Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Heavy Metal Shane - A rambling review of Mad Max: Fury Road

Christ, where do I start?

First, the economy of the story telling is amazing. Miller is one action director who is not tied up with over-complicating a simple chase story. We get no back story, which is great. Too often action movies nowadays seem to be ashamed of just being action movies, and feel like they have to explain everything. Miller sketches every character with just enough detail to make them compelling, and then leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps. The plot is kept simple. There are no complex, over-arching schemes here. Just desperate people trying to survive in the middle of a hellish wasteland.

The actors all do a lot with the limited soil they are given. Tom Hardy is a convincing stand-in for Max. Personally I never missed Gibson. There's one badass night scene where Max leaves the tanker to go and deal with a car full of bad 'uns and then comes back covered in blood. It's a confident movie that does not feel the need to show how good Max is at killing.

Charlize Theron is great -- not just as a female action hero, but a disabled one as well. Too often action movies never feature disabled people. There's a tradition of 'one-armed swordsman' flicks in Hong Kong, but nothing similar in Hollywood. In contrast to Kingsman's Gazelle, Furiosa gets to be a hero rather than a freak or a villain's stooge. I liked that.

Back to the feminism! Last year I read an interview with producer Adi Shankar (The GreyKilling Me Softly) in which he discussed the difficulties of getting a studio to finance a female action film. He said the only way to do it was covert, by having a male character as the lead, but giving the emotional arc to a female character. Mad Max: Fury Road is that movie. While the men's rights people have unleashed their criticism about it detracting from Max, this fits with the modus operandi of the series. Having Max arrive in the middle of a community in crisis, providing aid and then leaving is the basis for the last two Mad Max movies. In this way, Max is like a post-apocalyptic descendant of Shane (1953).

If I have one complaint, it's with the look of Immortan Joe's harem. It feels like he just kidnapped them off a catwalk. They feel a bit too good looking for this place. I was waiting for them to open their mouths and reveal black toothless gums or something. Ah well. I'm nitpicking.

End of rant. There's plenty of other reviews out there. Don't wait for it to hit iTunes/DVD/Blu ray. Go watch the movie on the biggest screen  you can find -- it is the only format that does it justice.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

SPECTRE: A primer

34 years after their last scheme, Bond's old nemesis SPECTRE will be making its comeback at the end of this year. Here's a brief refresher of their past exploits.  

DR NO (1962)
BIG BAD: Dr No. One of SPECTRE's best men, he is enormously arrogant about his own abilities, which ultimately proves his undoing. He has metal hands, after an accident involving nuclear material.

SCHEME: Dr. No is using radio waves to topple American rockets after they are launched, to delay the American space program.

HENCHMEN: Professor Dent, Miss Taro, The Three Blind Mice. While none of these characters have specific gimmicks, they are good enough at their jobs that they have been able to infiltrate Jamaican society without suspicion. The three 'Blind' killers are extremely efficient in their initial assassinations, but are less than capable when faced with another professional. 

SPECTRE: The first reference to the organisation. At this stage, the organisation is presented as a cadre of criminal masterminds with world domination as their ultimate goal. 

REVIEW: On the face of it, Dr. No is a good ambassador for the organisation. However, when you start to break it down, things fall apart. For one thing, it is difficult to see how messing with rocket launches will pave the way for world domination. For another, No has poor judgement when it comes to his underlings -- all display varying degrees of incompetence which make it easier for Bond to put together what is going on. He also comes up with a really over-complicated method for killing Bond (putting a tarantula in his bed). Finally, while his hands are strong, they are not strong enough to save him from falling to his death. 

SCORE: 6/10


BIG BAD: For once, there are two villains behind the master plan. The first is Rosa Klebb. A high-ranking ex-member of SMERSH, her defection has been kept quiet by Soviet authorities to save face.  She is basically the Soviet equivalent of Bond, even sharing his eye for the ladies.

Klebb's partner is Kronsteen. A chess master when he is not formulating schemes for SPECTRE, Kronsteen is incredibly intelligent but also incredibly arrogant. His unwillingness to recognise his own failings is ultimately his undoing. 

SCHEME: As revenge for the death of Dr No, SPECTRE will lure Bond into stealing a Russian decoding machine and then kill him. They then plan to publicise his death as a salacious affair-gone-wrong that will embarrass MI6. They then plan to return the decoding machine to the Russians for a reward. 

HENCHMEN: Red Grant. A psychopath who escaped Dartmoor prison, he has been trained by SPECTRE to become their best operative. He is cold and very shrewd. His only weakness is vanity - he sees Bond’s death as a personal achievement, and chooses to gloat over this rather than dispense with him immediately. Even when Bond turns the tables on him, Grant remains relatively unfazed. It is only thanks to Q Branch that Bond is able to finish him off. 

SPECTRE: We are finally introduced to Dr No’s backer, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Though unseen, he is a powerful figure who is feared by his subordinates.  

REVIEW: One of the finest of the Bond films, and one of the best showcases for SPECTRE. Its plan is well thought out and its operatives (particularly Grant), are more than a match for Bond and his allies. 

SCORE: 9/10


BIG BAD: Emilio Largo. The most effective of Blofeld’s lieutenants, he acts as both the brains and brawn for this project. He leads the diving expeditions to hide the stolen nuclear weapons (to the extent of personally killing the pilot who has stolen them). He has no compunction about personally torturing anyone who has betrayed him, and even acts as his own strong man in the climax. He manages to get the drop on Bond, and is only prevented from killing him by a harpoon through the back. It is a testament to his capabilities that, as stated in the novel, Largo is next in line to lead SPECTRE, should Blofeld die. 

SCHEME: To steal a pair of nuclear war heads and threaten to trigger them in a major population centre unless NATO pays them a massive ransom.

HENCHMEN: Fiona Volpe. Hard to tell what her rank is, but she appears to be a more senior version of Red Grant. She handles the initial subterfuge to steal the nukes, and also takes charge when it comes to assassinating Bond. More of an outright femme fatale, she seems to enjoy the more recreational aspects of undercover work as much as the killing. So basically, she's a female James Bond.

SPECTRE: This is the first film in which we get a sense of the organisation’s reach. Blofeld has a group of lieutenants, each representing a major criminal group or secret organisation from around the world. The American Mafia and Japanese Yakuza are among those represented. The group resembles a corporation, with Blofeld as Chairman of the Board, and each lieutenant responsible for a particular area of operations. According to the briefing sequence at the beginning of the film, the group is involved in action both large scale (the Great Train Robbery) and petty (blackmail). It is apparent that SPECTRE is willing to do just about anything, if the price is right. Their plot to ransom stolen nuclear weapons represents their first major, independent venture. 

REVIEW: SPECTRE goes for broke in their first major venture. It's a little over-complicated (the whole plastic surgery subplot is a contrivance too far), but they come pretty close to carrying the scheme off. They also have some serious manpower, and are willing to take on the US Navy without hesitation.

SCORE: 8/10


BIG BAD: Blofeld is finally revealed. A scarred megalomaniac whose only meaningful relationship is with his cat, he exerts great power over his minions through fear rather than respect or admiration.  

SCHEME: To incite global nuclear war by stealing American and Soviet rockets and making each superpower think the other is responsible.

HENCHMEN: Helga Brandt is cut from the same cloth as Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe. Though Brandt’s exact rank is unclear, like Volpe, she appears to be a member of some kind of security branch within SPECTRE. Brandt’s chief job is to pose as a secretary to the tech magnate Osata, who is supplying SPECTRE with rocket fuel. Her real job is to act as both a bodyguard and a minder to keep her ‘boss’ in line. She is not particularly effective or interesting, and is only memorable for getting eaten alive by Blofeld's piranhas.

Blofeld’s muscle, in this case, is Hans. A tall blonde Aryan in the mould of Red Grant, he proves an effective (though brief) foil for Bond at the climax.

SPECTRE: Here, SPECTRE is once again presented as an apolitical mercenary organisation, with its antics financed by a foreign power (implied to be China). It has a foothold in legitimate business with Osato Industries, and the technological know-how to fire a man-made rocket into space and have it land (repeatedly) in the same place without a glitch. It has also increased its manpower markedly from previous ventures (what is their hiring policy like?), and has been able to build and sustain a massive lair inside an active volcano. 

REVIEW: I guess SPECTRE's brain trust has still not recovered from the death of Kronsteen, because this is a mess. The hijacking rockets part works, but their motivation is mystifying: Why would SPECTRE want to encite nuclear war when that would mean their fee would be worthless in the economic collapse which would follow? Plus, Blofeld himself is a letdown. Not only is it difficult to imagine Donald Pleasance's version of the character dominating people like Dr. No and Largo, he proves to be highly incompetent. He has several chances to kill Bond, but never takes up any of them until it is too late. Definitely the organisation's least effective incarnation.

SCORE: 1/10


BIG BAD: Blofeld returns, complete with a new face. This version is much tougher than his initial appearance, with the kind of charisma and intelligence necessary to wrangle agents like Dr No and Largo.   

SCHEME: Blofeld is looking to retire with a title, so he has brainwashed the patients of his allergy clinic to spread a virus which will wipe out every crop and livestock on the planet. 

HENCHMEN: Irma Bunt. Arguably the most successful stooge of the series, she is the one who kills Bond’s new wife Tracy.

SPECTRE: Though the name is never stated, the organisation is still alive, though Bond’s previous escapades have clearly taken a toll on its power and influence. In OHMSS, the group is on the run. Blofeld is clearly the last of the major players left, with no equivalent of Dr No or Largo to carry out his schemes.

REVIEW: Simultaneously bizarre and mundane, this is not nearly as insane as You Only Live Twice, but still, it is not much better. Mind controlling farmer's daughters to sterilise crops might make sense on a small-scale level, a worldwide version seems like it would be riddled with potential pitfalls. Blofeld's motivation is so insane, I'm surprised his supporters have not realised the old boy has lost the plot and abandoned him.

SCORE: 4/10


BIG BAD: Blofeld returns, this time with hair! Despite a strong supply of one liners, this version has  little aptitude for anything else. While he has been able to maintain the ruse of being a reclusive billionaire for a good few years, his plan and goals remain somewhat obscure. 

SCHEME: Kinda hard to break down. This part is clear: Blofeld has kidnapped billionaire Willard Whyte and assumed control over his business empire. With these resources, Blofeld has built and launched a satellite armed with a super laser powered by diamonds. Here is where it gets foggy. He either wants to create world peace by destroying nuclear stockpiles ala Supes in Superman IV or wants to sell nuclear supremacy to the highest bidder (whatever that means). Both explanations are offered, without further detail, by other characters, leaving this viewer completely confused.

HENCHMEN: Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. These killers elevate the act of assassination to a kind of performance art. They take great delight in coming up with unique methods of dispatching their victims, mainly, it seems, to satisfy their penchant for macabre puns. Their exact relationship to Blofeld is not clarified - either they are SPECTRE operatives or free-lancers. Their main mission is to terminate the members of Blofeld’s diamond-smuggling network. Either way, despite their over-complicated methodology, they prove to be highly efficient in this task.   

Secondary hench-ing is provided by Bambi and Thumper, a pair of female acrobats assigned to guard Willard Whyte, who put Bond through his paces.

SPECTRE: For their last stand, SPECTRE is in better shape than their last venture. They have infiltrated a major conglomerate without detection and have kept things running smoothly. One wonders why, considering their love for profit, they didn't just continue running the company. It is hard to tell how many of Blofeld's henchmen are SPECTRE operatives or just unknowing corporate flunkies.

REVIEW: Baffling, from top to bottom. Blofeld uses doubles to confuse Bond and divert attention, but he has convinced the authorities that he is dead -- so why have the doubles around? The space laser makes no sense, and Blofeld's ultimate goals are confusing and contradictory. Thankfully, Wint and Kidd are around. They are effective and creepy, with a macabre sense of humour.

SCORE: 2/10

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

8 things from the Bond books you will never see in the film series

There are many things from Ian Fleming’s novels that will never make it to the screen. His love of drugs, his irrational hatred of Bulgarians and his Scottish housekeeper May. Here are the top eight moments that will NEVER get on screen.

Bond gets friend zoned - Moonraker (1955)
Moonraker is like that Japanese guy who got to experience the fallout of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. First, its title was used to cash in on Star Wars, and then its plot was used to kill Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in Die Another Day.

One thing they did not include in either version was the ending. In the book, Bond spends all his time pawing the police woman working with him. In more enlightened times, this would be grounds for a sexual harassment suit. Bond makes it even creepier by obsessing over the fact she has a mole on one of her breasts. He takes this as meaning she is down for a tumble, over her objections. In the end, he finds out she is married and gets the fifties equivalent of the ‘you're a good friend but...’ speech. 

Bond fights a squid and Dr No drowns in shit  - Dr No (1958)
Dr. No holds the distinction of being the first Bond movie. As such it benefits from a healthy dose of sexism, racism and Sean Connery before the hairpiece.

However, in the transition, a few scenes failed to make the cut. Like in the movie, at one point Bond has to climb through a metal pipe. In the book, Bond gets out of the pipe and finds himself in the sea with a giant white squid. This one sounds pretty cool: just imagine Sean Connery razzling a squid. Sadly, this face-off never happens. In the book, Bond takes one look at this thing and runs away. Ah well.

The other sequence feels like something that would work in a Farrelly Brothers movie. Whereas in the movie, Dr. No dies in a radioactive pool of something, in the movie Bond dumps a load of bird droppings on him. It's ironic because he makes bird fertiliser, and he's a shit. Geddit?

Fleming tries to write like a woman - The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
The Spy Who Loved Me bears no relation to the film that bears its name. Legally, the producers could only use the title. Clearly, they mis -read this clause since they applied the same approach to most of the movies. 

There are a few reasons Fleming may have been a bit nervous about this one coming to the screen. This novel is a bit of an experiment as it is the only book written from the point of view of the Bond Girl. Yes, Ian Fleming, the man who once wrote the sentence ‘Making love to her would always have the sweet tang of rape’, decided to write a book from a woman's perspective. Bond only turns up toward the end to save her from a couple of rapey arsonists called Sluggsy and Horror. The only thing that is taken from the book is Horror's braces, which were used as an inspiration for metal-mouthed henchman Jaws. 

Bond’s nightmare about marriage - On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963)
In the novel, after proposing to his future bride Tracy, Bond returns home on an airplane. He falls asleep and has a nightmare about what their marriage would be like, and wakes up in a cold sweat. 

While it is a rather funny insight into Bond's psyche, if that scene had been included, the ending would not have had half the emotional punch it does have. 

Bond becomes Japanese - You Only Live Twice (1964)
In the movie Bond goes through a Japanese wedding in order to go into deep cover as a 6 foot white guy in yellow face, but in the book he THINKS he is Japanese. 

It goes like this. After killing a castle full of bad guys by plugging a volcano vent, Bond bumps his head. Kissy Suzuki, the Japanese woman who has been helping him decides to do the right thing and pretend that he is her husband. We then get about 20 pages of a woman brainwashing a mentally ill man into being her love slave, while MI6 declares Bond dead. As if this isn’t depressing enough, the book ends with Bondo-san sailing to Russia because it sounds vaguely familiar. 

On the other hand, considering his behaviour toward the fairer sex, it could be argued that this is just karma for Bond's past behaviour. One intriguing wrinkle that Fleming never got to develop was that Bond leaves without learning that Suzuki is pregnant...

Bond is brainwashed and goes to Fire Island - The Man with the Golden Gun (1965)

This is more of a two-for. Fleming died before he could finish revising the novel, so we're left with a rough sketch of the story and characters without Fleming's penchant for setting and atmosphere. However, the novel does boast two scenes which are worth mentioning, if only for how bizarre they are. The novel opens well, picking up from You Only Live Twice. Bond has been brainwashed by the Russians and gets sent back to England, where he tries to kill M with a gun that squirts acid. This is the most exciting sequence in the book, although it is hard to see any of the cinematic Bonds pulling this off.

The second sequence feels like something out of a French farce. In the middle of the night, Bond discovers the villain, Scaramanga, has snuck into his hotel room -- naked. The villain 'claims' that he thought he heard something and wanted to investigate. Yeah, right. The homo-eroticism of this scene blows Skyfall's hand-on-the-knee moment right out of the water.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Many Lives of James Bond: A franchise of reboots

Contemporary Hollywood is known for two things: franchises and franchise reboots. When Daniel Craig became the 6th actor to portray James Bond in a 'reboot' of the series, it was seen as the creative team's reaction to this latter trend. However, taken in a broader view of the series, Casino Royale is merely the latest in a series of reinventions that the franchise has gone through in its 50-odd year history. While the most obvious 're-boots' can be defined by the introduction of a new lead actor,  there have also been more subtle reinventions of the tone, style and, in some cases, the generic conventions associated with the series. Some of these reinventions have been more enduring than others, but they all, in their own way, illustrate the ways in which the James Bond series has been able to perpetuate itself despite changing times and tastes.  

Connery Mk 1 - Dr No; From Russia with Love (1962-1963)
The series begins as a relatively straight series of novel adaptations, with a few welcome additions -- like a sense of humour. One major shift from Fleming that would have major implications for the longevity of the series was the decision to move from the overtly political antagonists of the novels (the Soviet spy organisation Smersh) to non-state villains who are more concerned with money and power than ideology (SPECTRE). Both Dr. No and From Russia With Love are very faithful towards their source material. Like the books,  these stories involve small-scale espionage with a touch of the fantastic.

Connery Mk 2 - Goldfinger; Thunderball; and You Only Live Twice (1964-1967)
With the success of Goldfinger and Thunderball, the series experiences a rapid escalation towards outright fantasy, thanks to increasing box office and culminating in the involvement of Roald Dahl as screenwriter on You Only Live TwiceYou Only Live Twice bears no relation to the book it is based on, a trend which would continue into the next decade. More than Goldfinger, it provides all the iconic elements which are associated with Bond. While previous films feature conventions we now associate with the series (good/bad Bond girls, giant Aryan henchmen, super villains, lairs, gadgets), You Only Live Twice is the movie where the complete 'Bond formula' is in place.

Lazenby - On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The first changing of the guard means a brief return to the style of the early Connery era, and to straight adaptations of Fleming's novels. Perhaps feeling the absence of their original leading man, and the limitations of his successor, director Peter Hunt and his team try to break away from the style of Connery's later films. Gadgets are scaled back, with the focus back on Bond’s physical prowess (with three fistfights within the first 40 minutes) and his wits. Though there are gadgets, those on offer are either useless (radioactive lint) or so cumbersome their application is limited. The best example in the film serves as the basis for one of the few extended suspense sequences in a Bond film: Bond breaks into a nefarious party's office and has to use a massive safe cracker and photocopier to get the information he needs before the owner returns from his lunch break. A rare example of the series showing the limits of Bond's toys, this sequence is a protracted exercise in suspense and a rare injection of realism into a series that usually opts for something easier.

Connery Mk 3 - Diamonds are Forever

Following the relative failure of OHMSS, the producers decide that the only way to keep the series going is to take the series back to the style and tone of their one unqualified success: Goldfinger. The brief return of Connery also signals a shift in style and tone which will continue through the reign of his successor. The shift away from the realism of OHMSS back toward the fantastical is not simply a repetition of the late 60s films. What changes with Diamonds are Forever and the films of the 70s is the addition of a new camp dimension to the character and his world that continues to be a major influence on the series.

Moore Mk 1 - Live and Let Die; The Man with the Golden Gun (1973-1974)

The casting of Roger Moore cements the new tongue-in-cheek approach, but during his early years in the role it is not clear whether the series will endure. This first Moore era marks the point at which the series identity becomes more subject to outside influences. By the early 70s, the Bond films are no longer at the forefront of popular entertainment and Moore's first two entries are notable for their blatant attempts to copy current trends (blaxploitation and Dirty Harry in Live and Let Die; kung fu in The Man with the Golden Gun). Already out of date, the emphasis on following trends and overt comedy sees a law of dimensioning returns which will result in the series taking a 2-and-a-half year break to rekindle its mojo.

Moore Mk 2 - The Spy Who Loved Me; Moonraker (1977-1979)
Following the relative disappointment of Moore's second film, and the departure of co-producer Harry Saltzman, the creative team once again turn to one of their past hits to revive the series. This time it is You Only Live Twice, with its nuclear armageddon plot updated from the space race to nuclear submarines. The Spy Who Loved Me is a major hit and so the creative team decide that the only way they can continue to survive in a market place dominated by Star Wars is repeat the winning formula. The result is James Bond in space. Though a major hit like You Only Live Twice, at the time Moonraker is regarded as the ceiling for what Bond can get away with, and a decision is made to take the series back to earth in more ways than one.

Moore Mk 3 - For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Originally For Your Eyes Only is meant to introduce a new actor as Bond. This did not eventuate and instead Moore becomes the only Bond to receive a third re-invention. Stripped of the hardware of the late 70s (signalled by the destruction of Moore's iconic Lotus Esprit), the Moore adventures of the early 80s presage the shift toward a darker tone under his successor. Like Diamonds are Forever and The Spy Who Loved MeFor Your Eyes Only takes an earlier film as its template -- in this case, it is From Russia With Love, with  its simple mission-oriented plot, low key antagonists and emphasis on Bond's wits and physical prowess.

Another major change was more emphasis on the Cold War tensions between East and West, which had never been a major part of the series before. Previously, Bond's foes had oscillated between crime kingpins and stateless megalomaniacs. All of the villains of Moore's 80s films would be related in some way to the Eastern bloc, a trend which would be reprised briefly in Dalton's debut. 

While Octopussy and A View To A Kill will be closer in tone to Moore's 70s output, Moore's third re-invention will prove pivotal in another respect -- it signals a revision of Bond's character toward something darker and more psychologically complex, a model that will be reprised in the work of his successors. 

Moore Mk 4 - Octopussy; A View to a Kill (1983-1985)
Like For Your Eyes Only, Moore's last two outings are originally intended as vehicles for launching new actors in the lead role (you can find James Brolin's and Sam Neill's screen tests online). This means that, while they approximate the lighter tone of Moore's 70s work, there is a sense of schizophrenia to both Octopussy and A View To A Kill as the filmmakers seem to have run out of ideas about where the series is going. In this way it anticipates the creative indecision which will grip the re-launched series in the 90s.

Dalton - The Living Daylights; License to Kill (1987-1989)
Shorn of Moore's more light-weight persona, John Glen and his writers resume the realism of For Your Eyes Only and continue to move further away from the style of the 70s toward a new kind of realism, but one that has its roots in Bond's past (mainly From Russia With Love and OHMSS). The arrival of Timothy Dalton allows the creative team a chance to completely re-imagine the character. Though retrospective opinions are somewhat tempered in their appraisal, Dalton's Bond is far more tortured and conflicted than any of his predecessors. In contrast to his predecessors, whose adventures grow increasingly divorced from their source material (and reality), Dalton's movies represent an inversion -- while The Living Daylights boasts some campy humour and a formidably outfitted Aston Martin, these elements are further reduced in Licence to Kill.

While his run is short-lived, Dalton's Bond is a blueprint that both his successors will draw on. 

Brosnan - GoldenEye; Tomorrow Never Dies; The World Is Not Enough; Die Another Day (1995-2002)
Brosnan's tenure is, like Diamonds are Forever, a reaction to the films of his predecessor. GoldenEye's pre-credit sequence takes place in 1986, the year that Brosnan lost the role to Timothy Dalton. The implication is that Dalton's Bond -- and the style of his movies -- have been erased. However this is not strictly speaking true. While comparatively lighter than Dalton, Brosnan's Bond does pick up some of the psychological baggage and real-world context of his predecessor, but chooses to blend it with more of the camp and humour of Moore's tenure. 

In overview, the Brosnan series marks a period in which Bond is a firmly established part of popular culture, and each film marks, to varying degrees of success, attempts to cover Bond in all his previous permutations. Where his predecessors have a clear signature moment or image, Brosnan's Bond feels more like a 'greatest hits' version of the series as a whole. Each of his movies attempts a different version of Bond, and never really defines the kind of Bond that Brosnan is. 

GoldenEye feels more in the mould of Goldfinger - largely grounded but with trappings of the fantastic. Tomorrow Never Dies is another version of the You Only Live Twice plot line, with a megalomaniacal villain with a grandiose scheme and impressive lair (the stealth boat). The World is Not Enough attempts to go back to basics but is too cartoonish in its action sequences, puns and gadgets to be taken seriously, while Die Another Day does a Moonraker and loses the plot completely. Die Another Day is, however unintentionally, the latest in the periodic swings into complete fantasy that the series has taken before. Like You Only Live Twice and Moonraker, it becomes the new barometer for judging how far the series can go in terms of excess, and results in its successor being considerably smaller in scope. 

Brosnan's tenure is best judged as a transition between the 'classic' period (1962-1989) and the revisionism of the Craig era. While there are attempts to remould the series in a contemporary context, the movies are still firmly anchored to the traditional formula, which prevents any change from being anything more than cosmetic. 

Craig Mk 1 - Casino Royale; Quantum of Solace (2006-2008)
When Bond 21 is announced as a reboot of the series, it is seen as an unprecedented decision. However, like OHMSS and For Your Eyes Only, Casino Royale falls right in line with the series’s penchant for periodic resets. What is interesting to note is how well Craig's first two films echo Dalton’s abbreviated tenure - a move from singular villains with dreams of world domination back to smaller scale espionage stories with a focus on Bond himself and his relationships with other characters. Large scale action set pieces are pared down to emphasise the impact Bond’s escapades have on him. Both films are focused on peeling away the elements which every previous film included in the name of narrative economy. In a daring move, Q and Moneypenny are nowhere to be seen, and, shorn of the hardware and familiar supporting players, Bond is forced to be a more active character. By isolating him, the filmmakers cast Craig's Bond in a light that heightens the resemblance to the loner of Fleming’s books.

Like Dalton, Craig’s second film is subject to two lines of criticism. Like License to Kill, Quantum of Solace faces offscreen drama in the form of a writer’s strike which leaves the cast and crew with an unfinished script as shooting begins. And like Dalton's last film, the makers of Quantum of Solace attempt to pursue a darker, grittier version of the character by framing it through the lens of a contemporary style of action film. In 1989, this style is drawn from the Lethal Weapon series, with greater violence, a drug-related plot and a Michael Kamen score (the composer responsible for Lethal Weapon and Die Hard). In 2008 the filmmakers make a conscious effort to bring Quantum of Solace closer in look and feel to the Bourne franchise, with the addition of Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum second unit director Dan Bradley to oversee the mayhem. Like License to Kill, Quantum of Solace is critically pummelled. Too dark in tone, the lack of strongly developed characters and vague plotting (not helped by the fast-paced editing) hurts the film and tarnishes the appeal of the new, gritty approach. In another unfortunate coincidence with Dalton's reign, any talk of a third Craig film has to be postponed due to outside financial issues to do with MGM’s bankruptcy.

Craig Mk 2 - Skyfall to present
Spectre may determine whether the Craig era follows his predecessors in getting more epic, but as it stands, Skyfall marks a major shift away from Craig’s first two films. For one thing, it marks the first time since the 80s that the same key creatives (director and screenwriting team) have been maintained between films. More importantly, it marks a return to tradition in its focus on a stateless megalomaniac and the re-apearance of the Aston Martin DB5. Where Craig's first two films resemble Dalton's, Skyfall resembles GoldenEye in its reversion to a more classic approach. However this is not to say that it completely abandons the tone and style of Craig's previous films. What Skyfall does is to take the sense of verisimilitude developed in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and channels it in a different direction: exploring Bond's past -- something none of the previous films have attempted.

Before Skyfall, Bond is always a character of the present. Just scanning back over this article, you can see that the films are not overly concerned with continuity or a sense of history. Skyfall is all about the past. Based on the recent teaser trailer, Spectre is going to attempt something even more radical -- linking the new film back directly to its predecessor while also bringing back elements from Craig's first two adventures (tying up the Quantum plot line). Now, the series has established a stronger sense of continuity than before. It will be interesting to see how this new strategy pans out.

The future

With the series moving ahead, and Craig signed for one more film, the question of where the series goes next will pop up again: Do they continue with the approach they have done with Craig? Or do something else?

Personally I'm for doing something completely different. Previously the series tends to alternate between light and dark portrayals of Bond, and I'd like to see that continue. With its propensity for jumping on trends, will Bond try to ape the Marvel approach? Maybe the new Bond will be more along the lines of the Iron Man movies or this year's Kingsman -- character-based but not afraid to duck into irreverence and high-tech gadgetry.

Ah well. As the producers have shown before, when it comes to re-casting, they are always willing to go against the grain and try something new and different. The series has lasted for well over 50 years, and while that is in part due to the well-worn formula, it is also a result of a willingness to constantly re-invent the series and its central character. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Betrayed (1988): Lots of guts, but no brain

There are some movies which, while they have a good idea, fail because of some flaw in the execution. The 1988 drama Betrayed is the perfect example of a good concept poorly served.

Why it should be seen

It has a good pedigree - it's directed by the Oscar-winning Costa-Gavras (Z) and stars Debra Winger and Tom Berenger. The subject matter is ahead of its time - dealing with the sovereign citizen movement years before the Oklahoma City Bombing brought these groups into the public conscience.

The movie opens promisingly, with the drive-by shooting of a liberal shock jock by masked white supremacists. Staged to evoke the murder of DJ Alan Berg in 1984, the filmmakers clearly set up what is meant to be a tough-minded examination of modern hate groups. This act galvanises the FBI into action, and leads to Debra Winger's FBI agent going undercover in a midwestern farming community to find out who the culprits are.

At this point, the movie turns into a perverse variation on Witness, as Winger is drawn deeper and deeper into a relationship with a local farmer who is believed to be leading the group (Berenger). There are several highly effective and disturbing scenes, but while the cross-burning and 'man' hunt are disturbing, it is the quiet moments, when Winger is learning about Berenger's family and friends, that are the most unsettling -- an eerie bedside conversation between Winger and Berenger's young daughter in which the little girl casually explains the family's incredibly twisted worldview; or the community picnic which turns out to be a gathering of a different kind.

What makes this part of the film work is that Costa-Gavras, with his talent for mixing hot button political issues with commercial genres, is able to toe the line between dramatic narrative and fleshing out the fringe society who are the ostensible villains of the film. Rather than simply paint its subjects as cartoonish villains, this part of the film is more concerned with exploring the economic and political context for the movement's existence and why its members are willing to believe in its ideology. The movie does not shy away from showing the extent of their prejudice or condone their heinous actions (the DJ's assassination is only the tip of the iceberg with these people), it gives them a human face -- which makes them al the more disturbing: the banality of evil in its most average (white) American form.

Why it doesn't get more attention
I was of two minds about this movie. While I was watching the first half, the thought that kept running through my head is 'this is fantastic. Why have I never heard about this before?' And then the movie went downhill and my good spirits had been washed away. While the first half is excellent, the second half of the movie degrades into a series of increasingly melodramatic plot twists.

The script is really the major flaw with the movie. It is written by Joe Ezterhas, the writer of Flashdance, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a writer who is not known for nuance. The central problem with Betrayed is that it takes a fascinating issue (the sovereign citizen movement) and then trivialises it by using it as the backdrop to the familiar thriller plot line of the protagonist who goes in over her/his head by becoming involved with the person they are investigating. Ezterhas had already used this plot in the 1985 courtroom thriller Jagged Edge and would re-use it for Basic Instinct and other scripts. It's a tired conceit, and Ezterhas does not do enough to make this part of the plot feel more original or natural to the story.

While not a complete failure, Betrayed is a major disappointment considering the potential it had for being great. Considering the way in which the sovereign citizen movement has become such a major problem for US authorities (with the Bundy ranch standoff and the police killings in Las Vegas last year), it is even more of a disappointment. Hopefully some brave studio head will green light a project that deals with the subject of the sovereign citizen groups and bring this problem the mainstream attention it deserves.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

In A Lonely Place: Bogie's finest hour

There are a lot of film noir that I can say are among my favourites, but this 1950 classic takes the top spot.

Synopsis: Fading screenwriter Dixon Steele is implicated in the murder of a waitress. Famous around town for his short fuse, Dix remains under suspicion despite an alibi from his new neighbour Laurel Gray. Despite this inauspicious start, Laurel and Dix begin a relationship, while he begins work on a new project that can resurrect his career. However, as time goes on, Laurel becomes increasingly unsettled by her beau's erratic behaviour, and the question of his guilt for the murder that brought them together begins to cause cracks in their relationship...

The Cast: It seems somewhat pedantic to point this out, but Dixon Steele is one of Humphrey Bogart's best, and most underrated performances. At once charming, melancholy and explosive, Bogart is at his most fearless here. Playing Laurel Gray, Gloria Grahame delivers one of her best performances. Both play extremely damaged people, and neither Bogart or Grahame try to make them more sympathetic. They feel like human beings.

Director: Nicholas Ray is most famous for directing Rebel Without A Cause (1955), but he has an extensive series of credits beyond the James Dean classic, including the bizarre western Johnny Guitar (1954), the melodrama Bigger Than Life (1956) and the noir On Dangerous Ground (1952), which is notable for being another examination of a man tortured by his propensity for violence. Ray's work is notable for taking genre material (crime, western, teen) and focusing on the characters. The results are a series of expressionistic, naturalistic movies which feel far more real and less predictable than their plots may suggest. Such is the case with In A Lonely Place, which ranks as one of his best films.

Review: Ultimately, anyone going into this looking for another Maltese Falcon will be disappointed. But that is a good thing. This is a completely different kind of noir -- lacking most of the conventions one would associate with the genre. What it does have is a lead character who is trapped in a spiral toward oblivion, which is the central theme underlying all noir.

In Nicholas Ray's hands, what should be a conventional romantic thriller turns into a macabre character study of a man with no control over his inner impulses. This film, while having elements of genre, uses them as a jumping off point for exploring more complex ideas. The question of whether Dix is capable of murder is the starting point for a broader examination of his character, and what drives him to act the way he does.

The love story between Dix and Laurel, which could have been the most hackneyed aspect of the film, is a solid foundation. It's a cliched thriller plot now, but In A Lonely Place is far more concerned with using this bond as a catalyst for breaking down the facades of both characters -- Dix, the sardonic man's man, and Laurel, the aloof ice maiden -- to reveal the bruised humanity underneath. They are both scared people who have tried to keep the world at bay. While the title refers to the murder scene, it is clear that both the central characters are in their own 'lonely places'.

Although Laurel does her best to bring out the best in him, Dix is incapable of overcoming his own nature, and this puts his affection for Laurel on the line. The ongoing murder investigation is only another strain on the relationship. While it is never clear until the end if Dix is the killer, it becomes obvious that, whatever the case, he is more than capable of becoming one. This disquieting notion forms the backbone of the film, and gives In A Lonely Place an ambiguity that elevates it beyond being just another murder mystery.

Double bill with: Vertigo. With its focus on the psychology of its characters, the obsessive romance and last act twist, In A Lonely Place would make a great double bill with Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Get the Gringo: Mel Gibson's underrated comeback

In 2012, Mel Gibson made a return to the action genre with Get the Gringo. Thanks to Gibson's offscreen antics, the movie was consigned to VOD and has fallen into relative obscurity. That's a shame, because the film has much to recommend it. Crafted as a modern riff on Clint Eastwood's 'Man With No Name', Get the Gringo is an efficient, unpretentious action film that fits right in with the recent trend of old-school throwbacks like John Wick, Dredd and Jason Statham's Safe (which I will be reviewing soon).

I do not want to go into spoilers, so I'll keep the plot synopsis brief. After a major haul, a nameless bank robber (Gibson) escapes across the border into Mexico where he is arrested and dumped in a hellhole of a prison. While fending for himself, he has to figure out how to get his loot back and avoid the killers hired by the gangster he robbed back in the States. Further complications ensue when he becomes involved with a female inmate and her son. There is a lot of sweating, shooting and one liner saying(?).

In the spirit of the movie, I'm going to structure my review as a lame parody of the Western movies it references.

The Good
  • I'll be honest. I thought I was going to hate Gibson in this. But he's great. Personal defects notwithstanding, he is a damn good actor and a genuine movie star. Playing a career crook with a malleable sense of right and wrong, the former Martin Riggs is as watchable as ever, and still makes for a credible action hero. The fact that he is playing an opportunistic asshole makes it easier to like him.
  • The premise is really cool: it's basically 'Escape from New York' meets 'A Fistful of Dollars', with Gibson dropped into the middle of a massive prison complex and caught between two warring villains (the man he robbed stateside, and the Mexican drug lord who rules the prison from his palatial rooftop cell-cum-presidential suite).
  • The setting. The prison itself is like a city-state. While it is locked down at night, during the day people can come and go as they please, there is a food court and a mini-mall, and the rich inmates have their own private block where they have massive parties with the local (non-inmate) elite. 
  • The action is nice and clean. There is a certain similarity to John Wick in that the filmmakers let it play out in extended moving shots. Director Adrian Grunberg, making his debut, displays a sure hand with making the violence intense without resorting to shaky-cam or hyperactive editing.   
  • The central relationship between Gibson and the cynical child inmate is a nice counterpoint to the action. They both need things which the other has (very Fistful of Dollars), which prevents their bond from turning into another condescending 'old white guy teaches brown kid something' story
  • As previously alluded to, the movie has a dark, dry sense of humour. Gibson's voice-over alone is awash in pitch black observations about the situation he has fallen into. His fantasies about blowing away his ex-wife's hapless new beau are pure gold.  

The Bad
  • Gibson does an Eastwood impression at one point -- it is pretty bad.
  • The movie does skew a bit too dark in the third act with a rather brutal torture scene for one of Gibson's allies.
  • If you want to argue that this movie trades in Mexican stereotypes... you'd be right.

The Ugly
  • The villains could use a bit more personality. The drug lord has a suitably nasty plan, but his personality is a little bit colourless.
  • The movie does have a little of the 'white man saves brown people' theme, but it isn't too obvious and most of the villains Gibson has to  contend with are fellow gringos.
  • Speaking of which, I'm torn on the title: on the one hand, I like the brevity (the UK title was How I Spent My Summer Vacation), on the other, it's a bit generic and feels a bit culturally tone-deaf 

Final thoughts

In the end, Get the Gringo works as a throwback to old-school action movies, and is a great reminder of the movie star Mel Gibson used to be. It's also far more convincing as a entry in the 'old geezer kills everyone else' sub genre than most of Liam Neeson's recent vehicles. As a comeback for Gibson or on its own merits, this is a really good action flick that deserves more attention. Check it out.