Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Double Oh...18: Tomorrow Never Dies

1997, Roger Spottiswoode

Tomorrow Never Dies Preamble:

For the longest time, this was my favourite Bond movie.  I'd say probably until the late '00's when I watched On Her Majesty's Secret Service for the first time did I hold this in my utmost regard of what a Bond film was or should be.  As we've established by now through 17 of these, I really didn't know shit about Bond until recently.  That said, I enter this film with affection and trepidation, I know that I loved it once, but it's been so long since I watched it I don't truly recall it, and my view of the Brosnan pictures was critically tainted by the subsequent two films, one which I outright hated, the other which I enjoyed by only the slimmest of margins.

The one thing I got out of Tomorrow Never Dies was Michelle Yeoh.  I'm struggling to remember if I had seen any of her wuxia films at this point (a friend held a screening of Wing Chun which would have been around the time of this film's release) and Crouching Tiger would be 3 years off still.  What I remember most is seeing a sit-down interview with some entertainment news program and absolutely melting at hearing her lilting voice, her almost, but not quite flawless English, her sense of humour and her great smile.  She was (and remains) one of my biggest celebrity crushes.

Villains:

Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay), is first seen in the opening sequence at a big terrorist swap meet.  He's purchasing a "GPS encoder", stolen from the US military, and it's later used to send a British Naval ship off-course and perilously close to Chinese waters.  This sets off a chain of events, aided by our bad guys, which threatens to spark a war.  Gupta acts as a master hacker and ace A/V guy.  He doesn't really have much to do with anything beyond being the techie help.  Honestly, I don't recall if he makes it out alive or not... he's thoroughly unmemorable, except that he's Ricky Jay.

Gupta is in the employ of Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a media baron whose newspapers are said to be capable of overthrowing governments.  Carver's goal is to launch a new 24 hour cable news network channel, and to be the king of all media.  He does this by "predicting the news" thus getting the scoop and seeming like the best news source in the world, I guess.  His predictions involve a lot of hired men sent out in the world to kill other people and cause strife.  He's a ruddy lunatic.  He spent probably hundreds of millions on building a stealth boat (buying materials off a Chinese General), and buying the GPS encoder, all so he could manipulate the British and Chinese in to a potential conflict that he could report on in the news.  Also, his ample donations to the General have allowed him to set up a bureau in Beijing and, should everything pan out, he'd get exclusive broadcast rights in the country for 100 years.  It's lunacy, and Pryce plays him completely unhinged.  Not only does he freely admit to anyone who'll listen that he doctors the news, but he revels in the fact that he gets away with it.  Carver meets his fate in the teeth of a really cool torpedo that's also part a boring drill (in a nice call back to earlier in the film)

Carver doesn't like to get his hands dirty, which is where Stamper (Gotz Otto) comes in.  He seems to be everywhere at once, and is the now-common giant, muscular, machine of a henchman.  He's the same style of uber-mensch that we've seen about a half dozen times, generally quiet, unnaturally strong, and unbelievably tough.  He runs the show on the stealth boat, and is the towering menacing figure meant to keep Carver's nemeses in line.  He dies when Bond traps his ankle underneath a rocket that's about to launch

It should also be mentioned that Stamper is the protege of Doctor Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli), a master of chakra torture.  It's Kaufman who kills Carver's wife and is tasked with pinning the murder on Bond.  The scene between Kaufman and Bond is a drastic tonal shift when Bond discovers Paris dead in his bed, and he's in a state of mourning, anger, and a heightened awareness of being in a trap.  In walks Kaufman and he's over-the-top seething with malevolence.  He's got Bond under his thumb while the lackeys are in the parking garage trying to break into Bond's car without any success.  Just as he's about to do away with Bond, Stamper informs him of the troubles and that he may need to extract from Bond how to gain access to the car, and it's a delightfully silly exchange we're only privy to one side of.  It's unlike anything in any Bond film before or since, a bit of a comedy sketch in the middle of an action movie.  Anyway, Kaufman gets tazed by Bond's phone and Bond gets the upper hand forcing Kaufman to shoot himself in the head.  "Wait, I'm just a professional doing a job" he pleads.  "Me too," Bond replies as he shoots him.  Fantastic scene.



Bond Girls:

After the credits roll, and the stuff with the British warship and the Chinese Migs and Carver's stealth ship happens, Moneypenny (the returning Samantha Bond) is advised to call in 007 at once, where Bond advises her that he's "just brushing up on a little Danish".  The Danish in question is Professor Inga Bergstrom (Cecilie Thomsen) who for some reason takes issue with being called "little".  I'm inclined to think that Bond was supposed to learn Danish (and he did pick up some) but got a little distracted.  She superficial, but somehow showing Bond as a preternatural womanizer seems necessary.

Trying to figure out how Carver managed to report on the sunken British ship in his newspapers when press time was before even MI-6 heard about it, they zero in on Carver, and M tells Bond to focus in on carver's wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher), with whom he had a relationship in the past.   The exact words were "pump her for information".  Moneypenny in this scene in the back of a limo feeds Bond his airplane tickets and some information and a bit of a flirtatious exchange.  I like Samantha Bond's Moneypenny because she's not a doter.  If she would like to have something with Bond, it doesn't show, as she seems quite aware and accepting of who he is and what his nature is, no jealousy involved

 After slapping him, then exchanging flirtatious barbs, Paris shows up at Bond's suite and makes it clear she's not there to flirt, she wants to hash out the past in more ways than one (despite being a married woman).  "Did I get too close?" she asks.  Bond confirms before he drops her dress, but while Brosnan effectively conveys affection towards Paris, he seems less in love and more in lust.  It's interesting though to see sort of the Bond girl after being a Bond girl, and what kind of attachment these women hold onto.  That almost needs its own story.  Hatcher was at the height of her Lois Lane foxiness in this movie (not that she's not still quite attractive today), even being a few months pregnant at the time, very well hidden.  Of course, Carver finds out, not of her infidelity but of her lying about how she knew Bond, and he has her killed.  Harsh.  I recall upon first viewing that I was absolutely shocked to see Hatcher's Bond girl go out in the first act... thankfully there's Michelle Yeoh taking center stage.

Yeoh is Wai Lin, a Chinese secret agent also investigating carver.  We first meet her under cover as a Chinese journalist infiltrating Carver's launch party for his new network.  Here she's in serious glam wear, a sleek, form fitting silver dress, and catches many eyes, but she's also very charming and keenly observant.  We see her a second time when, the next morning, Bond is infiltrating Carver's office and happens across her as well, having just set off the alarm and looking for an escape route.  It's a charmingly playful scene as the both evade gunfire separately and have a mini-rivalry in their egress.  In this scene she has this cool bracelet which shoots out a tether which she uses to scale down the wall.  Their paths cross a third time when Bond investigates the sunken British ship off the coast of Thailand and they fight at first, until they realize who the other is.  They head to surface, are captured by Stamper and taken to Carver's new tower (which it seems he just got in the past 6 hours, considering it was said earlier he didn't have any bureaus in China) where they're handcuffed and make a very well orchestrated escape (I like the "I'm driving" argument as they steal a motorcycle).  They work as a team (though she does try to lose him at one point), and she reveals to him her arsenal hidden within the walls of a modest looking bike shop.  She's got toys as good, or better, than Bond, and she kicks ass better than any Bond girl in the past.   She's so awesome, it's a shame she's captured and left dangling, in need of rescue, and equally a shame that she never gets a really great martial arts fight in (the one in the bike shop isn't even close...).  They've created a few female doubles for Bond over the years, and I keep waiting for them to take one and make a Bond film out of them.  Wai Lin would be so awesome in her own Bond-styled feature.  Wai Lin and Bond don't have any real romantic involvement until the very end, where they wind up on the remains of Carver's destroyed stealth sub...and, well, we know by now that being on the water is Bond's biggest turn-on, and Wei Lin seems more than game.

Theme/Opening Credits:

I cannot tell you how much I disliked Sheryl Crow back in 1997.  "Everyday Is A Winding Road" was just one of many banes of my existence on pop radio in the year preceding it.  A precursor to Nu-Country, Crow was just not anything close to the indie music I was invested in at the time, nor the hip-hop I had grown up with.  But damn if this song I didn't love, and kind of hated myself for loving.  I recall wincing when she hits to sustained "day" notes, just seeming shy of her reach, and yet I like that she has to restrain herself knowing she can't hit it that high.  There's a pulsating element that alternates with it's epic sweep which feels modern, but with a 1930's New York big band chanteuse throwback.  It's fricking great.  The actual lyrics may not resonate or hook in the same way that some of the other Bond themes do, but the melody just envelops you.
The title sequence is appealing, a mash of technology and titillation (foreshadowing the copious amounts of nudity available on the internet, perhaps, unintentionally).   There's a lot of broken glass, and arms stockpiles, but it's the brief x-ray of the gun being loaded with bullets, and later of it firing,  ricocheting off multiple screens, creating a shower of broken glass.  Some of the elements seem a little odd, like the floating diamonds and the woman freefalling off the diamond into a planet, but for the most part it's really interesting, if inconsistent.



Bond:

Brosnan seemed ready for the role in Goldeneye so Tomorrow Never Dies is just more status quo.  Again, he's very physical, and at times harsh in his brutality.  While Bond's always been a very sexual character, I think Brosnan is really the first to really bring that out, perhaps only because he's the guy playing Bond in an era where there's a more liberal attitude towards sex on film.  As well he really brings the steam when he starts getting it going.  One gets the sense that Brosnan really, really liked playing all aspects of Bond, and wanted the best of all worlds (the fighter, the camp icon, the sex god, the sleuth, the spy, the wounded puppy, etc).  This I think is the peak payoff, but rewatches of the subsequent films will say for certain. 

Movie:

Tomorrow Never Dies is easily my favourite of the Brosnan Bond films, which I admit isn't the most audacious statement given that its only real competition is Goldeneye, but I feel it's the more enjoyable of the two with the least amount of demerits.  It feels bigger, more globe-spanning, with more at stake.  It's true, Carver is one of the worst villains in all of Bondome (and by worst, I mean utterly ridiculous in his motivations and non-sensical) though Price makes him very enjoyable to watch.  The idea that a media mogul would manipulate events around the world, spending a fortune to do so in order to capture a story first and to gain exclusive broadcast rights in China is preposterous in a series filled with idiotic motivations.  But despite that, the stakes are high.  They're high in the pre-credits sequence where Bond is trying to avert a nuclear detonation, and they remain high throughout.  Not only does World War III loom, but there's a 48 hour countdown to preventing it.  Talk about ratcheting up the tension...
I love the sequences at the start of the film in the MI-6 den, with all the monitors and technology.  It's a really cool set that is sorrily underused.  The only set that rivals it is Wai Lin's bike shop.
It is not a very dynamically directed film, I mean, Spottiswoode directed Turner and Hooch and Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot for Q's sake.  But he turns out a very straightforward, very watchable product.  It could be better looking, sure, and the fights and action could be more eye-popping, but even so, they're all still entertaining.  It's like having a hamburger and wanting some garlic aioli on it but only having mustard, ketchup and relish available.  It'll more than do, it's just not spruced up.
Much of what I love about this film, honestly, are the Bond girls.  In a recent heated conversation about Bond, a friend noted that it almost doesn't matter who plays Bond, it's the people around him that really make a film.  Unlike the next film, I don't think there's a miscast role here.  We've got M, her Chief of Staff, Moneypenny Charles Robinson, and the return of Jack Wade, all on support, and the aforementioned villains and Bond Girls.  It really is the strength and charm of Michelle Yeoh that carries this film home for me, but it's also one of Teri Hatcher's most memorable works despite the brief screentime.  The worst thing about this film is probably that there's not a good poster for it.

Q-gadgets:

A little light on the gadgetry in this one, a cel-phone that doubles as a remote control for the new BMW that Bond's given, as well it has a stun gun and an electronic lockpick/safecrack device.
His watch also has a small plastic explosive which he can use as a remote detonator. 

Wai Lin's secret lair is full of gadgets, too bad we never meet the quartermaster who stocks it for her.

Classification [out of 01.0]: 00.8... it's not only one the best Brosnan but one of the better Bond films overall, and that's not just nostalgia talking.

3 Short Paragraphs: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

2013, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) -- download

I haven't read the remaining books in the series yet so I was rather pleased to see that this movie focused on her reaction to having survived the Hunger Games. Nightmares, PTSD and a general disillusionment with what she has become is her mindspace as the movie starts. Its not surprising, because no matter how well she pulled off the "two winners" trick in the first movie, the government is well aware she played them. The Hunger Games are supposed to be for their benefit, not the oppressed peoples of the districts. Despite the luxury heaped on the victors, the games are still intended as punishment on a populace that failed in a distant rebellion. I am glad the story picked up solidly in this mess.

Jennifer Lawrence is just brilliant as Katniss Everdeen. I won't argue with her legions of teenage fans about the faithfulness of the portrayal, but for me its how camera friendly Lawrence disappears into the character so we forget all her publicity, for only the character. Yes, there is the lean, toned body that contributes but its also the way she holds her face and the facade the character puts on when in front of her public. There is a weight to that role that she carries so well.

This is the filler book in the story, between the setup of the world and the characters, and the final book which deals (or so I expect) with the new rebellion. This is where a traumatized young girl realizes she wasn't as clever as she hoped and survival of the games wasn't enough. Now she is a figurehead in a growing upset around the districts, a role she again does not want to play. People are dying in her name. So, I was glad when she was tossed into a conspiracy later in the movie, where she is just one of many. Where she is not the only capable, clever victor. I just adored the angry, uncouth nature of Johanna Mason who obviously never has played the Capital game. I applauded Cinna's fashion rebellion that he had to know was going to cost him. It makes me wonder if Katniss will continue to play a supporting role or realize she has to take the reins of this action she inspired.


Monday, January 27, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: I, Frankenstein

2014, Stuart Beattie (Tomorrow When the War Began) -- cinema

I can honestly say I was actively excited about this movie. It fits my type of genre flick so wonderfully, with a tortured mysterious possible anti-hero, more than one type of mythical antagonist and a dark & gritty setting. These types of movies are never good but I enjoy most of them, Underworld and Van Helsing being a pair of my favourites. And considering this one was written by the guy who also wrote Underworld I was expecting a schlocky movie full of great world building and exciting adventure.

What I got was... well, boring. Can I actually say a movie that was basically wall to wall action boring? Yes, because no matter how well done the fight scenes were done, after you have seen them three times you want something else. Think of the opening sequence of Blade and apply it to the entire movie. I cannot latch onto what exactly bored me but it feels like it was the lack of deep world building. It was like the next to last episode in a TV series season, with all the background dispensed for a drive to complete a story arc. Nobody was fleshed out, the bad and good guys were all cardboard and no real motivations -- good guy wants to kill all bad guys, bad guy wants to Be Bad Guy.

The trailer tells you all you need to know. Gargoyles / Angels are fighting Bad Guys / Demons and Adam / Frankenstein (finally, a good reason to call him Frankenstein, i.e. he is the Doctor's "son") is just stuck between the two factions. Fast forward, for no reason than to highlight that he is ageless and have the story set in current times, to the same pseudo-European city that Underworld is set in, where the Bad Guys are trying to recreate the Frankenstein process so they can give the endless hordes of Hell a nice supply of uncontested bodies to possess. So, the Gargoyles and the Demons fight. And fight. And fight. And Frank growls grouchily. And fights.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

We Agree: Her

2013, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) -- cinema

P.S. There is something to be said in that there is only one poster that Google hits for this movie.

I cannot talk about this movie without revealing some pretty important details, so pretty much take the entire review as a SPOILER ALERT. But, it is not a movie with surprise reveals so they may not be so spoilerish to you.

Her is both a science fiction movie, set in an indeterminate future where the release of an artificial intelligence OS is met not with incredulity but only sense of consumer interest. And it is a movie where love is focused on communication. I could do entire reviews from both fronts, in my usual 3 paragraph format. Instead, I will revert to normal, everyday format of the reviewer.

That in of itself is strange, when the format that was supposed to be the occasional concept when I didn't have much to say, has become the norm, and the longer, characteristic format is the occasional.

The Future. The future looks spectacular in this movie. This is the future of 1920s futurist, full of clean surfaces, buildings connected by wide open concrete spaces, bullet trains and relaxed leisure. The movie is set in LA, but was shot in both LA and Shanghai, something I caught onto very quickly. The US just doesn't have the expansive, pedestrian friendly urban spaces that look.... well, current. That can also translate as covered in concrete. Many wide shots in the movie were CG enhanced, massive skylines of skyscrapers and high-rises, from left screen to right. LA is not that big now. This was MegaCity Two without the dystopia.

It is an idealistic future with technology either unobtrusive or completely absent. Think, Minority Report with its intrusive advertising and full screen interfaces; then forget that. Think of any movie set in a near future and you will see giant TV screens and blaring advertising. There was a surprising lack of media or advertising in this movie, what little there was, relegated to spoken word emails, easily skipped or deleted.  Even the advertising that inspires inspires Theodore Twombly to buy the OS, is more an installation art piece than an in your face ad.

Computers play an important role, and no I don't just pun-ishly mean Scarlett Johansen, but they have a place in the movie, ever present in the main characters' lives. They are presented as just beautiful monitors, more like high-res Umbra picture frames of white or natural wood. The interface is either voice or touch, via the virtual mouse/keyboard space in front of the monitor, i.e. the desk's surface. It states, and reflects on what is already happening now, that computers will someday play an everyday role, much like telephones and TVs now. I am sure there was a time when the telephone was considered a tool that only the techie in the family knew how to handle.

The unobtrusive nature of tech is extended to the mobile interface, a small pocket sized device that looks more like an embossed leather & chrome business card holder than a smart phone. Again, most interaction is done via voice with the hand-held only used for video and small screen. You might think the days of being distracted by your device are gone in this future, but the fact that he can stand on the elevator and talk to his PC and nobody reacts at all means people are used to everyone just babbling to their computers all the time. It would make for a crowded, noisy train space. But I imagine everyone keeps it to a low conversational level.

The other minor comment on technology is that it is ever connected, everywhere, all the time. I mean, the wifi they use is always on, everywhere. Twombly is connected in his apartment, on the subway, in the underground malls, at the beach and even in the snowy mountains when he takes a vacation trip. Computing technology is ubiquitous, all mingled together and indistinguishable.

This is a beautiful future, clean and well dressed. I will go so far as to say poverty may be gone as well as unemployment. This may be me reading into their nice lives, but everyone was living a unstressed, upper middle class life full of realized potential. And yes, well dressed, but by gawds I hated the retro, stylish geeky high waisted pants even if they had comfortable written all over them. I like Graig's comparison to Tom Ford doing comfort wear.

And yet, this movie is not just a commentary on the future, a retro future of times predicted in the 60s. That is just the setting, the setting well thought out and considered. But this is a movie about communication. Of which romantic love is just one example. It is the primary example, the impetus to tell a story, where two people (and I am completely comfortable calling Samantha a person) know each other via communication only. Like the lovers I knew who met via chat rooms in the mid-90s, all the extraneous material of body and voice and other senses have been replaced with the mind, the creativity of what we envision and the senses we are left with when all are absent. Raw communication.

This future accepts unconditionally the importance of human connection. It is a utopia where we have understood tech is just a tool, a toy, but our interactions are the most important. Twombly has my dream job, where he applies his romantic nature and skilled writing to crafting letters between two caring individuals who just lack the poetic words to write a proper letter. Yes, a letter. He might dictate it via a computer and generate a hand-writing font from a laser printer and post the letters via a mailbox of lights and beeps, but he is writing a letter; a letter. One that is mailed and received. As a man who was once addicted to hand written and mailed letters, I get that romantic sentiment. I get it. Its important. Its tangible.

And yet Twombly is emotionally stunted. His previous marriage ended because he couldn't communicate how uncomfortable he was with his wife's introverted and emotionally distant personality. Yet, he exhibits his own. And yet he accepts Samantha as a fascinating creature almost instantly, someone to interact with, like a friend you just met in a social environment you didn't set up. He accepts her. From the day he boots her, she is a person to him, not just an OS. And as she grows, so does he. She, and yes she, helps him grow and get past his blocks.

I could go on and on, but I should leave a bit for you to experience. Both in the science fiction and in the loveliness of  the communication. How judgements of others are dispensed with for understanding. How I believe the AI OS and her lifespan with Twoombly was intentional. How the contribution to people's growth and expansion was intentional, in both the plot of the movie and the plot of the OS developers.

There is so much to this movie.

I am happy I saw it. So, tell us what you thought.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

American Hustle

2013, David O. Russell

At this point I'm a few years and a few Oscars behind on David O. Russell's career.  I need to take a step back into Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter and I think I need another couple of runs through I Heart Huckabees.  I've heard little but good things about his previous award-bait efforts, and likewise the early buzz on American Hustle was that it was another solid contender for best American film of 2013.  The trailers looked funky and the cast a dynamic collision of those previous two films, all built around a true story in early 80's, post-disco decor.  It was all wood paneling, permed hair and flowing rayon.

The promise of American Hustle was the fun of watching swindlers swindle, at first for their own benefit, but then for the good of the people.  But that promise (or premise rather) didn't quite pan out so much.  Christian Bale is the film's lead as Irving Rosenfeld, a confident and cautious lifelong huckster, owning a chain of legit dry cleaning and window replacement operations, as well as making some solid coin on the side with loan fraud.  He meets and connects immediately with Amy Adams' Sydney Prosser, whose convincing (for 1980) fake British accent they use to draw even more suckers into the scam.  Their partnership is romantic as well as enterprising, but the hitch is Irving's wife and stepson, the former (Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Laurence) who has him in a vice grip of twisted emotions and the latter who he refuses to lose in divorce.

But things only become more complicated when Sydney gets a little to eager with a deal that Irving is uncomfortable with, and she gets busted by eager FBI upstart Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso uses Irving's emotional ties to Sydney to get him to cooperate in a hustle of his own, which starts out as taking down other notable shysters in New York and quickly balloons into taking down corrupt politicians through entrapment.  Richie's key focus is on New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), with his eyes constantly wandering to Sydney.

The "hustle" of American Hustle is as much an emotional one as a monetary one, if not moreso.  The romantic manipulations of Sydney, Richie, and Rosalyn make it very difficult to trust anything that they're doing, but through it all Irving rarely lies about how he feels in any given moment or about anyone.  With Sydney and Richie, running a con is an act, but Irving's mantra is you have to live it and believe it.   Part of the trouble, though, is as a viewer one is never quite certain where you are at any time with anyone other than Irving.  Is it a testament to the cast's acting ability that they can act believable when they're acting in character, and equally act somewhat unbelievable when they're in character as their character?  Cooper particularly excelled at looking somewhat shaky when running a con, but I'm still not certain that's a good thing.  Was it an acting choice on his part to convey that he's "in charater" as his character, or was it just his character getting close to blowing his cover?

As much as Bale was the POV center of the film, and was excellent in conveying the mounting weight of the operation, both physically and emotionally on him, he also seemed to be slightly out of step with the rest of the movie tonally.  There was a darkly comedic bent to the film that seemed to subvert so much of the weightiness, but Bale seemed almost incapable of joining in.  Scenes between him and Renner were amazing, though, and likewise Cooper and Adams managed to navigate the tonal shifts within a scene expertly, but it was Jennifer Laurence who destroyed the screen.  She got to be the loose canon, slightly unhinged, a bit scatterbrained, and very, very sly, Rosalyn was built to be a scene stealer and Laurence took every bit.  It was unfortunate then that the relationship between her and Bale seemed off.  Arguably it was supposed to feel off, but there was absolutely no chemistry between them, and the obvious age gap was left ignored.

There were a couple supporting MVPs, the first being Louis CK as Ritchie's boss in the FBI whom Ritchie pushes around with a furious vigor.  The arc that plays out between the two could have supported a film on it's own, it was hilarious and delightful.  CK talks frequently about how mediocre an actor he is, but he definitely undersells himself, particularly in the sad sack department.  The second MVP is a cameo that's best left unspoiled.

I thought the acting was universally phenomenal in American Hustle, with incredible sets and wardrobes, a real feast in many regards, but in the end I didn't love the film.  I found it meandering too often and its plot more convoluted than necessary with the stakes seemingly ever-changing and not all that clear.  Beyond that, as great as the acting was, the characters weren't easy to invest in.  Outside of CK and Renner's roles, which were victims in a sense, the main quartet never seemed to demand that you root for them, and it leaves it feeling a hollow experience.  It's close to an amazing film with somewhat of a bum story.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Her

2013, Spike Jonze -- in theatre

I thought I knew what I was getting into with Her. The advertisements seemed to indicate an awkward loner (oddly dressed and crudely mustachioed) falling in love with his SIRI-esque mobile app.  Of course I also knew it was a Spike Jonze film and that appearances can be, and often are deceiving.  His films may rely upon simple-to-grasp concepts, but rarely (well, never actually) are they emotionally simplistic, and even that easy-to-grasp concept tends to lead the way to richer, more stimulating ones.

Her decimated my expectations within the first five minutes, where we're introduced to Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly spilling his heart out with romantic sentiments, dictating them to a computer, which then prints them out with the appearance of a handwritten letter.  He places this letter into an envelope, and along with the other output from his workday, he places atop a large glowing cube -- a sort of scanner -- and then are dropped into it.  Twombly works for a service that provides heartfelt, personalized letters from its clients.  It seems an odd profession, but never are we given the sense that it's a marginalized one, and the company seems to be an ongoing concern for nearly a decade.

Twombly, for his part, seems a very thoughtful and sensitive person, but not exclusively so.  He engages in conversation with a coworker (played by the always enjoyable Chris Pratt) and it's easy to see that he's as personable in his life as he is in his letters.  Perceptions completely dashed.  When Twombly returns home, the state of his otherwise impressive flat immediately conveys his recent breakup, as does a voice message from his friend and neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) inviting him to a party and setting him up on a date.

The film takes its time establishing Twombly's world, his funk, and the world around him before introducing OS1, the new operating system on the market that features a fully realized artificial intelligence capable of learning and growing...not just an app, but a friend.  Twombly buys the product, and after a few establishing questions, out crops the voice of Scarlett Johannson who names herself Samantha.  Samantha quickly establishes herself not as a robotic presence, but a personality, one that immediately demonstrates a sense of self-awareness, a sense of curiosity, and a sense of humour.  Perhaps not desperate for companionship, but certainly welcome of it, especially within the rather safe confines of dealing with someone who isn't truly there.

From there, Twombly's relationship with Samantha grows with near relentless conversation.  She becomes an essential part of his life but there's a constant struggle within the film about whether Samantha is a fully conscious being or if she's programmed for appeasing.  As the film progresses, Jonze never shies from exploring the ideas of artificial intelligence, how capable they are and how quickly they can learn and grow, and even how emotional they can become.  They may not be human but they can evolve to emulate humanity exceptionally well, yet still not confined to human limitations.  Just as she does intellectually, Samantha also rapidly grows her emotional intellect, and she's able to resolve emotional turmoil a lot faster than Theodore.

Jonze does a lot of things masterfully in this film.  He avoids so many common cliches of artificial intelligence, the malevolent Hal 9000, the world conquering Terminators, the wanna-be-a-real-boy Data from Start Trek:TNG, and the ethical/civic parable of I, Robot not even registering as part of the equation.  Jonze approaches the subject matter subtly, and all through the metaphoricle eyes of a character we never see.  More of the impact of artificial intelligence happens in the background of the film as, at first, Twombly is the only one, or one of few walking around engaging with his mobile device, but scene after scene shows the growth of the AI in society.  As more people engage with their AIs, the more accepted relationships with them becomes, even romantic ones.  It's not universal, but it's more widely and commonly appreciated than not.

One of the elements of Jonze's world here seems to be a focus on communication, and the power of words.  Filmed in Shanghai (but standing in for LA), there seems to be a dearth of advertising, and television seems to be obsolete.  Twombly receives news over his earpiece, and he plays a holographic videogame which seems to be as much about developing a relationship with the characters as accomplishing objectives.  The point of the film is hammered home in the sex scene between Twombly and Samantha, which fades to black and we only hear the lovers utterances as they communicate.  It's a captivating scene, intimate and honest, and sexier than almost any flashes of skin most films provide.

What I didn't expect out of Her was a science-fiction film, and it's as much SF as it is a romance, or a comedy, or a drama.  One of the key indicators of this is not just Shanghai's almost retro-futuristic appearance (the choices for settings and locations were amazing) or the subtle advances in technology, but the wardrobe and style of the film.  As fashion cycles and eats itself and keeps cropping back up but in different ways, the outfits in Her are firmly inspired by the mid-80's aesthetic, collarless, loose-fitting button-downs and ugly sweaters, along with mustaches and moussed hair.  At the same time the pants adopt the high-waistedness of 1920's but with sweatpants-inspired banded ankles.  It's like if Tom Ford were designing comfort wear.  The style of the film is both retro and futuristic which fully works to its advantage.

The story of Her carries through to its natural resolution, and it's a balanced one that doesn't disappoint.  It carries through the idea of what an emotional relationship with a liberated AI would be like and where it would end up.  It's sweet, rich and beautiful, with just a hint of tentativeness.  Jonze has made only three features prior to this, but each has their own sustaining merits, primarily being unique.  What Jonze does is generally successful (at least in terms of what he's trying to achieve) but is rarely commercially so, thus there's not a lot of emulators out there.  This is perhaps his most fully realized story, with his most developed characters... and in that regards, I guess this is indeed his best (if not most memorable) film.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Double Oh...17: Goldeneye

1995, Martin Campbell

Goldeneye Prologue:  This is where I came in.  When I should have really came in with the Dalton features or even the later Moore pcitures, this was my Bond movie, and my initiation into Bond culture and lore.  While I've always considered Moore to be "my Bond", going through this Double Oh series has revealed that I had next to no actual experience with Moore's films, and the harsh reality is that Pierce Brosnan was my Bond... for better or worse.

I wasn't quite 20 yet when Goldeneye arrived in theatres, and after six years without a Bond feature (the longest pause between films by 3 years), the excitement in media, around my local comic shop, and at school even was tangible.  Goldeneye delivered to my generation its first Bond film, and to moviegoers past a whole new Bond, the first Bond after the Cold War ended, with the USSR was dissolved and the Wall came down.  I loved the film, it was Bond to me, mainly because it's the only Bond I really knew.  I saw it in the theatre, watched it on Laserdisc, copied it to tape, and then watched it on tape.  I watched Goldeneye more times than I watched all other Bond films combined (which is saying that I actually hadn't watched very many). Then came Goldeneye on Nintendo 64, and as much as the film revitalized the franchise, the video game immortalized it in a generation of kids and young adults.

I haven't seen the film since videotape was killed by DVD at the turn of the Millennium, and to be honest, beyond a few images of Sean Bean and Famke Janssen, I didn't remember much of the film at all.  Despite following Brosnan through all of his features as Bond, each successive movie lessened my interest in the character, rather than bolstered it.  I've wondered for a few years now, since at least Quantum of Solace debuted, whether Goldeneye still held up, but I could never bring myself to watch it, just in case it didn't.

Villains:  The opening sequence finds 007 meeting up with 006 (Sean Bean) in a Soviet chemical weapons facility where they're to destroy it.  Unfortunately they trip the alarm and 006 is captured by General Arkadi Grigorovich Ourumov (Gottfried John) and a couple dozen armed soldiers... too much for even Bond to handle.  Ourumov apparently shoots 006 in the head, and Bond's left to fend for himself.
Years later Ourumov reappears as the commander of Russia's space weapons division.  He visits the Severnaya Control Center, where he requests an unscheduled systems check of the Goldeneye protocols, but his associate Natalya kills everyone with sadistic pleasure, after which they target the facility with Goldeneye satellite and make their escape in a stolen prototype of the Tiger helicopter that shields it from the Goldeneye's EMP effect.  Ourumov obviously isn't doing this on the Russians behalf.  Working secretly for the Janus crime syndicate, he returns to his superiors and puts the blame on Siberian separatists and (for some reason) sees it as necessity to resign, but stays on when he finds out there was a survivor.  When Bond and the survivor are captured, he kills his superior but fails to kill Bond.  As the film progresses, he continues to fail and he seems more and more bumbling, drinking heavily, until Janus, tired of his incompetence, just shoots him outright.

Janus is an international crime lord and finances the heist French military's Tiger helicopter.  It turns out to be Alex Trevelyan, 006, which, I remember back in 1995 was mind blowing.  Bond's dead ally was his enemy! Sean Bean at the time wasn't Sean Bean of today, so for a double-oh agent to be killed then turn out to be the big bad guy was incredible.  Trevelyan's parents were Kossaks, survivors of Britain's betrayal, but their misery led to Alex becoming an orphan (they make the best double-oh agents, according to Silva, another ex-double-oh as villain in Skyfall).  Alex has held a longstanding grudge, not just towards Britain, but everyone, MI-6, Bond, he's just angry and selfish.  Bond chides him that, when it all comes down to it, he's just a petty robber.  Trevelyan is not a cartoon villain for Bond, which again differentiates him from the Moore and Connery films, and Bean plays him with a lot of jealousy, pain and anger, highly skilled but his emotions cloud his intelligence.

Boris (Alan Cumming) a genius computer hacker, first seen infiltrating the us department of justice.  He works at the Severnaya Control Center but is spared as he's in league with Ourumov and Janus.  He's egocentric and juvenile, the prototypical tech geek.  He's a total cliche but a very enjoyable cliche, played with utter gusto by Cumming.

Valentin Zukovski (Robbie Coltrane) is an ex-KGB agent, now Russian gangster, who Bond once shot in the leg.  Their tenuous past leads to a tenuous partnership as Bond seeks out information.

Bond Girls:

After the opening tease and credits, the film begins with Bond cruising along a winding mountainside highway in his Aston Martin DB5 with Caroline (Serena Gordon) in the passenger seat.  Caroline is an MI6 phychologist who is assessing Bond on his nature, particularly in light of the new M taking charge of the division.  As they cruise along, a red convertible Ferrari driven by Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) pulls beside them in the opposing lane and with a wry, flirty smile, the chase begins.  Caroline is freaking out, and Xenia is a skilled, aggressive driver, which leads to a few close calls as the road keeps winding downhill.  Eventually Xenia spins out in avoiding a collision and Caroline commands Bond to stop (who makes a cheeky comment about having no problem taking orders from a woman).  He uses the moment, her heart racing and completely flustered to totally seduce her, and he does with ease.

M (Dame Judy Dench) is Bond's new superior, and with only a few short scenes, Dench fully takes charge of the role.  While the Daniel Craig Bond films posit her as a mother figure, these put her in slight opposition with him.  She disapproves of his almost pathological sexism and his violent nature, but sees his usefulness.  She calls Bond "a sexist, mysogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war".  She also thinks, perhaps not incorrectly, that Bond sees her as an accountant, having not earned her position nor having the fortitude it takes to juggle with people's lives, the "Evil Queen of Numbers" it's said.  She's very severe, in a colorless, collarless suit, but she has poise, and a manner of speaking which seems all about control.

Onatopp is prevalent throughout the film.  She can expertly drive as well as fly a helicopter, she smokes cigars, and is an aggressive baccarat player.  Within her first two scenes she's poised as a match for Bond (even mirroring his drink order).  She walks away from Bond having courted a Canadian Admiral but at the time of their meeting it's obvious to Bond she is in the employ or accompaniment of someone else entirely.  We cut to Onatopp having violent foreplay with the admiral which ends with her orgasmically crushing him with her thighs. Using his credentials, and her sexy, statuesque figure, she infiltrates a new French stealth naval ship and steals the prototype Tiger helicoper.  Later she cuts down the entire staff of a space weapons facility with squeals of pleasure and delight, an obvious sadist, but also a masochist.  She`s extremely tough, strong, a capable fighter.  Invariably she meets her end getting crushed by her harness when the helicopter she's attached to crashes and pulls her into a tree.  I bet she loved it.

Natalya Simonova (Isabela Scorupco) was the sole survivor of Onatopp and Ourumov`s attack on  the Severnaya Control Center.  She`s a second-level programmer, whom Boris (and later Bond) perpetually underestimate, probably because she`s attractive and generally pretty quiet.  She doesn`t flaunt her skills or intellect at all.   Though she`s a primary character of the film, she`s not much of a presence, Scorupco keeping it all rather subdued.  It`s only in the final act, where she shows off her computer skills and demonstrates her weapons training (a kind of out of left field revelation, all things considered) that she shows any interesting spark at all.  She`s really fairly dull.

Samantha Bond takes over as Moneypenny and this time the characters seems well aware of who Bond is, and more than Moneypenny's past, is aware that flirting is just flirting.  There`s not a lot of pining.

Irina is Russian gangster Zukovski's moll, and she's played by Minnie Driver in a delightful cameo.  Her scene involves singing a horrendous rendition of Stand By Your Man in a thick Russian accent, wearing tacky cowboy gear.


Opening Credits/Theme:  This opening credits sequence is an utter breath of fresh visuals after 30 years of Maurice Binder's often brilliant and just as often laughable title sequence.  The sequence, by Daniel Kleinman still features the sexy silhouettes of writhing nude figures, but it also does more than just curiously titillate, it tells a bit of a story in the fall of communism, the shadowy, curvy figures donning industrial tools and tearing down stone representations of Russian iconography.  Beyond that, there's a lot more coordination at work here.  Where Binder's sequences often seemed crude and hastily arranged in the choreography department, all the different figures seem to be in rhythm with one another, as well as with the music.  It's visually quite captivating.
  This, of course, all happen atop the theme sung by Tina Turner, which is in spots quite catchy, though unfortunately not as a whole.  It's definitely got a Bond theme feel, which certainly sets the tone for the film, and Turner's husky timbre fits perfectly the pop and soul mix that the best Bond themes always seem to have.  The song was actually written by U2's Bono and the Edge, which accounts for both its good and bad parts.



The score for Goldeneye, unlike the majority of Bond features, was not done by John Barry, but instead by frequent Luc Besson collaborator Eric Serra.  Serra's penchant for prog synths really dates the soundtrack of the film, and at times is wincingly painful.  The best scored sequence of the film is during the tank chase, which he did not compose, instead provided by John Altman, which felt perfectly Bondian.  Serra provides the end credits song, a full-on Peter Gabriel pastiche, "The Experience of Love" which is either full-on corny or quite good, depending on which side of the Gabriel-pastiche fence you fall.

Bond: The film opens with Bond running along the top of a dam and making a formidable bungee jump off of, firing off a harpoon gun with self-reeling cable to reel him safely to the entrance hatch.  He infiltrates the base and meets up with 006 where things fall apart but Bond escapes by chasing a light aeroplane down the runway on a motorcycle, doing a freefall off the cliff edge and catching the plane as the facility explodes.  Both sequences are utterly amazing (though his use of a machine gun is perhaps too unbelievably effective), and easily some of the best Bond stunts ever done.  It immediately sets the tone for Brosnan's arrival.
  With Bond's seduction of Samantha which at the same time high-speed flirting with Xenia, he's got the ladykiller part down.  Unlike Dalton's Bond, Brosnan is effortlessly quippy and seeping both refinement and charm.  While we know already things go downhill from here for Brosnan, he totally fits the part immediately.  He was ready for it a decade prior, but he gets a great introduction.
  The best part of Bond in this film is his repeating of "yes sir" to the various women in the movie, as if willing himself into getting comfortable with his new boss.  Beyond that there's a great scene where he improvises a towel as a weapon while he's infiltrating Xenia's boat.  It's quick but a very cool moment.  Brosnan is also the most physical of the Bonds (until Craig), doing a lot of sliding around during gunfights.

Movie:  Overall, Goldeneye still holds up as both an action movie and as a Bond installment.  The very minor sub-plot involving M and Bond's acceptance of her is perhaps it's finest touch.  It still fits withing the usual Bond structure, balancing its over the top aspects like the tank chase with its sharper scripting, particularly in the Janus reveal.  It still feels like a big, event movie, even if some elements haven't aged well (if you look closely you can pick apart the visual effects, the greenscreen and the miniatures).  It still feels modern but it suffers somewhat under the weight of what Brosnan's Bond will become.  There's a time for acceptance and forgiveness for Die Another Day, but that time has yet to come.
  The template of this feature was originally supposed to be Dalton's contractual third (final) entry and you can see in certain aspects where Dalton's more serious Bond would fit, but other elements were tailored for a new Bond, the tongue firmly planted in cheek. and it feels somewhat distant from License To Kill.
  The weakest spot of the film is, as always, in the romance part.  Bond rarely handles romance well, and it's just as clunky here.  Natalya seems to fall in love with 007 far too quickly, too eager to risk her life for him, and too invested in making him open up to her.  The film's worst moment finds them on a beach, the sun setting and Bond looking longingly out on the ocean.  Natalya confronts him about his duty/vendetta and she gets angry, and he kisses her forcefully.  It's movie romance at its height and there's no honesty in the scene at all.  Were it excised from the film it wouldn't be missed.
  Finally, in one of the odder casting notes, Joe Don Baker returns to the Bond series as 007's Russian CIA contact Jack Wade.  It's odd, since Baker was the ultimate villain two films previous in The Living Daylights.  Here he's in American blowhard form (he kind of excels at these parts) and he  teads dangerously close to J.W. Pepper territory, calling Bond "Jimmy" or "Jimbo" and just generally being a broad character... but the film is actually balanced enough to allow it without much difficulty.

Q Gadgets -  telescopic spy cam that feeds wirelessly to HQ,
The car's CD player is a printer
Behind the headlights - stinger missiles
Leather belt with 75 foot repelling device
Rocket launcher leg cast
X-ray document scanner serving tray
Pen grenade
Telephone booth airbag
Laser Watch

Classification (out of 01.0): 00.7 -- most of it works, some of it doesn't, but it's got some great Bond moments

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Thor: The Dark World

2013, Alan Taylor (TV including Mad Men, Game of Thrones and The Sopranos) -- cinema

Unlike Graig, my rewatching of the first movie has not generated any fondness for the movie in my mind. But it has tempered my dislike for it. I jumped on the Loki bandwagon and would line up to see his solo movie. While Marmy rewatches for shirtless Thor shots, I rewatch for the tortured Loki scenes -- he really is a bad guy in his blood, but he was raised as a good guy by a loving family and that conflict is done so well. This movie finally gives him some redemption, some, but not much and not much more than he deserves. It also re-establishes the balance between romance and super heroics but this time, dives headlong into the battle scenes. The first may have had to cop out on such to run through the back story, this one needs no such padding and the battle in London is breath taking.

Thor has been away for a few years, dealing with the rebuilding of the Bifrost and the uprisings on the other planets/dimensions/worlds that make up the Nine Realms. I was never sure if these were supposed to be separate planets or other universes or what. Its clear Asgard is not a planet in the traditional sense but Earth cannot be the only one in Midgard or we wouldn't have the aliens from The Avengers movie. Anywayz, that is where Thor has been. But Dr. Jane think he dumped her. So, of course, the Gods of Dramatic Effect (10th realm?) have to drag her into something that requires his return to Midgard, a plot for the Elves of Svartalfheim (excuse you) to doom all the Realms to the Darkness from which they were born. These are not LotR elves, but scary powerful Norse elves. In D&D terms, these would be Dark Elves. But really, in this pseudo-myth world they are just another type of alien. They were thought to be defeated eons ago but have hidden away until the time was opportune. An alignment of the Realms is making it thus.

The battle in London made this movie for me. Thor going up against a being of equal or greater power is astounding. Being knocked about, flying through structures, popping into other Realms as reality breaks down really plays up the fact these guys are Super Beings. The UK military joins in the battle but I don't think any excuse as to why the Avengers don't show up would make any sense to me. The two jets blundering through a portal into Vanaheim, accidentally strafing the idyllic countryside, hit the mark for me. There was weight and impact in this battle, consequences that were later mentioned in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series. I rather enjoyed this movie, but no, it doesn't redeem the silly nature of the first movie for me. But at least she doesn't hit him with a car again.

Monday, January 6, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: Riddick

2013, David Twohy (Pitch Black, A Perfect Getaway) -- download

Full disclosure. While I list this as "download" I will be buying a BluRay for this as soon as it comes out. This time piracy did influence purchase.

I was sitting on the sofa pondering my download queue and my "to be watched" queue and my "My List" queue on Netflix and thinking about what I should watch next. "Something good," was my primary thought, not just the "meh" I have been viewing of late. OK movies but nothing I can say I actually thought was any good. Viewing objectivity does not preclude entertainment but sometimes I just feel the need for something I can define as good. And despite Kent's review of it, I thought Riddick was a brilliant movie, a genre movie through and through but enjoyable, well shot, well acted and tenaciously well scripted.

Like Kent, I am a very big fan of this franchise. Pitch Black is a genre definer, a well done action, scifi, horror mashup that both drew on other examples of the genres and redefined them. It is a good movie. Chronicles of Riddick took the popular character from the first and shoved him into a space opera. Its not a good movie but damn nabbit, I really like it. Now we have Riddick, a labour of love if there ever was one, done by people who know the world, character and tone expected. Despite my early misgivings (based on trailers) that this would be a rehash of the other movies, it really does work. It works really well.

Richard B Riddick has escaped the treachery of the Necromongers, to a desolate planet full of predators. Everything wants to eat him but he bites back. For months, if not years, he survives until he finds a merc station. That mercs are such a staple in  this world, that they have shared outposts says something of the violence inherent to the galaxy. Riddick lures in a pair of merc ships and begins his usual cat and mouse game with both squads. The reputation and history of Riddick is played here like a fine tune, the mercs being both scared of him (as a bogeyman) and over confident they can beat one man. The dialogue and interaction is very self-aware of the genre, trading the familiar "pick them off one by one" for a smart teamup between the squads and eventually Riddick himself. In the final act, it trades Alien for Aliens with the militaristic destruction of scores of the nasty critters that is the king predator of this planet. But even with their skills and firepower, it takes Riddick's bestial survival skill to get them off planet. We start with survival, get an actioner standoff and end with a monster movie. But it consistently hangs onto the tone and feel expected of Riddick and left me very satisfied. Yes, a good movie.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

I Saw This!! Monster Trio

Grabbers, 2012, Jon Wright -- Netflix
Storage 24, 2012, Johannes Roberts -- Netflix
Big Ass Spider, 2013, Mike Mendez -- Netflix


I am not sure when I garnered my interest in bad horror movies. As I am wont to say, I was pretty much the snob as a young adult and almost all horror movies were bad to me. Most still are. But I have tempered my view and enjoy many sub-par, mostly monster movies. And yes, some are purely the ironic-bad movies which are worth a chuckle or two.

Grabbers is the best of this lot, a cheerful Irish monster movie set on a somewhat remote island where an alien buggaboo crash-lands into the sea. Almost immediately, this tentacled horror starts eating people and spawning eggs. One of the hatched eggs is caught in a lobster trap and brought home by the local drunk. It grows rather quickly and when it tries to eat him, it gets deathly ill.  Apparently these creatures from space do not like a blood-alcohol content that is way over the limit. And thus the elevator pitch of the movie is established -- survive the assault of the giant tentacly monster by staying pissed drunk all night, until the sun can rise and dry the creature out... or at least drive it back to the sea.

This is a fun movie, decently acted and directed but not an entirely original premise beyond the stay-drunk idea. Russel Tovey and Richard Coyle are the recognizable faces and the rest reminded me that there are not many steps removed from watered down Irish accents and watered down Newfoundland accents. I, of course, loved the setting though I wondered how anyone actually lived on the island as there didn't seem to be anything other than meagre fishing and a pub. Now at least, they can become famous for confirmed, albeit deadly, alien life.

Speaking of UK alien monsters, we have Storage 24. This one caught my eye because Noel Clarke (Mickey from 2005 Doctor Who) was in it, and it was produced from an idea he had. I like when smaller actors, who have made some acclaim and money, pump their income back into creating something of their own.  Well, as long as they don't Shia-fy it and lift it all from someone else. The basic premise is that a plane carrying an alien creature crashes into central London, near a public storage unit business.

Like many horror movies, and probably long before Aliens did such a good job of it, being trapped inside an industrial place full of tight corridors and ventilation shafts makes for nail biting tension. Well, at least that is the premise... but seriously, what is the last movie of that ilk that made you actually anxious? Still, I enjoy the executions even when they are mediochre, as long as the acting is decent and the writing is there. I like a story along with my monster eating people's heads and spearing them through the chest with some appendage. This one delivers on that. But the alien invasion ending was a head scratcher. Seriously? Sequel?

Finally, we get the ironic horror movie -- Big Ass Spider. I wasn't sure it was ironic but I was hoping for something along the line of Eight Legged Freaks but where the spider was colossal. Unfortunately, I basically got a sub-par Sharknado where it just wasn't quite bad enough to be ironically enjoyable. This was more straight-to-SyFy than anything else, where it is just bad. But it was humorous enough that I didn't stop watching and Greg Grunberg was actually giving a genuine (albeit campy) performance. The movie just didn't give enough else to rise above boring. If it had just been able to keep the tone of the opening slow-mo music video sequence, then it would have been great campy fun.

UPDATED (01/10/14) Apparently Storage 24 just made some (in)fame from being the movie that grossed an entire $72 during its US engagement in 2013. I hope Noel made some money in selling it to Netflix.

Double Oh...16: License To Kill

1989, John Glen

License To Kill Preamble: As I said last time, Dalton should really be my Bond.  But the only thing that attracted me to License To Kill as a 13-year-old was my surging libido, and seeing Carey Lowell in that sheer top on the License To Kill poster that appeared in comic books in 1989.  I knew Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto by name for a time because of that poster.   My sole interest in the film was these two gorgeous women, though I'm not certain I knew who was who.  I guess I was just embarrassed by my lust, ashamed maybe, thinking that everyone would know why I wanted to see the movie, that my cinematic viewing intentions were impure... so I never wound up seeing it.

When Skyfall came out there were countless "ranking Bond" articles on line and in print, and what I noticed was that some reviewers and critics felt The Living Daylights was the better of the two Dalton films, and others were on the side of License To Kill, and with disparity, not like they were side-by-side in rankings.  Many critics though this one was too dark, and having Bond go rogue made it less a credible Bond film.


Villains: Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) is a drug lord introduced in the film's prologue whipping his girlfriend, Lupe, after catching her with one of his minions.  He's the main villain of the picture, a major wheeler dealer and a very ruthless individual.  Bond is introduced in the prologue in the back of a limo with Felix Leiter and his buddy Sharkey, all decked out in tuxes on the way to Felix's wedding.  They're flagged down by a DEA helicopter as Felix has been integral in taking down Sanchez and they're making their move.  Bond tags along.  Gunfire and one plane/helicoper chase later, Sanchez is captured, and Felix makes it off to his wedding, credits roll.
But, atypical for a Bond film, the story continues, as Sanchez is interrogated by head DEA Agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill from Twin Peaks), but offers millions to anyone who frees him.  Killifer takes the bait and aids in Sanchez's escape.  This leads to Sanchez getting revenge on Felix by kidnapping him (his goons, it's insinuated, raped and killed his bride) and dumping him into a shark tank where Felix survives but loses an arm and a leg.  Bond snaps and is out for blood.  Killifer faces the same fate as Felix.
Sanchez takes off from Florida to his home in the Republic of Isthmus where he has the President in his pocket and is perhaps its most affluent citizen, owning both the Bank of Isthmus and its major casinos.
Sanchez is a major player in the drug world and is looking to expand his international operations.  He finances a televangelist, Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton), whose broadcast is used as middleman for buying and selling.  His operation is large, with partners all over, for different purposes.
Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) is an exotic fish exporter as well as fish farmer, and he uses his explorations in international waters as a cover for transporting Sanchez's drugs into the US.  Bond manipulates their partnership and meets his grisly end at Sanchez's bidding in a pressure chamber (an effect used a year later in Total Recall).
Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke) is a young businessman who is partnered with Sanchez in managing his illicit import/export business and the televangelical operation.  He's ill equipped to handle things when they start going south.
Heller (Don Stroud) is Sanchez's head of security, a former US Army Colonel but he's also set to betray Sanchez (by stealing a quartet of stinger missiles Sanchez plans on using to target US passenger planes and blackmail the DEA into backing off)
Dario (Benicio Del Toro... very, very young and lean) is one of Sanchez's many henchmen, but is the most prominent of them, and made unique by his prominent gold tooth.

Whilst Sanchez starts out as a straight forward bad guy drug lord, he starts to adopt more typical Bond-Villain traits as the film moves on.  He's a man of honor, he makes a deal and keeps his word.  Loyalty is of utmost importance, so you know, a serious guy.  But he's also got a diamond collared iguana because all Bond villains have to have an exotic pet.  Late in the picture we get to see his secret lair, an elaborate and exotic, remotely located temple, using the televangelical religion as cover for his drug processing operation (where they blend the drugs with gasoline rendering them untraceable during transport).  It has a giant hatch on the front courtyard that raises up to reveal a helipad underneath.  It's a delightful surprise when it's revealed.  Davi might not make for the most eccentric villain but he's a formidable one for sure.

Bond Girls: Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes) is Felix's tragic bride.  I had to wonder given their first scene together whether Bond and Della ever had a thing (as she does kiss him oddly passionately).  She's of the "women in refrigerators" sort, where she's killed brutally and tragically to inspire the hero.  Shame, though, Barnes is charming.
Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) is Sanchez's unfaithful girlfriend.  She hates him but fears him.  She's not strong enough to outright leave him, but seeks often to undermine him or lash out at him.  She's all to ready to help Bond out when he turns up and actually seems to plausibly be able to kill Sanchez.  She's smart enough to deceive her man and his men when she needs to but she's also rather unnecessary in the film overall.  She serves more as a romantic foil for Pam than a true romantic interest for Bond.  She professes she loves him, but she's just like Kara from The Living Daylights where she's infatuated with the man rescuing her.
Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) - is introduced as one of Felix's informant, when Bond keeps Felix's appointment at a rough dockside bar.  She's first introduced in a tank top and kevlar vest, tough talking, smart, suspicious and packing a shotgun.  She's an ex-army pilot and very capable in a fight, which is needed when Bond engages Dario and Sanchez's men in a bar brawl.  They escape harm, narrowly on a boat, and as we all know, being on a boat with a woman is like Viagra to Bond.  But Pam is sexually aggressive which seems to catch Bond pleasantly by surprise.  Bond encourages her to help fly him to Isthmus, and she decides to stay and help where he irks her by calling her his executive assistant.  She cleans up very nicely when she makes a reappearance at the bank after a shopping trip, and later is an absolute, jaw dropping knockout at the Casino.  I wager in this sequence she looks better than any Bond Girl (or any Bond himself), ever.  It's unfortunate that Bond keeps warning her off from helping him as she's a capable fighter, pilot and marksman.  She should be more active in the action than she is (arguably as active as any Bond femme previous though)

The film ends with an unfortunate moment of ridiculous melodrama straight out of a John Hughes high school dramedy, as Lupe passionately kisses Bond whilst Pam watches on, then runs away.  But Bond has eyes more for Pam than Lupe (I guess having slept with them both, he's made a choice), and he jumps over a balcony into a pool, in a grand romantic gesture, to profess his...I dunno... desire to bang her again.  Cue the 80's slow jam (Patti La Belle's "If You Ask Me To"...really).  There's an insinuation early in the film when Della gives Bond her garter that he's unwilling to fall in love again, but he catches the garter anyway, foreshadowing that he may wed once more.  It would be interesting to know what the next Dalton Bond film would have been, and whether Carey Lowell was to return, she's a suitable match for Bond, Pussy Galore done right as a romantic interest for Bond.

One more note, while Caroline Bliss' Moneypenny made a solid debut in the previous installment, her role here was restricted to sitting behind a desk, pouting to M over her concern for the rogue James.  I'm assuming she sends Q to Bond, but it's not explicit so the scene is almost entirely extraneous.

Theme/Credits: Gladys Knight sings the theme song which features heavily a horn drop from Goldfinger, and it's actually a pretty cracking Bond theme.  It's not perhaps the most memorable theme song, but it's strong, with gravitas and a sweeping sense of both danger and romance. It feels both of its time as well as somewhat timeless as all the better Bond themes do.  Beyond the redundant horn drop it doesn't have a genuine hook but it's effortlessly listenable and nothing off-putting.
The credit sequence, Maurice Binder's last, is a few steps ahead of some of his previous efforts, but once again it seems to miss the plot of the film (there's a casino reference) but it seems more focused on dancers, models and photography, none of which have any bearing on the film.  Still thanks to Knight's track, it's one of his more alluring sequences, particularly the final shot of the sequence with a sultry model in repose, gun resting on her hip.  It's a nice note for Binder to go out on after 27 years.


Movie: It's odd to me that so many reviewers criticize this film for not being Bond-like enough.  For me, overall, the film feels exceptionally Bond-like, with its broad range of locations, bigger action sequences, more convolution in its storytelling.  But the story itself, with Sanchez's heavily networked drug operation, and the side elements, like Bond interfering in both Pam's mission from Felix and the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau's multi-year operation lend a naturalness to this Bond picture that most don't have until the Daniel Craig years.  This, even more than On Her Majesty's Secret Service, feels like a template for the Craig movies.  Dalton has settled in the role tangibly here, and the tone also seems more in line with Dalton's desired portrayal of the role.  It's a darker Bond, he's angry and out for revenge.  He tells M off and goes rogue.  He gets downright nasty when he sees what Krest's men have done to Sharkey.  Bond even acknowledges that he's a dangerous man to aide, that he gets people killed.  There are lighter moments in the picture (Newton's repetition of "Bless your heart" to Pam as she slights him are great), but it's not camp, like the cello case toboggan sequence of The Living Daylights.
  It's tremendously enjoyable, and engaging, though I feel it could use tightening, as frequently I would check the timestamp and marvel at how long the film had been running and how long it still had to go.  Even still, the many deleted scenes on the blu-ray actually help fill out some of the puzzling parts of the story film (Sharkey's death, the arrival of Heller and Truman-Lodge) and characters.
  It features some of John Glen's best action sequences (the mountainside tanker truck chase is amazing) and some genuine classic Bond moments.  It also features Q helping Bond out (going a bit rogue himself) and it's a highlight for that character.  It's also the best Bond movie to be shot in America by far, feeling less like a British cinema's interpretation of America (as it has before in Goldfinger and A View To A Kill) and more like typical American movie.

Q-Gadgets:
Explosive alarm clock
Plastic explosive toothpaste tube with cigarette igniter.
Camera gun with optical palm reader that only works for Bond.
X-ray Polaroid camera with laser flash
Rappelling cummerbund
Radio rake

Despite the fact that Q is featured here more prominently as a character than ever before, its use of gadgets feels much more natural, less forced than most Bond films.  Some gadgets turn up without any prior set-up, or they play a role other than their intended use.

Classification (out of 01.0): 00.8, I really, really liked this one, in spite of its clunkiest parts.  When it was wrapping up I felt disappointed, cheated even, that there isn't another Dalton Bond available.  He was really making the role uniquely his and I think a third film would have solidified the darkest, edgiest, most dangerous Bond, and he would be more favourably remembered.  People who malign this one are the same people who poop on Quantum of Solace, they're both a lot better than they get credit for, they're just different.  For me, I think Bond works best when it knowingly plays with its conventions rather than adheres to them.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Double Oh...15: The Living Daylights

d. John Glen

Double Oh Preamble: IT'S BEEN 8 months since I last wrote one of these, when the last Moore seemed like a perfect break point.  But I took a break and never got back to it, and now IT'S BEEN a little over a year since I started this Bond project and the Chrismas holidays is the perfect time to get back on the horse.

Since last I wrote, a podcast on the Nerdist Network called James Bonding has been engaging my Bond brain with in-depth analysis of each Bond film, starting at either end (so Dr. No, then Skyfall, then From Russian With Love, then Quantum of Solace and so forth) and as they enter the Christmas break they too have only done 14 episodes, with all of the Moore and Dalton's untouched, and with Goldeneye next on tap.  Beyond James Bonding, I've also taken to reading the Titan Books collection of the James Bond newspaper strips (Casino Royale and The Man With The Golden Gun as well as part of Goldfinger), so even though I haven't been watching the films, I've still been heavily Bond-engaged.

The Living Daylights Preamble: Timothy Dalton should be my Bond.  The Living Daylights hit theatres when I was 11 and I recall all the Entertainment Tonight hype (I was an avid ET viewer as a child) surrounding Dalton's taking over the role.  I was exposed to a lot of Bond propaganda and promo materials at the time, including comic book ads and TV trailers, but what I recall most about it was how uninteresting it seemed.  I was a sci-fi and superhero kid and straight action to me, at the time, seemed rather mundane.  As we've covered in previous Double Oh's, I really only saw bits and pieces of Bond in my childhood, and it wouldn't be until Brosnan came in that I would garner any real excitement or interest in the franchise.  I recall that Dalton was received as a disappointing consolation Bond since Remington Steele would not let Brosnan out of his contract to take the role, and also that critical reception of The Living Daylights and License To Kill were less than amorous.  Even when I started being a little more interested in Bond in the Brosnan years, I still had little interest in the Dalton era.  Even more than Lazenby, who has the fortune of being in one of the best Bond films, Dalton's two-film run (which collapsed the series for 6 years) has been highly maligned.  Now, I'm keen to dive in.


Villains: Necros (Adreas Wisniewski) enters the film first as the Milkman Assassin, taking out a milkman and using the disguise to enter a heavily guarded estate where the British secret service is holding a Russian defector.  Necros isn't a totally murder-happy assassin, though, he kills when needed, and uses explosive milk to make his getaway.  At first he appears to be a Russian agent, but it turns out he just a very highly skilled mercenary.  He's not the most intimidating of Bond adversaries, but he's obviously dangerous, perhaps an equal to Bond in combat, though decidedly not as erudite.  In the end, he begs Bond for his life, pleads with him, and screams in abject terror when Bond cuts him loose from the back of the Hercules aircraft.  It's actually a very harsh sequence, and not something we're at all used to in a Bond movie.

Pushkin (John Rhys Davies) is the New Head of the KGB, and an enemy only in that he is Russian.  The defector, Georgi Koskov tells MI-6 that Pushkin is looking to start a special agent war by assassinating American and British special agents, but this is a lie.  Bond is given the task of assassinating Puskin, but, on his instincts he investigates further and ends up colluding with Pushkin to fake his death and draw the real enemies out.  Pushkin is almost like a General Gogol figure here, though Gogol does put in a cameo in the epilogue (his sixth and final Bond appearance)

Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) is an apparent friend of Bond (Georgi gives Bond a big hug when he sees him, and Bond goes to extra expense to ensure he's fed well), a Russian defector who initiates the plot of the film.  Bond saves him from assassination upon exiting a Czeck symphony performance, exfiltrates him through the transsiberian pipeline into Austria (where he's flown to Britain in a VTOL jet, which I guess were quite new and exciting at the time).  He tells his British hosts that Pushkin is starting a war (though his words bring doubt) and shortly thereafter he's retrieved but not taken back to Russia... turns out Pushkin actually was to have him arrested for embezzling state funds.  Pushkin is actually working with an arms dealer, fanning the Cold War into all-out war for profit.  He's a bit of a putz, and not in any way intimidating, sort of a grand schemer who thinks himself smarter than he is.

Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) is the arms dealer, an affluent man-child who thinks of weapons as toys and thinks all men should have them.  His home is a curated museum featuring a hall of dictators, shrines to weapons of war, and elaborate dioramas of famous battles.  He's only in two scenes in the film so he's not a prevalent villain, and in the final confrontation, though armed to the teeth, he's hardly a match for Bond.

Bond Girls:
Linda (Bell Avery aka Kell Tyler), seen at the end of the opening sequence, in which Bond takes out the assassin killing 00-agents during a training exercise, Bond lands on her yacht, with precision timing, just after she tells a friend on the phone "If only I could meet a real man".  Bond borrows the phone and tells home office he'll be back in an hour, she looks at him lustfully and offers him a dring, and he restates "Better make that two".  She's inconsequential, but it's a classic Bond moment, perfectly played.  It's really the only quip Dalton handles well.

Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo) is Georgi's girlfriend and a professional cellist.  Georgi enlists her to pretend to assassinate him to aid in his defection to Britain, in the hopes that she will be killed in the process, but Bond, on instinct, recognizes she's not a professional assassin and pulls his shot.  After Georgi is recovered from the Brits, Bond seeks her out, helping her elude the KGB (at one point sledding down the mountain in her cello case, using her Stradivarius as a directional rudder), and then proceeds to wine and dine her, having figured out Georgi's deception.  She spends the bulk of the movie as Bond's attache and general plot point, but in the final act she actually takes action and instigates the big battle in the final sequence.  She punches some dudes, drives a jeep chasing after Bond on a plane, and then winds up flying the plane.  D'Abo plays Kara as a bit naive and clingy, with the trauma of almost getting killed numerous time having created an unhealthy...erm...bond with Bond.  Not the worst Bond girl, but generally just not much of a character.

With a new Bond, we also get a new Moneypenny, played by Caroline Bliss.  She's decked out in total 80's style... the hair, the glasses, the make-up, the blouse...still quite fetching, and way more sultry than Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny.  She's not a behind-the-desk Moneypenny and seems a bit more engaged in the operations, doing research and providing intel to Bond.

Rosika (Julie T. Wallace) works at the transsiberian pipeline, and is Bond's ally in exfiltrating Georgi through the tunnel.  I thought Rosika was awesome.  She's of the sterotypical burly Russian woman build, sporting a dower hairstyle and frumpy coveralls, we're initially not supposed to see her as anything but that... but as Bond engages the unit that will allow Georgi to traverse the pipeline, she goes off to take care of the guy monitoring the pipeline (she holds a heavy socket wrench in her hand when she says this).  She enters the control room and partially unzips her coveralls, revealing her cleavage and totally seduces the controller by mashing his face into her chest.  Alarms go off but he doesn't even hear them.  I totally believe that, in Rosika's backstory, she became an ally of Bond after they had a tryst where she rocked his world like it'd never been rocked before.  Rosika, definitely one of the most unexpected, and one of my favourite Bond girls.



Theme/Credits:  The Living Daylights title song performed by one-hit wonders A-Ha hints of Duran Duran's A View To A Kill theme, heavy synth rhythm, but it's thoroughly uninspiring and unmemorable.  Even more though, it sounds like they're pulling from Simple Mind's Don't You Forget About Me.



The credits are equally dull.  Instead of the usual nude silhouettes, we're provided with fully-lit shots of women in various swimwear and body paint in clunky poses, such as relaxing on the lip of a champagne glass (while obviously taking direction from off screen... this, people, is the reason why they silhouette the models... they can rarely act).  Mourice Binder, who had been doing the credits since Dr No, had seemingly given up with this one.  I guess he got tired of topless women on trampolines (though there's still a bit of that here too).  There's nothing interesting or remotely alluring about these title sequences and they convey little about the film (I'm confused why there's so much water imagery).


Movie: It was interesting to see that the film took place, in part, in Afghanistan, particularly since at the time it was the Russians the Afghanis were retaliating against.  It's after Georgi and Necros capture Bond that they take him to a Russian base there. It's probably the best reasoned keeping-Bond-alive moment as Georgi uses turning Bond in as Pushkin's murderer (and also turning Kara in as a defector) as leverage to return to Russia and perhaps be pardoned for his embezzling scandal.  With Q-gadgets Bond and Kara make their escape from prison with an Afghani rebel leader, Kamran Shah, who brings them along on an opium deal the Snow Leopards are making with Georgi.  It was a little shocking to me how blatantly the film aligned these people who wanted to liberate Afghanistan from Russian with the opium trade, but also did so with a sense of honesty that didn't marginalize their fight or why they were doing it.  Georgi's rationale for the drug deal is a little thinner, but it seemed he needed it to pay Whitaker back.

Overall, though, the Living Daylights is quite linear for a Bond film, and all the plot threads tie together with some Bondisms (time out to romance, the woman, some over-the-top action bits) tossed in to Bondify the works.  I was actually impressed with how the film unfolded, as so often Bond plots seem ancillary to the set pieces or are overly convoluted to the point of obfuscation. Here is a very plot driven film that feels akin to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where that film sat in the shadow of Connery, this one sits in the shadow of Moore. There may be a few minor plotholes or gaps in logic (and some terrible Russian accents) but overall it's a solid story.

The characters are less exciting though and it's what drags the film down from being one of the more memorable Bond.  Dalton seems more keen on action and drama than romance and comedy, so some great one liners only elicit a chuckle where the big laughs should be.  I think Dalton wanted his Bond to be like Craig's Bond is today, very serious and heavy, to steer away from the camp of Moore, but the screenwriters still wrote this like a Moore script and it's at odds with the performance.  The bad guys are farcical, and the Bond girls are largely forgettable.  Credit to the film to making them less objectified, but at the same time they forgot to give them any real personalities (beyond Rosika of course, she's amazing).


Q Gadgets:
A "Ghetto blaster" rocket launcher
Rake-dar (rake as radar)
Key ring stun gas/plastic explosive, plus keys that open 90% of the world's locks (comes in very handy)
Binocular glasses
Laser hubcaps, missiles, retractible spiked tires, ski outriggers, rocket boost on the Aston Martin.  A nice car that Bond self-destructs

Classification (out of 01.0): 00.6, though one of the better told stories, it's just not that exciting.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

3 Short Paragraphs: The World's End

2013, Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead) -- download

Graig pretty much covered the background behind this movie, Wright and Pegg and the gang. This is the third in the "Cornetto Trilogy", a silly toss away nod to the Trois Couleurs. But really, they are not connected by any means but for the director, the actors and the ice cream. What does connect them is the tone, the way the characters play off against each other, friendship and conflict. This movie may be about aliens and robots but really, it is about old friends reconnecting and re-living their pasts.

As the movie started, I really didn't like Simon Pegg's Gary King. I was not popular in high school, in fact I was the closest to invisible as a guy could get. The idea of that being the height of your life, when you were not even one of the popular crowd, is mind boggling. So, here he is, this jerk trying to recreate one of the pinnacle points of his life (which, independently, sounds kind of fun -- a pub crawl of 12 pubs in their downtown core) by dragging back all his old high school friends to their hometown for this one night of drunken revelry. The trouble is that only Gary is really interested in it and he manipulates each of them into going back. They have lives, he doesn't.

The debacle of a pub crawl is made even worse by the uncovering of a plot by aliens. Made even worse for most of his friends, as they fall to the body snatching aliens, but made better for Gary. He gets to pretend he's the hero of the story. But really, its Andy (Nick Frost) who is the take-charge heroic one as the guys continue the pub crawl while smashing alien robots, blue goo splattering everywhere. Gary does actually become more likable as the invasion is dealt with, less pathetic and more adventurous. The end of the world gives Gary a point to focus his life on, even if it comes at the expense of the entire fracking world. Jerk.

P.S. I know that pubs are more a part of British life than here, but really? A town as small as that one had at least 12 pubs in walking distance?  That is astounding to me when it strains me to think of 12 that were within driving distance of each other, in the small city I grew up in.