Posts Tagged ‘James Bond’

The Bond Films: The Craig Years

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Whether the Daniel Craig era spells a new life for the Bond franchise or just one last burst of glory before the end is unknown. It will be interesting to see what Skyfall is like. But for the moment, it has revived a franchise that was almost dead.

Casino Royale is rated by IMDB at a staggering 7.9, tied with Goldfinger as the best James Bond film ever. I agree, rating it a 9. It wasn’t the Bond film I always wanted; it was something better: the Bond film I never knew I wanted.

After the gory excesses of Die Another Day, it’s as though Barbara Broccoli realized they’d taken the formula as far as it could go. They needed to go back to basics. And where else to go but Fleming’s first Bond novel and a fresh interpretation? I’m not entirely comfortable with franchise reboots, but this one works. It reminds me a great deal of Dr. No, showing us an earlier edgier Bond that is far closer to Fleming vision.

As a pure movie, everything works. The directing is solid and avoids do much ADD editing. The CGI crap and endless chases are ditched in favor of a more visceral approach to the action. The pre-credits fight has a brutality that harkens back to the vicious train fight in From Russia with Love, a level reached again in the tense stairway fight. The chase through the construction sight is dazzling. The gadgets are reduced to a supporting level, used when necessary rather than having a plot built around them.

But what’s better is that the series gets back to what makes Bond Bond — spy intrigue and tension. The card game — a card game! — is one of the most tense sequences in the entire series. The torture scene has an intensity never seen before. Both are taken from Fleming’s novel and both are used to maximum effect. And the shadowy Mr. White and his organization are a wonderful lead-in to future films, promising even more intrigue.

The Bond girls are wonderful. Caterina Murino is so beautiful it floors me that Bond can leave her to chase down terrorists. And Eva Green makes for the best and most believable Bond girl since … I dunno … the Spy Who Loved Me? Jeffrey Wright immediately became my favorite Felix Leiter, doing more in a one-minute stairway conversation than his predecessors did with entire movies. The villainous Le Chiffre is played perfectly by Mads Mikkelsen. He is brutal, brilliant, selfish and arrogant, which makes his losing it in his final scene so powerful.

As for Daniel Craig, I was a skeptic. He convinced me. We have yet to see if he can make Bond into the smoother, more polished version he is destined to become. But his portrayal of Bond as a believable assassin, someone who is damaged and dangerous, is powerful.

Quantum of Solace, rated 12th by IMDB and given a 7 by me, was a bit disappointing. There was going to be an inevitable come-down after Casino, but this was a bit of a steeper drop than I expected.

The bothersome part is that it has trouble being a Bond film. Intrigue and mystery are replaced by action and mayhem. Unravelling Quantum should have taken Bond the entire film. Instead, he gets in by beating someone up.

The character of Bond is kept very narrow. He shows no interest in Camille and little compassion for Fields. He has none of the flashes of wit and charm seen in the previous film. He is cold and focused, which is a part of Bond but not all of him. The action scenes get repetitive. We know Bond is the best; we don’t need to see him take out entire legions of bad guys six or seven times a film.

The villains are too numerous to keep track of. Instead of a primary villain and a top henchmen, we get Mr. Green (who is a pretty decent villain), a forgettable general and a bunch of Quantum members who simply vanish. The Bond girls are OK, but their chemistry with Craig is almost non-existent.

The plot is a bit silly. As Gregg Eastebrook pointed out, the statement that governments change hands in South America every week is wildly out of date. Since the fall of communism, South American governments have been very stable with only Honduras experiencing a coup, if you consider it a coup, which I don’t. Then there’s the exploding hotel …

FInally, the action scenes are simply terrible. Craig is fine, the directing is fine. But the editing is so chaotic, so ADD, so rapid, you can’t tell what’s going on. The parkour chase in Casino had rapid editing, but it was coherent, with a depth of field and a shot selection that kept the viewer oriented and on the edge of their seat. The action scenes in Qauntum are almost unwatchable.

This move just frustrates me. With some competent editing, some more tension and intrigue instead of action and some chemistry between the leads, it could have been very good. As it is, it’s completely forgettable. I watched it two hours ago and I’m already having trouble recalling it.

Fortunately, the Craig era, after some delay, is marching on. I’m cautiously optimist about the next film. Sam Mendes is directing. Javier Bardem, a superb actor, is playing the villain. Hopefully, Mendes can get back to what made Casino so good and move Bond more toward the polished agent he’s destined to become. The hard edge has been fun; now it’s time to soften it a bit.

This has been a fun series of posts. I’ll have one last post to wrap things up before moving on to my next project.

The Bond Films: The Brosnan Years

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

If there was anyone who was born to play 007, it was Pierce Brosnan. I don’t remember much about Remington Steele, despite being a fan at the time. But I remember thinking that Brosnan was mostly auditioning for the role of Bond. He had everything you want in a Bond — looks, charm, humor, action skill, wit. It’s interesting to think what might have happened had he been hired for Daylights instead of Dalton.

It’s too bad the movies let him down as time went on.

Goldeneye was simply the best Bond in 15 years and a smashing debut for Pierce Brosnan. Almost everything works. The sophisticated plot, sprawling over the Cold War and its aftermath, is a great spy tale. The action scenes are good to great, although the tank chase is a bit over the top and needlessly destructive. I always feel bad for the Russian soldiers getting needlessly killed.

It’s directed with style and flair, with plenty of tension even in dialogue scenes. Izabella Scorupco is a great Bond girl — beautiful, tough and smart. Sean Bean is his usual excellent self (his performance in Lord of the Rings was an unheralded emotional anchor to the films). The music is good, including Tina Turner’s title song (in an unpublished novel, a character said to hear her voice is to know her life).

In 1995, this was breath of fresh air.

The new additions to the franchise also work. Judi Dench is a great choice as M; the scene in which she calls Bond a sexist, misogynist dinosaur — a slap 20 years in the making — is excellent. And Samantha Bond is perfect as Moneypenny. She’s funny, charming and just pretty enough.

There are a few things that don’t work for me. I can’t stand the character of Xenia Onatopp, who is so ridiculous and over-acted, I want to fast forward every time she’s on screen. I’ve frankly never understood the whole Famke Janssen thing. The absurdity of using Arecibo for the finale bothers me. And the lair of the bad guys gave rise to my coining of the Slick Science Rule.

So not perfect; but damn good. IMDB rates it the 6th best Bond film, the finest vintage since Spy. I agree. 8/10.

Tomorrow Never Dies: OK, this is one where I disagree with the critics, the Bond fans and IMDB. This is ranked 18th on IMDB and was tepidly received by numerous critics. I just don’t get it.

The plot is solid, if filled with technical holes. Stamper and Carver make great villains. I know a lot of people can’t stand Pryce’s performance, but I found it well within the over-the-top tradition of Bond villains. And the idea of a media mogul starting a war for ratings has been believable since Hearst. Brosnan is in top form, even making the scenes with Teri Hatcher believable. The film features several great (if implausible) action scenes, notably a great scene involving a remote-controlled car (the shot of Brosnan grinning like a kid as he pilots it is worth the price of admission). I even like Sheryl Crow’s title song.

What elevates it to a really good Bond film, in my opinion, is Michelle Yeoh as the Chinese agent Wai Lin. She is one of my favorite Bond girls, although that’s at least in part because Michelle Yeoh is one of my favorite actresses (she was stiffed out of an Oscar nomination for Crouching Tiger). Her character is believable, her comic timing excellent and she and Brosnan have wonderful chemistry. After Die Another Day, a lot of people suggested that Halle Berry’s pointless Jinx character be the subject of a spinoff movie or a recurring role. Screw that; Wai Lin would have been much better.

I simply don’t get why this is rated so low. Below Octopussy? Below Golden Gun? Below Diamonds? You’ve got to be kidding me. I rate it an 8 when I’m in a generous mood, just a cut below Goldeneye.

The World is Not Enough: As much as I disagreed on Tomorrow, I have to agree with the consensus on this one. IMDB ranks it 19th. I give it a 6. Brosnan is fine, as always. But the plot, the writing and the action let him down.

The problem is that it goes for too much action cliche: people outrunning explosions, vehicles exploding at the slightest touch, Elektra’s all-too-predictable betrayal. Not to mention the wild science. A captivating film could get me to ignore these problems. But TWINE is so long and boring, I can’t help but notice. In this film, you see the bad elements that would explode into disaster with Die Another Day.

Sophie Marceau tries to be a great Bond Girl, but Elektra is such a bad character, it doesn’t really work. Robert Carlyle is a boring villain (And can we rid ourselves of the cliche of people who can’t feel pain being invulnerable? People who can’t feel pain have very serious problems). “Welcome to my nuclear family” has to be one of the worst catch phrases for a villain in Bond history.

And that’s not even mentioning Denise Richards. She tries. She’s beautiful. She smiles well. I liked her a lot in Starship Troopers. She’s just in over her head.

World is not bad, per se. But it’s just not good. And the elements that were bad turned our to be merely precursors of what was to come.

Die Another Day: IMDB, the critics and Bond fans alike agree that this was the worst Bond film ever. It’s the film that almost killed the franchise, despite making lots of money.

The film itself is actually not horrifying. The problem is that it’s simply not a Bond film. Decades of cinematic history are flushed down the toilet to make a film built not on tension and espionage, but action and chaos.

It has its good points. Um … Rosamund Pike is quite fetching. Um … there’s some reasonable tension in the climax. Um … Samantha Bond is great … I thought Cleese was a fine Q … the film doesn’t really plunge off a cliff until the second half.

This film was built with references to all the preceding Bond films. Fair enough, but did they have to take the worst of all the Bond films? Diamonds‘ absurd diamond-powered laser? Moonraker‘s cringe-inducing fight in a glass museum? The alligator sub from Octopussy? On the rare occasion when the reference isn’t stupid, it only reminds us of how much better the other films were.

Really, the problem is that this feels like something produced by the marketing department with basically no input from writers, directors or actors. It’s cobbled together out of things that were focus-group tested to see what would make a profitable Bond movie. You can almost imagine the meetings: “How about Halle Berry? People like Halle Berry, right? And all that CGI stuff? And those gimmicky wipes and jump cuts? Audiences eat that shit up. I heard something about conflict diamonds in the news lately. Plus, let’s make everything explode the second it is touched.” Every piece looks like it was designed for a trailer or a product placement commercial. The film goes downhill for the very first second, when a stupid CGI bullet whizzes out at the audience. Forty years in, did we really fucking need the CGI bullet?

Watching it for the third time, I’m just annoyed by the things that make no damned sense. Like how Jinx’s boat managed to park right where she was going to dive. Or why Graves uses a stupid body suit to direct the death ray. Or the absurd claim that hovercraft can not set off mines. Or how the guy Bond punches stay unconscious for hours. Or why Madonna … exists. I shouldn’t be bothered by such stupidities — it’s a Bond film! I mean, I enjoyed Moonraker for Christ’s sake. But the film simply isn’t good enough to carry the absurdity. It’s not that I can’t suspend belief; it’s that I see no reason why I should. (See here and here for more on this film’s absurdity).

And as for Halle Berry’s Jinx, there was some talk of making a spin-off franchise over her. Please. She’s pretty and can act but has little chemistry with Brosnan. Their “flirting” double entendres are painful. Given that Bond was working with Chinese intelligence, this was the perfect chance to bring back Michelle Yeoh, with Bond calling in his debts from Tomorrow Never Dies. He didn’t.

I rate it a 6, but it’s cold 6. It’s not unwatchable; it’s just irritating to a Bond fan. Thankfully, however, a miracle was just around the corner.

The Bond Films: The Dalton Years

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

This won’t take long. The Timothy Dalton era, such as it was, was only two films. For my money, it was two decent but not great films. As a fan, I felt the series has taken a step up from the Moore years. But greatness was still a long way away.

The Living Daylights: My favorite critic, James Berardinelli, dislikes this film but I just don’t see it. It’s got a decent plot, especially the post-credits sequence, which is based on a Fleming short story. It’s very much a spy story set in the Cold War. The actions scenes are good, the plot very spyish and Dalton injects a much-needed edge into Bond. As a kid — well, a teenager — I really liked this movie for bringing some fresh air to the franchise after the weakness of Moore’s last two outings.

The movie is not without its flaws, particularly Maryam D’Abo. She’s just not a good Bond girl. She’s pretty, but she’s too skinny, too useless, too boring. She’s little more than a plot device. No, no even that. The plot would have gone just fine if Bond had dumped her in Bratislava. She mainly stands around and occasionally screams. If you’re going to narrow Bond’s sexual congress to a single girl, she has to be dynamite and Kara simply isn’t.

One of the games I like to play when watching a flawed movie is imaging how it could have been better. One way would have been to make Kara a real assassin, or at least a real agent, possibly from a Czech service that had no love of the Russians. It might also have been interesting to cast a woman as Pushkin, not that I’m complaining about John Rhys-Davies’ fun performance.

There are lot more changes in the franchise, not all for the better. Caroline Bliss takes over as Moneypenny but she’s a little too pretty for the role and doesn’t have the refined air that Lois Maxwell did (although it’s fun, in the next film, to see her in the old office set). John Terry makes his only appearance as Leiter, which is merciful as he’s the least effective actor in the role. Give me Jack Lord or Jeffrey Wright or David Hedison any day.

Of course, the biggest change is Dalton. He is an improvement on Moore, but he’s not perfect. He seems to think he should be making a serious movie and gets annoyed when it gets Bondish, smirking his way through the romantic scenes. Dalton was a huge fan of the books and wanted the darker Bond Fleming portrayed. It works, to an extent. But it’s weak when Bond isn’t being dark or violent. The aforementioned Berardinelli once said the key to playing Batman is how you play Bruce Wayne. The key to playing an edgier darker Bond is how you play the romantic and humorous scenes. Dalton doesn’t quite there. That would have to wait for Daniel Craig.

IMDB ranks Daylights 14th, toward the middle of the pack. That sounds about right to me. I give it a 7, sometimes and 8, depending on my mood at the time. It’s not bad. And it’s a blessed relief after the end of the Moore years.

License to Kill: Boy, does this take me back in time to the early days of the drug war. My views on the War on Drugs did not form overnight. There was a time when I was a drug warrior, especially because of the horrific violence of the 80′s drug lords (as violent as this movie is, it understates the case). Watching this movie reminds me of the righteous anger I used to feel.

Unlike the last film, the Bond girls shine in this one. I was 17 when this came out and developed a huge crush on the smoldering Talisa Soto. But as time has gone on, I’ve become more appreciative of Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier. She’s not as glamorous, but she’s fun and capable.

Robert Davi is great as the vicious drug dealer Sanchez and this features an early appearance of Benicio del Toro. The action scenes — particularly the truck chase — range from great to solid. Dalton’s performance is about the same — mostly good, but weak in scenes where he needs to be funny or romantic.

When I first saw it — and even now — the amount of violence is a bit bothersome. It includes some pretty brutal stuff — an offscreen evisceration, execution by atmospheric chamber, the brutality visited on the Leiters, etc. etc. But overall, I’d put it just a cut below Daylights. IMDB ranks this 17th in the Bond Series. Seems fair. I give it a 7.

The Bond Films: Moore

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

The Roger Moore years are not as bad their reputation. The seven films Moore starred in range from serviceable to very good. The reason everyone is so down on them is because … they weren’t the Connery years.

And that was a key problem, at least early on. The producers kept trying to enact the Connery formula. This simply didn’t work for Roger Moore. Moore was not very good as an action hero. He was credible as a sophisticated spy: Bond with the rough edges polished off. Once they learned to play to his strengths — charm and humor — things got better. But they only reached the height of the Connery years once before the series fell back.

Another problem that plagued the Moore years was the lack of a consistent enemy. The lawsuit that took SPECTRE out of the picture left the films fumbling for an enemy worthy of Bond. Taking a cue from Diamonds are Forever and You Only Live Twice, they settled on the Madman of the Month, some extremely rich guy who was intent on bringing armageddon or very nearly (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill).

This was a mistake. Bond works best in the context of a spy novel. Even if the conflict is absurd, the underpinning of the conflict — East v. West, SPECTRE v. the World — should be a power struggle. Eyes is one of my favorites of the era as it’s a very traditional spy adventure.

The logical enemy to replace SPECTRE was the Soviet Union, this being Bond’s primary enemy in the novels. They are, in fact, the enemy in Eyes and played a role in View. But why were they ignored in the other films?

Well, for one, I think the producers didn’t want the films to become “political”. If so, this would be a bogus concern, since Eyes wasn’t political at all. The Cold War was the Cold War. It existed. You didn’t have to make a moral judgement about it. Stopping the Soviets was James Bond’s job.

Second is the tendency for Hollywood to gloss over communism’s crimes. I’ve blogged on this before, but the blindness of the Hollywood Left to the horrors of Mao, Stalin, Khrushchev, et al. was simply appalling. Their refusal to portray the KGB and the Soviet state accurately was a political decision. It’s a reminder of a mentality that laughed at Reagan for describing a nation that murdered millions of its own people as an evil empire.

Place the Moore years in a Cold War context, build them around Moore, replace self-parody with humor and the series would have been better, I think. It would have had the edge it so desperately needed and rarely got.

Anyway, getting to the films themselves…

Live and Let Die: I have a slightly better opinion of this than I should, rating it 7/10. IMDB ranks it 10th. There’s a lot to dislike. Gloria Hendry is wasted. The voodoo plot is a bit silly. The overall plot doesn’t quite work (and I can never remember it anyway). The attempt to cash in on blaxploitation doesn’t quite work. The boat chase scene goes on far too long. And it introduces JW Pepper, one of the most uncomfortable characters to afflict the Bond franchise.

On the other hand, Moore is smooth in his first outing, Jane Seymour is luminous as Solitaire and Yaphet Kotto is one of my favorite actors, somehow making Kananga work as a villain. Even Geoffrey Holder has his moments, although every time I hear his voice, I expect him to say, “crisp and clean and no caffeine”.

And the theme song is great.

It’s a mixed bag and one I still can’t quite get a handle on. I guess that applies to the entire series once Connery left.

The Man With The Golden Gun: Here’s a question. You’ve got Roger Moore at his peak. You’ve got Christopher Lee as your villain. You have Britt Ecklund as your Bond girl. How do you not make a good movie out of this?

By adding silliness left, right and center. By trying to shoehorn in the energy crisis. By making Mary Goodnight completely useless. By catering to every asian stereotype you can think of. By bringing the ridiculous Archie Bunker JW Pepper back for an encore. By hitting the awful zenith of Bond villains refusing to kill the hero when he’s at their mercy. By making the film into a parody of itself, playing almost everything for laughs.

IMDB ranks this 15th, the middle of the pack. I rate it 6/10. Lee and Moore basically carry the film. The series was still unwisely trying to cram Roger Moore into a Sean Connery-shaped hole. Thankfully, they’d abandon that notion next time around.

I mentioned earlier that abandoning the novel for You Only Live Twice created problems here. In the novels, Twice occurs after Bond’s wife is killed. He is despondent, bitter and almost useless as an agent. The plot, involving an estate in Japan where people can kill themselves in creative ways, would make a terrible movie. But it leads into Bond getting captured and brainwashed in Golden Gun and attempting to kill M.

Now that might have been interesting. It would still be interesting today.

The Spy Who Loved Me: I rate it an 8/10, the best of the Moore era. IMDB agrees with me, rating it #5, tops for the Moore era, the best between Goldfinger and Goldeneye. The film wisely (and contractually) abandons Fleming’s rather risque novel for another “madman wants to destroy the world” plot that is basically a warmed over You Only Live Twice with the train fight from Russia and the elevator gag from Diamonds thrown in. But it proceeds with such confidence and style, it’s incredibly enjoyable.

(I’ve always thought it would be interesting to take the plot of the novel — in which James Bond has little more than a cameo — and make a pre-title sequence out of it.)

The Connery films defined themselves in the 60′s; Spy gives the 70′s a miss and jumps right into the 80′s. It has a dazzling pre-credit sequence. Wisely, it reintroduces traditional spy elements and makes Q useful, bringing in the requisite humorous tour of Q’s lab. And it even has a decent soundtrack. Yes, that includes the cheesy theme song.

Spy is, by far, Moore’s best performance. It highlights his strengths — dry humor and charm. The scene with him and XXX in the van while Jaws rips it apart is a great combination of tension and humor, perfectly timed. And Moore nails it. It also gives him a little chance to show Bond’s icy side, when he calmly drops Stromberg’s thug off of the roof, dispatches Stromberg’s helicopter pilot and later shoots Stromberg himself. He’s credible in the action scenes. If only they’d followed this template more often, Moore would have ended up a lot more popular than he did.

Of course, no discussion of Spy is complete without talking about Barbara Bach as Major Amasova. She’s one of the best Bond girls. She illustrates one of the key factors in a good Bond girl: being more than eye candy. The chemistry of Bond films works best when the primary Bond girl can hold her own against him. It’s the reason Sophie Marceau was good and Denise Richards wasn’t. It’s the reason Michelle Yeoh and Izabella Scorupco work and Teri Hatcher doesn’t. The ideal Bond girl combines acting and writing to create a woman who is beautiful, smart, feisty and a little bit dangerous. Barbara Bach as Amasova is almost perfect.

One other note, since I’m in a contemplative mood. One trope of which I am very fond is when foes unite against a common enemy. This movie has it in spades, as the Soviets, British and Americans unite to fight Stromberg and save the world. It’s quite enjoyable.

Three more reasons to like this film? It has Valerie Leon, who has two scenes as receptionist but catches my eye every single time. It has George Baker, one of the most British of actors, in his second Bond film. And it has Caroline Munro, who was once suggested as a companion for a Doctor Who feature film. That might have been … interesting.

One final note: I have a very keen ear for soundtracks and the audio rhythm of movies. My friend Alan and I loved this movie as kids and once recorded the last half hour or so on an audio tape during a broadcast. I could listen to that tape over and over again and see the film in my mind. Even now, 30 years later, the last parts sound so familiar to me, it takes me back a generation.

Moonraker: I’m not sure I have a handle on this one either, but I’ll give it a shot. Moonraker is to Spy as Thunderball is to Goldfinger. It executes the same formula a superior film did — in this case, a dynamic Bond girl, a man who wants to destroy the world, Moore doing a credible job and Jaws. It just doesn’t execute as well. Early actions scenes are too silly or can’t make up their mind about the tone. Lois Chiles doesn’t have the chemistry Barbara Bach did. Drax isn’t as menacing as Stromberg was and his plan isn’t as believable. The climactic battle isn’t anywhere near as thrilling. Actually, the step down from Spy to Moonraker is steeper. But you see where I’m going: it’s a successful formula; it’s just not executed as well.

The movie has its points. Jaws becomes likable. Bernard Lee makes his final appearance as M. Moore is in top form, carrying large sections of the movie. Corrine Clery is gorgeous. But … something’s just not quite there.

I rate it a 7, higher than I used to since I’ve come to appreciate Roger Moore’s performance. On another day, I might give it a 6. IMDB rates it 20th among Bond films, with only View to A Kill and Die Another Day ranked lower, so I’m in the minority here in not hating it. Agony Booth has one of their very very long recaps that does a pretty good job of highlighting the film’s problem: good ideas poorly executed, action sequences undone by silliness. But there’s enough there that I deem it serviceable.

(It is interesting to look back after 30 years and see what dreams people had for the shuttle program. I can’t believe it’s the year 2011 and our space program is below what Moonraker portrayed. One little thing I noticed this time around: one of the technicians makes a reference to the TDRSS system, a satellite I’m very familiar with. The techno-speak is actually not horrific, even if the portrayal of a rotating space station is. (Seriously, it’s like someone story-boarded the scenes by watching 2001 with the sound off.))

Needless to say, the movie has little to do with Fleming’s novel. I would love to see the plot of the novel brought back for the revived series the way the plot of Casino Royale was.

For Your Eyes Only: I’m not completely sure, but this may be the first Bond film I ever saw. This is probably why I’m a little more favorably disposed toward Roger Moore — he was the first Bond I saw.

The most appealing thing about this film is how much of a traditional spy tale it is, hearkening back to From Russia with Love. It plunders one of Fleming’s short stories and the finale of the novel Live and Let Die and builds on that to be a solid Cold War spy story. It’s refreshing not to have the world about to blow up for once.

Moore is again in good form. I understand he didn’t like the scene in which Bond kills Locque in cold blood. I, however, loved it. It was completely in character, for once; something Connery’s Bond would have done.

Carole Bouquet makes a good Bond girl, having the smarts and dangerous side that is so critical. Bouquet can actually act, too. A lot of people hate Bibi, but I don’t mind her too much. The villains are a mixed bag but the action scenes are quite good, especially the gripping climb up the side of St. Cyril’s. It’s a reminder of something the films would forget until Casino Royale — you don’t need multi-million dollar stunts to make a good action sequence. Tension, timing and composition are everything.

I rate it a 8, IMDB ranks it #11 among Bond films. It’s a solid outing. Unfortunately, it was the last for some time.

Octopussy: Ugh. After three reasonable outings, Octopussy takes us back to the silliness of Golden Gun. The film is filled with useless villains, uninteresting Bond girls and dreadful attempts at humor. Kamal Khan is annoying. Orlov is over-acted to the nth degree. Both Magda and Octopussy are too 80′s — too skinny, too sharp-featured, too dull and uninteresting. Even Moore is below par, his charm decaying into smugness.

There are few redeeming features. Moore and Adams have some reasonable chemistry. There’s about a half hour of genuine tension, from the fight on the train to the defusing of the bomb. But then it pisses away all that goodwill by having a bunch of circus performers take out Khan’s fortress and reducing Octopussy to a damsel in distress (although the finale on the plan is good). I’m a man. I’m a Bond fan. You have to go pretty far to annoy me with a scene involving scantily clad women. Trapeze artists taking out armed thugs does it pretty well.

I rate it a 6, IMDB ranks it 16th, which sounds about right.

A View To A Kill: IMDB ranks this is as the second worst Bond film, only above Die Another Day. I rate it a 7. So what do people hate that I don’t mind?

Well, Moore, now 57, gives his weakest performance. HIs expository scenes are almost grating, his charm more suited to a younger man. He would later admit he was too old for the role and disliked the film. It shows at times. The plot is a warmed-over Goldfinger, substituting microchips for gold and ignoring the Fleming short story from which it got the title.

This is the most 80′s of the Bond movies. The gaudy display of primitive computers, the cheesy opening, the hair, the silly humor, the Duran Duran theme (which is, I think, not bad.) Even the Bond girls are very 80′s — one Charlie’s Angel and one muscle model.

The latter is a point of complaint with some, but I actually don’t mind the two main Bond girls. I never found Grace Jones attractive but she plays the role of May Day with a zeal that few Bond girls do, making her a fun character, one I wish had been spared. Who else can lift a KGB agent over her head in high heels? And Tanya Roberts will never be mistaken for a good actress but she’s feisty, glamorous and carries off a geologist better than Denise Richards carried off a nuclear physicist.

Bond also acts a little stupidly in this one. He sticks around Zorin’s estate after being made, getting his assistant killed. He swims into a sea pipe, getting a KGB agent killed. He bumbles into Stacy’s estate, almost getting her killed and the getting his CIA contact killed. Not a good day at the office, frankly. There’s even an amusing scene — at least amusing to me — early in the film. After Bond tears up half of Paris chasing May Day, M upbraids him for millions in damage, massive law-breaking and creating a diplomatic incident. There was apparently even a deleted scene of M bailing him out of jail. I wish that happened more often after dumb destructive chase scenes.

So why do I like it? Well, it just flows better than Octopussy. Bond is somewhat Bondish. Christopher Walken makes a great villain as does Willoughby Gray. It has the last appearance of Lois Maxwell, who even acknowledges her aging but has lost little of her charm. The action scenes are competent and even engaging.

In short, it’s not great, but as Bond films go, it’s not bad. As forgettable as the film might be, it does give Moore a better send-off than Octopussy would have. And for that, I appreciate it.

The Bond Films: Connery

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

(To clarify a point from the last post on this: I watch these when I’m on the treadmill, but that watching is spread over multiple nights. I’m getting better, but a half hour is about my limit on the hamster wheel.)

I’m about to commit an act of blasphemy. Sean Connery was not the ideal embodiment of James Bond, even if such a thing could be said to exist.

Connery was, however, perfect for the movies that the Bond Films became. Watching them in a short time span really drives home that point. The movies evolved to better suit Connery’s performance: his dry wit, his confidence, his skill in making the most ridiculous action scenes believable. The man and the movies became inseparable, which is why they struggled to find a voice once he was gone.

The Connery years simply had style. That’s all there is to it. The rhythms of the movies — jazzy score, solid action, beautiful girls, sexual politics, gadgets — were a rhythm the series would lose after Connery left and never recover. The recent films quit trying and went with a different aesthetic, which is probably wise. The Connery films simply wouldn’t work today. When you watch them, you instantly know when they were made: the inventive 60′s when the Hayes Code was collapsing and film-makers were stretching their wings.

Going film by film:

Dr. No, which I rate 8/10 and IMBD rates as the fourth best of the series is probably the most true to the Bond of the novels. I like it because it is built around a spy adventure, rather than action sequences. Bond kills in cold blood and is focused tightly on the mission. The sex and drinking are a manifestation of his nature, not a distraction from it.

Everyone talks about Ursula Andress as the ultimate Bond Girl. Well, fair enough. But I always preferred Zena Marshall as the beautiful traitorous Miss Taro. And she is at the center of one of the most interesting sequences in the film. A remarkable thing about the 60′s Bond movies was just how coldly Bond and his opponents used sex as a weapon. There is a sequence where Taro invites Bond to her house for a liason so that No’s gangsters can kill him on the way. Once he gets there, they have sex twice — her to delay him long enough for another attempt on his life; him … well just to have some fun before he turns her in. It’s almost jarring. You would almost never see this today.

From Russia with Love, which I rate a 9 and IMDB rates as the third best Bond, is what every Bond film should be. It has a great spy story, a gorgeous Bond girl in Daniela Bianchi and not one, but two awesome villans in Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya. It adheres close to the novel, has dynamite action scenes and more tension than the entire Moore years combined. The final fights between Bond and Grant and Bond and Klebb are visceral in a way later films would try and fail to reproduce. If I ever took over the Bond series, I would tell everyone to watch From Russia with Love for inspiration.

Russia also continues the theme of using sex as a weapon. SPECTRE tries to use Romanova as bait for Bond and he cooperates because … well mainly because Daniela Bianchi is so beautiful.

By the end of Russia, all the pieces of the next decade are in place. Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee show up i No. Desmond Llewelyn first appears here. SPECTRE is an established villain. The great music and action rhythms and glamorous Bond girls are ready to become a staple. It would all come together the next time out.

Goldfinger, which rates as the second best Bond movie and which Ebert included in his great movies is a step down, I think, even though it’s the film were all the elements finally came together. I rate it a 8/10. I’m not dissing it; it’s great. And I won’t argue with people who think this, rather than Russia was the pinnacle of the Connery era if not the entire series. It has a great score, an iconic villan, great action scenes, even a dazzling theme song from Shirley Bassey. It has the style I referenced above, which is something the later films lacked. Honor Blackman was never one of my favorite Bond Girls, even if she was the most infamous. And again, we see he naked sexual politics of the early films — Bond saves the world by seducing Goldfinger’s henchwoman.

So why do I rate it below Russia? Well, it’s praising with faint damnation. It’s not that I dislike Goldfinger, I just like Russia more.

Thunderball: IMDB ranks this as the 7th best Bond film and I gave it an 8. A step down from Goldfinger, it still has its pleasures. SPECTRE is in full flower, not as faceless enemy but as a fully realized organization. The underwater battle scene is still thrilling after four decades and Claudine Auger and Luciana Paluzzi are two of my all-time favorite Bond girls.

As before, the use of sex as a weapon is front and center in the tryst between the villainous Volpe and Bond. As with No, she’s delaying him for the bad guys to arrive; he’s having fun and maybe hoping to flip her against SPECTRE. He clearly knows who she is and doesn’t care because she’s hot.

One last thing. There’s is apparently some debate over whether Bond deliberately turned Volpe into the path of the bullet when her henchman try to shoot him. To me, this isn’t even a question. He spots the gun, turns her into it, then casually lays her dead body in a chair. There’s no shock or sadness from him at all. It’s obvious it was deliberate. And utterly consistent with his character.

You Only Live Twice: IMDB ranks this as the 8th best Bond, I give it an 8. What amuses me is that the plot of the film — which is the first to basically ignore the book — is utterly absurd. The idea that SPECTRE could put together its own space program AND keep it quiet is pure silliness. But the movie forges ahead with such confidence and style in its ridiculous plot that I don’t mind at all. It remains one of my favorites, even if it doomed future films by raising the bar on silly plots.

(Ignoring Fleming’s novel would create problems down the road for The Man With The Golden Gun. But I’ll address that when the time comes.)

Diamonds are Forever: IMDB ranks this 13th, I give it a 7.0. I like it more than it deserves, probably because I like Lana Wood and Jill St. John more than I should. But it has other highlights as well, notably Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint. I read some review that described them as terrible villains, but I found them wonderfully menacing.

Interesting point about Kidd and Wint. In the novel, they are explicitly gay. This is hinted at in the movie, but even those hints were excised on TV. Back then, people objected to the portrayal of homosexuality. If it aired now, people would object to the portrayal of homosexuals as villains.

As a sendoff to Connery, it’s serviceable. And the ridiculous moon buggy chase demonstrates perfectly why Connery was so well-suited to the movies. Put any other actor in that scene and we’d be laughing. Put Connery in it and … it works.

The Bond Films: Lazenby

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

It’s gotten too quiet around here. I need to find something to blog on. The Shakespeare Project is still going but I’ve gotten pre-occupied with the Millenium trilogy (which I’ll post on) so haven’t finished Labours yet.

However, my wife recently bought a treadmill so I can get my sorry ass into shape. I’m using it every night but I get terminally bored with exercise, so I usually drag down a computer and pop in a movie. And, right now, I’m going through the Bond films. So I though I’d put up a post on them. Actually, a series of six posts, one for each of the six bonds (Connery, Lazeby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan, Craig).

I’m under no illusions that Bond films are art or “feeelm”. But they’re enjoyable. I think Roger Ebert put it best in his review of The World is Not Enough: Bond films are like wine. Some years they’re good, some years they’re not so good but you can always get drunk on them (actually, I’m not sure that’s quite what Ebert meant). You judge them as they are — for coolness, for Bond, for Bond girls, for action sequences. I don’t think they have any deeper meaning; that’s the fun.

I’ll dive right in with the Lazenby “era” since it’s short (one film) and I’m watching them in order so need to watch Diamonds are Forever before talking about Connery.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is criminally under-rated (IMDB has it at 6.8, #9 among Bond films), mostly because Lazenby is criminally under-rated. He’s no Connery, true. But he’s utterly competent, comfortable in the action scenes and makes the finale one of the best scenes in the series. The story is very good, mostly because it sticks closely to Fleming’s solid novel (which I’ve read) and because of Diana Rigg’s excellent performance. Actually, Rigg is essential to the movie, which drags quite a bit whenever she is not on screen. The way she deals with Blofeld is marvelous and watching her tangle with his thugs makes one wish she’d been in a slightly different role — one that would have seen her as a sidekick in multiple bond movies.

Actually, I want to explore that last point. SPECTRE only made one appearance in the novels before Bond basically destroyed it. Most of the actions of SPECTRE were, in the novelizations, done by SMERSH. I’m guessing the producers felt that making SMERSH the primary enemy would make the films feel like anti-Communist propaganda. But the decision to move SPECTRE up to the point where it dominated the first seven films was a wise one, giving Bond a recurring enemy that the Moore years sadly lacked and the Craig years are trying to re-create.

How might the films have been different if Tracy had been introduced earlier, being a recurring Bond Girl as Sylvia Tranch was intended to be? Their eventual romance and her death in Service would have been elevated to an epic tragedy.

Anyway, Service is one I really like and I rate it an 8. It would be a 9 but … really … Telly Savalas? Ilse Steppat was awesome as Bunt, bringing the fierceness of Rosa Klebb. Her early death prevented her from reprising the role. But Savalas really didn’t do it for me.