Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Coming attractions / Shots on the Blog

The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the temperature is high and the weather is glorious. Time for a season of cutesy, romantic, feelgood movies ... on some other blog!

Here on The Agitation of the Mind, summer means one thing: crime. Shots on the Blog 2012 kicks off on Friday. Here's a small taster of what to expect:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Offence

Financed by United Artists as part of the deal Sean Connery cut in return for resuming the mantle of James Bond in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Offence’ is, variously, a psychological portrait of a man cracking up under the pressures of the job, a two-hander that explores duality and the transference of guilt, and cynical commentary on the nature of authority. All packed into 108 minutes, without any real set-dressing, and against a backdrop of bland, arterial Britain in the 70s. (The film was shot in and around Bracknell, Berkshire and Lumet makes the place look like purgatory with a shopping precinct.)

Actually, make that a four-hander. Following a brief introductory sequence detailing a stakeout at a local school (a child molester is going about his bad business in the area) and the subsequence disappearance of a young girl, what follows is three extended sequences that play off Sergeant Johnson (Connery) against his long-suffering wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant), his irascible superior Detective Superintendent Cartwright (Trevor Howard), and the inscrutable Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen), the man arrested on suspicion of abducting the girl. The opening frames make it clear that Johnson beats the shit out of Baxter during an utterly unorthodox interrogation. Lumet plays the interrogation scene twice, the first time riddled with lacunae. Baxter is carted off to hospital and Johnson placed under suspension.

Lumet leaves the exact nature of the Johnson/Baxter mano-a-mano under wraps, with Johnson eking out precious few details to Maureen during their argument when he returns home and hits the bottle. This sequence features an astounding five minute monologue when Maureen tries to get her curmudgeonly husband to open up about the job and the things that are turning him into a distant and unfeeling stranger; Johnson responds with a sustained rant detailing the worst cases he’s worked on and the appalling things he’s seen. It’s a powerhouse verbal set-piece and Connery pulls it off with jaw-dropping intensity.

The Johnsons’ domestic disharmony is interrupted by his colleagues: events have taken a more serious turn and he’s required to return to the police station. Here he’s braced by Cartwright. The antagonism between the two men is immediate. Cartwright doesn’t get much out of Johnson about the Baxter incident; they argue instead about authority. Certainly the most stentorian section of the film, ending with Cartwright literally bellowing at Johnson, it’s only when Cartwright takes his leave that Johnson, in a rare moment of introspection, reflects back on the interrogation. This occupies the last twenty five minutes of the film, Johnson and Baxter’s battle of wits playing out in full.

The contrast between Johnson’s vacillation from bullying to ingratiation (he seems to be working a one-man good cop/bad cop routine) and Baxter’s whiny but insistent needling provides the dynamic. The end result is inevitable, but it’s how Lumet (working from a script by John Hopkins, based on his own stage play) arrives at the final outburst of violence that ups the ante on the discomfort.

‘The Offence’ isn’t an easy film to watch. Lumet reinforces the staginess of the source material rather than trying to open it out. The locations are glum. The characters are deeply flawed and extremely hard to empathise with. There’s violence without catharsis, revelation without explanation. Whether Baxter is ultimately guilty is never resolved. He’s arrested on very little basis, denied all rights and treated shoddily by even the most journeyman of the coppers, even before the indignant and dangerously edgy Johnson gets in on the act. There’s a telling moment when Johnson and his colleagues lay odds on Baxter being the guilty party, based on nothing more than the look of him. So is Johnson judge, jury and executioner, or the opposite side of the coin to Baxter? Is guilt individual or collective? The film probes hard and deep and finds only more questions as the layers are peeled away.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pam Grier

Happy 63rd birthday to Pam Grier - icon!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Diamonds Are Forever

‘Diamonds Are Forever’: in which the director of ‘Goldfinger’ is back at the helm, Sean Connery is back in the lead role, God is in His heaven and all is right with the world. Carlsberg don’t do movie reviews …

Joking apart, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is – it has to be said – a frustrating and ultimately pretty mediocre outing for 007. It’s a film of two halves: part one is basically How The Diamond Smuggling Operation Works, while part two is What The Diamonds Are Used For. Part one is moderately entertaining with some touches of mordant humour (the funeral parlour and the straight-out-of-central-casting mob guys raise a smile) but lacks the scale and spectacle expected of a Bond movie. Part two delivers the world domination shenanigans, the villain’s fully kitted out secret base and the requisite explosions, but pads out the action with a ridiculously over-egged sequence involving a cassette tape and Jill St John in a harlequin bikini that plays like something out of ‘The Benny Hill Show’.

It’s worlds apart from the character-driven approach to ‘OHMSS’ and that, apparently, is how the producers wanted it. Although Peter Hunt was offered directorial duties, scheduling conflicts with another film put him out of the running and Broccoli and Saltzman re-engaged the services of Guy Hamilton, the man who’d pretty much defined the Bond formula with ‘Goldfinger’. Indeed, an early draft of the script had Auric Goldfinger’s vengeful brother as antagonist. With George Lazenby exiting the role, the producers consider Michael Gambon and – unbelievably – Adam West, before signing John Gavin. At this point, United Artists pulled rank, put their foot down and demanded Sean Connery back as Bond.

This put Connery in a pretty awesome bargaining position and as well as bagging a then record-breaking $1.25million fee – which he used philanthropically to establish the Scottish International Education Trust – he got backing for two non-Bond projects. Only one of these – Sidney Lumet’s intense and uncomfortable ‘The Offence’ – came to fruition. The other, an all-Scottish adaptation of ‘Macbeth’, fell through after Polanski’s version made it into production first. Meanwhile John Gavin, technically still under contract, was paid in full.

The film opens with what seems, for about the first two thirds, like a narratively pointless prelude. In this prelude … now, how do I describe it without sounding blunt … Bond beats the shit out of a couple of guys then rips the bikini top off a sunbathing beauty and threatens to strangle her with it, and in like manner ascertains the whereabouts of one Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Grey), fugitive from justice. And here we must pause while I rant about something that pisses me right off every time I watch what is otherwise a no-brainer low-to-mid-level slab of 007 escapism. 

This vengeful hit-people-strangle-people-find-Blofeld-kill-the-motherfucker business seems a lot like the filmmakers’ atonement for daring to end ‘OHMSS’ on a downer, Bond’s best girl dead the agent himself shattered. Only … the Bond’s first port of call in the aforementioned investigative continuity is quite obviously Japan, suggesting ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ as a direct follow-on from ‘You Only Live Twice’. While this is a logical step in one respect (it reintroduces Connery’s Bond from that actor’s last appearance), it makes utterly no sense in another, since a Connery-only continuity disallows for the death of Tracey di Vincenzo – indeed, it disallows for Bond to ever have been married at all – and even allowing for the fact the Blofeld had the temerity to escape at the end of ‘You Only Live Twice’, Bond’s obsessive pursuit of him at the start of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ seems OTT. Unless Bond was out for revenge for the death of his wife, which he doesn’t seem to be because of … well, see above.

In short, it’s all a bit too meta. And things just get worse with the appearance of Blofeld. Bearing in mind that the very first scene of the movie contrives to bring to mind ‘You Only Live Twice’, in which Charles Grey plays an ally of Bond’s who is murdered by SPECTRE agents, where I ask you is the sense in casting that selfsame gentleman as the SPECTRE-commanding Blofeld himself? No matter how good Grey is in the role – and he’s very good indeed; it’s difficult to pick a definitive Blofeld from the quartet of Anthony Dawson, Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas and Charles Grey – the close proximity of his appearances in the Bond chronology, accentuated by the diametrically different characters, just plain bugs me.

So: Bond tracks down Blofeld, seemingly dispatches him, Shirley Bassey belts out the theme song, and some naked women gyrate in silhouette. (I really ought to spend some time during this retrospective discussing the work of Maurice Binder, but I’m not sure I have sufficient command of the English language to explicate “naked chicks gyrating in silhouette” beyond, oh I don’t know, five words.) Next up, M (Bernard Lee) is delivering some expository dialogue about diamonds and Bond’s off to Amsterdam to infiltrate a smuggling operation.

All of which is fairly low-key stuff for a Bond movie. Hamilton keeps the pace up, though, and Bond is rewarded by the charms of Tiffany Case (St John). And here we pause for another rant. Jill St John is a looker plus VAT; beyond that, she has real screen presence and a mischievous charm; beyond that her IQ of 162 speaks for itself. In the first half of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, the script allows her to play Tiffany Case – and she relishes the performance – as a brassy, smart-talking dame, full of sass, sarcasm and self-interest, and anyone watching the movie for the first time might be tempted, during this section, to earmark her as “all-time best Bond girl”. But ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, as noted earlier, is a film of two halves. And it’s second half unforgivably reimagines Tiffany Case as a shrill, simpering bimbo, robbed of juicy dialogue and reduced upping the cleavage quota. (Not that it needed upping after Lana Wood’s gravity defying appearance as the unsubtly named Plenty O’Toole. “Named after your father, perhaps?” Bond muses.)

And while I’m in rant mode, one further point of contention. ‘OHMSS’, for all its flaws, at least set out to present a human Bond. A Bond without gadgets who is required to use his wits, his charm and – whisper it softly – his intelligence. He connects with a woman, but realises he has to be the smooth-talker, the seducer, to get information out of other women (there’s a telling scene where he dallies with two of Blofeld’s potential brainwash victims, one after the other, and uses exactly the same dialogue to win them over … the second time, he’s not even putting any effort into it). ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is an incredibly reductive film, not only returning Bond to the status of sex-as-a-fringe-benefit misogynist, but upping the ante on Fleming’s homophobia. Where the screenplay for ‘Goldfinger’ had the good grace to gloss over Pussy Galore’s Sapphic preferences and Bond, ahem, straightening her out, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ just wades right in there and gives us the despicable characterisations of narratively unnecessary henchmen Mr Kidd (Putter Smith) and Mr Wint (Bruce Glover).

So, yeah, plenty of good reasons not to like ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ very much. Except that it’s often stupidly entertaining. Prime example: the utterly bonkers scene where Bond smashes into a fake moon landing, steals a moon buggy and kicks off a high speed chase through the Nevada desert, a piece of what-the-fuckery so magnificently deranged it’s as if Alejandro Jodorowsky had shown up at United Artists and convinced them to give him a shot at making a blockbuster. There are plenty of other moments like this, some sifted in as grace notes – Q (Desmond Llewellyn) cheating at the slot machines and blithely leaving his winnings behind, chuffed above mere monetary rewards that his latest prototype works so well – and others as set-pieces, that leave you in no doubt that the film was one big wheeze, a deliberate means to slap some fun back into the formula.

Many have criticised Connery’s performance – uninterested, phoned-in – but I quite enjoy his casually ironic delivery and slightly aloof presence. He suggests all the snobbery of Bond from the first two films but smoothed with a touch of self-deprecation. If ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is the Bond movie as elaborate joke, then Connery was definitely in on it. And it certainly made the transition to a new Bond easier when the next instalment took Roger Moore to Harlem and Caribbean in ‘Live and Let Die’, an opus as unapologetically racist as ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is homophobic. There were changes ahead for the franchise, but political correctness wasn’t one of them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Music?" "Yeah, I use Wagner, scares the hell outta the slopes!"

Happy 199th birthday to Richard Wagner, from Colonel Kilgore and the boys!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

BOND-A-THON: on Antagony's secret service

For anyone who's enjoyed my humble offerings so far on all things Bondian, get ready to rejoice. Tim of Antagony & Ecstasy - film blogger of excellent standing and a long-time supporter of Agitation - has just launched his own Bond retrospective, kicking off with a review of the 1950s American TV adaptation of 'Casino Royale'. It sets the tone for what promises to be an edifying, insightful and eminently readable series.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

BOND-A-THON: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

There are those, including people for whom I have infinite respect and whose judgement I trust implicitly, who have a lot of time for ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ – who, in fact, consider it one of the high points of the series. If anyone of said inclination is reading this review, it’s probably best that you exit The Agitation of the Mind and I’ll see you in about ten days’ time for ‘Diamonds Are Forever’.

For anyone still reading, you might be expecting a rampant piece of ‘OHMSS’ bashing. But, even though the film is often referred to at chez Agitation as ‘On Her Majesty’s Shitty Service’, it’s not simply a matter of being scathing for 1500 words and having done with it. There’s a lot of good stuff about ‘OHMSS’ and I find myself wanting to like it more than I actually do. It’s just that the problems with the film are significant enough to counterbalance all the things about it that work and work well.

But before we get into the pros and cons, there’s some behind-the-scenes stuff to consider. During production on ‘You Only Live Twice’, Sean Connery announced that he was retiring from the role. Had the producers, at this point, decided “hey, you know what, Sean Connery is James Bond, nobody’s going to fill his shoes, let’s just wrap this whole thing up here and now and move onto some new and different projects”, I don’t think anyone would have blamed them. In fact, as much as I like a couple of the Roger Moore Bonds, I could easily live in a world in which they didn’t exist. Likewise the Brosnans. Ah, but then there’s the criminally undervalued work Timothy Dalton did, and Daniel Craig’s triumphant reinvigoration of the character in ‘Casino Royale’, so maybe they were right to press on regardless.

Plus, of course, Bond movies made fuckloads of money at the box office, and profitability is the deciding factor in any business decision.

It was 1967, two years before ‘OHMSS’ saw the inside of the movie theatre, and producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman approached Timothy Dalton to take on the role. At 21, Dalton felt he was too young. He would assume the mantle of Bond two decades later in ‘The Living Daylights’. Other actors were considered before Broccoli and director Peter Hunt, graduating from second unit work on previous productions, decided on George Lazenby. An Australian – cue the first flurry of controversy: a non-English actor playing Bond! – Lazenby was a male model whose only acting experience was restricted to commercials. Perhaps Broccoli or Hunt felt that – as Terence Young had done with Connery – he could be groomed for the role. Certainly Lazenby had the physicality. In a test shoot, he inadvertently broke a stuntman’s nose during some rough ‘n’ tumble. He knew martial arts. He had a ruggedly handsome look that matched the character’s ruthlessness.

Contrary to a still prevalent opinion, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ was neither a financial flop or a critical disaster. It hauled in a whopping $82 million from a $7 million budget (it was a considerably cheaper film to make than ‘You Only Live Twice’) and, in some quarters, earned very appreciative reviews. Nor was Lazenby ousted by the producers after the public didn’t take to him. $82 million in ticket sales, at an average of $1.50 for a ticket in 1969, suggests that moviegoers took to him pretty fine. Moreover, his original contract who have tied him to seven Bond films. In point of fact, Lazenby announced during production that he was only going to play Bond once, a decision often attributed to his agent’s belief that the character wouldn’t fare well with more sophisticated and liberated 70s audiences. His agent’s name was Ronan O’Rahilly. I can only assume that Nelson from ‘The Simpsons’ drives past his house every day, points and goes “Ha ha!”

So, with all that in mind, let’s move onto the film itself. ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ marks the last time that a Bond film had any real fidelity with its source material. In fact – disregarding ‘Thunderball’ which is essentially the film of the novel of the unproduced screenplay – it’s easily the most faithful adaptation. Hunt carried a copy on set at all times. He also decreed that the gadgetry and the OTT “boy’s own” action heroics were off the menu. He was determined that this iteration of Bond would present a more human character.

The plot – and this is tricky, because in the sequence of novels ‘OHMSS’ marks Bond’s first face-to-face encounter with arch-nemesis Blofeld, whereas in the filmic canon the two had already squared off ‘You Only Live Twice’ – has Bond become romantically involved with Teresa “Tracey” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), the half-English daughter of Italian mob boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). Bond loses no time in exploiting his potential father-in-law’s underworld connection to track down Blofeld (Telly Savalas). Draco points him to a lawyer’s office in Switzerland. Bond burgles said premises and discovers that Blofeld, passing himself off as a French count, is in correspondence with the London College of Arms, whom he is prevailing upon to legitimize his title. Bond consults with genealogist Sir Hilary Bray (George Baker) and, posing as Bray, arranges to meet Blofeld in the mountain-top clinic he’s running in the Alps.

With me so far? The novel – one of Fleming’s longest and ropiest – lurches all over the place in its first half, from Bond-meets-mafia-dude’s-daughter to Blofeld-wants-to-be-a-nobleman to brainwashing-in-the-high-Alps. It also – and I’ll switch on the blinking neon SPOILER ALERT sign for the rest of this paragraph – boasts his most downbeat ending: Bond does the unthinkable and (shudder!) gets married, only for his bride to die in a hail of bullets courtesy of a Blofeld-engineered act of revenge. It’s an effective ending in the novel and it sets up the Bond-goes-to-pieces opener of ‘You Only Live Twice’ very well … not to mention the big Bond-gets-mediaeval-on-Blofeld’s-ass set piece towards the end of the book. It’s a pretty audience-unfriendly ending for a movie, however – particularly a movie as firmly routed in the blockbuster/escapist entertainment mould as anything featuring 007 as is main character. Hunt’s idea – scuppered when Lazenby jumped ship – was to end with Bond and Tracey driving off into the sunset together and hold back her death for the pre-credits sequence of the next film. SPOILERS END.

Here’s what’s fucking great about ‘OHMSS’. For the most part, it looks terrific – classically shot, beautiful production design. At least two of the action sequences are as good they get – principally a car chase involving a stock car rally, and a helicopter attack on Blofeld’s eyrie that’s properly tense and exciting. Diana Rigg turns in one of the best performances of any Bond girl in the fifty years of the franchise: alternately vulnerable, hard as nails, brittle and yearningly romantic, Tracey is a fully rounded character, light years removed from the set dressing that most Bond girls provided. Telly Savalas reimagines Blofeld as a dapper and quite sardonic individual who clearly enjoys being a sociopathic bastard. In all the years of megalomaniacal Bond villains, only in Savalas’s performance has the pursuit of world domination seemed so appealing as a career opportunity.

And let’s use Blofeld as a segue into what’s wrong with it. In the latter stages of ‘OHMSS’, Blofeld threatens to unleash a chemical agent designed to wreak havoc with the world’s agriculture unless his demands are met, one of which is amnesty for his part in ‘Thunderball’. This preserves the continuity of the novels, but is so dismissive of the celluloid chronology that it’s almost an insult to the audience. “What’s that you say, audience? They’ve met before. Well not played by the same actors, they haven’t. So shut up and eat your popcorn.”

That’s the first thing that irritates me about ‘OHMSS’. There’s also a few scenes that are so badly edited – Bond’s hand-to-hand with Draco’s bodyguards; some ‘Where Eagles Dare’ stylee business on a cable car (is it day? is it night? is it snowing or isn’t it?) – it’s almost impossible to reconcile Hunt’s earlier work as an editor. Speaking of editing, at two hours twenty minutes – it would remain the longest Bond film till ‘Casino Royale’ beat it by four minutes in 2006 – ‘OHMSS’ drags in places and could have done with more stringency in the editing suite. I’ll let the dodgy back projection in the skiing and bobsled sequences slide – it’s no worse than in any of the mid-to-late period Roger Moore outings.

And finally we have Mr Lazenby. I really don’t want to go down the facile critical route of “George Lazenby can’t act = ‘OHMSS’ is a write-off”. I don’t want to do that because I don’t believe that Lazenby was necessarily a bad actor. His performance in Aldo Lado’s atmospheric giallo ‘Who Saw Her Die?’ three years later is definitely not that of a wooden amateur with no range. And he certainly nails the tragic final scene of ‘OHMSS’. He just doesn’t seem right as Bond, although I can’t help but feel that he was sabotaged by the filmmakers in this regard. From the breaking-the-fourth-wall pre-credits payoff (“This never happened to the other fellow”) to the ill-conceived scene where Bond, in his office, surveys mementoes of previous missions (as snatches of the theme music from previous films warble on the soundtrack), it’s as if Hunt and co. were doing their damnedest to bring in reminders of Connery rather than letting Lazenby be his own Bond.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Hunt treated Lazenby pretty shoddily on set, and that – although he went on to helm a couple more box office successes with ‘Gold’ and ‘Shout at the Devil’ – Hunt never returned to the Bond franchise. ‘OHMSS’ remains a transitional Bond movie. It was the last time for two decades that audiences would be offered the Bond of the novels. The next eight movies would develop the character into an indestructible sarcasm machine and indulge in some creative decisions much worse than anything on display here. (Oh the joys of what’s to come on this moviethon.) What works in ‘OHMSS’ works very well; unfortunately, these elements fall considerably short of being the sum of their parts.

Friday, May 18, 2012

BOND-A-THON: first Skyfall poster

So: stark, moody and playing on some classic iconography. Okay, I'll admit it: the fanboy in me has been unleashed. I am officially all kinds of excited.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mini reviews: for when 800 words and half a dozen screengrabs just isn't worth it


The cast is great but the narrative slumbers;
Like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, it’s Burton-by-numbers.


Great cast, great concept (the art world laid bare)
But blandly directed, no reason to care.


“From the director of ‘Twilight’.” The cineaste baulks.
Oh dear fucking Christ, the werewolf talks!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated

Late last week, I came down with a bad case of connectivity issues ... or at least my computer did. Fast forward to mid this week and the problem has only just been resolved.

I've had five days cold turkey from the internet. Man, it takes an enforced break just to make you realise how much time you waste on the internet! So, what have I been doing during this hiatus? Watching shitloads of movies and stockpiling reviews so that content on Agitation could resume forthwith? Er, no. I've mainly been reading. And sketching out a structure for what might become a novel.

But I have no excuses now. The next installment in the Bond-a-thon beckons, so look out, in the next couple of days, for a review of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. Or some pictures of a starlet whose birthday it happens to be. The Agitation of the Mind: keeping it classy since 2007.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex

I have been to the cinema exactly twice in the last six months: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ in November last year, and ‘Avengers Assemble’ (to give it its stupid fucking UK title) a couple of weeks ago. It’s not that there haven’t been plenty of movies out during that period that I’ve wanted to see, it’s just … well, it’s two things really. 

Firstly, ticket prices have become prohibitive. For me and Mrs F to see a film together is an outlay of between £12 and £18 (approx $19 - $29) depending on time of screening – and that’s not even premier seats. Throw in travel costs and a trip to the confectionary stand and you’re looking at £25 ($40). For a couple of hours’ entertainment in a soulless multiplex. Compare that to the loss-leader £9.99 price that most supermarkets sell mainstream new release DVDs for. It’s economically more viable to buy the DVD, even if it sucks like Paris Hilton and you only watch it once, than to see the film at the cinema. 

Secondly, well … that “soulless multiplex” line in the above paragraph probably gives it away. Unless I’m seeing a movie in an independent or arthouse cinema like Nottingham’s Broadway or the now sadly defunct Screen Room, I really don’t enjoy the cinema experience. I don’t enjoy queuing for tickets or trying to get some sense out of those automated ticket machines; I don’t enjoy feeling like I’m on a conveyor belt; I don’t enjoy the constant distraction of chavs talking through the movie, kicking the back of my seat and fucking around on their mobile phones. 

Mark Kermode doesn’t like these things, either. In fact, they righteously piss him off. Reading his book ‘The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex’ – a title probably chosen for its funkiness; the subtitle ‘What’s Wrong with Modern Movies?’ is a truer reflection of the contents – I found myself nodding, grinning ruefully and muttering “Right on, brother” on pretty much every page. 

‘TGtB&tM’ is both a sustained rant against the shag-awfulness of the modern movie-going experience and a nostalgic reaching back to a golden age of cinema, when a picture palace was just that, when the projection of a beam of light through a reel of celluloid running at twenty-four frames per second could truly conjure magic. Projection is the book’s motif. The prologue (“Would the last projectionist please turn off the lights…”) mourns the increasing redundancy of the projectionist’s art as more and more cinemas screen movies digitally; the epilogue (“The End of Celluloid”) is a shaking of the head at the changing face of the industry. 

In between these sections, Kermode delivers some mightily tetchy and often scabrously funny rants. Overpriced multiplexes staffed by automatons who can’t even be bothered to project the film correctly? Kermode goes off on one. Shitty blockbusters that make ludicrous amounts of money despite being aesthetically retarded? Look out, ‘Sex and the City 2’ – M to tha K is comin’ for ya! 3D as a gimmick designed to milk the audience for even more money, a gimmick that’s failed so many times in the past it should never have been re-embraced and thoroughly deserves to lapse back into obscurity? Light the blue touch paper and retire. 

And Michael Bay? How to put it. You know how much I hate Michael Bay? I’m the president of his motherfucking fan club compared to Mark Kermode. Introducing the director in chapter two as “the reigning deity of all that is loathsome, putrid and soul destroying about modern day blockbuster entertainment”, Kermode goes on the speculate that “down in the deepest bowels of the abyss there is a tenth circle of Hell in which Bay’s movies play for all eternity, waiting for their creator to arrive”. The K don’t like the Bay. At all. 

But ‘TGtB&tM’ is more than just curmudgeonly diatribes laced with character-assassinations. A chapter on the reluctance of the mainstream to embrace subtitle foreign fare expands into a beautifully nuanced comparison of Hideo Nakata’s ‘Dark Water’ and Walter Salles’s remake, exploring how geographical and cultural differences inform the overall aesthetic of the two films. Indeed, Kermode’s evident love of Japanese cinema springs from the page, as he traces the origins of J-horror in such classics as ‘Kwaidan’ and ‘Onibaba’. 

‘The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex’ may have be born out of frustration, but ultimately it is driven by an unadulterated love of cinema and written by a critic who is insightful as he is opinionated. Whether some of his broadsides leave you wanting to shake him warmly by the hand or the throat, what’s undeniable is that Kermode is hugely entertaining writer on film, and he has produced here a volume that should be on every cineaste’s bookshelf.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

BOND-A-THON: You Only Live Twice

The first four films collectively established most of the tropes: the girls, guns, gadgets and globetrotting; the pre-credits sequences; the big ballad theme songs; and the evil genius villains in their fabulously appointed lairs. ‘You Only Live Twice’ slotted in place one more Bond benchmark. While ‘Dr No’, ‘From Russia with Love’, ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Thunderball’ are reasonably faithful adaptations of Fleming’s novels, the narrative of ‘You Only Live Twice’ deviates wildly from its source material. The franchise would only make one return to novel-based veracity with ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, after which things moved further and further away from the world of Fleming’s books until, for the most part, only the titles remained … and when the titles of the novels were exhausted, the short story collections were raided, and finally, for the first of the Brosnan Bonds, they resorted to using the name of Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica.

In the chronology of the novels, ‘You Only Live Twice’ follows ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ and (SPOILER ALERT) opens with Bond still struggling to cope nine months after his wife Tracy’s death at the hands of a vengeful Blofeld (SPOILERS END). He’s messed up his last two missions, he’s becoming increasingly disenfranchised from his professional life, and M is at his wits’ end. M sends Bond on a seemingly impossible mission to Japan to wrest what amounts to state secrets from the head of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka. Tanaka, incensed at the presence on Japanese soil of an eccentric foreigner (dude turns out to be Blofeld) who has installed himself in an ancient castle surrounded by a garden of death (but unable to do anything through legitimate channels), offers Bond the information he requires in return for an act of assassination. Here, essentially, we have Bond as a broken man; Bond – more than in any of the other novels – as a state-sanctioned hitman. ‘You Only Live Twice’ arguably represents the most interesting thing Fleming did with his creation, even if long passages of the novel amount to little more than Fleming ranting about the Japanese being a cruel and uncivilized race. (Racism in an Ian Fleming novel?!? Say it ain’t so!)

In the film, the setting is Japan, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka features (albeit in a more collaborative role) and Blofeld is the villain. A sequence where Bond (Sean Connery) disguises himself as a native and joins a community of Ama divers in order to get close to the villain’s base is replicated, and a scattering of references or fragments of dialogue similarly recall the source material. But vast sections of the storyline – including a dockyard fight, a hair’s-breadth escape from a plummeting light aircraft, a helicopter battle, and a bunch of ninjas aiding Bond in his assault on a rocket base hidden in a dormant volcano – belong entirely to the imagination of Roald Dahl. Yes, that Roald Dahl. ‘You Only Live Twice’ was scripted by the guy who wrote ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘The Fantastic Mr Fox’. (Although, to be fair, anyone familiar with his barbed stories for adults – particularly in the slim but razor-sharp collection ‘Switch Bitch’ – will easily recognise Dahl’s wilful perversity.)

Director Lewis Gilbert – an established talent in the British film industry with naval classics ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them’, ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’, ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ and ‘HMS Defiant’ under his belt, and fresh off ‘Alfie’ – joined the Saltzman/Broccoli camp for the first of three Bond productions. He would return for the Roger Moore extravaganzas (and I’m not necessarily using that word in a good sense) ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Moonraker’. Gilbert strikes exactly the right tone, balancing the patent absurdities of the story with an adrenaline rush of high adventure. If the Bond movies are, at base, a delivery system for kick-ass escapist action sequences and iconic posturing, then Gilbert did as much in ‘You Only Live Twice’ to streamline the aesthetic as Guy Hamilton did with ‘Goldfinger’.

Legendary cinematographer Freddie Young – who had already lensed over 100 films, including Powell and Pressburger’s ‘49th Parallel’ and David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – was assigned DoP duties; like Gilbert, it was his first Bond movie; unlike Gilbert, he wouldn’t return. Editor/second unit director Peter R Hunt followed up the work he’d done on the previous Bonds, and was on the verge of helming his very own movie … but that’s a story for the next review. Before-the-camera regulars Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn reprise their roles, to dependable effect, as M, Moneypenny and Q respectively, the latter providing 007 with arguably the franchise’s most memorable gadget: the autogyro “Little Nellie”.

Man of the match award, however, goes to Ken Adam. And it’s appropriate that we take ‘You Only Live Twice’ as the point in this retrospective where we pause and raise a glass to the man and his indelible contribution to the Bond mythos.

Ken Adam was born Klaus Hugo Adam in Berlin in 1921. His family relocated to England in 1934 to escape the burgeoning influence of Nazism. At the outbreak of war, Adam joined the RAF and was assigned to 609 Squadron during the battle of Normandy. He was the only German fighter pilot in the RAF. Can I just repeat that sentence, purely to reinforce the historical and nationalist importance of it? Ken Adam was the only German fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force.

Oh yeah, and he built some fucking awesome sets for the Bond movies. Dr No’s fully-kitted out secret base? Ken Adam. Fort Knox in ‘Goldfinger’? Ken Adam. The submarine base and Stromberg’s undersea lair in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’? Ken Adam. The cost of the volcano set, which incorporated a helicopter landing pad and a functional monorail system, was a cool $1million – i.e. the entire budget of ‘Dr No’. (It was his work on ‘Dr No’, incidentally, that brought him to Kubrick’s attention; he created the War Room in ‘Dr Strangelove’.) His association with producer Saltzman continued with the Len Deighton adaptations ‘The Ipcress File’ and ‘Funeral in Berlin’. And you’ve gotta love someone who could go from production designer duties on Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ in 1975, to getting down and dirty with Tinto Brass’s ‘Salon Kitty’ the following year. His last big screen job, at the age of 80, was Istvan Szabo’s ‘Taking Sides’ (from Ronald Harwood’s play on the interrogation of conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler at the end of the war) in 2001. In 2003 he was awarded on OBE.

Think of Bond and you think of his nemeses. Think of the villains and you think of their futuristic bases. Those astounding sets; those explosive finales. Ken Adam’s work established the template as definitively as Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme”, Ursula Andress’s curvaceous emergence from the waves, or the image of a white cat on Blofeld’s lap. Peter Lamont’s production design on the later films owes to Ken Adam in spades; it’s telling that Lamont was an assistant art director on ‘You Only Live Twice’.

One other “first” for ‘You Only Live Twice’: Blofeld. A faceless √©minence grise in ‘From Russia with Love’ and ‘Thunderball’, his machinations and by extension his threat to Bond represented, respectively, by ‘Red’ Grant/Rosa Klebb and Emilio Largo, here he takes centre stage as antagonist. Here, we see his face. Played by Donald Pleasance – a diminutive figure against Connery, but a study in steely-eyed malevolence for all that – he’s bald, facially scarred and almost a parodic figure. Almost. Pleasance avoids the characterisation opted for by most of the actors, before and after him, who essayed Bond villains. He doesn’t play Blofeld as an egomaniac whose sociopathy is hidden behind a layer of civilised behaviour. He plays him as a ruthless bastard who’s getting paid a fuckton of money for doing a job and it doesn’t bother him in the slightest that said job basically involves provoking the USA and the USSR into a shooting war. A ruthless bastard who doesn’t tolerate fuck-ups. A ruthless bastard who permits himself a soupcon of superiority when Bond is in his clutches but still recognises him as a threat; a villain who is prepared to execute Bond himself rather than leaving the task to an underling.

Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld might not get to spout anything as glib as Auric Goldfinger’s “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die” or as calculating as Hugo Drax’s “Look after Mr Bond – see that some harm comes to him”, but his high-pitched “Kill Bond! Now!” has an urgency that makes most of 007’s other enemies seem a bit girly by comparison.