Friday, December 27, 2013

Bond Becoming Bond

[SPOILER ALERT: In the following post I refer to events in Skyfall, which if you have not yet seen the film could significantly affect your viewing experience]

Hip, hip hooray!  We’ve finished watching all 23 official films in the Bond oeuvre (so far).  I’m finishing this in the car as we drive home from family Christmas (started on the car ride there); we watched Skyfall about a week ago.  The final three are by far the best of the bunch.  In the special features for Casino Royale Daniel Craig makes a comment: “make the best movie you can and all the Bond stuff will sort itself out.”  And he is absolutely correct.  With Casino Royale, it was the first time in 20+ films that I thought I had just watched a good movie not just a good James Bond movie. 

Granted, Casino Royale was a smidge too long and lost my attention when it got somewhat tedious and disjointed at the end, but I managed to both follow and enjoy the plot for the entire first half of the film.  As my boyfriend put it, they kind of lost me with “all the spy stuff.”  It’s true, I have a hard time with double agent plotlines.  I think because I have this lazy streak that just wants to take everyone and everything at face value, and I can’t be bothered to get into the mindset or think through the betrayal of one agent by another or figure out who’s working for whom and what their role is.  Why can’t these villains just do their own dirty work; why do they all need to have slimy foot soldiers to do it for them?

But what Casino Royale did really well was present a kind of at-the-edge-of-my-seat suspense even when the only action was at the poker table (there was a time when I literally found myself sitting at the edge of the couch leaning toward the TV).  And there was more than one moment when an audible “WHOAH” came out of my mouth in response to some of the action sequences.  I will never forget the image of Vesper showing up in Bond’s headlights tied up in the middle of the road as Bond is speeding through the countryside to find her.

When people say that with the Daniel Craig era Bond has been rebooted for a new generation they are completely correct.  Not only is the tone grittier and more serious and the look darker but flashier at the same time; by starting Casino Royale with Bond only just being promoted to “00” status we get three films that show us James Bond becoming James Bond, secret agent.  There is a depth to his character that is nonexistent in all the previous films - even the Dalton films that people are trying to defend as precursors to Craig’s darker portrayal.  Craig is grittier and angrier to an extent that Dalton doesn’t even begin to approach. 

Initially, I had a hard time adjusting to this switch back in “time” -- essentially being re-introduced to James Bond for the first time.  It totally messed up my chronology.  Bringing Vesper into the mix really confused me.  I took the Bond - Vesper story arc over Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as some sort of explanation as to why Bond is a womanizer.  True love betrays him or dies for him (honestly, I never quite figured out how sincere Vesper’s feelings for Bond were) - either way that could seriously mess a man up when it comes to women: make him not want to love ever again, I mean, with his line of work and all.  But then what do we do with Teresa?   The woman Bond would marry appeared in only one film, but was referenced to in at least two others.  I thought it was her who proved that Bond could love.  And who establishes vengeance as a motivating factor for Bond.  While I appreciate Vesper because she establishes these character traits in our newly rebooted Bond right away, I also feel like she negates the significance of Teresa.  In the previous films, Teresa was something of a moral compass when it came to understanding Bond’s psyche.  Are we meant to replace that compass with Vesper or throw out Teresa completely or expect her to reappear in a future film? 

I also found myself confused because I initially refused to accept Bond getting his “00” status in the 21st century.  The fact that the opening scene of Casino Royale is black and white totally threw me.  I couldn’t tell if it was a flashback to the sixties or what.  Once it was established that the film was actually about a new 007 in the present day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the producers had missed an opportunity for a period piece -- tell James Bond’s origin story set in the fabulous fashions and atmosphere of the 1950s and ‘60s when his origin actually occurred.  I clung to the desire to see a James Bond period piece until we got to Skyfall, when I finally accepted that it wasn’t about reverting back to the historical origins of James Bond but actually recreating the James Bond character in the present day -- to refresh him and tell a new James Bond story for a new generation of movie watchers.  And with the way Skyfall successfully re-introduced so many classic characters I was converted to the idea and generally approve. 

My only wish is that they would have gone more into Bond’s backstory.  Perhaps they could have started Casino Royale just a few months or years earlier so we better understand the process of becoming a “00.”  I also would have appreciated a flashback or two in Skyfall, when they’re actually at Skyfall, to explain Bond’s family and how that estate helped shape who he is.  That would have been a better use of time than the overblown war scene and superfluous fall through the ice that the filmmakers gave us.  Because Skyfall felt like a multi-genre film to me, and the genres didn’t always meld well together.  At moments it felt like a super hero film starring James Bond as the indestructible man; at the climax it felt like a war film; and the rest felt like a spy film that also happened to be a character study of Bond, M, and their relationship.  And it is as a spy film and character study that it is at its best.  I wish they would have toned down some of the over-the-top action and spent even more time delving into the characters of Bond and M.  All of which just goes to show how different the Daniel Craig reboot era is from the previous films, when I sometimes felt like the only reason I kept watching was in hopes of seeing yet a bigger explosion.  That being said, I was glad I had taken the time to view all the previous films in the genre because it meant I could appreciate the full value of the many, many humorous callbacks in  Skyfall, which would have fallen completely flat had I watched Skyfall on its own.

And it was only after watching 23 entire films that I can declare the revelation of Moneypenny at the end of Skyfall as literally my favorite moment in nearly 50 hours of Bond film.  I don’t know how I didn’t see it coming, but I’m glad I didn’t because it allowed me to have a genuine reaction of delighted surprise.  I had managed to come across a spoiler about M’s death (which made watching the movie more suspenseful but my reaction to her death less anger-laden that it would have been otherwise) and went searching on IMDB to see when a new Q would appear in the final three films (searching in hopes of finding I would not be stuck with John Cleese for three more films).  I guess I saw Moneypenny as such a minor and uninteresting character in all the previous films that I did not even register the fact the while we were essentially meeting a new Bond and were introduced to a new Q (who is a total cutie.  I absolutely approve of him and hope he returns in future films) we had not seen Moneypenny for three entire films.  I was perfectly satisfied with no Moneypenny.  And the character they reveal as her in the end was so much cooler in her role in the rest of the movie that she didn’t equate with the image I already had of Moneypenny in my head.  I remain pleasantly surprised.  I like how the character’s role in the rest of the film helps us understand the tension between her and Bond so much better than in the previous films, and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers do with her in the future. 

Some final, random thoughts about the first three films starring Daniel Craig as Bond: 
  • It felt to me like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were actually written as one long movie that the producers ultimately decided to chop into two.  The second literally starts up where the first one let off, and it might help explain why Casino Royale was too long and Quantum of Solace surprisingly short.  I might have ended Casino Royale earlier and found a way to simplify the confusing, disjointed plotlines that defined the end of CS and all of QoS.  Doing so also might have helped to give some much needed depth to QoS, which really just felt like one extended chase sequence (there are literally three significant chase scenes in the first thirty minutes of a 106-minute film). 
  • I was so excitedly pleased with the complete lack of naked women in the title sequence for Casino Royale!  I only wish that re-imagining of what a Bond title sequence could look like had been adopted as a permanent feature of the Bond reboot.  That said, I appreciate that they still put the effort into creating a full and uniquely visual title sequence for each Bond film, even in this day and age when title sequences are basically nonexistent.
  • I also found that I liked the way the gun barrel shot was incorporated right into the action of the opening of the film with Casino Royale.  Waiting until the end of Quantum of Solace to show that shot kind of bothered me, but I accepted it by Skyfall.
  • Had I ever mentioned gambling in a previous post?  Bond seems to gamble in nearly every film, and I always would find myself wondering how his gambling was funded, especially if he was using it to cozy up to someone on a mission and get information.  I appreciated that Casino Royale directly addressed Bond’s talent in cards as well as openly acknowledging that, at least for this mission, he was directly funded by the British government.
  • I found Skyfall to be a fascinating look into the nearly impossible decisions that M is required to make as part of her job.
  • Javier Bardem played an amazing villain in Silva.  He was honestly intimidating and scary at moments, almost Hannibal-Lecter-like at times.
  • Daniel Craig can play emotionally detached, cold, and angry like nobody’s business.  He plays this version of Bond so genuinely, and he has completely created a character that at moments I find myself afraid of.  I like that his Bond is a complicated and ambiguous Bond -- that he can be charming and suave, even sweet and sensitive, when necessary, but it is not a character that the audience is automatically endeared to liking, as we were with previous Bonds.
  • And if I still find other Bonds (Brosnan, even Connery) to be more attractive, I think Craig plays the best Bond that is created for him.  I actually find it hard to compare his Bond to the previous versions because it really is so different, written with so much more depth that it’s almost an unfair comparison.

Well, that’s all folks.  Now I can watch a new Bond film whenever I want - and I probably will watch each new one as it comes out just so I can continue to say I’ve seen them all.   

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Overcoming Disappointment

It turned out to be true.  I was really hoping the few things I had read were hyperbole, but they were pretty accurate.  Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films after Goldeneye are not very good, and they get progressively worse from Tomorrow Never Dies to Die Another Day.  With the exception of a dark opening to Die Another Day, with Bond being tortured in a North Korean prison (let’s ignore the fact that Bond looks impressively healthy and fit after 18 months in that camp), they basically drop any of the dark, intriguing elements of Goldeneye and return to the kitschy Moore formula.  Brosnan’s worst never gets as bad as the worst in Moore’s tenure, but Die Another Day was incredibly boring and pretty stupid--even the combination of a Madonna cameo and Halle Barry’s sexiness did not do much to redeem it for me.

I really wanted the films to be better than advertised since I came in wanting Brosnan to live up to the Bond I had created in my teenage head, and I was afraid bad films would make me dislike Brosnan as Bond.  Luckily, even bad films couldn't spoil his perfect bond charm.  In the end, even Brosnan at his worst is a far better Bond than Moore ever was.  And I still think he pulls off what is written in the script better than Dalton.  I have a feeling it’s because he’s the prettiest of all the Bonds, but Brosnan is probably my favorite going into the Daniel Craig era.  With his sexy smile, shiny hair, perfectly cut suits, dapper accent and demeanor, he’s pretty hard to resist and fits exactly what I imagine Bond to be in my head. 

I don’t have my notes on hand, and I find it hard to remember details from Bond films, so this post will be short.  And I’ll rely on the predictable: I miss the original Q (I’m not a fan of Monty Python, so John Cleese was not an exciting replacement); I appreciated that Bond’s interactions with women were relatively realistic and believable -- they either established some sort of history with them -- be it a past relationship or simply a history of flirtation and “hooking up” -- or made it plausible that he would be interested in picking up the next hot woman that came along (i.e. having been deprived of humanity in a prison for months); and the sex scenes are finally starting to actually be sexy.  Every time the films open and I see that they’re only rated PG-13, I’m always upset thinking there won’t be any steamy sex scenes.  But then after watching the films, I’m not disappointed.  Now that I think about it, I might be some kind of a prude, amazed by what can pass as PG-13 -- and if that was in the ‘90s, what are they passing through to the eyes of teenagers today.  Then again, I really was a prude back in high school, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess it’s the fact that the action gets more attention than the sex in the end that prevents these from being rated R.  But then again, it’s pretty amazing how much more violent they’ve gotten since the ‘60s -- what would it take for a Bond film to be rated R, I wonder.  Another thought: for all the beautiful fashion Bond girls got to wear in the ‘60s, the ‘90s were such a disappointment in that department.  I mean, this shawl thing they have over Terri Hatcher’s dress is quite hideous. 
[Photo credit:]

Finally, you might like to know that I finally got my hands on a vintage metal cigarette case.  Not as nice as Bond’s but a pretty good substitute and a great deal on Etsy.
From the Etsy shop outofthepasvintage

Monday, October 21, 2013

I May Be Biased, but . . .

If you’ve read my initial post in this blog, you know that I am somewhat biased when it comes to Pierce Brosnan as James Bond.  But I have to say, after having watched Goldeneye, my preference for Brosnan’s interpretation of the character may be more than a simple case of teenage nostalgia.  I am prepared for the possibility that my current appreciation of Brosnan’s 007 may be negated in viewing his next films, but that’s why I wanted to blog about my reaction to Goldeneye.  I’ve read in numerous places that Brosnan’s Bond films after Goldeneye are mired in bad writing and hard-to-swallow plot points, which negatively affect his ratings in competition for “best Bond.”  So, I thought, what if we rated him only on Goldeneye, then what would everyone think?  

I personally think Brosnan did amazing work as Bond in Goldeneye.  I liked him even more than Lazenby, who has been my favorite so far, which many of you probably read about here.  Brosnan is obviously super attractive.  He exuded charm and charisma on par with Connery, was suave and sophisticated to a fault, and was quick with the wit without being overly campy.  The script was somewhat heavy-handed with its exploration of how Bond maintains his humanity while dealing with the often inhuman demands of his job, but Brosnan’s Bond was 100% more believable than Dalton in all dimensions of 007--cold-blooded killer, brooding government agent, flirtatious lover, etc.  If Dalton is praised as being dark and brooding and therefore closest to Fleming’s literary Bond, Brosnan should be even more highly praised because he is able to bring in that darkness from the books while also capturing the Hollywood version of Bond who has been previously established as colorful and cliché.  The film itself is more direct with its violence -- there are a lot more shoot-em-up scenes and straight up killing than any extended banter or hand-to-hand combat between enemies -- but Brosnan successfully brings levity to an otherwise straightforward action film. 

Other aspects of Goldeneye made it an important and surprising viewing for this Bond franchise novice.  I never expected to see Dame Judi Dench in the role of M -- I was under the impression that she didn’t take the part until the Daniel Craig era.  It was a welcome surprise, and she plays the awesomely sassy role with gusto.  The same can be said for the new Moneypenney.  Telling Bond that he someday has to “make good on [his] innuendo” was one of the best lines in a film so far.  This was a very positive film for the ladies, with Natalya being a Bond girl I could unquestionably root for.  I also liked that her interactions with Bond seemed believable and that she often called the shots, not just Bond.  I imagine it has something to do with the era, being in the 1990s with a couple decades of real female empowerment and sexual liberation to draw from, the writers finally wrote scenes of Bond interacting with women that seemed comfortable and realistic relative to my own experience.  This was also the first film in the franchise where my understanding of Bond films as sexy and steamy actually played out on screen -- we finally got to see some real sex scenes.  Granted they were scenes in which the female villain, who is sexually aroused by violence, is getting pleasure while strangling (or attempting to strangle) her partner with her legs, but still, graphic and explicit relative to what we’ve seen in previous films. 

Some final, arbitrary thoughts about Goldeneye: The music was so different in this film it almost didn’t feel like a Bond score.  The Bond theme was not recognizably employed until 90 minutes in.  We see at least two recognizable British actors -- Alan Cumming and Minnie Driver -- playing the supporting roles of Russian characters with less than stellar Russian accents.  Couldn’t they have found Russian actors (or at least Eastern European, as is the actress who played Natalya) to play those parts?  I felt thrilling tension in the final scene on the ladder above the antennae dish -- kudos to the crew that pulled that off and made me cover my eyes from fear and suspense.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Broody Bond

Overall, I feel like there’s not much to Timothy Dalton as James Bond.  He does not have an especially imposing presence on screen; he’s not particularly attractive compared to his Bond counterparts (although by no means unattractive); and the two films in which he starred were, in my opinion, middling in terms of overall quality. 

After 13 Connery and Moore films filled with condescending sophistication, rampant womanizing, witty one-liners, and a good deal of campy kitsch, Dalton’s Bond seems oddly quiet and brooding.  He doesn’t say much, and when he does it is not especially powerful.  He’s not as skilled with the humorous quips, nor does he seem to demand the authority, charm, or sophistication of the Bonds who came before him.  It was, in fact, quite strange to see Bond in a bulky leather jacket and knit sweater, rather than a suit, for much of The Living Daylights

His character, especially in Licence to Kill, moves from one extreme to another--at one moment a brutally violent killer, the next a flirtatious and sweet companion.  Granted, I like the dimension more emotion can bring to the character of Bond.  Who knew Bond could be so driven by sentiment, when he goes rogue to avenge Felix?  And I kind of like that he and Bouvier are flirtatious with each other.  It was much more believable than Bond’s typical “I deserve to have you” attitude, the “we just survived a crazy mission, we should obviously have sex now” pattern of Moore’s films, or Dalton’s unconvincing sappiness and swooning over Kara in The Living Daylights (those two had some of the worst on-screen chemistry I have ever seen; not to mention, it is nearly impossible to believe that in 1987 Bond would be attracted to a woman so completely dependent and ineffectual).  Moving between extremes might bring more interest to Bond, but the maneuver ultimately lacked subtlety and nuance, and for me, Dalton does not successfully convey a naturalness in either gear.   

Dalton’s take on Bond was quite a jarring departure from Connery or Moore.  I can understand how a generation who grew up on either of those two actors in the role might resist Dalton, relegating him to the bottom (always just above Lazenby) on any number of online polls of the “best Bond.”  After Connery and Moore, you expect Bond to be larger than life, rather than fading into the background; cocky and quick-witted, not brooding and humorless; indifferent to his female conquests, not adoringly sentimental and practically monogamous (admittedly, as I have read elsewhere, this lack of promiscuity--he only sleeps with one woman in The Living Daylights, two in Licence to Kill--is attributable to an historical context dominated by the relatively early years of an AIDS epidemic). 

There are those who, having gone back to view Dalton’s films with a new eye, point out that he was actually ahead of his time and predated Craig’s darker portrayal of 007, arguing that Dalton should be viewed as the best Bond ever (see, for example, this article or this one).  But while they claim Dalton as the best Bond, their claim hinges on an argument that Dalton’s interpretation of Bond is merely the most authentic to the Bond created by Fleming in his original novels.  In my opinion, this is not a solid base on which to rest one’s claim.  Granted, I have never read any of the Bond books, so I cannot make any kind of judgment about an actor’s authenticity to them, but I imagine most of the people who watch Bond films have also never read the books.  So shouldn’t the film Bonds be judged on their own merits, rather than compared to the Bond in Fleming’s books?  Also, if the movies are not authentic to the books--from what I have gathered, nearly all of them simply take their titles, a few character names and plot points, and pretty much completely re-write the story--then why should an actor’s portrayal of Bond be judged on his allegiance to the books?  Even more significant, only one of the books that bear the titles under which Dalton stars, The Living Daylights, was written by Ian Fleming.  The other, Licence to Kill, was written by a John Gardner.  So to defend Dalton’s portrayal of Bond as the best because it is closest to Fleming’s envisioning of the character seems to me to be little defense at all.  

However, everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion.  If someone prefers a more broody, sentimental Bond, so be it.  But someone could also argue that Bond is best when womanizing, cracking jokes, and always wearing beautifully cut suits with a dashing smile.  I simply feel like Timothy Dalton did not inhabit the role of Bond in the same way that his predecessors did.  He never felt completely comfortable in the role from what I could see and failed to make it his own or make a real impression at all. 

A few other thoughts on the films overall:

The technology has definitely improved with the times--wireless phones, desktop computers, and some seriously heavy weaponry.  It makes me wonder if the Bond franchise is reaching a point where the crazy gadgets that made Bond cool in the ‘60s will soon make little impact as they become merely reality rather than futuristic fantasy.  It has also contributed to some exceptionally gruesome death scenes and major violence in recently viewed films.

While I was not a particular fan of Dalton’s Bond, I think that part of the reason he is less praised than others is the fact that his films are less likely to be played on television, especially The Living Daylights.  The history surrounding Britain and America’s role in Afghanistan and with the Mujahideen is problematic today, at best.  But watching it forced this ignorant and confused viewer to read up on that history and actually learn something.  And while I say “play it all the time; educate our populace!”, perhaps that’s exactly why it’s not played--it’s probably not a history America is comfortable fessing up to on network or cable television on a regular basis. 

I have a problem with the choice of actress to replace Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny.  At least Maxwell was obviously older than any of the girls Bond slept with, and I could use that as a reason for why Bond might not take advantage of her also--she could be seen as either “over 30” and therefore unattractive in Bond’s entitled mind or as something of a mother figure in later movies.  As much as I hate to admit it, Caroline Bliss is simply not right for the role because she is far too attractive.  Without those glasses she is totally Bond’s type, and it is hard to believe that Bond would not be seducing her any chance he gets.  I guess I have to work on believing that Bond is actually capable of caring for a woman without wanting to sleep with her--that Moneypenny is maybe like a sister to him?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Roger Moore Review

A collection of thoughts on the seven films in which Roger Moore plays the character of James Bond (incomplete and in no particular order):  
  • The very first thing I noticed: when Bond steps into the gun barrel and prepares to shoot, he is no longer wearing a fedora and is now wearing flared pants.  Bond is definitely a character that changes with the times.
  • Moore’s is a more casual Bond in general, but while he is clearly differentiated from Connery in the early films, he becomes increasingly snobby, condescending, and sexist in later ones.  And I didn’t like the ways they tried to differentiate him from Connery--why was Bond smoking cigars and drinking whisky?  Going back to cigarettes and martinis was definitely the right move, even if bringing back the nasty, sexist attitude was not.
  • It took one or two films for disco to really influence the soundtrack, but once it did the discofied Bond theme in those few films was awesome!  It’s too bad that same disco influence didn’t really carry over to the title songs.  After “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings the title sings got worse with each outing until “A View to a Kill” by Duran Duran, which closed out the Roger Moore era.  Slow and saccharine were not words I ever thought I would use to describe Bond music until I heard these monstrosities.
  • One major development that also made “A View to a Kill” perhaps the best Bond title sequence yet: the women/female silhouettes were actually wearing clothes - at least enough clothing to cover their more private pieces.  And there was a straight on shot of Bond’s face in the title sequence, which was a bit jarring, along with male silhouettes.
  • The bright neon and blacklit colors of the title sequence in A View to a Kill screamed ‘80s in the same way Live and Let Die exemplified the 1970s.  It was interesting, though, that the outrageous ‘80s fashion sensibility was only present in the actual film with the character of May Day, played by Grace Jones.
  • I’m going to put it out there: Christopher Walkin was actually quite good looking as a young man.  I kept thinking how much he could have passed as a member of a boy band.  It took me by surprise having only seen his later films.
  • Roger Moore, on the other hand, was not so young by the end of his Bond run.  Let’s face it, he was not young when he started playing the role.  By the end of 12 years, he was really starting to look old.  It was quite impressive he could still do as much physical acting as he did.
  • According to the DVD leaflet with The Spy Who Loved Me, “the designated Bond girl is much more . . . not only Bond’s ally in the film, she is just as intelligent, lethal, and resourceful as 007,” which supposedly “signaled a new era for the series--one in which Bond’s paramours would have increasingly accomplished resumes--and reflected to changing role of women in society in the wake of the modern women’s liberation movement.”  If I stretch, I might believe this to be the case in The Spy Who Loved Me, but really, besides the fact that Triple X was a fellow agent (of the KGB), she wasn’t that much more effective than some previous Bond girls, especially Tracy from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.  I had similar reactions to the Bond girls in Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and Octopussy.  Stacey Sutton in A View to a Kill was just as inept as any previously ineffective Bond girl, while May Day, a stronger character, was the villain cast in stereotypes, sexuality and exoticism.  Ultimately, for every “increasingly accomplished” Bond Girl there are a handful of other women in the films whose only role is to take orders and look pretty.
  • My ideal Bond girl is not only “as intelligent, lethal and resourceful as 007 himself”; she is also capable of being just Bond’s professional colleague who does not feel the need to jump into bed with him just because the mission is completed successfully.  She actually recognizes and calls Bond out on the sexual harassment he inflicts upon her.  By the middle of the Moore era you could easily predict that the final words of the film would be a Bond Girl sighing the words “Oh, James”--so annoying.  Isn’t it sad that I should be so impressed that Bond somehow maintained enough scruples to not sleep with 18-year-old BiBi in For Your Eyes Only?  
  • So disappointing that the only explicit mention of the women’s movement in any of the films 1) did not come until A View to a Kill, in 1985, the height of backlash and 2) was made in the context of a joke - in response to the odd look Stacey Sutton gets wearing stilettoes with her construction jumpsuit Bond says, “It’s women’s lib, taking over the teamsters.”
  • Turns out it was beneficial to watch all of Moore’s films in relatively quick succession and in order.  I recognized the Sherriff from Live and Let Die when he returned in The Man with the Golden Gun.  I could identify enough with Jaws after seeing him in The Spy Who Loved Me to cheer him on when he went from villain to hero in Moonraker.  I was able to pick out the running joke of an Italian tourist shocked by Bond’s crazy vehicles in three sequential films.  And I knew why M was “on leave” in For Your Eyes Only: the actor who played him in previous films had died.  (the new M is not as good).
  • Also beneficial was that having previously seen OHMSS I picked up on the significance of Bond’s pre-title visit to the grave of Teresa Bond that led to a helicopter chase with Blofeld.  I was actually quite surprised that they returned to Bond’s marriage plot line and disappointed when they dropped it completely after the titles.
  • While I’m curious what Ian Fleming’s original stories are, I’m happy that the Bond films change them to keep with the times.  The themes of energy crisis, détente, and microchips warm my historian’s heart.  (The parody of Margaret Thatcher at the end of For Your Eyes Only did not, although it was a crazy coincidence that we had just watched The Iron Lady the night before).
  • The Man with the Golden Gun totally sucked when it comes to gadgets, but I loved the spy gadgetry in the other films--and that Q seems to have a lab set up in any exotic locale Bond finds himself in, as does M seem to set up an office in the craziest of places.  Of all the awesome gadgets, the Lotus Esprit submarine car in The Spy Who Loved Me was the coolest of them all, especially since we had just seen it parodied in Despicable Me 2 a few nights earlier.  Speaking of, this news item from the last 24 hours is relevant (another crazy coincidence!  I just randomly came across it when googling for the real name of “James Bond underwater car”).
  • My overall impression of the Roger Moore era is that the films had become highly formularized.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it might just be that I am finally picking up on the formula after having watched so many.  But formula does tend to grow stale after a while, so here’s hoping that a new leading man will inject some energy into the series for me (I get the sense that I probably shouldn’t count on that with Timothy Dalton, but who knows?).
What are your thoughts on the Roger Moore Bond films?  

(Also, three cheers for reaching a remaining film count in the single digits!)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Welcome to the 1970s

This post was meant to be a well-reasoned, thought-provoking analysis of Live and Let Die.  Alas, as it has been more than a month since I screened the film, this quick run-through of my thoughts on what I remember will have to do.  I’ve also managed to view four more Roger Moore Bond films in the intervening time, and I wanted to blog about Live and Let Die before blogging my thoughts on the Roger Moore era as a whole.   

From what I have gathered over the years, Moore competes with Connery as people’s definitive James Bond.  I have decided to withhold judgment on Moore for the time being, but I could not let Live and Let Die be seen without at least some sort of commentary. 

With Live and Let Die we jumped head-first into the 1970s.  If you are at all curious about the fabulous fashions, tired clichés, and general feel of 1970s pop culture, watch this film.  Not only does it feature this amazing rainbow sequined dress (a precursor to the glamorous disco dresses that would become de rigueur in dance clubs and on music stages just a few years hence), a collection of flamboyant (some might say “pimpin’”) male suits and accessories such as this polka dot scarf, and a number (see 5 links here) of outstanding outfits on a young Jane Seymour; even the conservative and classic James Bond gets in on the ‘70s fashion foppery with outfits like this powder blue leisure suit

In many ways, the 1970s fashions and feel are rivaled in film only by the Blaxploitation genre on which this Bond appears to be based.  Yet, one major aspect (and many smaller ones) of Live and Let Die makes it fundamentally different from a 1970s Blaxploitation film.  Yes, the writers changed Ian Fleming’s story about the smuggling of gold coins to one about an international Heroin ring so as to fit with the common Blaxploitation tropes of drugs and crime in black communities.  Yes, there are a number of scenes set in urban black communities, most notably New Orleans and Harlem.  And yes, the film features a cast of larger-than-life black characters who are empowered and violent.  But key to the grand majority of 1970s Blaxploitation films is the black vigilante hero--be it man or woman--who is empowered to save/enact revenge/conform his or her community/family/race from some form of evil--white supremacy, drugs, prostitution, etc.  It is the black character who saves the day, be it from the criminals in his own community or from the white suppression of his race.  A black character is the hero.  It was, and remains today, an important anomaly in film that the black character saves the day or enacts violent revenge, actions that are overwhelmingly relegated to white men. 

The fact that all black characters in Live and Let Die are villains (save one black agent who gets killed) and James Bond is the hero, criminalizing Mr. Big and his black minions, makes the film an exploitation of the success of Blaxploitation rather than a true homage to it.  (Honestly, it makes me wonder if they chose to imitate the genre only to make it somehow a more acceptable setting for Bond to bed his first black woman.)

Yet, it seems the producers of the film were well aware of this problem when they were making it.  As the director (writer? producer? I can’t recall) said plainly in the special features documentary, “Inside Live and Let Die,” with all the black actors being villains, you know they’re going to lose, so who else can we make fun of? (paraphrasing here).  So they brought in the character of the bumbling redneck southern Louisiana sheriff, so poor southern whites could also take some of the racist brunt--equal opportunity racism, as my friends and I called it. 

And being aware of the racism, stereotyping, and absurdity of it all, actually makes the film rather enjoyable and humorous in its ability to appall and enthrall.  A syndicate of black drug smugglers so powerful that it seems every black person from Harlem to New Orleans to the Caribbean is involved?  A black cabbie who quips, “for $20 I’ll take you to a KKK cookout”?  Mr. Big’s lackey, the voodoo leader, portrayed as a constantly smiling Sambo?  The exoticism, spiritualism, and voodoo of the residents of the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique on display throughout the film (although it was unclear to me how much of it was supposed to be understood as genuine vs. how much was meant for the purpose of tourism)?  And, of course, that overly long and outrageous boat chase in the Louisiana swamps with the completely inept southern white cops trying in vain to catch the drivers?  All so absurd as to be humorous. 

There were some genuinely humorous moments in the film as well, even if Bond’s quips and sexual innuendo were a bit out of control in this outing.  There was also plenty of action on land, sea, and air and a variety of nifty gadgets that made the movie enjoyable to watch.  Certainly not the best Bond film in terms of realism, structure, and general cinematic quality, but Live and Let Die was good enough to keep my attention and enthusiasm for almost the entire 2+ hours, which is a major accomplishment for a Bond film so far.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Finally, a New Bond

Finally, after the over-the-top, hard-to-swallow plot twists of You Only Live Twice, we have On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which while having its own moments of incredulity, also humanizes James Bond in unexpected ways.  Both movies prove my idea that action happening on solid ground--hand-to-hand combat, chases on skis or in cars, explosions--are all more exciting than anything underwater, but I’m becoming convinced that Bond movies are just not my cup of tea.  I feel like, after Thunderball especially, as long as there are a few really cool fight scenes, fast chase scenes, and at least one big explosion the Bond film has met my expectations. 

I read somewhere that Roald Dahl abandoned most of the original novel’s plot in writing the screenplay for You Only Live Twice.  If that be the case, combining the Cold War with the Space Race in developing the evil plan may have been his downfall.  The premise often seemed more like science fiction than any kind of reality.  That couldn’t possibly be what people actually thought of the space race and what it might achieve; or is it?  And that problematic premise doesn’t even get at Bond rising from the dead without any real explanation as to how he/they pulled off his faked death ruse or why he needed to “become Japanese” in order to stop Blofeld and SPECTRE’s plan from happening.  (FYI, a shaved chest, different hairstyle and kimono do not “make” one Japanese.  I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to believe he was trying to pass as Japanese physically or just culturally. Why couldn’t he just “become a ninja”--a British Ninja Warrior?)  Overall, You Only Live Twice was not the best Bond movie ever made. 

That being said, there were some interesting developments.  We finally got to see SPECTRE agent No. 1, aka Blofeld, but Telly Savalas played the character much better in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  But why did they get rid of the scar on the side of Blofeld’s face in the latter?  I’m assuming that because they made a point to show how he wasn’t actually dead at the end of OHMSS, that we will be seeing this villain again.  Although, honestly, I would be perfectly happy to only ever see Blofeld represented through his cute white cat, which we got to see quite a lot of in YOLT

The gadgets in YOLT were also pretty cool--that mini helicopter, especially, even if it did bother me how they not only referred to it with a girl’s name (standard, no trouble there), but talked about “Little Nellie” having fought off “improper advances” and “defended her honor,” placing me back in the misogyny of the era.  It also bothered me that some of Bond’s gadgets, like his mini-rocket cigarettes, were developed by someone other than Q.  I was actually offended.  I think because I’ve come to really like Q.  He always calls Bond out on his sh*t, and his gadgets are pretty much the only reason Bond is ever able to get out of these messes.  I think Q is my favorite recurring character. 

There was also some really fabulous fashion in YOLT--Bond’s black and white wingtips (I only caught a glimpse while he was running away from someone.  It would have been easy to miss them, but they were so cool and somewhat unexpected from the dapper yet classically sophisticated Bond), Aki’s bluedress, and this amazing sequined number on Helga Brandt, aka SPECTRE agent No. 11.  I think my most vocal reaction during the entire movie was when Bond actually cuts that beautiful dress with a knife (to more easily undress her, of course. Ugh!)--what a crime to fashion.

But enough about YOLT, let’s talk about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and George Lazenby, who will probably forever be remembered as the guy who only played Bond once.  I was quite surprised by how much I liked Lazenby in the role, and it was more than just a welcome relief from Connery.  Lazenby, for someone who apparently had done little to no acting before being cast, gave a solid performance and was much more relatable than Connery.  He came off as less suave and sophisticated, more rugged and attractive, casual.  Maybe that is an indication that we are moving into the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when a general informality took over culturally, but until I see Connery’s return in the next movie, I will attribute it to Lazenby’s skills on screen.  And while I don’t completely understand why he and Tracy fall in love, once it’s established that they are in love, I actually believe it to be true (that being only slightly marred by the whole sleeping with Blofeld’s “angels of death” - I guess we’re supposed to believe “out of sight, out of mind” or something like that when it comes to his love for Tracy; or that he’s doing it for Queen and Country maybe).  The last scene is a heartbreaking close to a movie, but surprisingly believable given Bond’s reputation.  I might go so far as to say that Lazenby is a better actor than Connery, who mostly seems to get by on his looks, but Connery is so clearly better at the one-liners and had a much more prolific career, so I think I would be stretching it if I actually endorsed that comment.  But the special features show every exec who worked with Lazenby saying that he could have been the best Bond, so there must be something there.  So far, I agree with them. 

I think, for me, part of the appeal of Lazenby as Bond is that his Bond was somewhat less offensively sexist.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a pig, and the violence against women--in this case, Tracy--was quite appalling.  Don’t even get me started on the reason Draco gives for why he wants Bond to marry his daughter.  But there are small redeeming moments in this movie.  When Tracy offers to pay off her debt from the gambling table but hesitates, Bond clearly says she owes him nothing and means it.  He doesn’t just make a joke about it and continue as if nothing is bothering her, as I could see Connery’s Bond doing.  And when Bond does go to seduce Blofeld’s "angels," it seems to be largely because the women were throwing themselves at him rather than the other way around.  I’m not so sure it excuses his behavior completely, but it’s something different from the approach of Connery as Bond (and yes, I know Bond’s approach has everything to do with the writing and not necessarily the actors, but you can’t completely discount the tenor and tone each actor brings to the character).

Beyond Lazenby’s distinct interpretation of Bond, here are some thoughts on the movie more generally:

These movies are entirely too long, and OHMSS seemed especially disjointed as a story.  It took an hour and half to reveal Blofeld’s evil scheme, and then there was never any real threat that he might pull it off.  Besides the fact that he is SPECTRE’s No. 1 agent, I felt no real threat to mankind in this one like there was in all previous films.  That said, I was beginning to wonder if we would ever move away from the very-Cold-War-esque atomic plot lines to something more innovative and modern, and the germ warfare idea, even if not fully played out, was a welcome step in that direction. 

OHMSS had some very memorable high points and humor, which I appreciated and felt had gotten stale with Connery.  And some of those deaths are seriously grotesque - super high falls, red snow as a guy is chopped to pieces by a snowblower (But that joke, “he had a lot of guts,” seriously had me cracking up.  I still crack up every time I think of it.  Does that make me a horrible person?).  There were many quite violent fight scenes in the beginning and of course a big, extended chase at the end - it was in the middle where it dragged. 

As in YOLT, the fight scenes have gotten quite good, much better choreographed and executed.  Although, in OHMSS I felt like the editing of the fights had a 1960s-TV-Batman feel to them.  Kind of like stop motion but without the interjection of the “Wham!” or “Pow!”  I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just something I noticed. 

Interesting that the only black actor isn’t allowed to speak, only grunt.

I was beginning to think being filmed in a bikini (and almost always a white bikini) was a requirement to be an official Bond girl, but things being set mostly in the cold, snowy Alps, Tracy doesn’t wear one--a welcome relief. 

I sometimes get confused as to why Bond is in a certain place at a certain time, but one thing I do appreciate about the international nature of Bond is the films’ attempts to bring in the culture of the different countries in which he’s working: Nassau’s Junkanoo in Thunderball, Japanese Sumo wrestling in YOLT, bull fighting when OHMSS is in Portugal and winter sports when it heads to Switzerland. 

Finally, what exactly is Bond’s relationship with Monneypenny?  Does she love him?  She seemed seriously sad to see Bond get married, but yet it always seems tongue-in-cheek when she banters with him in the office.  He certainly doesn’t love her. . .

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Let's Talk About Thunderball

You Only Live Twice is set to record on my DVR on Sunday night, and the library's copy of On Her Majesty's Secret Service is sitting on my coffee table patiently waiting its turn (taunting this viewer who is impatiently waiting for the chance to see a Bond other than Connery).  In the meantime, let's talk about Thunderball.
I like to watch each movie, form my own opinion about it, and then educate myself about them with whatever is available in the DVD's special features section (which makes watching on DVD preferable to cable, if not always timely).  Upon finishing Thunderball, my impression was that it was not as good as Goldfinger but better than Dr. No.  Because, no matter how angry certain scenes in Goldfinger made me, as 1960s Bond action flicks go (so far as I know), it was pretty good, and let's face it, pretty much anything is better than Dr. No (at least at this point).  As far as story goes, Thunderball was about on par with From Russia, with Love, but oh my goodness, when it comes to pacing that story, Thunderball was boring.

It starts off exciting enough--Bond escaping from some goon with a jet pack and all (and I really enjoy the Thunderball theme song sung by Tom Jones), but the opening scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, which consists almost completely of villainous diabolical planning and build up for an extended underwater fight scene and boat chase at the end.  Bond manages to get himself out of some tricky situations in between, but after the opening scene the only real exciting action came with the big boat chase at the very end--I especially liked it when Domino got to kill the bad guy.  The underwater aspects were an interesting change of pace, but honestly, underwater fighting is incredibly slow and not at all exciting.  It just goes on forever.  And the idea of drowning is uncomfortable for me to watch since I was pretty terrified of it as a kid.
I was really tired of Thunderball by the time it was over, but I kept watching and educated myself--and was totally surprised by what I learned.  Apparently, Thunderball was the biggest Bond of the 1960s, in terms of scale, budget, and revenue.  It not only grossed incredible amounts at the box office; if the special documentaries on the bonus disc are to be believed, it was a huge global phenomenon, and not just at its initial release.  It was re-released at least two times as a double feature with From Russia, with Love and You Only Live Twice.  Meaning, people didn’t just go see it because they were curious/excited about a new Bond movie; they went to see it more than once because they enjoyed it.  And it was supposedly Thunderball that spawned a market for all kinds of Bond merchandise.  

It being the only film, so far, to come in a double-DVD set should have been some sort of tip-off, but I never would have guessed it had that kind of success.  I had never even heard of Thunderball before this project.  And if the hold lists at the library are any indication, it hasn’t retained its former popularity.  Unlike Goldfinger, which still has 15 requests on two copies (they got a new copy since I left the line), Thunderball always has at least one of its 5 copies available and I’ve never seen any holds on it.  Even You Only Live Twice has four holds on it.  I suppose in terms of special effects and general scale of production, Thunderball was innovative for the time, especially the underwater footage, which they talk about in the documentaries.  But those sequences were in great need of some editing, as far as I’m concerned.

Have you seen Thunderball?  What are your thoughts on the "biggest Bond of the 1960s"?  Am I missing something that makes it really special?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

OMG! (Oh My Goldfinger!)

After watching the second Bond film, From Russia with Love, shortly after Dr. No, I got a bit hung up trying to acquire Goldfinger.  I think its central role in the Oscars tribute must have contributed to its popularity at the library because I was the 22nd hold when I first put in the request on the library’s single copy of the film.  More than a month later, I’m still number 14 in line, so we paid to rent it on our new cable plan. 

I’ve had almost a week to digest the film, and I still can’t get over how truly disgusted and appalled I am with the misogyny of James Bond.  It seems to be getting progressively worse in each film, and if I hadn’t already committed myself to this project, I feel like I otherwise would have declared Goldfinger the last Bond film I would ever watch.  Seriously, when it comes to womankind, James Bond is the enemy in this film, not Goldfinger. 

I thought it was bad when in From Russia with Love, they had two women literally fighting like animals for the love of some man, but in Goldfinger we see James Bond use a woman he’s just had sex with as a human shield (I don’t really care if she is working for the enemy); then we see the credits with images projected over parts of a woman’s body (same concept as the credits in the previous film); then he “playfully” pushed a woman away by the face while trying to talk on the phone; then he can only look at Pussy Galore as a sexual object he needs to consume even though she’s an obviously talented and successful villain and should be a serious threat to him; then he proceeds to force her into sex after she says no multiple times and physically fights with him to keep him off her and prevent him from kissing her.  How are we supposed to believe she just melts as soon as he manages to get his lips on hers?  All I could think for the next two days was, “did I just see James Bond rape Pussy Galore?”  Bond’s joke about Pussy calling Washington because he “must have appealed to her maternal instincts” was really the last straw. 

Forevermore, in my mind, Sean Connery will be the Bond who forced himself on Pussy Galore - he’s definitely not my favorite Bond after that.  Bond is no longer suave and cool; he’s just a pig.  To think that after From Russia with Love I was complaining about these Bond films being rated only PG and how I thought Bond was all about hot and sexy but we had yet to see any of that.  I honestly found Goldfinger hard to watch at certain moments because of Bond’s attitude toward sex and women.  I know it’s a long shot, but will someone please tell me that Bond evolves over time to acknowledge feminism and become at least a little more enlightened when it comes to women. 

I mean this man is completely obsessed with sex and his own sense of sexual entitlement, to the point that it’s interfering with his job.  It’s all he thinks about.  He even cracks jokes about it and at one point in the film has to take deep breaths and remind himself about “discipline” to prevent himself from chasing after a women who is speeding past him in a car.  And while his male colleagues seem to just go along with it and crack jokes about his way with the dames, I find it interesting that these aren’t always positive responses.  In some ways it comes off as jealousy; in others it is clearly a frustration with how his preoccupation obviously interferes with his work.  It’s telling that when Bond is in his most vulnerable position, that laser beam is headed straight for his crotch.  But why these enemies never just shoot him dead when he’s passed out in front of them will forever escape my understanding.

Misogyny aside, in the two films since Dr. No, James Bond--both the character and franchise-- seems to have come into his own.  The production quality is better with bigger explosions, more fire, smoke, and urgency, even if the acting and choreographed fight scenes still seem a bit stilted at times.  Watching Goldfinger in HD really helped--the colors are incredibly saturated compared to the usual drabness you get with 1960s color quality.  The iconic Aston Martin not only looks great; it does some pretty awesome stuff.  And Bond has access to more and more nifty gadgets, even though he always seems to have at least one scene where he tricks the enemy by hiding on the ceiling and attacking from above.  Bond’s international reputation and plot lines remain in place, but with Goldfinger it was either a simpler plot or I’m becoming better at following them.  Yet, of all the unbelievable an implausible plot lines and twists these Bond films have, I think Goldfinger, is definitely the worst so far.  The basic scheme that they’re working to stop just would never work.  I can’t remember the specifics of what was so unbelievable, but there were definite moments when we couldn't not laugh.

I’ve already checked Thunderball out of the library, so hopefully there won’t be as much lag time before the next update.  

Dr. No

[Originally posted to FB 3-3-13]

Last night, 2 March 2013, I watched my first ever James Bond film . . .

Overall, I was surprisingly underwhelmed by the whole experience.  This is the man whom so many men of a certain era wanted to be like?  I guess he’s sauve and attractive and clever, but really he didn’t seem like all that great a fighter, even weak and kind of inept at moments.  I mean he just takes orders from M (which I know makes sense, he’s supposed to, but I thought he’d give more pushback or something), and he tends to be easily distracted, especially by women (again, to be expected, I suppose).  Perhaps it’s because of my exposure to trailers and clips of future Bond movies or the fact that I watched a couple episodes of Buffy just before the movie, but I was really expecting more from Bond--more power, more ferocity, more something.

Definitely not as much action as we have come to expect from movies today.  I’m going to have to get used to a slower pace and less-impactful action sequences.  

The nuclear energy/reactor storyline is so 1962 awesome.  It is so era appropriate - trying to come to terms with nuclear energy, its benefits and dangers, and having no real understanding of things like fallout and radiation. Oh, and those Geiger counters!  I didn’t completely understand why a British secret agent was trying to prevent a Chinese villain from disrupting an American space ship launch from a Jamaican location, but that didn’t really matter in the end.

My initial thoughts on Sean Connery as James Bond - all I kept thinking was: ‘it’s the Highlander as Don Draper’ - or maybe it’s the other way around? - it was distracting (and, yes, kinda hot), but I’m hoping I’ll get used to it in the next three films.

‘Hmmm. . . they said Dr. No was Chinese, but he doesn’t look very Chinese.’  And then you watch the “making of” documentary and learn that all the Asian characters are actually Caucasian actors with “make-up,” which I know was common back then, but still bothersome.

As to be expected, the women are really just there as helpless playthings for Bond.  There are moments when I think they might be powerful and assertive (esp. Honey - I mean she carries that awesome knife), but they always fall flat and let Bond tell them what to do.  But man, that Ursula Andress is hot.  And I love that women back then are all natural (at least when they're not wearing girdles and all that crazy underwear). 

I really want an excuse to carry around a vintage cigarette case.  I love how sleek and cool they look, but I don’t know what I would carry in it.  I also was in love with the prison/apartment they set Bond and Honey up in on Crab Cay - I really want my future house to have a midcentury modern flair.

It’s amazing how little the Kingston airport and downtown have changed in 45+ years.  The airport in 1962 seriously looks exactly as I remember it when I was there 5 years ago.

First, Some Background

[Originally Posted to FB 3-3-13]

I come to “The James Bond Project” having never seen a James Bond film nor read any of the novels.  I am, of course, familiar with all the Bond clichés and tropes that travel through general popular culture - his greeting, his sexual allure, his signature drink, the theme song.  I even felt comfortable enough with these tropes to briefly reference Bond as one model of mid-century masculinity in my dissertation.  But the closest I come to having seen a Bond film are the Austin Powers spoofs of the genre (which, frankly, I didn’t truly realize were spoofs until well after I had seen the first two Austin Powers movies). 

The first Bond films made in my lifetime of which I was aware were those starring Pierce Brosnan.  As an overly romantic teenager at the time, those were not the kind of movies I was interested in watching (the action genre still remains one that I only rarely want to watch), but it means that Pierce Brosnan is “my” James Bond.  He’s who I picture when people say that name--I even have a picture of me and some classmates with Brosnan’s wax figure (as James Bond) at Madame Tussaud’s London.  I’m curious to see how I adjust to the different actors playing this iconic figure.  

By the time Daniel Craig was cast as the infamous 007, I decided I had gone so long without seeing the films that the only way I was willing to watch any of them was if I started at the beginning, with the very first film put out in the 1960s, and watched them all in order of release.  I have turned down many a movie night invitation in allegiance to this plan.  When I saw on the Oscars last week the 50th anniversary celebration of Bond in film, I figured now was as good a time as any to get started. 

I will use this blog [originally FB, until its Notes function recently decided to stop working properly] as a forum to relay some of my thoughts on the films as I go along.  I doubt I will comment on every film, but probably will take time to record some thoughts on groups of films.  I can’t say how coherent v. stream of consciousness or analytical v. superficial each post will be, but I’ll try to offer something since I got such a positive reaction when I announced the project on FB during the Oscars.