You Only Live Twice

At Qutub Minar

Inspecting the remains of the outbuildings at New Delhi’s Qutb Minar. I’ll get round to sorting out the rest of these photos sometime, I’m sure.

So, You Only Live Twice. Or, so they say. But what do they know? Who are you going to trust, me or Nancy Sinatra?

Having saved the world from nuclear based extortion in Thunderball, there must have been some head-scratching going into how the sequel could raise the stakes. It appears that they went for a rather literal approach, raising the opening action literally into orbit as the forces of SPECTRE plot to start a new World War, raising Cold War tensions by space-napping both astro and cosmonauts, leaving the Yanks and the Sovs blaming each other. A very Hot War looms. Oh noes!

The only people not fooled by this, apparently, are the jolly old stiff upper lipped British, who are convinced the craft are landing near Japan. Not believing the Japanese government to be behind the scheme, it’s left to James Bond to poke around, see what’s going on and put a stop to it. As mentioned, the track leads, through a Japanese manufacturing concern, to those naughty chaps at SPECTRE, the plot this time being headed by the previously incognito Number One, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence).

This pretty much rounds out the Bond trope checklist. Of course, Blofeld’s been knocking around for the past few films, partially glimpsed in his oft-parodied pussy-stroking, but this is the first time he’s front and centre. Special mention must be made of Pleasence’s performance, as despite it being the most imitated villainous performance from anything outside of the Star Wars franchise it remains creepily effective and chilling.

If you want to look at how much the Bond franchise has changed in a relatively short space of time, you don’t need to look much further than the use of Monty Norman’s Bond theme. In From Russia With Love, unless my memory has failed me entirely, it’s heard as Jimmy checks into his hotel room and turns the place over for surveillance devices. In You Only Live Twice, he’s buzzing around in a flat-pack helicopter over a secret volcano lair, destroying enemy choppers with flamethrowers, somehow.

This has very firmly crossed over to balls-out action territory, with only the very vaguest hint of actual spycraft to be seen. Well, I say actual spycraft. Actual spycraft going by the movie definitions of it, I mean. I expect actual spying these days involves a lot of sitting at computer terminals and spreadsheets.

Regardless, You Only Live Twice does action as well as anything of the era, and better than most films now. The pacing is exemplary, the screenplay from Roald Dahl (now, there’s a tale from the unexpected) rarely lingering and always having the distinct feeling of forward motion. There’s a new director to the franchise, with Guy Hamilton making way for Alfie director Lewis Gilbert. There’s certainly a very different feel and energy to the piece in comparison with its direct precursor, although a good chunk of that may well come from this being the first of the series to essentially lift only the title from Fleming’s novel, and inventing the rest. First, but by no means the last.

If there’s a bone to pick with You Only Live Twice it’s going to be mainly location based. Yes, everything’s completely over the top, from the action to SPECTRE’s plan, but the movie does at times appear to be jumping up and down saying “I AM BASED IN JAPAN! LOOK AT ALL THIS JAPANESE STUFF THAT I AM SHOWING TO YOU! HAVE I MENTIONED I AM IN JAPAN!”. Understandable, and suitably exotic and intriguing to Western audiences, however by the time Tiger Tanaka has revealed his secret ninja training ground it can feel a little strange and over-egged.

There’s further oddness, and admittedly it’s perhaps not quite as strange as Doc. No’s make-up job, but You Only Live Twice does seem to imply that it’s easy to take a Caucasian and turn them into a perfectly disguised Japanese fella by applying a Tommy Sheridan-esque level of fake tan and dodgy haircut. I’m not altogether sure if this is racist, or merely very stupid. At least we’ve restrained ourselves from having Bond run around talking about making a delicious runch of flied rice at tooth hurty.

These are niggling points. You Only Live Twice stands up to time’s challenges far more robustly than Thunderball does, and makes for a far more thrilling watch. It represents the finalisation of the Bond movie formula that it will rely on for decades to come, with a few notable exceptions. In particular, the next in the series, but we’ll deal with that when we come to it.

Thunderball

ISO3200 and Noise Ninja for the win.

Another day, another Bond escapade.

This time around SPECTRE has cooked up an audacious plan, upping the ante from Doc No’s mere fiddling with guidance systems to outright stealing of a couple of thermonuclear bombs. With one of their operatives undertaking extensive plastic surgery to infiltrate a NATO training flight, making off with a Vulcan bomber and swiping what would, given the timeframe, probably be a “Blue Steel” nuclear bomb. This is a weapon only matched in potency by Derek Zoolander’s Blue Steel “look”.

With the boomy-type things now in the hands of SPECTRE No. 2 Emilo Largo, a demand is issued to, well, NATO, I assume, but this takes a particularly Brit-centric look at the issue, for One Hundred Million Pounds Sterling. Which isn’t far off the eventual worldwide take of the film, according to IMDB, so in a way the plan pays for itself. Actually, given that the bomber has to be landed on a retractable, submersible landing strip, in addition to the expensive plastic surgery, I suspect that most of the blackmail money would go straight back towards paying for the equipment used in the endeavour.

With everyone on the hunt for the bombs, but with no clue as to where they are, it’s indeed fortunate that James just happens to have been relaxing off-duty at the same spa as the SPECTRE agents preparing for their mission. Massively, ridiculously, unbelievably fortunate. At any rate, this leads Bond to the Bahamas on the trail of Largo, as he attempts to sniff out the location of the stolen Vulcan and its deadly payload.

Sean Connery has, as it turns out erroneously, had Thunderball ascribed as his favourite Bond, but that nothwithstanding I’m sure he has fond memories of filming it. I’m sure the Bahamas isn’t a bad place to go on location. By this point he’s clearly massively comfortable in his role and for the time, it had some innovative (and SFX Oscar winning) action set-pieces.

The problem in Space Year 2011 is that “for the time” statement. There can’t have been an awful lot of underwater filming, well, without any disclaimers, really, but certainly not in the arena of mainstream action movies. On a technical and novelty level, you can see why the film doubles down on it.

However, just as with the current infatuation with 3D filming, the gimmick frequently gets in the way of the story rather than supporting it. Putting your main characters in situations where they can’t talk, due to the breathing apparatus, falls somewhere between brave and foolhardy. Putting entire action sequences underwater is boneheaded. As anyone who has been in water at some point in their life will attest to, fast and fluid motion isn’t the medium’s forte. Hence the climactic action sequences that want desperately to be pitched underwater battles become, essentially, wetsuit clad men hugging each other with the occasional harpoon dart penetrating them. Ooh-er, missus.

I don’t have much issue with the rest of the film, but so much of this film’s impact is gambled on the underwater action that it undermines the otherwise solid framework of the film.

Connery is effortlessly portraying Bond by this point, and is a joy to watch in the role. I’m not so fond of Adolfo Celi’s Largo, who appears to have mistaken ‘characterisation’ for ‘wearing an eyepatch’. He’s as hampered by the underwater nature of a lot of the film as Bond is, and only in one scene does he ever get a chance to exude menace, far towards the end of the film by which point the damage has already been done.

While the plot has increased the stakes to nuclear threats against cities rather than government gold facilities, there’s it doesn’t translate into any extra dramatic tension. While it’s far from the most disappointing Bond film in the series, it’s certainly the first one we’ve spoken about in this ill-advised experiment.

Still, bonus points for featuring Bond girl Domino getting a tow from a turtle, an act which is substantially less perverted than it sounds.

Goldfinger

A bird
The above bird, which I believe is called a Blue ‘n’ Green Bird, native to Somewhereistan, was taken in a surprisingly gloomy Edinburgh Zoo enclosure. I think it scrubs up quite well for a ISO2000 shot from an Olympus E-600, a camera which as much as I love is not renowned for its low light chops.

Well, this Bond-a-week project isn’t exactly having the smoothest of starts. In my defence, I’m still not precisely convinced of what time zone I happen to be in. Remedial action must be taken on this front, and also on my increasingly ludicrous stack of photographs to sort, process and publish. Let’s get started with Goldfinger.

In some part, Goldfinger was what prompted this ill-advised adventure. As part of a discussion with my good buddy Craig, our wandering attention turned to the subject of the then recently televised movie on one of the higher-numbered ITV derivative repeat-mongers. I remember commenting something along the lines that for me, the moment when Bond transformed into something that’s substantially less interesting and more stupid is the nanosecond after Honour Blackman declares that “I’m Pussy Galore”. Bond’s addled acknowledgement of the unlikeliness of the name notwithstanding, I declared it the beginning of the end of Bond.

At the time, and bear in mind that I’ve never been the world’s biggest Bond fan, I believed that Goldfinger came far later on in the series than it actually does. It is, of course, only the third trip to the cinema for 007. Unarguably, and perhaps this is where my confusion arose from, it’s the prototype for almost everything that follows it, and establishes all of the tropes that turn the franchise from a series of spy adventures to a series of Bond Films, a sub-genre all of its own.

The car, the gadgets, the opening sequence mini-mission, the overtly high stakes evil plots and most vital of all, the villain parading around front and centre for most of the film. Dr. No was barely seen in the film that took his name. From Russia With Love’s main antagonist, SMERSH killer Donald Grant was seen more, but perhaps heard from less. Gert Frobe’s Auric Goldfinger is all ingrained on the DNA of almost every scene in Goldfinger.

I am, again, rather making the assumption that you are all familiar with the goings on of Goldfinger, which may not be the case. At any rate, the Bank of England bigwigs inform M and our man Bond that they suspect that gold magnate Goldfinger has been illegally smuggling some of the shiny stuff between countries, with some potentially unpleasant repercussions for economies still pegged to the gold standard.

It’s left to Jimmy to investigate Mr. Finger’s operations, wheedling his way into Goldfinger’s dealings by dangling a bar of Nazi gold in front of him and promising there’s more where that came from. This meets with a mixed reception from Auric and his iconic hat-flinging sidekick, Oddjob, but Bond isn’t a quitter, trailing Goldfinger across Europe, getting his ass captured and tied to a table with a pointlessly placed laser bothering him providing yet another boon for lazy comedy writers, then hauled back to the States for the conclusion of his Master Plan, as he attempts to irradiate Fort Knox’s gold repository.

If that perhaps sounds familiar, even if you haven’t seen the film, perhaps it is because with some creative search and replacing, you could apply the above recap to damn near every Bond film that follows it. As templates go, there’s few that have stood repeated re-pressings as well as the narrative bones of Goldfinger.

It’s difficult to know where to place Goldfinger in the grand pantheon of Bond films. It’s surely the most influential of all of the series. There aren’t many films that could claim quite to have made quite the same stamp on the lineage of its descendants as Goldfinger. The only thing that Moore era Bonds have in common with Dr. No is the character name. They’d be far more familiar with Goldfinger.

Is that a bad thing? I suppose from the prospect of someone faced with another twenty odd movies that aren’t going to be a million miles away from this film over the next twenty odd weeks, it definitely is. I am, however, hardly a representative sample, and it’s difficult to argue with the box office results of the longest running movie series since the creation of moving pictures. Regardless, this marks the move away from a (still hardly grounded in reality) world of intrigue to a series where we’re often just marking time until the next curiously prone to exploding thing explodes.

It turns out that calling this the beginning of the end of Bond is wholly inaccurate in any meaningful sense. It’s the beginning of the beginning for Bond. It’s the end of the false beginning of Bond, the spy narratives with a talented but flawed and on occasion vulnerable protagonist. It’s the start of the Bond that’s a cape and incorrect undergarment placement away from being Superman. Commercially, it would be foolish to argue with the results. From a hoity-toity critical perspective, it’s the start of stagnation.

I had intended to end with the previous paragraph, providing as it does a nice callback to the start of this rambling write-up. It wouldn’t be accurate. While it’s possible to position this as the start of an avalanche of cliches, that would downplay how enjoyable Goldfinger actually is. For the first execution of the Bond Formula, it’s as fine an outing as any of the following. At least until post-Brosnan era Gritty Reboot, its only the less polished special effects and back-projection that dates it.

Besides, how on earth can you disrespect a film with Bert Kwouk,  a machine gun toting granny and a shower of Mafia bosses that sound exactly like a parody of Mafia bosses with lines like “Hey, what’s with the trick pool table!”? It also provides a good chunk of the Austin Powers references, so it’s also achieved an inadvertent comic sheen over time. Perhaps that’s why the previous casual thought inspection left this Bond outing a little tarnished in my mind, but in the harsh light of cold inquisition, that’s not a tenable position.

Hereafter

Olympus’ “Dramatic Tone” filter – guaranteed daftness, or your money back.

I’m barely back from China and I find myself faced with another unlikely-to-be-enjoyable business trip out to India. Good job I don’t have a social life or any commitments outside of work. Oh, wait, no. The other option. Let’s just say I’m less than thrilled about the prospect that awaits me, aside from having a nice long flight during which I can revise my C.V.

A small amount of this month’s irritatingly slender free time was spent watching Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering, Hereafter. I knew going in that this was a bit of a gamble. The cinema website did, after all, describe it as a ‘supernatural thriller’, which is a sub-genre that in my experience is pretty much a synonym for ‘pish’. On the other hand, Eastwood’s been on a roll of late, delivering a series of worthy, enjoyable, more often than not brilliant movies for the last decade. If anyone could pull it off, surely it’s ol’ Dirty Harry, especially with the typically dependable Matt Damon returning from Invictus.

I guess both of their script quality radars have picked up the same tracking errors that has so afflicted Angelina Jolie’s of late, as Hereafter proves to be an only very barely tolerable snoreathon that, in a world of pure justice and truth, would replace the end credits with a polite apology and an offer of a full refund.

Damon plays George Lonegan, a factory worker doing his best to ignore his ‘special gift’. He can see dead people. By which I do not mean that he is not robbed of his sight anytime he walks into a morgue. That is not a special gift. That is a mere biological function which most of us are already graced with. No, by this I mean he can see into the spirit world and hear what the deadites are saying unto people.

Mmmph.

At any rate, while he had been using his gifts as a medium for a career, he found the stress of the gig unbearable and is in search of a normal life. Meanwhile, a French television star played by Cécile De France struggles to deal with her near-death experience after being caught in a freak tidal wave. Also meanwhile, a young London lad struggles to deal with the death of his identical twin. All have some interest in the afterlife. Will they all meet up by the end of the film in some sort of crazy coincidence, or fate, or whatever?

Well, duh. Quite what all of the above was supposed to say, or mean, or be, is entirely mystifying. None of the struggles any of the characters featured go through are relatable in any way, apart from I suppose a slender few tenths of percentage points of the world’s population that have had, or think they have had, some sort of near death experience. Perhaps I’m having a failure of empathy caused by near-exhaustion, but I just don’t think it’s possible to care about any of these characters, apart, maybe, from the young kid, but even that’s scuppered by the dreadful performance that Frankie and George McLaren inflict on us.

Still, the kids are in good company, with flat, lifeless performances given across the board. Almost nothing happens at all over the course of what IMDB informs me was 129 minutes, although I could have sworn it was closer to 129 hours.

This is a dull, tugid, boring movie in which nothing happens. Even if you have any sort of belief in any kind of afterlife beyond quiet decomposition, there’s not a damn thing that’s of any interest whatsoever for you in here, and you should avoid to the best of your abilities.

Of course, if you’re a “sceptic” or as I like to think of them “sane person”, there would seem to be some opportunity for watching the movie as an opportunity to rage against the screen, given the completely credulous way into which the existence of a spirit world is introduced, and a further chance to descend into apoplexy when Cécile De France starts bawling about all the “scientific evidence” she has got her mitts on, which is never documented so I must assume is “scientific” in the way that homeopathy is “scientific”, which is to say the opposite of “scientific”.

Even then, the combined tedium of the film means we can only sit in front of it in somnambulistic stupor until it has the good grace to come to a ending that answers none of the questions that it hints at. I suppose the intention was to prompt your own thought train on what goes on after you croak, but that’s not a ticket I care to buy.

I’ve only seen two films released this year, so saying that this is the least enjoyable of them is not currently a particularly damning phrase. However, I’m pretty confident I’ll be saying the same thing in June, at which point the judgement may have a little more bite to it.

From Russia With Love

It's the Great Wall of China. It's pretty good.

This is some Wall thing they’ve got in China. It’s pretty great.

It’s also quite breathtakingly cold up there at this time of year, with a wind that scythes directly through you as though you were a collection of insubstantial mists, rather than a well swaddled organisation of meat and bones. It’s worth the discomfort for the views, and at if you look on the positive side it made for a substantially less sweaty pseudo-mountaineering session that doing it in the middle of Beijing’s thirty-odd degree summers, as it was the last time I was up there.

I’m rather falling behind on this Bond project, and so early into it too. Let’s attempt to arrest that slide by looking at the second cinematic Bondular outing, From Russia With Love.

This time round we are introduced to the concept of Bond’s reputation preceding him to the extent that he can hardly be called a secret agent, as MI6 get word of a Red Communist clerk offering to defect from those evil Russians to the Brits, bringing along a top secret decoding doohickey on the condition that she’s met by Mr. James Bond, Esq., whom she has taken a bit of a shine to.

Realising that life is very rarely that simple, Jimmy suspects a trap, but having no pressing luncheon appointments that day presses ahead with it anyway. Naturally, he is correct, the Russian lass being a unwitting pawn in a game designed by the international criminal mastermind Phil Spector to play Britain and Russia against each other to warm up the previously rather boring Cold War in Istanbul.

Terence Young returns on directorial duties, and he claims that of the Bond films he directed, this is his favourite. He could make a pretty solid case for it being the best Bond film period, but seeing as he isn’t typing this, I suppose I’ll have to fill in. I don’t have the exact quote to hand, but Young says something along the lines of the screenplays and Connery’s performance are adding in the one thing that isn’t in Fleming’s novels that went on to define the film series – charm.

From Russia With Love is where the charm offensive begins in earnest. While Connery’s Bond in Dr. No isn’t exactly a complete cold blooded psychopathic killer, he shows certainly shows moments of steely dispassion. These vanish in From Russia With Love, making it more like the Bond we’ve come to know and love.

That may not necessarily be a good thing. Sure, Bond is now a far more likable protagonist. However it seems as part of the trade off he’s also lost any sort of sense that things are not going to work out exactly in his favour at all points, even while in the middle of a murderous melee that requires the SPECTRE agent to save Bond’s life. This is the start of the end of Bond’s dramatic credibility. It seemed that Dr. No’s Bond might fail. Savour that sensation, as there’s going to be almost none of it over the remainder of the series.

At least in this film, there’s some trade off in as much as even if Bond wanders around with a God Mode cheat code enabled, he may well inadvertently trigger a full on international crisis with his flagrant disregard for Russian embassy territorial sovereignty.  For a globe-trotting superspy, the Great Game doesn’t seem to be high on Bond’s list of priorities. He goes on to tackle a number of one-off SPECTRE backed madmen, but there’s very little political manoeuvring to speak of.

I suppose that’s the difference between Bond and The Ipcress File. It also means the From Russia With Love presents another degree of differentiation from the formula that would go on to be so successful and ultimately repetitive for the series.

As a franchise, Bond isn’t big on supporting characters sharing the limelight. There’s the Bond girls, sure, but until relatively recently those on the side of the Right and Just were more of the damsel-in-distress type than the kickers-of-ass and takers-of-names. The closest we’ve got to a co-hero is the CIA’s Felix Leiter, who’s more often than not a combination of sounding board and phone line to the inevitably fashionably late Marine Corps.

As such, it’s both a delight and shame that Pedro Armendariz’ Istanbul section chief Kerim Bay is reasonably heavily featured and killed over the course of the piece, respectively. Almost as magnetic a personality as Bond himself, I’d far rather have watched a spin-off series starring him than the once mooted, now spiked Jinx franchise expansion starring Halle Berry.

I can’t go quite so far as to agree with Young. While this is still a tremendously enjoyable film, from where we sit there’s more of interest in Dr. No and from a purely dramatic standpoint there’s more danger to get your teeth into. From Russia With Love veers a little too heavily into intrigue, while at the same time being  too over-the-top to be believable. Of course, it’s positively understated compared to later Bond outings, but at this embryonic stage of proceedings it’s still judged against other spy films rather than the now sizable reservoir of Bond movies.

That aside, there’s little else wrong with From Russia With Love, which provides a more enjoyable and arguably far less dated, Soviet bogeyman aside, watch than most of the Brosnan-era Bonds. If, by some unbelievable set of circumstances you have avoided exposure to this film thus far in your life, I recommend that you give it a chance. It should impress you.

The Hunt For Red October

Balls

It’s coming up for Chinese New Year in Beijing, which rather means everything looks like Christmas in Blighty. Vive la différence.

So, what’s a lad to do on a cold Beijing evening? A night on the tiles in a nightclub? A couple of shandies in the hotel bar and an early night? Well, I considered these before going with the obvious option. Watching The Hunt For Red October.

I can immediately think of anything particularly wise to say about the film, so I’ll limit myself to saying that it’s held up pretty well, still capturing a decent amount of intrigue and tension, and that it’s really wierd to see Young(ish) Alec Baldwin, dramatic actor, having grown so used to Old(ish) Alec Baldwin, the self parody from 30 Rock.

Oh, and there’s also the single best look of surprised, affronted, disbelieving shock ever commited to celluloid in here, after Sean “obviously I’m Russian, you can tell by my accent” Connery kills off the submarine’s political officer.

Dr. No

A Flagpole

Go on. Run your idea up there, see who salutes.

Between some conversations about Timothy Dalton’s stint as James Bond with my buddy Craig a few weeks back, the recent confirmation that the next Bond instalment has been green-lit after MGM’s financial wobble and a conversation on one of the best Mac analysis podcasts, the underwhelmingly named “The Talk Show“, ol’ Jimmy-oh-seven’s been on my mind a little lately. So what better way to de-mindify him than by committing to watching a Bond film a week until I run out of them?

We’ll see how enthusiastic I am about the project once I hit the long dark days of Moore’s run, but I’ll kick things off with the obvious starting point, 1962’s Dr. No.

Perhaps the strangest thing, at least for someone who’s grown up with the idea of Bond films firmly entrenched in popular culture thanks to the Bank Holiday TV saturation Bond-bombing that used to go on in the days when it was occasionally worth tuning the telly to ITV, is that Dr. No isn’t really a Bond film. It’s a spy film about a spy called James Bond.

That sounds a little strange. Let me back up a little here. The Bond franchise had been going strong for seventeen years before I’d been born, and thanks to the above mentioned telly viewings going back as far as I recall most of the Bond films pre-Goldeneye, I think, all merge together into one big messy gestalt. By that time, “Bond film” really was a recognisable sub-genre of films, with it’s own familiar set of over the top cliches that fit like a comfortable pair of slippers.

Much like other “genre” films like horrors are generally judged in relation to other horrors, rather than to some set of generalised critical standards, Bond films tend to be judged in relation to other Bond films, at least until the recent reboot. Just as you understand the most of the horrors are about the stabbing and the screaming, the Bond films are about the silly gadgets, silly names, casual womanising, action set pieces and the villains with self-image and plans above their station. You know what you’re getting, and set expectations accordingly.

Going back to the original, it’s odd to see that few of what would come to be all-too-familiar narrative crutches are present, or certainly not to the extremes it would very quickly be taken to. For example, the most elaborate gadgets Q branch have cooked up for 007 are a geiger counter and a Walther PPK.

It’s not without its trips into the unusual, but even when Bond’s trying to fend off an assassination by spider, it’s played straight down the middle. On occasions, Bond is as shaken as the martinis he orders, which isn’t something that happened again to Bond until Daniel Craig’s current incarnation. Well, apart from a brief time under Dalton’s auspices, but we’ll get to that in due course.

Generally in Bond movies, Jimmy saunters through underground lairs filled with henchmen without getting so much as a crease in his shirt, let alone seeming to be in real mortal danger. Sean Connery’s first run through comes as close to Bond being portrayed as a human being rather than an immortal boogyman as you would have seen in decades, had you payed your money at the cinema on release. Hell, we’re even introduced to his day-job with M berating him for carrying a sub-standard gun that led to his hospitalisation.

Narratively, Dr. No stands head and shoulders above most of its stablemates. For those who forget the details, Bond is simply sent out to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of the local MI6 agent. For about an hour or so, what happens is.. well, police work,  an actual investigation of the sort that Bond wouldn’t normally sully his hands with. In later instalments, Bond just has to walk near a place and secret plans just unfurl themselves around him everywhere he goes. He works for his supper in Dr. No.

Speaking of the doctor, perhaps the least Bondian thing about Dr. No is the villain himself. Not, perhaps, in scope or achievement, but in as much as the bad guy in any given Bond film is usually waved about in front of us near-continuously. We don’t even hear Dr. No’s voice until over half-way through the film, let alone see him. In terms of a ‘normal’ investigative narrative this makes perfect sense, and it works well here, but it’s so different from the standard Bond operating protocol that it feels a little strange.

Secret island base notwithstanding, even Dr. No’s scheme itself doesn’t seem to be utterly implausible, certainly by comparison with later films. Remotely fiddling with America’s missile guidance systems seems to be an almost achievable and sane goal, although exactly why it has become so important to do so isn’t particularly well explained. Joseph Wiseman’s portrayal of No is suitably enigmatically restrained, and a welcome change of pace from the frothing madmen this franchise can occasionally throw at us.

Connery is the quintessential Bond, and this is perhaps the best acting performance he gives during his tenure,simply because he’s given some sort of emotional range. Later films would tend to have Bond be… smug, for want of a better term, throughout. Here, Bond occasionally gets rattled, and perhaps more of Fleming’s Bond rather than the one that visits the moon is seen in Dr. No than anything until the modern era. The ice cold delivery of “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six” is a glimpse at an emotionally deadened killer that the series would soon shy away from in favour of quips and kiss-off lines.

The only glaring element that dates Dr. No, apart perhaps from the first delivery of the series’ iconic introductory catchphrase with a fag dangling out of Connery’s mouth, is the effects work. It’s perhaps churlish to complain about it from this timeframe, but even amongst its contemporaries the back-projection on the car chase scenes is decidedly poor, and some of the miniature models used for the explosions would look no less realistic if Wallace and/or Gromit  was in there with them.

That aside, there’s really an awful lot to like in Dr. No, and very little to dislike. It’s a good film, and without the disclaimer of “compared to other Bond films”. This first outing, by virtue of not yet fully embracing the elements that made it the longest-running and most-successful film franchise, becomes a strong candidate for being the best of the franchise. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

True Grit, Bayonetta

looks a bit like the TARDIS, of you squint

Ahhhh, back to a wonderful world of mild frustrations and minging vending machine coffee. I hardly feel like I’ve been away. If nothing else, I’m certainly no longer used to dragging my carcass out of bed while the hours on the alarm clock are still in the single digits. Is it just me, or does that look like Doctor Who has just landed in Renfrew?

I’ve no wish to turn this into an entirely movie related blog, but there’s not much going on just now in the world of politics or suchlike to rail against, so I suppose I can only really talk about the things I learned yesterday, half of which involves movies.

The first thing, which came as no surprise having been forewarned, is that the Xbox360 game Bayonetta is no good whatsoever. I assume the PS3 version to be equally dire. It’s only to be expected, coming as it does from the same deranged mind that gave us Devil May Cry, another long running series that steadfastly refuses to be any good whatsoever after multiple iterations.

Bayonetta is essentially Devil May Cry, but with tits. And a cutscene obsession with languishing on the main character’s bahookie, which I hear was supposed to be ironic.  I’d perhaps believe this if there was an ounce of wit or charm shown in the entire game, or at least the four hours or so I could be bothered playing, but there simply wasn’t. The cutscenes soon become so teeth-grindingly annoying that I immediately skipped them, or at least all the ones that didn’t have annoying quick time events  – all of which are the press ‘X’ to not die type, all showing the character doing the sort of cool stuff it’d be nice if you were to be able to do in the normal game.

Said normal game involves, exclusively, mashing buttons at random and hitting the dodge button when it looks like someone’s taking a swing at you, assuming you can see them given the camera’s propensity for suddenly becoming interested in architecture on the opposite side of the town square from the hordes of axe wielding angels which you’re apparently killing for some reason that I assume was made apparent in one of the cutscenes I skipped. It is massively repetitive and boring. Don’t want.

So, the rest of the evening was spent watching the original 1969 John Wayne version of True Grit, in anticipation of the upcoming Coen Brothers version.I won’t get into the details, I think, as I have podcasts to edit, but it remains a likeable film. The narrative is straightforward enough, with a stoic daughter attempting to secure justice on her father’s killer, hiring Wayne’s U.S. Marshall with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later to get the job done.

It’s still enjoyable, with one of the more interesting performances from Wayne I’ve seen, although admittedly I’m no expert in the Western genre. It suffers somewhat from the introduction towards the end of a completely different (but far more potent) villain than we’d been hunting for the rest of the film, but it’s really only its age that betrays True Grit. It’s all a little too Technicolor and twee, especially given that this ought to be a powerful and emotive tale of revenge. Even although many people get their lead salad based comeuppance, it’s all a little sterile especially in this age of, appropriately enough, gritty realism.

I trust the Coens will deliver a darker take on the material, which will suit it well. Some stories just aren’t supposed to be largely cheery, and look so colourful and bouncy.

Movie Review of 2010

Mitchell Library By Night

Today’s intended goal of podcast editing has had to be put on the back-burner, which is perhaps for the best. Today does, after all, represent the last day of freedom from the snaking tendrils of the day job. Bah. Humbug. The above is Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, all lit up at night.

Regardless, I’d better not stop podcast work completely. This will form the bulk of the shownotes for the 2010 review podcast.

I think there’s a general consensus amongst ourselves that if we were to pick one film to rule them all and in 2010 bind them, it would by Christopher Nolan’s jaw-dropping spectacle, Inception. Even if we set aside the best-of-breed actions sequences and physical effects work, the film effectively fuses indy film sensibilities with massive studio budgets, giving a wonderful, layered, intelligent yet easy to follow narrative that works flawlessly.

There’s plenty of other fantastic films to choose from over the course of the year. In no particular order, we can highly recommend the following flicks.

The Social Network might have little in common with the true story behind Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, but it’s certainly a damnably interesting fake story. With Aaron Sorkin’s extraordinarily cutting script handled with all of David Fincher’s usual style, this film seemed to have everything squared away long before Jesse Eisenberg delivered one of the best performances of the year.

We can’t go much further without mentioning Toy Story 3, with Pixar neatly bookending the series with a fabulous outing that has so much charm and wit that it cannot be described as anything other than fabulous.

One of the less well distributed films of the year, Get Low sees Robert Duvall as a loner looking to get his affairs in order before shuffling off this mortal coil, attempting to rehabilitate himself back into society. Based around an absolute powerhouse central performance from Duvall with a number of great supporting turns from Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, amongst others. Great work all round, particularly from a first time feature film director.

A few films that may be old news for those Stateside, but were only unleashed on U.K. cinemas this year are The Road, a compelling post-apocalyptic grim-fest, the deservedly Oscar-winning crime drama The Secret in Their Eyes, and a stellar central performance from Jeff Bridges in the character driven Crazy Heart are all very worthy of the plaudits heaped on them.

Chris Morris produces another great comedy in the shape of Four Lions, unquestionably the funniest film about suicide bombers in existence. Enjoyable, farcical satire from start to finish, this is a superb, hilarious outing.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll is a quirky, but effervescent look at the life of Ian Dury, hung around a brilliant, worryingly committed turn from Andy Serkis.

I don’t know how I’ve gotten this far into the list without mentioning Miyazaki’s Ponyo, another delightful tale of childhood innocence from the master of the genre.

Another lot that are well worth a look, in at least some of our estimations; Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Kick-Ass, Youth In Revolt, Up In The Air, How To Train Your Dragon, The Sky Crawlers, Restrepo, Invictus, Winter’s Bone, Wall Street 2, Obselidia, Red, Machete, Daybreakers, Green Zone, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, The Town, Snowman’s Land, and Fish Story.

It’s not all good. Amongst the dregs of this year’s output are The Book of Eli, Case 39, The Bounty Hunter, Clash of the Titans, Splice, Salt, The Human Centipede, brilliantlove, and the truly execrable Enter the Void.

I suppose I’ll do something similar this time next year. With 2011’s movies, obviously.

Movie Roundup

Queen's Park pond, iced up.

I’m all about the lens flare, me. This is the pond at Glasgow’s Queen’s Park, struggling to de-ice from the recent cold snap.

Preparations continue apace for the podcast recording. Well, they continue. Just about. The following round-ups will form the bulk of the show notes for one of tonight’s podcasts.

The Kids Are All Right is about as left-wing a film as you can envisage, outside of a Michael Moore documentary or France. Loving couple Julianne Moore and Annette Bening‘s life balance is upset when their surrogate children Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson (playing a character named Laser. Seriously) become old enough to find out the identity of their biological father. Tracking down Mark Ruffalo, a seemingly successful restauranteur who shirks from personal commitment, the father/child relationships develop enough for both mothers to realise that he’ll have to play a part in their lives. Too big a part, it turns out, as Ruffalo’s Paul embarks on an affair with Moore’s Jules, putting strains on an already strained relationship between Jules and Bening’s Nic. It might not sound as much from the above, but this is a comedy as much as it is a drama, the elements balancing nicely along with a great ensemble performance from the cast, as perhaps you would expect given the players involved. Amusing situations and believable characters make this well worthy of the awards buzz it’s gathering.

Due Date takes the formula established by director Todd Phillips‘ prior work The Hangover and Old School and turning all of the dials up, difficult as that might be to believe, we follow Robert Downey Jr.‘s Peter attempting to get back home to his wife, immanently due to drop a sprog. Complications in this trip arise from interactions with Zach Galifianakis‘ bafflingly idiotic aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay, an altercation seeing them booted from the plane and, lacking any other means of making the cross-country trip, hiring a car together. Shenanigans ensue. While Due Date is certainly funny enough to be worth a view, particularly when you’ve got such charismatic leads as Downey Jr. and Galifianakis, it’s really a far as you can push the ‘stupid character doing the stupidest thing possible, continuously’ formula, as this film already takes several steps into self-parody territory. This might be a warning sign for the upcoming Hangover Part Two, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The Harry Potter franchise tumbles on conclusionward in The Deathly Hallows, Part One, seeing Hazza, Hermione and Ron on run from the now fully ascendant Voldemort and his brigade of stormtroopers, attempting to track down and destroy the parts of Voldermort’s soul secreted away in horcruxes. The usual gang return, including director David Yates, whose last two outings I’ve not been so keen on. This, however, is the easily the best of the Potter films so far, helped in no small part by the now not-so-young leads having matured enough to actually be pretty decent actors. With plenty on drama and, for once, some actual emotion, the only negative thing I’ve got to say about it is that it ends halfway through the story. I’m genuinely looking forward to the next one.

Meanwhile the floundering Narnia franchise stumbles on with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with Prince Caspian pulling Lucy and Edmund back for another adventure, this time also pulling their obnoxious cousin Eustace (played by Son of Rambow’s Will Poulter) along for the ride. This time they must face off against an evil mist that’s been bothering the populace. With such a poorly defined, faceless villain it’s little wonder that it’s a byproduct of again shoehorning in Tilda Swinton‘s White Witch, who is nothing like as compelling a character as the producers appear to think she is. It’s another of the post-production converts to the 3D cause, with much the same lack of impact that implies, although to be fair there’s nothing terrible on display. While it’s a solidly enough produced outing and far more competent and less rough around the edges than Prince Caspian was, it’s also less interesting film.

Angelina Jolie appears to have a weakness for ridiculously stupid films of late, with her latest, The Tourist, proving to be just as idiotic as Salt turned out to be. Well, almost. Followed by Interpol, who are hoping she will lead them to wanted fraudster, Jolie’s Elise latches on to hapless tourist Frank (Johnny Depp) to create a false trail around Venice. This unexpected association winds up with Frank on the run from the police and the mobsters looking for their money back. I’ll leave the excruciatingly signposted and unbelievable twists and turns of the narrative politely to one side for the moment. That, of course, is unbelievable in the ‘not even remotely credible’ sense of the word. I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as claiming this was in any way good. I like pretty much all of the actors in here, but aside from a neat supporting bit-part for Timothy Dalton everyone under-delivers. With at best workman-like performances, an idiotic premise and ham-fisted execution, this is one to avoid.

There’s things to appreciate in The American, for sure. George Clooney‘s Jack is an assassin undertaking one of those ‘one last job’ dealies. Contracted to build a unique gun for a third party, the usual isolation of his position seems to be too much for Jack as he embarks on friendships around the remote Italian town. Director Anton Corbijn brings the same sense of style that served Control so well, but there’s really nothing to support it in this film. I don’t mind the occasional minimalist narrative, but there’s nothing in the characterisations to fall back on leaving this a pretty, but pretty empty experience.

I also watched Enter The Void recently, but I’m too angry about that to coherently comment on that further than to say it’s two hours and forty minutes I shall never get back and regret completely.