you'd want from a Bond film, but at the same time, it still keeps it real, so to speak.

The film opens with Bond visiting the grave of his wife Tracy, who was murdered in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Right from the get go the film establishes itself as attempting something more emotionally resonant in terms of the Bond character and his world. Like the mention of Tracy in The Spy Who Loved Me, visiting her grave reminds us that Bond is human and there is a cost to living the life he does. Even when he cut ties with the spy world in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, his enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld came back for revenge. Coincidentally, Blofeld makes an unofficial re-appearance in the pre-title sequence. While Bond is standing over Tracy's grave, a priest tells him that MI6 has called him in. Bond gets in a helicoptor and flies off. The pilot is electrocuted through his headphones, and Blofeld takes control of the helicoptor. Bond eventually gains control of the helicoptor and picks up Blofeld using the bottom of the vehicle, dropping him down a smokestack

Now, the bald headed man in the wheelchair is never referred to as Blofeld, but it's pretty obvious that's who it's supposed to be, especially with the persian cat in his lap. The reason the character isn't referred to as Blofeld goes back a while. In 1959, Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, worked on a screenplay with producer Kevin McClory for a James Bond film entitled Thunderball. The screenplay was eventually aborted but Fleming went on to write the Bond novel Thunderball in 1961, based on that screenplay. The character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of the terrorist organization SPECTRE, who featured in the screenplay, appeared in the novel and subsequent Bond novels as well. When the Bond films began being produced, and Blofeld appeared, McClory sued, eventually winning the rights to the character in 1971, the year Diamonds are Forever was released, which was the last Bond film in which Blofeld officially appeared. Having Blofeld killed off was reportedly Broccoli's way of telling McClory that the success of the Bond series didn't depend on Blofeld.

I like the concept of the pre-title sequence, it's quintiessentially Bondian and the practical stunt work adds a sense of reality, which makes it more exciting. It also establishes the more balanced tone of the film-spectacular but still grounded. I do wish the bald man had been a different character than Blofeld though. It feels like an anti-climatic ending to someone who is supposed to be Bond's arch-nemesis, even though his demise ties in to visiting Tracy's grave- though that makes things a little too convienent. I do hope that if Blofeld is ever re-introduced in to the Bond franchise, whether it be the Daniel Craig run or later, he gets a better send off.

The plot of the film deals with a British spy ship being sunk. The ship contains something known as the ATAC, the MacGuffin of the film, which is an encryption device that can control nuclear submarines. MI6 comissioned Timothy Havelock, a marine archaeologist, to look for the wreckage and recover the ATAC. Havelock and and his wife are brutally murdered in front of their daughter Melina (Carol Bouquet), who swears revenge against those who murdered them, and which leads to her and Bond crossing paths. What's great about these last three Moore films is the female leads, Anya Amasova, Holly Goodhead, and Melina Havelock, have their own motivations before meeting Bond, which makes them a little more three dimensional and interesting.

The way in which Bond and Melina's seperate missions bring them together is really well done. It also allows us to see that, despite Bond's occasional cold bloodedness, he understands the toll revenge can take on a person's soul. He tells Melinda a Chinese proverb about digging two graves when you set out for revenge. This provides a nice contrast between the two characters. Bond is a professional who always tries to keep hiis emotions in check, whereas Melinda is driven by her passion for vengeance. Despite their differences, they develop a mutual respect and learn to work together, which adds a sense of urgency and genuine teamwork to their relationship.

Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover), is the man behind the sinking of the ship, and means to sell the ATAC to the KGB. He's a Greek businessman who's also Bond's contact in Italy and makes Bond believe a smuggler named Milos Columbo (Topol), is behind the sinking of the ship, but whom Kristatos wants out of the way because he's a former business partner but now rival. What's interesting about Kristatos is that's he not introduced as the villain the same way Bond's other enemies are. He's not a megolomaniac in a secret base and at first is someone who we can believe is an ally to Bond.

Kristatos also seems to really care about his protege Bibi Dahl (Lynn Holly Johnson), a figure skater. He tells Bond that when she wins the gold medal at the Olympics, it'll be the proudest moment of his life. Kristatos is a more realistic villain than we've had in previous films, and his relationship with Bibi gives him more texture as a character. Their relationship comes to a head at the climax of the film when Bibi and her instructor Jacoba Brink (Jill Bennett) plan to leave Kristatos. I would've liked more development in terms of the relationship between Kristatos and Bibi. If Bibi had been a more mature character, I think this angle would've had more of an emotional impact. As written and played, Bibi is too childish to be a compelling character, and she doesn't really fit in to the film. There's also her somewhat icky fascination with Bond. It doesn't really work because Moore is too old to be convincingly attractive to someone as young as Bibi. I do however like Bond's wry reactions to Bibi's advances, telling her that he'll buy her an ice cream. I also like that, despite Brink being very hard on Bibi throughout the film, at the climax we see that she genuinely cares about Bibi.

There are some real standout sequences in the film, such as Bond and Melinda being dragged through the coral reefs by Kristatos' boat, which is based on the climax of the Bond novel Live and Let Die. The ski chase with Bond being chased by some henchman on motorcycles also has a great sense of momentum. The scene is also quite humorous because you just know that Moore isn't doing much of the skiing. Bond's confrontations with the hitman Emile Locque (Michael Gothard) are also quite intense, including a car chase on a beach which leads to the death of Columbo's mistress Countess Lisl (Cassandra Harris, who was actually married to Pierce Brosnan at the time). Bond takes out Locque later on during a raid on Kristatos' warehouse, kicking his car off a cliff. It's a satisfying payoff since Locque was such a evil sonofabitch and it's a great moment of pure Bond ruthlessness, which Moore was able to handle surprisingly well. On a sidenote I also like Topol as Columbo. He's actually quite charismatic and I wouldn't have minded seeing him return in another Bond film.

The climax, like the rest of the film, is rather stripped down compared to the previous two Moore films. There's no space station or underwater fortress. Kristatos' hideout  is just an abandoned monastery on top of a cliff. While that may sound boring, the sequence of Bond climbing up that cliff is pretty exciting and suspenseful-while still quite realistic. I do wish the moment between Bond and Melinda before she intends to kill Kristatos had gone on for a few beats longer and that Melinda, instead of Columbo, would've been the one to kill Kristatos. It seems like her arc doesn't quite get the resolution it needed.

I think For Your Eyes Only is a good Roger Moore Bond film for those who don't really like Moore's Bond films. It's less outlandish while still providing excellent thrills-as well as some strong emotional beats. I do think this should've been Moore's last outing as Bond, since he was getting too old for the part. I also think this film could've been a good introduction for someone like Timothy Dalton, who, even though I like Moore in this film, I think would've made this film even better and whose hard-edged portrayal of Bond would've fit in to this film. Still, For Your Eyes Only is a pretty strong Bond film. Dalton, however, will be the next film I talk about, one of the more underrated entries, in my opinion, in the Bond franchise. James Bond will return in: The Living Daylights.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Moonraker"

I originally wasn't going to talk about Moonraker, deciding that after The Spy Who Loved Me, to jump right in to For Your Eyes Only, the film the ending of The Spy Who Loved Me promised would come next. But after listening to a commentary for Moonraker on the Out Now Podcast,  in which the commenters were in agreement that Moonraker was an underrated entry in the Bond cannon, I decided to give Moonraker another look. I never hated the film but my memory of it was that it was a weaker entry in the franchise, falling prey to campiness and without a solid narrative structure. After watching it again, I still think it's goofy moments that clash with the darker elements of the film and that it's structure needed some work- but, if you're willing to go with the space based climax and get past stuff like the double- taking pigeon, Moonraker isn't as bad as you may remember it, and in fact it's a pretty solid entry in the Bond franchise.

After the success of Star Wars, instead of moving forward with For Your Eyes Only, it was decided to cash in on the phenomenon of George Lucas' space epic by taking James Bond to space. Funnily enough, there's not much space based action in the film, and it all comes in the final act. And even when we get to space, it doesn't feel like a Star Wars movie, it feels like a James Bond movie. I think that's because the space-based stuff is a variation on the hollowed out volcano from You Only Live Twice and the tanker from The Spy Who Loved Me, both directed by Lewis Gilbert, who directed this film as well, which would ulimately be his final Bond film as well.

With all three of these films, Gilbert was essentially doing a variation on the same concept-space shuttles or submarines go missing, Bond goes looking for them-and discovers a plot to cause WIII or armageddon. In both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, the main villain wants to create a new civilization. Stromberg from The Spy Who Loved Me wanted to create a underwater civilization while Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), the villain of Moonraker, wants to kill everyone on earth and re-populate it with a selected few he deems worthy.  Drax's obsession with the notion of a perfect human is a rare moment in a Bond film that is reminiscent of uncomfortable ideals that were- and still are- present in our world. Lonsdale is  very good here, being a convincing authority figure as well as being very sinister without overdoing any bad guy posturing.

Like The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker's pre-title sequence announces that the film is going to be pretty large scale. After a  Moonraker space shuttle is hijacked while in space, we cut to a scene on a plane, with Bond, in typical Bond fashion, kissing a beautiful woman. She pulls a gun on him and then another man appears who shoots the plane's controls. Jaws (Richard Kiel), from the previous film, makes a re-appearance and pushes Bond out of the plane. Bond gets hold of the the man with the gun's parachute and then escapes from Jaws via parachute while Jaws, in typical Jaws fashion, has a faulty parachute. This is pretty great opening. I love how there's no context to why these people want to kill Bond- he's James Bond and this is the stuff he deals with on  a daily basis. It's a excitng mini-adventure that reminds us how thrilling practical stunt work can be.

My favourite sequence in Moonraker features Bond in a machine used for astronauts in H-G training, and whose speed is cranked up by one of Drax's henchman in an attempt to kill Bond. Bond is able to stop the machine using the wrist dart gun given to him by Q (Desmond Llewelyn). I love this sequence because after Bond gets out of the machine, you see he's really wiped out. He can't speak, so there's no one liner. It humanizes Bond and since Dr. Holly Goodhead (Los Chiles) is there, it's fascinating to see Bond so vulnerable in front of a woman- it's a great payoff to the intensity of the sequence, which had put us in to Bond's perspective, as the machine keeps speeding up. It's one of the only moments in a Bond film where it genuinely seems Bond could die.

There's another sequence that's really well done. It involves Corinne Dufur (Corinne Clery), Drax's personal pilot, being hunted through the woods by Drax's dogs after he discovers she has been helping Bond. It's actually quite a haunting scene and while Corinne wasn't a fully fleshed out character, I surprisingly felt her death.

Holly Goodhead is actually a CIA agent who has gone undercover in order to discover what Drax is up to and who eventually forms a reluctant relationship with Bond.  Essentially, it's the same set-up as in The Spy Who Loved Me. The relationship between Bond and Goodhead doesn't quite have the heart of that film, though. The film also never allows the their relationship to settle in to a groove and keeps pulling them apart. I would have liked them to stay together longer throughout the middle of the film, instead of having Goodhead captured for no particular reason then to give Bond more solo screentime. Like Barbara Bach, Lois Chiles isn't the strongest actress but I feel she does have a little more personality than Bach. I als like that this is the second Roger Moore Bond to have a reasonably strong female lead alongside Bond. The notion of Bond teaming up with someone who has the profession as he does is a really nice touch.

Jaws does appear again after the pre-titles sequence, being hired by Drax to kill Bond. In this film Jaws actually falls in love with a short blonde woman named Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), who Jaws takes to Drax's space based headquarters. After Bond questions Drax about people who aren't perfect in Drax's eyes, who Drax will exterminate, Jaws turns on Drax, teaming up with Bond and Goodhead. Jaws becoming a good guy who reportedly done because children really liked Jaws and wanted him to be good guy. I actually don't have a huge problem with Jaws falling in love, even though it is one of the goofy elements that clashes with the darker tone of the film. Jaws has always been a humourous figure and a big clutz, so it's not hard to imagine that deep down he's not that bad of a guy. I do think the relationship between Jaws and his girlfriend could have been developed more but it's probably the most human thing in the film.

I really love the film's finale, with Bond and Goodhead in a space shuttle, attempting to destroy the three globes that contain the nerve gas that will keep many people on earth. While they're able to destroy the first two with no problem but the third proves more difficult. It's pretty tense sequence and it's quite a relief when Bond is able to destroy the third globe.

The film's main problem is that it's tone is all over the place. It has moments of darkness but it's also outlandish and goes for sight gags like a double taking pigeons and Jaws falling over waterfalls. The Spy Who Loved Me was a more tonally solid film, and of course, this film also suffers from being too similar to that film in terms of plot. Still, the film deserves a second look because it's not really bad in my eyes. It has some genuinely suspenseful sequences, a solid Bond woman, and plenty of rousing action. But despite Moonraker's success, the Bond producers decided that after taking Bond to space, he needed to be brought back down to earth. James Bond will return in: For Your Eyes Only.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Thoughts on the "Iron Man 3" Trailer

The thought of an Iron Man 3 hasn't always excited me, especially after Iron Man 2 didn't feel as fresh as the original. And with so many superhero films dropping every year, including the mother of all superhero films, The Avengers, coming out this year, would another standalone Iron Man film be worthwhile? Admittedly, even before The Avengers, was released, and as time went on, I became more intrigued by what this film might offer, especially with actors like Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley in the mix-as well as a new director, Shane Black, replacing Jon Favreau.

And then yesterday, the first trailer for Iron Man 3 was released- and I have to say, this looks like it has the potential to be really good. I don't want to oversell it and say it could be "ONE OF THE BEST SUPEHERO MOVIES EVER" but it could definitely turn out to be the best of the three Iron Man films, as well as being one of the best films produced by Marvel Studios so far.  Emotionally, I found the trailer really affecting, particularly in showing how Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was affected by the alien invasion in New York at the climax of The Avengers. It really demonstrates that, despite the zippiness and comic book style fun of that film, the battle at the end eventually took an emotional toll on Tony. This film isn't just an extension of the Iron Man franchise, but of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well, and emphasizes that what happened in The Avengers was a game changer for everyone.

I particularly like when Tony tells Pepper Popps (Gwyneth Paltrow), that he wants to protect the only thing he can't live without, meaning her. The romance between Tony and Pepper has thankfully been one of the more enjoyable aspects of these films, rather than something which drags them down- and it looks like the events of this film will put Pepper in danger. Is it possible they'll go for an emotional gut punch and have Pepper die? It looks like Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is fatally wounded in one shot one of the trailer, which means Happy may will be the sacrificial lamb, ala Phil Coulson, in this film.

Of course, the big new edition to this film is Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin. I'm not well versed in the character's comic book history, or Iron Man history in general. Here's a rundown of his history here: If you remember, in the first Iron Man, the terrorist group that captured Tony Stark was named The Ten Rings, in reference to the Ten Rings that the Mandarin possesses. Is the Mandarin the leader of that group? In the trailer, we see a shot of the Mandarin's hands, complete with the Ten Rings. After The Avengers, it's not completely out of the question that those rings have magical powers like they do in the comics. It would also seem like a waste for the Mandarin to be wearing those rings for any other reason.

I'm interested to see if Shane Black's sensibilities come through in the film. Black was the screenwriter for Lethal Weapon as well as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey Jr. Black has a ear for sharp dialogue (he's a screenwriter on this film) which comes in handy for Stark's verbal wit. While I like Favreau did in the first two films, and its impressive he was able to hand large scale blockbusters after doing something Elf, I feel a different director could make things feel a little bit fresh.

There's a definite Dark Knight Rises vibe to the idea of Tony Stark being metaphorically taken back to the cave from the first film, as Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has stated. Still, after The Avengers, I think this is a perfect follow up due to its seemingly darker vibe as well as the notion that after Tony finally becomes a team player, he'll have no one to turn to in this film- he's have to rely on his intellect and his cunning. Hopefully there''ll be a good explanation as to why S.H.I.E.L.D or the other Avengers can't back him up. Iron Man 3 hits theatres on May 3, 2013. Here's the trailer for those who haven't seen it yet:

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Monday, 22 October 2012

50 Years of Bond: "The Spy Who Loved Me"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. Now it's time to look at the third Roger Moore Bond film: The Spy Who Loved Me.

The Spy Who Loved Me is probably the best Bond film of the Roger Moore era, though I feel my favourite of his entries is For Your Eyes Only. Along with that film, The Spy Who Loved Me is the most tonally solid of the Moore era. It's outlandish and large-scaled, with fancy gadgets, an underwater fortress, and a henchman with metal teeth-but it avoids the double taking pigeons, southern sheriffs and overall campiness that would plague other Moore entries. It's arguable that this is the closest the Moore era got to the later Connery era films-in that it's absurd, but still enjoyably so.

This is the grandest Bond film since You Only Live Twice, so it makes sense that the producers brought back that film's director, Lewis Gilbert, to direct this film. The film announces itself as being a very production right from the pre-title sequence.  Bond is involved in a ski chase with Russian agents in Austria, which ends with Bond jumping off a cliff and unveiling a Union Jack parachute. The stunt was performed by Rick Sylvester and cost $500,000, making it the most expensive movie stunt at the time. The Union Jack parachute is such a great punchline to the pre-title sequence. It also establishes the hostile relationship between Britian and Russia, which leads to a detente between the two countries in the film.

The detente is a result of British and Russian submarines being abducted while undersea. This is part of shipping tycoon and scientist Karl Stromberg's (Curt Jurgens) plan to use the submarines to destroy the world, with Stromberg creating a new civilization underwater. I'm not quite sure how this plan will work and how he'll re-populate the underwater civilization. But, despite being insane, there's something surprisingly sweet about Stromberg's obsession with the underwater world. In a conversation with Bond, Bond asks him whether he misses the outside world, to which Stromberg tells him: "For me, this is all the world. There is beauty... there is ugliness... and there is death."  As Stromberg is telling him this, there are insert shots of different underwater creatures seen through the windows of Stromberg's underwater base, personifying each of these characteristics, which is a great visual touch by Gilbert and editor John Glen, who in four years would direct his first of five Bond films, the most of any director, with For Your Eyes Only.

The detente leads to Bond having to team up with a Russian agent, Major Ana Amasova (Barbara Bach), also known as Agent Triple X. Bond and Ana's relationship is really the heart of the film, resulting in one of the more interesting and nuanced Bond/Bond woman relationships in the franchise. They start off as rivals, then grow closer together and start to fall in love once they have to work together. Then things get more complicated when Ana discovers that Bond killed her lover during the ski chase in Austria. We had known this information earlier in the film but it's still a great payoff. Bond's "It was either him or me" justification is also one of Moore's best moments in the franchise and, as written, it really channels the moral grayness found in Ian Fleming's source material.

This was Moore's third time as Bond. I'm not a overall fan of the Moore era, which I think was due to the problem of the series, as I stated earlier, becoming too campy- as well as being worn thin by adhering to the Bond formula, which was coupled with the fact that Moore played Bond for 12 years and seven films, which did make the franchise feel a little stale near the end of the 80s. Moore was essentially being spread over too much bread (he was nearly 60 when he stopped playing it). I really wish someone as like Timothy Dalton had taken over at the beginning of the 80s.

Still, I actually like Moore as Bond. People involved in the franchise always say in Moore's first two films, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, the writers were writing Bond, and Moore was playing him, in a way that was more like Sean Connery than Roger Moore. What's good about Moore is he eventually found his groove and was able to make his portrayal of Bond different from Connery, being more of an English gentleman than the Connery rough around the edges approach. Moore could also be quite ruthless and darkly funny, as in a scene when Bond is fighting Stromberg's henchman Sandor on the roof of a building. When Sandor almost falls off the building, he grabs hold of Bond's tie. Bond asks him where someone is. Sandor tells him, to which Bond knocks Sandor's hand off his tie, sending him to his death. "Such a helpful chap" he says. It's a perfect example of Bond combining brutality with dark humour, which Moore pulls off very well.

I do wish a stronger actress had played Ana since she's one of the stronger women in the franchise. Bach is a little too stiff and removed for me. She isn't horrible and actually does a decent job of going from being a little cool towards Bond to falling in love with him, to swearing to kill him. I just feel that with a more accomplished actress, like Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, I would've loved the film more. My favourite moment between Bond and Ana is one of their first meetings, where they both know each other's backgrounds. She goes through some of Bond's backstory, reaching the murder of his wife Tracy, to which Bond curtly cuts her off, telling her "You've made your point." "Your'e sensitive Mr. Bond," she says. "About certain things, yes," he replies.  It's a moment that really reminds us that Bond is human, whose loss of his wife still haunts him.

While Stromberg is the main villain of the film, his henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel), is the the most memorable villain of the film, as well as one of the most memorable of the franchise. Jaws gets his name from having a mouth full of metal teeth. The fact that he shares a name with the shark from Steven Spielberg's Jaws, released a year earlier, plays in to the underwater theme, particularly when Jaws kills a shark near the end of the film. Jaws is both terrifying but also quite funny in how Bond keeps getting the better of him- as well as how clutzy Jaws is-dropping a rock on his foot, get buried under Egyptian archictecture, and having his teeth stuck to a magnet.   

The final big action sequence, taking place in Stromberg's tanker, is the kind of spectacle that is quintiessentially Bondian. Someone on the IMDb message board for this film asked why Bond isn't backed up by a platoon anymore in the films. It's a good point, since several of the early Bond films, including this, had Bond joined by soldiers during the final action sequence. Having Bond joined by the submarine teams gives the finale a sense of comradery, and reminds us that Bond was once in the navy. I do like the sequence when Bond has to take out of the core of a nuclear bomb in order to blow through a wall in the tanker. If the core touches the sides, the bomb will blow. It's one of the genuinely suspenseful sequences in a Bond film. The stuff involving Bond's Lotus Espirit, which can travel underwater, is also pretty cool.

The Spy Who Loved Me is the best Bond of the 70s. It has a healthy blend of outlandish spectacle, humour, and humanity. The next film, Moonraker,  would go even bigger, taking Bond in to outer space and having Jaws fall in love. James Bond will return in: Moonraker

P.S Carly Simon's theme song is one of the franchise's best, poignant and nostalgic. Here's another article I wrote recently about the best Bond theme songs-

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

50 Years of Bond: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, and the 23rd Bond movie, Skyfall, is set to hit theatres this November. I thought now was a pretty good time to revisit several of the Bond films. I'll probably not cover every film but I'll discuss the most important films in the franchise as well as my personal favourites, which do overlap frequently. Now it's time to look at what's arguably the most controversial Bond film in the series' history: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Note: This is a revised version of a review I did a little over a year ago. The original review can be found here.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a paradoxical Bond film in that while the film, and especially its lead actor, have been overshadowed in the past by other Bond films, the film is actually one of the best in the series. It's a film that combines the kind of spectacle and intense action one would want from a Bond film, while still telling a shockingly poignant story about James Bond actually falling in love and having to confront the idea of quitting the British Secret Service. It's the most grounded Bond film since From Russia With Love and the closest in spirit to the original Ian Fleming novels since that film.

After Sean Connery announced his retirement from the role while filming You Only Live Twice, the Bond producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, made two signficent changes to the Bond series-one by nescessity and one by choice. The nescesarry change, of course, was to find another actor to play the iconic superspy, which was the most daunting task they had to face since casting Bond in the first place The change they made by choice was to ground the series back in to a semi-plausiable reality-the previous film had taken the series all the way in to a hollowed-out volcano. This would be a pattern as the series continued-when things became too fantastical, the series would have to be reigned in and find a comfortable middle ground between escapism and reality-which this film does very well.

When Sean Connery retired from the role, Broccoli and Saltzman made a surprising choice, an Austrailian model with no acting experience outside of commericials, George Lazenby. They even make a pretty big deal out of it in the pre-title sequence, not showing his face until he introduces himself to the woman who'll change his life, Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). Bond stops her from drowning herself in the ocean. They're attacked by some unknown thugs, which Bond dispatches. As Tracy gets away, Bond breaks the fourth wall and says "This never happened to the other fella." This was a way of "breaking the ice," so to speak and shows that changing actors for the first time was deemed to require some self-consciousness on the film's part. Even the title sequence shows images from the previous five films. The theme for the film, orchestrated by John Barry, is the first without lyrics and this is the first title-sequence since From Russia With Love that's just instrumental. The theme really captures the propulsive energy of the film as well as its epic nature.

I think the reason why On Her Majesty's Secret Service is still not as widely embraced as Goldfinger is probably due to the controversy regarding its Lazenby- and the fact that he  only played it once plays in to the notion that he was pretty horrible as Bond. Honestly, I like Lazenby, I even like him more than Roger Moore. Lazenby doesn't have the presence of Connery but he feels more real to me than the Connery of the last two Bond films. He's more posh and refined than Connery's Bond, who had a certain roughness about him. Like Moore after him, Lazenby is very much the English gentleman. Nevertheless, physically he's believable as someone who can handle himself in a fight and it's this aspect of his performance that is usually praised. There's a debate about whether Connery could've pulled off the vulnerbility and the romantic side of this Bond. Honestly, I'd be interested to see what Connery would've done in this film-it could've been his best performance in the role. But to be fair, this isn't a Connery Bond film-it's not even a Lazenby Bond film-it's more like an Ian Fleming Bond film.

The plot of the film deals with Bond's determination to take down the head of SPECTRE, Ernest Stravo Blofeld (Telly Salvalas). Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), head of the largest crime syndicate in Europe, offers Bond information on Blofeld's location in exchange for Bond marrying his daughter Tracy, the same woman Bond rescued in the pre-title sequence. Bond is at first hesitant about wooing Tracy, saying he prefers the bachelor life. It's a nice little moment of self-consciousness for Bond, one of those moments that makes Bond feel real to us. Eventually him and Tracy do start to fall in love and we get a lovely montage- not seen in a Bond film until now- of Bond and Tracy spending time together, set to Louis Armstrong's touching song "We Have All the Time in the World." The montage is without dialogue but with simple images and music the film captures the joy and poignancy of falling in love for the first time. It was actually quite a bold decision to stay true to the love story element of the novel, particularly since audiences were used to Bond being a womanizer without strong emotional attachments to the women he slept with.

But before things get too "mushy," the film shifts directions from love story to spy story in the middle section of the film, which involves Bond going uncover as geneologist Hilary Bray at Blofeld's clinical research insitute in the Alps. Unfortunately, in these scenes Lazenby is dubbed by George Baker, who plays the real Bray and I think it distracts a little from Lazenby's performance. Blofeld wants to claim the title of 'Comte Balthazar de Bleuchamp,' giving Bond the perfect in. Bond soon discovers Blofeld is brainwashing ten young women to dispurse bacteriological warfare agents in to the world. Blofeld, in typical Blofeld fashion, will hold the world ransom- and in typical Bond villain fashion explains the plot to Bond even when he figures out Bray is Bond. It's a fun little continuity error that Blofeld only seems to know Bray is Bond after he slips up a geneological detail even though Bond and Blofeld met face to face in You Only Live Twice. This may be due to the faithfulness of On Her Majesty's Secret Service to the novel, which comes before You Only Live Twice in the novel chronology. One could also chalk this up to Bond getting plastic surgery because his face had become too well known to his enemies, which was the original idea to explain why Bond know longer looking like Sean Connery.

Salvalas is sometimes criticized as playing Blofeld like a mob boss but I like his performance and feel he gives the best performance as Blofeld out of the three actors who physically played him the official series, the other two being Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray. His Blofeld, like Lazenby's Bond, is more grounded than previous incarnations. Blofeld is no longer just a hand stroking a cat, his face unseen, nor is he the Dr. Evil-ish figure from You Only Live Twice. He's determined and subtly sinister, and I wish Salvalas had a few more dialogue scenes. I also feel the confrontation between Bond and Blofeld in this film is much more satisfying in this film than it was in You Only Live Twice. Here's there more of a dynamic between them being face to face- a genuine feeling these two are arch-enemiies

As mentioned earlier, when Bond goes to Blofeld's clinic, the love story is put on hold- only for Tracy to rescue Bond when he escapes the clinic and is being chased by Blofeld and his men. They share a wonderful scene in a barn where Bond is at his most vulnerable. He tells Tracy he'll never find another girl like her and asks her to marry him. The structure of the film is the one thing that always feels off to me. The shift from the emotional story to the second act of the film is perhaps too rushed. I would have liked a final scene between Bond and Tracy before he left on the mission and maybe a little bit more of Tracy back home as well as a lead up to when she meets Bond yet again. Nevertheless I feel the film does a good love of giving equal weight to both the spy and love story, and the tragic ending brings them completely together. I like the idea of Bond being saved by Tracy instead of the other way around. It puts a nice twist on the whole "damsel in distress" situation when Bond saves Tracy from Blofeld's clinic.  It's Bond's way of saying "thanks" and returning the favour in a pretty explosive fashion.

Diana Rigg is arguably the best Bond girl in the series though I think I still love Honor Blackman and Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger more. Nevertheless, until Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale nearly forty years later, I think Tracy is the most complicated and complex Bond Woman in the series. She is strong willed yet she still has the desire to die. She is independent but still needs someone in her life to love her. Ultimately, Bond is able to give her a future, as she says at the end of the film. Rigg brings an intelligent and self-awareness to the role-she's a real person and one that Bond feels the desire to understand and to help.

After Bond and Draco save Tracy from Blofeld's clinic and foil Blofeld's plan once again, Bond and Tracy do get married. As they stop their car to clear off some of the flowers, Blofeld comes driving by with his henchwoman Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) firing a machine gun at the car. Bond gets in the car, discovering Tracy has been shot and killed. A police officer drives up and in Bond tells him Tracy is just resting and that they have all the time in the world. Lazenby's speech is all done in one take and I think this is his best moment on screen. Heartbroken and in shock, unable to truly say what he must feel, he pretends like everything is okay. As he puts his head in her dress and sobs, it's devastating and shows real courage by the filmmakers to stay true to Fleming's vision of a world where Bond constantly has his heart broken but remains a survivor in the only world he'll probably ever know, the world of a spy, where true happiness can be taken away in an instance. In a weird musical shift, the orchestratal version of "We Have All the Time in the World" sag ways in to the Bond theme. I think it would've been much better to just stay with the love theme, keeping true to what this film is about, rather than saying "Bond will be back!" with the Bond theme.

Peter Hunt, who had been a editor on the previous Bond films, sat in to the director's chair this time and I feel his work as an editor aided him very well in putting together the action sequences with his editor John Glen, who would also go on to direct all the Bond films in the 1980s. The action is intense and fast but still easy to follow geographically. The "zoom ins" when Bond throws his punches in the pre-title sequence. I love that the last 45 minutes or so of this film feel like an extended suspense/action sequence, with occasional quieter moments. From the moment Bond escapes the clinic, there's a propulsiveness that we haven't quite seen since the final act of From Russia With Love or Goldfinger.  When the clinic is attacked, it's able to take the climax of the previous Bond film, in the volcano, and put it on a smaller yet still invigorating scale. When the Bond theme plays and Bond is sliding on his stomach down ice, firing his machine gun, it's a pretty cool moment. The blobshed show-down between Bond and Blofeld is edited in a fashion that makes Blofeld getting his neck stuck in a branch a great payoff.

Lazenby supposedly felt Bond would not survive in to the seventies so he quit the role and as a result I don't think he's ever transcended the label of "that guy who only did one movie," or "being an answer to a trivia question" though he undeniably has admirers. I count myself as one. If he had played Bond a few more times he may have found his groove and become a more respected Bond. When he decided to quit being Bond, I think it made the producers want to ignore this film as much as possible for the next go around. Connery returned for the next film, Diamonds are Forever (1971), which is really bad follow-up to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, being much sillier and campier, whereas with Lazenby, it could've been a strong revenge story for Bond- and it's only until The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), where Tracy is actually mentioned. It's a shame that the series ditched much of the seriousness of this entry and eventually became much too goofy in the next film and several of the Moore films. Still, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a poignant, funny, exciting, and ultimately tragic film which gives us what feels like an authentic human being in James Bond. It's not just a great Bond film, it's a great film on its own terms as well.

P.S. That's it for the 60s Bond era. From now on, I won't be going through all the Bond films but focusing on specific ones throughout the rest of the series history.