Friday, November 30, 2012

Movie Review: "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" by David Pretty

To me, the absolute worst thing you can say about a movie is that it's boring.  Bad I can take, as long as there's a modicum of amusement value.  Unfortunately, The Twilight Saga: New Moon is the equivalent of watching a glacier move.  I can't recall the last time I actually nodded off while watching a film at home and, let me tell ya, I've made it through a lot of dull-ass flicks.

As I said in my Twilight review I was willing to give these movies a shot just based on their popularity.  At first I was pleasantly surprised with the first film's budding sense of mystery as Bella and Edward got to know one another.  I was also pleased by the indie-sensibilities of director Catherine Hardwicke, who brought an artistic eye to the composition.  Although gaping holes in logic and storytelling caused things to unravel somewhat in the second half, the film was still reasonably salvageable.

Then along comes New Moon, the cinematic interpretation of the saga's second book and sweet jeezum crow does it ever suck.  Now, I know I'm not the target audience for this sort of thing but I would gladly watch Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked over re-watching this under-baked hunk of garbage ever again. 

So here's the "plot": on the occasion of her eighteenth birthday Bella (Kristen Stewart) becomes paranoid that Edward (Robert Pattinson) will always look as if he's seventeen while she's eventually going to look all gross and forty.  I think a much more interesting conundrum is how a being who's over one-hundred years old can possibly find a callow teenage girl to be so fascinating.  But I guess that's up to higher authorities to answer.  Like Hugh Hefner.   

Anyhoo, during a birthday party organized by the Cullen clan Bella cuts herself while opening her gift and Edward's younger brother tries to eat her.  OMG, awkward!  Wisely, Edward decides that having a human girlfriend hanging around a group of blood-sucking in-laws is akin to leaving a Beggin' Strip-cloaked pot roast dangling around in a room full of Rottweilers.  So he unceremoniously dumps her and the entire vampire family disappears not long after.  Man, talk about severing ties.    

This leaves Bella sullen, cranky and despondent, er...even more then usual.  Months creep by (in both the story and what feels like actual screen time) until she starts hanging out with the be-mulleted Jacob (Taylor Lautner) who turns out to be a werewolf.  This revelation inevitably puts Bella in danger, which suddenly and inexplicably allows her to see fleeting images of her beloved Edward.  Uh-huh

Desperate to see her plasma-deprived beau once again, Bella begins to flirt with the possibility of suicide but regrettably she never quite succeeds.  After Edward is led to believe that his one true love is dead, he goes to Italy (?) to try and convince the elder vampire statesmen, the *yawn* Volturi, to let him follow her into the afterlife.  Naturally Bella somehow gets wind of this and tries to rescue him. 

They manage to prevent Edward from turning himself into a briquette but now the Volturi are super-pissed that Bella knows the secret of the vampires and demands that she...HEY!!!  Are you still reading this?  Really?  Why?!?  I'M not reading it and I'm TYPING it, fer Crissakes.  Seriously, gone are the artistic flourishes that made the first film half-way palatable.  Gone is any hint of mystery and discovery.

Also clearly absent is the participation of the actors.  Kristen Stewart has doubled her repertoire of expressions from one to two: alternating between focused intent (likely achieved by some sort of self-inflicted head trauma) or borderline panic (produced via the same procedure but with a brow-wrinkling twist).  Her line deliveries betray pure boredom with Bella's self-indulgence and she spends the lion's share of the film hunched over, scowling or rolled up into a ball.

L'il Cedric Diggory doesn't fare very well either, especially considering that he's virtually awash in pancake flour, lip gloss and enough hair gel to constitute a walking fire hazard.  Most of the time he looks like Marge from The Simpsons after Homer blasted her in the face with the makeup gun set to "whore".  Every time he appeared on screen I thought that a pouting vortex was going to cause his head to implode. 

Like the old saying goes "while the vamp's away the wolf will play" so Taylor Lautner gets a chance to shine a bit here.  Honestly he seems like a genuinely decent kid but the character of Jacob is completely and totally vacuous.  All that seems to matter is that you could conceivably grate a brick on his abs.

Although the run time of this thing is hideously protracted it still feels as if large chunks of the story were excised from the final reel in editing.  Why is everyone suddenly in Italy and how did they all get there?  Where did the sports car come from?  What the heck do these Volturi guys have to do with anything? There is absolutely nothing original or inventive here as it relates to the vampire vs. lycanthrope myth.

On top of all this we get this most ridiculous ending possible with Edward promising to turn Bella into a vampire if she agrees to marry him.  What the fuck??!  These are supposed to be VAMPIRES, people! Remember vampires?  Rip-yer-fuckin'-jugular-vein-out vampires?

Seriously, I have no friggin' clue what the appeal is here.  If your kids are hankering for some quality vampire-human relationship stories with some rich and clever world-building then steer them towards Buffy and Angel.  At least that way they'll be watching something that sucks in a good, traditional, neck-chompin' vampiry kinda way.

  Tilt: down.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Movie Review: "Twilight" by David Pretty

I'm always interested when something goes from pop-culture radar blip to a full-blown phenomenon  and like it or not, Twilight certainly qualifies.  In fact, I've been pretty quick to deny the Twi-haters since I personally took a fair share of ribbing for reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone back when it was still being dismissed as a "kid's book".

Twilight is one of the more notable publishing-to-film-to-number-one-with-a-zeitgeist-bullet success stories of late.  And frankly, I'd be lying if I didn't confess to a certain curiosity about the premise since I was such a huge fan of Buffy and Angel's trailblazing sparks.  So, is Twilight really worth all of the hype?  Well, after my first exposure to its inaugural cinematic incarnation, I have to admit that the jury is still decidedly out.

The first half of Twilight actually unspools like a competently-directed, modest little indie film which then flies apart in all directions in the second half.  Director Catherine Hardwicke certainly can't be accused of making an ugly-looking picture and I'm not referring to the cast.  The lush and verdant "Vancouver-as-Seattle" cinematography really helps to ground the film in a certain soggy milieu.

We also get some sharp dialogue and good performances early on which generates a modicum of  sympathy for young, castaway Bella.  The mysterious Cullen clan get plenty of tantalizing build up and the film actually flirts with originality as Bella slowly discovers the secret behind broody Edward's true nature.  Unfortunately, the film starts to pursue some obligatory plot paths and awkward action beats.  It's not long before everything begins to unravel to the point of ruin.

Every story, including fantasy, needs a certain semblance of logic in order to sustain it, otherwise everything becomes an exercise in futility.  When a rival vampire clan rears its ugly (but still coiffed) head, the Cullens inexplicably decide to isolate themselves by scattering across the country.   Since they already outnumbered the bad guys to begin with, I can only assume that the script made them do this just for the sake of isolating Bella and keeping the threat level elevated.      

Now I understand that Stephenie Meyer felt motivated to come up with some original vampire lore but her decision to make all of her bloodsuckers sparkly in direct sunlight is pretty fucking dopey.  And although the notorious baseball scene is reasonably well executed the realization of the vampire's super-human abilities makes them look like understudies to the cast of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Although I can accept that the Cullens want to interact with humans after taming their predatory impulses, the fact that Carlisle is a Doctor and his "kids" go to public school is downright ludicrous.  Look, I've been to Seattle and it isn't always under a constant dome of rain and fog.  So what happens when the sun comes out during the last homeroom period and Edward is forced to run screaming across the parking lot after turning into a undead disco ball?

The verve Kristen Stewart exemplifies in the first half of the film completely evaporates.  All of sudden she seem capable of only one expression: acting as if something foul-smelling is nearby.  Eventually I began to suspect that Bella wasn't in love after all and was just under some sort of old-school vampiric thrall.  By the time Edward turns into a pasty-looking emo dialysis machine towards the end of the film I was pretty much done with it.

Which is kind of a shame since I was still onboard while the characters were just talking and discovering things about each other.  Catherine Hardwicke might have been a solid choice to orchestrate the dialogue scenes but she stumbles consistently during the perfunctory dust-ups.  I also suspect that the meager budget might have hamstrung her true vision of the vampire's preternatural abilities.

If the film ultimately fails, however, it's because of the spotty plotting and wrong-headed stabs at "originality".  I think Twilight flirts with the concept of innovation but second guesses itself by following expectations set by a million other vampire movies.  If it had stuck to its humble little premise it might have resulted in something just as immortal as its undead subject matter.

        Tilt: down.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Skyfall" by David Pretty

After watching Skyfall, it's really hard to believe that this is the twenty-third entry in the 007 film series. Director Sam Mendes and his writing partners Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have delivered a film that somehow manages pay homage to Bond's cinematic history while generating some of their own.  And all they needed to do to accomplish this was turn their backs on the sort of convention that's been sustaining the series for the past fifty years.     


This time out, Skyfall's pre-credit sequence is actually relevant to the plot.  Cyber-terrorists have stolen a computer hard drive which contains the names of every MI-6 agent embedded with shady organizations around the world.  M (Dame Judi Dench), obsessed with making things right,  relentlessly spurs 007 (Daniel Craig) on in a desperate bid to recover it.

After M tells Bond to ignore a mortally wounded fellow agent, she orders him to stop the thieves by any means necessary.  007 manages to corner his final foe on top of a fast-moving train that's constantly ducking in and out of tunnels.  As the advantage swings back and forth between the two, M commands Bond's partner Eve (Naomie Harris) to take a shot.  Unfortunately, she hits the stalwart agent, knocking him off the train and into the water below.

Bond eventually turns up alive, living anonymously in a small village and using the veil of death to ponder his grim lot in life.  Eventually four months tic by and M is forced to declare that he's legally dead.  Meanwhile, the head of Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) begins to hound M about the loss of the hard drive and the demise of several key agents.

Gareth Mallory:  Eleanor, be sensible. Retire with dignity...
M:  Dignity! To Hell with dignity! I'll retire when my goddamn job is finally done.  

Things get even more dire after a major security breach results in more fatalities and the destruction of MI-6 headquarters.  When news of the attack reaches Bond, he grudgingly comes out of hiding and returns to London.  Before he can be re-instated, however, 007 is forced to endure a series of condescending tests which call into question his capabilities.  Despite the spotty results, M is determined to get her star agent back into the field as soon as possible.  Not long after she dispatches him to Shanghai in order to recover the still-missing hard drive.

After a thrilling rematch with his train-top sparring partner, Bond recovers a mysterious token which leads him to an exotic casino in Macau.  It's here that our favorite super-spy meets the alluring Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a former prostitute rescued from the trade by the mysterious Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).  Convinced that Silva is the brains behind the scheme, 007 persuades Sévérine to bring him back to the villain's headquarters, located on an abandoned island.

Silva turns out to be former MI-6 agent and computer genius Tiago Rodriguez.  We soon learn that M willingly gave Silva up in exchange for six other captive operatives.  When Silva attempted to take his own life, the cyanide capsule caused horrendous internal injuries instead of killing him.  Seeking revenge over what he sees as betrayal and abandonment, Silva is now determined to exact his revenge on M.

At the half-way point in the film, Mendes and company convince us that it's going to be a very short film.  Bond outwits Silva and the villain is brought back to London under heavy security.  But it's soon becomes apparent that this was the fallen agent's plan all along.  Silva escapes and the rest of the story becomes a cat and mouse game with M's life hanging in the balance.

Along the way, Skyfall delivers some truly manic action sequences.  It begins in traditionally ludicrous fashion, with a motorcycle chase along the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.  It then segues into the creative use of a back-hoe as well as a round of fisticuffs atop a speeding rail car as it vanishes in and out of tunnels.  The scene in which Bond fights a goon in the Kimodo dragon pit of the Macau casino is also goofily retro.

But then something wonderful and unexpected happens.  Knowing that it's futile to try and trump fifty years worth of mind-blowing set-pieces (as well as Skyfall's own prologue!), Sam Mendes lowers the volume on everything and the effect is still riveting.  In fact, the extended foot chase between Bond and Silva throughout London and the villain's final assault on the titular manor are equally arresting.

My favorite example of this is the scene in which Silva attempts to assassinate M right in the middle of a public hearing.  What results is a fantastic extended gun battle between Silva and his goons against Bond, Mallory, Eve and the building's security.  Not only is the scene stripped down, raw and realistic, it's unbearably tense and also gives the characters a chance to be tactical.  I also appreciate that Mendes and his editors Stuart and Kate Baird actually let us see what's going on during the firefight.

This low-fi approach to the action culminates when Bond whisks M away to his ancestral home in Scotland to try and protect her.  This move works on several levels.  First off, it gives 007 an excuse to blow the dust off of an old toy.  Secondly, we learn more about Bond in this sequence then we have throughout the course of the previous twenty-two pictures.  And finally, it sets up the ultimate battle in which the adage "the old ways are sometimes best" is conclusively proven.

This last sentiment becomes the film's central theme.  Throughout most of the story, Bond and his MI-6 division are feeling increasingly antiquated.  The main villain, after all, isn't a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent, a mad industrialist, an ubermensch or a Cold War rogue; he's just your average, run-of-the-mill cyber-criminal.  Even Bond seems let down after his freshly-scrubbed new Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) hands him nothing more complicated then a customized Walther PPK and a homing beacon.  "What did you expect, an exploding pen?" he asks James after noting his disappointment.

But by the film's final act, Bond has been vindicated and revitalized.  Daniel Craig manages to sustain the character's changing climate throughout several stages.  His dogged determination in the pre-credit sequence is quickly neutered by what he initially sees as betrayal.  During the certification sequence, Craig is clearly wrestling with a palpable sense of self-doubt.  You can actually see a glint of fear in his eyes after he fails a basic marksmanship test.  On the flip side, his transcendental return to form is a lot of fun, reminding me somewhat of Kirk's epiphany at the end of Star Trek II.

Javier Bardem's Silva succeeds as character because he's essentially Bond's flip side.  As members of MI-6, both of them have been burned by mindless acquiescence.  The main difference is that Bond has convinced himself that M had no choice, while Silva still clings to feelings of betrayal.  Bardem's performance is a joy to watch, rife with cast-away details and juicy nuance.  Much will be said of the character's fluid sexual orientation but it's handled very tastefully and ends up creating some memorably original exchanges between Silva and Bond.

And who else but Dame Judi Dench could bring such an unflagging stiff upper lip to the role of M?  The character becomes a major player in Skyfall, even reaching the grand elevated status of "Bond villain MacGuffin".  Her role as Bond's surrogate mother is also heavily emphasized and you can tell that her consistent disapproval over her "sons" actions are designed to keep him at arms length.   "Orphans always make the best recruits," she confesses to James after he talks about the early loss of his natural parents.

Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as Gareth Mallory.  In any other color-by-numbers script, Fiennes would be relegated to the role of irredeemable dick.  Instead, Mallory's opinion of MI-6 actually changes and evolves as he gathers information about the situation and gets personally affected by Silva's insanity.  Fiennes sinks his teeth into his character's transitions, making each revelation genuinely surprising yet refreshingly welcome.

The secondary cast here is also fantastic.  Naomie Harris so winsome and charming that her reveal at the end of the film is applause-worthy.  Bérénice Lim Marlohe is inhumanly gorgeous as Sévérine but she isn't just a pretty face.  In fact, the actress really manages to tap into her character's desire to get away from Silva's aura of madness and revenge.  Her performance is both fragile and genuine and it's a real shame that she didn't get more screen time.

Skyfall's youngest and oldest cast members also provide some welcome diversions.  Ben Wishaw as Q instantly shatters expectations.  As soon as we see him, we immediately expect a jittery, socially inept computer geek but instead we get a well-spoken, fallible kid who's wise beyond his years.  Finally, veteran actor Albert Finney is a blast to watch as Kincade, the aged caretaker of Bond's ancestral manor.  Although I loved hearing him bellow "Welcome to Scotland!" as he blew away a pair of Silva's thugs, a part of me really wishes that Sean Connery had played this role.  It would have felt right somehow.

But it would also have felt obligatory and this entry is all about shattering expectations in lieu of a new paradigm.  Skyfall is to James Bond as the original Swedish version of Let The Right One In is to vampires.  Just when you think you've seen everything, some talented and bold film-makers come along and thumbed their collective noses at convention.

Honestly, before going into Skyfall, I wasn't all that keen to watch Daniel Craig punch out the rest of his contractually-obligated Bond films.

But now I'm friggin' stoked.    

   Tilt: up.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Review: "Goldfinger" by David Pretty

All of the pieces finally fall into place with this, the third entry in the James Bond franchise.  From beginning to end, Goldfinger retains a sure footing as it confidently forges the template upon which all future entries in the series will be based.


The film begins in style with a compelling, though unrelated, "grabber" sequence in which 007 casually blows up a South American cocaine factory and then lowers his guard in the company of a duplicitous siren.  Considering how many women end up turning against James, you have to wonder what he does to them to engender such disloyalty.  Regardless, 007 manages to weather the subsequent assassination attempt by throwing his assailant into a full bathtub and then batting an electric fan in with him.  "Shocking, positively shocking," he quips while casually collecting his effects.  

Although the tradition of having a contemporary pop artist sing the movie's theme song technically began with Matt Monro's From Russia with Love, it was Shirley Bassey's iconic Goldfinger that really sealed the deal.  Although the lyrics are as brain-dead as your average Beyonce song, the tune is delivered with such passion and verve that the words become moot.  Indeed, her go-for-broke performance makes so many future Bond movie theme songs seem downright anemic in comparison.

After enduring such a taxing pre-credits sequence, Bond decides to kick back with some much-needed R&R in beautiful Miami Beach, established with a tremendous panorama shot by new-to-the-series director Guy Hamilton.  Also fresh on the scene is Cec Linder, who plays a more seasoned incarnation of Bond's old C.I.A. pal Felix Leiter.  As he attempts to relay Bond's new mission details, this leads to an almost anachronistic scene in which Bond tells his fetching masseuse "Dink" that he needs to engage in "man talk" and then dismisses her with a swat to the ass as she passes by.  Oh, those swingin', sexist Sixties.      

MI-6 orders Bond to tail bullion baron Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), who just so happens to be staying at the very same hotel.  Of all the James Bond villains, Goldfinger is definitely one of my favorites, mainly because he doesn't resemble one.  Indeed, he's completely and totally devoid of pneumatic limbs, white cats or facial scars.  He's just a fat, tasteless, uncharismatic fuck who buys his own reality because he knows that the real world would shun him.  And just like every other vainglorious CEO he's obsessed with parlaying his already-considerable wealth into something even more obscene.

In fact, when we first meet him he's actually cheating in a game of gin rummy just because, like an infant, "he doesn't like to lose".  Bond discovers that the alluring, bikini-clad Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) is using a pair of binoculars to spy on Goldfinger's opponent and relay the information to her boss via radio.  Bond cuts off the transmission, beds Jill and then gets rendered unconscious by one of Goldfinger's goons.  When he wakes up he discovers to his horror that Jill has been covered head to toe in gold paint, resulting in the first-ever medical case of "skin suffocation" and one of the series most enduring images.

Back at MI-6 headquarters, M (Bernard Lee) gives Bond a follow-up assignment to expose Goldfinger's expansive smuggling operation.  On the way out, Bond casually asks M's relentlessly randy secretary Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) what she knows about gold and she unabashedly replies: "Oh, the only gold I know about is the kind you wear.  You know, on the third finger of your left hand."  Exchanges like this make me wonder how back-logged MI-6's H.R. department must be with sexual harassment complaints.

And then we're treated to the introduction of the great Desmond Llewelyn as Q, who would go on to supply Bond with all of his fancy gadgets for the next thirty-six years.  Q is the perfect foil to 007's flippant personality and his consistently cranky requisition lectures are the highlight of many a Bond film.  In Goldfinger, Q swaps Bond's Bentley for the ultimate toy: a tricked out Aston Martin DB5 which would go on to become one the most famous vehicles in the world.

By dropping a tantalizing brick of Nazi bullion on the green, Bond lures his nemesis into a high stakes golf match.  In a beautifully elegant turnabout, 007 manages to beat the crooked magnate at his own greasy game.  At the same time we're introduced to Goldfinger's manservant / caddy / chauffeur / bodyguard / enforcer appropriately named Odd Job (Harold Sakata).  The mute, hulking, super-humanly strong, bowler-cap-chucking Korean is widely regarded as the landmark henchman in the Bond film series.                                  

Next it's off to Switzerland where 007 discovers the secret behind Goldfinger's clandestine smuggling operation.  After a run-in with Jill's vengeful sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) tips off security, director Guy Hamilton uses this as an opportunity to upstage Dr. No's car chase sequences.  Although Hamilton relies on the same jarringly hokey rear screen projection, he manages to offset this considerably by varying the environments, cranking up the shutter speed and adding in a liberal dash of visual gags.

During the pursuit we also get to see all of the Aston Martin's incredible gadgetry in action.  After the smoke screen / oil slick / ejector seat / machine gun demo, Bond falls prey to a cunning optical illusion and crashes.  He's captured, brought back to Goldfinger's lair and then strapped into one of the greatest irrational torture device in cinema history.  This leads to the following classic exchange:

Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!

Just before 007's nards gets turned into a home wood burning project, he manages to bluff his way out of the trap.  Given how well this decision works out for Goldfinger, you can't help but wonder why all future villains in the series don't just shoot Bond square in the mush as soon as they capture him.  Regardless, Bond is rendered unconscious and ends up on a private plane captained by Goldfinger's personal pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman).  "I must be dreaming," 007 wryly observes, speaking for a large segment of male viewers as well.

During the flight from Switzerland to Kentucky (via Newfoundland!), Bond takes the opportunity to freshen up in the plane's loo, which has more peepholes then Chuck Berry's outhouse.  He cleverly manages to conceal all of them before activating a tracking device and concealing it in the heel of his shoe.  He then spends the rest of the flight trying his best to get Pussy to *a-hem* open up.      

Before he's able to make any headway, the plane lands at Pussy Galore's Flying Circus, presumably located right next door to a rival organization run by Monty Python Esquire.  The balance of Pussy's airborne troupe is then revealed, perhaps giving us some insight as to why Ms. Galore initially seems immune to Bond's charms.  John Barry's bold and brassy score is the perfect accompaniment to this scene, leading one to anticipate an impromptu aerial-themed burlesque routine.  

After they arrive at Goldfinger's stud farm (?), Bond gets locked up in a cell which could easily be featured in an issue of Better Homes and Dungeons.  He manages to escape (using the old "peek a boo"/ hang-off-the-ceiling trick) just in time to eavesdrop on Goldfinger's ultimate scheme sales pitch to a bunch of mob bosses.  In doing so, production designer Ken Adam gets to flex his prodigious muscles by showing off a pool table computer console, a gargantuan wall map and an incredibly detailed diorama of Fort Knox.

Goldfinger's "Operation Grand Slam" is nothing if not ambitious.  The first phase is to have Pussy's Playboy Pet Pilots knock out the garrison guarding Fort Knox with Delta Nine gas and then use a battery of explosives and lasers to gain access to the vault proper.  The real kicker comes later on when Goldfinger admits to 007 that he has absolutely no intentions of stealing the gold.  In fact, his endgame is considerably more interesting, original and brilliant then a petty case of grand larceny.  

And that's why Auric Goldfinger one of the best villains ever.  He tricks the mafia into bankrolling his scheme and then kills them all wholesale instead of paying them back.  He unflinchingly plots to annihilate the world's economy for his own personal gain.  When his plans start to go sour he immediately reveals a pre-planned disguise and then ventilates his business partner without a second thought.  He's even ambitious enough to give us one of the earliest examples of a cinematic false ending.

Through it all, Gert Fröbe is fantastic as the arch villain.  What makes his performance all the more remarkable is that the German-born actor could barely speak English and had to deliver many of his lines phonetically.  Although his voice was ultimately dubbed, Fröbe still possesses a shlubby, perverse authenticity and a quiet air of menace.  When it comes to convincing and multi-dimensional layers of unrepentant evil, they really broke the mould with this dude.  

Despite her character's ludicrous handle, Honor Blackman brings a tremendous amount of gravitas to the role of Pussy Galore.  Coming off of a rough-and-tumble stint on The Avengers, Ms. Blackman makes for both a convincing pilot and judo expert.  Her chemistry with Connery is downright tangible and their skirmish in the barn is super-charged with sexual tension.  The fact that her character actually has an impact on the plot goes to show that Bond Girls can be more then just window dressing.

But in all estimates it's really Sean Connery's take on James Bond that really keeps the film together as a cohesive entity.  No matter how ludicrous the scenario, Connery's dry-as-martini sardonic wit, cool demeanor and unflappable air of confidence all add up to one legendary turn.  Whether he's dodging bullets from a machine-gun-toting grandmother, delivering determined blows to a grinning, invulnerable Odd Job or rolling around in the hay with Pussy, Connery is equally game.      

Director Guy Hamilton's sure-footed direction is sustained throughout a climax in which Goldfinger's uniformly attired, Chinese-sourced minions make their assault on the gold reserves.  By shooting on location in front of the real depository building and using genuine blueprints to re-create the interior of Fort Knox, Hamilton gives us ample touchstones to prevent the film from drifting off into the stratosphere of fantasy.  Bond's likely escape, his tussle with Odd Job and his tentative guesswork in defusing an explosive device are all handled with note-perfect assurance.  Even the final count on the bomb's timer makes for a perfectly cheeky cherry on top of a sundae of awesome.

This is it, folks: the film that catapulted 007 right into the epicenter of pop culture.  Although I miss From Russia With Love's skullduggery, Goldfinger gave the series it's own unique identity.  This is the gold (pun intended) standard by which I judge all other Bond films, including the more recent entries.  Despite the fact that Goldfinger is nearly fifty years old (yikes!), it's refreshingly unpretentious, unrelentingly paced and wittier then any film of this ilk really deserves to be.

   Tilt: up.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movie Review: "From Russia With Love" by David Pretty

From Russia With Love is Sean Connery's second outing as Ian Flemming's famed super-spy.  Even if its scale is more modest then its predecessor, there's plenty of memorable characters, cool gadgets, and cloak n' dagger action to appease Bond buffs.

In a refreshing nod to continuity, Russia follows the shadowy criminal organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and their attempt to avenge the demise of their super-villain poster-boy Dr. No.  Their plot: tempt MI-6 into dispatching their star agent to Istanbul in order to relieve the Soviets of their highly-prized Lektor cryptographic device.

Once it's in Bond's possession, they extort a beautiful Russian cypher clerk named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to steal it back whilst implicating 007 in the theft.  As if that isn't devious enough, KGB double agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) dispatches a mentally unbalanced (and seemingly invulnerable) assassin named Donald Grant (Robert Shaw) to shadow and eliminate Bond once they recover the Lektor from him.

Fortunately, thanks to the aid of a Turkish operative named Kerim Bey (Pedro Armendáriz), our hero dodges endless pitfalls and manages to flee via rail aboard the legendary Orient Express.  Needless to say, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. isn't content to sit back and watch their plans unravel.  The upper hand swings back and forth like a pendulum as each side attempts to outwit and outmaneuver the other.

Although Russia features several innovations to the cinematic 007 formula (such as a pre-credits "grabber" sequence, the introduction of Q's innovative gadgets and a theme song with lyrics), there's a certain freshness on display here that's quaintly amusing.  Long before the series began to degenerate into self-parody, the plots were rife with point / counter-point espionage, believable levels or realism and gritty action sequences.

Witness the inevitable fracas between Bond and Grant, which plays out within the confines of two tiny train compartments.  Even today, their melee is vicious, shocking and filled with a genuine sense of peril.  Other modest-but-admirable action scenes involve 007 defeating an armada of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. gunboats and a truly harrowing sequence in which a helicopter attempts to smear 007 across the landscape.  The level of innovation with these set pieces (plus the fact that Connery was nutty enough to do most of his own stunts) definitely lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

Director Terrence Young keeps the pot boiling expertly, equally at home staging economic exposition scenes as he is with choreographing a wild gypsy catfight.  Istanbul, with its ancient mosques, underground cisterns and colorful train stations, also makes for a truly exotic and colorful setting.  As an added bonus, the sequence on the Orient Express is romantic, mysterious and claustrophobic.

Plus it's a real kick to see 60's era vehicles, styles and sensibilities captured for posterity.  A conspicuous absence of political correctness really makes you feel as if you're watching a cinematic time capsule.  Indeed, there's a great deal of appeal in watching a spy flick set in the very same era that makes Mad Men so compelling.  Having said that, it's also unnerving to watch the cold eye of the camera impassively document Bloefeld's Siamese fighting fish ripping each other to shreds or Bond casually backhanding Tatiana when he suspects her duplicity.

The performances here are all "win".  Connery displays ample bravado, cool humor and charisma, but he can also turn on a dime when called upon to be S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s patsy.  And although her voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford, Daniela Bianchi is certainly one of the most alluring, sympathetic and memorable Bond girls.  Both of the lead actors get plenty of help from the patient script to bring their respective characters to life.  Whereas these archetypes eventually became somewhat cartoonish, here both Bond and Tatiana seem like real, three-dimensional human beings and we can't help but root for them.

Like a precursor to John Rhys-Davies' Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pedro Armendáriz is also tremendous fun to watch.  He's casual, affable, and completely charming as Kerim Bey, which, regrettably, was his last film role.  The villains of the piece also deserve considerable praise.  Robert Shaw, who would go on to portray the grizzled Quint in Jaws, plays a stoic killer with iron resolve and unnerving calm.  His character is built up so effectively, it's hard to imagine that 007 will stand a chance against him in hand-to-hand combat.  Finally, as the inspiration for Frau Farbissina in Austin Powers, Lotte Lenya is delightfully cold, shrill and sadistic.  One could only imagine the eyebrows her early scenes with Daniela Bianchi must have raised amongst sensors of the day.

After watching From Russia With Love it's really no surprise that the Martin Campbell / Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale resonated so much with audiences.  Both films eschew splashy sets and gimmicks in lieu of intelligent plotting, character investment, solid performances and rough and tumble action sequences.  Both pictures are certainly the better for it.

   Tilt: up.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Movie Review: "Dr. No" by David Pretty

The remarkable thing about the James Bond franchise is that so many of its trappings were securely in place from the very beginning.  Starting with Dr. No back in 1962, that famous surf-rock guitar riff has always accompanied the iconic gun barrel P.O.V. shot.  Many of these distinctive elements have remained constant throughout twenty-two films produced over the past fifty years.

After the groovy pop-art credits finish rolling, the song "Three Blind Mice" is used to introduce a troika of unlikely assassins.  Viewers are caught completely flat-footed when these three seemingly innocent-looking blind dudes suddenly gun down the British Intelligence contact for Jamaica, John Strangways (Timothy Moxon).

Director Terrance Young then treats us to one of the most memorable character reveals in cinema history.  As soon as Sean Connery introduces himself as "Bond, James Bond" we know that we've just witnessed cinema history.  Connery is perfectly pimp: coolly measured, impeccably attired, supremely confident and apparently inhumanly skilled at baccarat.  It shouldn't be to anyone's surprise when he manages to nail slinky Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) within the first fifteen minutes of the film.

After sexually harassing an oddly complicit Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), Bond gets his first on-screen briefing from M (Bernard Lee).  As it turns out, Strangways was helping the C.I.A. track down the source of radio interference against Cape Canaveral rocket launches.  Naturally, 007 is tasked to fly to Jamaica and investigate. 

Bond's very first equipment requisition scene is a humble yet historic one.  M forces 007 to turn in his beloved Beretta, which we're told jammed on him during his last mission, nearly resulting in his death.  His replacement field weapon: the iconic Walther PPK.  Although he's very hesitant to make the switch at first (even attempting to smuggle the Beretta out of M's office), it's fun to watch James, with his new toy as it begins to serve him well during the mission.

Dr. No may not have all the whiz-bangery of more modern entries in the series, but what it lacks in spectacle it makes up for it in smarts.  Upon his arrival in Jamaica, James is instantly skeptical about his airport chauffeur.  After his contact at Government House confirms his suspicions (and Bond soberly admits that he may be "a few minutes late for lunch") he knowingly springs the trap and turns the tables on the duplicitous driver.  Unfortunately his captive soon suicides with a cyanide cigarette.  Wow, try saying that five times really quick.

007's smarts continue to be exhibited in subtle ways throughout the picture.  After chillin' with a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred, natch), Bond spit-glues a hair across his closet door and sprays his briefcase with a fingerprint-revealing aerosol in order to detect snoopers.  En route to meeting his C.I.A. equivalent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), James is forces to beat ass after a slight misunderstanding occurs with local boat-pilot Quarrel (John Kitzmiller).

Together the three of them begin to untangle the connections between a nefarious "freelance" photographer (Marguerite LeWars), her enigmatic boss Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) and a local geologist named Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson).  The mystery deepens after Bond catches Dent in a blatant fib about radioactive rock samples lifted from a verboten region of Jamaica called Crab Key.  It's not long before 007 rises to the top of Dr. No's shit list. 
Subsequently, Bond finds himself running afoul of a rather sizable tarantula.  The peril of this particular scene is tarnished somewhat by the fact that (A) tarantula bites are rarely, if ever, fatal and (B) Sean Connery insisted that a plate glass window be interjected between him and the arachnid.  Although this looks blatantly obvious now, the film-makers can be forgiven for not anticipating the development of high-def home video.               

The two car chases in the film are also a mixed bag.  The exteriors are tense and dynamic but every time director Terrance Young opts for rear-screen projection, the scenes begin to resemble out-takes "Toonces the Driving Cat".  Although the second high-speed chase (set along a winding, cliff-side dirt road under construction) is the superior set piece, both scenes give Bond an opportunity to spout some of the first one-liners in action movie history.

Despite persistent rumors that Crab Key is inhabited by a dragon, Bond finally persuades scaredy-Quarrel to take him there.  Initially, this seems like a boffo idea since the exterior locations are stunning and we also get our first glimpse of the equally lovely Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder.  When Ursula emerges from the Caribbean sea wearing that iconic white bathing suit, you can't help but sit up any pay attention.  Male theater goers in the early Sixties must have inadvertently knocked the bottoms out of their popcorn tubs.

Since Ursula's real voice sounds a lot like Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico after a whiskey bender, director Terence Young made the wise choice to dub her with vocal stand-in Nikki van der Zyl.  Between Nikki's seductive purr, Ursula's alluring charisma, and the character's innuendo-infused name, Honey Ryder is still at the top of the heap when it comes to Bond Girls.

In order to find Dr. No's compound our heroes are forced to endure a video-game like litany of  threats including machine-gun equipped gunboats, armed guards and packs of vicious dogs.  They have a particularly tough time dealing with the island's legendary "dragon", which essentially functions as the scene's "end boss".  Quarrel's fears are vindicated after he gets turned into a briquette and the dragon's keepers threaten Bond with a 100% bonus in the navel department if he doesn't surrender.

The end the film is a veritable laundry list of classic James Bond tropes.  James and Honey are transported back to an UNDERWATER LAIR where they're TREATED LIKE GUESTS by an UNNERVINGLY POLITE VILLAIN.  With his pristine white Nehru suit, pneumatic metal gauntlets and the sort of back story that makes Dr. Evil's origins look like Jerry O'Connell's, Joseph Wiseman's slow-burn performance as Dr. Julius No sets the bar pretty high for his successors.  His debate with Bond over dinner is still compulsively watchable and rife with the sort of squirm-inducing tension rarely seen in today's films.

Also classic is Bond's imminently escapable jail cell and the laughably inefficient drowning trap that Honey Ryder gets shackled into.  In a scene that George Lucas might have cribbed for Star Wars fifteen years later, 007 steals a radiation suit and uses the disguise to throw a monkey wrench into the not-so-good Doctor's plans.  Eventually it comes down to a mano-a-mano duel in which the villain's imposing bionic mitts prove to be rather impractical.  I love it when writers find a way to make gimmicks like this pay off in the finale.     

Except for a few notable exceptions, most directors in the early Sixties really didn't bother with a distinct visual style.  Clearly Terrance Young was a working director who's main goal was to document the script as competently as possible.  Subsequently, a lot of the "action sequences" in the film look like second unit footage produced by Kevin Smith.  But frankly, in this day and age when dynamic scenes are always shot in hyper close up with epileptic editing, I find this style to be refreshingly concise.

I love it when I can follow the strategy of a fistfight, the tactics of a car chase and the unique narrative told during a showdown between a secret agent and a flame-throwing amphibious vehicle.  Dr. No was made during a time when people craved realism, even in their spy films.  We even get a scene in which Bond cleans his gun after he gets it wet, just to make sure that no wise ass in the audience can call bullshit when he uses it without fail in the very next scene.  It's this sort of attention to detail that makes Dr. No seem real, even when things go completely and totally batshit nuts in the final act.

The film's attention to detail also comes across in the remarkable production values.  The choice to shoot on location in Jamaica gives the film a sumptuous and exotic quality.  The villain's underwater grotto is equal parts Hugh Hefner and Jules Verne.  The main command center, with its multiple levels, gantries, complex instrumentation and built-in nuclear reactor is ominously convincing.  Dr. No may have been made for only $1 million dollars (best said in a Dr. Evil voice) but it actually looks like it was made for twenty times that amount. 

Dr. No is a fantastic kick-off to the James Bond franchise.  Many of the elements that characterize the series are already present and accounted for, yet its scale is modest enough to give future entries a chance to expand.

      Tilt: up.