Friday, November 30, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Superhero origin stories are easy enough to do.  Take a charismatic but troubled/bullied/indifferent person, give them a power and a mission, and watch them go.  We like our hero before they undergo their transformation, and we enjoy seeing them gather the strength and the experience to harness their power into battling for good.

Supervillain origin stories are a much trickier proposition.  The superhero is an inherently good person, and when they transform they use their power to do good.  But the supervillain with an origin story isn't the mirror image of that - they can be venal, or troubled, or lazy, but they are rarely sociopaths in their proto-villain state.  We in the audience have to sympathize with their plight, because their transformation is the mid-point of an arc that will ultimately lead to some sort of redemptive moment.  So their stories have to be sympathetic, with motivations that land, at the very least, in "there but for the grace of God go I" territory.

The fact that Curt Connors/The Lizard's (Rhys Ifans) motivations post-transformation don't make a lick of sense are not the only problem in The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb's lackluster direction and ugly palette are another, off the top of my head), but it is a problem that does not have a solution, and it sinks most of the back half of the film.  It is understandable that Connors, who lost an arm for some unspecified reason, would want to use his magical regrowth serum on himself; it is not at all clear why the injection of this serum turns a mild-mannered scientist into a homicidal maniac bent on infecting the city with the same serum, turning everyone else into an unholy monstrosity like himself.

There were things that I liked about the film, to be sure.  Andrew Garfield makes a very convincing Peter Parker pre-transformation, enough that it's possible to completely forget about That Other Guy (it's impossible not to compare this film to the Raimi/Maguire movie, but this will be the only mention I make of it).  The movie forgets Aunt May exists for most of its running time, but Sally Field is a nice steady presence anyway, and Martin Sheen makes a suitably gruff but kind Uncle Ben.  I sort of think that Emma Stone had said all that needs to be said about high school life in Easy A, and the part of Gwen Stacy is a significant step down for her career-wise, but I like Stone enough that I'm still happy to have her on my screen.  And the best part of any origin story film, the interlude between when the hero first gains their powers and when the broader story finally intrudes full-time on the way to the climax, is not a let-down here, with Peter Parker using his powers to stick it first to bullies and eventually to criminals.  This is the one moment when a superhero gets to have some real fun, and Parker has a lot of fun.

But the story eventually intrudes, and The Lizard (a CGI monstrosity at that, and the ugliness of the effect is a major distraction) sucks the film into his boring and inexplicable orbit, leaving Spider-Man nothing left to do but defeat the bad guy, save the world, and hopefully swing into a future in which a villain shows up whose motivations we can either understand, or (even better) we don't need to know, because the best villains are simply malevolent forces of chaos, and no one cares why they do what they do.  C

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Die Another Day

I think I have to start with a plot summary first, because there are a lot of details in there that I have to use as jumping off points.  So, we start with Bond on some sort of an infiltration mission in North Korea.  Colonel Moon is the key figure Bond is after here, and after seemingly killing him, he is captured by Moon's father and subjected to 14 months of interrogation and torture in a North Korean prison.

M springs Bond in exchange for MI6 releasing Moon's right-hand man, Zao.  Bond is suspended from MI6, but decides to track Zao anyway, and ends up on the trail of a British billionaire named Gustav Graves.  Graves has an assistant, Miranda Frost, who is an MI6 spy in her own right.

The plot moves to Iceland, where Graves is debuting a new satellite that focuses the sun's energy into a tight beam that can be used to create artificial daylight.  Around here are revealed two twists - Frost is actually a double agent who is working for Graves, and Graves is none other than Colonel Moon himself, back from the dead and sporting a new face.  Graves/Moon plans to use his solar satellite to destroy the mines in the Korean DMZ, allowing the North Koreans to invade the South and reunite the peninsula.  Bond, along with NSA agent Giacinta "Jinx" Johnson, infiltrate this plan and stop Graves/Moon, before flying off into the sunset (and the traditional post-climax screw.)

So I did that whole thing relatively straight and it took all of my willpower because this movie floats upon a vast, vast ocean of serious stupid.  The plot moves along at a reasonably brisk pace so it's not a difficult film in the series (Bond films aren't difficult, per se, but some of them slow to a complete crawl, really trying my patience; Die Another Day does not), but just about everything that happens in this movie carries some degree of stupid along with it.  There's a legitimate argument that this movie is the stupidest film in the series so far, and that is a tough list to crack indeed.  As per usual, here is a list of things.

The opening scene brings together two of the world's most uncool things: hovercrafts, and North Koreans.

The film, to its credit, goes way off model after that scene, with Bond's captivity forming the basis of the opening credits sequence (and Bond himself going all beardy/long hair during his time in prison).  The fatal flaw here, of course, is that it's scored to Madonna's execrable theme song, which is just as off-model but in the wrong direction.  One thing that probably isn't her fault is the lyrics, which are quite possibly the worst in the entire franchise (although I bet the thing about Sigmund Freud was her adlib, because she is a dumb person who thinks she's smart, and that's the sort of thing a person like that would come up with.)

In the first post-credits scene, Brosnan's Irish accent starts to really peek out.  Chalk it up to laziness, I guess?  I'm not sure.

There's a swordfight between Bond and Graves that is actually a really great action setpiece and both actors acquit themselves well but it also makes them both seem like crazy people, with the two of them going at it with maximum violence despite the fact that none of the proper stakes of the movie have been revealed yet, and the stakes of the swordfight were set up as a simple wager.  They break the everloving shit out of a ton of stuff at Graves' fencing club despite the fact that they are supposed to have never met each other (and Bond, at this point, hasn't the faintest clue who Graves actually is - he just knows he's up to no good, and that he has a sneer-y, punchable face.)

Die Another Day was filmed in 2002, and it is implied by M that Bond was in captivity through 9/11.  The bad guys in the movie are the North Koreans, which is immediately a really terrible choice.  You've got the shadow of 9/11 hanging over the film (Bond is almost entirely dedicated to fighting terrorists, going way back), and granted that the film couldn't (and shouldn't) make a bunch of middle Easterners the bad guy, but they eschew terrorism entirely for the stupid North Koreans.  There's a reason they were the bad guy in that Trey Parker/Matt Stone puppet movie, and that is because they are not really a threatening country, they are just silly and deeply weird.

The twist in The World Is Not Enough made a certain degree of sense, because it upended our expectations about what a woman is capable of in a Bond film.  The twist in this film, where Colonel Moon becomes a sneering white person out of nowhere, is absolutely awful.  Leaving aside the continuity issues that it obliquely dicks around with (I will touch on continuity when we get to the next film), given that we are now told for absolute fact that in the James Bond universe a person can completely change their appearance and voice (a popular fan theory about why Bond/Blofeld/Moneypenny/Leiter constantly change appearances), the twist does nothing plotwise except remove one (Asian) actor to bring in another (white) actor.  It's a twist which introduces magical science that completely breaks suspension of disbelief for the purpose of stalling the villain's reveal for about 30 extra minutes.  And Toby Stephens' performance as Graves is way over-the-top obnoxious.  Your best Bond villains have a real charm to them, slowly luring you into their web (to borrow a phrase), and Stephens spends the whole movie begging for a good solid cock-punching.

This was both the 40th anniversary of the franchise and the 20th Bond film, so they took the opportunity to lard the film up with callbacks to previous films.  There's a single scene in Q labs that is a treasure trove of callbacks (and here is John Cleese as our full-time Q; Desmond Llewelyn, like Bernard Lee before him, doesn't seem to have received any sort of in-film memorial, despite the fact that he died between films.)  Here's a very partial list of some of the callbacks I noticed throughout the film.

Breathing apparatus (Thunderball)
Laser trap for Jinx (Goldfinger)
Jinx emerging from the water (Dr. No)
Union Jack parachute (The Spy Who Loved Me)
"Diamonds are forever" quote in magazine
Mirror room (The Man With The Golden Gun)
Rosa Klebb's knife shoe from From Russia With Love
Jetpack from Thunderball
The autogyro from You Only Live Twice

I don't want to get too deep in the weeds about the virtues of practical vs. computer generated effects, because CGI has in fact given us plenty of great scenes in a wide variety of movies and it is, quite frankly, here to stay whether anyone wants it to be or not.  But this movie really makes the case that the entire concept of CGI should be nuked from orbit with one of those highly radioactive nukes that keeps anything from growing there for thousands of years.  There is a scene where Bond escapes from the space laser on a makeshift kiteboard and it would have looked more realistic if it had been done in stop-motion, Clash of the Titans style.

The one thing everyone probably knows about this film is that there is an invisible car in it.  What's there to say that hasn't already been said?  It represents the absolute rock-bottom of Bond gadgetry, and it would probably single-handedly ruin the film if there weren't about two dozen other things that could easily make the same claim.

I don't know anything about director Lee Tamahori but I know he is really fond of those "fast, then slow" camera swoops that were all the rage in the early-00's.

There was serious talk during/after the release of this film about making a spinoff film featuring Halle Berry's Jinx.  Here's the part where I confess that I don't really like Halle Berry.  I guess I liked her well enough back when she was just a minor star with a cute girl-next-door thing going on, but then everyone got obsessed with telling her how sexy she is all the time, and she won an Oscar for that godawful Billy Bob Thornton movie, and by that point she had become a Really Huge Star without any of the requisite charisma to pull it off.  So I don't particularly like Jinx as a character or a Bond girl, but I am biased against her.  She also has to deliver some atrocious lines, both a "yo mama" crack and also the line, "Read this, bitch!"

That being said, she is still significantly better and more interesting than Miranda Frost.  The less said about her, the better.  It is exposited that the reason she turns double agent is because she was in the same fencing class as Colonel Moon in college.

The geopolitics of this movie posit that the only reason the North Koreans don't invade South Korea is because of the minefield in the DMZ, and that by destroying the mines with the giant space laser, South Korea is basically a sitting duck to the mighty North Korean army.

The British/American alliance (basically M and a very distracting Michael Madsen as some higher-up at the CIA I guess) shoots one missile directly at the heart of the laser satellite.  It is easily destroyed, because it is a laser satellite, and no one thinks to just launch a bunch of missiles on different trajectories at the stupid thing, since it can only shoot in one direction at a time.

Bond sleeps with both Jinx and Miranda Frost.  He fake sleeps with Moneypenny in a virtual reality simulation that Moneypenny has using a pair of dumbass training glasses that easily make the list of the aforementioned two dozen other things that also ruin this awful movie.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The World Is Not Enough

I've tentatively planned to do a superlative list when I'm done with this marathon, with some obvious categories and some not so obvious categories.  Without giving too much away, I'd say that the movie that was the least pleasant surprise so far was The Man With The Golden Gun, which is not really an objectively terrible Bond movie (it's mostly just static and low-stakes and boring) but which has one of the all time "fuck you" Bond girls, a character so dumb and unpleasant that she brought the entire film down around her.

Anyone who's seen this movie has already figured out where I'm heading with this, but let me vamp for a little bit longer and say this - I had assumed that the Brosnan era was a continuous downhill slide, starting with the very good GoldenEye and plummeting to the indefensibly campy Die Another Day (I have not watched that movie yet, but I know its reputation perfectly well).  And I think that the major lesson I took out of The World Is Not Enough is that not only is it a significant improvement over Tomorrow Never Dies, but it's actually an above-average Bond flick.  It's not great, but it does enough things well that I'd watch it a million times over again before I suffered through Tomorrow Never Dies again.

But there is that one thing, probably the most memorable thing (for all the wrong reasons) about the film, and that is the former Mrs. Charlie Sheen as Dr. (ha!) Christmas Jones.  And let me be clear, I am not going to say anything nice about her, not her character or her performance.  Well, one thing - she is, at least in her pre-Sheen days, an unquestionably attractive woman, one who looks really great in a wet white T-shirt.  Denise Richards' blank-faced prettiness had been utilized very well in Starship Troopers, where the point is supposed to be how hollow both she and Casper van Dien were as people.  And I could take or leave Wild Things, but she's certainly well-cast in that movie, where all she really had to be was a sexpot willing to suck face (and take her top off) with Neve Campbell.  So she has her extremely limited uses.

Bond movies aren't exactly fonts of capital-A acting, and Richards isn't a significantly worse actress than some of the other bottom-shelf Bond girls, but what she does represent is a degree of contempt for the audience that is really unbecoming.  It's one thing to suggest that a pretty girl can also have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, but it's quite another to suggest that a pretty girl who can't register anything more than a vacant expression as she rattles off science-y speak and who is, let's be honest, pretty clearly a dumb person in real life, could have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics.  Casting Richards as this character was contemptuous, a signal from the filmmakers that they believe their audience are simpletons who will accept their idea of an "updated" Bond girl, where the film simply tells us she is smart without needing to do any of the work of showing us because she is pretty and we are stupid.

Christmas Jones, whose name exists solely for Bond to make an awful pun at the end of the film, is by far the worst part of this movie, and fortunately most of the other parts are decent, and some of the parts are great.  The plot, in its simplest form, revolves around the villain sabotaging a key oil pipeline, increasing the value of their own pipeline dramatically.  Nuclear weapons are involved and it all gets very convoluted, as these movies usually do, but that's the basic outline.  Bond saves the day, makes a pun at Dr. Jones, and the movie ends.  As usual, I will bullet point the rest.

The opening stunt is exactly as loud and flamboyant as the opening stunt in GoldenEye is (mostly) quiet and simple.  But it works really well on its own terms, and is a major improvement over Tomorrow Never Dies' lackluster opener.  It's divided into two parts, and there's a fakeout where after the first part, Bond goes back to MI6 HQ without the opening theme kicking in, so you know something is up.  That something is one of M's friends (who, naturally, we have never seen nor heard of before) getting blown up and Bond chasing the assassin down the Thames in, admittedly, a pretty goofy-looking boat.  Regardless, it is one of the all-time great openers.

The theme is also a significant improvement on Tomorrow Never Dies (this is kind of a running theme), with Shirley Manson doing a pretty good update of the classic slinky, sexy Bond theme singer.

Sophie Marceau plays the daughter of the aforementioned blowed-up-real-good friend of M's, Elektra King, a woman whose previous kidnapping at the hands of Robert Carlyle's Renard is the kernel around which the entire plot of the film is built.  I admit that I generally find Sophie Marceau pretty sexy, so I am probably overrating her here, but I think she's a solid presence.

She and Bond engage in a ski chase with a bunch of dudes in these strange paraglider/snowmobile combo things, and it is another piece of evidence in favor of the idea that any time you can put Bond on skis you will probably end up with a quality action scene.

Carlyle's performance is turned down a bit low, especially given the elaborately weird backstory of Renard (he has a bullet in his brain that means he can't feel pain).  And his character is completely neutered by a mid-film twist.

I may be mistaken, but I think this movie has the first genuine twist in the entire series, when it's revealed that Elektra is the shadowy power behind all the film's mayhem (including blowing her own father up) since she and Renard had become lovers during her kidnapping ordeal.  She holds a particular grudge against M, since M was the person encouraging her father not to simply give in to Renard's ransom demands, and although this is an excuse to get Judi Dench a few more scenes (Elektra kidnaps her and puts her in a makeshift Bond Trap), it is mostly a massive dud that she is dragged into the plot.  M also, for the first time in Dench's run, has to do the old "seeing Bond screwing the final girl after the plot has been resolved" scene and it is a lot less fun for someone of her acting pedigree to have to feign bemusement at Bond's fairly tiresome cocksmanship than it was when Bernard Lee was doing it.

Goldie is in this movie, entirely for comic relief.  That is very strange.

The quality of the action in the movie kind of evaporates after the two scenes I mentioned (the opening bit and the ski scene) and by the time we get to the final boss battle on a submerged submarine, there is virtually nothing particularly interesting happening on screen.  Now that I think it about it, it may be due to just how much Christmas Jones is involved in the action in the second half of the movie.  Richards sucks the life out of the film when she is on screen.

I'm not really sure if I have anything to say about Brosnan's performance.  He's a steady hand at the wheel who doesn't really bring anything extra to the table.  Workmanlike, I guess, is how I'd describe him.  I guess I might have to admit that I sense him getting sick of the part here, as most actors do eventually.  Brosnan in some ways always felt a little too perfectly cast in the role, a man who is so effortlessly suave that it's almost hard for him to really bring anything extra along with.

John Cleese gets introduced as the guy who is obviously meant to replace Desmond Llewellyn's aging Q.  I don't really have anything positive to say about this decision - Q is obviously the goofiest of the main characters in the Bond universe, but he is also supposed to be something of an engineering and science savant, and you have to believe that he is both easily exasperated and incredibly smart in order for a lot of his very arch scenes to work.  Cleese can do goofy and he can do exasperated but the savant part has now been tossed aside and that kind of ruins the whole idea of Q.

While it's really cool that we finally get our first female Big Bad, Bond dispatches her well before the final conflict without any fanfare (she's offed by a gunshot), and then has a long drawn out battle with Renard (which is incredibly boring in part because of how the reveal of Marceau as the top dog of Eviltown turned Carlyle's character into nothing more than a lackey.)

Given what a contemptuous character Christmas Jones is, I'm willing to bring back the sexist/racist index for a one-night-only engagement.  Extremely sexist, certainly the most sexist Bond movie since the depths of the Moore era.  And while it's nice that Elektra King drives the plot, the film treats her with a degree of casual indifference that is incongruous with her place in the broader story.

Bond sleeps with both King and Jones, and I don't think anyone else.

(I'm reading through this review and thinking, boy, this is really negative given that I've expressed that I actually liked the movie.  On balance, the good outweighs the bad, but a lot of the good happens in the first half of the movie and a lot of the bad happens in the second half, so what I most clearly remember is the bad.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Charm goes a long, long way.

I won't recap the details of the plot; these are video game characters, across different genres, and some of them love their jobs and some of them are strivers.  Wreck-It Ralph, the character, is played by John C. Reilly in his usual affable lunkhead persona, and the perfection of his casting is only matched by the perfection of the casting of the other three leads, Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer), Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and especially Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), an actress I am often very negative towards but who seems to have found the perfect role here as a 9 year old girl with the sort of potty mouth that 9 year olds find extremely transgressive.  Ralph sets the plot in motion, but there are so many narrative threads running through the film that it'd be a lost cause to try to diagram them all out.  Mostly the film is about in-jokes, and punnery, and about as much breezy charm as has ever been put on screen.  My favorite of the film's gags is one that happens pretty early on: Ralph is at a support group meeting for video game villains (among the notable names in attendance are Zangief and M. Bison, Bowser, and the orange ghost from Pac-Man), which is animated in the usual Pixar-lite style, and as the meeting breaks up the film cuts to a shot of the Pac-Man cabinet, where the sprites of the characters in attendance are exiting the center room.

The amount of goodwill that had been built up by this movie through about its first 2/3rds is almost impossible to measure, so a third-act twist revealing that one of our heroes was a Harry Potter type character all along (destined for greatness, rather than an accidental hero) that I thought really sucked the energy out of the film had to work hard at chipping away at that mountain of charm.  There is a shot at the end of one of our heroes in, let's say, an incongruous outfit, and I admit that I buried my head in my hands even though the film works hard to lampshade it.  It never stopped being charming, but it did stop being about what it should have been about - for the first 2/3rds, this was not just a charming movie but one about a main character with a serious disability - the film ultimately wanted to have it both ways for its young audiences, and that was an unfortunate choice, but not a fatal one.  B+

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tomorrow Never Dies

Let's talk about Karl Stromberg, the villain from The Spy Who Loved Me.  His plot, which Bond eventually foils, involves intentionally starting World War 3 so that he can begin civilization anew from his underwater base.  Insane?  You bet.  But it comes by its insanity honestly; Stromberg is really into what's under the sea, and he doesn't particularly like people, and he just doesn't feel like fucking around any more.

Elliot Carver, the villain played by Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies, also has a plan to trigger World War 3, or at least the opening stages of it (it turns out that his plan involves installing an ally at the top of the Chinese government who, it is exposited, will put the lid on the actual nuclear holocaust of the entire planet by diplomatic means).  But Carver, a transparently-Murdochian media mogul, doesn't want to do anything as grandiose as restart civilization in his own image from the bottom of the sea (Carver, it should be noted, also has a penchant for underwater basery).  All he wants is exclusive broadcast rights in China.

None of this is really kept from the audience - from the very beginning, we know Carver is behind the film's mayhem, and by the time he has fully explained the scope of his plan, there wasn't anything in it that came as a surprise.  I know I use the word "stupid" a lot in these reviews, granting that the Bond series dips deeply in the well of stupidity a lot, often on purpose.  But this plot, I feel like I can safely say, takes the series to a level of stupidity that it has heretofore failed to achieve.  Carver risks global nuclear catastrophe, his own personal reputation, and his life, all for the purposes of (slightly) increasing his market share.  Everything in the film flows from this decision, to make this extremely late-90's plot the driving force of the movie, and so everything else here has to work to dig the film out of its deep hole (spoiler alert - it doesn't make it.)  Bullet points follow.

The theme song to this film may actually be decent but I can't tell, because Sheryl Crow sings it with marbles in her mouth.  I don't know who decided that Crow fit the Bond series but they were 100% wrong.

The first time we meet Carver he is talking to a gigantic wall of monitors and he is, naturally, discussing a wide variety of evil plans to the giant faces on the screens.  The only thing missing from the scene would be for the camera to pan out to reveal that he was strangling an orphan while he talked.

Pryce is an okay character actor who should not have been allowed within 100 miles of a Bond villain.  His performance is really atrocious, aiming for "delightfully megalomaniacal" but landing much closer to "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest".  This...I don't know what the fuck this was:

Moneypenny has to deliver a "cunning linguist" gag and M gets to tell Bond to "pump (Teri Hatcher's character) for information."  I remember when GoldenEye came out there was a lot of talk about M's one big scene where she calls Bond a misogynist dinosaur, so the filmmakers were certainly aware that they were making a series about a sexist relic, and yet they still do shit like this.  It's not even so much the sexism that bothers me as it is the unbelievable lameness of the puns.

Let me paint you a picture.  James Bond, relaxing in his swanky hotel room after a long day of seduction and spying.  His tuxedo is partially unbuttoned but still looking very dashing, and on the table next to him are a bottle and a gun.  He waits, eagerly, for whatever mischief Carver is planning to send his way tonight.  Periodically, he pours a shot from the bottle and downs it in a single gulp, the weariness in his soul slowly dissipating from the warm caress of the alcohol.  The label on the bottle is red.  It reads "Smirnoff".  These movies started to become very expensive in the Brosnan era so the producers lined up as many sponsors as they could, but the idea that Bond is drinking some mass-market swill like Smirnoff Red Label straight has Ian Fleming's body spinning like a top.

Hatcher plays a complete cipher of a character who exists to slap Bond once, sleep with him, and die.  Her performance lives up to this billing precisely.  She does look sexy from the back in just her underwear, though, so there's that.

When Bond finds Hatcher's corpse in his hotel room, on the TV in the room is playing a tape of a news report about both her and Bond's death, to be broadcast later that day (because her assassin is sitting there waiting for Bond, and that's the sort of game Carver likes to play).  Keeping in mind, again, that this is the sort of ridiculous thing that happens in these movies, just imagine the logistics of that.  Gathering together a whole news crew, writing a script for a pair of deaths that haven't happened yet, getting it in the hand of your assassin to play as one last "fuck you" to Bond.  The number of people who could theoretically piece together that Carver knew of both deaths before they happened is enormous, and all so he could deliver a meaningless threat to a guy who he was going to kill anyway.

The assassin is played by character actor all-star Vincent Schiavelli in the mold of a classic Bond villain; he brags about his marksmanship and has a Dr. Strangelove accent.  It's a funny scene from his perspective - Schiavelli is playing it for high comedy and it works.  Brosnan, unfortunately, is giving him nothing to work with as a straight man.  Where the scene calls for a light, playful touch, Brosnan is all anger and sharp edges. This is Brosnan's performance in a nutshell - usually good enough from scene to scene, but tonally incoherent.  He seems to want to play Bond in the rougher mode of Daniel Craig or even Timothy Dalton, but the scripts are all Roger Moore quippery.

The worst thing about the overall suckiness of this movie is that it overshadows what I will put up as my dark horse favorite for best Bond girl of all time, Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin.  She is capable, she is sexy, she does her own goddamned stunt work.  She is, in a nutshell, 8 different degrees of awesome, and while the movie doesn't get any smarter once she finally becomes a full-time part of the plot at about the 2/3 mark, it certainly becomes a hell of a lot more fun.  None of her stunts quite use her to her full capabilities (her first stunt comes the closest, where she and Bond take a handcuffed motorcycle ride through the streets of Saigon, and she has to switch positions with him a couple of times mid-ride) but she does get to kick and punch a whole bunch of dudes and it is delightful.  I love Wai Lin.  I wish she was in a movie that wasn't awful.

Bond bones two women, some random Danish blonde and Hatcher's character whose name I haven't mentioned yet but really who cares? (it's Paris).

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I feel sort of the opposite about this one than I did about Licence to Kill - a lot of the elements in the film were pretty lackluster, but on the whole the movie succeeded both as a Bond film and as a decent action movie.

First of all, I don't really know what to do with Pierce Brosnan.  He is, to my mind, the suavest of all Bonds, able to effortlessly charm a woman right out of her pants.  I'm not sure he's great at a lot of the old-fashioned elements (the Bond lifestyle doesn't quite fit him exactly right; he's always seemed to have a bit too much of the "ain't I a stinker?", above-it-all persona to really ease into the 60's era cool of classic Bond), but he's a good enough action star to make the character work on that level, and he certainly doesn't look uncomfortable in evening wear the way that Timothy Dalton did.  The movie around him here really has a propulsive momentum, but Brosnan almost floats above it, allowing the waves of the film's rhythms to wash into shore while he looks on in amusement.  It's not a great fit but, as with Dalton in The Living Daylights, it's good enough for now.  We'll see how he holds up going forward.

The plot, if you didn't know it.  007 is on a mission to destroy a Soviet chemical weapons factory, and it's a joint mission with another 00 agent played by Sean Bean.  Bean's character is allegedly killed during the course of the mission but Bond succeeds in blowing up the factory.  Cut to a decade later, the Soviet Union no longer exists (the key theme, if there is one, of the film, that of hoary old spies dealing with a changed world) but a shadowy figure who, surprise surprise, turns out to be that same 00 agent is plotting to take over a Soviet-era weapon satellite that can fire a pinpointed EMP blast.  He plans to steal a bunch of money from the Central Bank of London before wiping out the entire financial system of the city, which will both cover his tracks and cause a massive, global financial meltdown.  Bond stops him, gets the girl, and rides off into the sunset.

So, Sean Bean.  The (now) beloved Bean, thanks to the fact that he's starred in the two biggest fantasy franchises in the world.  He's the first 00 agent we've ever met in the flesh other than Bond and his backstory is convoluted, to say the least.  His character, Alec Trevelyan, has parents who were Lienz Cossacks, but he ended up working for the British government in MI6.  His life is basically a series of nested double crosses: you've got the double cross of the Cossacks themselves, fighting with the Nazis and against their (nominal) country; then the double cross of the British government, who promised to protect the Lienz Cossacks but who turned them over to Stalin; Trevelyan's double cross of them by going to work for the British government, and then his double cross of the British when he comes back from the dead in the form of "Janus" to put the aforementioned plan in action.  It's all extremely confusing, and I thought his motivations got really murky once his plans were revealed - he has some sort of personal vendetta against Bond despite the fact that, during that opening sequence, he encouraged Bond to leave him behind and complete the mission.  It turned out he must have been working in concert with the Soviet general who (the audience is given to believe) shot him dead, because that general is one of his henchmen in his Janus guise.  I'm still pretty confused about who exactly Trevelyan is and what the hell is his deal.  Bean's performance is very small and contained, and really doesn't help us to figure out this mess.

The Bond girl, Natalya Simonova, is played by Izabella Scorupco and I wanted so much to like her but she is such a bland presence that I just can't bring myself to care about her one way or the other.  She gets dragged around by the machinations of the plot because she's a computer scientist and is familiar with the Goldeneye weapon.  Her agency is almost entirely confined to scenes in which she types on a computer running Hollywood Operating System, otherwise, she's just there, alternately being taken captive or being rescued in turn.  There is a scene early on when Alan Cumming's character teases her with a riddle about one of his passwords, and he very clearly types 5 characters on the screen, and then later when Natalya is trying to figure out the password she both completely botches the riddle and tries a whole bunch of 4-character passwords.  And it's a little thing, but the hair and wardrobe department does her no favors, giving her frumpy-dumpy outfits and an ugly haircut.

Famke Janssen's Xenia Onatopp is much better, a character who straddles (no pun intended) the line between believably weird and insanely theatrical.  No, just kidding, she sits on that line and squeezes it to death with her thighs.  She's all theatricality, getting genuine orgasmic delight out of every violent act committed in her general vicinity, but it's funny and sexy and Janssen is legitimately the most entertaining thing in the movie.

Alan Cumming, on the other hand, runs right past the line that demarcates when someone has gone too far over the top and keeps right on going.  He's an actor that I like quite a bit, but his theater background is on full display here and it is just way too much.  Plus, his "Russian" accent has almost completely disappeared by the end, replaced by his native burr, and as much as I enjoy that accent come on Alan, at least make an effort.

Samantha Bond as Moneypenny is an immediate and massive improvement over Caroline Bliss, and she and Brosnan have a very nice chemistry.

And then there is Judi Dench.  It was unquestionably a casting coup that they managed to get her to fill the role of M, but boy does she have essentially nothing to do in this movie.

Tina Turner should win the "best Shirley Bassey in years" superlative, and I mean that completely sincerely.  I'm not even sure that "GoldenEye" is a great song but goddamn does Turner do it up right.

I am still annoyed that BMW had a long tenure supplying the Bond Car, starting with this movie.  Yes, it's extremely provincial to complain about the ultimate British icon driving a fucking German car but that's my grandmother's influence and she's right.

There is a long, extremely slapsticky scene in Q labs, featuring an exploding pen (which plays a part in the plot), a giant airbag in a telephone booth and some sort of ejector seat.  "We are not repeating the Dalton era" is what this scene screams.

This movie may have the most per capita quippery of any film thus far, including the Moore era.  In fact, I'd be shocked if it didn't blow every other Bond movie so far away in this department.  Brosnan is asked to deliver a lot of quips.

A pre-fame Minnie Driver shows up in a short scene, as some sort of burlesque singer/dancer with a terrible voice (that the movie lampshades).

Alec Trevelyan's train is supercool, and it's too bad it is given such short time on screen.  Bond movies only really reference themselves, and this train says, "We saw From Russia With Love too, and here is a thing to remind you that we once made it."

Bond in a tank?  Bond in a tank.  The amount of destruction Bond does during this scene must add up to the GDP of several small countries.

Trevelyan puts Bond in not one but two elaborate death traps that Bond obviously weasels out of.  A careful CEO of Evil Industries, he is not.

Bond sleeps with some easy ministry bureaucrat near the beginning, and Simonova.  He never sleeps with Xenia, but I'm pretty sure she got off during one of the scenes where she's trying to kill him, so you can count that as another half.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

You know those recut trailers on youtube, the ones that turn The Shining into a goofy comedy, or The Big Lebowski into an uplifting buddy adventure?  This movie is basically a feature length version of one of those things.  Take a movie about a deranged, paranoid loner and, by casting primarily comedic actors, heightening the comedy elements of individual scenes, and scoring it to a gentle, indie-infused soundtrack, turn it into a romantic comedy.  Some of it works, some of it doesn't, but since how you feel about the film I think ultimately revolves, in large part, around how you feel about the ending, I'll only say that I did not like the ending, and that because of it the movie was more miss than hit for me.

Aubrey Plaza plays Darius Britt, a 20-something interning at a Seattle magazine and the character, not unsurprisingly, is a carbon copy of the character she plays on Parks and Recreation.  She spends the bulk of the movie interacting with and ultimately forming a bond with the aforementioned deranged loner played by Mark Duplass, and you can see in this relationship why Plaza was cast in the role.  Duplass's character Ken Calloway is something resembling the mirror universe version of Andy Dwyer - they have the same self-confident, doofy insanity, but while Dwyer's craziness is soft and round and comfortable, Calloway's is sharp and not a little terrifying.  Calloway has placed the ad seen the poster in a local paper, and one of the writers at Plaza's newspaper, Jeff (Jake Johnson) takes her and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) along to do a story on him. Duplass's character, it turns out, is dead serious about planning to travel through time, and he sees spies and assassins around every corner.  A few different choices here and there and this is basically a slasher movie, with Plaza getting closer and closer to the man who will ultimately butcher her friends and then turn on her (and of course Plaza would get the better of him, because she's excellent Final Girl material, all prickly edges that hide a soft center).  The film even toys with this expectation, filming Plaza's entrance into Duplass's house very similarly to how a genuine slasher movie would.

But it's not that kind of movie, it's the kind of movie where Duplass romances Plaza with a song he wrote on a zither, and where Johnson's douchebag character hooks back up with an old flame who he expects to look  like something resembling Kristen Bell (who makes a late-film cameo as the girl Duplass is traveling back in time for) but who is ever so slightly bigger, and redder of hair, and older-looking than that.  I won't go too much into that part of the film except to say that it doesn't really earn its resolution.

There's a low-key good-natured energy to the movie.  I didn't find anything about it actively hateable, but I did not like the ending, and too much of the film's narrative focus is built around what, exactly, Duplass's character is up to for me to give this much more than a tepid recommendation.  C+

Licence To Kill

The Dalton era is a decidedly odd one to discuss.  He was in the role for such a short amount of time (Craig, for instance, has only been in the role for one more movie than Dalton, but he’s occupied the role for 6 years; Dalton only had it for 2) that there was no real evolution in film occurring around him.  He started in the late 80’s, he ended in the late 80’s, and the late 80’s were, quite frankly, kind of a desolate time for American film.

License to Kill looks and feels almost exactly the same as The Living Daylights, except just about all of the things that make a Bond movie a Bond movie are better.  The villain is better-defined, the Bond girl takes a more active role in the plot, Bond goes to swankier locations and seduces easier women, and Bond spends significantly more of his time in evening wear.  All of the elements are there to make this Dalton’s definitive stamp on the series and if it wasn’t for one fatal plot decision that’s how I’d feel about it.  But I can’t in good conscience call this anything but a colossal failure, and even though it’s for such a small thing, that small thing looms large over the last 2/3 of the film.

So anyone who’s seen this knows what I’m talking about – the decision to sever Bond’s ties, temporarily, with MI6.  On paper, this is the sort of ambitious decision that I thought was sorely lacking from The Living Daylights.  In practice, putting this into motion turns Bond into an out-and-out lunatic, acting in ways that are monstrously self-destructive and completely indefensible.

So, the plot.  Bond and Felix Leiter are on the way to Leiter’s wedding to that woman who took over from Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company after they wrote her out of the show (she is, incidentally, one of the worst actors thus far in this marathon, and that is a high bar to clear).  On the way they foil a Central American drug kingpin played by Robert Davi in an action setpiece that involves a mid-air plane hijacking that is very similar to the scene from the opening of The Dark Knight Rises (Skyfall might have stolen heavily from Nolan’s Batman, but Nolan stole from Bond first).  Davi pretty much immediately escapes (well, Felix gets married first, but right after that), murders Mrs. Leiter and half feeds Felix to a shark.  Bond flips the fuck out and decides to personally avenge his buddy by tracking down and killing Davi.  MI6, unfortunately, is having none of it, and after Bond refuses an order to go to Istanbul for an assignment, M strips Bond’s license to kill and, in a seriously cold-ass moment for M, barely spares Bond’s life when he goes rogue because, as he explains to one of his operatives with a gun trained on Bond, “there are too many people around” to kill him.  That’s fucked up.

Forget that the stakes here aren’t properly set up (the only dead body for Bond to avenge is Mrs. Leiter, who we didn’t know existed until the beginning of this film, and Felix certainly wouldn’t sign off on Bond leaving MI6 just to murder some pissant drug lord).  The problem with all of this is that Felix *is CIA*.  He and his wife being brutally attacked like this would mean that Davi was already living on borrowed time.  Poison in his morning coffee or a shiv in the back of the neck, whatever it was, the spooks would find a way to murder his ass sooner rather than later.  Bond does not need to get involved in any of this, but he does anyway.  There is a pall hanging over every decision he makes from this point forward, because it all stems from the dumbest decision Bond has ever made.  I try not to focus too much on the dumb plots of these movies, because dumb plots are part of the point, but this movie’s particular dumb plot is such a spectacular miscalculation, and does so much damage to the film, that it’s impossible not to get bogged down on it.

But in any case, Bond goes down to Central America, he gets close to Davi, and then he murders him and destroys his drug operation and MI6 invites him back at the end because this is a franchise and it must be refreshed anew.  So, here are some other thoughts.

I used to hate R&B music, and the theme song for this movie by Gladys Knight is a perfect example of the type of song that caused that state of affairs.  It is an awful, overproduced glob of mayonnaise, the type of thing that R&B producers were really keen on when I was 10 years old.

Davi is a great villain, menacing and charming in turn, and he has several distinct baroque ways to kill people.  There’s the shark thing, which is even done in an outlandish way (he hooks his target to one end of a balance and an animal carcass that is heavier than him on the other end; as the shark eats the carcass, the target drops closer and closer to the water, and eventually gets eaten.)  He kills a dude by putting him in a pressure chamber and exploding him, and then almost kills Bond by dropping him into basically a giant wood chipper.

One of his henchmen is played by Benicio del Toro and he ends up in the wood chipper instead.

I liked Carey Lowell a lot as the Bond girl, easily my favorite American Bond girl (which is, admittedly, a very “tallest midget” type competition, since she’s competing against the likes of Tiffany Case from Diamonds are Forever, Stacey Sutton from A View to a Kill and, shudder, Mary Goodnight from The Man with the Golden Gun).  She saves Bond a few times, including right at the end, where she rescues him on the brink of disaster with air support, a distinctively Han Solo type moment.

Basically the first thing Bond does when he gets down to Central America is get into his tux and play high stakes games at Davi’s casino.  He plays blackjack which is decidedly less cool than baccarat but way cooler than the backgammon he played in Octopussy.  And he gets to play, not with proper chips, but with those big square blocks that ultra-rich people use (Bond, admittedly, uses these blocks a lot) which ups the cool factor at least one half grade level.

Q helps Bond through most of the back half of the movie, and he ends up getting a lot to do.  It’s a transparent bit of pandering (there is absolutely no reason for Q to risk his job for Bond’s sake) but it’s fun to have Q around anyway and he comes packing, seriously, a suitcase full of toys.

Wayne Newton makes a weird cameo and he’s not playing himself.  I don’t know what to do with this.  It would have been perfectly natural in, say, The Spy Who Loved Me.  In this movie, which aims towards a grimy realism, it is really out of place.

There are two pretty cool villain sets, Davi’s enormous mansion (completely with chair lift!) and his drug factory, which is huge and contains an underground heliport.  The last set is just as out of place as Wayne Newton, but it’s supercool, and that counts for a hell of a lot.

There’s a surprising amount of underwater action in this movie.  I got a bit of the Thunderball sweats, but it’s not nearly as egregious.

Bond sleeps with both the villain’s girl, played with maximum sexiness by Talisa Soto, and Carey Lowell’s character.  They play this dumb, catty, “he’s my man” game between the two of them and it is awful but mercifully confined.

The Living Daylights

I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that each Bond actor (with the exception of George Lazenby) corresponds, very roughly, to a decade.  So Connery is the 60’s Bond, Moore the 70’s, Dalton the 80’s, Brosnan the 90’s and Craig the 00’s.  One of the (many) problems with Moore’s extended tenure in the role is that he forced the series to dick around in jokey, escapist territory well after the Cold War had heated up again in the Reagan/Thatcher/Gorbachev 80’s.  There were some stabs at Cold War era politics in the last few movies, but The Living Daylights is the first time we’re dipping deeply back into the well of the Cold War in a long time.  Timothy Dalton provides the series with a lead that allows it to do this massive course correction, certainly the most overt recasting of the role up to this point, with all of Moore’s winky self-satisfaction being eliminated from the character by someone who specializes in the brutality portion of the role.  The plot involves a KGB officer who is supposedly defecting to the West, but naturally things get much more complicated.

So let me get down to brass tacks – I consider The Living Daylights to be almost entirely a disappointment, a massive missed opportunity that does not remotely have the courage of its convictions.  With Moore stepping down, and with the political situation of the world in the mid-to-late 80’s, the producers had a golden opportunity to do more than just tweak the series towards less frothy fare, but to in fact overhaul it completely, rebuilding it from the ground up as a lean, mean action franchise.  If there is one thing that can be said about the 80’s it was the golden age of pure action cinema, thoughtless brutes going into the jungles of Southeast Asia and extracting justice through pure force of will.  And here comes James Bond, the ultimate Cold War hero, finally unleashed as a young, hungry spy again, and all the film can manage is a bloated, dishwater dull adventure yarn that’s like a crappy Indiana Jones knockoff directed by some Carolco hack.

I don’t mean to be quite that harsh – this is an okay movie.  It’s certainly not at the levels of awfulness as the worst of the Moore era.  But there’s a reason people don’t still watch it except when they do dumb Bond marathons like this one, because it’s just not that interesting.  I’ll turn on Top Gun and watch it until the end, despite it being 100 times dumber than this movie, because it is filmed and edited with a visual flair, and it is filled with justifiably famous scenes.  Now that’s an unfair standard, since Top Gun is a stone-cold classic (don’t snicker – you know, in your heart, that this is true).  But The Living Daylights isn’t even as interesting as a 2nd rate Schwarzenegger vehicle like Commando.  It’s just there.  It exists.  You have to watch it to complete your 007 collection.

Dalton is not bad.  Like I said, he represents Bond’s brutal side fairly well.  The problem is, he doesn’t really represent any of the other aspects of the character.  He’s not particularly suave, he doesn’t know how to deliver a quip, and although Timothy Dalton is a good looking man it’s hard to imagine him seducing a woman through the sheer power of his charisma.  It’s a blessing and a curse that his performance seems totally fully formed right out of the gate: a blessing because he’s reasonably good right away, and a curse because it’s pretty clear that this is as good as it gets, and it’s just not quite good enough to make you think, man, I want to see that guy again and again and again in this role.

The aforementioned KGB officer, General Koskov, is of course pulling a massive scheme off, where he’s not actually defecting but has some sort of plan to buy heroin from the mujaheddin for a rock-bottom price, sell it in the West, and then use the profits both to arm the Soviets and make himself rich.  If you squint you can vaguely see the Iron Contra scandal in there somewhere, but mostly it’s a complicated scheme for the sake of both dragging the plot out to a *very* long 2 hours and 10 minutes and also to remind us that the Soviets are currently bogged down in a war in Afghanistan.

Dalton pronounces the term “Mu-JAH-heddin” a couple of times.  But who cares how it’s pronounced, they’re the Soviets’ problem.

I am pretty certain that I am in the distinct minority as someone who actually likes a-ha’s theme song.  It has a pretty terrible reputation and I’m semi-puzzled by that fact.

There is one very unfortunate “joke” delivered by Q about a “ghetto blaster”, which is a boom box that shoots rockets because get it?

Maryam D’Abo as General Koskov’s girlfriend (who eventually turns on him, of course, because she has to sleep with Bond) Kara Milovy is okay.  Not that memorable, but certainly never actively terrible or irritating.  She plays the cello and she’s reasonably helpful, or at least as helpful as a woman is allowed to be when Bond is around.  She’s basically the only female character of any note in the movie, so Bond doesn’t get to be seduced by a woman working for the villain (a hallmark of the Moore era, and poor Dalton is just immediately told, you are not even up to the level of charm exhibited by decrepit-assed, 57 year old Roger Moore.)  She has a dumb hairdo but what are you gonna do, she’s from behind the Iron Curtain.

There are a couple of action set pieces which aren’t really worth discussing in detail except inasmuch that Dalton’s presence allows for real action to return to the series after its long hiatus of long shots/bad blue screen, to something that vaguely suggests that Bond is once again actually taking part in action scenes.  The opening action scene is pretty good, significantly better than basically anything in the Moore era, so at least there’s that.

Felix Leiter returns for the first time since Live and Let Die, and I’m not really sure why he disappeared for almost all of Roger Moore’s run.  He’s played here by John Terry and I couldn’t remember who Terry was until Wikipedia reminded me that he played Christian Shepherd.

I haven’t mentioned General Gogol at any point, but he was a recurring character in most of the Moore films as the head of the KGB.  He gets replaced in this film by John Rhys-Davies, and although the film suggests that he will be a recurring character going forward, I know that this will be his first and last appearance.

We have a new Moneypenny, so now Q is the only member of the Big Four at MI-6 (Bond, M, Q and Moneypenny) that hasn’t been recast.  Presumably they decided that Lois Maxwell was now too old to credibly flirt with Bond, since Dalton is something like 20 years her junior.  This was the right decision, but the new actress (Caroline Bliss) is something pretty close to awful.  She’s dolled up as the 80’s-est of all 80’s on-screen women, with big ugly glasses and pulled up blonde hair that’s kind of a mess.  She basically looks like Angela from Who’s the Boss, and it is just a terrible look for Moneypenny, but the worst part is that she possesses not one single ounce of chemistry with DaltonDalton has chemistry problems with D’Abo too, but not nearly as severe.

This movie is a little (although not egregiously so) racist; besides the ghetto blaster joke, the way the Afganis are presented is mostly stereotype, and that could have been forgiven 20 or even 10 years before, but in 1987 I’m just going to have to give some demerits to a film that fits comfortably in the Rambo Part III spectrum of “this is what Afghanis are like.”  There’s a scene at the very end where Bond’s Afghan allies have traveled to London to meet him and they are wearing bandoliers filled with ammunition, which they apparently wore all the way from Afghanistan, including on their commercial flight.  It’s a little thing, but it is stupid, and this is a movie that thinks it has left behind the most egregiously stupid bits of the Moore era, so it needs to be held to account.

Bond only clearly beds the one woman, I think, D’Abo’s Bond Girl, but the film implies that he beds a random woman right at the end of the opening scene’s action set piece, before the credits sequence kicks in.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A View to a Kill

Here is my potentially most controversial opinion so far – A View to a Kill is not bad.  It is, in many ways, quite good.  Easily the third best Moore movie of the lot (after The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only).  It is at least theoretically possible that I am suffering from Stockholm Syndrome at this point at the end of the Roger Moore era.  But I don’t think so.  This movie does not deserve its terrible reputation.

Alright, so, the opening scene has to be dealt with.  We’ve got another skiing scene on our hands only this time, Bond ends up on a makeshift snowboard.  Scored to a cover of “California Girls”.  An awful cover of “California Girls”, not that this fact matters, because just the fact of having “California Girls” in a Bond action scene should make your soul die a little bit.  I will admit that this is not a great start.  Okay, that’s an understatement.  This is the worst start imaginable.  He ends up snowboarding down to a dumb-looking submarine that looks like a bit of floating ice and whose hatch has a Union Jack on it.

How often do you get to use the phrase, “Thank God for Duran Duran”?  Well, here it is.  After the never ending balladry, going back 4 movies now, Duran Duran finally injects some life back into the James Bond theme song.  This one was a big hit and I remember seeing it a lot on MTV and it is totally deserved.  It is a great theme song with one caveat, which is that it is not a great musical accent.  Bond movies like to play the theme song as an instrumental during the course of the action, and this one does not work for that purpose.  It’s the polar opposite of “You Only Live Twice” which was a terrible theme song (partially due to Nancy Sinatra’s awful warbling vocals) but a great accent.

It’s worth mentioning just how much use this movie makes of the “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” theme which, of course, I absolutely adore.  It shows up in the opening scene (which, all things considered, is not *that* terrible if you remove the Beach Boys cover) and all throughout this film.  It does have an unfortunate “meedly meedly” guitar accent but just its presence makes me happy.

I kind of love everything about Mayday.  Grace Jones is just so, so very weird in the best possible way.  She’s a perfect counterbalance to Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin, who’s kind of a boring villain.  Walken, in particular, doesn’t really seem to have a good handle on how big he wants his performance to be, so sometimes he flirts with bugfuckery but mostly he’s just there, taking up space and being blonde for some reason.

Speaking of Jones, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least allude to this:

It’s a pretty dumb sketch but it was my first exposure to Jones and I still think of it as her persona.  She kind of scares the shit out of me as a woman but she does wear a totally epic thong in the scene where she fights with/wrestles with Zorin.

Patrick Macnee is in this movie, and he gets to participate in some nice spying action with Bond.  He gets offed too quick but what are you gonna do?

The plot involves Zorin destroying Silicon Valley with his own personal earthquake machine which is both way too big and way too small.  He invented an earthquake machine!  What the fuck?  But he’s using it to drown a bunch of computer industry nerds?  I can think of a billion cooler things to use an earthquake machine for.

Finoa Fullerton plays a character who isn’t worth mentioning except for the fact that she may be the absolute worst actress to appear in a Bond movie to date, and that is really saying something.

The Bond girl is played by Tanya Roberts and I admit that is probably the Stockholm Syndrome speaking but I kind of liked her performance as Stacey Sutton.  Not “liked liked” but was very tolerant of.  She’s American, which puts her behind the eight ball immediately.  But she’s a reporter, not a nuclear scientist, so at least you don’t have to pretend that she’s super smart.

The blue screen effects have not improved at all.  At least this will be the last film where they have to pretend that Old Man Moore is doing anything other than hanging around a studio set, wearing tuxes and seducing female extras.

Something I really appreciate about Max Zorin – he cleans up his evil villain plot.  Most evil villain plots fall apart logically because they require an enormous amount of labor by guys who would never, in a million years, keep their mouths shut.  How could Blofeld have built a volcano base without that fact leaking to the press?  It doesn’t make sense.  Well, Zorin, on the cusp of putting his plot into action, just drowns all of the Teamsters involved in created his earthquake machine, and just to be sure they’re dead he shoots a machine gun at the ones who don’t drown immediately.  That’s quality planning!

Mayday saves the world (well, the techie nerds, at least) but she still kind of goes out like a chump.  Her end is pretty disappointing, with the saddest explosion in the world.

Zorin and Bond have their final showdown on top of the Golden Gate Bridge for plot reasons that are more trouble than they’re worth to diagram out.  Zorin ends up plunging to his death into the icy waters of the Bay.

It is implied pretty strongly that Q is a stone-cold pervert, because he lingers way too long on the final “Bond fucking on camera in front of the ministry” scene.

Bond sleeps with the woman piloting the submarine at the beginning, Mayday (who fucks on top, naturally), and Sutton.


My one-sentence review is that this movie is long stretches of bland, interspersed with discreet bursts of abject stupidity.  Onwards and upwards.

The opening sequence is in Cuba, I take it.  In any case, there are a couple of guys who are clearly supposed to be Castro brother stand-ins.  I genuinely can’t tell what Bond’s goal is in this sequence: something about blowing up an armory, I guess, but he immediately fails at it, gets captured, and then succeeds anyway due to a number of implausible coincidences.  The sequence is really poorly edited, with a bunch of shots that don’t match at all.

Any negative things that I had to say about any song before this are immediately null and void, because this movie’s theme song, “All Time High”, is so awful and so insipid that it wipes out any other bad memories I might have had and replaces them with itself.  This is the worst song, no debate, no argument.

If I had known how much time this movie spends around circuses….  The Bond movies have real troubles with the various accoutrements of circuses, from the long sequence in the Circus Circus casino in Diamonds are forever, to Jaws falling through a circus tent in Moonraker, and then this movie.  The first thing we see after the title sequence is a clown, and it will not be the last clown in the film.

Moneypenny has a PC in her office now.  Welcome to the 80’s.

There is now officially a new M, and the movie makes no notice or mention of it.

The Soviet briefing room is supercool: there are giant Cold War-era maps, a big picture of Lenin for no particular reason and a big rotating bank of chairs around a desk.  This will be the last good set design in this film.  Our first baddie (there are, ostensibly, three villains in this movie) is introduced here, General Orlov, played by Steven Berkoff, a man who once won a lawsuit against a reporter for calling him ugly.  His performance is in the “bug-eyed crazy” range of Bond villains, and it amused me to no end that by the end of his time onscreen, when he’s chasing after Bond in a car, the filmmakers completely cut the audio out of his performance, so he’s just screaming silently at the camera.  Even they had had enough at that point.

There’s a scene where Bond takes part in a posh auction for high-priced valuables and I admit that I am a sucker for this type of scene.

Bond follows the plot to Delhi, where the Taj Mahal is for some reason.  His contact there is posing as a snake charmer because of course he is.  We meet the second villain, Kamal Khan, played by Louis Jourdan in “I don’t really give a shit about this movie” mode.  He is exactly as boring as Orlov is crazy, and the two of them together make, well, two totally shitty villains.

There’s a low speed chase with these goofy 3-wheeled cars through the crowded streets of I guess DelhiIndia is treated as “India” in this movie, obviously, not as a real place, so everywhere is all the same.  As the chase continues the streets are occupied by fire-breathers, a guy walking on coals, a guy sleeping on a bed of nails and a sword swallower.  These are the sights you see when you walk down a street in India.

In Q labs, there is a camera for Bond to dick around with and a woman in a low cut dress.  Can you guess what happens next?  This is the level of maturity we’re dealing with in this movie, in case the title wasn’t a tip off.   The only thing missing was Bond yelling “Boobies!” as he zoomed the camera in and out on her cleavage.

Bond gets seduced by the villain girl, and while they’re out to dinner a photographer takes their picture for no particular reason.  Way back in Dr. No, Connery’s Bond flipped totally the fuck out when some random woman took his picture, stole her camera and destroyed the film.  Because he’s a spy, and he doesn’t need that shit, his picture making the rounds.  Moore’s Bond, on the other hand, just banters charmingly with the photographer.  The movies, not just this one but a bunch of them going way back, pretty strongly imply that Bond is something of a celebrity.  The “spy picture” thing is part of the distant past.

Bond escapes from some danger, I honestly forget what it was, by swinging across some vines, and the soundtrack gives a Tarzan scream.  Fuck.

At some point we meet our third villain, Octopussy herself, played by Maud Adams.  Now, Adams made zero impression on me in The Man With The Golden Gun (I was fine with her there, inasmuch as she wasn’t Mary Goodnight, but I don’t even think I mentioned her in my write-up) and as Octopussy she continues to make zero impression on me.  She’s not unattractive and her performance is okay but she is just so damn bland, just like this movie.

So, the plot, such as I understood it.  Khan and Octopussy are involved in a smuggling operation with General Orlov, smuggling precious Russian treasures to the West where they sell them.  Orlov, in the meantime, is a whackjob who wants the Soviet Union to start a war with the West.  So he cooks up some plot, I still don’t quite get this, where a canister full of jewels is replaced with an American nuke set to detonate in, naturally, a circus.  Octopussy’s circus.  When the nuke goes off it will be chalked up as an American nuclear accident, after which Western Europe will unilaterally disarm and the Soviets will be able to march across the map.  Orlov is bugfuck so you could say, well, he’s just a crazy person who comes up with a crazy plan that doesn’t make sense, but it’s Bond who puts this together, so maybe Bond is actually a crazy person too.

Bond chases the bomb to the circus on board a train, and after some long-shot stunt work and brutal blue screen, Bond gets thrown off the train.  Then he has to hitchhike, and a bunch of teenagers pretend they are going to stop, then drive away.  Somehow, Bond gets a ride with two German stereotypes who are eating wieners and drinking beer while they drive.  But the final insult to Bond’s dignity is yet to come.

Writing this next part makes me sad.  In order to get into the circus and stop the bomb, Bond has to disguise himself as a clown.  The outfit, the makeup, the shoes.  He spends the ostensibly tension-filled (first) climax of the film dressed this way.  I don’t….I don’t know where to go from here.  This was without a doubt the most demoralizing thing that has happened in this marathon, even more than Moonraker’s dumb climax.  I’m going to wrap this up quickly now, because I need to forget.

There are two more climaxes, one of the “storming the lair” variety where the army is made up of Octopussy’s all-girl troupe of smugglers plus Octopussy herself.  It’s supposed to be a step forward for women in this series, I guess, but it just plays as stupid and vaguely sexist anyway, the women all in skin-tight outfits and the action being distinctively slower then usual.

The third climax involves Bond climbing on to a plane as it’s taking off.  It does involve some really harrowing stunt work, and the movie actually makes it seem like Moore's Bond is on the plane.  But in any case, I could see him doing this if he was stopping a threat, but he just does this to rescue Octopussy, which he does, and then it’s over the end. 

This movie is actually pretty racist given the Indian tableau that it dicks around with in the second act in the most stereotypical manner possible but I just can’t right now, the clown thing.  The clown thing.

Bond sleeps with two women, the villain girl and Octopussy.

For Your Eyes Only

This is really a weird little movie.  On the one hand, it’s clearly a deliberate attempt by the filmmakers to course correct into more realistic territory after the frighteningly outlandish (and mind-bogglingly stupid) Moonraker.  On the other hand, the series is not really able to eliminate enough of the excess detritus of the Moore years to make it into a coherent spy picture.  You’ve got two very distinct tones glommed on to one another, and they don’t always mesh.  I’ve got it right smack dab in the middle of my rankings, because there’s enough that I liked but too much that was a misfire.

The biggest problem, without hesitation, is Moore.  I’ve defended him up to this point – he was better than the material in the first two films, absolutely tailor made for the 3rd movie, and only one of many, many problems in the 4th.  But in this outing, he has become the weakest link.  He’s too damn old for the series now.  He still looks nice in a tux, and he’s able to deliver a quip reasonably well, but any time the movie feints towards adventure or action or (ugh) romance, his craggy face and slow, pudgy frame suck the life out of the movie.  This movie almost feels like it was made to be a reboot with a new actor, and then someone got cold feet and decided to stick with Moore.  This would have made a perfectly pleasant first outing for either of the next two Bonds, but instead it’s another rickety Moore vehicle.  Bullet points:

The opening scene is an absolute, no-doubt-about-it abomination.  Bond goes to visit Tracy’s grave and then apropos of nothing he is under imminent threat by an unnamed and only seen from the back Blofeld.  It’s some combination of “reminding people of the series’ history for this (should have been) reboot” and “showing Kevin McClory where he can stick it.”  And it’s not just the idea – the execution is just as miserably stupid, with Blofeld constantly quipping as he remote control pilots a runaway helicopter that Bond is on.  In the end, Bond gets his and drops a wheelchair-bound Blofeld down a chimney.  I wish I were making this up.

You could make the case that the theme song is good but I am so, so tired of ballads at this point.

The MacGuffin is some sort of Cold War-era code machine, a direct reference to From Russia With Love.  The stakes are big in terms of the Cold War but very small in terms of a Bond movie.

Bernard Lee, the actor who played M, apparently died during filming, but before he could shoot any scenes, so his normal exposition duties are farmed out elsewhere (but not a new M, just someone else).  It seems like a bit of an insensitive thing for the series to not at least acknowledge the fact that M had died, a la Mr. Hooper.  In the film, he’s just away on holiday or something.  It’s not like M, the character, couldn’t be easily replaced within the world of the James Bond flicks.

I want to save my thoughts on the Bond girl, Melina Havelock, for the end.

Roger Moore does get one cool moment of sheer fuck-you brutality, offing the main henchman of the movie by first taunting him and then kicking his teetering car down a cliff without a second thought.  It’s one of the cooler things that Moore’s Bond has done to this point.

Topol does his Topol thing as a shady smuggler who turns into Bond’s ally.  He has a mustache/hair combo that is absolutely top-notch.

Julian Glover plays the villain, because Julian Glover always plays a villain.  The movie dances around whether he’s evil for a while, but it really doesn’t leave much doubt considering what a Mirror Universe-esque goatee they saddle him with.

There are two secondary girls, one of whom is a Countess and the other of whom is an American figure skater who is obviously in her early twenties but who the movie implies is about 14.  The Countess is fine, a reasonably pleasant plot point of a character in the Bond tradition.  The figure skater is absolutely ghastly, both a terrible and obnoxious actress who forces Bond into turning down her advances because he is not a pedophile, probably.

A key plot point revolves around Bond getting a random piece of information from a parrot.

An inordinate number of winter Olympics sports show up in the saggy middle section including skating, biathlon, skiing, ski-jumping, bobsled and ice hockey (and I’m probably forgetting some others).  By the end, when Bond is being menaced by a team of ice hockey players for no discernable reason, it basically plays like an advertisement for the winter Olympics that no one paid for or wants.

There is a long stretch at a casino in Greece(?) and it is so, so swanky.  This scene alone probably bumps the movie up one place in my rankings.  Everyone’s in tuxes, Bond plays baccarat, orders luxurious food and drinks, and eventually beds a countess.  Given all the shitty action in this movie, at least the filmmakers made one really great use of Roger Moore’s biggest strength, how cool and at home he looks when he’s wearing a tuxedo and just generally being a connoisseur of all of life’s finer things.

The final battle is surprisingly low-key and quiet, with the two “armies” being just a couple of small groups of people, and Bond’s invading army, in particular, trying very hard to be quiet about what they’re doing.

The bad guy’s “base” is not a base and is not cool at all, except for the fact that it’s on top of a sheer outcropping of rock.  There is of course a climbing scene with Bond scaling it (our first, I think?) but the filmmakers have to edit it so heavily (because Moore ain’t getting on some rock-climbing rig) that it doesn’t really have any of the tension that they intend.  Decent stunt work here, at least.

The denouement has that same parrot talking to a facsimile of Margaret Thatcher.  Thatcher, of course, is wearing an apron and apparently in the process of cooking dinner for her doofus of a husband because this is still a goddamned James Bond movie no matter if the Prime Minister is a broad now.

So, Melina Havelock.  I will say without equivocation that she is my favorite Bond girl so far by about a mile.  Now, Carole Bouquet is clearly struggling with the English language, so her performance has a bit of the sort of staccato rhythms that you get when someone is not totally sure of the words they’re saying.  But.  Even with that, Havelock is so engaged in the story, and never gets compromised into a shrinking violet (she saves Bond at least twice, once very near the end of the film).  She keeps showing up in the film, unasked, not because the plot demands it but because she is determined to straight up murder some motherfuckers with her crossbow.  Plus Bouquet is just a devastatingly beautiful woman. 

Bond sleeps with her, and also with the Countess, but not with the skater, because she is way too young and also sucks.