Archive for February, 2019

Dr No (1962)

Posted: February 28, 2019 in James Bond
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“I am smoking a fag.”

Directed by Terence Young

With Spectre over three years behind us now, Bond #25 still over a year away, and in a desperate attempt to revive my frankly flagging James Bond mojo, I’ve set myself the task of watching and reviewing every Bond film, in order, before the next film debuts.

Given that Bond#25 shouldn’t hit our screens until at least April 2020 this should give me plenty of time to go through the 24 canon films (no original Casino Royale or Never Say Never Again unless I finish early) and so long as I’m watching a film every two to three weeks I should make it!

Be warned, much as I love the franchise I expect to ridicule as often as I laud the films!

And so, as Julie Andrews sang, we start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, with Dr No, that sees 007 despatched to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of MI6 head of station, the wonderfully named Strangways, and his secretary. Once there 007 will become embroiled in a plot by the sinister Dr No to topple American rockets using radio waves.

Now it’s been a while since I last watched Dr No, and my view had always been that it was a film of two halves, one better than the other. Overall this view hasn’t changed, except insofar as those two halves have switched. You see, when I was younger it was the secret base, the atomic power and the madman with the metal hands that excited me. Now, however, I find more to enjoy in the first half of the film, and Bond’s investigation of Strangways’ disappearance, and it strikes me that we don’t see Bond acting as a detective nearly often enough, and whilst he’s clearly identified as having a licence to kill, it’s interesting that people are more concerned with him as an investigator. Honey exclaims that she’s never met a detective before, and even Dr No refers to him as just a policeman.

It’s also nice to see Bond indulging in some actual tradecraft; see as he dusts the locks of his briefcase with talcum powder, and places a hair across the door so that if anyone comes snooping, he’ll know. Not that he doesn’t make use of his licence to kill of course, just see the cold-blooded way he despatches Professor Dent—although this really does seem a trifle short-sighted, Dent was out of bullets and 007 still needed information, so killing him was a bit rash. What was it Judi Dench said in Casino Royale about blunt instruments?

dr no2It’s interesting how many Bondian elements will first appear here. The gun barrel, the James Bond theme, the meeting with M, being armed by Q (sort of given Major Boothroyd is Q, even if he’s not named as such) the flirting with Moneypenny, the flirting with anything in a skirt if we’re honest, and Bond is identified as a gambler and a ladies man before we learn he has a licence to kill, and by my reckoning he sleeps with three women here (albeit off camera, it was 1962) Sylvia Trench (so far the only Bond girl to return as the same character unless Moneypenny counts) Miss Taro and Honey—well ok, it only looks like he’s going to but does anyone imagine they didn’t? Even with the CIA and a bunch of Royal Marines watching?

Oddly once Bond goes over the Crab Key things get less interesting. Perhaps in part because whilst at the time Dr No’s ploy seemed fantastical, these days it’s quite mundane (and it’s never quite clear why he’s doing it, to prove a point? Because someone is paying SPECTRE?) and it also doesn’t help that Dr Evil wears that radiation suit decades later, you’ve got a lot to answer for, Mike Myers (but we’ll get to that properly when I review Spectre).

What can’t be denied is that Ken Adams’ sets are glorious, even before you consider that Dr No was made on quite a tight budget. I doubt you’d be able to make a film that looked this good now for the modern equivalent of a million dollars.

I guess the real trouble is that not much happens in those wonderful sets. Bond and Honey get decontaminated, in a scene that goes on way too long, before settling in for a snoozy nap, and then, finally, our titular villain appears and sets a dangerous precedent by explaining his whole plan to 007. Bond escapes from his cell with consummate ease, and thwarts No’s plan quite easily as well, and notice how none of No’s goons try and take any kind of revenge once Crab Key starts exploding, well I guess they have other things on their minds.

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“That’s Dr No, I didn’t spend three years at evil medical school to be Mr.”

Wiseman does a decent job, but he’s never really given the material or the screen time to make enough of an impression, though you have to admit that he ticks an awful lot of Bond villain boxes in a short amount of time; sinister foreigner, check, disfigured in some way, check, charming and urbane, check, completely immoral, check, genius, check, bit of a nutter, check…

All this and a big aquarium!

Of course no discussion of a Bond film is complete without discussion of the Bond girl (and yes I know it should be Bond woman, but no I’m not going to call them that) and setting aside the delightfully forward and ingenious Ms Trench, and femme fatale Miss Taro, that sobriquet really belongs to Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder (with vocal assistance from Nikki van der Zyl and the singing voice of Diana Coupland from Bless this House!)

Dr-No-616.jpgNow for many Andress is seen as the iconic Bond girl, it’s all about that bikini apparently. Well let me shatter all your illusions (well most of them) because she’s not a great Bond girl. Yes she’s beautiful (and call me weird but I find her sexier the more clothes she puts on) but that’s about it. She talks tough, with mention of getting revenge on her rapist, and she wields a big knife, but she has zero agency and is no help to Bond whatsoever aside from acting as a damsel in distress for him to rescue then seduce. Contentious opinion #1; Britt Eklund’s Mary Goodnight is a way better Bond girl than Honey is!

As M and Moneypenny it’s hard to disaggregate the performances of Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell here from all their other appearances, they seem right at home from the off. Jack Lord makes for a decent Felix, and though he’s poorly served in the end, John Kitzmiller’s Quarrel does ably assist Bond for the most part, and as a side note, I’m pretty sure there’s some interracial dancing going on at one of the bars, which is nice to see in a film of this era.

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That really just leaves Connery doesn’t it? Now contentious opinion #2, anyone who’s read my blog before will know I’m not always the greatest fan of Sean, but fair dos he’s superb here. He slides into James Bond’s skin with ease and makes 007 a fully formed character right from the off, there’s also some nuance and some downright vulnerability that’ll be lost once he starts phoning it in, but here; he makes an excellent Bond in what is, overall, a perfectly decent, if a touch old fashioned, film.

One final note. Say what you like about Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead or Xenia Onatopp, I’m pretty sure Puss Feller has dibs on being one of the most ludicrous names in the franchise!

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9781910400739By James Hawes

I did my degree in history, yet oddly I’ve probably read more history books later in life than I ever did at University, which is something I apparently have in common with David Mitchell (as in Mitchell and Webb David Mitchell, not the guy who wrote Cloud Atlas—although maybe he’s developed a fondness for history later in life as well?)

The trouble with history is that there’s rather a lot of it, and a lot of history books—especially ones that cover a long period of time—tend to be large, often impenetrable tomes, which tends to put me off, so what Hawes does here is truly amazing, detailing the history of Germany from the time of the Romans, through to the era of Angela Merkal, in just a few hundred pages.

Sure, a lot of nuance is probably lost, but for that I could always drill down in more detail and Hawes’ book is a great overview that gives you a taste of German history and leaves you eager to learn more.

It is, at times, a depressing read. From the opening pages we learn that the Roman Empire was concerned about immigration, savages heading south to steal jobs and corrupt Roman culture. The more things change the more they stay the same, eh? And of course the rise of the far right and Hitler, which Hawes understandably goes into a lot of detail about, seems pertinent even today, but he notes that anti-Semitism didn’t start with Hitler, Adolf just took it to a hideous extreme.

We start with Romans and Franks, and Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor who united much of Western Europe from 800AD. Later we meet the Teutonic Knights who founded the region that will come to be known as Prussia, and one of the most interesting facets of German history is this conflict between East and West; the West predominantly Catholic, leaning more towards France and England, whilst the East was more protestant—Martin Luther came from the East after all. And so there’s a tussle for the soul of Germania, with one side alternately battling with/eager to emulate France, England and eventually America, and the other side obsessed by Poland and Russia, and in displacing the slavs, and Hawes makes an interesting argument that the worst thing that happened to West Germany was the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.

Hawes’ prose is eminently readable, yet he manages to explain complex issues without ever needing to dumb down the material. If I had one flaw it’s with the maps, which in the paperback version have been poorly shrunk to the point where at times they’re barely legible, but this is a minor niggle. overall a hugely enjoyable, and hugely informative read.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Posted: February 16, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Mike Mitchell. Starring Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett and Tiffany Haddish.

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After the events of the first film, Finn has won the right to play with his dad’s Lego, but the caveat is that his younger sister Bianca has to as well.

Inside the Lego universe the city of Bricksburg is attacked by giant Duplo invaders. As the years pass these attacks continue, to the point where Bricksburg becomes post-apocalyptic wasteland named Apocalypseburg, and all things cute and colourful are frowned upon lest they draw down the invaders. The only one who hasn’t changed is Emmet (Pratt) who retains his upbeat, everything is awesome attitude, much to the despair of his friend Lucy (Banks). When he builds a cute dream house out in the desert Lucy fears this will attract another attack. Emmet is worried about a dream he’s had about an apocalyptic event named “Our-Mom-Ageddon”.

When a Duplo attack, led by General Sweet Mayhem (Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz) rains destruction on Apocalypseburg, Lucy blames Emmet. Mayhem kidnaps Lucy, along with Batman (Arnett) and others to take back to the Systar System where a marriage is planned.

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Emmet tries to rally support but no one will help him, so he heads for the Systar System alone. He doesn’t get very far before encountering difficulties, but is saved by rugged action hero Rex Dangervest (also Pratt) who offers to help, and encourages Emmet to become less of a doormat.

Meanwhile in the Systar System a portentous marriage edges ever closer, as does the threat of Our-Mom-Ageddon. Can Emmet and Lucy save the day, or is it time to put aside childish things?

 

The original Lego movie was a surprise hit, so surprising that I have to admit that I didn’t see it at the cinema. With a wry script, great animation and a decent cast it rose above it’s lame toy tie in potential to becomes a hugely enjoyable film. Since then we’re had the excellent Lego Batman film and the Lego Ninjago Movie, so the first thing to say is that obviously the surprise element of the first film’s assuredly gone this time, so it’s to its credit that the film is still as enjoyable and funny as it is, a sequel that’s overall as good as the first film, albeit one that’s not as good in some areas but better in others. So the plot is a trifle more contrived and convoluted, but on the upside the slightly mawkish ‘real world’ element of the first film is softened somewhat, mostly down to a great cameo appearance.

Setting aside the animation and the voice cast, the true architects, master builders if you will, of this film are writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and I can’t help but wonder what their Solo would have looked like. The film’s is chock full of wit and great dialogue, and manages to impart a good message about tolerance for others’ ideas without tripping into clunky, He-Man style moralising.

Untitled1Pratt is good in a duel role, Banks is excellent and Haddish is wonderfully sinister Watevra Wa-Nabi, shape shifting alien queen. Yet again it’s Arnett who threatens to steal the show as Batman though.

The visuals are amazing, although as with the other Lego films, sometimes there’s so much going on that it can get a touch overawing and cluttered, as with the other Lego movies, it’s a film that will benefit from multiple viewings because there’ll be loads of visual jokes you miss the first time around; in particular I loved Rex Dangervest’s raptor buddies (complete with amusing subtitles.)

Visually overpowering at times, and the shift when you have to reappraise everything you’ve seen so far doesn’t quite hang together well enough, but this is a film with its heart in the right place, it looks gorgeous and oozes wit. Throw in a voice cast at the top of their game and everything is still awesome because this is a film that fits together as well as Lego bricks.  I don’t really see where they can take this with a third entry however.

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Glass

Posted: February 2, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson and Samuel L. Jackson.

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What the Beastie Boys look like now will shock you!

Since being nicknamed ‘The Horde’, the multitude of personalities that inhabit Kevin Wendall Crumb (McAvoy) have kidnapped four cheerleaders, and plan to sacrifice them to Kevin’s ultimate personality, the inhumanly strong entity known as ‘The Beast’. On his trail however is vigilante David Dunn (Willis), a man with his own special powers, he is incredibly strong and can sense the guilt in people he touches. When he brushes past Kevin (who’s possessed by 9 year old Hedwig at the time) David sees the girls chained up. David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) who acts as his support via radio, manages to identify the building David saw in his vision.

David arrives in time to save the girls, and then confronts the Beast, but when the police arrive both David and Kevin are arrested and taken to a psychiatric hospital where Elijah Price (Jackson) the man who caused the original train crash that David was the only survivor of, and a man who named himself Mr Glass due to his brittle bones, is also a resident.

Soon David, Kevin and Elijah meet Dr Ellie Staple (Paulson) a psychiatrist who specialises is delusions of grandeur, and very specifically people with the delusion of being superheroes. Ellie explains she has just a few days to convince the men that their belief is a delusion, or else surgery will be required.

Can Ellie convince the three that they’re not superpowered after all, or has she made a huge miscalculation that could cost thousands of lives?

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With a tiny budget Die Hard 6 had to rely on John McClane fighting terrorists in a single room

And so we reach the finale of a curious trilogy that began way back in 2000 with Unbreakable (arguably Shyamalan’s best film) and unexpectedly continued via the surprise 2017 hit Split. Of course, Split was only a very loose sequel to Unbreakable, with little more than a Willis cameo to tie it all together, but Glass works much better as a sequel to both films.

Shyamalan is a divisive director. The Sixth Sense is very good, but did set the tone for him producing genre pictures complete with a shocking (or not) twist, and the law of diminishing returns kicked in, which each film ending up with a sillier resolution than the last. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Signs, or The Village, but they were films that fell apart if you gave them much thought. Shyamalan also generated complaints of pretentiousness with The Lady and the Water. For me the nadir was The Happening, a hilarious film, but one that, given its subject matter, really shouldn’t have been so laugh out loud funny. Even at his most ludicrous I had faith in Shyamalan to deliver chills (think Haley Joel Osment menaced by ghosts in his apartment, or Bryce Dallas Howard stalked through the woods), but the Happening wasn’t remotely scary. Soon Shyamalan was reduced to directing for hire. The Visit in 2015 garnered some good reviews, but it was Split that really got people talking again, and which prompted Glass.

It’s a curious film, one that does harken back somewhat to Shyamalan’s earlier work, but one that’s too flawed to be anywhere near as good as something like the Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. The gap between the first and second film doesn’t help (for example I’d forgotten about David’s water related vulnerability) and at times some of the acting and dialogue is very clunky, and there are some curious narrative choices into the bargain.

And yet I liked it. No it isn’t perfect, and yes it’s probably at its strongest in the middle portion of the film, but kudos to Shyamalan for giving us something a little different, even if it never feels quite as good as it should be. And you know, I didn’t see the twist (and yes there is one, of course) coming, which is something else in its favour.

Review-GlassAs with Split the strongest part of the film is McAvoy. It must be an actor’s dream to play so many different characters within the same film, and credit must be given to Shyamalan as writer and director here as well. Sure some of the personalities seem ropier than others, but on the whole it’s a masterful acting display, especially given that he often has to seamlessly switch between characters in the same scene, and given that he has to be capable of being both sympathetic victim, and monstrous predator by turn. Surely sooner or later the guy’s going to have to win an Oscar?

It’s nice to see Willis back, and it’s nice to see him not just phoning it in, and if he seems a bit peripheral at times I don’t think it’s Willis’ fault that Shyamalan clearly wants to play more with the villains. I do wish he’d had more of a role to play however, but it is nice to see him giving a damn again.

Jackson does that thing, as with Django, of making you remember there was a time before he just played Samuel L Jackson. Elijah is terrifyingly intelligent, and scarily manipulative, and as with McAvoy he does make you feel a smidgen of sympathy for the character—the flashback to him as a child is incredibly wince inducing.

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I’m a big fan of Sarah Paulson and she does the best she can with what could have been a very two-dimensional role. She’s such a good actress that she does manage to play Staple as warm caregiver one moment, and cold clinician the next.

Also returning from Split is Anya Taylor-Joy, who has an important role to play, but really serves as little more than a plot point, as do Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph and Charlayne Woodard returning as Elijah’s mum.

It’s mostly well shot, although some of the camera work intended to put us in the middle to fight scenes felt jarring. Its biggest problem though is scale. In trying to make an epic superhero film on an indie budget the result can’t hep but come off as somewhat underwhelming, especially when we’re teased a far more spectacular finale than we actually get. Sure, Shyamalan made it work in Unbreakable, but that was almost twenty years ago, before Marvel, DC, Fox etc gave us a plethora of big budget superhero films, and before the genre was really given a self-referential makeover. In 2000 Unbreakable was something different, in 2019 Glass is far less unique, and even feels a trifle hackneyed in places.

But despite that it’s enjoyable enough hokum, and though it’s not the sequel to Unbreakable I’d hoped for, I for one am glad we finally got one.

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McAvoy’s got a crush on you!