Thursday, July 30, 2015

007(x3) Weeks of 007 #9 - "The Man with the Golden Gun"

Ah, Thursday. Here we are, another Thursday and another 007(x3) Weeks of 007. For what it's worth, next week we're looking at a Wednesday release, but this week we're back with our usual Thursday after last week's Friday.

Convoluted? Maybe, but let's face it, "The Man with the Golden Gun" is a little convoluted at times as well (despite having one of the all-time great theme songs... love is required indeed). No, it's okay, we can admit it, it's a little convoluted.

First off, you have Herve Villechaize as Nick Nack, Scaramanga's henchman. Nick Nack, without a doubt rates as the number three henchman in the Bond films, behind only Oddjob and Jaws. At the time "Golden Gun" is made Nick Nack is number two behind Oddjob and the exact opposite of that character. Whereas Oddjob only grunts, Nick Nack talks a lot and where Oddjob is huge and physical, Nick Nack is small and in no way physical. It is another conscious decision to echo what is seen as the franchise's high water mark, "Goldfinger."

The convoluted part with Nick Nack comes in with the way he talks about Scaramanga. Does Nick Nack really want Scaramanga dead? He says so more than once, offering the explanation that he gets all of Scaramanga's stuff when the assassin dies. It is very Cato in "The Pink Panther" series (and, as an aside, Cato is played by Burt Kwouk who appears in "Goldfinger"), and really makes you wonder about the character. After all, let's remember, it's Nick Nack who sets up Scaramanga's funhouse and brings baddies there to try to take out his boss.

Also convoluted—and something that just doesn't work in this film—the reappearance of J.W. Pepper. We last left J.W. in Louisiana in "Live and Let Die" and now, miraculously, he and his wife happen to be in Thailand and at the right place and the right time to see Bond more than once.

I think while the Clifton James performance works well in the first movie as he's a sheriff in the area Bond is destroying, he is shoehorned in here due to his success last time out and a disappointment. It really diminishes the character as a whole. We even first see Pepper here as Bond is in the midst of another boat chase, just as we first see Pepper in "Live and Let Die." It is just too much of a coincidence and too ridiculous.

The Moore Bond films have a tendency towards excess, particularly when it comes to the hokey. It isn't just the reappearance of Pepper either in "Man with the Golden Gun," it's the use of the RMS Elizabeth for M's office, with everything on a ridiculous slant and Bond doing the corkscrew in the Hornet Sportabout to get from one side of the river to the other. I can accept this last one, the car stunt, is a truly Bondian thing, but there's a ridiculous slide-whistle sound made when he does the flip. In non-Moore Bond films—heck, even in "Live and Let Die"—the flip would be accompanied by the classic Bond theme, not a whistle.

As we continue watching the Moore Bond films, we're going to see this tendency to go for a big laugh to continue. Sure, Connery would offer one liners, but they rarely feel as though they're supposed to be truly funny ("Shocking. Positively shocking."). They are more moments for you to shake your head and wonder at the mentality of Bond. We will see just how big and broad the humor gets through the years before we get the reset with Dalton, a Bond without a funny bone in his body.

Ridiculous attempts at humor or not, "Man with the Golden Gun" isn't just a good Bond film, it's a great one, and it's great because of the bad guy, Scaramanga. Christopher Lee imparts the character with this incredible anti-Bond sensibility. Scaramanga knows and wants the good things in life, just as Bond does, Bond just has a sense of duty to Queen and country (and of right and wrong), whereas Scaramanga is only loyal to those paying him. He is suave, he is debonair, he is hugely charismatic, he's just evil.

I would be completely remiss here if I didn't toss a nod to Maud Adams in her first Bond movie. We will see her again in "Octopussy" and briefly in "A View to a Kill." She is just one of a number of folks who appear in more than one Bond through the years. We already talked about Charles Gray and, much like Gray, she's going to go from a supporting role here to lead baddie a few movies down the line. Notably going a different direction is Joe Don Baker, but we're not there yet.

One more thought before I go – the Solex Agitator, the movie's maguffin. I think this is the first Bond where the environment/environmental issues are discussed, but it won't be the last (they most recently came up in "Quantum of Solace"). What is fascinating about the story with the Solex is that it involves being able to convert solar power to electricity on a large scale, and that's something we're still looking at doing better 40 years later. It doesn't really make for the greatest of storylines here and I'm not entirely sure why we need more than Bond taking out the anti-Bond, but it's thrown in there so that Scaramanga can have more to do than just play a cat-and-mouse game with 007. It would be better as just the cat-and-mouse thing, but that's not how Bond movies work.

And now, as I head off into the sunset, let me remind you that 007(x3) Weeks of 007 will return with "The Spy Who Loved Me."

photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" - Choose to Accept This Franchise Entry

At first blush, it ought to be easy to make a good, high octane, spy movie, it's just a matter of ingredients. You need attractive and/or charismatic cast members, exotic locations, a few fun set pieces, gadgets, some banter, and an acceptable maguffin. This isn't reinventing the wheel, it's just copying one that has already been produced hundreds of times.

It is, of course, not that easy. Yes, there are standard elements that are generally included in such a film, but their mere presence alone doesn't turn straw into gold. There are just too many pitfalls along the way, too many things that could go wrong.

I tell you all of the above so that I can then tell you this – virtually none of those things go wrong in Tom Cruise's fifth outing as Ethan Hunt in "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation." I don't generally talk in quotable one-liners (unless I'm quoting someone else's one-liner), but will say that the movie offers some of the most fun I've had at the theater this year. Cruise is charismatic and enjoyable in the way that he has shown us so many times before and was, just a few years ago, seemingly on the verge of losing.

But, it isn't only Cruise who makes the film, this is one of the best IMF groupings we've seen on the big screen, with each of the actors—Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and new-to-the-franchise Rebecca Ferguson—deserving the credit for that. By this point, both Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg know exactly what they're about in a "Mission: Impossible," and both do a great job blending humor with the more serious moments required of them. Rhames as Luther Stickell is a little short-changed in his return to the franchise (he only had a cameo in "Ghost Protocol"), but makes the most of his time. Pegg, who is playing Benji for a third time, appears ever more at home opposite Tom Cruise and is a perfect sidekick.

Truly though it is Jeremy Renner and his portrayal of William Brandt that helps put the whole thing together. It falls to Renner to play the guy who has to repeatedly face Hunt and ask if the team is going too far. Not only that, but he also has to turn to his government higher-ups and defend the team. It is a difficult position for the character and could easily make him unlikable to those watching the movie. Renner, however, overcomes the challenges and leaves the audience with nothing but respect, admiration, and quite possibly affection for Brandt. The biggest shortcoming in the film is its portrayal of Ilsa Faust, Rebecca Ferguson's character. While Ferguson acquits herself exceptionally well and Faust has some great moments in the film, both on the dramatic and action-oriented side of things, the camera lingers on the character in a way that ought to make the audience uncomfortable more than once. It is out of place and each instance would better have been left on the cutting room floor (or not filmed at all).

When it comes to Faust, on the other side of things is the fact that she regularly gets involved in the action sequences as Hunt's equal (or more). She gets to rescue him, she sometimes gets the better of him, and she is in control of their relationship on more than one occasion.

Does this mitigate the problem? I tend to think that it does to some degree. Ferguson is present as more than just eye candy, and that isn't something that we would have seen in years' past, she would have been there solely for the camera to pan over. She most definitely is not here. She is spectacularly good in the action sequences. "Mission: Impossible" and other films obviously have further to go before we get to equality—the camera lingers over Cruise, too, just not quite as much—but it hints at what could be.

Christopher McQuarrie is the director for "Rogue Nation" and also took on screenplay duties, writing the script from a story developed by himself and Drew Pearce. Perhaps then, it is McQuarrie who deserves much of the credit for making this one of the best entries in the franchise (and the blame for the movie's treatment of Ferguson). The director has worked with Cruise before several times, including directing "Jack Reacher," and as a whole this is their best collaboration.

One of the film's highly touted moments, Cruise's clinging to the side of an airplane in flight is, as expected, a truly wonderful moment, but certainly one that is also moderately diminished for having been so well publicized. "Rogue Nation" actually gets the stunt out of the way very early on, which is great for the movie as it leaves audiences free to ponder what the next set piece will bring, or even the one after that. No one will be disappointed either, because while the plane stunt may be huge, there are plenty of other great bits of action throughout.

While the action is one of the big pluses, one of the big minuses is the villain. This time out Hunt is going up against the Syndicate, a shadowy organization responsible for all sorts of villainy in the world. They are an organization so secret that most people believe they don't exist. It falls to actor Sean Harris to play Solomon Lane, the head of the Syndicate and while he is acceptably menacing, the organization never feels truly ominous, they just feel like yet another bad guy out to wreak havoc with a group of underlings. There is really just lip service to how bad a bunch they are and no true sense of threat. The Syndicate's plans may be broad in scope, but they never feel so on the screen, there is simply too much other stuff going on and the film is always too invested in getting to the next set piece.

In the end, the biggest threat to Hunt comes not from the Syndicate, but from Alec's Baldwin CIA director, Alan Hunley. It is Hunley's desire to shutter the IMF for good, a move which sends Hunt into the wind to pursue his mission alone.

Okay, confession time, the real reason that I wrote the opening to this review that I did is because, as I hope is clear, "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation" is incredibly formulaic. It succeeds not because it deviates from the formula, but rather because it is the formula's purest distillation. Get the most charismatic and/or beautiful actors. Get the biggest set pieces. Use the coolest gadgets. Have the best banter. Go for the most average of maguffins possible (and if it seems like the audience has seen such a maguffin in an early "Mission: Impossible," all the better!).

"Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation" is by no means perfect, and some of its flaws are all too obvious, but it feels like another move in the right direction for the franchise and Cruise. I still list the original as my favorite of the films, but this is certainly close to it.

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The new Dr. Seuss, "What Pet Should I Get?," Makes me Weep

Today, Nearly 14 years after he passed away, a new Dr. Seuss book hits store shelves and it's not the first one to arrive following the author's death. No, I already own five other books by Seuss (or partially by him) published after September of 1991. They aren't all disappointing, but they are more often than not and "What Pet Should I Get?" definitely adds to that letdown feeling.

I have loved Dr. Seuss for decades, my grandparents had some of his books that my grandfather would read to us when we were over there, and since those early moments I was a fan. I remember buying "The Butter Battle Book" when it was first released and still kick myself for writing my name in the first edition copy.

There is a lilting rhyme and wonder to a well-composed Seuss and the note from the publisher in the back of "What Pet Should I Get?" offers a quote from him about that composing, "'I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds… but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.'" What this book, and some of those other post-death books offer are words, sentences, and thoughts that haven't gone through those pangs. They are incomplete, insufficient, imperfectly articulated. It is, in short, a rough draft.

But, that is not a revelation and this is not a book review.

No one would argue that this book was completed by Seuss before he died. The manuscript was found squirreled away in a box, seemingly set aside something on the order of a half-century ago. Rediscovered in 2013, we are now getting the book and I have several different feelings about it all.

On the one hand, like so many others, I'm happy to have another Seuss book to read, to admire, to contemplate. The idea that there might be something more, and something great, right around the corner is fantastic.

The realistic side of me, however, says that there isn't something wonderful on the way. Anything that wasn't finished by him has the distinct sense of, well, not being finished by him. We aren't going to get that perfectly lyrical structure, that deep thought wrapped around a child-like idea, that sense of wonder.

The new books are trading on the memory of the old, they are selling back to me that nostalgic feeling I had buying "The Butter Battle Book," or writing a "Lorax" spoof for 11th grade English. And, what's worse, they have the same awkwardness that my spoof exhibited, awkwardness that Seuss would have been polished out in the final form, if there ever was a final form.

There is actually a suggestion in "What Pet Should I Get?" that the book may have morphed into "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish," that it is an early draft of what that book became. Ladies and gentleman, I give to you the first version of Atticus Finch.

Is that really what we want? Is the lure of nostalgia so strong that we have to continually resurrect these things, pitch them as new and different, and just sit back as the money rolls in?

The best moment in "What Pet Should I Get?" is there in the publisher's note as they put a drawing from "One Fish Two Fish" side-by-side with one from this book. It offers an example of how the image from one may have morphed into the other. Not did, just may have.

What I want, what I would gladly purchase, is a Seuss book that put up one of these unpublished drafts next to a finished form, so that we could see how A became B. That would be incredible. It would offer insight into his process, it would be intellectually stimulating, and it would still spark that bit of nostalgia without making me feel as though I was being exploited.

The truly horrible thought about it all, and the one I'm going to leave you with, is this – I don't think for a minute that this is the last manuscript that is going to be found, polished, and sold. And worse, when the next one is announced I'm going to pre-order it just as quickly as I did "What Pet Should I Get?"

photo credit: Penguin Random House

Monday, July 27, 2015

Good Media Manners - Friends Don't let Friends Motion-Smooth

Dear GMM,

I know that it's been a while since you last responded to any letters, but I'm desperately hoping you can help me, I'm in dire straits. You see, I was at a friend's place recently and they had motion-smoothing turned on for every TV in their house. How can I tell them that they have to change this without ruining our friendship?

Will J

Dear Will,

That is a doozy. Motion-smoothing, as has been documented over and over again makes the best movies in the world look like the cheapest of soap operas. It takes the intent of the filmmaker (or TV program maker) and chucks it out the window in favor of something absurd.  An argument can be made for its use in sports programming, but that's about it.

GMM actually went into Best Buy the other week to look at TVs and compare models, but as every single television in the store had motion-smoothing turned on the trip was fruitless except for making us slightly queasy and more than a little upset.  One cannot correctly compare the pros and cons of a television with motion-smoothing turned on because all one can see is one big, artificially smoothed, con.

That is all to say that GMM knows your pain. The solution, however, is slightly more complicated than recognizing the problem and depends greatly on the specifics of your relationship and your friend's TV knowledge.

Do you have an open and honest relationship with this person? Is this a good friend to whom you can express all of your deepest darkest secrets? Are they aware that they have motion-smoothing turned on? Are they aware of what it is in the first place?

If this is a close friend and they don't know what they're doing, it is your duty to tell them. You have clearly lost some respect for this individual but you care for them. You don't want your friend to turn off scads more people, so you have to say something. Do it gently. Maybe a "We need to talk. You know that we're friends and that I would never want to do anything to jeopardize that. The problem isn't you, it's your TV. Your TV has motion-smoothing turned on. John Wayne's 'The Searchers' shouldn't look like yesterday's 'GH,' motion-smoothing has to be turned off. Let me help."

You can always also opt to ask for a drink and then just change the setting when they're out of the room. If they don't know about motion-smoothing they may not notice the change, especially if you're flipping channels when they come back. The trick here is to familiarize yourself with their TV's menus in advance (do some internet research) so you can make the switch quickly and cleanly.

If you're not good friends with this person and they don't know what they're doing, it becomes moderately more tricky. I suggest being open and forthright, "I see you have motion-smoothing turned on. I have always found it more harmful than not, what makes you keep it on?" Again here, honest dialogue is the key.  With a little luck, they'll let you turn it off, especially if there's a movie immediately available for you to show a comparison.

Then there's the situation where this individual, whether a good friend or not, knows what they're doing and purposefully has motion-smoothing set to on. While this may seem like the trickiest of scenarios, it isn't.  This one is all on you.  Stop, go home, and reassess your friendship (whether it be strong or budding). Is this the sort of person you truly want in your life?

GMM thinks that in your heart you already know the answer.


Good Media Manners

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Friday, July 24, 2015

007(x3) Weeks of 007 #8 - "Live and Let Die"

We have reached a critical juncture this week with 007(x3) Weeks of 007 – the first Roger Moore film. Moore is a divisive Bond. Perhaps not as divisive at Timothy Dalton, but Dalton's impact on the franchise is lessened by his only having appeared in the role twice. Moore is Bond for the longest period of time and does the most movies. He brings an added level of comedy to the franchise and a greatly increased number of gadgets. Plus, except for one "Hey that looks like Blofeld but they're not calling him Blofeld" moment, SPECTRE is completely out of the story.

But, we will get to all that stuff. We need to start at the beginning, and for Moore it begins with "Live and Let Die," a movie that has the honor of offering to us an "and introducing Jane Seymour" line in the opening credits.

As with Lazenby, the franchise instantly differentiates this Bond from the ones that have come before. First off, the pre-title sequence doesn't have Bond in it nor someone who looks like him (the first time this happens in the franchise), and then, immediately post-credits we get to the gadgets.

Oh, the first gadget isn't hugely impressive, Bond makes M a cappuccino, but it is involved and leaves M wondering if the only thing the machine does is make coffee. Then there's the magnetic watch Bond uses to unzip a dress. Moore's first scene, our first introduction to his Bond, and he's all about the gadgets. It is something we're going to see repeatedly in his films.

Now, I want to be sure not to gloss over one of the other incredible differences between this Bond and his predecessors, and the brief mention in the preceding paragraph just isn't going to do it. Bond makes M a cappuccino. Not only that but he does it in Bond's house. This is the first time we've seen where 007 lives and M actually goes to visit him as opposed to calling Bond to the office.

What does this mean? What is it telling us? Is it about Bond's growing relationship with his boss or is it a change in the world between 1962's "Dr. No" and this 1973 movie? Coming on the heels of Paul McCartney and Wings singing the "Live and Let Die" theme, it seems clear that it is that the world is changing and that this Bond reflects that change. Bond, as I think I said during the "Goldfinger" piece, blasts the Beatles for no particular reason in 1964 but now, in 1973, a former Beatle is singing the title song and M is at Bond's house. These things happen back-to-back and not by accident. This is a new era, a different world, and a different Bond.

Want another difference? Felix Leiter. No, not the actor (although this is David Hedison's first time in a role he plays twice), but rather how he's used. We have seen Leiter following Bond and helping out in small ways before, but here his role is comical. His job in the movie is simple – clean up Bond's messes, and Leiter does it over and over and over again. It really is quite incredible and you end up feeling bad for the guy. Not as bad as you feel for him when he shows in "Licence to Kill," but bad.

One of the things that is much mocked about the Bond films are the needlessly complicated ways in which bad guys want to kill Bond, and "Live and Let Die" features a great one. Bond is shipped off to a crocodile farm to die an assuredly painful death in the chompers of many an animal. Kananga (one of the great Bond baddies) or a henchman could just shoot 007; Bond is unarmed and at their mercy, but no, Bond has to be killed by crocodiles and no one even sticks around to watch the death happen.

I am of two minds about this. First, it's a great scene, and it's long been one of my favorite needlessly complicated deaths. Then, on the other side, it's moronic. Why would you try to kill this guy in such a ridiculous way and then not hang out to watch it happen? Surely the only reason to have Bond eaten by crocs is for your own personal amusement at seeing it go down.

Actually, as much as that troubles me, the use of music in "Live and Let Die" troubles me more. More than once, a chase/escape/action sequence takes place with minimal music only to have the music pick up just before Bond wins/gets away. The cue lets you know in advance exactly when Bond is going to win. It is a really weird choice, one which undercuts the action.

That is actually the point of it though, isn't it? The music is clueing you in, saying, "Hey, if you want to know the awesome way in which Bond gets away here, we're giving it to you right now." The movie isn't about whether the hero escapes, it's about how the hero escapes. Bond has to win, Bond always wins, so it consciously doesn't play up the tension surrounding the former question, only the latter.

There you have it – new Bond, more humor, more gadgets, and an updated view of the world. As for the idea of them stripping away things every time they introduce a Bond, I think it's there in the above. We don't have the MI6 office, we don’t have Q, we don't have a crazy scheme to take over the world (the big thing here is drugs), there is no major ground assault as we've seen in a bunch of other movies. And, with Baron Samedi laughing at the front of the train at the end of the film, we don't have the pure happy ending. We are left wondering if, perhaps, Bond hasn't really won.

We will find out the answer to that next week (or not), when 007(x3) Weeks of 007 returns with "The Man with the Golden Gun."

photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Paper Towns" - Probably Worth Crumpling Up

Forgive the slightly different format today, this was originally intended for elsewhere...

There is a common theory that teenage boys (and many men in general) only need a pretty girl to smile at them to make them turn into a complete and utter fool. Whether the theory is true or not, the latest John Green adaptation, Paper Towns, relies heavily on it.

Nat Wolff stars as Quentin, a high school senior who has harbors a crush on the girl across the street, Margo (Cara Delevingne), from the moment she first moves in. Friends at first, over the course of 11 years the two grow apart, but Quentin's unrequited love continues and then, on one fateful night, Margo drags him with her on an revenge-based escapade. He thinks it means something about their future; she disappears the next day, her fifth time running away.

The rest of the movie is then Quentin and his friends—Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams)—searching for Margo, uncovering clues she has left behind about where she may have gone, and dealing with their own problems surrounding the impending end of high school. For the most part it is a strictly run of the mill coming of age tale, one that has been done better.

Quentin and his friends are convinced that Margo has essentially issued Quentin a challenge – if he solves the mystery of where she went and thereby proves his love, the two can live happily ever after. The chase for these clues starts out rather well and offers high hopes for what is to follow. However, each subsequent clue becomes more improbable, more foolish, and less interesting. It is a mystery that could really explore Margo or Quentin or life in general, but instead turns into an overly slow, terribly drawn out affair with nothing to offer besides an ever more clear understanding that Margo is not some ideal but rather a petulant teenager, one even her parents decide not to go hunting.

It is worth noting with this last bit that the movie does point out that Margo's parents aren't good ones, but there is no evidence of this whatsoever. It is a tossed off remark required of the film because if her parents were on the case, Quentin wouldn't have to be.

With the clues perhaps solved and her parents still missing in action, Quentin is off on a road trip with Ben, Radar and his girlfriend (Jaz Sinclair), and a friend of Margo's (Halston Sage). For a movie that tries to trade on its real-world sensibilities and character-types, the road trip is dealt with in a farcical manner, particularly when it comes to informing (or not) parents about what they're doing, and doing hurriedly so that they can make it back to prom in time. Any high schooler who absconds in this manner can probably expect to be grounded for the dance.

Paper Towns would have the audience believe that it is breaking stereotypes, deconstructing myths about the types of people one finds in a typical high school. To some extent that may occur, but it never goes any further than any of the other high school movies that have come before it. The attractive girl has a brain; the goofball has a sensitive side; the average, every kid, learns something about the world and grows into adulthood; and yes, there's a nod to diversity as well.

One can map out much of the movie after the first five minutes. That is, naturally, disappointing, but worse, one can sometimes tell when something unexpected is going to happen because Paper Towns switches from the conventional camera angles it regularly uses to odd, distinctive ones. Director Jake Schreier loses at least two good surprises by telegraphing them in this manner.

Despite all these shortcomings, Paper Towns repeatedly gives the sense that it is on the cusp of something better, on the verge of managing to overcome these easy characters and old story. It just never quite makes it over the hump, instead settling for sheepish grins and a pseudo-intellectual discussion (see the talk surrounding the definition of a "paper town," which is a place on a map that doesn't exist in the real world) that seems calculated to have current high schoolers and recent grads readily identify themselves and swoon over their big screen avatars.


With a pointless search and stock characters, this coming of age drama leaves a lot to be desired. Nat Wolff and the rest of the very charming cast almost make it work, and Paper Towns is constantly on the verge of transcending all of its shortcomings. But, with a quest that becomes silly and ever more removed from reality, and with a goal that the movie makes questionable at best, it just doesn't work.

photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

007(x3) Weeks of 007 Extra - "Spectre" Trailer 2

Welcome to an extra edition of 007(x3) Weeks of 007! I will absolutely have a "Live and Let Die" full discussion later in the week (maybe Friday this week), but as I'm doing this entire thing in lead-up to "Spectre" it feels right to spend some time talking about today's new trailer (just below this paragraph).

As a way in to this talk, it's important to note that the early Daniel Craig films play with the idea of him becoming the secret agent we all know and love, but rather than truly breaking the mold, they pay lip service to breaking it. Some of this really is a discussion for when we actually get to "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace," but as should be apparent from the Connery and Lazenby films, Bond has gone--regularly goes--off half-cocked, pursuing his vendetta against Blofeld around the globe. It is something with which M is unhappy but he allows Bond to pursue it anyway. M is even unhappier with Bond's extracurricular activities in "Licence to Kill" with Dalton (non-Blofeld, but still off the reservation). So, while we are too believe that one of the things that MI6 wants from Craig Bond is to learn to fly the straight and narrow, that's never something the character has done.

Put another way, it isn't breaking the mold to have Bond conceive of and execute his own missions. M yelling at Bond about a Mexico City assassination (or apparent one) as he does in the "Spectre" trailer isn't Craig Bond still being young Bond, it's Craig Bond being the Bond we've always known. It fits perfectly with the character and his history. Just as Bond being warned by a femme fatale in the trailer about "crossing over to a place where there is no mercy" is really just him being warned about hopping over a line he has traversed many a time.

Building SPECTRE back into the story of Bond is returning to the classic Bond mold and eliminating even the lip service about Craig Bond being young Bond. But, that too is in keeping with the idea I posited the other week about how every time a new actor comes in to the play the role, the whole thing gets deconstructed before being built back up again. So much of "Skyfall" was Mendes putting the Bond pieces back into place, the ones that had been stripped away in "Casino Royale," and SPECTRE feels like the perfect final piece of the puzzle.

The truly interesting thing about this new trailer isn't Bond, isn't the car, isn't the henchman, the Bond women, or M yelling, it's Christoph Waltz's appearance. Waltz is playing Franz Oberhauser… or is he?

That is what people have been trying to figure out since he was first cast. Waltz has been asked about it over and over and over again (and that was just by me, see embed). In this trailer, as with the last one, Oberhauser is sitting at the head of the table, presumably the SPECTRE table, of bad guys. That is where Blofeld ought to be positioned.

Then there's the suit. Oberhauser is seen in here wearing what appears to be a Nehru suit. It isn't a match for the Nehru (or Mao) suit we've seen Blofeld wear before, but it's certainly a play on it and there is no way that's not a calculated decision – Mendes and the producers are well aware of the talk surrounding the Oberhauser character. The suit mimics the old one on purpose.

Ah, but a nod isn't the same thing as confirmation – so is the suit just nodding to villains' past (do remember that Dr. No also wore a Nehru suit), or is it a signaling of Oberhauser's true identity? I'm pulling for the latter, but to suggest that I know with authority would be foolish.

And what about what Oberhauser says to Bond in the trailer? He explains that he's been in the shadows for years, pulling the strings. He says, "It was me James… the author of all your pain." To me, that spells trouble.

With that statement, as much as I want Oberhauser to be Blofeld, I bristle. Hannes Oberhauser, in the books, is an instructor from Bond's past. That, combined with the fact that the synopsis for "Spectre" telling us that Bond goes on this mission after getting a message from his past makes one assume that Oberhauser is someone Bond once knew. If that's the case, I hope that he isn't Blofeld. It would be too boring if these men once knew each other and their paths diverged to the point where they became exact opposites – Bond the supreme fighter for good, and Blofeld/Oberhauser for evil. There is just too much pandering towards an idea of destiny about it.

Wow, okay, I went very specific very quickly there with that discussion. So let me end with the general.

Whether or not Oberhauser is Blofeld and whether this is iconic or iconoclastic, the trailer does get your blood pumping, does it not? This new look at "Spectre" is outstanding. It has everything you want from a Bond trailer from action to drama, hints of the set pieces and locations, the new car, and more. It makes one want November to get here very, very quickly.

007(x3) Weeks of 007 will be return with our discussion of "Live and Let Die" later this week.

photo credit: Sony Pictures

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"Lass is More" Talks to "Strangerland" Director Kim Farrant

Happy Tuesday!  And, as it's Tuesday, we have another episode of "Lass is More" for you.

This week we're talking to director Kim Farrant.  Her new new movie, "Strangerland," is out in select cities and stars Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, and Joseph Fiennes.  It is the story of a couple (Kidman and Fiennes) with two kids who have recently moved to a new city.  Soon enough, the kids go missing and the couple frantically searches for them.

Obviously, the fear of losing children is something with which many folks around the world can sympathize, but other part of "Strangerland" are uniquely Australian.  The discussion with Farrant, amongst other things, delves into that balance and whether it was a consideration while filming.

Take a listen, subscribe to the show in iTunes, and feel free to tell all your friends about us.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ian McKellen and Laura Linney Crack the Case in "Mr. Holmes"

Did you realize that while he has been nominated for two Academy Awards, Ian McKellen hasn't won an Oscar? It's true – two nominations ("Gods and Monsters," "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"), zero wins. Perhaps though, this year is his year.

McKellen's latest role finds the actor taking up the deerstalker and pipe of the world's most famous consulting detective… not that this Holmes ever wore a deerstalker. Yes, McKellen is the legendary creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, who is trying to solve one last case in the Bill Condon directed film, "Mr. Holmes."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but McKellen is brilliant. The Holmes we find in the film is aged, infirm, and losing his memory. McKellen offers a heartbreaking portrayal of a man whose ability to think had been his sharpest, most formidable, weapon.

"Mr. Holmes" takes place in 1947, or it does except for when we get a bit of Holmes' memories from an earlier case. In this post-WWII era, Holmes has sequestered himself away from London, from his old haunting grounds, confining himself to a seaside farmhouse where he keeps bees and is cared for by his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney). Much to Holmes' displeasure, Mrs. Munro has a son, Roger (Milo Parker), who is constantly underfoot.

As we learn, Holmes' self-enforced solitude came about following his final case, a case for which he can't remember the solution. We, the audience, watch in rapt attention as bit by bit Sherlock unravels the mystery for himself and for Roger.

The movie opens with Holmes returning to his farmhouse following a trip to Japan, where he found a root that may just help with his malady. No easy trip, Holmes made it because he cannot stand the notion that his mind is failing. Over the course of the film we get to see Holmes bluff his way through his memory problems, including writing names down on his shirt cuffs, but as time goes on, his ability to hide his problems wanes.

Linney provides an excellent foil for Holmes, making it clear that while she does not like the man, she does find it her duty, as long as she is employed by him, to make sure he is well. She is stern, but not without heart, and struggles not only with Holmes and his eccentricities but trying to figure out the best situation for herself and Roger.

"Mr. Holmes" suggests that justice is rare, which is something that many of us know to be true. In the case of this film and the acting, it would be no more than justice for McKellen to receive another Oscar nomination, and quite possibly take home the statue that has eluded him twice. The portrayal McKellen offers is so wonderfully nuanced, so epically heartbreaking and hopeful, that one wants nothing other than to spend more time in his company, watching his careworn face as he struggles to recall that next detail he needs, and to help him with this Herculean endeavor. When the film flashes back to that final case from nearly 30 years earlier, the more spry, more nimble version of Holmes McKellen provides the audience is no less brilliant, no less compelling. It can be no easy feat to portray the same man at such different points in his life, but the actor makes both come alive and feel equally three dimensional.

The film isn't just about Holmes ability (or not) to remember either, it also looks at myth vs. reality. Holmes, in this world, is famous for his work which has been popularized in Watson's books. But, the reality of the man does not always mesh with the popular conception, and in one particularly amusing scene, Holmes goes to see a B-movie featuring a fictional version of himself and Watson. It is an incredibly amusing moment, but as with everything in "Mr. Holmes," it all leads back to the case at hand, Sherlock's failing memory, and a past that is brighter and longer than the future.

Movies, of course, are not just made with plot and characters, and it would be foolish to suggest that the only excellence here lies amongst the actors and the director's ability to elicit a performance. "Mr. Holmes" is beautiful to look at. The costumes, the sets, and the landscapes offered by Condon and company ground the viewer in this reality and these time periods. It is small and intimate and fully draws one in.

"Mr. Holmes" is opening in limited release today, July 17th, and I urge you to seek it out. It is a beautifully acted, beautifully directed, and clearly the work of many individuals all at the top of their game.

photo credit: Roadside Attractions/Miramax

Thursday, July 16, 2015

007(x3) Weeks of 007 #7 - "Diamonds are Forever"

Today we have, finally, reached that moment, the day when 007(x3) Weeks of 007 gets to the last Sean Connery film. Okay, we might do "Never Say Never Again" as a bonus entry if we have time, but for now "Diamonds are Forever" is the end of the Connery journey.

Let me start by saying this – as you may recall I was a little tired of the Sean Connery entries by the time we got to "You Only Live Twice." I believe I said that while it was good, it was approaching formulaic. Well, after taking a few years and one movie off, Connery comes back to the role for "Diamonds are Forever" and puts in one of his best performances.

This is a very different James Bond than the guy we see in "Dr. No" or "From Russia with Love." Connery is much more laid back here than he is early on, comfortable in his own skin. While one could argue that in some of the other films Bond is putting on airs (the line about drinking champagne at the right temperature in "Goldfinger"), here he is angry and ready to get down to business. He might still know crazy things—like when he discusses the sherry—but it comes off as slightly more jocular here. It isn't that this James Bond doesn't know about the world, he does, but he's more willing to just know that he knows without needing to constantly prove it. Some of this change has to be Connery coming at it from a different place, with a different set of expectations, but whatever the reason, it works.

The other thing I think is great here is that Blofeld's plot is hidden for much of the movie. We know that he's doing something with diamonds, but we don't know what and we don't know why. We are 90 minutes into the film before the reveal, and to me that's incredible. This isn't one of those setups where the ransom note comes early and then Bond is tracking stuff down, it's just him following diamonds as a relatively small assignment for much of the movie. It is almost a reset for the Connery films which had gotten bigger and bigger and bigger.

If Connery could have done more Bond films like this one after "Diamonds are Forever" it could have been fantastic. That being said, I'd argue that it's not possible to continue in this vein. I think we'll find as we continue watching the movies that the longer someone plays Bond, the more the movies feel the need to ratchet things up, to keep going bigger and bigger in order to keep them fresh. It happens with Connery and I know it happens with Brosnan (see: the Aston Martin Vanished). I will certainly be watching for it as we get into Moore and "Spectre" with the reintroduction of Bond's big bad following on the heels of "Skyfall" bringing back every classic Bond trope that hadn't come back in "Quantum of Solace" or hadn't disappeared in the first place with "Casino Royale" could very well be headed that way.

You know what does bother me here? The way Bond deals with Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint. I love them as henchmen, I think they offer a sort of humorous cruelty we haven't seen yet from an Oddjob or Grant. Their wordplay is fantastic and it just keeps going no matter how many people they kill. Some might argue that Bond referring to them as "tarts" or disparaging their orientation in other ways was accepted at that time, but it still rubs me the wrong way. It seems unnecessary, like an off the cuff remark made because someone thought it was funny.

Some of the earlier Bond movies feature women saying "no" only to relent to Bond when he presses, and that made me uncomfortable as well. Thankfully, we've moved away from that… at least we have for the last few movies.

Again, someone will argue "acceptable at the time," but it shouldn't have been and, quite honestly, it hurts me to see Bond act boorish. I love this character. I love his escapades. I love his longevity. I wouldn't be writing these articles if I didn't, and I cringe when he goes down one of these paths. Bond can have an edge and be a dangerous man with a terribly dark side—a man men want to be and women want to be with—without being homophobic or racist or misogynistic.

What a terrible note on which to end our discussion of Connery and his time as 007. And yet, as much as I love the movies, it's a part of them that is awful and needs to be considered.

007(x3) Weeks of 007 will return with "Live and Let Die" as James Bond looks different again as Roger Moore steps into the role.

photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Ranking the Marvel Movies (Yes, but I've Never Done it Before)

As happens, I got sidetracked this morning while I was writing 007(x3) Weeks of 007 (expect that to go live a little later today).  A friend pointed me towards the Metacritic rankings of the Marvel movies and asked if I thought they were accurate.

I do not.

I haven't seen "Ant Man" yet (expect a review tomorrow), but before I do finish out Phase 2 here's my list of worst-to-best Marvel movies (including Spidey films but not X-Men):

16. Spider-Man 3
15. Amazing Spider-Man
14. Thor: The Dark World
13. Amazing Spider-Man 2
12. Thor
11. Iron Man 2
10. Incredible Hulk
9. Iron Man 3
8. Spider-Man
7. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
6. Captain America
5. Spider-Man 2
4. Iron Man
3. Captain America: Winter Soldier
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
1. The Avengers

Why do I rank them this way?  Great question...

"Iron Man" would be higher, but watching it a couple months ago, as it turns out, it hasn’t aged very well. It looks very dated and it’s not that old. All the high tech stuff in it is lightyears behind today, or where Tony is today anyway.

"Spider-Man 3" was bad at release. I have no idea why they decided to play as much of it for laughs as they did, except that both Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi seem bored by it all. "Amazing 2" gets regularly slammed, but I think it’s better than the first "Amazing," which didn’t really need to exist at all. No one needed another origin story for Spidey (which is wisely being passed over in the next Spidey movie).

"Avengers" is great. It shouldn’t work, but it does. "Ultron" relies too heavily on the coattails of the first one and feels more like it’s setting up Phase 3 than it is a movie on its own… plus all the stuff at Hawkeye’s house should be cut down AND the final action sequence isn’t great AND they don’t build Ultron’s story enough. Then they give Ultron a pretty weak-sauce way of destroying the world. You would think he could come up with so many better plans, things that would go faster and more cleanly.

 To date, it’s the Cap movies that are the best as a series. The first being done as a war propaganda film is genius and the man out of time stuff in the second, and doing it as a spy thriller are just great. I’m nervous for the next one because it feels like they’ve overstuffed it a la "Spidey 3" or either of the "Amazings."  How many people from the Avengers are in there?

 Poor Thor. I think Hemsworth is fantastic and he’s just been given the weakest of the scripts. The opportunity they had with him to introduce the first person in the MCU from another planet and they just couldn’t get it right.

"Guardians" is brilliant, especially popping on the scene when it does. It so completely subverts the expectations of an MCU film and does it really well. From the moment Star Lord is dancing to his walkman during the opening credits you know you’re going to get something good.

photo credit: Marvel