Tuesday, March 12, 2019

First Man



Who knows why some films make an impression with movie goers and why others miss?  Sure, sometimes there is a clear answer.  Maybe the film was badly marketed, or maybe a film had the misfortune of being released the same day as a huge blockbuster.  Or maybe it was just obvious that the movie was going to be a stinker.  We have all seen a preview in the theater at some point in our lives and thought, "Wow, why did they make that?!  That movie is going to flop."

But sometimes a film comes out that seems to hold a winning hand and then just whiffs.  And that is unfortunately what happened to First Man. Actor Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle were coming off the Oscar-winning La La Land.  The film was written by Josh Singer, who won the Oscar for Spotlight.  Early buzz indicated that First Man would be a serious contender come awards time.  And then...it swung and missed.  Critics, for the most part, liked the film, but audiences largely stayed home.  Which is not to say that First Man was a complete disaster; I think it did make its money back in the end.  But First Man deserved better, and I expected it to do better.  The question is, why didn't it?

Before we really get started, I have to give you a heads up.  I have a lot to say about this movie, so you can expect some SPOILERS!

First Man is the story of Neil Armstrong and the years leading up to his iconic voyage to the moon.  It recounts the trials and tribulations of the astronauts as they risk their lives in the space race against the USSR.  But that is only half the story.  Very early in the film, Neil loses his two year old daughter Karen to cancer.  His grief fuels his need to focus all his attention on his work, despite the heavy toll it takes on the rest of his family, including his wife Janet (Claire Foy, The Crown).

It is easy to separate the movie into those two story threads, so let's tackle one at a time. Damien Chazelle said that he wanted to make the greatest space movie ever.  He didn't.  The Right Stuff is still the king of this mountain and it would take a lot to unseat it.  But First Man is still a really solid film.  And I have to admit, there is one thing that First Man does better than all other space movies before it - Chazelle makes it vividly and painfully clear how incredibly dangerous the space program was.  From the first moments of the film, when Neil Armstrong's X-15 almost gets stuck outside the atmosphere, every test and launch is fraught with tension.  The camera gets right in the faces of the actors, so we are stuck with them in these cramped tin can spaces, shaking just as violently as the characters are as they launch into space, listening to the grinding of metal and rattling of bolts as the ship literally sounds like it is going to tear apart all around them.  It's petrifying.  We all know the history.  Neil Armstrong isn't going to die on one of these missions.  But it is a true testament to the filmmaking that we still feel like he might.  Our brains tell us he obviously survives.  But at the same time, all of our senses are screaming, "Oh, he's screwed!"  Now that is good filmmaking.

Unfortunately, Chazelle spends so much time focusing on the risks, that he forgets to include some of the triumphs.  A lot of astronauts achieved many great things, but the way First Man plays, NASA is burdened with disaster after disaster until Apollo 11.  I suppose Chazelle and Singer could argue we've seen those triumphs in other films, so they didn't want to retread them here.  This is specifically Neil Armstrong's story, after all.  But they could have at least mentioned them to provide a better balance.  These other achievements are largely ignored.

Now I'll shift over to the family section of the film, and to Neil Armstrong's increasingly tense relationship with his wife Janet.  This time I will start with the bad.  The use of extreme closeups and shaky cams that were so effective during the launch sequences really hurt this part of the movie.  I don't want to get motion sickness when Neil and Janet are just talking at the dinner table.  This is all personal preference, of course, but they should have pulled the camera back, put it on a tripod and just let the actors do their thing.  This might sound like a nitpick, and in truth, it kind of is.  Because I really connected with these sections of the movie.  Even more than the space race, First Man is a story about grief.  Neil is grieving for his daughter the whole film, and as personal tragedies mount, he increasingly isolates himself by focusing on work, closing himself off emotionally from everyone else - his friends, his other children and even his wife.  I recognized this behavior.  I know people who grieve this way.  I grieve this way.

In some ways, the most important scene in the film is in the beginning, right after Karen's funeral.  Neil gently approaches his wife in bed and quietly asks permission to go to work.  And she says yes because she knows he is the type of person who needs that distraction.  But that decision is a fateful one.  It sets in motion the rest of the film.  That initial permission is abused to the point that near the end of the film, Armstrong won't even talk to his children when he is preparing to go to the moon.  He doesn't want to open himself up, emotionally.  He can't.  He'd rather just pack his bags and head to the launch pad.  Janet has to literally force him to sit down at the dining room table and talk to his children, in what is one of the movie's best scenes.

As I think about this movie, I keep coming back to that quiet, gentle question after the funeral, "Can I please go to work?"  At that crucial moment, these two young grieving parents needed each other to heal.  By avoiding that, Neil substituted that need for comfort with a need to work, but this pretty much leaves Janet with nothing and no one to hold on to.  It's tragic when you think about it.  And I wonder what would have happened if Janet had said no?  Maybe Neil Armstrong never would have made it to the moon.  But maybe their marriage would have been stronger.

I don't mean for any of this to make Neil Armstrong out as a bad person.  He's absolutely not.  I really do think he's an American hero.  He is doing what he thinks is best for the mission and for his family.  He thinks he is building these walls for protection; I don't think he realizes he is pushing his wife further and further away.  It is a sad, but fascinating portrayal, and it adds an emotional weight to the relationship that I don't usually see in movies.  And it certainly makes the climax of the film, where Neil finally seems to find some measure of peace with his daughters's death, all the more impactful.

Shifting back to the movie as a whole, there is one other thing I wanted to mention.  Another of Damien Chazelle's goals was to be as accurate as possible.  Of course, they had to change things because this is a movie, and not a documentary, but I was impressed with how accurate they were.  From what I read, NASA and the Armstrong family were both pretty happy with the film and the characterizations, and I can see why.

All in all, First Man is a really solid film.  I didn't love it, but I loved a lot of things about it, and I wish it had done better.  So why didn't it?


I don't think you can really write a review of First Man without addressing the controversy that surrounded the film before its general release.  At some point, word leaked out that the American flag was not featured in the moon landing scene and the news spread like wild fire across the internet, sparking angry tirades from people, even politicians.  How dare these Canadians (Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle) come in and try to erase the "American" part of this American achievement?!  It was an embarrassment and unpatriotic!  Personally, I think this whole argument was absurd for a whole slew of reasons.  Let's hit them one at a time.  First of all, the VAST majority of people stoking the flames of this ridiculous dumpster fire hadn't even seen the movie and so had no right to complain.  They were getting riled up over something they weren't even sure about. Secondly, the American flag IS featured in the moon landing sequence.  For a movie that prides itself on historical accuracy, there is no way they would have erased the flag.  Yes, it's true that the actual planting of the flag itself is not depicted, but I don't think that makes the film unpatriotic.  If anything, First Man had the opposite effect on me.  As the movie ended, I was proud of the achievements of the U.S. space program and humbled by the risks these astronauts took.  As I mentioned before, there have been better space movies, but no movie has done as good a job capturing the sacrifices that had to be made.  The movie even has an extended montage of celebrations from around the world, with legions of people cheering the moon landing, and even including an archival clip of a French woman saying, "We're all Americans now."

So how is that unpatriotic?

So why wasn't the planting of the American flag a climactic moment of the movie?  I think that goes back to Neil Armstrong's personal journey in the film.  The most powerful moment of this moon walk needs to be when he pulls out his daughter's bracelet and leaves it in the crater.  This is the emotional climax of the film, not the moon landing itself and not even the "one small step for all mankind" line.  At the end of the day, what matters most is Neil's love for his daughter.  Heck, if there is still any doubt, just listen to the soundtrack.  The epic music that accompanies the moon landing is a fully orchestrated version of Karen's theme that we first hear in the beginning of the film when Neil is caring for his sick daughter!

I know this review has been a bit more rambling than usual, and I apologize for that. So let's circle back now.  Do I really think this flag controversy hurt First Man?  The answer is, I don't know.  It's certainly possible, and that would be a shame because then those audiences really missed a fascinating film, and one that despite some glaring flaws, is still very inspiring and rewarding in many different ways.

BEST LINE:

I know this is a cheat, but how could I not choose this line?

Neil Armstrong: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


TRIVIA:

While researching Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling came across the astronaut's love of theremin music, which came as bit of a surprise.  The theremin is an odd little electrical instrument which produces a sound you might recognize from cheesy 1950s UFO movies (though Miklos Rozca also used the instrument to great effect in the film noir Double Indemnity).  Gosling mentioned this to Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, who decided to include the strange instrument in the film score as a little ode to Neil's love for the instrument.

MVP:

Damien Chazelle was the captain of this mission, and I think he is the clear MVP.  He had a clear vision to make First Man one of the most accurate and dangerous films about the space race, and he really did pull it off.  While you can also blame him for some of the movie's faults, he deserves a lot of props for bringing something new to the table.  As I mentioned before, no movie has ever been this successful at capturing how dangerous these missions truly were.  I would say that is some brilliant filmmaking and deserving of my MVP.





Saturday, January 12, 2019

2010: The Year We Made Contact



Sequels can be tricky business.  I know in today's cinematic universe, franchises are king and sequels are commonplace.  For James Bond or comic book films, they should even be expected.  There will always be new villains to defeat and new plots to foil.  But let's look at the films that were not meant to be franchises, stand alone pictures that were monster hits, and then the studios forced sequels into production to take advantage of their new cash cow.  While there are exceptions, these sequels are generally not very good.  Now, what about the filmmakers themselves?  I found myself thinking recently about the pressure these directors must face when they are starting production on a sequel.  The eyes of all the fans are on you.  You better not mess this up, or you will catch a lot of heat.  You have to find a way to bring to audiences what they loved about the first film, while putting just enough of a creative spin on the material that the sequel's existence is justified.  That's not an easy tightrope to walk.

But there's even a worse scenario.  What if you are not making a sequel to a blockbuster hit?  What if you are not even making a sequel to a classic?  What if you are Peter Hyams, and you have been hired to direct a sequel to one of the most seminal and important films in the history of cinema?  How the hell do you make a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Now, I know 2001 is a bit of a divisive movie.  Some people are entranced by its mysteries, while others find the film to be a cure for insomnia.  But there is no doubting its importance in the history of cinema.  There are only a handful of movies where you can truly say, "there was cinema before, and then there was cinema after, and everything had changed."  2001 is one of those films.  The only other film like that I can think of right now is Citizen Kane, and how do you make a sequel to that?!  It cannot be done.  Though to be honest, a sequel to Citizen Kane might be easier because that movie at least makes sense.  2001 is striving to be something beyond what we can completely comprehend.  That's the point.  So what is a director like Peter Hyams to do?

Well, have a story, for one thing!

The big advantage Peter Hyams had was a book to work with.  Arthur C. Clark, who co-created 2001 with Stanley Kubrick, started to write a series of sequels to continue the story. In 1982, he wrote the Hugo Award-nominated 2010: Odyssey Two.  So it already helps that Hyams didn't have to come up with his own story and could count on one of the two geniuses behind the first film to give him a narrative roadmap.  Secondly, Hyams got the blessing of Stanley Kubrick himself.  I always heard that Kubrick could be a bit ornery, and I would imagine that he would be enraged if someone dared to make a sequel to one of his films.  He even notoriously destroyed all the sets and models after he finished 2001 to prevent their reuse.  But contrary to what I would have thought, Hyams has said that Kubrick encouraged him to go for it.

So let's get into 2010: The Year We Make Contact.  Almost right away, we know we are watching something different because we are watching a film with a traditional narrative.  It's a movie, not...whatever 2001 was.  I am honestly split on whether this is a good or bad thing.  On one hand, it separates the sequel to the point where it almost doesn't feel like a continuation.  It is so tonally different and so traditional in its storytelling that it really could have been a standalone film.  But at the same time, I applaud the filmmakers for not deluding themselves into thinking that they could imitate 2001's uniqueness.  To try and recreate that film would be to set up yourself up to be directly compared to Kubrick, and that is a recipe for disaster.  Ultimately, I think it was probably the right decision.  If 2001 set up all the questions, then it is 2010's job to try and come up with a few answers.

Set several years after the incidents in the first film, 2010 features a return trip to Jupiter to find out what happened to astronaut Dave Bowman and his ship, The Discovery.  The ship includes Americans, Drs. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider, Jaws), Walter Curnow (John Lithgow, Cliffhanger) and R. Chandra (Bob Balaban, Best in Show), as well a crew of Russians led by Tanya Kirbuk (Helen Mirren, The Queen).  Written and filmed during the height of the Cold War, the film plays up the mistrust and fear of that era by bringing the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of war back on Earth while the scientists dash towards Jupiter, adding a thick fog of tension among the international crew as they try to discover why Dave Bowman disappeared.  Once they arrive at the Discovery, they return that ship to functionality, including turning on the murderous AI that operated the ship, HAL 9000.

I did have a few problems with the film.  First of all, it took awhile to get used to Roy Scheider, who is playing the same character played by William Sylvester in 2001.  Sylvester is a smooth operator, a smart and savvy scientist who calmly keeps classified information close to the vest and knows how to run a secret operation.  Scheider's Dr. Floyd is...well, Roy Scheider acting like Roy Scheider.  This is not a knock on Scheider's acting skills.  He was a great actor who had a number of terrific performances in classic films.  But he is energetic, excitable, sarcastic and funny, and willing to play some under the table games to get the job done.  And he wears incredibly short shorts.  All of which is very Roy Scheider, and the complete opposite of the Heywood Floyd in the first film.  I'm not sure why this bothered me so much.  Maybe it was because I had just seen the first movie before watching this so William Sylvester was fresh in my head.  But I was definitely distracted.  It wasn't until about 20 minutes into the movie that I was able to force myself to pretend Scheider was just playing another character, and then I could settle back and enjoy his performance.  Because it is a good performance.  He is just as engaging here as he was in Jaws.  I just wish he had been playing someone else.

There are a few other things I didn't like about the film.  It felt very 80s to me, from the hair styles to those short shorts to the very fact that the Cold War was playing such a big part in the story (certainly a subplot that would hold less meaning to a lot of audiences today).  I also really don't like Dr. Floyd's narration at the end of the film, which is supposed to be meaningful and awe-inspiring, but just comes across as preachy and unnecessary.  SPOILER ALERT.  I also didn't like a retconning that was used when explaining HAL's malfunction.   HAL 9000 ultimately malfunctioned because it was given contradictory instructions that ran counter to its programming.  That's fine, except Dr. Floyd says he is innocent and knew nothing about these instructions.  Which directly contradicts the first movie when Dave Bowman watches a video that details these instructions, narrated by none other than Dr. Floyd.  Now if he was lying in 2010 to cover his own ass, that would have been interesting.  But that is not what is happening here.  Roy Scheider can't be guilty of this and the movie expects us to believe his innocence...and desperately hopes we don't remember that video from the first film.  Okay, SPOILER OVER.

Wow, it really sounds like all my major problems with this film have to do with Heywood Floyd!  And maybe they do, because the rest of the movie is really quite good.  I admire that this film is a slow burn.  It's not trying to be exciting.  When the most thrilling sequence of the film features a scientist talking to a computer about honesty, you know you're not in for a roller coaster ride.  But this is a good thing.  Unlike most science fiction movies today, 2010 is science fiction.  It tries to ground itself in reality, it takes pride in showing how the scientists go about their business and doesn't dumb itself down for the audience.  Everything that is happening is interesting, even if it isn't exciting.  The acting is all quite good, and I really liked how both HAL and Dave Bowman were incorporated into the storyline.  And I also need to give some props to a special effects department whose work more than lives up to the high standards set in the first film. 

And at the end of the day, the movie's greatest strength is that it resists the temptation to explain too much.  While we start to understand what happened in the first film, we never get a clear picture.  And that's okay because the scientists are left with a whole slew of questions, too.  And while the film may fall short in the "awe" department - especially at the ending - it's still very interesting and enjoyable to watch.  Today, it is a largely forgotten film, and that's a shame because there is a lot to enjoy in 2010.  It should be allowed to come out of the shadow of its forebear, because it is worth watching and brings a lot of interesting ideas to the table.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention one other thing.  There is no way 2010 didn't serve as some sort of inspiration for James Cameron's The Abyss.  From the gritty design, to the backdrop of worldwide tension and potential nuclear war, to the way the alien presence interacts with the crew of The Discovery...it's all remarkably similar to The Abyss.  I personally like The Abyss much more, but I am still surprised I hadn't heard that comparison before...


MVP 
Ultimately, this was an easy decision.  There are a number of things I like that about the film.  And I would definitely give the special effects team an honorable mention (that shot of Jupiter folding in on itself is crazy!).  But at the end of the day, the MVP has to be Peter Hyams.  He was a one man army with this film, working as writer, director and even director of photography.  But most importantly, he was brave enough to attempt one of the most difficult things to do in Hollywood.  He stood up to one of the all time classics and tried to create a worthy sequel.  And if he didn't direct a classic, he still put produced a pretty solid movie that honors the original while trying to do something new.  So for taking on what was surely a foolhardy and doomed mission, but coming out on top, Peter Hyams deserves the MVP!


BEST LINE: 

Dr. Heywood Floyd (to the cagey Russian crew): I do seem to remember a process where you people ask me a question and I give you answers, and then I ask you questions and you give me answers, and that's the way we find out things. I think I read that in a manual somewhere.  


TRIVIA
I have some fun ones for this movie.  For example, I love that the movie has magazines that feature pictures of the American President and Russian Premier and that those pictures are of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, respectively.  But since this is a science film, I think I will go with a but of trivia that is more science-based.  Hyams was able to keep in constant contact with Clarke throughout the production, picking his brains for insight on the characters and plot.  But Clarke was based in Sri Lanka and in the 1980s, long distance calls were incredibly expensive.  So instead, they used this technology that was just in its infancy, one that the world didn't even know about yet...something called e-mail.  I thought that was pretty cool.





Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Vikings


Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the longevity of films.  As I have gotten older and talked about movies with today's youth, such as my company's interns, I have been shocked about the movies they have not seen.  At first, I thought the problem was with them or with their parents for doing a bad job raising them.  But sadly, I can no longer delude myself into thinking that's the case.  I think I am just getting old...and I've reached the point in my life where the movies that everyone has seen are...well, movies that a lot of people have actually not seen and maybe haven't even heard of.  Some of the younger people I've talked with do have a vague notion of the popular movies of my day.  They've at least know Back to the Future, even if they haven't seen it.  But there are a lot of movies they just haven't heard of.  For example, just picking two hit movies at random: The Usual Suspects and Four Weddings and a Funeral were both award-winning films and big financial and critical successes.  When I mention these two films to the next generation, I am met with blank eyes.

So what makes a movie stand the test of time?  And I don't mean to film buffs, but to the everyday, average person.  Of the most successful films of 1942/1943, why is Casablanca the one that has gone down in history?  Why not Random Harvest, Reap the Wild Wind, Road to MoroccoSong of Bernadette, or Somewhere I'll Find You.  ALL of those movies were bigger hits than Casablanca (according to Wikipedia). Now, I know that is an extreme example.  Casablanca has became part of the culture, inspiring imitations ranging from Neil Simon to Bugs Bunny.  But it is still an interesting question.  In 1948, Samson and Delilah made $28 million dollars. That is almost $300 million today.  And I think most people will not have heard of that movie, much less seen it.  And I don't mean to equate money with longevity, but it is crazy to me that a movie that was that big of a hit has started to vanish in the public consciousness.  I've asked young men and women if they have heard of Ghost.  The answer is no.  Ghost made $217 million dollars in 1990.  In 1990, that is HUGE.  Today, that is $419 million.  The film was also nominated for five Oscars, included Best Picture, and it won two of them.  And it has completely disappeared?

I suppose what this all comes down to is, I owe my parents an apology.  Because I was one of those kids.  I must have made them feel so old when they talked about the popular movies of their day.  When I was young in the 1980s, they would tell me about a movie... something like Tammy and the Bachelor, and I would laugh and say there is no way that was a big movie.  I would have heard of it if it was.  Tammy and the Bachelor, by the way, was a romantic comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen and it was an Oscar nominated hit that spawned three sequels.  Three sequels.  All erased by our cultural amnesia.  And it is shame because a lot of great films are being lost.  Yes, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and The Godfather will always be with us.  But what about the lesser movies?  What about the movies that aren't even classics, but are just fun rides?  What about strange curiosities like The Vikings?

First, let's establish the credentials.  The Vikings was the sixth most successful movie at the box office in 1958 and was fairly well reviewed.  It had a big enough impact on Hollywood that the early 1960s were littered with cheesy ripoffs like The Long Ships and Erik the Conqueror.  The movie also had a terrific cast, featuring Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) and Janet Leigh (Psycho).  It was directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), shot by brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus) and written by Calder Willingham (The Graduate).  That is an excellent team.

It seems the epic Kirk Douglas film that has stood the test of time is Spartacus, and there is good reason for that, but let's not ignore The Vikings because this movie is one helluva good time.  I would never call it a classic, but it certainly deserves to be remembered.

The Vikings is the story of two half brothers: Einar (Douglas) is the handsome, popular son of the Viking chief Ragnar (Borgnine) and Eric (Curtis) is a slave in the village, and the unknown son of Ragnar and the English queen he had raped two decades earlier.  The new English king, the villainous Aella (Frank Throng), now watches the coast warily for another Viking attack.  When Einar captures Aella's bride-to-be, Morgana (Leigh), events spiral out of control, setting the two half-brothers against each other and the English crown.

I do want to make it clear that this movie is not perfect.  There are some really goofy and dated things in this movie. For example, I don't really buy the love story between Eric and Morgana.  While Eric is a prince, neither he nor Morgana know that, and I have trouble believing the princess would fall in love so quickly with a slave, even if he is played by Tony Curtis.  The whole subplot is convenient in a very 1950s way where chaste love will always win the day.  There are also some uncomfortable spots where it seems the film is condoning the abuse of women.  Are we supposed to be laughing along with Ragnar when he tells his son that if a women struggles against his advances, that makes the conquest more worth it?  That really bothers me, and is hard to overlook.  But then again, I understand that this very well may have been what the Vikings really felt - pillaging, murder and rape were basically in their job description. So I understand that, but at the same time, it makes it hard to sympathize with certain characters when they talk like that.

But ultimately, in other ways, the treatment of the Vikings themselves is what makes this movie so interesting, and better than many 1950s films of this genre.  Most period adventure films of the period were clear in their villains and heroes.  Everything was very black and white and easily digestible. And The Vikings does have this element.  Eric is the brave and handsome slave who is really a prince. Aella is the villainous and scenery chewing king who sits on Eric's rightful throne.  Morgana is the wholesome princess who needs rescuing.  All very 1950s adventure.  But the difference with The Vikings is actually the titular characters - the rampaging Northmen themselves.  They are the ultimate wild card.  They are not heroes or villains.  They are, well, Vikings.  And yes, they raid and pillage the poor and innocent English.  But they also bring the booty back where it is distributed to families in their own village.  They aren't a cartoonish tribe.  They have a society and a culture, neither good or bad.  They just exist.  And it may be hard not to judge them by our modern standards, but it is impossible to classify them into classic movie archetypes.   In short, the movie gives us as realistic a depiction of Viking society as they can, and implant it in the middle of this silly 1950s adventure.  A lot of research went into this film.  The clothes, ships, buildings and weapons were all created to be as historically accurate as possible, and the hard work pays off.  These Vikings feel sort of authentic.  Not completely authentic, of course.  It is still a movie, after all, and there is only so realistic you can be in Hollywood.  But it is still pretty impressive to see these characters and not know how they fit into the puzzle or what actions they will take.

I also admire that the movie is surprisingly brutal for a film from this era.  A bit of a SPOILER alert here, but I was not expecting Einer's eye to get gouged out.  And I certainly didn't expect Eric's arm to get hacked off.  The movie isn't particularly graphic.  This doesn't happen on camera, but still...I was genuinely surprised.  And I don't get surprised easily.

I also have to take a second and mention the climactic battle at the end, when the Viking army assaults Aella's castle.  This bloody attack is terrific, well staged by Fleischer and superbly shot by Cardiff.  I especially respect the final duel between Einar and Eric, an energetic and dangerous fight on top of the castle's tower that looks way too high to be safe for either the actors or the crew. 

So all in all, despite its flaws, The Vikings is a fun and exciting movie, featuring a cast and crew at the top of their game.  Is it a classic?  Definitely not.  But does it deserve to be forgotten?  I don't think so.  There are hundreds of movies that are slowly fading into cultural oblivion.  Movie lovers out there can't let that happen.  We have to tell our family and friends, and pester them until they see some of these movies, and hopefully continue to pass them on to the next generation.  There are a lot of fun, forgotten movies out there.  I hope The Vikings does not become one of them...


MVP:

There are a lot of things I like about The Vikings, but I have to give the MVP to cinematographer Jack Cardiff.  Cardiff is one of the best directors of photography in Hollywood history, with a career spanning seven decades.  Cardiff does magnificent work on this film, but what seals the deal for me is the scene when the Viking ships travel across the North in a deep, deep fog.  And then as the sun is rising with that gorgeous morning light, we see the three ships emerge from the fog - imposing and ghost-like.  It's a truly stunning image, and it won Cardiff my MVP!


BEST LINE: 

Einar: I want this slave to live.  The sun will cross the sky a thousand times before he dies.  (turns to Eric) And you'll wish a thousand times that you were dead.  

TRIVIA:

One of the more entertaining scenes in The Vikings was the oar walking sequence - where the Vikings would run alongside the outstretched oars of the ship and try not to fall into the freezing water below.  This was a game that the real Vikings really played, and the director Fleischer commented at the time that they were filming something that hadn't been seen in a thousand years.  The stunt men practiced for weeks and even Kirk Douglas got in on the fun.  That's really him, not a stunt man, skipping across the oars in the scene.  I thought that was a fun bit of trivia.  And looks like a fun game that I wouldn't mind trying someday!





Saturday, November 3, 2018

2001: A Space Odyssey


I know movie theaters are hurting these days.  Home theaters are just getting better and better, and a lot of folks are choosing to watch movies in the comfort of their home instead of going out to the movie theater where they have to deal with expensive tickets, crying babies and rude jerks talking on their cellphones.

And I get it.  I personally like the communal aspect of seeing a movie in the theater, but also do get annoyed a lot.  So why deal with other people when you can chill back on your comfortable chair, eat and drink what you want, and pause the movie whenever you need to?  And honestly, home theaters are good enough that a lot movies are going to be just as good as if you saw it in the theater.

But not every movie.  Not 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Sometimes the experience truly is different on the big screen.  Now, let me backtrack a little.  A couple of years, I wrote a review of Gravity.  I had seen the film in the theater and I was in awe of Alfonso Cuaron's filmmaking.  And as you can see in that review, I was just smacked silly by the movie.  But fast forward a few years and I watched Gravity again on TV.  And it was...fine.  I was still impressed with the filmmaking.  I still loved Sandra Bullock's fantastic performance.  But I was not in awe of the film.  The experience had changed.  It was truly a different and more powerful film in the theater.

So let's take that experience and multiply it by 50.  Because that is what happened with 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When I first saw 2001, I thought it was just okay.  I respected it and I recognized its place in film history.  But I generally reduced my feelings about the film into this sentence: "2001 is four different movies.  The monkey movie is okay, the space trip movie is intensely boring and kinda pointless, the HAL movie is pretty cool, and the last movie, the psychedelic space trip, is just weird."  Looking back now, I feel almost embarrassed with myself!

Parts of that description do still apply.  There is no overarching traditional narrative to 2001 and the film is indeed broken into those four parts.  But there is a single narrative theme.  2001 is the story of human evolution itself.  Starting with the dawn of man and then fast forwarding through time to our explorations of space, 2001 is about an ambitious a movie as you can get.  Conceived by Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) and renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 attempted to do something new.  Science fiction up to this point was basically fantasy - all UFOs, lasers and alien invasions.  Some of it was very good, some of it was very smart, but it was hardly realistic.  But Kubrick and Clarke did their homework and really tried to show what space travel would be like.  Remember that this movie was made before we landed on the moon.  And yet so much of the imagery of space travel and technology is pretty spot on, from the spinning space stations to the experience of zero gravity to artificial intelligence and even the use of ipads.  Even the handling of the alien presence is handled pretty realistically because, well, it makes no sense.  Which, to be honest, if we ever did make contact, do we really think we would understand what was going on?  It would be so foreign to us, possibly even something our minds couldn't comprehend, confusion that Kubrick captures extremely well.  In 1968, audience minds must have been blown.

But this brings me back to my experience.  My mind had not been blown.  I saw the film, respected the film and was content to not really see it again.  And then I had a chance to see it on the big screen...and my brain just exploded.  It is interesting because as I was watching it, I could still feel the length.  2001 is sslllloooowwww.  My butt was falling asleep.  I was not necessarily enjoying myself.  And then the movie ended and I turned to my friends, and said, "damn, I just went through something.  I think that just blew my mind."  And I felt invigorated because I suddenly got it.  This was a film that changed cinema forever, and I didn't just acknowledge that objectively, I could now  feel it.

Let's take that boring space journey, for example.  A ship is floating through space to the strains of beautiful classical music, slowly making its way to the space station.  This journey feels endless and when I saw it the movie at home, I fought hard to stay awake.  Sure, the ship looked neat...for the first 10 seconds.  But I had what felt like another 15 hours of watching it before we moved to the next scene.  In the theater, on the other hand I thought, geez, that looks incredible.  How did they get that shot?  And how did they get that shot?  And wait, in 1968, how the hell did they get that shot?!?   I could see the details of the model work and the special effects that mostly look as good as anything we have today (I do say mostly because there are spots that definitely don't age so well).  All in all, this was just incredibly impressive.  And I don't think audiences in 1968 were necessarily bored, because they had never seen anything like this before.  I imagine their eyes were glued to the screen the whole time.

On the big screen, I even caught little jokes I had missed before - like the instructions on how to use a toilet in space!  Of course, the joke isn't that there are instructions, but that they are so long!


I feel like I have been rambling and haven't even gotten to some of the more memorable parts of the film, such as astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) and their journey to Jupiter aboard a giant ship that is run by the computer HAL 9000.  HAL has become probably the most enduring part of the film, a character that has entered pop culture as one of cinema's great villains, and certainly one that has been imitated or parodied multiple times.  This is the part of the film that I have always enjoyed, probably because it takes advantage of an actual narrative with a true conflict, life and death situations and some really great acting and writing.

I could keep going, but I should think about wrapping this up. I'm not going to say the movie is flawless.  It is still too slow and I still can't say I necessarily enjoy stretches of it.  But it is brilliant masterpiece.  And the only way to properly watch it is in the movie theater.  Your mind will explode, and you will thank me for it!

SPOILER:

So what about that psychedelic trip at the end?  Is that still just weird or is that part better, too, now that I have seen it on the big screen?  The newly restored film is so vivid and the colors are so powerful that I was even in awe of this sequence.  And again, I found myself asking, how did they put on this light show without the benefit of computer graphics?  In 1968?!  It's crazy to me.  It does go on for a bit too long.  Once we start seeing the negative images of desert landscapes, I feel it's time to move on.  But the sequence kept me entranced up to that point.  And again, you start to notice details intercut in this light show that foreshadow the ending of the film - the birth of the star child, the next stage of human evolution.  Is this sequence symbolizing the act of conception as astronaut Dave Bowman enters the star gate?  Within the light show, there are certainly shots that resemble sperm and eggs.  I think we are literally witnessing the creation of this new being.  I had never noticed that before.  I may have even fallen asleep in that earlier viewing (this sequence does go on for awhile!).

MVP:

I don't think there can be any doubt.  You can credit Arthur C. Clarke, HAL 9000, Douglas Trumbull, and even Johann Strauss...but if there is a true MVP for a film that changed movies forever, then it has to be the man who pulled it all together: Stanley Kubrick.  I've always been a bit mixed on Kubrick.  I love some of his movies, but others leave me cold, and I've heard stories of erratic behavior or perfectionism to the point of craziness (he did make Tom Cruise walk through a door 95 times during the production of Eyes Wide Shut!).  Or while I know he wrote a lot, he also often worked with other screenwriters who did not get any credit, which really bothers me.  But there is no doubt that as a filmmaker, he was brilliant.  With 2001, he was involved in every aspect of the production.  He even won the Oscar for Best Special Effects, which weirdly is the only Oscar he ever won.  He never won for directing or writing.  No, one of the cinema's most famous directors won his only Academy Award for Special Effects, which is crazy to me.  And it is well deserved; as I mentioned, those effects still hold up today!  In any case, it is clear that Stanley Kubrick is the MVP here, the man who pulled all these pieces together into something innovative and crazy, and yes, a little dull at times, but oh so brilliant!

BEST LINE:

This one will take some context because it is also one of my favorite shots of the film.  I have another spoiler alert coming on this one!  Most of the film, when we hear HAL speaking, we see the now iconic closeup of his red eye.  But during the climactic confrontation between HAL and Dave Bowman, we also keep cutting to this other shot instead:


It was kind of an odd choice, I felt.  We have our now famous dialogue: "Open the pod bay doors, HAL."  "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I cannot do that."  And the two continue to have their tense exchange, cutting between Dave in his space pod, HAL's eye and this random shot of the pod bay.  And finally Dave threatens HAL to leave the pod and enter the space ship through its emergency airlock, and HAL replies:

HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave, you're going to find that rather difficult.

And then you see it.  And you understand why Kubrick has been cutting to this wide shot of the pod bay throughout the entire scene - you have been staring at Dave's red helmet the whole time and didn't even realize it.  I think that's pretty amazing filmmaking, and definitely my favorite line of the movie!

TRIVIA:

This is funny and I really hope it is true and not some amazing urban legend.  So when Samsung released their version of the tablet, they were immediately sued by Apple who claimed they were stealing their idea of the iPad.  The trial went to court.  And when it came time for Samsung's lawyers to defend themselves, they pulled out exhibit A - shots from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which clearly show the astronauts watching videos on a tablet.


So really, if anybody owns the design of the tablet, it is Warner Brothers, the studio that produced the film!  And Apple was just using a design that had already existed for decades.  In any case, Apple lost that lawsuit, and I like to think this bit of trivia had something to do with it! 








Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Agony and the Ecstasy


Produced to be one of the great “prestige” pictures of 1965, The Agony and the Ecstasy must have seemed like a sure bet.  The film was partially based on a best-selling novel by Irving Stone, epics were still doing good box office (and winning lots of awards) and the director was Sir Carol Reed, who had directed the classic post-war thriller The Third Man.  The cast included one of the biggest stars of the period, Charlton Heston, and Rex Harrison, fresh off his big Oscar win for the blockbuster musical My Fair Lady.  

But The Agony and the Ecstasy was only a mild box office success, and while it did pick up a few Oscar nominations, it really failed to make much of an impression and remains largely forgotten today.  Which is a shame, because while flawed, The Agony and the Ecstasy has a lot to offer and deserves to be remembered.  

The Agony and the Ecstasy tells a story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, or rather how Michelangelo (Heston) was forced to paint the Sistine Chapel by Pope Julius II (Harrison).  But the film is about much more than that.  This is a battle of wills between two stubborn men; it’s also a depiction of the violent politics of the Renaissance Era Papacy, which in many ways was more like an independent kingdom than a religious institution.  

I think one problem with The Agony and the Ecstasy is that it might be a bit too wrapped up in its own importance.  Or putting it another way, knowing the story lacks any major battles or exciting set pieces, the movie doubles down on its own “importance.”  This becomes obvious almost immediately because the film actually begins with a 10-minute documentary explaining why Michelangelo is so influential to art history and why we should all pay attention once the movie starts.  That’s, uh, not a good sign of things to come.  And sure enough, the movie is dense with “important” moments.  Audiences don’t like to be lectured to.  That’s not why we go to the movies.  That’s what school is for.  

And yet, I also admire the movie for trying to tackle complicated subject matter without dumbing it down for the audience.  It is fascinating to me that there was an actual warrior Pope who led armies into battle in the 1520s.  And the acting from Heston and Harrison is truly superb.  Michelangelo is not a painter, and he doesn’t want to do this painfully difficult project, but he still digs his heels in to create a masterpiece, one incredibly slow step at a time.  Julius II wants a monument to the glory of God and also to his own rule as Pope, but would like for it to be finished cheaply and quickly, and certainly before he dies.  He chafes under Michelangelo's arrogance and slow progress.  And when the two start arguing, the film elevates into a thing of beauty.  There are few actors who can dominate the screen with such righteous fury as Charlton Heston. Whether you like him or not, it’s hard to deny that he commands the screen. It takes a special kind of actor to take Heston’s punch and punch back just as hard (see Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments), but Rex Harrison rises to the occasion.  But there is one big difference between the confrontations in the The Ten Commandments and The Agony and the Ecstasy, and this is where I applaud Heston as an actor - Michelangelo can’t win.  He can be stubborn, scream and try to intimidate, but in the end, he has to lose, and Heston understands that.  The Pope always has to win, and it needs to be believable.  And in the middle of their endless bickering, Heston knows the exact moment when to wilt before Harrison’s authority.  Sometimes he even slouches over and pouts like a toddler, which is a hilariously perfect acting choice for the character.

I know I am talking a lot about these arguments between Michelangelo and Julius, but there is a reason.  These scenes are where the heart of the movie lies, it is when the film truly soars, and everything else just pales in comparison.  Unfortunately, when Harrison and Heston are not on screen screaming at each other, the movie largely falls apart.  Michaelangelo has an odd love story with a DeMedici countess (Diane Cilento, Hombre) who clearly loves the conflicted artist who could never love her back (because of his obsession with his work, the movie states, clearly skipping over the fact that Michelangelo was most likely gay). And Pope Julius finds himself arguing about Italian politics that are never fully explained and would require a PhD to fully decipher.  The movie tediously plods along, waiting to be shocked back to life by another Heston-Harrison fight.  

Since the movie is wrapped up in its own importance, it also tries too hard to inspire – with sometimes laughable results.  In what is supposed to be a high point of the film, Michelangelo climbs through the Italian Dolomites, looking to escape from his commission to paint the ceiling.  And then he looks into the sky as the sun is rising and in the shape of the clouds he sees God touching Adam's finger - the image that is to become the centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel.  And he is divinely inspired in a moment that is supposed to be transcendent and beautiful, and just ends up being laughably bad. I understand that this was the 1960s and special effects have come a long way since then, but those clouds look silly in any decade. It's an over-the-top moment that is made even more over-the-top by overwrought music and then just to top it all off, Michelangelo starts narrating passages from the book of Genesis for the audience. It's all supposed to be grand and important, but it is trying so hard. The movie so wants this moment to bring tears to audience's eyes...it wants it SO BAD!  And it is completely ineffective.  

The movie doesn't need to try that hard. It needs to take advantage of its assets - in this case, Heston and Harrison. There is a moment of transcendent beauty in The Agony and the Ecstasy, but it is a smaller moment, a moment of quiet tranquility when Michelangelo and the Pope quietly look at the depiction of God on the great ceiling by candlelight.  The Pope's simple question, "Is that what he looks like to you?" leads to reflection on the true nature of God and eventually to grudging acceptance and mutual understanding between the two men. It's a short scene, with beautifully restrained music and a remarkable portrayal of two men who act like giants but are now realizing their own insignificance before a greater power. It might be the best scene in the film, and it doesn't need to act "important" to move the audience.  

I am sure there would be more to say about  The Agony and the Ecstasy, but I feel it would get repetitive.  Whenever Heston and Harrison share the screen, which is admittedly a lot of the movie, this film could be considered a classic. But the rest of the movie just can't equal these scenes and knocks the whole thing down a peg. I would still absolutely recommend it because during the moments when the movie is flying, it truly does soar.  

MVP:

Spoiler Alert!  I am about the ruin the beginning of The Agony and the Ecstasy.  The film begins with a battle over a small Italian city.  Underneath a barrage of cannon fire, one army advances to the town, led by an imposing knight in black armor, who slashes his way through his enemies and down the narrow streets of the city.  The army converges on the central plaza of the town, and quickly realizes that all resistance has ended.  The battle is won.  The black knight surveys his victory and stands before his men. Attendants race up, take off his helmet and then place the papal robes over his shoulders.  His army bows, and the Pope blesses his men for the victory they have just won.  This is Pope Julius II.
  
Now, that is an entrance.

And the scene is a clear example of the complexity of Pope Julius II as a character and Rex Harrison’s performance.  It would have been easy to play Julius as a corrupt and violent man concerned only with his own legacy.  It would have been just as easy to play Julius as a just and holy warrior of God.  Julius is an interesting because he is both.  His character is full of contradictions. He has just led an army into battle, but he celebrates with a genuine blessing for his soldiers and granting forgiveness for the sins they have just committed to win.  But at the same time, the cause of this war has nothing to do with religion.  It was just a small piece of the political struggle for 16th Century Italy that included the Papal States, France, Venice and the Holy Roman Empire.  He is not fighting for the glory of God; he is fighting to maintain domination over central Italy and the tax and land resources that supply his power base. He understands that the Papacy of the time was in many respects a political entity just as much as a religious one, and he sees himself as just the man for these complicated times. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but I think Rex Harrison triumphs in the part. I don’t doubt for a second that his Julius II is a man who loves God. He is having the Sistine Chapel painted for the glory of God, after all. But he is also a man of the world who is not above selling church offices, bribery, bullying, lying, stealing and launching wars, and committing all sorts of corrupt acts in order to maintain power.  Rex Harrison plays all these complex shades to the hilt, displaying more range than I’ve seen from him before. I’ve always liked Rex Harrison, but feel his diverse talent has been a bit overshadowed by the iconic status of his most famous role, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady.  But it is worth exploring his other work.  He was a terrific actor, and he is just brilliant in this role.  Forget about Higgins. Harrison's finest performance is in this movie. He's the clear MVP.  


BEST LINE: 

Michelangelo (showing Julius II his plans for the Sistine Chapel): You see, I couldn't give you something mediocre...even if it is what you asked for."


TRIVIA:

The mountain quarry where Michelangelo flees when he is seeking "inspiration" for the Sistine Chapel is the actual Carrara in Tuscany.  Carrara was close to Michelangelo's hometown and was the source of all the marble for his sculptures.  





Sunday, January 7, 2018

James Bond: The Wrap-up



Wow, so it took a lot longer than expected, but we have finally gone through all the Eon-produced Bond films. Of course, as a new film is released, I will be sure to promptly review it and rank it in its proper place.  And someday I would like to review the "unofficial" Bond films, such as Never Say Never Again and 1967's Casino Royale, but I think it is a time to take a short break from our British super spy!

Watching all the films again, in order, was truly a fascinating experience.  For better or worse, the franchise changed with the times, accurately judging the latest fads that audiences were into and capitalizing on them.  Sometimes that meant you were getting lean and hungry spy thrillers, and sometimes that meant James Bond was going to space!

This flexibility is also what allowed the franchise to survive longer than any other.  Historically, most film series would chug along until the studios felt the audiences had lost interest, and then they would be put out to pasture.  Bond was different.  When Cubby Broccoli felt the audiences tuning out, he would tweak the formula to get them back in.  We see this phenomenon more often today, as old franchises are rebooted for modern sensibilities. But Eon Productions was ahead of the curve; they’ve been playing this game and playing it well for over half a century.

First things first, here is my final ranking to all the Bond films, as well as links to their individual reviews.  I don’t feel entirely confidant about the middle of the list, as some of these films really shift in their spots depending on my mood.  But I am confident about the films that are in the bottom, and even more confident about Casino Royale being at the top. It really is that terrific.

1. Casino Royale
2. Thunderball
3. From Russia With Love
4. Goldfinger
5. Skyfall
6. The Spy Who Loved Me
7. Goldeneye
8. The Living Daylights
9. Dr. No
10. Octopussy
11. For Your Eyes Only
12. Tomorrow Never Dies
13. Live and Let Die
14. License to Kill
15. Man with the Golden Gun
16. Quantum of Solace 
17. Diamonds are Forever
18. Die Another Day
19. Spectre
20. The World is Not Enough
21. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
22. Moonraker
23. You Only Live Twice
24. A View to a Kill

I also wanted to rank the actors who played Bond themselves.  I have already spent some time going into this, but thought it would be important to official rank them here at the end.  The good thing is that I feel the Bond producers have almost always hit the mark with their lead character, only having missed the target once.  I truly do not like Lazenby as Bond, even though I have liked him in other films.  The rest of the performers playing the iconic role have been excellent choices – though only two have been the perfect package.


1. Sean Connery – the first, the best, the man who made Bond what he is.  Connery perfectly embodied all the elements that Bond needed – he was ruthless and believable as both a spy and a warrior, he was charming and debonair, he could handle a good pun and was completely at home flirting with the ladies. He is universally considered the best, and for a good reason.

2. Pierce Brosnan – the man born to be Bond.  He is the only other actor who I feel really embraced all the different elements of the character.  I do feel that he took a different approach to the character, however. As mentioned in earlier reviews, I always felt that Connery was a fighter who taught himself to be a suave man of the world.  Brosnan seems to me to be the opposite.  He was a charming and roguish prep school kid who then learned how to fight.  However you come into the role, I still feel these are two actors who most embodied everything Bond could and should be.  People discount Brosnan sometimes because his movies were not the best (and two of them are close to the worst), but they should really revisit those films just to observe Brosnan himself.  He truly was born to play the role.

3. Daniel Craig – another bruiser who became debonair, like Connery. I do feel Craig is terrific. No actor has so fully embraced the flaws in Bond’s character, especially his arrogance, as Craig has.  His Bond is not a role model.  He has deep rooted problems. Craig is dangerous and is excellent in action mode. Admittedly, I don’t think he is as strong in the lady and comedy department. While part of this is because his films are more serious, he has had some opportunities to show off Bond’s lighter side.  And he is fine at it, just not remarkable. Can he nail the one-liner like Connery, Brosnan and Moore?  Sometimes he can, but sometimes the jokes fall a bit flat. And his Bond is also missing one important component – Bond has a certain joie de vivre.  He genuinely enjoys his work.  Craig’s Bond really seems to hate it, which might be why he tries to leave MI6 every single movie. I know that is a character decision and not necessarily the fault of Craig’s performance, but on the other hand, good producers also know to play to their actor’s strengths. Creative teams see what their actor is good at and they build around it to reinforce those strengths.  And Craig’s brooding anger is a huge asset that you can build around.  It just doesn’t necessarily vibe with a character who just loves being a spy.

4. Roger Moore – talk about someone who loved being a spy! Moore was the perfect Bond for the 1970s. He could play up the absurd, and was terrific at delivering a pun.  And his flirting with the ladies was always entertaining.  Look, could anybody in real life get women to swoon the way Roger Moore’s Bond did?  No, absolutely not. It is completely unrealistic. But in the context of the insane world that Roger Moore’s Bond inhabited – with its iceberg submarines and hovercraft gondolas – yes, I absolutely believe all of these women wanted to sleep with him. Yes, the world was crazy, but Moore’s Bond was in on the joke and winked at the audience through seven movies. Could I take Moore seriously as a dangerous spy?  Not really, though he had his moments.  Were Moore’s fights sometimes clunky and not particularly exciting?  Definitely.  Moore was better at throwing a quip than a punch.  But it is hard to deny that the man was having fun, and we were having fun with him.

5. Timothy Dalton – Dalton was the polar opposite of Roger Moore. Until Daniel Craig arrived on the scene, Dalton was easily the most serious Bond, and certainly the most dangerous.  In fact, if you were to think about which Bond actor fits the mold of a real spy, I would pick Dalton hands down.  I totally believe Dalton as a Cold War superstar, whether it is assassinating KGB agents and stopping heroin smuggling in Afghanistan.  Where he faltered was the other part of Bond's character.  He wasn’t particularly funny, and his romantic scenes always seemed forced. I do understand the producers wanted to tone down Bond’s promiscuity as the headlines of the late 1980s were dominated by the AIDS crisis.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Dalton’s Bond just looks uncomfortable with the ladies.  He just doesn’t want to be there.  He’s acting like he is begrudglingly sleeping with these women because he knows it is expected of him, and he would really rather be off somewhere else, beating up some bad guys.  Dalton’s Bond is a complete stick-in-the-mud (which Craig is sometimes guilty of).  He does enjoy himself like a true Bond should (look at the sheer pleasure he gets from sliding down the side of a mountain on a cello case in The Living Daylights).  But he only seems to be happy when he is in the thick of the action, which I feel is only half the equation.

6. George Lazenby – the only terrible Bond. I like all the other actors who have played Bond.  They may have some flaws, but I enjoyed all of them and thought they brought something cool to the role.  But I really do think Lazenby is awful.  And it is nothing against George Lazenby himself.  I’ve seen him in a few other movies and he is fine.  I think he is downright hilarious in his cameo appearance in Kentucky Fried Movie.  But as Bond, I just think he is dull and flat.  Maybe I can give him a pass because this was his first movie and he just didn’t know what he was doing yet.  Maybe if he had accepted that multi-picture deal, he would have grown into the part and developed into a worthy 007.  But in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s just dull and I feel he brings the whole picture down with him.  I don’t believe him as a dangerous spy for a second, he’s not particularly suave or charming, he can’t really deliver a joke, his romantic scenes with Diana Rigg seem forced (apparently, the two actors didn’t like each other very much).  I will say that the man clearly knows how to throw a punch.  So I guess there’s that.

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s go into a few other iconic Bond “elements” that I didn’t really get into during my reviews. There are a lot of pieces of the James Bond formula, aspects that have now become just as iconic as the character himself, and it would irresponsible for me not to mention them!


Best Bond Song:

The Bond films are now famous for their opening credit songs. As every new film goes into production, people wait with anticipation to see which artist has been Selected for the opening credits.  It’s a brilliant marketing ploy to build buzz, sell soundtrack CDs, and potentially bring a new audience to your movie. Seriously, how many hardcore Adele fans do you really think would have seen Skyfall if she hadn’t performed the opening number?

Just like the films themselves, the Bond songs have kept up with the popular trends of the day, and a number of huge hits have come out of the franchise. I generally prefer the brass-heavy or faster-paced songs, but the franchise is just as well known for its slower ballads.  There are some truly great songs in the canon: Diamonds are Forever, You Know My Name, Skyfall, Goldeneye and A View to a Kill - the last of which gets a special nod because the first 20 seconds are the coolest James Bond has ever sounded.  The whole song is good, but those first 20 seconds...brilliant!

But in the end, these songs (except for the aforementioned 20 seconds) are just honorable mentions. There are two true titans of the franchise, two songs are so good they need to be separated from the rest of the pack. These songs are not just the best Bond songs, but should be considered among the best songs written for any film ever.

Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die is so dynamic and thrilling that it was used as the soundtrack for the entire film, and was somehow perfectly appropriate for both the love and action scenes.

And then there is Goldfinger – the perfect Bond song- full of towering brass and featuring the titanic vocals of Shirley Bassey.  This was also the first time that the song was dedicated to the villain of the film, which I think is just hilarious.


Opening Title Sequence:

For better or worse, the franchise has also become famous for its elaborately designed opening credit sequences, popularized by the late, great Maurice Binder.  Stylized and always heavily symbolic, these opening title sequences ranged from octopus tentacles engulfing the screen to footage of the characters projected on gold-painted belly dancers (and yes, it is just as weird as it sounds).  The title sequences were probably most famous (and infamous) during the Roger Moore years when they truly went off the rails – often featuring blue-tinted nude silhouettes dancing, bouncing on trampolines, swinging off of giant gun barrels (with the guns often serving as the ultimate phallic symbol). They are bizarre and often unintentionally funny, but I wouldn’t call them good, necessarily.

For the best title sequence, I am going to have to go with Goldeneye – it features all the hallmarks of the Bond title sequences (tinted colors and silhouetted dancers), but they are dancing on top of crumbling monuments of Cold War Russia – and in some cases, smashing these monuments apart with giant hammers.  What is a perfect symbol of the uncertain era that Bond is about to enter – a chaotic new world where it isn’t always as clear who the good guys and bad guys are.  It’s pretty brilliant.



Best Pre-Credits Sequence:

Bond was also the first franchise to feature a pre-credits tease, a little mini adventure for audiences to enjoy before the film actually gets started.  Sometimes these pre-credit sequences are connected to the main plot, sometimes they are completely random.  But you can always count on a Bond film to start with one.  There have been a number of truly superb sequences, including the stylized black & white scene in Casino Royale where a newly minted 007 gets his first kills.  But for my money, you have to go back to Goldfinger for the best.  This short adventure is Bond at his most iconic – everything we know about Bond’s character and the formula that has served is his character so well for decades is featured in this tight 5-minute sequence.

Bond sneaks into the villain’s base in a wet suit, plants some explosives and then peels off his wet suit to reveal a tuxedo underneath so he can go to a swanky night club nearby.  We have some sneaky spy work, a few well-choreographed fights and even some spare time to make out with the local belly dancer.  And who can forget Bond giving one of his best Bond puns.  After electrocuting a bad guy at the end of a fight, he looks around in disgust, mutters “shocking” to himself and walks out.  If there is a sequence that manages to literally define everything Bond is about in under 5 minutes, this is it.


Best Bond Villain:

I know the answer is supposed to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  As the leader of SPECTRE, Blofeld is Bond’s ultimate nemesis and has plagued him for multiple films.  But honestly, I feel the franchise has always sort of missed the mark with Blofeld.  He was at his most terrifying and powerful when he was not seen, when he was just a faceless, intimidating voice in a Board Room full of villains.  As soon as he started appearing in the films, he somehow became less scary.  Whether it was Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, Donald Pleasance or Christoph Waltz, I never thought Blofeld was a truly credible threat.  Instead, Blofeld’s henchmen were always more menacing – Dr. No, Red Grant, Fiona Volpe, even Mr. White and Silva in the Craig movies (following the logic that both worked for SPECTRE).  But they all pale in comparison to the greatest henchman in the Bond movies, and maybe in any movie: the unforgettable Oddjob


I have loved Oddjob, played by Hawaiian actor (and Olympic medialist!) Harold Sakata, ever since I saw him crush those golf balls with his bare hands in Goldfinger.  The guy doesn’t have a line of dialogue, but his silence, with that “I am better than you” smirk permanently plastered on his face, is sublimely and menacingly perfect.  I love that he has an unbelievable weapon (a killer hat he throws at people) that is somehow made believable by his badassness.  And I love that Bond truly cannot defeat him.  He just can’t.  Oddjob mops the floor with him.  In order to win, Bond has to cheat.  I’ve always loved that.  So for me, this really isn’t a difficult choice.  Oddjob is my favorite villain, hands down.


Best Bond Stunt: 

The franchise has also become famous for its stunt work.  Lately, thanks to the vast improvements in digital effects, Bond's stunts have become a bit less flashy.  But back in the day, there was a lot of buzz about the next big stunt - whether it was the record setting bungie jump in Goldeneye or the 18-wheel tractor trailer that pops a wheelie in License to Kill...or the entire winter sequence in For Your Eyes Only that is more imaginative and stunt-laden than most chase scenes today.

But there are a few amazing sequences that rise to the top.  Here are my picks for top three stunts in Bond history below:

Coming in at #3, is The Spy Who Loved Me.  While the franchise had employed a lot of fantastic stunt work in the past, this is the film where they really said, "hey, audiences, guess what?  We are about to blow your mind!"  And when James Bond skies off that mountaintop (another record-breaking moment for the franchise) and deploys his Union Jack parachute, audiences were given one of the most iconic stunts in movie history.  And minds were indeed blown!


Then at #2 - we have what is easily the best car stunt ever, featured in Man with the Golden Gun.  This stunt is important in movie history because it was the first stunt to ever be conceived and calculated with a computer program.  There was some debate among my friends about whether this stunt was real or not, but I assure you it was.  This was an actual car with an actual driver, a driver who thought he was going to die, and who refused to do a second take when the first take miraculously went off without a hitch.  So enjoy this awesome car stunt.  I urge you to watch this with no sound, because the stupid slide whistle pretty much ruins the whole thing!


And now, at #1, the best stunt in James Bond history!  The cargo net fight in The Living Daylights.  Sure, in the tighter shots, this is Timothy Dalton fighting in a studio.  But for the wide shows...those are literally two stunt men hanging off the back of a cargo plane...this is an incredibly dangerous and awe-inspiring stunt once you realize what those stunt men are actually doing and how life-threatening it is...well, I'll just let the video do the rest of the talking:




Best Bond Girl:

Last but not least, the Bond Girl has become an enduring and iconic part of the franchise. The Bond Girl has become such a key ingredient of the franchise that there is actually an entire documentary about the phenomenon (Bond Girls are Forever).  It’s an exclusive club – though in fairness, these actresses were often given nothing to do except to look pretty and get rescued.  There is certainly a lot of sexism in these films, and watching how many of the female characters are treated, especially in the older films, can at times be uncomfortable.  But there are also a lot of empowered and progressive Bond Girls – badasses like Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), Xenia Onatopp (Framke Janssen), Tracy (Diana Rigg), and Agent Mai (Michelle Yeoh) who go toe-to-toe with Bond and serve as equal partners or powerful villains.

So who is the best Bond Girl? I know I am supposed to say Ursula Andress in Dr. No.  She was the first, and she has that famous entrance as she walks out of the ocean with a knife in her belt, like some sort of armed Venus de Milo.  It's an iconic moment, and rightly so.  And for that beach walk alone, she probably should go near the top of the list.  But I would never put her at No.1 because after that iconic entrance, she kinda…doesn’t do anything.  She’s just there, serving no purpose and adding nothing of value (except for her looks, of course).  So who would I pick in her place?
 
It's also tough to choose just one because the Good Bond Girls and Bad Bond Girls are so different and hard to compare to each other.  So I will pick a favorite in each of the three categories.

For the Bad Bond Girl, I love Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) from Thunderball, one of the few truly dangerous villains in Bond’s rogue’s gallery. One could argue that she is actually smarter than Bond; she’s almost always one step ahead of him.


For the Good Bond Girl, I would say Vesper Lynn (Eva Green) is terrific in Casino Royale; she is the one Bond Girl that I honestly believed the character could fall in love with.  Her arch in that film is positively heart-breaking.


But wait, I hear you say, you mentioned three categories. Was that a typo?  Definitely not!  There is of course the important third category, the Bond Girl That I Would Most Likely Fall In Love With...and that is without a doubt Solitaire from Live and Let Die, played by Jane Seymour.  Because it is Jane Seymour.  And...well, yeah, there really isn't much else to say about that.  It's Jane Seymour.



So there we go.  That’s it.  This series of reviews is over!  This has been a fun experiment, and while I hope you enjoyed revisiting this franchise as much as I did.

But I’ll be honest, I do look forward to reviewing other films again!

Until next time…

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Spectre


A few post ago in my Quantum of Solace review, I mentioned how the Bond franchise seems to have trouble stringing two great films together (with the exception of the early Connery films). In the case of Quantum, I believe there was a perfect storm situation of a rushed production schedule, an unfinished script due to the writers' strike, and unfair expectations after the greatness that was Casino Royale.  The film has its problems, but it is not awful.  It certainly doesn't make me angry,  Spectre is technically a better movie than Quantum of Solace,  but it makes me angry.  Very angry.

What a missed opportunity this movie is.  After four decades, Eon Productions finally got the rights back to James Bond's greatest nemesis, SPECTRE, and its nefarious leader Ernst Blofeld (read why they didn't have the rights in my For Your Eyes Only review!). Sean Connery's Bond spent most of his career fighting against SPECTRE in some pretty spectacular films, and it was really exciting to hear that Daniel Craig would be continuing that fight.

Immediately, there was a small problem to deal with. With Casino Royale, the production team introduced Quantum as a surrogate for SPECTRE.  It was an international organization that was hellbent on total domination and so secret that not even MI6 knew of its existence.  For two films, they carefully cultivated the power of Quantum.  So now that the franchise got SPECTRE back, they had to figure out the question, "how can Quantum and SPECTRE both exist?"  The odds of there being another top secret international organization that is hellbent on total domination and is so secret that not even MI6 knows of its existence would be hard to believe.  This issue had to resolved, and they came up with a simple answer for this.  Quantum is actually just a subdivision of SPECTRE.  It's a simple idea, but borderline genius. If Quantum is that powerful and it's just one piece of SPECTRE, then WOW, SPECTRE must be astronomically powerful.  That's a good threat for Bond.  Sadly, this is one of the few truly good ideas in the movie.

Sigh, let's get started.

Bond has gone a bit rogue again, as he tends to do when Daniel Craig is playing him, and much to the chagrin of his new M (Ralph Fiennes).  The opening scene involves an unsanctioned and brutal assassination in Mexico City that drives M bonkers. Just like in the beginning of Casino Royale, Bond has gone and made a big scene, bringing attention to MI6's operations and making British intelligence look bad on the world stage.  The timing is particularly bad. MI6 is under attack from an independent global intelligence agency led by Max Denbigh (Sherlock's Moriarty, Andrew Scott) which wants to combine all the world's spy networks into an international Big Brother called Nine Eyes. With Nine Eyes eavesdropped on every conversation in the world, there really is no need for national spy programs like MI6, and certainly no place for field agents like 007.  And now Bond's shenanigans have given Denbigh more ammo to try and dismantle MI6 for good.  Why would he do such a thing?!

Well, it seems that before she died in Skyfall, the previous M (Judi Dench) sent James Bond a recording saying, "hey, if I ever die, I want you to go kill this guy."  She doesn't give any explanations, but Bond leaps into action anyway. Although he is put on disciplinary leave after Mexico, he continues to investigate the background of his target, following the trail to discover the most insidious and nefarious evil organization of all time - the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, otherwise known as SPECTRE! 

Look, right off the bat, I don't want to say the film is all bad.  It's not.  Most of the same team from Skyfall returns, including director Sam Mendes, writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, and composer Thomas Newman.  Director Roger Deakins sat this movie out, but was replaced by the skilled Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk) who fills in admirably.  The film looks good and is well constructed, as it should be with this group of professionals steering the ship. But even with this group, it just seems like something is missing. Everything is done well, but it just lacks the fire and the passion that made Skyfall so entertaining.  It's almost as if Spectre is just going through the motions.  Which is surprising to me because this is an important film.  They are re-introducing Bond's greatest enemy.  Shouldn't they be pumped?

In terms of plot, there is some interesting stuff going on here. There are some good sequences, including a solid scene in Rome when he attends his victim's funeral and rescues (and then, uh, sleeps with) his widow Lucia, played by Monica Belluci (Matrix Reloaded), who is the oldest Bond girl in franchise history at age 51, and still easily one of the most beautiful.  His trail then takes him to Switzerland where he needs to get information from the Madeleine Swann (Leá Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color), the daughter of Casino Royale's villainous Mr. White (Jesper Christensen).  It's all intriguing, if not terrific.  But I was still going to give the film the benefit of the doubt.  There was enough good stuff in there that I could safely give it a positive review as long as they stuck the landing.

And they don't.  They really, really don't.  They don't even come close to landing on their feet. No, Spectre falls flat on its face and shatters into a thousand pieces.

It's spoiler time!

The real problem comes when we are finally introduced to SPECTRE and its leader Blofeld.  Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is ideal casting for this villainous character and he does what he can with the role, but they really weigh him down with utterly ridiculous plot details.

Our first big twist that makes no sense is that Blofeld is really Bond's lost lost foster brother. After Bond's parents were killed, he was taken in by a new family, the Obenhausers.  The son, Franz, was so infuriated that he now had a foster brother that he killed his own father, faked his own death, renamed himself Ernst Blofeld and then went on to create the most far reaching and powerful criminal organization the world has ever seen.  WHAT?! The idea is just plain stupid.  And it also undoes something I really quite liked about the Bond vs. SPECTRE struggle, starting all the way back with Dr. No.  SPECTRE is all powerful and can do anything, but this knat, this annoying "policeman," as Dr. No calls him, just keeps mucking everything up for them.  I thought that was kind of cool.  But that is undone by tying SPECTRE's origin with Bond's.

Look, I understand what they are trying to do - the idea of two brothers whose fates are intermingled - but one destined for good and the other for evil - is an ancient, almost mythic story trope.  First of all, the plot device is completely unnecessary.  Everything doesn't need to be interconnected in movies today.  It's perfectly okay to have a good guy and a bad guy who didn't know each other before the events of the movie.  Secondly, this story device ruins SPECTRE as a villain.  SPECTRE works when it is the all-powerful and mysterious organization that has its fingers in every country and and is an insidious corrupting influence on everyone.  That is what makes it an effective and scary opponent.  As soon as you reduce that to an annoying teenager who was jealous that his daddy liked Bond more than him....well, shit, they just ruined SPECTRE permanently.

The film is not helped by the fact they they then try to retcon the events of the first three Daniel Craig films into some sort of grand master plan that Blofeld had been scheming about for apparently decades.  "I am the author of all your pain." Blofeld tells Bond, taking credit for everything, including the death of Vesper (never mind that Vesper killed herself. Sigh.).  As soon as you start thinking about what this master plan means the more you realize it is utterly absurd. You think Silva's plan in Skyfall was complicated?   Well, Blofeld's master is even more of a long con!  Let's take Casino Royale, for instance.  Can we imagine Blofeld explaining this to his minions?  "Okay, team, I have a plan. I want Bond to feel bad so I am going to make his girlfriend feel so guilty about betraying him that she is going to kill herself.  But first he needs a girlfriend.  So how about I engineer a card game that Bond will need to enter, and then I can have one of the women I have blackmailed into joining my cause to put up the buy-in money.  But how do I engineer a card game?  Oh, I know, there is a banker in my own organization. I will convince him to steal money from one of my own clients and try to blow up a plane, and I know Bond will stop him from blowing up said plane. Once that happens, the banker will naturally decide that a high stakes poker game is the way to repay the client's money, and Bond will surely enter that game, get the buy-in from our double agent, promptly fall in love with her, win the poker game, get captured and tortured by my people - but I won't let him die here. Oh, no, I will send Mr. White in to kill the banker and free Bond so I can "author more pain" for him in the future." And then my double agent will feel so guilty that she will kill herself, and Bond will be sad.  That is my master plan, muwahahahahah!"

Though SPECTRE does not explicitly say all of that, this is the bullcrap they are expecting us to accept.  Once you think about what Blofeld is implying, your head will hurt. There is suspension of disbelief, I get that, but this is just absurd and makes no sense whatsoever.

There are also other problems with this film, mostly in the second half...

I don't buy the love story for a second.  Madeleine Swann is an acceptable Bond girl, and Lea Seydoux puts in a fine performance, but I don't believe Bond falling in love with her, and I absolutely do not think Bond would ever leave MI6 for her, like he does at the end of Spectre.  Bond's love for Vesper in Casino Royale felt real and earned, and I do think Bond would have retired for her.  But his relationship with Madeleine is forced and exists merely for the plot.  They fell in love because the script told them to, and not for any reason that makes any real sense. 

And then there are little things that bother me about the movie - issues that ordinarily wouldn't be that big of a deal, but are more evident and noticeable because the rest of the film is crashing apart.  In a way, the terrific cast sort of ends up hurting the film because it leads the production team into making some unnecessary storylines.  With Fiennes, Harris, and Whishaw in the cast, they are desperate to find something for them to do, so the pointless subplot with Denbigh is created, and we have the MI6 characters running through London like the Scooby Doo gang trying to get Nine Lives shut down. Ridiculous. 

Another thing that is annoying is how the film's plot gets moving in the first place.  Why would M leave a video to tell Bond, "If I am killed, then I need you to kill this guy and go to his funeral."  Why would she do that?  Why this covert mission after her death when it seems to be a perfectly viable threat to deal with when she was alive?  And how would she even know about SPECTRE?  The amazing thing about Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace is that the organization is so entrenched that MI6 didn't even know about of its existence.  If M had no idea Quantum existed, then how would she know about the even more secretive SPECTRE???

And now I am going to get petty and point out a small thing!  Just as in Skyfall, attempts at humor generally clash with the darkly serious tone of the film.  Admittedly, sometimes the jokes do pay off (I like Bond's visit to the health clinic), but one attempt at humor downright ruins the best sequence in the movie, when Bond has a vicious fight in a train with Blofeld's henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy).  Bautista is a terrific and imposing presence, and the fight is expertly constructed until its final moments when the entire theater rolled their eyes because of a pointless gag.  What a waste.

This whole movie is a waste.  And that is why it made me angry.  Eon Productions had SPECTRE back after decades.  They were riding a wave of good will after the massive success of Skyfall.  They didn't rush this film.  They had time to make it right.  And the result is infuriating.  There have been other bad Bond films, but you can bounce back from them.  Just ignore them and move on.  With Spectre, that isn't quite that easy.  By introducing Blofeld the way that they do, they have ruined Bond's greatest enemy and done permanent damage to the franchise.  And that's just unforgiveable.



RANKINGS:

What to do, what to do. As I mentioned, Spectre really isn't that bad for a large portion of its running time.  There is good material in here.  But when it blows up, it does so in an epic manner, and the final result is a film that is absolutely infuriating.  So what does that mean?  My heart wants to put the film at the bottom of the list, but my head can't objectively allow me to do that.  I just can't in good conscience put this near View to a Kill.  But I can't rank it that high because I truly believe this film damaged the franchise.  I think I am going to have to put it around Die Another Day - interestingly enough another Bond film that starts with promise and then collapses spectacularly.  Ultimately, what makes the decision for me is this - if a gun was pointed to my head and I was being forced to watch Die Another Day or Spectre, which one would I pick?  Die Another Day is just stupid.  The movie would finish and that would be the end of it.  Spectre's flaws would linger.  So therefore, I will put Spectre right below it.  That's goes to #19.

1. Casino Royale
2. Thunderball
3. From Russia With Love
4. Goldfinger
5. Skyfall
6. The Spy Who Loved Me
7. Goldeneye
8. The Living Daylights
9. Dr. No
10. Octopussy
11. For Your Eyes Only
12. Tomorrow Never Dies
13. Live and Let Die
14. License to Kill
15. Man with the Golden Gun
16. Quantum of Solace
17. Diamonds are Forever
18. Die Another Day
19. Spectre
20. The World is Not Enough
21. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
22. Moonraker
23. You Only Live Twice
24. A View to a Kill



BEST LINE:

Mr. White: You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond. 


TRIVIA:

It would be hard for me to mention Spectre without bringing up the Sony script hack. In 2015, hackers broke into Sony's email systems and released to the public thousands of emails from company executives, many of which were embarrassing to the executives or to the company itself. One of the topics the executives were concerned about was the script to Spectre.  It sounded like the studio had some real problems with the script, especially the last act.  The script itself was eventually leaked online, too, and people who read it had the same complaints.  Production was going to start soon, but there was a scramble to rewrite the finale, which might explain why the climax seems a bit choppy.  But tweaking the ending was never going to resolve the underlying problem this film has.  It makes me wish the script leak had happened earlier.  Maybe there would have been enough time to rewrite the whole darn thing. 


MVP:

I did debate myself on this one.  Daniel Craig is excellent, as always.  He really is a terrific Bond and he is always watchable.  But I think the winner of the MVP is going to go for the second time to the Director of Photography.  I was very disappointed when Roger Deakins didn't return, but I am a fan of Hoyte van Hoytema's work.  He keeps the film stylish, giving each location an unique look and feel - compare the dry haze, overly bright Mexico City to the dark saturation and lushness of Rome at night.  That sequence in Rome is particularly well filmed, especially the scene where Bond saves Lucia, which is truly a highlight.  In the end, I think the choice is clear.  Hoytema gets my MVP.