Friday, 28 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "You Only Live Twice"

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. Next up: You Only Live Twice.

For it's time, You Only Live Twice was the pinnacle of how outlandish the Bond producers were willing to go in terms of the series. This was when the series had completely become a genre of its own-the James Bond genre. At the time, this was also going to be Sean Connery's final film as James Bond. He announced his retirement during filming, most likely becoming and bored and feeling boxed in by the role. It's hard to blame him, especially since the films were becoming more about spectacle than the actual character of James Bond. The character was still the draw for audiences but Connery was just going through the motions now and he wasn't really being challenged as an actor. While this wouldn't turn out to be Connery's final outing, it's the last one that feels like a true 60s Connery Bond film, an end of an era of sorts. As I said earlier, it's probably the most outlandish film in the series yet-and there's some unfortunate rascist and sexist overtones- but if you're willing to embrace the film for what it is, it's pretty enjoyable escapism. 

The plot of the film involves the abduction of an American space shuttle by a spacecraft in the pre-title sequence. The Americans believe the abduction to be the work of the Russians, which causes tension between the two countries. The British suspect the Japanese to be involved since the spacecraft landed in Japan. We cut to Hong Kong where Bond is in bed with a woman. She gets out of bed and pushes a button that launches the bed in to the wall. Men come in with machine guns and shoot through the wall. Like the beginning of From Russia With Love, it's pretty shocking to see Bond killed before the credits roll. But as the title, and title song, sung by Nancy Sintra, implies, Bond may not be dead quite yet. As we exit the title sequence, Bond's coffin is being buried at sea. Scuba divers bring it on board a submarine and we discover Bond has faked his death. This will make it easier for Bond to go undercover in Tokyo and discover who's behind the disappearance of the American space shuttle.

Tokyo is arguably the most "foreign" location in a Bond film up to this point. In Tokyo, Bond teams up with Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), head of the Japanese Secret Service. He meets Tiger by being lured in to a subway station by Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), Tiger's assistant, and then falling through a trap door. It's a fun Bond movie moment where we're led to believe Tiger is the villain but realize he's on Bond's side. Tiger serves as the Karim Bey of the film and I like the interplay between Bond and Tiger. The name is pretty cool as well. There's a scene that's humourous only because it's so blantantly and uncomfortably sexist where Bon and Tiger are at a bath and Tiger tells Bond "In Japan, men come first, women come second," to which Bond replies "I might just have to retire here." It's pretty cringe worthy hearing Bond be so nakedly sexist but at the same time it's interesting to view these early Bond films as time capsules of both a less enlightened and yet sexually aggressive time. The Bond series would eventually mature out of its sexist roots but at this time, it was still pretty cavailer towards women.

There's also the bizarre plot point of James Bond becoming Japanese. In order to remain undercover while on the island where Tiger trains ninjas, Bond has to get a makeover-except the it doesn't really make him look Japanese. His hairdo is a little more in the Japanese style and the corners of his eyes are widened but he still looks like Bond-or at least the Paul McCartney version:

This transformation is another element in this film that just wouldn't fly. It's nearly as bad as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's but it's still pretty bad. At the same time, the matter of fact nature of the transformation is what makes somewhat funny.

While I haven't read every Bond novel, I would argue that, up to this point, You Only Live Twice is the least faithful to the original novel on which it's based. The novel followed On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the novel in which Bond gets married to Tracy Di Vicenzo, who is then murdered by Blofeld. The novel was about Bond dealing with the loss of his wife when M assigns him to a mission in Japan to gain information from Tiger Tanaka. Tiger wants Bond to kill a Dr. Gunthram Shatterhand, who operates a garden with poisonous flowers where people go to commit suicide. Bond discovers that Shatterhand is Blofeld. Bond eventually get revenge for his wife's murder and kills Blofeld. After blowing up Blofeld' castle, Bond suffers a head injury and loses his memory. The film version of You Only Live Twice was made before On Her Majesty's Secret Service in the film chronology, so it couldn't be a straight adaptation of the novel. The novel was thematically and emotionally more interesting whereas the film goes for a more escapist feel. 

Blofeld still factors in to the plot since it is SPECTRE that is behind the abduction of the American space shuttle, and who later captures a Russian space shuttle. SPECTRE has been hired by an Asian organization to create tension between the US and Russia and start World War III. While Blofeld is still the shadowy figure pulling the strings, this is the first Bond film where Blofeld is the main villain- and near the end of the film we finally see Blofeld's face. Donald Pleasence plays Blofeld and while he gives a fine performance, he doesn't match up with the Blofeld from the previous films. His voice is a little too high and to me, he seems too short. I think it comes down to Blofeld being more intimidating when we don't see him. The meeting between Bond and Blofeld isn't very satisfying either, seeming to be more of a set-up for future confrontations now that they've met face two face. The confrontation between them in the next film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, will be much more satisfying. 

The action in the film is pretty spectacular. The sequence where Bond flies the mini-helicoptor Little Nelly to investigate an island and gets in a fire fight is a highlight. So is the hollowed out volcano where Blofeld is operating. Throughout these writings I've unforgivably forgotten to mention Ken Adam, who was the production designer for many of the Bond films, including this one. The volcano headquarters actually feels tangiable  and the final shootout in the volcano, with ninjas coming down on ropes, is marvelously epic.

Unfortunately, the Bond women don't get a lot of character development. Aki is eventually murdered by poison that is meant for Bond. While it's sad, Bond pretty much moves on to the woman he's pretending to be married to, Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Kissy becomes the main Bond women of sorts but I wish there was more time to develop her character-especially since her arc in the film is to go from someone who just wants to pretend to be married to Bond to actually falling for him.

You Only Live Twice is an enjoyable Bond film but On Her Majesty's Secret Service will be more emotionally complex and resonant and closer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming novels. James Bond will return in: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.       

Sunday, 23 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Thunderball"

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. Next up-the film that for its time was the "Biggest Bond of them all:" Thunderball.

When Goldfinger was released, I believe this was when the James Bond series became a full blown pop culture phenomenon as well as a genre of its own-rather than just purely being spy films or action films. In fact, one could argue this series was really the birth of the modern action film. With Goldfinger's success, the pressure was on for producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to pull out all the stops and make what was to be the "Biggest Bond of them all," as Thunderball was advertised. And to be fair, Broccoli and Saltzman, along with director Terence Young, succeeded- making everything work on much larger scale than ever before. And while it doesn't have the economy or iconic imagery of Goldfinger, it's a fairly entertaining Bond film and provides a nice blend of outlandishness while not succumbing to campiness.

If you want to see what the Austin Powers series was parodying, this is a good place to start. From punching a man dressed up as woman, stolen nuclear bombs, and minions electrocuted in their chair, this is where the first Austin Powers movie got a lot of its best material. The plot involves SPECTRE stealing two nuclear bombs and holding the world ransom. SPECTRE henchman Angelo, who has had plastic surgery to make himself look like French NATO pilot Francois Derval (Paul Stassino), replaces Derval on the plane containing the bombs, sabotaging the plane and crashing it in the ocean. The real Durval is placed in the clinic where Angelo was recovering from the plastic surgery. It's the same clinic James Bond (Sean Connery) is staying at- so when he's called in, along with the other 00s, Bond tells M that he saw Durval dead at the clinic. This leads Bond to Nassau where he encounters Durval's sister, Domino (Claudine Auger). Domino is also the mistress of SPECTRE No. 2, Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), who was behind the operation to steal the bombs.

The film takes a while to establish its plot and I found it wasn't as economic as Goldfinger in doing so. In my write-up for that film I admired how the film really established the relationship between Bond and Goldfinger and the plot very quickly. Now, to be fair, there's a little more plot to be established here. I also found that this set-up doesn't drag too much and the mechanics of SPECTRE's plot and Bond accidentally happening upon it, is well orchestrated. 

After being absent in Goldfinger, SPECTRE, and its mysterious leader Blofeld, returns for this film. I really like how we get to see a full SPECTRE meeting in this film. While SPECTRE agents met with Blofeld in From Russia With Love, this is the first time we see all the main SPECTRE agents gathered together and talking about blackmail and exortion in the most casual manner. It makes them sinister because you can half-way believe them as existing in the real world. Blofeld casually electrocuting one of the SPECTRE agents in his change because he had embezzled money is menacingly funny. It shows how expendable these people are to Blofeld if they fail or disobey him. We still don't see Blofeld's face, continuing to tease the audience to what he looks like. The only problem with having Blofeld as the shadowy figure pulling the strings in this film is that it makes Largo a small fry in the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, the film gives Largo a sense of assertiveness and leadership (He came up with the plan to steal the bombs) that makes him still feel powerful despite Blofeld being his boss. 

In a nice parallel, we also get to see a meeting of all the 00s. The gathering of the 00s, after the bombs have been stolen, really establishes the stakes of the film, which are the biggest of the Bond series so far. Unfortunately, the film is a little over two hours and I feel it loses a little bit of its urgency due to its running time. I think the film would've benefitted from being just two hours or a little under two hours like the previous three films. The underwater battle between SPECTRE and the Coast Guard near the end of the film is usually criticized as being too long and I agree. Still, the underwater battle is unlike any action sequence I've ever seen in a film. It's bizarre to see all these guys fighting and shooting spears at each other underwater but, accompanied by Monty Norman's frantic score, is surprisingly visceral and in many cases, brutual.

In terms of action, I also really love the pre-titles sequence, which was the origin of the "That's a man, man" bit from Austin Powers. Bond attends the funeral of SPECTRE agent Jacques Bouvar, only to discover that Bouvar's "widow" is Bouvar himself. Bond follows him to a chateau and confronts him. Bouvar is still dressed as a woman and Bond punches him. It's a shocking moment because we're not yet clued in that this is actually Bouvar. Bond kills him and then escapes using a jetpack. It's really funny that Bond has a jetpack waiting for him. We never see it being placed  but we're asked to just go with it, which is part of the fun. "No well dressed man should be without one," he tells his female colleague. Like the pre-titles sequence for Goldfinger, It captures what the Bond series is all about as well as creating a mini-adventure that gets you pumped for the rest of the film. It's no wonder that Christopher Nolan has been inspired so much by this series.

 While it's always mentioned that Connery became bored with the role, his charisma and presence is still prevalent makes this film work. I like his relationship with Domino-their dance scene together is tender and reveals how much Domino wants to escape from her relationship with Largo-and I like how she says that Bond is a better man than Largo. I just wish the film explored the relationship between Largo and Domino a little more, especially when she discovers that Largo killed her brother. Claudine Auger is likable but Domino doesn't really the presence of Pussy Galore. SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) is the most dynamic Bond woman in this film. She's more evil than Pussy and seems to scoff at women like Pussy when she says to Bond "James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and turns to the side of right and virtue." Unlike Pussy, she's not going to help Bond save the day. Fiona meets her demise during a dance with Bond after he's tried to escape from her and her men. Someone is going to shoot Bond but he turns Fiona in to the line of fire. Sitting her down at table, he tells the others seated, "Do you miind if my friend sits this one out? She's just dead." The line is a return to the black humour from Dr. No and hits the mark pretty well. The editing leading up to Fiona being shot is expertly suspenseful as well.

For the first time since Dr. No, I don't have too much to say. Terence Young, directing his last Bond film, handles the larger scale very well. Along with editor Peter Hunt, who would go on to direct the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, they create action sequences that are sharply and frantically edited without being incomphrensible. I like the skyhook save at the end as well. Traditionally it would end with Bond and Domino making out in that liferaft, so it's a nice change of pace, and matches the scale of the film. Domino kill killing Largo before he kills Bond is a great payoff to her character arc and provides a pretty humourous exchange between Bond and Domino: "I'm glad I killed him"/"You're glad?"  

While not as bombastic as most modern action films-Thunderball is energetic and enjoyable. The series would of course become even more outlandish by the next film and become a genre in and of itself. James Bond will return in: You Only Live Twice.

P.S:  I have to hand it to Tom Jones. He takes a song that doesn't make a lot of sense and really sells it.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Goldfinger"

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. The next film is the big game changer of the series up to this point: Goldfinger.

When I was discussing From Russia With Love, I said while I don't always think of the Bond films as sequels to one another, that From Russia With Love was one of the best sequels ever made. And now with Goldfinger, I would argue this is one of the best third installments ever made. And in a rarity for third installments, Goldfinger is even more influential and iconic than its predecessors. This is where, for better or for worst, the Bond formula was really nailed down. While those formula elements had been present in the previous two films-the "Bond girl," Bond's personality, the mix of violence and sex, and even Desmond Llewelyn showed up as gadget master Q in From Russia With Love- this is where the the gadgets became more prominent, the Bond woman names more suggestive, the one liners more frequent, and the overall tone went from cold war espionage thriller to pure escapism. If you showed Goldfinger to someone more familiar with the Pierce Brosnan films, or even the Roger Moore films, it'd probably be more recognisable as a "James Bond film" than the previous two films. I say for better or for worse because the Bond formula would haunt the series for the next two decades and would take it down a path that diverged from the spirit of the original Ian Fleming novels.

But I shouldn't be coming off as such a downer. Goldfinger is a film that truly defines escapism. You watch it to get away from reality-to lose yourself in a world full of gorgeous women, funny one liners, cool cars, and a hero who's effortlessly suave and sophisicated-the ultimate ladies man. Again, this movie really defined what the whole Bond series is about. The film begins with the pre-titles sequence, introduced in From Russia With Love. This time the "real" Bond actually appears and we have the first mini-adventure of the series, in which Bond (Sean Connery) emerges from the water in Latin America- with a fake pigeon on his head no less. He then places explosives in a drug lord's lab, preventing the drug lord from dealing heroin to finance revolutions. After he successfully plants the explosives, Bond slips out of his swimsuit to reveal that he's wearing a white suit underneath. He walks in to a night club and as the explosives go off, he just casually smokes a cigarette. It's a great classic Bond sequence, showing Bond's professionalism and his calm under pressure. Of course, Bond's not out of the woods yet. As he goes upstairs to an exotic dancer's dressing room, he's attacked by a man. In a cool visual, Bond catches the man's reflection in the woman's eye- and actually lets her take the hit! It's one of those Bond moments that's pretty "politically incorrect" but is effective in showing how cruel Bond can be, even to a beautiful woman. As the man falls in to the bathtub, he reaches for Bond's shoulder holster, containing his gun. Bond throws a lamb in to the tub, electrocuting the man. "Shocking. Postively shocking," Bond says as he leaves. As the door slams the screen cuts to black and we hear the first notes of Shirley Bassey's Goldfinger theme.

This pre-titles sequence is great in how it economically shows us the type of world Bond exists in as well as creating a mini-adventure where a lot of thrilling stuff happens in only a few short minutes. I love the cut to the title sequence and theme song. Bassey's voice is powerful and the song has a sinster vibe to it as Bassey warns a woman about not entering Goldfinger's "web of sin," that  he only loves gold. Bassey belts out that final note like no one's business.

The film begins with Bond vacationing on Miami Beach when his friend from the CIA, Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) tells him that M (Bernard Lee) wants Bond to keep an eye on Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), whom MI6 suspects of gold smuggling. Bond discovers that Goldfinger cheats at cards by having his "girlfriend" Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) use binoculars to spy on Goldfinger's playing-mate from Goldfinger's hotel room. Bond talks through the radio that Jill uses to communicate with Goldfinger and tells him to "start losing." Jill takes a liking to Bond know. What I like about this sequence is, like the pre-titles sequence, it's very economic in setting up elements of the plot. We get the antagonistic relationship between Bond and Goldfinger and the film further develops how this is a fantasy world. Despite just meeting her, Bond is able to take Jill to bed. I feel the Bond series is the ultimate wish fillfullment fantasy for men and the best example of which I can think of a hero really defined by his sexual appetite.

And let me say, while she's only in the film for a few minutes, Shirley Eaton is one of my favourite Bond women. She's one of the first Bond women, along with the other women in this film, that doesn't come across as naive. And she doesn't just fall in to Bond's arms either. In these shots, notice that Bond actually has to come to her. She doesn't have to move for him, or any man.



I also really like Eaton because I think she's just so gorgeous. The reason she's only in the movie for a few minutes is because she's killed by Goldfinger via being covered in gold paint, from which she suffocates. The image of Jill laying on the bed, covered in gold paint, is probably the most iconic image in the entire film, and maybe the whole series. Notice the pillow convienently placed in front of her rear:

The image is both really cool and stunning, as well as tragic. I believe this is the first time in the series that we see how Bond's sexual appetite can get someone innocent killed. And again, I love how this whole sequence establishes many things about the plot and the world in which the film takes place-Bond vs. Goldfinger, Bond's regret and anger over Jill's death, and the appeal and danger of Bond persona.

I think it's time to talk about what ultimately makes this film work, and that's Sean Connery's performance. He had played Bond twice by the time he made Goldfinger and he had really become comfortable in the role. People always say Connery became bored with the role-and that's no doubt true-but here I feel he's having a lot of fun, bringing a dry sense of humour and an interesting blend of confidence and vulnerability to the role- as well as essentially being the straightman to the absurd stuff going on around him. I love when Jill tells Bond that Goldfinger only pays her to be seen with him, to which he replies, "I'm so glad." He line reading and smile are priceless. His eyeroll during Q's demonstration is also funny and encapsulates how Bond has never been that interested in what Q has to tell him. I also like his brief shout when he asks M what his assignment is about, communicating Bond's anger at Goldfinger as well as frustration in not knowing what this assignment was about in the first place. It's a very human moment for Bond, one that grounds the character in some kind of emotional reality.

Let's also not forget the scene where Bond almost gets cut in half by Goldfinger's laser, which contains the infamous exchange between Bond and Goldfinger, "Do you expect me to talk?/"No Bond I expect you to die!" In this scene we really get a sense of Bond's fear that I think we'd lose in many of the later films. It's also pretty funny because the laser will go through Bond's crotch first, stripping him of his manhood first before stripping him of his life.

Before this sequence, Bond is hiding out above Goldfinger's industrial plant. As night comes, he encounters Jill's sister, Tilly (Tania Mallet), who is trying to kill Goldfinger in revenge for the murder of her sister. Bond had met her earlier that day, not knowing she was Jill's sister. After a chase sequence in Bond's car, Tilly is murdered by Oddjob (Harold Sakata), Goldfinger's henchman. Oddjob kills people with the razor blade hat he throws. I haven't read the book but to my understanding Tilly has a bigger part in the novel than in the film, though I believe she also dies in the novel. I would've liked if Tilly stayed around a little longer. The fact that Bond was responsible for her sister's death would've been an interesting element to explore in terms of Bond and Tilly' relationship. It feels that Tilly is set up to be a more important part of the plot and then that plot thread is cut short. We definitely feel the tragedy of her death-Tilly is ultimately out of her element in trying to kill Goldfinger. But like Jill, Tilly isn't made out to be weak or naive-which I like.

Of course, it's forgivable that Tilly isn't in the rest of the movie because we're soon introduced to one of the most dynamic Bond women in the series' history-Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), Goldfinger's personal pilot. This is the first of the Bond woman names that's very suggestive-and reportedly the name was very controversial. The first time we see Pussy it's through Bond's hazy vision as he wakes up from being tranquilized. Putting us in Bond's perspective really emphasizes Pussy's beauty and I like that when she introduces herself, Bond says "I must be dreaming," instead of the rumoured original line, "I know you are but what's your name?" which would've called too much attention to the absurdity and suggestiveness of her name. It's much better to just let the name speak for itself without the film winking at us. 

Pussy is smart, assertive, has a no-nonsense attitude, and is "immune" to Bond's charms, the subtext being that she's a lesbian, which is due to her being a lesbian in the novel. Blackman makes Pussy feel like a fully formed presence in her first scene alone. For me she also gives off a Catwoman vibe with the sound of her voice, very Eartha Kitt-like, which goes along nicely with her first name. Bond's overtaking of Pussy later on the film is unfortunately one of the more uncomforting moments in the series and also makes the film feel rushed as well. It would've been much better to develop Bond and Pussy's attraction to one another in order to reach Pussy's eventual change of heart about Goldfinger's operation.

Goldfinger plans to break in to Fort Knox but not to steal any gold. His plan is to actually detonate an atomic bomb in the building, making America's gold supply radioactive for over 50 years and thus raising the value of Goldfinger's gold. It's one of the best overall schemes in a Bond film actually-even Bond is impressed.

Terence Young, who directed the previous two Bond films, did not return for this film due to contract negotiation problems. Guy Hamilton was brought in to direct this film and what I like about Hamilton's direction is that he doesn't call attention to the more absurd elements of the film. And as one reviewer pointed out, the later Connery Bond films were very matter of fact about their absurdity whereas the Roger Moore films called a little too much attention their absurdity-with double-taking pigeons and what not. I like Hamilton's staging of the final fight between Bond and Oddjob in Fort Knox.While not as great as the one between Bond and Red Grant in From Russia With Love, is still effective in that, unlike more modern fight sequences, it's not edited to shreds and feels like two guys genuinely going at it.

While I would argue that From Russia With Love is the superior film, Goldfinger may be the more fun of the two. What it lacks in the psychological complexity of Bond films such as On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Casino Royale, it makes up for in inventiveness and economcy. And while this film defined the Bond formula, the series would go even bigger in the next film. James Bond will return in: Thunderball.        

Saturday, 15 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "From Russia With Love"

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. Next up: From Russia With Love.

While I don't always think of the James Bond films as sequels to one another, I feel From Russia With Love can be considered one of the finest sequels ever made. For me, it's a better film than it's predecessor, Dr. No-it has a more interesting and layered plot, stronger villains, and more effectively suspenseful and energetic action sequences. Like Dr. No, it's still a relatively stripped down affair-the next film, Goldfinger, would be the film that took the series in to a more heightened reality- which allows the film to work as a genuine cloak & dagger spy thriller.

The playing field of the film is established very well in the pre-titles sequence, the first in the series, when James Bond (Sean Connery) is making his way through the grounds of an estate, only to be killed by Donald "Red" Grant (Robert Shaw). It's unsettling and quite shocking to see Bond killed but it's not actually Bond, only a man with a Bond mask on. Grant is an assassin working for SPECTRE, the organization for which Dr. No worked. With this opening sequence, the film establishes that Bond will be a target in this film, raising the stakes from the previous film. After the title sequence, we witness a chess game featuring SPECTRE agent Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal). The chess game, which Kronsteen wins, is a good metaphor, both visually and thematically, for the film, because the whole movie is like a chess game, with SPECTRE moving Bond and the other players around the board. Of course, the chess metaphor can be extended to the entire cold war era.  

It's this authentic spy thriller tone which I love about the film. It's not about Bond facing a villain who's out to take over the world. Rather, it's about Bond being used as a pawn by SPECTRE in a effort to get hold of the Russians' Lektor decoding device. SPECTRE's plan is to manipulate Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a cipher clerk who works with the Lektor, in to convincing the British she'll defect with the Lektor, but only if she's assisted by Bond. SPECTRE will have Bond steal the Lektor and then kill him, taking the Lektor and selling it back to the Russians. In essence, SPECTRE gets wealth as well as revenge against Bond for killing Dr. No. This is all set up quite early in the film, creating an element of suspense as to when Bond will find out what is happening. Thankfully, Bond, and the film, acknowledges this is most likely a trap, but as Kronsteen says, the British want the Lektor so badly that they're willing to take the risk. This acknowledgement from both sides to it obviously being a trap is humourous-and shows that Bond isn't naive.

The dynamic between Bond and Tatiana is one of the more interesting in the series in that Tatiana is manipulating Bond even as she is falling in love with him- at the same time she herself is being manipulated by SPECTRE. When Bond finds out and slaps her, with her only being able to say that she loves him, their relationship goes beyond many of the simplistic relationships in the Bond franchise and becomes quite saddening. I like the scene between her and Bond when she's talking in to a recorder about the Lektor, only to keep asking Bond things like "Will you make love to me in England all the time"- and we see Bond's boss M (Bernard Lee) and others listening to the recording. Tatiana asks Bond if she's exciting as "all those Western girls" and he mentions that he had "an interesting experience"  with M in Toyko, to which M shuts off the recording. I like that little bit because it gives us a little bit of backstory regarding Bond and M's relationship.

Regarding the villains, what makes this Bond film stand out amongst the others is that the henchman, Red Grant, is the main villain of sorts. Ernest Stavro Blofeld, SPECTRE Number 1, could be regarded as the main villain of the film but in essence he's more of a shadowy figure pulling the strings and he and Bond never come face to face. This film introduced the concept of only seeing Blofeld's cat and his hand stroking it. Anthony Dawson, who played Professor Dent in Dr. No, plays the physical Blofeld while Eric Pohlmann provides his voice. The early Bond films did a solid job of being self-contained stories while also having SPECTRE and Blofeld be a narrative thread strung through the films, culminating in Blofeld's full reveal in You Only Live Twice. The villains of this film are always in the corners of the film, manipulating events to their advantage. Grant even keeps Bond from getting killed during an attack at a Gyspy camp. Lotte Lenya is unnerving and authoratative, while also slightly vulnerable as SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb and Robert Shaw is a convincingly intimidating presence as Grant. I love the fight Bond and Grant have on the Orient Express. There's no music, just the sound of the train and the grunts of the two men. While Bond has used his gadgets to get out of tricky situations in other films, this fight reminds us Bond isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. It's one of the most brutal sequences in any of the Bond films.

I also like the relationship between Bond and Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendariz). head of Station T in Istanbul, who works with Bond on the mission. They form a solid comradery. Bey is killed offscreen by Grant on the Orient Express, and while the reveal of his death is understated, when Bond puts his hand on Bey's shoulders, it speaks volumes about the loyalty and friendship between them.  

Director Terrence Young, who directed Dr. No, returned to helm this film and I really like Young's visual style in this film, particulary in  how he shows people being constantly shadowed in the film:  




There's a sequence near the end of the film where Bond and Tatiana are being followed by a helicoptor. Bond distracts the helicoptor and is eventually able to destroy it. Supposedly this sequence was inspired by the classic crop duster scene from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, and it's easy to see it's influence. Even today, the helicoptor sequence still holds up. I like the point of view shots from inside the helicoptor as it zooms past Bond.

This may be Connery's best performance in the role, even better than his work in Goldfinger. He makes Bond feel human yet still infuses that humanity with confidence and wry humour. I like the little bits of continuity such as the return of Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). Throughout the series we get the sense that Bond's relationships don't last so it's interesting to see what happened between him and Sylvia after Dr. No-though to be fair, it'd be even more interesting to see what happened to Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). There's also the mention of Dr. No, which ties the two films together. Overall, this is a very fine thriller and while one can argue whether From Russia With Love is the best Bond movie ever, viewing it again, I see it as one of the best over all movies in the franchise. James Bond will return in: Goldfinger.

Friday, 7 September 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Dr. No"

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. First up is the film that started it all: Dr. No.

What's funny about Dr. No is that despite being the film that brought author Ian Fleming's character of James Bond to the big screen and established the Bond franchise, it's a very stripped down and small scale film, one that's kind of quaint looking at it through a modern perspective-especially compared to the modern Bond films and even the later 60s entries The producers of the Bond series, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, hadn't quite found the Bond formula that would define the franchise over the decades-though you see the beginning of that formula in this film.

But what makes this film stand up even today is the performance of Sean Connery as James Bond. The introduction of Bond in this film is simply classic. Bond is playing baccarat at a casino and at first we only see the back of his head, (which is reminiscent of Cary Grant's introduction in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.) We're also introduced to the very first "Bond girl," though she's very much a woman, Syliva Trench (Eunice Gayson, who'd reprise her role in From Russia With Love). We hear Sean Connery's scottish brogue cut through the chatter- "I admire your luck, Ms...?" She responds with "Trench. Syliva Trench." She then says, "I admire your luck, Mr...?." We finally cut to his face as he lights a cigarette. "Bond. James Bond" he purrs, as Monty Norman's iconic theme music chimes in. It's in this moment that Connery defined the character, suave yet rugged, oozing with a dangerous and masculine sexuality. Connery would continue to grow in the role over the next two films but from this moment he nevertheless made James Bond a fully formed character- and an instantly iconic one as well.

In this film Bond isn't the superspy he would eventually become later on- in retrospect he's a much more grounded and human character in this film. We learn he can be hurt- and nearly killed: his boss M (Bernard Lee) assigns him a new gun, the Walter PPK, to replace the Barrata that jammed on Bond in the field and landed him in the hospital. In this scene we see how important Bond 's gun is to him and it's strangely endearing. There's also a scene where Bond has a tarantula placed on him while he is sleeping-and while it may not be the most intricate a way the bad guys have tried to take out Bond-you can see he's genuinely afraid. When he finally kills the tarantula, each hit of his shoe is punctutated by Monty Norman's piano keys, each pounding key emphasizing Bond's fear and adrenaline.

The villain of this film is, as the title suggests, Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). What I like about Dr. No is that for most of the film we don't actually see him, we only hear about him. Until he's revealed near the end of the film we only hear his voice once while talking over a speaker to Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson). I like this approach because it makes him more sinister and mysterious-as well as making him feel all powerful. It also foreshadows the way we're introduced to Bond's arch nemesis Ernest Stavro Blofeld in the next film From Russia With Love. Most Bond villains are introduced early on in the films and as a result they don't always have a sense of mystique. Wiseman makes Dr. No an emotionally restrained and calculating individual. We learn he was the "unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl of a good family" and was rejected by the Americans and the Russians when he offered them his services. He then joined the terrorist organization SPECTRE in order to get revenge on both America and Russia. This begins the plot thread that would run through the Connery Bond films, which is Bond's battle against this organization and its leader, the aforementioned Blofeld. Dr. No's plot is to topple American missiles from his island in Crab Key, Jamaica.

The main Bond woman is Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). Andress has one of the most iconic moments in the Bond series, and in film history. She basically walks out of the ocean in a bikini, singing "Underneath the mango tree." It's so simple but it's still a very sexy moment and Andress arguably defined the Bond woman as much as Connery defined Bond. Honey has an interesting blend of innocence and danger to her. She tells Bond about Dr. No killing her father, a marine biologist, who got too close to Dr. No's island. The man who owned the place Honey and her father were leaving let her stay on for a while. One night this man raped her and in retaliation she put a black widow spider under his bed. "It took him a whole week to die," she says. After she tells this story, you can tell Bond is visibly shaken-it makes a nice parallel to Bond's earlier encounter with an anrachnid. Honey asks him if he has someone in his life. Bond is taken aback, unable to really answer the question. It's a small moment but one that speaks volumes about Bond's cavalier lifestyle. He never has a real relationship, does he? If we didn't know better, we'd suspect Honey was being set up as the woman who reels Bond in. I like that Honey does get a little bit of character development but unfortunately she is fundamentally there to fall in to Bond's arms at the end of the film.

I don't have that much to say about Dr. No beyond what I've already said. Connery is pretty great though he does rush a few of his line readings. As I mentioned earlier, he would perfect the Bond character as the series went on. I like that throughout the film we see how Bond behaves in different situations, whether it'd be with men who are trying to kill him-with a ruthless effiicency, or with women, where he is suave and seductive. Of course with the villianous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), he's also quite cold. The scene where he murders the unarmed Dent was seen as quite controversial back when the film came out and today it still shows what a cold bastard Bond can be-he's definitely more in the film-noir anti hero mold than the matinee idol mode, which I kind of love.  

This is a pretty solid start for the franchise even though some of the stuff that's supposed to be thrilling isn't as exciting today. But I feel the next film is one of the best sequels ever made and one of the best Bond films as well. James Bond will return in: From Russia With Love.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Films of the Decade: "Collateral" (2004)

Collateral picture

This is a series of writings where I'll talk about some of the most fascinating films of the last decade.

The last time I did one of these I was writing about Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Now, I'm tackling a film from a director who has been a big influence on Nolan's work in the past, particularly in regards to The Dark Knight: Michael Mann. Someting I've noticed, in terms of Mann's crime films, is that he goess beyond the archetypes of good guy/bad guy, cop/criminal and finds the texture and humanity in his characters.

In his 1995 film Heat, Mann views Robert DeNiro's bank robber Neil McClusky and Al Pacino's detective Vincent Hanna as professionals above anything else, two men who do what they do. They learn to understand each other, which makes their dynamic more complex than cop/criminal. In his 2004 film, Collateral, it's easy to view Vincent (Tom Cruise), the hit man who forces cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around while he does his rounds, as the villain and Max as the protagonist. And the surface veneer of the film reinforces this. But it's a surface that is always on the verge of collapsing underneath these characters' and the audience's feet.

While the film begins with Vincent receiving the information he needs for the job via a briefcase exchange with Jason Statham (Yes, that Jason Statham), the character we first get to know is Max. Max has been a L.A. cabdriver for 12 years even though he calls it a "temporary" job. He wants to start his own limo service but makes up reasons why he can't start it up. He picks up Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a prosecutor, and they have a lovely scene where we learn about Max's dreams and Annie's fears about her new case. When he drops her off, she gives him her number to which he's very surprised and happy.

I love that the film allows this small interlude. It really allows you to get to know Max and connect with him before Vincent enters his life. It also makes Max's descent in to Vincent's world feel more real because it shows Max's life before Vincent enters it-Max is stuck in a rut but meets a woman who makes his day-and then life throws him a curveball in the form of Vincent. We can imagine the same thing happening to us. Fate doesn't care about what path we're already on, it'll inevitably send you down another. What's intriguing about Vincent's plan is that Max was never supposed to know what he was up to. Vincent then shoots a man out of a window and he falls on Max's cab. This is when things get more complicated-not only for Max, but for Vincent as well. Vincent is an efficient and calculating man and he'd no doubt prefer if Max was none the wiser.

Collateral was shot on digital rather than film and Mann said in an interview he tried to make a look out of digital video rather than try to make it look like film. You can definitely tell it's shot digitally and while you wouldn't want every film to have this look, particularly with more films being shot digitally, it really works for this film because it captures what L.A. must really feel like at night.

My favourite scene in the film is the one at a jazz club where Vincent will kill a jazz player named Daniel Baker (Barry Shabaka Henley). Daniel sits down with Vincent and Max before he knows who Vincent really is. Daniel tells a story about meeting Miles Davis in the very same jazz club and playing with him. Daniel, like Vincent's other targets, is a witness for the prosecution in the case to indict drug lord Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem). Daniel implies he made a deal to stay out of a prison and was never going back. While Daniel only plays a small part in this film, Henley's performance gives us the sense of an entire life in only a few short minutes, a man who never quite achieved his dreams but nevertheless was for one night able to feel alive. "I was born in 1945 but that night was the moment of my conception." Vincent offers Daniel the chance to answer a question about Davis. If he answers correctly he can walk away. "Where did Miles Davis learn music?" is the question. Daniel says it was Julliard  Vincent shoots him. Vincent then says Miles dropped out and was mentored by Charlie Parker. This scene simultaneously shows Vincent's cruelty as well as his appreciation for the arts. It's almost darkly comic that this small detail is how he decided Daniel's fate-though it's hard to believe Vincent would have let him live either way. Daniel was "born" in that jazz club- and that's where he died.

Collateral almost becomes a bizarre take on the buddy film  in instances where Vincent helps Max stand up to his boss as well as take him to visit Max's mother in the hospital. We realize Max isn't always the nicest guy since he hardly visits his mother. It's moments like this that shows Vincent does have some nobility despite his violent nature. Thanfully, the film never makes Vincent completely soft, which makes these flashes of humanity all the more tragic. We learn Vincent had an abusive father, which he may have killed, and we realize this is man who was always destined to be who he is. Despite his inherent humanity, he can't escape who he is. He's in much of a rut as Max except Max can change his own fate. If Max makes it through the night alive, he can end up like Daniel, a man who never achieved his dreams or he can start to get his limo service up and running. There's a scene near the end of the film where Max and Vincent deconstruct each other's lives in ways similar to what I've just described. It reveals the film as not only a crime thriller but an existential study about purpose in an often disconnected and cold universe. 

While there's this meme that actors like Cruise are too famous to completely disappear in to their roles, Cruise's performance is more convincing than even his heroic roles. The silver hair he sports is a great touch that does a lot for his transformation in to Vincent. Cruise does a fine job of conveying Vincent's cold-bloodedness while suggesting the deeper reservoirs of pain that made him who he is today. Foxx is really good as well, both charming but vulnerable- showing how out of his element Max is. His greatest moment in the film is when he has to pose as Vincent in a meeting with Felix in order to get the information about Vincent's last two targets. At first Max is scared of Felix but  he slowly regains his confidence and pursuades Felix to give him the information. In this scene Max, while pretending to be Vincent, reclaims the assertiveness and confidence we knew he had at the beginning of the film.

The finale of the film is where things do become a little too coincedential, with Annie being the prosecutor for the Felix case as well as Vincent's last target. But it works because Mann keeps the tension up instead of resorting to gunfights and explosions. The film ends with what on paper seems like a typical Hollywood ending: Max kills Vincent on a train and walks away with Annie in to the sunset (or in this case sunrise). But Mann ends the film on a melancholic and somber note. Vincent mentions the story he told Max when they first met about a man who died on a L.A. train and no one noticed for hours. Vincent wonders if anyone will notice him. In his final moments Vincent acknowledges that despite being a man who determined other peoples' fates even without knowing them, his death will ultimately be insignificent to everyone except the man who killed him. While Max killed Vincent in the heat of the moment, in the fight for survival, there's nothing triumphant about his victory. Max and Vincent weren't friends but they saw each other clearer than anyone ever did. And inspite of everything Vincent did to Max, in a cold and disconnected universe, that connection meant everything.