Friday, August 31, 2012

BOND-A-THON: GoldenEye

‘GoldenEye’ was released in 1995, six years after ‘Licence to Kill’ – the longest hiatus in the Bond franchise, and the first real gap since the three years between ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. The Dalton films had done well enough at the box office, with ‘The Living Daylights’ earning over $191million from a $40million budget and even the much-maligned ‘Licence to Kill’ – which was considered, comparatively, an underperformer – netting $156million against a lower budget of $35million, so what went wrong?

A load of legal wrangling, that’s what. The Bond films were made by Eon Productions, under the auspice of parent company Danjaq, with financing and distribution from MGM/United Artists. In 1989 Australian corporation Qintex acquired MGM/UA, intending to merge it with Pathe. Qintex licenced Pathe to broadcast the Bond movies worldwide on television, incurring the wrath of Danjaq who had not granted permission for this. Danjaq instigated legal proceedings and production on the next 007 film was thus delayed.

Dalton had signed on for three movies. His third outing was intended to commence filming in 1990 for a 1991 release. 1990 came and went. So did 1991. Ditto a couple more years, and in 1994 Dalton resigned from the role. Almost a decade earlier, contractual obligations to ‘Remington Steele’ meant Pierce Brosnan had lost out in replacing Roger Moore. With no such obstacles in place this time round, the producers promptly cast him.

Albert R. Broccoli acted as consulting producer only on ‘GoldenEye’ – he died a year after its release – and effectively handed the reins to his daughter Barbara Broccoli and long-term Bond alumnus Michael G. Wilson. Writer Richard Maibaum – who had contributed to every Bond film apart from ‘You Only Live Twice’, ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘Moonraker’ – died in 1991; the original draft of ‘GoldenEye’ was by Michael France, with a rewrite by Jeffrey Caine and some script polishing courtesy of Kevin Wade and Bruce Feirstein. The second film in the series, after its immediate predecessor, not to have an original Ian Fleming title, it was nonetheless named after Fleming’s house in Jamaica.

Having approached and been, albeit very politely, turned down by John Woo, the producers offered directorial duties to Martin Campbell who had made a name for himself on the small screen with ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies’ and ‘Edge of Darkness’. After five straight films directed by John Glen, the emphasis was on new blood. Along with Brosnan as the new Bond, ‘GoldenEye’ gives us a new M (Dame Judi Dench, turning in arguably the best performance on offer and redefining the character into the bargain) and a new Moneypenny (Samantha Bond).

The plot, however, is old hat. In an exercise in recycling, we have a renegade Russian general who forms a trio of villainy with a femme fatale and an egomaniac with pretentions to class (shades of ‘Octopussy’) – one of whom has their own personal train (further shades of ‘Octopussy’) – and steal military hardware by means of seducing/impersonating an officer (‘Thunderball’) in order to effect the control of a satellite (‘Diamonds Are Forever’) which they intend to control from their fully kitted-out secret base hidden in a crater (‘You Only Live Twice’) for the purpose of triggering an electromagnetic pulse (‘A View to a Kill’) over London and thereby causing global economic meltdown.

L to the M to the F to the A to the O. Seriously. Trigger the fucker over New York or – more realistically – Tokyo and you’d achieve that. But London? I doubt it’d affect the Dow Jones by more than half a point.

For a film that tries desperately to be of the moment (an inspired title sequence, perhaps the best in the whole franchise, depicts the fall of the old Soviet regime) it seems peculiarly regressive. The Red Menace gets such a bashing you’d think it was still the 80s and Roger Moore was giving it all for Queen and country. The script’s attempts at addressing a more politically correct audience – an aspect of the film that received much comment in the press back in 1995 – consists of Moneypenny giving Bond a mild telling off and M giving him an outright bollocking. Oh, and femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) is Bond’s match as a sexual predator.

But apart from that, Bond himself remains the smug cocksman of the Moore years. And even when Brosnan tries for a harder edge to the character, what emerges is still something of a backwards step from Dalton’s Bond.

Ah yes, Pierce Brosnan. Here we come to a major problem with ‘GoldenEye’ – and a major problem with the three films that follow it. In the pantheon of actors who have essayed the role, if we characterise Sean Connery as the definitive Bond, George Lazenby as the awkward Bond, Roger Moore as the suave/smarmy Bond and Timothy Dalton as Bond played straight, then in Pierce Brosnan we have the pouty Bond. There are many attributes I want to see in Bond, no matter who’s playing him: I want to see ruthlessness, tenacity, style, nicely tailored suits, fine wines and vodka martinis; I want to see hardware, fast cars and an effortless way with the ladies. I do not – repeat not – want to see pouting. Pouting is for effeminate sparkly vampires, not for hard-living secret agents with a licence to kill.

To be fair, there is much to be said in favour of ‘GoldenEye’. The title sequence is an absolute belter, a ten-minute movie in miniature that offers suspense, action and a freakin’ great payoff with motorbike chasing plane as both hurtle towards a sheer drop. Then that unexpectedly inventive title sequence kicks in while Tina Turner belts out the theme song. Written by Bono and The Edge, and with Turner channeling her inner Shirley Bassey, the theme song is the best in a couple of decades. The good work continues in the first half, with some actual espionage (it’s always good when the filmmakers remember that Bond is a spy), a winning heroine in the form of Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) and a brilliantly noirish scene in what can only be described as a graveyard of statues. The cool stuff culminates with the film’s most outlandish and boyishly entertaining sequence, about which I have only three words to say: tank chase, baby!

On the minus side, the immediate post-credits scene with Bond and Onatopp chasing each other around some hairpin bends is several minutes of pointlessness and the music that accompanies it is awful. Eric Serra’s original score is a whole lot of nothing much. The casting of Joe Don Baker as Bond’s CIA contact Jack Wade rankles. I don’t have any issue with his performance (Wade initially dissing 007 as “stiff-assed Brit” is priceless, ditto his subsequent tendency to address Bond as “Jimbo” or “Jimmy”), it’s just another instance of the producers casting someone in diametric opposition to the character type they played in a previous Bond film. As Charles Grey appeared first as ally (‘You Only Live Twice’) and then as villain (Blofeld in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’), Baker had earlier appeared as villain in ‘The Living Daylights’ and now shows up as one of the good guys.

Regarding Sean Bean as the treacherous former Double-O agent Alec Trevelyan, the decision to portray him as the opposite side of the same coin to Bond underlines the whole Brosnan problem. I can quite easily imagine Bean, particularly at the mid-90s stage of his career when he was winning a legion of fans as Sharpe in the TV adaptations of Bernard Cornwell’s novels, as Bond. The physicality and the rough charm are there; that steely glint in the eye promises ruthlessness. Sean Bean looks like he could kill a man and casually order a vodka martini. Pierce Brosnan looks like he belongs in a shampoo commercial.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gunfight at the O.K.Corral

On 26 October 1881, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and John “Doc” Holliday faced off against the Clanton and McLaury brothers. The gunfight occurred in a cramped lot six doors down from the O.K. corral. Based on the weaponry utilised and the number of shots fired, historians estimate the whole thing lasted no longer than thirty seconds. There was, all things considered, nothing particularly dramatic about it beyond the obvious dynamic of one bunch of guys trying to kill another bunch of guys. Stripped of hagiography, the gunfight at the O.K. corral – or, to be more realistic about it, the gunfight somewhere near the O.K. corral – boiled down to this: two antagonistic parties pulled iron, blasted away till they were out of ammo and those who were still standing at the end of it lived and those who weren’t didn’t.

But to quote a line from ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, “when the truth becomes the legend, print the legend”.

John Sturges’s ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ is the cinematic equivalent of the newspaperman printing the legend. From the time of the shoot-out (3pm in actuality, “at sun-up” in Sturges-ville) to the number of combatants (Johnny Ringo? dude wasn’t there) to the six minute gun battle that spills out from the corral and across half of Tombstone, Sturges’s film makes absolutely no pretence to realism. It also takes its sweet time getting to the gunfight.

Leon Uris’s script focuses on the relationship between Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas). Indeed, he and Sturges are so eager to spend time with the Old West’s most famous double act, that they’re pretty much rammed together during the opening sequence. Although the crossing of their paths from Dodge City to Tombstone calls for some degree of contrivance, this was probably a wise decision since Lancaster’s staunch, square-jawed lawman is a one-note character whose moral rectitude isn’t all that interesting. The alcoholic, tuberculosis-ridden Holliday is far more memorable, and Douglas has great fun playing him as a smooth bastard. Holliday is a man of fancy clothes, fine speech and a fast deck; he’s also an unblinking killer, whether using gun or knife, and – for all his faux courtly manners – not always the gentleman to long-suffering consort Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet). Their tempestuous relationship is contrasted against Earp’s ill-fated romance with lady gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming).

Compared to these interrelationships, which spin around the core nucleus of the Earp/Holliday relationship, there’s not much room for other character dynamics. Virgil (John Hudson), Morgan (DeForrest Kelley) and James Earp (Martin Milner) barely get a look-in, nor do the Clantons or McLaurys fare much better in terms of screen time. Lyle Bettger’s curiously reserved performance as Ike Clanton leaves the film lacking a central villain, however John Ireland’s sneeringly nasty Johnny Ringo goes some way towards filling the gap. A youthful Dennis Hopper as the youngest of the Clanton clan also makes an impression.

Arguably the biggest strike against ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ is Dmitri Tiomkin’s horrible score, one of the few misfires in a career stippled with classic soundtracks, which recycles throughout the film an appalling ballad sung by Frankie Laine. Charles Lang’s dustily evocative cinematography certainly deserved a better aural accompaniment.

What remains, though, as the pace picks up in the second half, is what – essentially – audiences of the day wanted from a western; what, arguably, is an inimical to that genre as a black-gloved killer and a bottle of J&;B to the giallo: iconic images of tough guys striding purposefully towards their fate, hand on the gun. And a crowd-pleasing shoot-out when they draw.

Monday, August 27, 2012


There’s a joke more renowned among comedians than audiences – it was the subject of a documentary directed by Paul Provenza; my review here – which, in its most basic iteration, goes something like this: A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “Hey, I’ve got this amazing act.” The talent agent says, “Yeah? Let’s hear it.” The man says, “Me and my wife come on stage, I’m wearing a tux, she’s wearing an elegant ball gown, and we defecate and urinate all over the stage, wallow in our own filth and violate each other. Then we take a bow.” The talent agent is shocked and says, “What the hell do you call an act like that?” The man says, “The aristocrats.”

There are many different tellings of the joke, with the middle section – i.e. the description of the act itself – presenting something of a blank canvas for the teller to embark upon ever more scatological flights of the imaginative. The punchline is always “the aristocrats”, or “the sophisticates” or suchlike. The joke is in the juxtaposition of crass vulgarity and the revelation of the supposedly elite and cultured social group engaging in said behaviour.

Seth McFarlane’s ‘Ted’ is a 105-minute reimagining of the “aristocrats” joke, but with a plush teddy bear instead of the nobility. It’s a joke, moreover, whose telling is its own punchline. Here’s the set-up: in the mid-80s, a friendless eight-year-old boy gets a teddy bear for Christmas and wishes it could be real and his friend forever. A shooting star auguries a miracle. Ted (voiced by McFarlane) comes to life. The kid’s parents, initially horrified, are quickly won over. Ted enjoys minor celebrity. Eventually, though – as Patrick Stewart, whose measured tones narrate this prologue, explains – “no matter how big a splash you make in this world whether you're Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit”.

Fast-forward twenty-seven years and John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is thirty-five, a stoner, his best friend is still his teddy bear and the only aspect of his life in which he’s demonstrably got lucky is his girlfriend of four years, the gorgeous Lori (Mila Kunis).

Ted has grown up (if that’s the right phrase) with him: Ted now drinks beer, smokes pot, parties with hookers, and spouts the kind of profanity that would make a truck driver blush. This is the one joke that McFarlane sustains, sometimes quite magnificently, for an hour and three quarters.

Narratively, we have three strands: the potential implosion of John and Lori’s relationship due to Ted’s bad influence, with Lori’s lecherous boss Rex (Joel McHale) waiting in the wings to assume suitor duties; Ted’s attempts to strike out on his own, white trash girlfriend Tammi-Lynn (Jessica Borth) in tow; and creepy stalker Donny (Giovanni Ribisi)’s obsession with acquiring Ted for his corpulent and equally creepy offspring Robert (Aedin Mincks). This latter shifts the tone from cheerfully low-brow to something darker in the last third. Imagine the scenes in ‘Toy Story’ involving Sid re-edited as a post-Eli Roth horror movie.

The overall aesthetic, though, is reminiscent of McFarlane’s small screen magnum opus ‘Family Guy’: cutaway gags, bonkers celebrity cameos, and the kind of dialogue that’s not just unreconstructed but positively backwards-looking. From Ted urging a child in a hide ‘n’ seek game “no peeking or you’ll get kiddie-cancer” to his exchange with Norah Jones …

Ted: Wow, look at you – half American and half Muslim and you’ve sold 37 million records.
Jones: Actually I’m half Indian, but thanks.
Ted: Thanks for 9/11.

… you’ll spend an equal amount of time laughing, stifling your laughter and gathering your jaw from the popcorn-strewn section of the floor right in front of seat, dumbfounded that they actually went there. If McFarlane’s cultural touchstones in ‘Family Guy’ are the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy and James Woods, the corollary in ‘Ted’ is ‘Flash Gordon’ (cue the high point of the film: an extended sequence where John and Ted get royally fucked up with Sam Jones as a party at Ted’s shitty apartment turns into a farrago of alcohol, cheesy 90s music and proscribed substances) and Tom Skerritt. The payoff to the running joke with various characters claiming acquaintanceship with Skerritt is as tasteless as you’d expect from McFarlane.

In the wake of the Judd Apatow blueprint for success circa ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Superbad’, Hollywood went into overdrive with low-brow comedies, many of them terminally unfunny and desperate in their scatological barrel-scraping. ‘Ted’ is as potty-mouthed and shot through with nerd-boy humour as any of its contemporaries, but it’s a damn sight funnier.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sean Connery

Happy 82nd birthday to Sean Connery, and with 'Dr No' celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, what better still to illustrate this post than the iconic moment that introduced several generations of moviegoers to Bond ... James Bond? Seriously, has anyone else ever made smoking, roulette tables, bow ties or dinner jackets look this cool?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Licence to Kill

‘Licence to Kill’ presents us with a plethora of firsts and lasts. It’s the first Bond film not to take its title from a work by Ian Fleming (although the script incorporates elements from the novel ‘Live and Let Die’ and the short story ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’), and the first to gain a 15 certificate. It’s the first Bond movie where a previous actor reprises the role of Felix Leiter – David Hedison, who essayed the role in ‘Live and Let Die’. It’s Michael G. Wilson’s first as co-producer, a role he took on after Albert R. Broccoli took ill during filming.

It’s the last to feature Timothy Dalton as Bond, Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny and Robert Brown as M, the last to feature a credits sequence designed by Maurice Binder, the last to be directed by John Glen and the last to be produced by Broccoli. Richard Maibaum co-scripts for the last time, and editor John Grover and cinematographer Alec Mills similarly bow out from the franchise.

‘Licence to Kill’ feels like it ought to be an autumnal, elegiac work. Instead, it’s full throttle action thriller, with a viciousness not seen since the early days of Connery and a hard-edged depiction of 007. When those who dislike the Dalton films complain that they don’t feel like Bond movies, it’s ‘Licence to Kill’ they point to specifically. There’s no uber-villain, merely a Colombian drug lord. There’s no world-threatening scheme, just a clever means of transporting cocaine. There’s no briefing from M – Bond goes renegade for personal reasons. Gadgets are kept to an absolute minimum, although – ironically – Q (Desmond Llewellyn) gets his most expansive role. Likewise, the Bond girls are (in different ways) survivors rather than wallflowers. And the pre-credits sequence acts as a prologue to the film proper rather than being a show reel for the stunts team.

Let’s start with this sequence. Bond and Leiter are en route to the latter’s wedding, Bond on best man duties, when the Coast Guard inform Leiter that a drug baron he’s been investigating, Sanchez (Robert Davi), is on American soil and therefore arrestable. Sanchez has made a risky incursion in order to wipe out a rival who’s stolen his girl, the sultry Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto). Leiter, seemingly forgetting the impending nuptials, goes tearing off in hot pursuit, inviting Bond along in an observational capacity only. Predictably, Bond doesn’t do observation and when it seems like Sanchez is about to fly out of US airspace, Bond engages in a dangerous in a dangerous stunt with a helicopter to put paid to Sanchez’s plans. This done, the pair of them parachute out and Leiter gets to the church on time, if rather dramatically. Roll opening credits. 

The curtain-raiser over and done with, Act One delivers some nasty business: Sanchez pulls off an escape, his goons kill Leiter’s bride-of-a-few-hours and dump Leiter himself in a shark pit. Bond, on his way to the airport and in something of a maudlin mood after a chance remark at the reception puts him in mind of the late Teresa Bond, nee di Vicenzo, hears of the escape and heads back to Leiter’s home on an instinct. Here he finds Leiter in a body bag, severely lacerated and barely alive. Bond’s mood changes from maudlin to righteously pissed off and he goes out for revenge.

Working his way through Sanchez’s chain of associates, from corrupt DEA official Ed Kilifer (Everett McGill) to marine research head honcho Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Bond’s blunt tactics attract the attention of Leiter’s CIA colleagues who haul him in for a little chat. M is in on the act and gives 007 a royal bollocking for neglecting an assignment. After a terse exchange, Bond effectively resigns, gives the CIA goons the slip and goes renegade, his licence to kill revoked. (The film originally went into production as ‘Licence Revoked’, but the title was changed after doubts that audiences wouldn’t know what “revoked” meant. This is more than a little bit sad.)

En route to his final confrontation with Sanchez and the drug lord’s borderline psychotic protégé Dario (Benicio del Toro in only his second film role), Bond enlists the help of Leiter’s contact, pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), introduced in a splendid scene in a dockside bar where she deters an aggressor by ramming the business end of a double-barrelled shotgun in his groin, holds her own in a barroom brawl and blows a hole in the wall to facilitate a quick exit. Pam is tough, resourceful, saves Bond’s ass at one point and also looks glamorous as all hell. And kudos to Wilson and Maibaum for a script that doesn’t compel her to do something stupid or have to get rescued in the final reel. Lowell is definitely one of my all time favourite Bond girls and her contribution to the canon still remains undervalued.

Lupe Lamora, on the other hand, is cut from the same cloth as Domino in ‘Thunderball’ or Andrea Anders in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’: the kept woman of a dangerous antagonist who sees Bond as her way out of an otherwise insoluble situation.

Davi plays Sanchez for what he is, a ruthless businessman whose business just happens to be narcotics; it’s a performance as far removed from the cartoon villainy of most Bond villains as it’s possible to get. Del Toro, however, doesn’t get to do much more than sneer and strike macho poses – there’s certainly little hint of what he would go on to – but the suggestion of a homoerotic subtext between Sanchez and Dario is something of a throwback to the casual homophobia of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and the one unfortunate element in a film that otherwise ranks very high in my personal 007 league table.

The action sequences are impressive, particularly Sanchez’s rescue from an armed convoy, staged to great effect along the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. Things do get a little over the top towards the end, though, with Kenworth tanker trucks popping wheelies or tilting to drive on one set of wheels to dodge a missile.

But on the whole, ‘Licence to Kill’ works very well as a darker, edgier approach to Bond, shorn of corny one-liners and the first entry in the franchise for fucking ages not to end with some personality-challenged bit of eye-candy gasping “oh, James”. This alone earns it kudos.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Has the Pixar bubble burst?

Two years ago, I came out of ‘Toy Story 3’ with mixed feelings – so mixed that I elected not to post a review on these pages. I found much of it inventive, delightful and entertaining; some of it utterly lachrymose in a Spielbergian emotional pornography kind of way; and an extended sequence in the third act just plain mean-spirited. A year ago, I came out of ‘Cars 2’ thinking that whichever bright spark had decided that Mater was protagonist material needed his arse kicking all the way to Radiator Springs and back again. 

Now we have ‘Brave’. And before we can discuss a single frame of film, there’s an elephant in the room as big as the bear that appears in the castle in a crucial scene. (And can I just say … bears in Scotland? Maybe prior to 900 AD, however the historical period the film takes as its point of reference seems to be concurrent with the Dunkeld monarchy of 1058 to 1290.) ‘Brave’ was originally announced as Pixar’s first pro-feminist production, boasting not only a heroine (all Pixar’s previous protagonists, right down to a gender-specific robot, having been male) but a female director, Brenda Chapman. Back then the project was called ‘The Bear and the Bow’, a more appropriate title than ‘Brave’ since the overriding theme is family, loyalty and age difference rather than any rites-of-passage requirement necessitating proof of valour.

Then Chapman was given the push – Pixar’s PR trotted out the hoary old “creative differences” line – and replaced by Mark Andrews (although Chapman retains a secondary “directed by” credit) and the project was retitled ‘Brave’, presumably for no other reason than to evoke ‘Braveheart’, another bit of Hollywood McScotland-ism. Chapman’s original concept of the project was an examination of the mother-daughter dynamic inspired by her relationship with her own daughter. Andrews and his co-writers (or should that be re-writers?) turn in something considerably more simplistic and infinitely less satisfying emotionally.

Essentially, ‘Brave’ – and I’m still fucked if I know who or what the title refers to – gives us a theme-park version of the Highlands in which Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), daughter of unreconstructed warrior king Fergus (Billy Connolly) and diplomat queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, trying for a Scottish accent in her early scenes then giving up entirely), rails against being offered as bride to whichever son of clan chiefs proves himself at the highland games. She visits a witch (Julie Walters, doing an inspired “old crone” routine) and asks for a spell which will change her mother. Meaning change her mother’s mind re: the marriage arrangements. Instead, Elinor is changed into … well, check out the original title. 

Thus far: a princess, a wicked (ish) witch, a curse, enchanted woods and fairies (in the shape of will-o’-the-wisps). Disney acquired Pixar in 2006; six years down the line, the assimilation begins.

To be fair, ‘Brave’ isn’t necessarily bad. There are some truly inspired scenes: everything involving the witch’s hut is terrific, most notably a genius gag that turns a cauldron into an answering machine. There’s also a low-brow but funny-as-fuck moment where a band of arms-bearing clansmen, finding themselves on the roof of a castle and locked out, abseil to the ground by means of tied-together kilts and file sheepishly past the camera, arses prominent. This ties with a ‘Mission Impossible’ style retrievable of a cell-door key from a serving woman’s pneumatic bosom as the least PG moment in a PG-rated kid’s movie.

The animation is gorgeous, no questions asked. Historical inconsistencies notwithstanding, ‘Brave’ captures the grandeur of the highlands so sweepingly that, on exiting the cinema, I immediately wanted to get in my car and drive north. The choppy surfaces of lochs, the vibrant colour of the heather, the spray of waterfalls – all of captured in a standard of CGI that, at its best, verges of photo-realism. Judged solely on visual aesthetics, one could easily pronounce ‘Brave’ a masterpiece and leave it at that. Indeed, the beauty of its imagery is enough to justify a DVD purchase and multiple viewings.

And yet … and yet …

I’ve been spoiled. I’ve got used to floating out of the cinema after a Pixar film, not walking out. Finding myself in the pub afterwards trawling my vocabulary for superlatives, not making do with “yeah, it was okay”. Itching to get home and start writing a review, not reluctantly putting finger to keyboard and wishing I could be more enthusiastic. Or, to put it another way, there have been other Pixar films that have been more emotionally compelling, other Pixar films that have been funnier, other Pixar films that have provided better entertainment, other Pixar films that have delivered better narratives.

For two decades, Pixar have successively raised the bar in every artistic aspect. Perhaps now they are falling victims to their own success: they are producing films that are merely good, rather than groundbreaking masterpieces. And maybe this is because, despite their technological advances, Pixar remain regressive in one crucial respect. It’s still a boy’s club.

Sort it, fellas.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tony Scott

Absolutely gutted and saddened by the news of Tony Scott's death. My thoughts are with his family. 

(i.m. Tony Scott, 21 June 1944 - 19 August 2012)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Maria de Medeiros

Happy 47th to the elegant and beguiling Maria de Medeiros.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Lonely Place to Die

Julian Gilbey was behind 2007’s ‘Rise of the Footsoldier’ – a film so mired in trite hooliganism clichés and dodgy Lahdan accents that it made ‘Green Street’ look like ‘La Regle du Jour’ – and thus I approached his latest outing, ‘A Lonely Place to Die’ with some trepidation. Without leading lady Melissa George and the harsh beauty of the Scottish highlands, I might easily have given it a miss.

The five minute pre-credits sequence – all swirling camerawork and vertiginous tension on a mountainside – implied that here was a much better film entirely. Certainly a film that was obviously putting every penny of its £4million budget right up there onscreen. The sequence introduces us to mountaineers Alison (Melissa George), Ed (Ed Speelers) and Rob (Alec Newman); Alison and Rob seem to be the methodical professionals, while Ed’s lackadaisical attitude exacerbates an accident that almost gets him killed. This earns him a bollocking from Alison, who tells him he needs to raise his game.

Decent opener, characters established reasonably well. The next 10 or 15 minutes, which fleshes out the group to include romantically involved couple Alex (Gary Sweeney) and Jenny (Kate Magowan), is less impressive, all filmscript 101 bickering dialogue and dodgy accents. (Melissa George is a big fave here at The Agitation of the Mind, but her inexplicable stab at a Cock-er-nee accent – which she makes no attempt to reprise elsewhere in the movie – is hideous.)

When the group head out to tackle the next peak, though, things hot up. The discovery, in the foothills, of a young Serbian girl buried alive in the wilderness, a single plastic bottle of water and an air tube her only means of survival, throws our heroes into turmoil. With the girl clearly unable to hike all the way back to the cottage they’re staying at – a cottage, moreover, without a phone (mobiles? ‘A Lonely Place to Die’ gives us probably the most realistic “no signal” moment in a modern film: the characters basically go “nah, we’re in the highlands” and don’t even bother to check) – the group split in two. Alison and Rob tackle a vertical cliff face from which it’s only a few miles to the nearest town, while the others continue along the originally planned course with the girl. The plan is to have them picked up by a search and rescue team.

The plan goes awry very quickly, with the mountaineers caught between two armed, dangerous and not-particularly-bothered-about-bystanders groups: the kidnappers who are demanding a large payoff for the girl’s return, and the private security outfit hired by the girl’s father to get her back with extreme prejudice.

From here until about the one hour mark, ‘A Lonely Place to Die’ establishes itself as a bloody good thriller: tense, pacy, light on exposition (Gilbey, who co-wrote the script, mainly trusts to his audience to work out the character interrelationships) and heavy on suspense. He also monkeys with audience expectations to notable effect, particularly a nastily claustrophobic moment that could be a flashforward, a dream or a visual metaphor to a character’s state of mind.

Hokeyness is never far away, though. Kidnappers and security team alike vacillate wildly between being crack marksmen and missing every fucking target they shoot at according to the script’s dictates of whether they’re drawing a bead on a secondary character or the final girl. (Sorry if that was a spoiler, but it’s kind of obvious: name above the title; only cast member you’ve ever heard of.)

Still, while the action remains in the forests and on the cliff faces, ‘A Lonely Place to Die’ scores highly and Ali Asad’s cinematography is spot on. It’s when Gilbey moves the action into a small town hosting some kind of bizarre street party, throwing together all the principles in a mishmash of double-crossing and orgiastic gunplay, that things go tits up in quite spectacular fashion.

The last thirty minutes are basically a horrible conflation of ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ and ‘Ransom’, with the machinations surrounding the ransom demand devolving into such lunacy than you’d be forgiven for expecting the imminent appearance of the Dude Lebowski and some German nihilists with a marmot on a leash. That at least would have given the movie a memorable bonkers ending, not the tired and generic one it eventually huffs its way towards.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

BOND-A-THON: The Living Daylights

There are quite a few people who don’t have much time for Timothy Dalton’s short-lived tenure as 007. Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Dalton’s work in the franchise and I consider it a damned shame that he didn’t go on to develop the role. Another decade of Dalton would have at least prevented the Pierce Brosnan titles and that alone would have been cause for celebration.

The most commonly cited criticism against Dalton is that his two outings don’t feel like Bond movies. That’s debatable for ‘License to Kill’ – and I’ll have that debate in about ten days time when I review it – but I just don’t see where said criticism can be levelled against ‘The Living Daylights’. If ever a cinematic outing for Ian Fleming’s immortal creation had “Bond movie” written all over it, it’s ‘The Living Daylights’.

Like ‘For Your Eyes Only’, ‘Octopussy’ and ‘A View to a Kill’, it takes its title from one of Fleming’s short stories. Unlike ‘AVtaK’ – and to a considerably greater extent than ‘FYEO’ and ‘Octopussy’ – it retains a fidelity to the source material that hadn’t been seen in a Bond movie since, arguably, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. Fleming’s story – published as part of a slim posthumous collection – has Bond contracted to the dirty job of gunning down a Russian sniper in order to safeguard a defector. Forced to work with an obsequious head of station, and discovering the sniper to be an attractive woman posing as a cellist, Bond disobeys orders and merely wounds the girl instead of shooting to kill and the story ends with his career in the balance as his superior insists on reporting him.

With a few tweaks to update it from the early 60s to the mid-80s (but with the whole Cold War vibe still very much in evidence), the short story provides pretty much the entire first act of the movie as Bond (Dalton) finds himself in conflict with jobsworth Saunders (Thomas Wheatley) during the extradition of the defecting General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe). At this point, Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson’s script develops in its own direction as Koskov is promptly re-appropriated by one-man-army Necros (Andreas Wisnieski), to the abject humiliation of M15 – “our first major coup in years” as a disgruntled M (Robert Brown) puts it, in tacit admission that Britain is no longer a key player on the world political stage.

Koskov’s snatch-back is assumed to have been authorised by General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies) and M instructs Bond to terminate him. This is the second affront against British intelligence, following the murder of two Double-O operatives during a training exercise on Gibraltar. (Does all this seem a bit harder and more cynical than the last few outings? Hell yeah, baby!) Bond reluctantly accepts the mission, but first pursues his own investigation by tracking down the glamorous sniper – cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) – whom he wounded but refused to gun down earlier.

Blithely posing as a friend of Koskov’s, with whom he has discovered she is involved, Bond persuades Kara to leave the Eastern bloc with him (prompting an ice-bound chase scene that ends with the rather improbable use of Kara’s cello case and her beloved Stradivarius taking a bullet) as he tracks down Pushkin and discovers that Koskov’s motives are becoming more and more deceitful.

The Bond entries I enjoy the most are those that (a) shitcan the juvenile humour in favour of a harder edge, and (b) feature some actual espionage. It’s a point I’ve made before – it’s my blog and I’ll repeat myself if I want to – but far too many Bond movies forget that their protagonist is a spy. Far too many reveal the megalomaniac villain’s identity and entirely tip the audience off to their plans for world domination way in advance of the halfway mark. The formula thus becomes: M gives Bond a briefing, impressing upon him that something nefarious is afoot and the fate of the free world is in his hands; an early lead tips Bond off to a billionaire industrialist/scientist/jeweler/media mogul [delete as applicable]; Bond rolls up at a casino frequented by said interchangeable bad guy, announces himself as “Bond, James Bond” (way to go, dude; blow that cover!) and then fleeces him at cards or dice and/or sleeps with his girlfriend. Villain dude spends Act Two trying to kill Bond. Bond blows his fully-kitted out secret base to shit in Act Three. This, friends and neighbours, is not spying. This, frankly, is the kind of stuff that would have George Smiley or Harry Palmer laughing their socks off before they pour another cup of tea, spend forty-eight hours studying their nemeses’ files, then pull off a brilliant coup de theatre based entirely on intelligence, fieldcraft and patient enterprise and not even the hint of an explosion or a car chase.

‘The Living Daylights’ lets Bond do some spying. It leaves him in the dark for a while vis-à-vis the plethora of double- and triple-crosses playing out in the background. It keeps him on his feet and tests his wits. These are all positive attributes. And it manages these things while remembering to dish up some big-budget action: the ballsy Gibraltar pre-credits sequence in which Bond’s first bit of hand-to-hand sees him headbutt an antagonist; the aforementioned wintry chase scene involving some ‘Goldfinger’-like modifications to a cool-as-fuck Aston Martin; Bond hooking up with some Mujahideen freedom fighters (essentially making this the ‘Rambo III’ of Bond movies; oh, how the political landscape has changed!) to attack a Russian air force base; and Bond’s vertiginous duel with Necros inside (and outside) a military aircraft with a ticking bomb on board.

John Glen, in his fourth consecutive spell in the director’s chair, makes amends for the tired, sloppy and horribly labored ‘AVtaK’. Maibaum and Wilson invest their script with a seriousness (by Bondian standards, anyway) that ruefully regrets the dumb one-liners and eye-rolling tomfoolery of much of the Moore years. Dalton plays it straight, giving his characterization of Bond a sense of purpose and a hint of ruthlessness that recalls the Bond of the novels.

On the minus side, however, the globe-trotting is excessive (Czechoslovakia, Austria, Tangier, Afghanistan, Bond hopping between locations as if attached to a globe-spanning bungee cord), the plot threatens to get a little too labyrinthine at times, and the film juggles its plethora of villains – including Joe Don Baker as an arms dealer with a war-games fetish – as if indecisive as to which one is 007’s actual nemesis. The final confrontation thus comes as something of an anti-climax, particularly after the extended Bond-goes-jihad/airbase-gets-blown-to-hell/bomb-on-a-plane set-piece. The ushering in of a new Miss Moneypenny is also something of a let-down: no disrespect to Caroline Bliss – she’s easy on the eye and brings an admixture of playfulness and intelligence to the part – but (a) it was never going to be easy stepping into Lois Maxwell’s shoes (Maxwell had been, until ‘AVtaK’, the only person to appear in every official Bond movie); and (b) the script gives her absolutely bugger all to work with. Which is shame, given how effectively Maibaum and Wilson had striven to introduce a new Bond.

The jury’s still out, as far as I’m concerned, on Maryam d’Abo as a Bond girl. Kudos to all concerned for breaking with tradition and not only making Kara integral to the plot rather than just window dressing but presenting her as a genuine romantic heroine. A pawn first in Koskov’s machinations and then equally duped by Bond as he drags her along in his pursuit of the defector, Kara is for all intents and purposes the innocent betrayed. Maybe this accounts for d’Abo’s unfailingly annoying repertoire: frightened mouse, fluffy bunny, kitten with its claws out, and deer wondering what those two rapidly approaching luminescent orbs are. And before the film’s out the otherwise commendable script pulls a barrel-scraping rehash of the last act reduce-the-heroine-to-brainless-bimbo volte face that scuppered Jill St John’s character in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and Barbara Bach’s in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’.

Perhaps the most telling thing about ‘The Living Daylights’ is the post-credits assurance that “James Bond will return”. That’s all it says. For the first time since ‘Dr No’, there’s no teaser of the next film’s title. It set a trend; no Bond movie since has trailed it’s successor’s title. There’s a sense here of the producers hedging their bets. They needn’t have worried; pulling in $191million from a $40million budget, Bond was still box office. He’d be back.

ADDENDUM: Since I went live with this review, it's been pointed out to me that 'A View to a Kill' was actually the first Bond movie not to trailer the next film's title. My bad. I'd ejected the disc as soon as the credits rolled on 'AVtaK' and taken myself off to a public house to wash the memory of the film away. The paragraph of strikethrough above essentially leaves this review somewhat unconcluded. Ah, well, them's the breaks. The Agitation of the Mind will return ...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mila Kunis

Happy 29th to Mila Kunis. All of a sudden I feel compelled to take in a screening of 'Ted'.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Big Trouble in Little China

There are many reasons for a hero to embark upon a quasi-mystical quest, where he will be challenged and tested, where the arcane and the preternatural will confound his sense of reality, where danger lurks around every corner and his nemesis may take on unexpected forms.

Some heroes will embark upon such a quest for the love of a woman, or the lure of riches, or dreams of power, or because – in some strange way – it is their inescapable destiny.

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) just wants his truck back.

How Jack came to mislay said truck is like this: he’s made a delivery to San Francisco’s Chinatown, he’s won a fuckton of money off his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) in a card game and … Okay, I’ve got to pause for a moment. Wang really shouldn’t be playing cards with Jack because he’s due to meet his fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) at the airport prior to the happy couple tying the knot; and Jack should really have let him off the debt, given the dude’s about complete the nuptials. Just sayin’.

Anyway, Jack insists on accompanying Wang to the airport to meet his inamorata, after which Jack damn well expects him to settle the debt. Then a bunch of toughs who look like they’ve just stepped out of a Duran Duran video turn up, kidnap Miao, and Jack and Wang take off in hot pursuit. Said pursuit leads them into an alleyway wherein two rival gangs cut loose with knifes, guns and chop-socky movies. And then things get bat-shit crazy when three warrior brothers who can fly and utilize the elements turn up, followed swiftly by Lo Pan (James Hong), “a ten foot tall road block” as Jack puts it, who can beam fire from his eyes and remains impervious to having a fucking big Freightliner truck driven over him. Jack and Wang flee the scene, setting up the man-rescues-heavy-goods-vehicle dynamic of the narrative (with, oh yeah, the fate of Wang’s girlfriend also in the balance).

Jack and Wang are joined in their quest by crusading attorney Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and wise old man Egg Shen (Victor Wong), who has his own score to settle with Lo Pan. Between the goofily engaging double-act that Russell and Dun provide, and the joie de vivre that Cattrall and Wong bring to their performances, the film’s entertainment factor is ramped up no end. Wong plays the wise, mystical seer like a live-action Yoda and delivers hilariously hokey lines as if he’s explaining the deepest secrets of the universe. Cattrall – about a million years before she was in ‘Sex in the City’ and looking damned hawt – imbues Gracie with the breathless comedic dynamism of, say, Rosalind Russell in ‘His Girl Friday’.

The script – credited to Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, adaptation by W.D. Richter – maintains an unflagging pace and keeps the pithy dialogue coming. John J. Lloyd’s production design is atmospheric and eye-catching. The action scenes are energetic and Carpenter has the good sense to play most of what happens for laughs. Including the monsters, which to be honest look a bit cheap and cheerful and belie the film’s $25million budget.

It’s tempting to wrap up this review by describing the whole shebang as walking a tightrope between utterly stupid and incredibly cool, but it doesn’t so much walk that particular tightrope as perform back-flips along it while blindfolded and juggling throwing stars. It’s the most bonkers piece of work on John Carpenter’s CV, the least easily classifiable piece work by a director whose output generally falls into the categories ‘horror film’ or ‘siege movie’, and sometimes both. To be honest with you, I don’t know what the hell I’d classify ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ as … and that’s probably why I have so much fun with it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mini reviews


Like ‘Dead Show’, it coulda and shoulda been funny.
That’s twice fucking Norway has taken my money!


Jim Caviezel and John Hurt? What the hell’s going on?
You tellin’ me this ain’t the Sean Connery one?


Theron’s sexy-evil, Hemsworth looks harried,
K-Stew’d shag a troll if the fucker was married.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Charlize Theron

Happy 37th birthday to Charlize Theron, who is eternally in my debt for vouchsafing that the ticket price I paid to go and see 'Snow White and the Huntsman' wasn't entirely wasted. Here's hoping for a Charlize-centric sequel: 'Evil Queen: Mad, Bad and Sexy With It'. Or something like that.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Heroes of Telemark

Anthony Mann’s last completed film – he died while 1967’s ‘A Dandy in Aspic’ was still shooting; star Laurence Harvey stood over directing duties – ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ was one of a tranche of high-profile war movies made during the 1960s. Unlike the perennially popular Alistair MacLean adaptations ‘Guns of Navarone’ and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – which bookend the 60s and pretty much define this strand filmmaking – ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ was a true story and didn’t have a coterie of Brits and Yanks battling the Hun, but a small group of Norwegian resistance fighters.

Naturally, box office considerations decreed that a coterie of Brits and Yanks had to be prominent in the credits, hence the presence of Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris and Michael Redgrave. And on the subject of casting requirements, Anton Diffring shows up as a Nazi officer. I’d have to check, but I strongly suspect it was a legal requirement for Anton Diffring to play a Nazi officer in every war film made in the 60s.

‘The Heroes of Telemark’ suffers from two things: its over-familiarity as a Bank Holiday or rainy Sunday afternoon staple of British TV programming; and its overshadowing by many other war movies. It doesn’t have the action, the bombast and the unlikely but effective pairing of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood of ‘Where Eagles Dare’; it doesn’t have the infectious score and stirring aerial sequences of ‘633 Squadron’. Nor does it function as an anti-war commentary on a specific operation a la ‘A Bridge Too Far’.

And for all that it was obviously intended as something of a prestige picture – it’s billed as ‘Anthony Mann’s The Heroes of Telemark’, with Mann’s name filling half the screen signature-style, and boasts a score by Malcolm Arnold – there’s an occasional shoddiness to it, not to mention a lacklustre execution of the effects work that time has not been kind to. The worst example is a horrible sequence documenting Rjuken’s bombing which cuts in black and white footage of bombers and relies on ground-based explosions and cheesy sound effects to suggest a bombing run while there quite clearly isn’t a single plane in the sky.

Also, much as I hate to say it, Arnold’s score is something of a mishmash – effective when providing an aural accompaniment to DoP’s Robert Krasker’s surveys of the snowy, inhospitable Norwegian landscape, but unable to find a definite thematic statement when it comes to the big action scenes. Watch a triple bill of ‘The Heroes of Telemark’, ‘633 Squadron’ and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and it’s the two Ron Goodwin scores you’ll be humming afterwards, not Arnold’s.

Elsewhere, Douglas and Harris turn in the kind of granite-voiced, square-jawed performances you’d expect; Ulla Jacobson and – in a small role, but making it count – Jennifer Hilary bring some warmth and humanity to the proceedings; the location shooting, particularly around the electricity plant at Rjuken, is striking and makes from some starkly memorable images; and Ivan Moffat and Ben Barzman’s script manages to keep the sequence of events more or less in order but does make a few digressions into Hollywood hokum.

The story, it has to be said, is fascinating. With Norway under Nazi occupation, a heavy water operation at Rjuken was crucial to the Third Reich in the race to develop an atomic weapon. Three operations – codenamed Grouse, Freshman and Gunnerside – targeted the plant, with Freshman providing for British SOE troops to land by glider nearby and assist the resistance in a ground assault. When an SOE team were killed after a plane and a glider crashed, Operation Gunnerside took the form of an incursion into the plant and sabotage of the electrolysis chambers. The damage slowed Nazi efforts, but production continued. Bomber attacks caused damage to the plant but did not stop production. The final, decisive, act saw the resistance sink the ferry which was being used to ship consignments of heavy water on the first stage of transportation to Germany. Subsequently, however, analysis of a heavy water tank salvaged from Lake Tinnsjo has suggested that the production at Rjuken would have been insufficient for Nazi requirements. Still, hindsight was available to none of the participants and there can be no doubt that the Norwegian resistance were heroic in their tenacity, bravery and ingenuity.

The script truncates the timeline, barely bothers with the British participation, omits the arduous survivalist fieldcraft employed by the resistance after Operation Freshman went awry (Ray Mears’ TV documentary and accompanying book ‘The Real Heroes of Telemark’ provides a commendable account of this element of the operation), and spends rather too long on the squabbling between Douglas and Harris’s heavily fictionalized characters.

The story was first told on film in a 1948 Norwegian production, ‘Kampen om tungtvannet’ (trans. ‘The Fight for the Heavy Water’), which I’ve not seen but apparently features appearances by several of the actual resistance operatives. There have also been numerous books. Mann’s film wins points for its location work and its emphasis on what was at stake, but leaves you feeling like the full story has yet to be told.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

BOND-A-THON: A View to a Kill

Beware the temptation of the snap judgement. Particularly when undertaking a movie-thon whose entries you’re watching sequentially rather than ruminating upon retrospectively. And particularly when you haven’t seen some of those entries in quite some time.

I, dear reader, was not wary. Thus, from my review of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ on 12 June 2012: “ ‘TMwtGG’ is the franchise’s nadir,” an opinion that occasioned the redoubtable Tim of Antagony & Ecstasy to comment “the series' nadir? Now, that's at least one ‘Star Wars’ knock-off and one Chris Walken Nazi superman away from happening.”

And – lo! – reviewing ‘Moonraker’ on 1 July 2012, I was forced “to reappraise my earlier opinion of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ as the series’ nadir. Although perhaps ‘TMwtGG’ is more bitterly disappointing because of the flashes of potential it displays – ‘Moonraker’ simply starts bad and stays bad.”

And now I find myself squaring up to ‘A View to a Kill’, compared to which ‘TMwtGG’ and ‘Moonraker’ are not just great Bond movies, but masterpieces of world cinema. Indeed, compared to ‘AVtaK’, ‘Moonraker’ is ‘Citizen Kane’ with spaceships.

You can’t even say of ‘AVtaK’ that it starts bad and stays bad. It’s too desultory to attain the quirky degree of badness that can actually work, perversely enough, in a film’s favour. Only in its wildest dreams does ‘AVtaK’ aspire to being ‘so bad it’s good’. The cold, unavoidable fact of the matter is that it’s simply dull. John Glen’s direction is pedestrian. Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson’s script is a lame retread of tropes and character traits from earlier, better, entries. The action scenes are not only few and far between but lacking in dynamics, credibility and excitement.

As with ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and ‘Octopussy’, the title is from one of Ian Fleming’s short stories, but not a trace of the original tale survives. The pre-credits sequence actually has something to do with the film proper, as Bond (Roger Moore, pushing 60 and looking tired) retrieves a microchip from the body of 003 in the frozen wastes of Alaska while the Russkies close in on him. There follows a ski/chase scene (yup, another one) which ends with Bond ski-boarding to the strains of the Beach Boys before sailing off with a buxom beauty probably young enough to be his granddaughter in a mini-submarine disguised as an iceberg.

Then fucking Duran Duran kick in on the soundtrack, and Maurice Binder serves up arguably his most salacious and outright sexist title sequence yet – which is saying something for a guy who made a career out of projecting movie credits onto the gyrating silhouettes of naked women. If you’ve never seen the film before and these first six or seven minutes make you want to eject the DVD and go clay-pigeon shooting with it … friend, I wish you a steady hand and a good aim.

If you make it past the credits, this is what you get: M (Robert Brown) and Q (Desmond Llewellyn) identify the microchip as being manufactured by Zorin Industries and, worried that the KGB might have someone on the inside who has to access to a new type of chip that something something impervious to a nuclear pulse yada yada – the exposition is an exercise in what-the-fuckery and the science is so bonkers it makes your average Edgar Rice Burroughs ‘Barsoom’ opus look like Neal Stephenson – send Bond to infiltrate Zorin’s organization.

Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) is an American industrialist with designs on San Francisco’s silicon valley, so Bond naturally makes contact with him in Paris where he’s auctioning off some racehorses to be put out to stud because, y’know, he also owns some gee-gees. Let’s pause for a second here and contemplate two things.

One: I likes me some Christopher Walken. I like Christopher Walken when he’s reining it in and delivering carefully controlled character work (e.g. ‘The Dead Zone’), I like him when he’s being utterly undisciplined and chewing on the scenery like he’s not had a square meal in weeks (‘King of New York’, ‘Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead’), I like him when he’s doing nothing more than transfixing the camera and drawling a monologue (‘True Romance’, ‘Pulp Fiction’), and I think he’s pretty awesome and able to rock an off-the-peg suit when he soft-shoe-shuffles through an empty hotel in a Fatboy Slim video. So it fucking kills me even to think about how awful his performance is here, let alone write about it. The deal with Zorin is this: he’s the product of Nazi experimentation, a born sociopath, later groomed by the KGB and then allowed to carve a capitalist career for himself in the decadent west. (I’m not saying this film is ideologically confused, but what the fuckety fucking fuck???) Walken’s characterization of a sociopath is: laugh contemptuously, strike a pose somewhere between John Wayne pre-gunfight and a man who’s just shit his pants, deliver a line reading notable only for its grammatically appalling diction, then laugh maniacally until the director yells “cut”. I can only assume John Glen was delayed in yelling “cut” on a few occasions, because there are several scenes in which Walken laughs maniacally, looks embarrassed, barks out a bit more maniacal laughter and my will to live ebbs a little more.

Two: as a purpose of comparison between the literary and filmic incarnations of Bond, the books generally present tighter and more claustrophobic narratives than their big screen counterparts, with the bulk of the action usually occurring over a comparatively short period of time and confined to a single locale or a very limited arena of activity – ‘Casino Royale’, ‘Moonraker’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ are good examples. Ergo, the three-quarters of an hour in which Double-OAP – sorry, Double-O Seven – goes undercover at Zorin’s Parisian pad, snoops around, uncovers evidence of conspiracy, tangles with both Zorin and his feisty second in command May Day (Grace Jones), and has his mettle tested in a rigged steeplechase, is probably the closest any of the movies have come to a cinematic representation of the novels’ mise-en-scene. And you know what? It makes for a pretty damn boring viewing experience.

It’s during this exegesis in ennui that Bond comes into contact with American heiress Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), our Bond girl du jour – not that she really comes into play until the last forty minutes or so – and here we come to the next bone of contention. Roberts had won the hearts and hormones of a generation of teenage boys courtesy of her roles as Julie Rogers in the 1980-81 seasons of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and as the scantily clad heroine in ‘Sheena’. Embodying all-American girl-next-door looks and the kind of figure that could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window, Roberts was always going to be Bond girl material. However, while thespian talents aren’t always a prerequisite for Bond girl iconography, Roberts’ acting style is akin to a deer caught in headlights but concentrating so hard on reading off a cue-card that it hasn’t realized the headlights are so close and, oh fuck, attached to a speeding truck.

Then we have the terminally unlovely Grace Jones. Her acting style is more like a rabid dog caught in headlights. There’s a scene where she makes out with Walken. The fact that my eyes were rigidly on Walken throughout says nothing about any latent preferences on my part.

Then we have Fiona Fullerton as a Russian agent with whom Bond enjoys a brief interlude. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a stunner … but her attempt at a Russian accent makes the guy who played Schultz in ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ sound like Bruno Ganz.

Then we have Patrick Macnee. Just as there’s an academic paper to be written on the Bond/giallo correlation – Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celli, Barbara Bach, Barbara Bouchet (albeit in a non-canon Bond role) and former 007 George Lazenby all having appeared in notable examples of the genre – a study of the crossovers between James Bond and ‘The Avengers’ (Steed/Peel version, not Marvel comics) similarly awaits authorship. Honor Blackman (Catherine Gale from 1962-64) essayed Pussy Galore in ‘Goldfinger’, while Diana Rigg (the iconic Emma Peel between 1965 and 1968) and Joanna Lumley (Purdey in ‘The New Avengers’, 1976-77) both appeared in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. Guest stars included Christopher Lee, Vernon Dobtcheff, Julian Glover and Geoffrey Palmer, all of whom memorably contributed to the world of 007. So it was probably inevitable that Steed himself, Patrick Macnee, would eventually get a role in a Bond movie. Tragic that he got it – and such a thankless role at that – in this one.

A young Dolph Lundgren makes a small appearance. Mainly because he was Grace Jones’s consort at the time and visiting the set when Glen found himself missing an extra. I mention this purely to illustrate my desperation in finding things to say about ‘AVtaK’.

Ultimately, this is a sloppy piece of filmmaking. The ridiculous lengths to which Zorin goes attempting to dispose of Bond makes the average Saturday morning serial with its cheating cliff-hangers look like an example of documentary realism; the over-elaborate set pieces (notably an assassination at the Eiffel Tower) swiftly become ridiculous; the schism between the jokey portrayal of Bond and Zorin gleefully machine-gunning helpless people who were about to drown anyway are irreconcilable in terms of tone and context; and there’s at least half an hour’s more running time than there is plot.

Any saving graces? Not the finale, which is so ludicrously staged and badly edited as to make the “off” button leap from a remote controller in a paroxysm of audio-visual mercy killing. Nor the gadgets, which are limited to a remote control camera that Q employs for state-sanctioned voyeurism in the final scene. Nor the nods to previous Bond movies, including the villain-as-cheat gamesmanship already embodied by Auric Goldfinger (likewise Zorin’s briefing of his criminal brethren is an unashamed copy from that film) and Kamal Khan, as well as the reappearance of the stolen Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington as referenced in ‘Dr No’. This latter is inexplicable even as an in-joke since the painting was returned in 1965, twenty years prior to Eon Productions shunting their lamest Bond movie yet onto the cinema screens of the world.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Sam Mendes

Happy 47th birthday to Sam Mendes. Here's the trailer for his forthcoming Bond movie 'Skyfall'. To say I'm excited is like saying Oliver Reed imbibed the occasional pint now and then.