Saturday, December 24, 2005
But I like the Roger Moore films anyway. I picked A View to a Kill as the film to represent Moore because I remember it as being a CRAZY movie, and I thought it would be fun. (And it was.) It is very silly, not as wonderfully dumb as Die Another Day, but it will do. But it's not fair to Moore for this movie to represent him, and I want to state that this would be a more respectful review if I had looked at Live and Let Die or The Man with the Golden Gun.
The plot: Let me see if I have this straight: Zorin (Christopher Walken, one of the few times he played someone crazier than himself) is a ruthless billionaire/technological genius who was created by Nazi eugenics techniques appropriated by the Russians. He defected to the West and amassed a fortune. Now he wants to control the world's supply of microchips (kind of like Goldfinger), so he has a plan to neutralize the microchip industry of Silican Valley, where 80 percent of the world's microchips are produced. He is going to set off a very large cache of explosives at a key point near the San Andreas fault, which will cause an earthquake and the reservoir will inundate the valley. Or something.
That is one crazy plan. Geologically, it might work. (Tanya Roberts, the heroine, sees the schematics about a minute before the bomb goes off and SHE says that it feasible. And she's a geologist.) But economically? Would it be that hard for smaller microchip producers to take up the slack? This is a stupid plan. BUT it's not fatally dumb to the integrity of the movie.
Zorin is a psychopath. You should see the scene where he uses a machine-gun to kill a bunch of mine-worker employees who know too much. Ouch! I don't think he cares that much about whether the economic part of the plan can work. He is doing it because he can, and that thrills him. The whole microchip angle is just a pretext. Yes, he is nuts, like a Bela Lugosi villain, doing evil just to do evil. In many ways, this is the most chilling Bond film.
His main henchman is May Day (Grace Jones), who is his bodyguard and lover and general trouble-shooter. She's great, and she fits in this movie so well. She has several great scenes, especially the bit where she kills an informant in a night club with a poison-tipped, metal butterfly and then flees up the Eiffel Tower with Bond in pursuit. She parachutes to safety and lands in the Seine.
There is much to enjoy in this movie. The Duran Duran song is pretty neat, and the title sequence is among the best of the series. Roger Moore does his thing, Tanya Roberts is a knockout and it's nice to see Patrick MacNee. (although I don't believe for a second that Grace Jones could take him out so easily! This is John Steed we're talking about.) The best action scene is in San Francisco where Bond and Tanya Roberts steal a fire engine and are pursued by the police through the streets of San Francisco. Almost as good as the chase in Bullitt.
It doesn't quite work as well as it could. It should be a little crazier. As it is, it has a few good scenes, but there are times when it seems to be wandering a little, and they are trying so hard to create a coherent whole that skimp on the action a little. My mind wandered at times. I would be trying to remember how or why they got from one place to another. Stuff like that. Die Another Day leaves you confused because it's so dumb. A View to a Kill leaves you confused because you dozed off for a minute or were distracted by the cat.
A minor entry in the Bond series, with much to recommend it, nonetheless.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
For some reason, EON Productions, the producers of the "official" Bond series, did not have the rights to Casino Royale. So while EON was working on You Only Live Twice (the fifth Bond film with Sean Connery), another group was toiling away to bring Casino Royale to the big screen. The producers of Casino Royale had a problem: Connery. They knew that Casino Royale would be competing with the Connery Bond. And they know that could be risky because Sean Connery IS James Bond. So they figured out a way to avoid competing directly with Connery.
They would play it for laughs. They wouldn't take it seriously. They would get five directors and an army of script-writers. They would throw in some great music from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Dusty Springfield and Burt Bacharach. They would get a whole gang of well-known actors and beautiful actresses. And they would pre-empt Connery with the spoofiest spy spoof of all.
And they would render a nearly incomprehensible mess.
Hey, I love this movie, but I am not so delusional that I don't notice that it has a few flaws. Plot holes, continuity problems, bizarre edits, and an awful lot of jokes that fall flat.
I don't care. You elitist movie snobs and your continuity and your common sense just would not understand. I sneer at you!
I am not alone. This movie has quite a following of admirers. It also has a dedicated cadre of determined detractors. (By far the largest group is made up of people who don't much care either way as they scratch their heads over the Casino Royale Civil Wars that break out at the James Bond fan conventions.)
Casino Royale is flashy and fun, with lots of great music, silly action, weird gadgets, beautiful women and even an occasional funny joke. And it features the talents of: David Niven, Ursula Andress, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr, Woody Allen, Joanna Pettet, John Huston, Jackie Bisset, William holden, George raft, Barbara Bouchet, Daliah Lavi, Peter O'Toole and a few people I forgot about.
The plot (such as it is): A mysterious organization is killing the operatives of the intelligence agencies of the major powers. The leaders of the American, British and Russian spook organizations seek out the REAL james Bond (David Niven), who is retired and living on an estate where lions run free and Bond raises orchids and plays Debussy on the piano
One of the things I love about the movie is how the REAL James Bond is pissed that his name is being used by a sex maniac. MI-6 assigned the name to another operative when James Bond retired because of the legendary awe that the name projects in spy circles. It scares enemy agents and it boosts the morale of friendly organizations. And that simple explanation is all you need to know to defuse any debate about which Bond is the truest Bond.
It's like this: Roger Moore is James Bond just as much as Sean Connery or Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan is James Bond. They are ALL James Bond, in the sense that the name has been assigned to each new James Bond in succession. (Wouldn't THAT be a great Bond movie? Two top MI-6 agents competing to be the next James Bond?)
And, in another sense, NONE of them is James Bond. Not even Sean Connery! (Gulp!) James Bond retired long ago. By now, 2005, he is probably long dead. Every different actor playing James Bond is a different agent, the best MI-6 has to offer, who assumes the Bond identity until he retires or is killed.
(A lot of fans have probably thought of this, but Casino Royale is the ONLY movie that acknowledges it. Love it or hate it, you have to give Casino Royale credit for that.)
Anyway, the spy-masters have a little trouble convincing Bond to help them. The REAL James Bond refuses to help them until his estate is blown up and he is forced to cooperate.
There are several plots running through the rest of the film. James Bond goes to Scotland to console M's widow Mimi (Deborah Kerr) after her husband is killed. A horde of beautiful girls (all operatives of SMERSH, the super-secret organization run by the mysterious Dr. Noah that is causing all the trouble) tries to kill him. Bond's nephew Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) has disappeared, but he is shown briefly about to be executed by a Latin American firing squad. The REAL James Bond becomes head of MI-6 and, with the help of Miss Moneypenny (a gorgeous Barbara Bouchet) assembles a new squad of agents, all code-named James Bond (to confuse the agents of SMERSH). (Everybody is James Bond in this movie, even the women. It should be confusing, but the movie is such a mess, it doesn't make you any more (or less) confused.) Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress (hubba hubba)) recruits the baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) to join MI-6 and to help defeat Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) at the baccarat table at Casino Royale. (Ursula and Peter both become James Bond. Orson does not.) The REAL James Bond goes to India to recruit Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), his daughter by Mata Hari. (There is a very nice dance number at the temple where David Niven finds Mata Bond. My favorite scene in the movie.) She also becomes James Bond and travels to East Berlin to infiltrate a dance school that is a front for SMERSH. Then, all the characters meet for the big finale at Casino Royale, and what a finale it is! Robot doubles of world leaders, Daliah Lavi in peril, Woody Allen as the villain, a dozen James Bonds, a random spaceship, cowboys and Indians, George Raft and at the end …
… the world blows up!
If you don't like this movie, try Tarkovsky!
Next: My original plan was to review On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the only James Bond movie with George Lazenby. However, my local video store does not have it on DVD! So it will have to wait. Which is too bad. I rather like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which we used to call On Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix when I was a kid.) Lazenby's Bond is not bad at all. Terry Savalas as Blofeld is just wrong, which is why it's great! Also, Diana Rigg is in it, as well as (in a very small part) Joanna Lumley (Patsy Stone of Absolutely Fabulous).
Instead, we will jump ahead to 1985: Roger Moore, Duran Duran, Grace Jones, Christopher Walken and Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
After raking Die Another Day over the coals a few days ago, I thought it would only be fair to take another look at the earlier Bond films I love so much and see how well they hold up under scrutiny. It is REALLY HARD for me to pick a favorite. Obviously, it must be a Bond film with Connery. I enjoy Roger Moore's Bond films and I did like Goldeneye a lot, so Pierce Brosnan is A-OK in my book, despite my hatchet job on Die Another Day. But, sorry, guys, Sean Connery IS James Bond.
When I was a kid, I really loved Goldfinger. It seemed to be on TV all the time, and I watched it a bunch of times, and it was my favorite back then. Later, I saw From Russia With Love, and that was my favorite for a long time. But wait! Dr. No has Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, and Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever are both pretty awesome as well.
The last few years, though, the one I like the most, the one I keep going back to, is You Only Live Twice. The opening is very likely the very first Bond scene I ever saw. Bond’s death before the titles is a very early memory from my childhood, but the rest of the movie was a complete blank to me when I saw the whole thing years later.
Nostalgia aside, I love the Japanese setting. Bond girl Akiko Wakabayashi is one of the most beautiful women in the world. And then there's Donald Pleasance as Blofeld, with his piranhas and his volcano hideout and his Angora cat and his intricate schemes. This movie really has all the great iconic images of the secret agent genre before they became clichés. (Or maybe they became clichés simultaneously with this movie. After all, the 1967 spoof Casino Royale came out two months before You Only Live Twice was released.)
This is one of the major Austin Powers influences. A deformed villain with a distinctive pet, a vast, underground cavern housing a secret base for world domination, the Free World at bay! Thirty years later, it was easy to make fun of. But Austin Powers leaves out lots of great stuff when he starts stripping You Only Live Twice for gags.
I tried really hard to find some stuff to make fun of in You Only Live Twice, trying to be fair to Die Another Day. I have a couple of things that might do, but it would be forced and insincere. (I'll mention them when they show up in the narrative.) This movie is darn-near perfect and it has everything you expect from a James Bond film. I was at a Bond fan site and one correspondent said that all James Bond films are outdated within a few years. I'm kind of baffled by that. How is You Only Live Twice outdated? Because the fashions are 35 years old? Because Nancy Sinatra is singing the title song? Because every scene isn't an over-the-top idiocy fest? If you don't get what's so great about this movie, fine. Just admit that you don't get it. Don't claim it's out-of-date just because you lack the sophistication and depth to appreciate it.
The plot: American and Russian space capsules are being captured in orbit along with their personnel. The major super-powers are blaming each other, tensions are rising, and the Cold War is about to turn hot! The British (the voice of reason, wot) are leading international mediation efforts to prevent a nuclear war until the real culprit can be found.
An unlikely scenario? Maybe. Far-fetched? Nope. It was 1967, only five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the United States had been rattling its sabers and sending combat troops to Vietnam for two years for reasons as unconvincing, self-serving and irrational as the reasons for the tensions in You Only Live Twice. In our own time, we have seen a major war started and lives lost senselessly for similarly lame pretexts. (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would make great Bond villains. If the Bond franchise had any GUTS, it would send 007 after the Bush Administration for a good trouncing! But NO, the next Bond film will be another version of Casino Royale, a story that was so outdated by 1967 that the only way to film it was to make it into a farce.)
Back to the movie: James Bond is trapped in a Murphy-bed in a bordello in Hong Kong and the bad guys run in and machine-gun him to death! A doctor comes in an confirms his death.
Oh, no! Who will save the free world now?
The titles start and we are immediately reassured by the soothing voice of the fabulous Nancy Sinatra, who had appeared in the spy spoof The Last of the Secret Agents? only the year before. Nancy reminds us that "You Only Live Twice," so the death we saw was Bond's first life and he'll be back, healthy and randy, when the credits are over! Hurrah!
Which is exactly what happens. I don't really know how MI-6 pulled it off, but it's a cunning plan. If all his enemies believe Bond is dead, then he will be free to investigate the disappearances of the space capsules. At this point, there is pretty much only one clue: the British have detected an unidentified spacecraft that landed somewhere in the Sea of Japan.
So off Bond goes to Tokyo to meet with the Japanese Secret Service. Sitting in the audience at a sumo wrestling match, he waits for his contact person, and in walks Akiko Wakabayashi.
Akiko Wakabayashi is a goddess. She is not only a radiant, glowing beauty, she was also lucky enough to be in four movies in the 1960s that were definitive masterpieces of their respective genres. In 1962, she was in King Kong vs. Godzilla, a very silly Japanese monster movie that is nevertheless one of the greatest movies ever made for obvious reasons. It has King Kong. And Godzilla. In the same movie! Akiko has a much bigger role in 1964's Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, the greatest of all the guys-in-rubber-suits, giant-monster movies. (She is so awesome in this movie! She jumps out of a plane without a parachute seconds before it explodes and she survives! Fishermen pull her out of the sea and she is suffering from amnesia that makes her wear men's clothing and preach that the end of the world is near!) In 1966, she was in Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?, one of the movies that defined film comedy in the 1960s. And in 1967, she made … You Only Live Twice.
I love her. She's beautiful, she was in a bunch of great, goofy movies and nobody but me knows who she is. You're all mine, Akiko-san!
She only made one more movie after You Only Live Twice and retired from films. No explanation that I know about. And I have no idea what happened to her in later years. Sayonara, Akiko-san!
In You Only Lives Twice, she plays Aki, and she's in the movie a lot. She drives the car! A Toyota 2000. Bond is one step ahead of the bad guys and Aki drives up out of nowhere and saves him. Twice. She's in the movie for almost an hour, Bond's constant companion, and her death is one of the few Bond-film death scenes with any emotional impact. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
Little by little, Bond and Aki and Tiger Tanaka (Aki's boss) collect a few clues, put the information together, narrowly escape death, and finally figure out that the volcanic island of Ama is probably the key to the mystery of the missing spacecraft. Q shows up with a compact surveillance helicopter, and Bond scouts the island. He is attacked by four big helicopters, and they are no match for his weaponry. But he could not find any place on Ama Island where the spacecraft could be hidden.
(Blofeld has a few short scenes in the early part of the film, dealing with subordinates who have failed to kill Bond. Somebody should have said, "Could you do better, Baldy?" But nobody says that, they shiver and look around nervously. Blofeld activates his trick bridge and feeds Helga Brandt to the piranhas! Ouch!)
Tiger Tanaka starts training a ninja army for the eventual assault on the bad guys, and he also has a plan for a better reconnaissance on the island: Bond will become Japanese, have a fake marriage with one of Tanaka's agents who is from Ama Island, and he will be able to find the location of the secret base.
The plan has a flaw: Sean Connery does not look Japanese. They perform some cosmetic surgery, dye his hair black, and dress him up as a fisherman … and he still doesn’t look Japanese. Well, as long as he keeps his head down, nobody will notice. And nobody does.
This is kinda dumb. It's not a fatal dumbness, though. They find the secret base pretty quickly, so there isn't a whole lot of time for the rumors to spread across the island about the big Japanese guy who looks like Sean Connery. I can deal with it.
However, before they go to Ama Island, tragedy strikes! One of the bad guys is hiding in the rafters when Aki and Bond are asleep, and he lowers some fishing line or string or something until it's almost touching Bond's lips! Then, he puts a tiny drop of poison on the fishing line and it slowly slides down, down, down, until … at the last moment, he rolls over and Aki moves over just as the poison drips off into her mouth. She dies quickly, and Bond throws something and takes out the bad guy, but it's too late for Aki.
Bond gets over it pretty quickly, the cad, and he's ready to marry Mie Hama on Ama island. She's pretty cute too. She was in King King v. Godzilla and What’s Up, Tiger Lily? with Akiko, and she was also in King Kong Escapes. The DVD has a short feature about the making of You Only Live Twice that says the two actresses were taken to Britain for several weeks before filming began to learn English well enough for the movie. The producers decided that Mie wasn't working out because she wasn't learning English fast enough, but when they told her she would be sent back to Japan, she started crying and said she would kill herself! (Would she be dishonoring her family if she wasn't good enough to be in a Bond film?) Well, the producers felt bad and kept her on, but they switched the actresses: Akiko was supposed to be the girl who married Bond on the island, and Mie was supposed to be the girl in the Toyota 2000.
Bond and Mie (playing Kissy Suzuki) make a good team and they quickly find out that the bad guys are hiding inside a volcano. The ninja army is called in and Blofeld's plan to provoke a nuclear war which SPECTRE would use for its own ends is foiled. The volcano blows up, and Bond and Mie end up in an inflatable raft in the Sea of Japan.
The free world is saved! Huzzah!
How can you not love this movie? The only thing that bothers me is: Did Blofeld’s cat escape? I worry about that every time I see You Only Live Twice. I mean, the poor cat wasn't evil. (Well, not any more evil that a regular cat.) I hope he got out OK.
Next: Casino Royale is too much … for one James Bond!
Monday, December 19, 2005
There was a small-screen Bond in 1954. A little more than a year after the appearance of the novel (which became a best-seller), an hour-long television drama show called CLIMAX! presented "Casino Royale" as its third episode. Peter Lorre played the villain, Le Chiffre, the same role that Orson Wells played in the 1967 version of Casino Royale. And James Bond was an American!
That American was Barry Nelson, and he is probably a very nice man. I don't want to bag on the state of television in 1954. The medium was in its infancy, and "Casino Royale" may have been quite innovative and exciting for its time. And I don't want to get on Mr. Nelson's case too much about this performance. But I will say this:
It's a little hard to watch for modern audiences.
There really was no template for a movie Bond until Dr. No, and a stage-bound television drama show was not the place for experimentation of the kind that made Bond such a hit in 1962. The 1954 James Bond uses the American tough-guy model. He's an international Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. That stuff had been around in the movies since The Maltese Falcon and it was also very popular on the radio. The inclusion of Peter Lorre as the villain made it easy for all concerned to just act like it was a Humphrey Bogart movie.
Briefly, the plot: James Bond (whose nickname is Card Sense Jimmy Bond) is a member of Combined Intelligence and he has been called to the Riviera to Casino Royale to put his baccarat skills to work in beating Herr Ziffer, also known as Le Chiffre, the top Soviet agent in the area. Le Chiffre is a very dangerous man to the West, but he has a terrible weakness: he is addicted to gambling and he has squandered 80 million francs in Soviet funds at the baccarat table. If he doesn't win it back, the Soviets will liquidate him themselves and the West will save money on bullets.
(Yes, you read that right. Somebody called him Jimmy Bond! Card Sense Jimmy Bond!)
Le Chiffre has a little entourage of tough characters, as well as a pretty girl named Valerie Mathis, played by the lovely Linda Christian. (The very first Bond girl is a Christian!) Valerie and Bond have a little history together, and Le Chiffre tries to use her against Bond several times in the photo-play.
And for back-up, all James has is Clarence Leiter, who calls him Jimmy and doesn’t even know how to play baccarat!
One thing I very much like about this film is how they handle the card-playing. I am a big fan of the 1967 version and I find it very annoying that they never explained baccarat, not one little bit! The way it's treated in the 1967 film, it could be a made-up game, like Jumanji or something. In the 1954 TV version, Bond and Leiter find an isolated table where Leiter can tell Jimmy about Le Chiffre (for example, he carries three razor blades, one in his hatband, one in his shoe, and one in his cigarette case). Every time somebody walks by, Leiter stops talking and Bond explains how to play baccarat. They don’t want anyone to know they are talking about Le Chiffre. (Because it's RUDE to talk about peple behind their backs!) And if the viewer pays attention, he knows all he needs to know for the big baccarat showdown between Bond and Le Chiffre.
The baccarat game is actually pretty exciting. Bond loses BAD at first. He runs out of money. Le Chiffre gloats and nonchalantly dangles his cigarette on his lip in a contemptuous sneer at Bond. (And when he opens his cigarette case, we see the razor blade! Wow! It's true! This guy is obsessed with shaving!) But the maitre'd walks up and informs Bond that somebody has fronted him 35 million francs. He assumes it's Leiter and he proceeds to wipe up the floor with Le Chiffre. In your face, Herr Zeffer!
It's not Leiter, though. It was Valerie Mathis, who turns out to be with the French Secret Police or something.
Le Chiffre is not happy. With his thugs, he trashes Jimmy's hotel room, ties up Valerie, beats up Bond, ties him up, and lays him out in the bathtub. He wants to know where the money is. Jimmy won’t tell him, so Le Chiffre tortures him with a pair of pliers! On his toe! Ouch! Ouch! Stop! (There's some pretty bad acting here, but let's be nice and let it slide. It's probably hard to concentrate on your acting when somebody is torturing you with a pair of pliers on your toe.)
Valerie can't take it. She loves Bond and she can't bear to see him tortured. Le Chiffre pulls out his cigarette case and leaves it on the side of the tub as Valerie tells him what she knows. She doesn't know where the money is, but Jimmy was carrying a screwdriver when she came to his room. (The money must be inside the screwdriver!) Le Chiffre and his henchmen leave the room. With Valerie's help, Bond gets the razor blade out of the cigarette case, frees himself and Valerie, and they fight their way to freedom, killing Le Chiffre in the process.
Don't take my word for it. It is not that hard to get a hold of this great little bit of James Bond history. The 1967 version of Casino Royale is available on DVD and the 1954 TV version is one of the bonus features.
It was a rather inauspicious beginning for Bond. No quips, no gadgets, no M, no Q, no Moneypenny, no car chases, no exotic location shooting, only one babe. But it was a start.
Next: We jump ahead 13 years to 1967, when Sean Connery learned You Only Live Twice.
Sunday, December 18, 2005
There have been 22 James Bond films, and the series is the second most profitable film franchise in the world. (The Star Wars series is first.) James Bond was created by Ian Fleming (who also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) for the spy novel Casino Royale in 1953 and Fleming wrote about a dozen more Bond novels before his death in 1964. The first theatrical Bond film was Dr. No, and there has been a steady parade of hyper heroics, beautiful babes, sinister super-villains and all-out action ever since.
I love James Bond movies. You love James Bond movies. (If you don't, then the terrorists have won! No more freedom fries for you!) So this should be fun!
I won't be writing thousands and thousands of words for each film like I did for Die Another Day, but I will be subjecting them to the same ridicule if they deserve it. Even my hero Sean Connery will not be spared if he gets silly the way they did in Die Another Day.
Tomorrow: A few words about the first actor to play Bond on film. It's not Sean Connery.