SPECTRE

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

The classic...


with the perhaps inevitable follow-up:



Thank you, Robot Chicken!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ranking the Bond Films

And so here we are.

I've ranked the Bond films many a time before, but this is the first time I've done it so systematically. Watching all the films in order, in close succession, gave me a new perspective on some of the films, put some things into focus for me that had only been nebulously hanging about in the back of my head, showed me some relationships between the films that I hadn't caught onto before.

First let me note that Quantum of Solace is still too fresh for me to slot into this list comfortably. Give it some time to percolate in the back of my head for awhile, and then we'll see what pops out.

Secondly, fans of any particular movie, please don't get too upset at me. I know every Bond is someone's favorite...but in a forced ranking, some movies have to be in the bottom, right? Don't take it personally, and realize that I would still take, say, the #17 Bond movie over almost any other film 9 days out of 10.

Third, there's no magic formula. You can't go "Well, this movie had the #1 teaser but the #8 Bond girl and the #2 villain, so that averages out to X." There's lots of things involved, lots of synergies, and they all clump together in odd ways in my critical mind. A complicated way of saying, a Bond movie is not the sum of its parts...sometimes it's more, sometimes less.

And it's not static...there's been fairly substantial movement on this list since the last time I did it, and I'm sure there will be more when I do it again before The Hildebrandt Rarity.

And if nothing else, give me credit--over the months, I've put a lot more into this than the average 3-sentence blurb used when a hack outfit like EW does it. For deeper explanations, check out my actual reviews.

22) Moonraker. It's not just the wannabe Star Wars trappings, although those are fairly egregious. But this is the one Bond movie where I can't escape the feeling that everybody involved is just coasting. Let's repeat the henchman for the previous film, repeat the villain's plot, ruin most of the stunts by playing them for humor, allow everyone involved to give the most low-affect performances allowed under SAG rules, and conclude by having Bond playing a video game. Bleh on almost every level.

21) A View To A Kill. It's pretty dire, I'll admit. But I put it above MR because at least those involved are making an effort, albeit unsuccessfully. Devoid of most of the trappings we expect from a Moore era Bond, and replaced with pedestrianism: a gun filled with rock salt? A boring chase through San Francisco--and Bond's not even driving? A 20-minute rescue of Stacy from the fire and climb down a ladder sequence? A weak effort. At least Christopher Wlaken injects a bit of life.

20) Never Say Never Again. What if you had a Bond movie made by a bunch of people who had no idea of what it was they were trying to do? You'd get this--a film torn between being serious and tongue-in-cheek, without the courage to pick a side; a film with everyone playing at a different level, as if they were in different types of movies; a movie that tries to simultaneously be far, far over-the-top and yet the talkiest, least action filled Bond move ever. PRO-TIP: If you're doing a remake, it's not a good idea to have it be less good than the original in every way possible. Still, it was good to see Sean again.

19) You Only Live Twice. Sean Connery's Moonraker. OK, that's too glib...but not exactly incorrect. Lovely sets, lots of beautiful location filming...but an underbaked script that manages to give 007 virtually nothing to say or do. Throw in a terribly underwhelming reveal of Blofeld, the lack of a real confrontation with the villain, the lugubriously filmed space scenes...some good ideas, but it never comes together, or even become actually interesting. The first film to diverge significantly from Fleming, but they didn't quite no how to do that yet...

18) Live And Let Die. A film that really hasn't aged well at all. Some decent stunts, but Guy Hamilton makes the many chase scenes both long AND boring. And of course, there's the elephant in the room. Somebody should have pointed out to Eon that if you want to do a blaxploitation film, those movies had black heroes, not just black villains. Special bonus: Mr. Big, with the WORST make-up job in cinema history.

17) The Man With The Golden Gun. OK, it's gotta seem like I really have it in for the Roger Moore era at this point...sorry, nothing personal, Sir Roger. A marked improvement on LALD, but things still don't quite click. The first half is actually pretty good, I think. But when the plot turns out to be just a trick to get 007 involved, and that Scaramanga was never interested in Bond, it takes away a lot of the tension in the movie. The "solex agitator" MacGuffin feels so tacked on, even the villain can't pretend to actually care about it, or understand it. And whichever fool put that slide whistle over the Hornet jump...well, there's no punishment too severe.

16) Die Another Day. Another movie I thought got off to a pretty good start, but once Bond "comes back in," it loses most of the momentum, and turns from a kinda gritty "Bond goes rogue" story into "James Bond becomes a high-tech superhero" flick. The extensive (and bad) CGI, the not-performed-by-actual-human stunts, the supersuit the villain wears at the end...these all drag the movie way too far away from what most of think a James Bond film should be. Lots of spoiled potential. I'm also the only human being on the planet who really likes the theme song.

15) Diamonds Are Forever. Lots of people like this more than I do, and what can I say? Far too jokey for my tastes, and incredibly lazy and slapdash in its story construction and filming. I like the movie, I really do, but it so self-destructs into illogic and incoherence in the last act that I got whiplash from the cognitive dissonance. Seriously, the worst last act in James Bond history.

14) The World Is Not Enough. Man, this is always one of the toughest ones for me to place. But Apted just cannot direct action, so the last half disintegrates into a series of over-long and uninteresting fight scenes on fairly crappy sets. Elektra is a great villain, but Renard is mostly wasted potential. And if you look up "nails on a blackboard' in the dictionary, you get a picture of Denise Richards. A potentially interesting story made overly complex and poorly told. I'm always going back and forth on this one, and even now there's a voice in my head nagging me to move it higher on the list...

13) Octopussy. PRO-TIP: the title character in a Bond film shouldn't completely boring and forgettable. There's a lot of fun stuff here, and Tarzan yells and "SIT!" aside, Roger Moore still has the charm to pull it off. But the movie focuses on the wrong villain, as Bond spends all his time hunting down the henchman, and barely meets Orlov. Also, it seems fatally overlong, as the final hunting down of Kamal Khan takes place after the film's emotional climax, and it takes forever. Frothy fun that never quite gels into something more.

12) Dr. No. The beginning. It does quite a fine job of setting the table for the franchise, telling us about Bond and his world. Everything that came later was to spin off of what was established here. Still, there's some overly long stretches of just wandering around without actually advancing the plot. We don't actually meet No until the end of the film, which drains some of the dramatic conflict for us. Apparently, some people think Ursula Andress had an interesting bathing suit...

11) The Living Daylights. Weak villains and a weak plot are overcome by a spirited debut by Timothy Dalton; some of the best stuntwork in the series' history; some great supporting cast; and a dynamite teaser. But most importantly, TLD features the series' sweetest romance--seriously!! Maryam d'Abo is terrific as the innocent woman who helps humanize a fatigued and bitter Bond.

10) Tomorrow Never Dies. A pretty good outing for Brosnan. There are those who say that the all-out machine gun action at the end goes too far away from what Bond should be...and they might have a point. There are also those who don't like Jonathon Pryce as Elliot Carver...and they're just goofy, because I think he's great. Well made, tense fun...you'll have to decide for yourselves if it goes too Die Hard at the finale.

9) Thunderball. Sean Connery at the height of his swagger, and 007 at the apex of Bondmania. The first nuclear blackmail plot, which (probably unfortunately) raised the stakes for what the plot had to be in many of the following films. The best collection of beautiful women in any of the films. Largo and Vargas, though, are surprisingly ineffectual...and everything seems to come just a little bit too easily for Bond. Plus the ending seems a trifle flat. Big extra credit points for the brilliant Junkanoo sequence.

8) The Spy Who Loved Me. The era and the circumstances made this one the most overrated Bond film of all time...but it's still good. But when we get this high on the list, small distinctions can make a big difference, and TSWLM has several glaring weaknesses: a turgidly paced second half; a huge battle scene that is just as gung ho, for its day, as the finale of TND; a boring cardboard cut out of a villain; and a terrible, terrible performance in the crucial role of Anya. I will say this--if the second half had been anywhere near as good as the first hour (which was damned near perfect), TSWLM had a shot at taking top honors.

7) Goldfinger.

OK, I'm going to get some comments on this one, aren't I?

Every argument about how iconic every element of Goldfinger is, how it forms the blueprints for all Bonds, it's got the freakin' car...I'll give you those arguments. It created the Bond "phenomenon," cemented the series as a cultural fixture--no argument. I myself said it had the best theme song and best teaser and the #2 villain!!

But Goldfinger is less than the sum of its parts. If you look at how it plays as a movie, as a Bond film, well, I feel its clearly lesser than the films above it on the list. Much of GF feels "on the cheap," with Gert Frobe and Sean Connery not even actually appearing in Miami, terribly unappealing stock footage of Kentucky commercial zones, and lots of obvious studio lots covered up by great sets. The vaunted Aston Martin doesn't actually help Bond at all (except to pick up Tilly)...he can't escape the GF compound or his goons in it, and crashes into a wall because he can't tell a reflection of his own headlight from a real car. And 007 is highly incompetent throughout, failing at every aspect of his mission and getting everyone killed until his unconvincing turning of Pussy.

Watching Golfinger again--really watching it--I see it as establishing the franchise's panache, but it plays more as Bond's Greatest Hits than a fully successful Bond movie. Sorry.

6) For Your Eyes Only. Also known as "we apologize for Moonraker." Bond goes gadgetless with a plot that, rather than threatening the end of the world, gives us a look at a life and death struggle over a rather small piece of technology. The action never stops, from the mountains to deep beneath the sea. The momentum is fast paced, a crackerjack supporting cast, and a Roger Moore you can really believe has a licence to kill. I love this movie to pieces, and would have ranked it higher if only the villain had a little more "oomph" (no fault of Julian Glover's).

5) Licence To Kill. This will be another controversial ranking, I'd imagine. I know a lot of folks out there disagree about this one, and a fair number of people have LTK ranked at or near the bottom. I strongly disagree, for many of the reasons you can see in my review. Robert Davi makes Franz Sanchez one of the most compelling villains, and his fall is breathtaking to watch. After two and a half decades, it was good to finally see 007 stripped of his support, and see how Bond the man would perform. of all the "non-Fleming" Bond movies, this one plays almost exactly as you would imagine Fleming had written it, and that counts for a lot in my book.

4) Casino Royale (2006). After the DVD initially came out, I had pretty much put this film away for a couple of years. Coming back to it for this blog, I was stunned by how good it actually was, holding up in almost every way. A wondrous debut for Daniel Craig, CR is the movie none of us expected to see--a pitch perfect telling of Bond's first days of a Double-O, as well as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the first Fleming novel. It does have a couple of structural difficulties that come from following the novel so closely, but otherwise, damn, this is a good movie. Don't be surprised if, in future rankings, I move this fella up...

3) Goldeneye. I don't remember being this impressed by Goldeneye when I saw it in theaters, but there you go: the bugger has wormed its way into the Top 5. Why has it aged so well? In part because it can now be viewed as a reverse order thematic bookend with Martin Campbell's other effort, Casino Royale--the latter shows how Bond became Bond, and Goldeneye shows Bond confront what that life means, and has done to him. And it accomplishes that by giving Bond a great villain, his evil doppelganger--the rogue 006, who's going to show James what he could have become. Great cast, thrilling stunts and fights, a wonderful Bond Girl, and Brosnan immediately nailing Bond.

2) From Russia With Love. Two words: Kerim Bey. Two more words: Rosa Klebb. Two more words: Orient Express. Two more words: Red Grant.

OK, enough...but what they tentatively touched on in Dr. No, they fully find the rhythm here. We reveal S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (while only glimpsing Blofeld), we get a vast army of evil opposing 007, we fall in love with Istanbul, we get the gypsy camp and Bond settling a dispute, we have the briefcase. We have Pedro Armendariz as one of the greatest supporting characters ever. We get the train compartment fight, still to this day one of the most intense, believable fights ever portrayed on screen. We have our villains deftly maneuvering various factions against each other in a fiendish plot only Kronsteen could come up with. Bond in a straight spy story, done with wit and seriousness. Nearly perfect, and it so very nearly edged out...

1) On Her Majesty's Secret Service. How good is OHMSS? I have it number 1 even with George Lazenby shambling about. That's how good it is. The most faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel, the one that still gets to us that our eyes still get misty at the end, almost 40 years later.

Granted, it's not perfect, and this time I came perilously close to putting FRWL ahead of it. But Peter Hunt's bravura direction, especially during THE CHASE, and the performances by all of the supporting players elevate this affair so high, I find the critiques to be mere quibbles. Bravo, sirs. Bravo.

And then there's Diana Rigg...sigh...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bond Vs. Bourne

With Quantum of Solace, it's become all the vogue to compare the Bond franchise to the Bourne franchise. Hell, QoS practically demanded that comparison, by bringing in the second unit director from the last 2 Bourne films, and staging many of their action scene in a way that was...ahem...heavily influenced by the style Paul Greengrass brought to those films.

Well, I certainly feel that QoS veered too far in the Bourne direction. But I feel that way because, in most ways, the Bond approach is better than the Bourne approach. I know that goes against a lot of the critical consensus (although I should note that the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way recently).

Don't get me wrong--I love the Bourne movies, I've seen them all multiple times, I own them all on DVD. So when I make this comparison, please understand that I'm NOT ripping on these movies.

But if you give me a choice between watching a Bond movie and a Bourne, 85% of the time I'm choosing a Bond. Here's a few reasons why:

A) The Bourne movies all have the exact same plot. Now, I've never read the books, so I don't know how closely the movies have followed Ludlum. But all three of the films follow the same damn outline:
"While Bourne tries to discover his identity, a high level CIA muckity muck decides he's inconvenient and tries to kill Bourne to cover up his own malfeasance. Bourne gets away and the bad CIA guy is stopped by a good CIA guy. Throw in a confrontation with another Treadstone agent."
That's it. We change the scenery, have a chase in a different make of car, but it's all basically the same stuff: Bourne running around avoiding being caught/killed while riveting CIA office politics really resolve the crisis. It's not a bad outline, but they've already re-used it twice.

Bond movies, on the other hand, have far more variety...yeah, you can come up with plenty of similarities (after all, there have been 22 movies). But Dr. No is nothing like From Russia With Love is nothing like Goldfinger etc. Even at the height of the rigid "Bond formula," at least the movies had different plots, different threats.

B) The Bourne movies are grim, humorless affairs. Especially after they killed off Marie in the first few minutes of B2. People complain how grim Licence to Kill was, or how humorless QoS was. But those movies look like Seinfeld next to the Bournes. There are more wry jokes in ten minutes of QoS than the whole of B2 and B3.

Sure, the Bond movies have often been too jokey, too humor oriented in the past. But the film makers realized that you need some humor to leaven the tension. You get none of that in B2 and B3...you might chuckle to yourself at how Bourne outsmarted someone (said chuckle cued by the "Bourne fooled someone music sting," because they feel the audience is too dumb to realize when he's done something clever, apparently). But there's no laughter, no levity...which makes the grimness of the Bournes hard to bear for two hours.

C) Bourne needs a companion. Killing Marie was a big mistake...or at least not not replacing her with another buddy.

There's a reason there's always a Bond girl, always a Doctor Who companion. We need to make our hero accessible, to give the audience an identification figure; hell, we just need to give our hero someone to talk to!! For far too much of B2 & B3, our hero is silent, broodier than Frodo but with nobody to vent to--is there any lead character who has less dialogue than Jason Bourne?!? It's hard to give us any character development when he has no one to interact with. An occasional terse phone chat with Pam Landy isn't enough.

He doesn't need to have a "Bourne Girl" every movie, but he does need someone, anyone, to interact with on a regular basis. Matt Damon is a fine actor, but there's a reason Daniel Craig's Bond has blown him away--Bond doesn't lapse into isolation, becoming a cool but remote automaton. That's why B1 was, to me, distinctly better than B2 or B3--Jason's relationship with Marie helped humanize the character, and gave Damon someone to play off of.

D) How about some villains? Yes, this is really just a subset of A) above, but it bears repeating. OK, so every single person of authority at the CIA is a corrupt bastard (except, of course, for Pam Landy)--we get it. The U.S. intelligence service suck. Can we move on now?

Bond's gone rogue more than once, but always in pursuit of an actual enemy, not to try to bring down M. And those instances don't happen in consecutive movies, anyway.

Yes, I understand Bourne wants to be "realistic," so we're not going to get megalomaniacal billionaires. But there are plenty of "realistic" villains out there--terrorists and drug lords and threats to U.S. security. Yet aside from the African leader Jason refuses to kill in B1 (and they never show us why he's "bad"), there's not a single bad guy in the movies except American operatives.

Hey, I'll concede that the USA sucks, is arrogant, treats its operatives like shit, yadda yadda (at least for the sake of argument). But seriously, does that mean the only villains we can show are American government officials? That's just boring, and shows a profound lack of imagination.

Not to mention, Bourne never gets to actually meet the big bads, so there goes the tension, character building, and cathartic confrontation the Bond films give us.

But hey, we get lots and lots of CIA office politics--isn't that what we all watch a spy movie for?

So when everybody makes their "Bond is becoming more like Bourne" comparisons, they're only looking at superficial elements, like editing styles. But Bond is a better character, in movies that work better dramatically...and aren't as repetitive as hell. When it comes to the more important elements of film, so far Bourne takes a back seat to 007.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

QUANTUM Contest Results

Well, folks, in the first contest we've held around here, we have a winner. The object was, if you'll recall, to tell us what Quantum stood for (if anything). Our winner is frequent commenter David C. Allow me to reprint his entry:

It's a French acronym:

QUorum des Architectes des Nécessités Terribles pour l'Ultime Monde

Translated: Quorum of Architects of Terrible Necessities for the Ultimate World

They're the self-appointed shapers of the ultimate world. "The best of all possible worlds" will be created by this enlightened, cultured elite. They know how to save the world from itself. Sadly, of course, many adherents to the obsolete old world refuse to listen to their betters, so acts termed "atrocities," "terrorism," or "crimes against humanity" by the small-minded will be necessary.

One of the little bits about Ian Fleming's SPECTRE that I always liked is that it was a specifically European (i.e., Continental Europe) organization in its origin and culture. As is QUANTUM. Elitist, highly-"cultured" Europeans, like an evil subset of the Davos Forum attendees. And among other things, they can't abide uncultured thugs like James Bond.

For creativity, and the audacity to actually do it as a French acronym, I declare David the winner, and his prize is winging its way towards him even now.

Stay tuned for future contests around here, as we try to enliven the dark times between Bond movies...