Saturday, June 8, 2013

Live and Let Die

Year 5, Day 159 - 6/8/13 - Movie #1,451

BEFORE: Before starting this Bond chain, I would have described myself as a Connery man - if you'd asked me who the best Bond was, I would have had a stock answer ready.  But those films have been SO low-rent that I'm anxious to watch the others.  I could be a Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan fan after all. 

THE PLOT: 007 is sent to stop a brilliant heroin magnate armed with a complex organization and a reliable psychic tarot card reader.

AFTER: In this one, Bond goes to the Caribbean and puts on blackface make-up to infiltrate a voodoo cult. Just kidding, but see how offensive that Japanese eye surgery really was? 

I like how the overall look of the film is an improvement - I don't know much about different film stocks, but somehow things look more professional.  For you old-school TV people like me, it's like the difference between "Rhoda" and "Lou Grant".  But the use of obviously rubber snakes during the voodoo scenes is a bit of a step in the wrong direction.

This is a bit of a departure from the usual Bond plot, in that there's "thingy" to blow up, but the CIA doesn't let that stop them, they set their usual explosives and blow the villain's lair up anyway.

Twice this film shows one of the strange quirks in the Bond franchise, namely putting Bond in elaborate traps instead of just, say, shooting him.  The villain will surround our hero with crocodiles or sharks, or put him in quicksand or something, and then just walk away.  OK, maybe they've got someplace more important to be, but don't they want to savor Bond's demise?  And they should know he's got some gadget on him that's going to save the day, so why would they walk away?

There's some comic relief here, including a pit-upon police sheriff, who seems to be similar to Jackie Gleason's character from "Smokey and the Bandit", only this one came first.

LOCATIONS: Harlem, Louisiana, San Monique (really Jamaica, OK that's two)

VILLAINS: Kananga, Baron Samedi, Tee-Hee

BABES:  Solitaire (possible category winner, if you're a fan of 70's babes)

ALLIES: M, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter

PASTIMES: Tarot cards

CARS: Nope? Speedboats again.

GADGETS: Magnetic watch, exploding gas bullets

THEME: "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney & Wings.  Good to see them giving the job to a young upstart like McCartney.  That guy sure needed the work.

Also starring Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell (carrying over from "Diamonds Are Forever", Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, Geoffrey Holder, Clifton James, Julius Harris, David Hedison.

RATING: 5 out of 10 crocodiles

Friday, June 7, 2013

Diamonds Are Forever

Year 5, Day 158 - 6/7/13 - Movie #1,450

BEFORE:  Well, I've hit the halfway point for the year, assuming I watch 300 films in 2013, this is #150.  And it's a good time too, just as I'm making the Connery/Moore transition, and watching one of the two Bond films that I've seen part of before.  How do I justify including a film I might have seen before, as a kid?  Because all I really remember is watching Jill St. John running around in a bikini - I was an impressionable little tyke, I guess.

This is the last appearance of Connery (last seen in "You Only Live Twice") as Bond, unless you count "Never Say Never Again", and I'm being told I shouldn't count that one, as it's just really a remake of "Thunderball" (Aren't they ALL just remakes of "Thunderball"?  Aren't they?)

THE PLOT:  A diamond smuggling investigation leads James Bond to Las Vegas, where he uncovers an extortion plot headed by his nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  

AFTER: It seems like I wasn't the only one tracking Bond continuity - they were doing it back in the day, as well.  The apparent "mistake" where Blofeld first met Bond face-to-face in successive films led to the "fix" depicted in this film.  Turns out there's some kind of Blofeld cloning facility - well, not cloning exactly, but turning men of the appropriate height build into Blofelds.  Besides being ridiculous, this just served to muddy the waters even further, because now nobody could be who they appear to be.  Even worse, the actor who plays Blofeld here also played Bond's ally Henderson in "You Only Live Twice", so what can we infer from that?  Was Blofeld masquerading as Henderson, and if so, why? 

This is what's so maddening about Bond continuity - we're supposed to be aware of previous events, yet by switching actors, writers and directors every few films, we're also supposed to take each film at face value and not worry about these things.  So, which way to go?  Probably easiest to not think of such things at all, but that's just not in my nature.  Heck, even Lazenby's Bond seemed to be aware of the switchover, he broke the fourth wall and made some reference like "This never happens to the other guy..."

Then we've got those pesky references to real-world continuity, things like the Cold War and the U.S. Space Program.  There's a bit in this film where Bond infiltrates a facility run by a Vegas casino owner, and inside there's a room that looks like the surface of the moon (even though they're working on a satellite, which won't get farther than Earth's orbit...).  What should I infer from this, that even as early as 1971 there was an in-joke about the moon landing being faked?  (There's a bit like this in "GTA: Vice City" as well, if you wander around the porn studio, you find the movie set with a cratered surface and a lunar lander...)  Bond steals a "moon robot" to make his escape, leading to one of the most extremely silly chase-scenes in the franchise.

Now, as for the actual plot, which starts out investigating a diamond smuggling ring, but ends up with the villain threatening foreign countries (again?) with a ransom, while threatening to destroy countries that won't pay up (again?).  It's really just a twist on "You Only Live Twice", so clearly by this time they found a formula that worked, and kept doing it.

The problem is, it's still junk science.  So diamonds + laser + satellite = world domination. somehow.  And somehow this satellite can threaten North Dakota and the Soviet Union at the same time - so no one really understands how an orbiting satellite works.  And I'm no gemologist, but I have a feeling that most diamond smuggling concerns gem-grade stones, and industrial-grade diamonds are a different animal, and they're probably cheaper and easier to obtain in other ways.  And if Blofeld used gem-quality diamonds for an industrial purpose (usually for drilling and thermal conductivity, but I don't see anything about focusing lasers with them...) then that means he's got a ton of money, and doesn't even need to hold the world hostage in the first place.

The typical Bond denouement (get to the villain's hide-out, blow up his thingy) is a bit rushed here - as well as the wrap-up scene.  It feels like the clock was ticking, and somebody was trying desperately to finish up before the two-hour mark. 

LOCATIONS: Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Baja

VILLAINS:  Blofeld, Mr. Wint + Mr. Kidd, Bambi + Thumper

BABES: Tiffany Case, Plenty O'Toole (her name only really works if she's a transgender person or a hermaphrodite, or something.  Name fail.)

ALLIES: M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, Felix Leiter (yet another new actor), Willard Whyte


CARS: Red 1971 Ford Mustang Mach 1

GADGETS: Grappling-gun pants, electronic voice boxes.

THEME SONG: "Diamonds Are Forever" by Shirley Bassey.  Great theme, but it sounds an awful lot like "Thunderball" at the same time...

Also starring Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn (all carrying over from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"), Jill St. John, Charles Gray (last seen in "You Only Live Twice"), Jimmy Dean (yes, the sausage guy), Lana Wood, Bruce Glover, Putter Smith, Norman Burton.

RATING: 5 out of 10 trapeze artists

Thursday, June 6, 2013

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Year 5, Day 157 - 6/6/13 - Movie #1,449

BEFORE:  Perhaps I've been a little harsh on the early Bond films, not only are they a by-product of their time, but they represent a fantasy.  What red-blooded American male wouldn't live the Bond love-em-and-leave-em lifestyle if he could?  It was the swinging Sixties, after all - free love and all that.   I'm on to Bond #2 (or #3 in my improvised chronology).  Switching Bond actors, but the actors who played his support staff (M, Q) all carry over.

THE PLOT:  James Bond woos a mob boss's daughter and goes undercover to uncover the true reason for Blofeld's allergy research in the Swiss Alps.

AFTER:  Lazenby only made one appearance as Bond, he was convinced that there wasn't much life left in the franchise - well, they only made 17 more films after this one, so can you blame the guy?  This turned out to be the equivalent of the record companies who turned down The Beatles, convinced that guitar groups would never catch on.

It's a little surprising that "Lazenby" didn't enter our vocabulary as a word, meaning "to be a poor substitute for" or "to fail to meet expectations". In fact, this whole film seems like a step backwards, as we're back to the low production values and cheezy effects seen prior to "You Only Live Twice". 

Bond is still not a one-woman man, at least not until the end of this film, when he decides to settle down.  But again, it's a fantasy film, and for the women in the audience, Bond needs to be seen as available. 

Blofeld appears again, and "meets" James Bond again, after being introduced to him in the last film.  But hey, what do you expect, Bond looks totally different now.  Matter of fact, they both do...

Allergy research?  Blofeld is an allergist now?  It seems like maybe that's just a ruse to get a bunch of beautiful women with allergies to come stay at his Swiss chalet.  Actually, he uses them to create a bunch of super-viruses, but don't worry.  Once Bond and his associates blow up the place, and the viruses get released into the atmosphere, I'm sure there couldn't be any negative implications from that.  It's probably fine.

LOCATIONS: Portugal, Switzerland

VILLAINS:  Blofeld, Irma Bunt

BABES: Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, 12 "Angels of Death"

ALLIES: M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, Marc-Ange Draco

PASTIMES: Curling, ice skating, ice car racing, bobsledding

CARS: dark green 1969 Aston Martin DBS

GADGETS: None, I think - which is very un-Bond like.

THEME SONG: "We Have All the Time in the World" by Louis Armstrong.  Strange direction.

Also starring Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn (all carrying over from "Thunderball"), Diana Rigg (last seen in "The Great Muppet Caper"), Telly Savalas (last seen in "Birdman of Alcatraz"), Gabriele Ferzetti, Ilse Steppat.

RATING: 3 out of 10 ski-suits

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

You Only Live Twice

Year 5, Day 156 - 6/5/13 - Movie #1,448

BEFORE: I find I'm starting to hum the famous Monty Norman Bond theme at various times during the day now.  Still with the Connery films (#5) but they'll soon be coming to an end. 

THE PLOT: Agent 007 and the Japanese secret service ninja force must find and stop the true culprit of a series of spacejackings before nuclear war is provoked.

AFTER: OK, first the good news, Bond has entered the late 1960's.  America has a space program and everything, and the franchise finally has some money set aside for real special effects.  Also, Bond meets Blofeld face-to-face for the first time, and his dialogue is not dubbed!  They figured out how to record an actor live on set!

Now the bad news, this film is unforgivingly sexist and racist, which presents me with a dilemma - do I judge the film by today's PC standards, or the mores of the time it was filmed?  I've sort of decided that the early Bond films are a bit like a toy or board game you played with as a child.  You might find the toy again while cleaning out a closet or something, and although you remember having great fun with it in the past, you may find you can't do so again.  The toy is the same, only you grew up.  Anyway, how would that look, a grown person playing with a children's toy?

By the same token, the Bond films haven't changed, but the world of filmmaking matured, in terms of story, special effects, and treatment of women and minorities.  Perhaps this is really the way Japan was in the 1960's, but to have Bond and his Japanese contact being bathed and scrubbed by four scantily-clad Japanese girls each, while discussing all of the things that Japanese women are expected to do to please men, objectifying the women while they're right there in the room, is pretty disgusting. They don't seem to have any choice in the matter - but they're not prostitutes, just average women expected to put out.

Bond's got this other dick move, I saw it twice in "Thunderball" but forgot to mention it - he's kissing a woman, or dancing with her, and he sees a muzzle flash from the corner of his eye, or perhaps the reflection of a thug with a cudgel about to attack, and he whirls around so that the woman gets shot or knocked out.  She was probably an enemy agent anyway, but it still shows an appalling lack of chivalry.  For someone who loves women as much as Bond supposedly does, he sure treats them as disposable.   Who hurt you, James?  Oh, right, it was Vesper. 

Bond gets "yellow fever" in this one, and even gets eye surgery (performed by those same lingerie-clad women, they're very versatile) to pass as Japanese.  Umm, that doesn't work, he just looks like Sean Connery recovering from Lasik.  Then he's taken to a "ninja school", where they teach him swordplay and karate, and everyone screams a lot.  (NOTE: Ninjas are supposed to be quiet, they don't scream.)

I remember the big hubbub when "Miss Saigon" opened and the actor Jonathan Pryce was criticized for wearing eye prosthetics to play an Asian character.  They tried to soften it by claiming the character was "Eurasian", but Actors' Equity and some Asian groups wondered why they couldn't just cast an Asian actor, which I think is a fair question.  You have to regard any attempt to simulate Asian features as being equivalent to blackface, and just steer clear of it.

Nowadays we seem to be going through the same sort of casting questions with gay actors playing straight characters (and vice versa) and recently the upcoming TV remake of "Ironsides" was criticized for hiring a physically fit actor to play a wheelchair-bound detective.  Actors with disabilities wondered why they weren't considered for the role, but from a writer/producer's standpoint, I can almost understand it - they may want to do a storyline later where the character regains some use of his legs, and this casting gives them options - as well as puts a well-known actor in the role.  For fun, also check out the film "Tiptoes" where Gary Oldman plays a little person - although I'm sure he was willing to remove most of his legs for the role, they ended up doing a lot with special effects and trick photography.  They also hired a lot of genuinely small actors for the film, so really any criticism was somewhat misplaced, but once the protests started, the promotional damage had already been done.

I think this is really where the franchise starts to perk up, though - most of the elements here are what was parodied in the "Austin Powers" films, from the look of the villain to the volcano hideout and the tank full of piranhas.  Did you know that piranhas are not as dangerous as the movies would have you believe?  They're always depicted as little fishy chainsaws that can rip a person to shreds in seconds, and that's just not the case.  Back in 1913, Teddy Roosevelt was visiting the Amazon rainforest, and to impress him a bunch of locals starved a school of piranhas for about a week, then dragged a live cow into the water to show the U.S. President the massive eating capabilities of the carnivorous fish. Roosevelt wrote about the savage fish in a book, and that's how myths and legends get started.

But, under regular conditions they don't swarm or tear people apart - I've seen people on nature shows swimming in schools of (presumably well-fed) piranhas, with no ill effects. OK, a little research on Wikipedia tells me that dozens of people each year are injured or killed by piranhas in Brazil, but I'm betting those attacks are not as instantaneous or visually intense as movies would have us believe.

But if you're willing to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, you can probably have a lot of fun watching "You Only Live Twice".  Me, I can't get over the misogyny and terrible stereotypes, and the appalling lack of research concerning how the space program and carnivorous fish actually operate.

LOCATIONS: Hong Kong, Japan

VILLAINS:  Blofeld, Helga Brandt

BABES: Aki, Kissy Suzuki

ALLIES: M, Q, Henderson, Tiger Tanaka

PASTIMES: Sumo wrestling

CARS: Toyota 2000 GT Coupe (Bond doesn't drive in this film, though)

GADGETS: Mini-helicopter (auto-gyro) with guns and missiles, cigarette gun

THEME SONG: "You Only Live Twice" by Nancy Sinatra

Also starring Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn (all carrying over from "Thunderball") Donald Pleasance, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Tetsuro Tanba, Charles Gray, Burt Kwouk (last seen in "Goldfinger").

RATING: 4 out of 10 katanas

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Year 5, Day 155 - 6/4/13 - Movie #1,447

BEFORE:  I've got to tip my hat to the James Bond franchise, 23 films is a serious achievement.  I don't know if it's technically the most successful film series, but it's gotta be up there.  That's nearly four times the number of Star Wars films, stretched out over 50 years!  I'll be spending most of June on this series, since I'm only on Bond actor #2 out of 6.

THE PLOT: James Bond heads to The Bahamas to recover two nuclear warheads stolen by SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo in an international extortion scheme.

AFTER: However, as the Bond movies grew in popularity, it's a shame that the production values didn't get better at the same speed.  I hope this is the low-point for the overall low-budget look of this series.  I honestly can't see why people were so enamored of this as an action film, when it just looks so rundown.

First off, there are the underwater scenes.  Maybe this was a big deal back in 1965, but they've got some major drawbacks.  Some of them are murky and it's hard to tell what's happening underwater.  Beyond that, obviously people can't talk underwater (though I suppose they could have given Bond an underwater radio/voice transmitter, but they didn't) so most of these scenes have the feel of a silent film - and that's just unacceptable for the mid 1960's.  I honestly found many of the underwater scenes very boring, even the ones with sharks.  So many later films did this sort of thing much better.

Then we've got the cheezy dubbed villains - which seems to be a recurring theme.  Eventually you realize that all of Goldfinger's lines were re-dubbed by an English actor doing a German accent, and in this film Largo's lines were re-dubbed by an English actor doing an Italian accent.   Would the original German/Italian voices have been that bad?  In fixing one problem, the filmmakers just created another one, namely that the mouths of the Bond villains often don't sync up with what they're saying.

In this case story was originally written to involve Sicilian mafia, then after casting they retrofitted the story to include SPECTRE.   But still, it ends up looking bad.  You can say they were doing some kind of homage to the way foreign films often look, but in my book, that's a poor excuse.

Next up are the ridiculous explosions - you see a lot of this in action movies, I'll admit, with cars falling off cliffs, and bursting into flames well before they hit the bottom.  This was debunked a while back on "Mythbusters" - most cars that end up going off of cliffs just crash, with no "BOOM".  I'm sure some of them do explode, but it takes a really specific set of circumstances for a car to catch on fire or explode.  But you see it in films ALL THE TIME. 

This film has a lot of that, and as a bonus depicts a boat that's out of control, and the second it hits land, it explodes into a million pieces.  Completely unrealistic, as are the sped-up projection effects of the boat veering out of control, while characters stand in the control room and are somehow NOT thrown from side to side.  Come on...  Also, this type of thing occurred during the underwater harpoon battle.  I'm sure harpoons hurt, but the film shows agents hit with one harpoon and instantly "dying" - I'm thinking some of those piercings looked quite survivable.

I'm not sure I even understood the plot - I can see stealing warheads, but using them to - what, blow up Florida?  Go ahead, I won't miss it.  See, never negotiate with terrorists, because you can't trust them anyway.  And don't give them any money, they'll only blow it on bigger yachts and pools filled with sharks...

LOCATIONS: Paris, Bahamas

VILLAINS:  Col. Jacques Bouvar, Count Lippe, Emilio Largo

BABES: Domino Vitali, Fiona Volpe

ALLIES: M, Q, Felix Leiter (actor #4 playing Felix - didn't they lock anyone down to play him for sequels?)

PASTIMES: Baccarat, Scuba diving

CARS: Aston Martin DB5 (carrying over from "Goldfinger")

GADGETS: Jet-pack, underwater camera, underwater flares, mini-rebreather.

THEME SONG: "Thunderball" by Tom Jones.  Cheezy goodness.

Also starring Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn (all carrying over from "Goldfinger"), Adolfo Celi, Claudine Auger, Luciana Paluzzi, Martine Beswick (last seen in "From Russia With Love").

RATING: 3 out of 10 harpoon guns

Monday, June 3, 2013


Year 5, Day 154 - 6/3/13 - Movie #1,446

BEFORE: Third Connery film - but 5th Bond film in my enforced continuity.  After spending some time with my parents, I'm realizing that my mother probably kept these films away from me when I was growing up.  God forbid that I saw a half-naked woman covered in gold, or dancing in silhouette during a credits sequence during my developing years.  Just imagine how I would have turned out...

THE PLOT: Investigating a gold magnate's smuggling, James Bond uncovers a plot to contaminate the Fort Knox gold reserve.

AFTER: I'm still feeing underwhelmed by these early Bond films, though there are clearly signs in this film that the franchise was kicking into higher gear.  But the tone is still that cheeky almost-comedy spy stuff - when did they turn serious?  It wasn't until the Pierce Brosnan films, right?  Or maybe not until Daniel Craig?

The villainous plot, once again, was very nebulous.  Goldfinger loves gold, smuggles gold, collects gold, so he wants to destroy the gold reserve?  It doesn't really seem to follow logically.  They do offer sort of a half-ass explanation, but I couldn't really follow it.

There's a nuclear bomb, and lasers, and nerve gas, all good stuff.  And I'm trying really hard not to judge this in comparison with modern spy films - they really tried to do the best they could with the technology they had at the time.  That's what Hollywood always does - but when we watch silent movies, for example, don't we look at them as sort of quaint and outdated?  That's how I'm seeing the early Bond films, and I'm anxious to get to the ones from the late 70's and the 80's to see some improvements in the production values.

This is the one James Bond film that appears on the list of "1,001 Movies To See Before You Die", and I'm really not sure why - is it the definitive Bond film?  What makes it stand out from the pack?

LOCATIONS: Miami Beach, Switzerland, Fort Knox

VILLAINS:  Auric Goldfinger, Oddjob (the only Bond villain you could defeat by just ducking)

BABES: Jill Masterson, Pussy Galore (now we're getting somewhere...)

ALLIES: M, Q, Felix Leiter (damn, he got old fast - wait, another actor?)

PASTIMES: Gin rummy, golf

CARS: Aston Martin DB5, complete with smoke-screen, oil slick + ejector seats

GADGETS: Homing devices

THEME SONG: "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey (again, now we're getting somewhere)

Also starring Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn (all carrying over from "From Russia With Love") Gert Fröbe, Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton, Harold Sakata, Burt Kwouk.

RATING: 5 out of 10 bottles of Dom Perignon

Sunday, June 2, 2013

From Russia With Love

Year 5, Day 153 - 6/2/13 - Movie #1,445

BEFORE: I'm up in New England, attended the annual Newport Chowder Cook-off yesterday, then went to a cook-out at my sister's place, so a big eating weekend for me.  Brunch with my parents today, then back on the Amtrak to NYC. 

Connery carries over from "Dr. No", which makes me glad I'm following the Bond movie chronology going forward, as it also maximizes actor linking, and I can get a better feel for how the film series developed, instead of jumping all over the timeline.

THE PLOT: James Bond willingly falls into an assassination ploy involving a naive Russian beauty in order to retreive a Soviet encryption device. 

AFTER: Again, the downside here is that I've watched two modern Bond films, with complex plots and flashy special effects.  A film made in the mid-1960's is now unfortunately going to fall short in many areas, just by comparison.  The plot seems very basic, the effects are almost nil, and the view of global politics seems almost cartoonish.  Soviets?  Hah, we beat those guys long ago.  SMERSH?  Is that a criminal organization or a Mad Magazine sound effect?

I'll admit SPECTRE is a pretty cool acronym - SPecial Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion).  This is the stuff that parodies like "Get Smart" and "Austin Powers" were always poking fun at, no doubt. 

And they did up the ante a little bit, the budget for this film was twice that of "Dr. No" - but they were still using cheezy fakey things like rear-projection.  You couldn't put a real camera on a real car with Connery in the back seat?  Seems kind of low-rent.  And the way that you never see the criminal mastermind (Blofeld), which also allows for a sinister voice to be dubbed in later - it's a mystery-creating technique that also saves quite a bit of money during the shoot.   

Plot concerns an encoding device called a Lektor, and it's no coincidence that Fleming had friends who cracked World War II's Enigma Code in 1939.

LOCATIONS: Istanbul, Zagreb, Venice  (Ha! Not Jamaica!  The tour guide was wrong...)

VILLAINS:  Col. Rosa Klebb, "Red Grant" the assassin

BABES: Sylvia Trench, Tatiana Romanova

ALLIES: M, first Q (here named "Boothroyd"), Kerim Bey
PASTIMES: Chess, making secret-agent sex films

CARS: Derby Bentley Mark IV Sports Tourer convertible - with a radio car-phone!

GADGETS: Tricked-out attache case with knife + tear-gas, and easy-to-assemble rifle

THEME SONG: "From Russia With Love" by Matt Monro.  Loungy-cheezy.

Also starring Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Lois Maxwell (all carrying over from "Dr. No") Daniela Bianchi, Robert Shaw, Pedro Amrendariz, Lotte Lenya,

RATING: 5 out of 10 oil drums