Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Good Day To Love Your Gun

I don't like to subscribe to the idea of movies being some broad canvas, the tapestry of cinema a never-ending strip of imagination and magic/majesty/Tranya. It's nice for poetry, and cute for the sake of generic appreciation, but each film stands alone, thematically and talent-wise. But to ignore that some film experiences bleed together is close to impossible, which is why I recently felt an ideological whiplash a couple of weeks ago within a two day period.

One of the films I sat through was “A Good Day To Die Hard,” the optimistic and legacy-tinted title for the fifth in the “Die Hard” film series. Vacationing cop John McClane used to be a character, funny, nervous, self-deprecating. The fifth time around, you wonder if Bruce Willis is now simply playing himself: his McClane dives face-first into action as soon as a bomb goes off early during the film’s breathlessly short runtime, commandeering a truck and driving it literally straight into the chaos without understanding what he’s pursuing or why. Once perceptive and nervy, he’s now stupid and bold, not a bad combination to have when you’re also invincible. There’s a good thirty or so set moments in this film where the fiftysomething McClane should be dead, or at least severely injured. But Bruce Willis, global superstar, never dies.

I had read Willis’ anti-gun control opinions right before the film, and given how flimsy the picture tends to be, it’s impossible not to think of them. Our introduction to McClane in this film is seeing him at the gun range, listlessly dispensing with some exposition regarding his lost son (Jai Courtney, ostensibly bred to play Bruce Willis’ son one day, and probably nothing else). Moore languishes over the bullet holes and the gunshots, but has almost no interest in Willis looking awake as he discusses his distant son.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


"The crux of it is this: Children are soul-filled. They are also the most fragile of us, and the most tread-upon. They always, without exception, know more than they are meant to, and, as a result, live mostly in their heads. That we might be emotionally unprepared to meet our childhoods on the big screen is indicative of how vital it is for film to untell its former lie: pantomimed foot-stomping and preternaturally witty banter—childhood without complexity."

That quote comes from an interview with Benh Zeitlin in The Oxford American, where the main character in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, is contrasted to Sherley Temple. The comparison at first seems odd, specially because they are both child stars in very different types of films. Films where Sherley Temple was the star were hardly about childhood, but rather about the entertainment adults felt childhood was in itself, and certainly with films like BEAST OF THE SOUTHERN WILD we do not have a treatment of childhood, of what adults thinks childhood is, but of how a child absorbs the adult world.

Now, most readings of the film have in a way approached the film by separating the child's perspective, central to it, from the actual world depicted, and hence have been forced to say that despite the film's many beauties, it remains an empty romanticizing of an abject life. In this view, what's more, the magic found everywhere is a result of using fantasy as a denial mechanism. The forging of a magical realism on film is but a way to deny entrance to any political or historical readings.This type of reading, where a central point of view can be easily woven out from the existence of the world depicted, is better suited to the films reviewed previously, DJANGO UNCHAINED or LINCOLN. Is it perhaps then that those films and BEASTS are that different in their narrative form?

Thursday, February 21, 2013


There is one more thing I'd like to adress about DJANGO UNCHAINED before moving on. While it is true, and definitely a part of the problem with the film, that even though the film boasts a black main character and cast, there is almost no interaction among the black characters in the film. What little verbal interaction there is, it is full of derogatory stereotypes. But if we're going to address the lack of real dialogue among black characters in the film, we must then consider what there is in its stead. One certainly cannot criticize a lack of dialogue, assuming that such lack comes to mean an emptiness of meaning, a vacuum of interaction. What's more, one cannot either go on to fill that silence, that supposed emptiness, with one's own words and complaints of lack of realism and historical conscience, before taking into account what exactly the film says about the characters involved in the film. Film language is not only tied to the spoken word. Alas, dialogue can be deceitful when we think that the things people say in a film are actually what the film says about the world created in front of us. Sometimes image and dialogue collide, and sometimes they work together in harmony. With DJANGO UNCHAINED, however, the 'other' language and interactions between black characters actually lead us to even more problematic conclusions about the consciousness of that very film.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I debated for long with myself how to write up different Jumpcut Junkie pieces about many of the films recognized by the Academy this year as best films of 2013, cataloguing my thoughts in myriad ways about my opinions on the worthy qualities, or lack thereof, behind each choice, the message the Academy would send by choosing certain films and not others, and even whether there was, as there often is somehow, a particular theme of interest the institution was calling attention to. Alas, these different veins of argumentation can lead any cinema aficionado, or even just an Oscar aficionado (they are not the same kind of animal) to stall and wait for others, more experienced analysts to provide context as to the rationale behind this year’s choices. And lo and behold, dear readers, you probably have already heard maybe too much about the politics, message, rationale and context around many of the candidates for best picture of 2013.

There is now a labyrinth of blogs, articles, forums, discussing these films, but no discussion was more surprisingly overwhelming as that behind films such as DJANGO UNCHAINED, LINCOLN, and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, particularly because of their links to the politics in the foreground of a national conversation on race and culture. Indeed, these films have been treated as cultural objects to be turned inside out, and have been used as springboards for critics to touch on themes as far ranging as the workings of government today, the links between actual violence and movie violence, myopic visions of history, or the turning of it into entertainment, or its romanticizing, or even the self referential ‘linguistics’ of filmic pleasure.

I feel all those themes are fine things to talk about. They are great propellers of erudite, insightful conversation about the cultural signifiers surrounding us. As it turns out, these conversations are sorely needed, for virtually everything I’ve read about these choices by the Academy has been so concerned to place the films into a cultural podium of their own, that the films feel to have become tangential to the conversation. There clearly has been a strong desire to discuss these moral, political, cultural issues, and as it is with desires, they mainly unveil our needs.
There is clearly a need to analyze, for example, Tarantino’s thwarted view of the economic realities of slavery, or Spielberg’s literally childish depiction of a political process by relying on didactics that mainly seem to speak to government and constituents today as if to kids,  or whether Zeitlin’s ahistorical romanticism qualifies as ‘poetic’. But to me those are interesting, valuable conversations that revolve around sociological patterns and the manner in which we consume our culture and history. They are only tangential to film.

After all this valuable conversation, the questions in my mind still remain: Are these films actual works of art? What is their artistic stance? Will they matter, as films, or is mainly the talk surrounding the subject they depict what makes us think of them as ‘important’? Do they point to the future of their medium, to its past, or are they static, relying mainly on the discussion to be had about them as cultural artifacts? What is the machinery behind them? What of their soul?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bonding With Bats: Part Three

What Goldfinger and Thunderball did for kids in the mid-1960s, Batman and his cinematic franchise did for kids the world over in the late 80s and 90s. He provided fairly reliable bigscreen thrills every few years, battling a new batch of baddies. Batman even had the same Bondemic of recasting both the main guy and behind-the-camera talent. In four movies you had three different Batmen and two directors, as well as a multitude of credited and uncredited screenwriters (a 1980 draft, eventually passed over, was penned by Tom Mankiewicz. Thank God they did a page-one rewrtite, as he was behind the unholy trilogy of early 70s Bondage Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die and Man With the Golden Gun. Before Tim Burton was hired, a director WB considered was Guy Hamilton, director of those same three. He gets a pass, though, for hitting it out of the park his first go 'round with Goldfinger).

By the time Bond came back with Pierce Brosnan in the tux (we'll miss you, Neville Sinclair), Batman was already entering its own Moonraker phase.

Not a Thunderball remake

The silliness was bearable, acceptable even, in Batman Forever, but by Batman & Robin, the whole movie was a pigeon double-take

In true Beatles/Beach Boy fashion, Bond decided it had to outcrap this crapfest. Though it comes five years after Batman and Robin's Rubber Soul, Die Another Day became the Pet Sounds of terrible, campy, franchise-killing bloated actioneering. Or B&R is Pet Sounds and DAD is Sgt. Pepper's or B&R=Sgt. Pepper's and DAD=SMiLE? However you wanna do it, the analogy basically works with any consecutive Beach Boys/Beatles album pairing from the 1965-1967 range. The mid-late 60s camp excess was back in full force.

                                                                                        The 60s, 90sified

Both franchises had to regroup and take stock to see exactly where they went wrong.

                                                                           Ooh! Ooh! Pick me! I know! I know!

Perhaps coincidentally, both series came back within a year of each other, completely rebooted, with new casts, new backstories, and a grittier sense of realism. Here they continue to feed off each other. Christopher Nolan, Batman's motion picture equivalent of Frank Miller, is an avowed Bond fan who has acknowledged the character's influence on his Batseries, what with real-life, CIA-influenced gadgets (including a shoeblade) and exotic globe-trotting (In this recent trilogy Batman/Bruce Wayne found himself in Hong Kong, the Himalayas, the ill-defined Middle East and/or subcontinental Asia, whereas the earlier four films barely saw him venture outside of Gotham). The most obvious example of Bondly influence, however, occurs in a different Nolan film, Inception, with its snowy ski climax, openly borrowed from OHMSS. (Nolan has even said explicitly for years that he'd love to do a Bond film, but he'd have to contend with the same studio that turned down Spielberg and Tarantino in the past, probably because they would have put too personal a mark on the films.)

So then, can we get someone else to watch DAD with us? We'll entice them with nachos, and once we have them inside, they sign "the pact". Yes, the pact... Oh God, the lameitude of this movie is making us use the first person plural again

This is probably a good time to talk about iconography. Batman and Bond both trade in culturally relevant images, memes and tropes, buoyed by decades of crossovers and tie-ins with all manner of media. Who, aside from possibly the Amish, doesn't recognize the Bat symbol, the pointed ears, the gun-barrel POV opening or the Vic Flick guitar strumming and orchestral blasts of the James Bond theme? By popularly held industry legend, a Batman teaser trailer was released before any footage was shot for the 1989 film and people reportedly bought theater tickets just to see the symbol and the name up onscreen before walking out on the feature film.

"I love Darkman!"

Trading on well-known images may be good business, but counting on this tactic is a double-edged sword. If you deliver the promise of quality in the form of an identifiable logo or hummable tune, you can only go so far before finding the limits of brand recognition, otherwise you get meme-culture-- something that manipulates your sense of nostalgia to elicit a powerful, yet fleeting sense of joy, no matter if your associations are positive or negative. So, whether it be a good, old-fashioned rickrolling, a gratuitous Popples reference, or this, you'll probably respond favorably, as long as you're in on the reference, but the result will almost invariably have a micro shelf-life.

Regarding the Batman/Bond films, they have some of the most recognizable characters and images in all pop culture. As far as Batman goes, the Joel Schumacher films famously suffered a decrease in quality as they became toyetic, and possibly also coining a phrase in the process (even by 90s corporate culture buzzword standards this word is lamer than anything in Die Another Day. Well, lamer than 83% of Die Another Day). While Batman & Robin's campiness is often compared to the Adam West incarnation of the character, none of the fondness that is lavished upon that show greeted this Schwarzenegger icetastrophe.

This cover image cost Aficionado 20,000 subscriptions

As for Bond, there is a case study in the aforementioned Never Say Never Again. It was a remake of the highest-grossing Bond film Thunderball (until Skyfall recently dethroned it), bringing back everyone's favorite 007, Sean Connery, who is outfitted by Q (not Desmond Llewelyn) and aided by Felix Leiter against the nefarious Blofeld-led SPECTRE – all familiar territory for Bondaphiles, especially for the then-20-and-30-somethings who had grown up with 60s Bond. All the right elements were in place, except they weren't. Right from the beginning of the film I'm against it. No gun-barrel and no Bond theme start the fiasco off with two strikes against it. The opening theme, a step or four below that of the same year's “All Time High” from Octopussy (the lamest of the official Bond themes, in my opinion) set to an actionless cold-open makes you pine for the blissful popcandy of Maurice Binder's silhouetted naked women doing acrobatics in the midst of a laser light show. In even the worst Bond movies, these openings are a pleasure, like getting a text-laden music video at the beginning of a two-hour snoozefest (this is the case with A View to A Kill, chock full of glow-in-the-dark, PPK-armed women, skiing to Duran Duran's John Barry-enhanced titular rock song). This wouldn't be a huge hurdle, but not being an official Eon Production, the movie seems to know it's at a disadvantage, despite scoring the coup of getting Connery back after publicly stating he'd never return to the role.

Even having Bond Prime, without the familiar iconography it doesn't have the confidence to see it through. It repeatedly goes out of its way to convince you this is James Bond, the one you used to know twenty years ago, but it never quite sticks. Legally, it could only be a Thunderball remake, without any of the Bond universe's signifiers. Even the official Bond entries that deviate from the formula feel more like Bond movies because certain established elements allow them greater flexibility. OHMSS is more like a jazz take of a standard tune, whereas Never Say Never Again is more or less a straight, uninspired bar-band cover.

The gun-barrel sequence, the theme, the opening credit sequence, the pre-credit intro – these are all elements that usually appear at the beginning of the film, firmly setting you in the 007 world. You know what it's like and you've been there before. If you're a fan, they've got you hooked already. From that point, the remaining two hours can go off in almost any direction, as long as it has this grounding. Die Another Die went completely off the rails, while Casino Royale several years later, subverted some of these elements even further (most notably in the gun-barrel shot and saving the Bond theme until the very end of the film), but they were still there.

Had they been removed altogether, all those people who initially complained about a blond Bond certainly would have taken to the streets to dump all of Parliament's Early Grey into the Thames (or however it is that Brits revolt). By including these signifiers, though, the film was granted carte blanche to rewrite some of the rules audiences had become accustomed to over the past forty-plus years.

In rewriting these rules, over the course of three movies, both franchise's characters struggled to “get back to basics” and show the essence of who these people are, why they have their own respective pathologies, and how the loss of loved ones turned them into living machines who try to mask their emotions and focus on their work, whether protecting Gotham or protecting the Queen (and by extension, good and order throughout the free world). In accompanying them on their journeys, the style in both incarnations has resolved itself from early-00s Greengrassian shakycam excitement to a more mature, assured composure, where you can see every punch thrown and feel the weight of a struggle, as if these characters are finally coming back into their own as crusaders. This goes for the fights between Bane and Batman as well as those between Bond and Patrice (the hitman), with the three Macau bodyguards, and with Silva's henchmen at the climax of the film, played out mostly in full-body shots.

While Nolan had Bond in mind on his Batfilms, Sam Mendes admitted to being influenced by The Dark Knight in his approach to big-budget action with Skyfall, but they somehow both wound up in the same place, as if Mendes anticipated where Batman's trajectory would take him after TDK. Similarly, both of these trilogies (so I'm not confusing non-nerds: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises for Bats and Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall for Bond) while ostensibly closing the book on one chapter of a character's career, notably open up the possibility for new directions, or, more likely, old directions dressed up as new. With the revelation in the Dark Knight Rises of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character we see the opportunity that affords Warner Brothers in continuing the story they've already started writing back in '05 (and with rumours abound about his inclusion in a Justice League movie or in another standalone Batman series, with the release date for a relaunch already being bandied about, it seems like the Batman myth will be back in theaters before your kids grow out if their Christian Bale underoos). With this three-part “real world” retelling of the Dark Knight's origin and peaceful retirement, they can finally get back to just making another string of straight-up Batman movies.

Bruno Begins

Likewise, after Casino Royale started this new cycle, we were promised that Quantum of Solace would cap a diptych, allowing for the series to continue unabated thereafter with certain foundations in place. That didn't exactly happen, as Skyfall came along to have a last hurrah with the “new” set of rules before saying at the very end, before credits roll “OK, now we can make a Bond movie.” (Quantum was teased to be the new evil organization for the foreseeable future and while Skyfall didn't exactly deliver on that front, pattern-seekers will note that SPECTRE, central to Dr. No and FRWL, isn't even mentioned in Goldfinger, yet very present in the next several. Remember what I said about Phillip Glass earlier?) With Bond's newfound sense of purpose and vigor, along with the succession of a new M, the reintroduction of Q and Moneypenny, and the heroic demolition of the Goldfinger-era Aston Martin DB5, it seems as if he's gotten this whole “reboot” thing out of his system as well and can get back to business as usual.

James Bond Will Return.

Let's just hope he steers clear of Die Another Day for the rest of my life.

On the plus side, Billy Connolly's looking damn good for his age.

Oh, and since I brought up the Beach Boys more than once in this series and I've only really picked on Die Another Day, here's a clip from A View To a Kill to show you how bad it can get:

Editor's Note: It was incorrectly stated in the last installment that my friend had never seen a James Bond movie in full. He had in fact seen Goldeneye.
Also, it turns out Shirley Bassey was the Prince of the 60s, not the other way around.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bonding with Bats: Part Two

I may have given the bulk of the Bond films short thrift in the last post. Don't get me wrong. They're mostly good fun, and I love them with all my heart. I recently bought the Bond 50 Blu-ray box set of all of them and am currently in the process of watching them all in chronological order with a friend who had previously never seen one in full. We're now fifteen films in (plus Skyfall, which we watched out of sequence) and he likes them, much to my surprise (his favorite being On Her Majesty's Secret Service, natch). I enjoy watching the Bond series in this manner (I did the same thing 5 years ago) and would love to rewatch them all in order again every 5 or so years. Even the real shitty ones.


Shitty one.

Wait, Nick, you mean you're going to watch this another 8-10 times before you die?

One of the things I love about the Bond films is their highly collaborative nature. Coming from film school, where the auteur theory is still very much alive (at least in theory classes; production, not so much) this was a refreshing idea when I revisited these films (not that I necessarily disagree with the auteur theory). Aside from the actors and actresses who play Bond and his assorted cast of characters, creative producers like Broccoli and Saltzman hired directors with their aesthetics and tendencies, such as Terence Young and Guy Hamilton, to shoot screenplays from the likes of Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Roald Dahl. Likewise, cinematographers like Ted Moore, Freddie Young, Michael Reed,  work together with visionary production designers Ken Adam and Peter Lamont to get a unique Bond look and feel. The whole thing was put together and given the trademark Bond rhythm (at least initially) by ace editor Peter Hunt (who also directed OHMSS). And what would a Bond film be without an artpop opening credit sequence designed by Maurice Binder or Robert Brownjohn, anchored by a brassy, bombastic theme song, with the whole film being buoyed by the genius work of Mr. John Barry?

And this is not even mentioning all the great visual effects, sound effects and other craftsmen who worked to make these films a separate entity from Ian Fleming's original literary world. Eon Productions was and is an independently owned family business (today it is controlled by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, Albert R.'s daughter and stepson, respectively) and never had to answer to studio heads, thereby creating an autonomous bubble in the landscape of Hollywood blockbusters that has proven financially successful for more than half a century. It's a unique model that yields unique product to cineculture, even though, as I described in my previous entry, imitators were a dime a dozen, including this guy:

Filipinos were all over that Bond stuff, apparently. Weng Weng made a sequel, but years before, in 1966 there was even a combo parody movie which basically did all the things I described in last week's article, James Batman (I would have included the link in Part One, but just now discovered this. I was even going to title the series "James Batman," but thought it too uncleverly on-the-nose). However, by the 1980s, For Your Height Only and its ilk were the exception, not the rule. Time had largely passed Bond by and it had been at least a decade since he was the trendsetter and not the old man lagging behind. While the early Bond created a new subgenre and a whole cottage industry of related movies, shows, music, novels, comics and other ancillary merchandise, the 70s found an older, squarer Bond struggling to keep up. Roger Moore, who began screen acting in the 1940s (!) was four years older in his first Bond foray, Live and Let Die, than Connery was in his last two years earlier (last, at least until Never Say Never Again).

Starting with Live and Let Die we see Bond try to find relevance by melding with the blaxploitation genre, then a year later, with the Chinese and Thai setting of Man With the Golden Gun, along with its titular villain's mirror fun house, we have a conscious aping of the Kung Fu film, specifically Enter the Dragon. Then, seeming as if no one cared anymore, the series took a three-year break, one of the two founding producers, Harry Saltzman, left the franchise, and it came back in full force with The Spy Who Loved Me. Departing 1001% from the source novel, the film took a nautical motif and created a metal-mouthed henchman named after the 1975 blockbuster it sought to exploit: Jaws. Despite these obvious cash-innable superficialities, TSWLM is very much a Bond film in the classic YOLT mold (no surprise, given they were both directed by Alfie-helmer Lewis Gilbert): A plot to turn the world's superpowers against each other through its nuclear-powered military apparati, a globe-trotting adventure yarn, an egomaniacal villain, a nigh-invulnerable boogie man, in the form of Jaws, and of course a deadly frenemy in the form of Mrs. Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach as Soviet Agent XXX (they're hardly trying with the names anymore).

The now-lone producer, Albert R. Broccoli and his creative team finally found a the right mode for Roger Moore's non-Bond. Rather than being a bruiser as Connery and Lazenby were (and Dalton and Craig would later be), he is an action figure. Put him in a costume, give him goofy gadgets, over-the-top scenarios, one-liners that your widower grandpa would use on the waitress at a brunch buffet (On being discovered during post-mission coitus: Minister of Defence: “Bond! What do you think you're doing?” Bond: “Keeping the British end up, sir.”) and a plot that is secondary to getting him from one set-piece to the next (a criticism people love to level at these kinds of films, but which, when done right –and this will be the topic of a future post -- is like human catnip for me, or whatever the human version of cat-coke is).

I mean, you know Madonna's in Die Another Day, right??

XXX is the perfect love interest for 70s Bond, matching his haute couture one-upsmanship and Benny Hill one-liners point for point (she even manages to make Roger Moore roll his eyes with a “shaken, not stirred” pun), much in the way Tracy's resourcefulness and physicality in OHMSS was the perfect compliment for 60s Bond's classy brutishness, cluing you in that the producers and writers finally got hip to their own unhipness.This should have been Bond's triumphant return, but 1977 box office, as any film geek knows, was ruled by one film. In fact, SWLM was on the top ten of that year (beating Annie Hall for the bottom spot), but looking at numbers it made a tenth of Star Wars $460 million take (All box office figures and chart positions taken from and wikipedia). I know what you're thinking: a tenth of Star Wars business is still pretty good bank. Not bad, except that the #4 film, Smokey and the Bandit, still beat out Bond by about three-fold. Ironic, given that Smokey and the Bandit's wanton auto destruction was prefigured by Bond's own tobacco-spitting Sheriff JW Pepper.

What was a secret agent to do in the wake of such a cultural phenomenon?

This artist rendering was made shortly before Commander Bond's head was tragically facehugged by an alien symbiote. May he rest in peace.

Thank God, thank the Lord, thank the All-Mighty in the laser-battleground heavens that Ian Fleming had a novel with the right title, if not the right story (like The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice, the similarities to the book end almost before you get to the chapter index).

What Moonraker lacked in verisimilitude (Jaws becomes a good guy and survives a 1000 mile plunge to Earth in an open escape pod), it made up for in box office dollars. It topped the 1979 box office to become one of the most successful Bond films of all time. But it was space the kiddies were interested in, not necessarily Bond, as Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were also in the top 5 that year.
For Your Eyes Only, 007's next outing, saw another return to Earth in a literal grounding of the character. From aquatic setting, to space romp, to Alpine adventure, Bond found a mirror in these three films to the earlier trilogy of Thunderball, YOLT and OHMSS.

Wait, why are you still talking about Die Another Day? Must you watch it? I mean, you make the rules, Nick. You could skip it next Bondathon. Or maybe you could do like a suicide pact or something?

Indeed, if the series were to go on steadily for the next millenium and each type of Bond film were translated to a musical note (water=C, space=E, Goldfinger ripoff=A, harder edged reboot=Fsharp, etc.), we'd have a Phillip Glass composition.

Diamonds Are Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever ForeverForever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever Forever........

So, now we have the 80s. While the latter half of the 70s box office was dominated by high concept sci-fi/fantasy adventure films, the 80s is certainly now defined by buddy cop movies, muscle-bound supermen with BFGs and Popples.

Just waiting for a reboot where we see the alien planet they hailed from eons ago, but which they had to leave behind because of an intergalactic war that wiped out most of their race until they found they could hide quietly from their enemies on Earth as unassuming cuddly petslaves

But, hey! Where's the Bond stuff? Where's the class, the gimmicky badguys, the Bondgirls, the gadgets? Sure, there's Never Say Never Again, the unofficial Bond remake of Thunderball starring Sean Connery as James Bond 007, complete with Q, M and even Max von Sydow as Blofeld (I can't get into it all here. For the controversy surrounding this film, Connery's return, Thunderball and any possible subsequent Thunderball remakes, Google it), but this is an outlier. You also get a little of the Bond formula with Raiders of the Lost Ark and subsequent Indiana Jones films (Spielberg self-consciously went to work on these when Broccoli refused his offer to direct a Bond film and even got Connery for Indie's dad in the third installment), but all in all, the 80s action heroes are macho guys who prefer a gentleman's company (any buddy cop formula film), an estranged wife (John McClane), or a Frank Castle-like total rejection of romance (most characters Sly and Schwarzenegger played. These films are also mostly devoid of exotic locales (the wilderness of Predator and First Blood are more antagonistic forces than postcard pictures), gadgets, fun cars and the swingin', carefree lifestyle. Perhaps more realistically than any Bond film, the 80s movies show the true nature of a government-bred killing machine. John Rambo was more apt to drink to a six-pack if he had downtime, rather than Tait Bollinger. Nevertheless, Bond plugged away at a steady clip, saving the world every other year, on average, as he'd done for more than a decade. Octopussy did so-so business, with A View to a Kill barely doing any box office. No wonder – Roger Moore was at the time pushing 60 and we were to believe he had a chance against Grace Jones and proved a viable male suitor to Tanya Roberts.

Roger Moore, on loan from the Museum of Natural History

With the next two installments we got a younger, more serious, more ass-kicking Bond in Timothy Dalton. He took the character back to Fleming's original conception, and this may have made him awkward at delivering one-liners (which are an invention of the films), this made him great for just barely hanging onto fast-moving vehicles.

By the way, that's Dalton doing most of his own stunts. Maybe not Peter Parkering out the back of an airplane, but most of the car stuff is legit. No one cared though. It finished #19 at the box office in 1987 and the underrated License to Kill, Dalton's unfortunate swan song in the role two years later, just barely made the top 40. It's easy to see why they took a six-year hiatus and sat out the first half of the 90s.

Damn, that's right, you need more than one person for a suicide pact

This is where it gets interesting. 1989 was a banner year for blockbusters, including such hits as Back to the Future Part II, Ghostbusters II, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Lethal Weapon 2 and of course, the biggest of the head honchos of that year...


Of course I'm talking about Batman, which set the box office on fire and, similar to Star Wars twelve years earlier, changed the game of the summer blockbuster.  (I freakin' love UHF, so don't take this the wrong way, Weird Al.)

So, what does Batman have that Die Hard and Rambo don't have?
A swinging, high-living bachelor good guy? Check
Colorful villain? Check
Eccentric henchmen? Check
A Sharper Image catalogue's worth of gadgets? Check
A weapon-laden set of wheels? Check
An old guy British quartermaster? Check
A sexy love interest? Check
A hummable, iconic theme tune? Check
Pop soundtrack done by the Shirley Bassey of the 80s*? Check

All getting a bit familiar, I say it is.

Answer: Q Branch

As Bond was fading, Batman was just coming into his own, cinematically speaking, and while fans didn't quite buy a darker version of a superspy, for some reason they liked the same thing if it was wearing a mask. License to Kill was the first James Bond movie I saw in a theater, and therefore Timothy Dalton was my first Bond. As a kid I thought my parents's accountant bore a resemblance to him, so I gave him the nickname “James Bond,” which no one ever quite got (if he didn't look like Connery or Moore he couldn't have been James Bond, of course), but regardless, it has stuck to this day. During tax season it's not uncommon for me to hear a message starting with “Nick, this is double-O Seven,” which, even as an adult is pretty cool. However, with such a young introduction, to the character, my opinion on him was just forming when he decided to take a long break.

I may be unique in my generation, as many of my peers didn't see a Bond film until 1995's Goldeneye. In the interim I kept myself sated with Bondathons on TNT, as well as a box set of Connery's first three movies (I barely mentioned Goldfinger in this and the last post, so let me just stress how awesome this movie is, along with most of Connery's 007 output). It was the first time in more than a quarter century when you didn't have a new Bond adventure coming just around the corner. No Bond for six years, and the three or so movies before that wrap, audiences didn't flock to see. What did little kiddies have in all that time? Batman, of course. What third-grader needed a secret agent when they had a Bat-caped ass-kicker who flew around in his own private Batplane and beat up breakdancers and circus performers?

A more perfect union

*Claims of Prince as the Dame Shirley Bassey of the 80s have not been evaluated by a third party.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bonding with Bats: Part One

Our hero: broken, stripped to his fundamental traits of tenacity, fearlessness and loyalty, his city under siege by a darker version of himself -- an enemy with the same training and former allegiances, who now sets his talents to destructive, vindictive ends. After being presumed dead, our hero rises up, and though far from his days of peak performance, manages to swoop in and make a case for the continued relevance of theatric heroics by saving the day, using an arsenal of specially designed “toys” and souped-up cars from a teenager's wet dream. A bittersweet triumph sees familiar faces brought out to pasture, concluding a trilogy years in the making, while simultaneously introducing new characters, setting the stage for the next phase of the legend, whatever that may be.

Thus is the mythical figure of 2012, brought to multiplexes and IMAX theater screens in 70mm and 2K projection, providing hero archetypes in the guise of popcorn-munching for future would-be Joseph Campbells (the best we can hope of a steady diet of superhero movies is that it produces another one of him, and not another me or Gabe, God forbid). With Skyfall and Dark Knight Rises almost perfectly mirroring each other in theme, motifs and hero arcs (if an argument broke out and the other two movies were already claimed, Avengers and the Amazing Spider-Man could also fit this mold fairly easily, but for the sake of this article, I'll leave them out of the pie-eating contest) one can't help but ask the question: Why now?

It seems Batman and Bond have been circling each other for decades now, with parallel -- sometimes intertwining -- histories. 1962 gives us 007's bow on the big screen with Dr. No. The low-budget thriller that no one on the crew took seriously (director Terence Young didn't think anyone would buy the outlandish plot or villain, concerning a metal-handed criminal mastermind toppling US rockets during launch) became a sleeper hit and created a new filmic genre, as well as a new musical one (one could argue that spy music didn't come into full flower until John Barry's bombastic, glossy Goldfinger score two years later, though Dr. No still introduced Monty Norman's iconic James Bond Theme). 1963 expanded the MI6 universe and provided a more real-life take on spydom with From Russia With Love, then Bond put his tongue in his cheek for Goldfinger and exponentially bloated to Thunderball and then You Only Live Twice dimensions. By 1967 a hollowed out volcano that launched spacecraft to hijack astro/cosmonauts and their vehicles made Dr. No seem downright pedestrian. Between Thunderball and YOLT the Bond series took its first year-long hiatus (starting a biennial release schedule that, with a few exceptions, it retains to this day). Spymania was on the rise and by the year 007 paused for a breath, parodies, rip-offs and homages galore were glutting moviescreens: Our Man Flint, The Silencers (Matt Helm's debut), What's Up Tiger Lily?, the Dr. Goldfoot movies, The Liquidator. These were mostly garish, brightly colored spoofs, presenting spy as gadget-wielding, model-bedding bon vivant up against equally colorful baddies. This year also saw another colorful playboy bounce to screens (both small and large): Batman.

At the time there was little in the Batman comics to suggest the operatic levels of camp on display in the show (though, after the series' popularity, just try and keep a 15-ft typewriter from popping up in an issue). Similarly, the Bond novels, with a few exceptions, were nowhere near as outlandish or gadget-laden as their cinematic counterparts. Well sure, Pussy Galore originated in the Goldfinger novel, but what? Books can't be dirty too?
This guy: an invention of the cinema

This lady: born of the artform that gave us Jean Valjean, David Copperfield and Captain Ahab.

Am I saying James Bond was instrumental in getting Batman on TV? No, but I am saying in the climate Bondmania created, it probably made it easier and gave it the tongue-in-cheek approach it's (in)famous for. By the next year, the Bond series itself slid firmly into self-parody, both in the official Eon series, and in a non-canonical and not-at-all-faithful-to-the-source-novel Casino Royale, starring Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, David Niven and so many others (Soooooo many others. So so so many others). So what did the two franchises share? Colorful gimmicks, a jazzy score, Batman's wiseassy knowledge of just about everything (Bond: “Beluga caviar, north of the Caspian.” Bats: “Let's hope that it's a stitch in time, Robin, that saves nine - The nine members of the United World Security Council. Come on.”), gadgets, henchmen and a cast of classy, sexy, deadly ladies (Lee Meriwether's Catwoman/Kitka gives any Bond girl a run for her money). Well, mostly.

Another reason to make mine Marvel: this is what Scarlet Johannsen looks like in the DCU

Tallulah Bankhead was just one of the many people to make you go “hey, whu?” on Batman. Everyone wanted (or legally had) to be on the show. Vincent Price, Jack LaLanne, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Woody Strode, Elisha Cook Jr, Seymour Cassel, Art Carney, Ida Lupino, Eli Wallach, Liberace (!), not to mention unfilmed cameos that Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra reportedly wanted to make.
The aforementioned Casino Royale has a similar tactic of throwing actors at the screen to see if you or your grandparents recognizes them: Orson Welles, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, Deborah Kerr, Charles Boyer, John Huston (also co-directed), Peter O'Toole, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.
In their own ways, Bond and Batman at the time were the “hip” things the not-so-hip did because, well, it was the 60s. They were like twin gas giants sucking everyone in Hollywood into one of their orbits, like Hollywood Babylonian orgies that no one under 40 wanted to go to.
Batman's Mr. Freeze himself, Otto Preminger, not to be outdone, took a page out the show's playbook when he cast the entire west coast in the next year's Skidoo: Carol Channing, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, George Raft (that dude again?), Slim Pickens, Richard Kiel (still 9 years away from playing Jaws in not one but two Bond films), Harry Nilsson, the Penguin, the Joker, the Riddler, and Groucho Marx all starred, officially making this film old fart Woodstock. Incidentally, Casino Royale and Skidoo are cautionary tales of what happens when your uncle decides he wants to become part of the counter-culture. When Brian Wilson dropped acid you got the aborted, yet genius SMiLE. When Otto Preminger did it, well...

In contrast to this type of outlandish sixtiesness, You Only Live Twice is ridiculous in a way that acknowledges that yes, James Bond is awful silly sometimes, and yes, this is a golden era for making this type of fluffy entertainment, but we're here to take this silliness seriously. It opens with Bond, now apparently world famous as a superspy, seemingly being murdered to allow him to carry on his work without being bothered by pesky megalomaniacal supervillains while working his latest case in Japan (his anonymity in death doesn't last long, and is a trick the series has tried before and since, most recently in Skyfall). There is a plot by Blofeld and SPECTRE to capture US and Soviet rockets to try to start World War III, there is a mini-helicopter chase, there is a cigarette that shoots live ammo, there is a wide-scale ninja attack of a volcano base, there is a scene where Bond becomes Japanese and “marries” a local woman for cover. There is enough going on here for three movies, but unlike Casino Royale, it has a constant sense of invention and audacity to show you something you'd see in an Austin Powers movie, but having the balls to only crack a smile when necessary (the film was co-written by Roald Dahl, and it shows in the fanciful aspects), whereas Casino Royale tries to coast by as a series of cameos and comic set-pieces which are usually not funny and have only slightly more coherence than Scary Movie 3.

Most people say it was the Manson murders, or the stabbing at Altamont, but I think you can see now what really killed the sixties.

Which brings us to 1969, and the epitaph to the swingin' 60s spy craze: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Batman was already off the air for more than a year. The fun was over, the culture was moving on from such lavish, inflated cotton candy feasts. The Bondverse had come back down to earth and was more morose and showed the consequences of a spy's life more soberly. George Lazenby, taking over for a Sean Connery who did not, for the moment, want to return to Bond's tux (that would famously change, more than once), gives it his all in his first acting role, but many people were wondering where the hell “the other fella” went.

What many critics and fans see as inexperience and youthful cockiness in the Aussie actor, I see as the arrogance and aloofness a superspy like James Bond has accrued over the course of 5, now 6 films. He's seen everything, done everything, slept with every woman, eaten the finest food and drank the finest champagne (on the British government's dime, no less. Glad I don't pay taxes there), killed the oddest henchmen, foiled the maddest of world domination plans, and always come away unscathed. He's earned a certain sense of smugness. He knows he'll come out on top and barely has to try in a struggle (much like a certain Gotham millionaire, but this won't be explored cinematically for several more decades), but now, when confronted with the one woman he may actually love, a degree of fragility is also required – this is where the inexperience comes in. As a young actor trying to prove something as a man who has nothing to prove, 28-year-old Lazenby's posturing as the ultimate male creates an interesting feedback loop of unsure security, which is crucial to this particular film. For these reasons, and I know this sounds like heresy, I doubt Connery could have done as well in the role.

Dammit, Sean! That could've been you!

This is what makes this film so tragic. He constantly overestimates himself, and winds up paying for it. This is the first film, since Q's introduction, that he has no gadgets. He has to rely on his wits, his skills, his luck, and most crucially in this film, the aid of his comrades and loved one(s). His love interest in this, Tracy, is his equal. She is just as capable as he, and twice as reckless. Whereas Bond knows he'll always land on his feet, Tracy, the bored, spoiled daughter of an international crime syndicate boss, not only knows she won't, but is counting on it. If only that damn handsome spy would let her commit suicide once in a while

Now Bond has a charge. With Tracy's deathwish, Bond must again keep on his toes, if only for her sake. Fatally, he fails her: supremely happy in his new role as husband (Bond? Tied down? Say it ain't so), he is caught off-guard on the drive from the wedding. Blofeld, whom he has allowed to escape alive after the main action of the film, finds them at the very end of the third act. Bullets fly, Bond gets the old spyhunter in him as he gets ready to speed after them. He sees the crack in the windshield, the bullet in Tracy's forehead. This is the price of being a carefree world-renowned, well-living superspy. Any happiness or contentment is fleeting. All the dry vodka martinis and all the Bollinger '53 and all the beluga caviar in the world can never equal the loving relationship and sense of peace he'll never be able to have.

He had a good stretch, but the 60s are done, the swinging has to stop. Bond will return, as he always does, but the lesson he learned will be all but forgotten by the next installment, Diamonds Are Forever, replaced by a lame, shoddy Vegas nightclub version of a Bond film, and this by-the-numbers approach unfortunately mars much of the rest of the series, with only every few movies approaching the excitement, the seriousness, the fun, the inventiveness of the first six films.
Interestingly, Adam West, Batman himself, was considered to replace Connery on OHMSS, but he declined. No, it would still be two decades before Batman would become Bond.