Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cowboys & Aliens

Year 5, Day 173 - 6/22/13 - Movie #1,465

BEFORE: Well, I can finally stop tracking Bond's travels, conquests and gadgets and get back to some good ol' American sci-fi.  Obviously I planned this as the link so Daniel Craig could carry over from "Skyfall".  I'll have to review some cast lists tonight to figure out the next link in the chain.

THE PLOT:  A spaceship arrives in Arizona, 1873, to take over the Earth, starting with the Wild West region. A posse of cowboys and natives are all that stand in their way.
AFTER:  You know that a film was groundbreaking when it triggers a bunch of knock-off films - and I don't mean a bunch of spoofs like "Titanic" had - I mean films like "King Kong", "Star Wars" "Armageddon", or in this case "Independence Day".  You just know that for years after, pitch meetings would all reference that film, like "Independence Day in the Future" ("Battlefield Earth") or "Independence Day in South Africa" ("District 9") or "Independence Day in Los Angeles" ("Battle: Los Angeles").

Tonight's film happens to be based on a comic book, but I can't help but think that it got green-lit with the phrase "Independence Day in the Old West".  Because that's what it is.  A group of technologically backwards cowboys and Native Americans have to band together against impossible odds to stop the invasion of Earth. 

It raises some interesting questions, about how someone who doesn't know what a rocket is, let alone a flying alien craft, or an energy blaster might react upon seeing one.  Would they immediately recognize these things for what they are?  Up until then, they'd only seen birds flying, and without electricity it's tough to envision what a laser might be.  If you took someone from the 1800's into the present day, would they just have trouble understanding TV and microwaves, or would they be texting on a smart phone within a week?

You could also think of this as the film in which James Bond and Indiana Jones team up to fight aliens, and if you want to go that way, I'm not inclined to stop you.  But there are other characters too, and seeing bigoted ranchers working with Native Americans against a common enemy is a nice touch, though a bit obvious in its modern P.C. loftiness.

The effects are fine, but the plot's a little cookie-cutter.  If you found you couldn't watch the last quarter of the film for some reason, I bet you could take a pretty good guess about how it all plays out.  In fact, some of the people the aliens abducted even seem better off than they were before, since the experience managed to smooth out the rougher parts of their behavior. 

Also starring Harrison Ford (last seen in "The Devil's Own"), Olivia Wilde (last seen in "Tron: Legacy"), Sam Rockwell (last seen in "The Sitter"), Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown (last heard in "Green Lantern"), Adam Beach (last seen in "Windtalkers"), Paul Dano (last seen in "Taking Lives"), Walton Goggins (last seen in "The Next Karate Kid"), Noah Ringer.

RATING: 6 out of 10 Wanted posters

Friday, June 21, 2013


Year 5, Day 172 - 6/21/13 - Movie #1,464

BEFORE:  I'm finally at the end of the Bond films - that's 23 Bond films in 23 days.  While I'm not a Bond expert now, I certainly know a lot more about the series than I did before.  This chain has certainly had its ups and downs, some films were good, some bad, and some just ridiculous.  But I'm hoping this whole thing ends on a high note.  Judi Dench carries over from "Die Another Day", and I think she's the only one to do so, since I'm back to Daniel Craig as Bond, sort of back where I began.

THE PLOT:  Bond's loyalty to M is tested when her past comes back to haunt her. While MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

AFTER:  Well, now I know the answer to the (non-existent) riddle - "What has four M's and three Q's?"  Not to mention 6 Bond actors, and countless women - fast cars, cool gadgetry and more than a few disfigured villains...

My attempts to create a forced continuity that includes all of the Bond films failed quite miserably - you simply cannot string together or interweave the 20 films from the old series with the 3 new Daniel Craig films and expect things to work out.  They just don't.  Judi Dench's M got older, then younger, then old again - she must have lost the job and then got it back, which is possible but unlikely.  Bond ended up working with someone for 20 films, and then meeting them for the first time, so that was weird, unless they were a new person with the exact same name.  And let's not even try to untangle the complicated appearances of CIA agent Felix Leiter - unless like "James Bond", Felix Leiter is a code name used by several different people. 

It's no good - I simply have to accept that a new continuity began with "Casino Royale", or simply posit that each film takes place in a magical framework called "story time", in which all things are possible and conflicting information is summarily discarded.  And anything we don't like, such as Bond's brief marriage, is retconned away, just like Spider-Man's and Superman's marriages.  (I suspect that many comic-book writers just don't know how to write for married characters, because they're a mostly unattached bunch, but I'm generalizing.) 

But even if you just take the 3 Daniel Craig films as a separate entity, there are still issues - not just with "M", but also with the new "Q".  The film series doesn't seem to be sure whether the Connery/Moore/Dalton stories happened or not.  For Bond to be shocked at the age of the new Q, he must have a frame of reference, meaning he worked previously with an older, more experienced quartermaster.  Yet if you just watch the three films in the new continuity, there is no previous Q to refer to, so then why is he complaining?

But, taking "Skyfall" on its own merits, it's a great continuation of the new Bond mindset established in the first two Daniel Craig films.  The world is a dark(er) place, terrorism is a real threat that can't be dispelled with a laser watch, and villains don't just threaten to blow things up, they make good on their promises.  This is the post 9/11 Bond, dealing with madmen who demolish buildings or fire directly into a crowd - and how do you deal with that?

The villain here is a former British agent, which is something of a new twist - they've done double agents before, but never a character who was one thing and then became something else on the other side.  His personal connection to M is driving him for revenge, for what he sees as a betrayal.  And he strikes with some efficiency in the cyber-terrorist arena, something that was depicted rather poorly in "Goldeneye". 

I confess I missed something somewhere, as I wasn't really sure what "Skyfall" meant - it appeared in Bond's evaluation as part of that word-association game, but I had to look it up after to see what the significance was.  Turns out it was the name of the estate Bond grew up on, which is featured prominently in the later sequences in the film. 

And if there's a pattern to the newer Bond films (Brosnan + Craig), at least it's a new pattern, which is "Bond struggles, Bond loses, Bond struggles more, Bond wins".  Or maybe it's called a draw.  That's a little more realistic than "Bond always wins, Bond never gets shot, Bond never gets his tuxedo dirty."  They seem to be pushing Bond into yet another new direction, so this sort of constitutes another relaunch in some ways, just two films after the last relaunch.  But if the films are this good, I'm going to be along for the ride from here on out.

Well, it's the first day of summer which means I have a few rituals - I've shaved off my mustache (there was a prominent shaving scene in "Skyfall", and I love little coincidences like that), plus I'm doing the bi-annual laundry push to get all of my novelty t-shirts cleaned.  But I'm also kicking off the summer sci-fi series tomorrow - my own list of summer blockbusters, even if they weren't originally released in the summer.

LOCATIONS: Istanbul, London, Shanghai, Macau, Scotland

VILLAINS: Raoul Silva, Patrice

BABES: Eve, Sévérine

ALLIES: M, Q, Eve, Kincade

PASTIMES:  Roulette

CARS:  classic silver-birch Aston Martin DB5, various Range Rovers

GADGETS: palm-print specific Walther PPK, improved radio transmitter/tracking device

THEME: "Skyfall" by Adele.  One of the best, I see what all the fuss was about.  Hearkening back to the bold voice of Shirley Bassey, riffing off the wah-wah jazzy instrumentations, this is a possible category winner, on a par with "Nobody Does It Better". 

Also starring Daniel Craig (last seen in "Quantum of Solace"), Javier Bardem (last seen in "Collateral"), Ralph Fiennes (last seen in "In Bruges"), Naomie Harris (last seen in "Miami Vice"), Albert Finney (last seen in "Tom Jones"), Ben Whishaw (last seen in "I'm Not There"), Rory Kinnear.

RATING: 7 out of 10 komodo dragons

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Die Another Day

Year 5, Day 171 - 6/20/13 - Movie #1,463

BEFORE:  Pierce Brosnan wraps up his Bond stint tonight, carrying over from "The World Is Not Enough", leaving me with just one Bond film to go.  It's been a long, occasionally frustrating three weeks, but it's almost over.  What happens next?  After "Skyfall" I'm going to transition to sci-fi, and I'll start the Summer Countdown to Comic-Con.  I don't know if I'll get them all watched in time, but if I have to leave for San Diego in the middle of superhero movies, that's one way to go.

THE PLOT:  James Bond is sent to investigate the connection between a North Korean terrorist and a diamond mogul who is funding the development of an international space weapon.

AFTER:  This one got real topical, with depictions of North Korea - Bond is held captive there and tortured for several months.  In 2002 torture was heavy in the news, no doubt.  And the depiction of General Moon from Korea, possibly a stand-in for Kim Jong Il and his crazy son seems very prophetic.

This may be the flashiest, most exciting, Bond film to date, with some of the wildest stunts - however, some of the wildest stunts can also be the most unbelievable stunts.  Can you really start a helicopter from a dead stop, with no pre-flight checks, while it's falling to the ground?  I don't know, get the Mythbusters on the phone.  I think they already investigated Bond's creative use of the ejector seat in this one, but I don't remember the result.

This one also borrows heavily from previous Bond films, becoming sort of like a "Greatest Hits" collection.  Being the first Bond film of the new Millennium, they had plans to have cameos from all of the previous Bond babes, but those plans were scrapped.  Maybe confronting Bond with all of his past conquests was a bit too much like therapy.  Instead they had Halle Berry dress in a bikini similar to Honey Rider's from "Dr. No", gave the villain the WWIII goal from "Moonraker" and a laser satellite borrowed from "Diamonds Are Forever", and had Bond escape from a crashing plane in a method similar to one seen in "The Living Daylights".  

They continued mixing things up with the Bond babes, too - Halle Berry's character serves a double function, since she's sort of an agent herself, she counts as an ally AND a Bond babe.  But wait, there's more...

 LOCATIONS: North Korea, Hong Kong, Havana, Iceland.

VILLAINS: General Moon, Gustav Graves, Zao

BABES: Jinx Johnson, Miranda Frost

ALLIES: M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, Jinx Johnson, Damian Falco

PASTIMES:  Surfing, ice-racing, fencing, para-sailing (kite-surfing?)

CARS:  Aston Martin Vanquish with machine guns, ejector seat and special camouflage "paint job".
Also a Ford Fairlane.

GADGETS: Switchblade gliders, laser watch

THEME: "Die Another Day" by Madonna

Also starring Judi Dench, John Cleese, Samantha Bond (all carrying over from "The World Is Not Enough"), Halle Berry (last seen in "Catwoman"), Tony Stephens, Rosamund Pike (last seen in "Johnny English Reborn"), Rick Yune, Will Yun Lee, Michael Madsen (last seen in "Kill Bill Vol. 2"), with a cameo from Madonna.

RATING:  7 out of 10 land mines

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The World Is Not Enough

Year 5, Day 170 - 6/19/13 - Movie #1,462

BEFORE:  Another side-effect of watching all these Bond films has occurred - my cold got worse and I stayed home from work today to sleep it off, and I had a very vivid fever dream about the end of the world that seemed very real and freaked me out.  Every other night I've watched some Bond villain come very close to blowing up the planet, or starting World War III, or irradiating the water supply or something.  Of course, seeing all those trailers for post-apocalyptic movies a few weeks ago when we saw "Star Trek" probably didn't help. 

Pierce Brosnan carries over again, but we say goodbye tonight to the old Q, so there's sort of a changing of the guard. 

THE PLOT:  James Bond uncovers a nuclear plot when he protects an oil heiress from her former kidnapper, an international terrorist who can't feel pain.

AFTER:  Here we go again - another bunch of a-holes going rogue with a nuclear device.  The "WHY" is a little sketchy because it seems to be mixed up with a revenge plot against members of the British secret service, particularly M, and it seems to be that if you get revenge against your enemies, then blow up Europe, that's not really enjoying your victory.  Fulfilling a vendetta works best when civilization is still standing, I'm just sayin'.

I think at some point the producers of the Bond series realized they'd fallen into something of a rut, using the same formula time and time again - disfigured villain, henchman with a weird power, throw in a couple of hot babes and call it a day.  They broke some ground in "A View to a Kill", where Grace Jones played the henchman, er, henchwoman, and also slept with Bond, so she crossed over into the hot babe category.  Same thing with "Goldeneye", where Famke Janssen was a henchman/assassin and a Bond babe as well.  And "Tomorrow Never Dies" introduced a new combination as well, a beautiful woman who's also a secret agent - although I guess they did that back in "The Spy Who Loved Me", didn't they?

It does, however, point out what might be Bond's achilles heel - and it's not just sleeping with married women.  Could he shoot and kill a woman, if need be?  It's a new world, with equal rights for women, and if it turns out one of them needs to be killed to save the world, could he do it?  I'm not so sure...

This one spins out of a line from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", in a scene where Bond is researching his family's crest, which contains the family motto, "Orbis non-sufficit".  You might think that the film would focus on Bond's family or lineage, but you would be incorrect.  I suppose it is about family in one sense, but not his.  Whatever new ground was broken with this film, however, was negated by the casting of Denise Richards as a nuclear research scientist.  Because that's believable.

NITPICK POINT: Bond travels through an oil pipeline, which is not only very well-lit (why?) but also extremely clean - doesn't that pipeline usually carry, you know, oil?

NITPICK POINT #2: The villain here doesn't feel pain, which is an interesting idea.  So why would Bond persist in hitting him?  I know it's his fallback method of dealing with things, but it just won't work in this case.  Find another way.

LOCATIONS: Bilbao Spain, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Istanbul Turkey


BABES: Elektra King, Dr. Christmas Jones

ALLIES: M, Q, new Q ("R"?), Miss Moneypenny, Valentin Zukovsky

PASTIMES:  Skiing, speedboating,

CARS:  BMW Z8 convertible roadster, tiny glimpse of the Aston Martin near the end

GADGETS: credit-card lock pick, inflatable parka, experimental speedboat.

THEME: "The World Is Not Enough" by Garbage. 

Also starring Judi Dench, Desmond Llewelyn, Samantha Bond (all 3 carrying over from "Tomorrow Never Dies"), Sophie Marceau, Denise Richards (last seen in "Loaded Weapon 1"), Robert Carlyle (last seen in "Being Human"), Robbie Coltrane (last seen in "Goldeneye"), John Cleese (last heard in "Winnie the Pooh").

RATING:  5 out of 10 vats of caviar

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tomorrow Never Dies

Year 5, Day 169 - 6/18/13 - Movie #1,461

BEFORE: I've got a slight cold, so staying up this morning might be a challenge - but I went to a beer dinner last night that had some spicy food, so I'm hoping to shake it that way.  Once the beer wears off, I should be able to stay up for a while.  This is Brosnan's second outing as Bond (out of 4) and the support staff carries over from the last film as well.

THE PLOT:  James Bond heads to stop a media mogul's plan to induce war between China and the UK in order to obtain exclusive global media coverage.

AFTER:  This week's Entertainment Weekly had an article about the negative effects of binge-watching - the method by which some people are now watching entire seasons of television all at once.  There are no cliff-hangers this way, or week-to-week suspenseful moments - and on a larger scale, I'm suffering from my binge-watching of the Bond series.  Ian Fleming only wrote a few Bond books, and once those had been all adapted into films, screenwriters wrote original stories, but ones that needed to feel like they were part of the Bond universe.

Which means that they cribbed bits and pieces from some of the books, and some of the previous films.  This meant more than one Bond villain kept a pet shark, and in the case of "Tomorrow Never Dies", there are at least three villains who hijack naval vessels to gain nuclear missiles.  Most prominently this was done in "The Spy Who Loved Me", but it's sort of a common theme.  At least in tonight's film there was a new motivation - instead of holding the world hostage and demanding ransom, the villain wants to start a war so his news empire can report on it.  The obvious reference is to William Randolph Hearst kickstarting the Spanish-American War, but it's not too hard to see a connection to how CNN and FoxNews benefit from the excitement of wartime reporting. 

It's an interesting idea, only it's hard to imagine someone in the media business, Robert Murdoch for example, getting into the military weapons game.  It needs to happen here to make him a threat to world peace, but I just didn't find it that believable.

LOCATIONS: Russia, Hamburg, Saigon

VILLAINS: Elliot Carver, Henry Gupta, Stamper

BABES: Paris Carver, Wai Lin

ALLIES: M, Q, Moneypenny, Jack Wade

PASTIMES: Skydiving (HALO jump)

CARS:  BMW 750iL, BMW Cruiser R1200 C motorbike

GADGETS: Remote-control car

THEME: "Tomorrow Never Dies" by Sheryl Crow

Also starring Judi Dench, Joe Don Baker, Desmond Llewelyn, Samantha Bond (all four carrying over from "Goldeneye"), Jonathan Pryce (last seen in "Hysteria"), Teri Hatcher, Michelle Yeoh (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 2"), Ricky Jay (last seen in "The Great Buck Howard"), with cameos from Vincent Schiavelli (last seen in "Lord of Illusions"), Gerard Butler (last seen in "Mrs. Brown").

RATING: 5 out of 10 headlines

Monday, June 17, 2013


Year 5, Day 168 - 6/17/13 - Movie #1,460

BEFORE: Somehow, while I was hanging out with James Bond, half of June sort of slipped by.  I've got just one month until Comic-Con and I have to get off this topic and into some heavy sci-fi and comic-book films.  That's the plan, anyway.

Dalton is out, and Pierce Brosnan (last seen in "Laws of Attraction") is in.  We've got a new "M" too, more on that later, but good ol' Desmond Llewelyn is still with us, for a bit longer, anyway - he carries over from "Licence to Kill".  He appeared as Q in 17 Bond films, and coincidentally "Q" is the 17th letter of the alphabet.  Oooo......

THE PLOT: James Bond teams up with the lone survivor of a destroyed Russian research center to stop the hijacking of a nuclear space weapon by a fellow agent.

AFTER:  There was a six-year delay in getting the next Bond film off the ground - while figuring out who should play Bond, and who even had the right to produce the next film.  But eventually they got it all worked out, and Bond entered the 1990's, no worse for wear.  After the opening scene of this film, the plot jumps ahead nine years, and I can't help but think that partially represents the long gap between films.  Brosnan, of course, couldn't play Bond when he was first offered the role, because his TV show "Remington Steele" got renewed (ironically, it may have been renewed for one more season after he was asked to play Bond...) so they went with Dalton, and finally the role opened up for Brosnan years later.

And because this was the 90's, there's a very prominent "hacker" character - which on one hand makes sense, because you can't just take over a satellite or easily get bank info, but as in some other films of the time, "hacking" is depicted as an all-purpose activity that makes anything possible.  You need to get missile codes?  Just hack them! 

The (re-)appearance of the female "M" now messes up my continuity, partly because of the order in which I've chosen to watch the films, starting with "Casino Royale".  But it's not really my fault - "Goldeneye" introduced the new "M", but then in "Casino Royale", which was a reboot, they kept the same actress.  So one way or the other, she was head of MI6 at the start of Bond's career, then she wasn't, and then she was again.  But she looked older in "Casino Royale", which took place earlier but was made later, and she looks younger here, which took place later but was made earlier.  So there's no way it makes sense - unless maybe she had some work done to look younger?

Other than that, I really liked the way the pieces came together on this one, but the drawback was that too many of the plot points seemed to be a rehash of pieces from "Dr. No" - the satellite, the underground Caribbean lair, etc. 

LOCATIONS: Russia, Monte Carlo, Cuba

VILLAINS: Alec Trevelyan, Gen. Ourumov, Boris Grishenko

BABES: Xenia Onatopp, Natalya Simonova

ALLIES: M, Q, Moneypenny, Jack Wade (played by the same actor who played a villain just a couple Bond films ago...weird)

PASTIMES:  Bunjee jumping, sky-diving, more baccarat

CARS:  Aston Martin DB5.  Classic.  Also a BMW Z3 Roadster.

GADGETS: Explosive ball-point pen, laser watch.

THEME: "Goldeneye" by Tina Turner.  Another mediocre one.

Also starring Judi Dench (last seen in "Quantum of Solace"), Famke Janssen (last seen in "Lord of Illusions"), Sean Bean (last seen in "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief"), Izabella Scorupco, Alan Cumming (last heard in "The Smurfs"), Joe Don Baker (last seen in "The Living Daylights"), Robbie Coltrane (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"), with a cameo from Minnie Driver (last seen in "Barney's Version").

RATING: 6 out of 10 back-up singers

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Licence to Kill

Year 5, Day 167 - 6/16/13 - Movie #1,459

BEFORE: Timothy Dalton carries over from "The Living Daylights" into his second and final Bond film.  As Billy Joel once sang, "Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I'm afraid it's time for goodbye again."

THE PLOT: A vengeful British spy goes rogue and sets off to unleash vengeance on a drug lord who tortured his best friend, a CIA agent, and left him for dead

AFTER:  I'm finally seeing the big picture, the transition of Bond over the years, from "Dr. No" to the most recent films.  It starts with the impeccable Connery, goes through Roger Moore in his white tuxes, and ends (so far, anyway) with Daniel Craig covered in sweat, tied to a chair, with a villain torturing his undercarriage.  Somewhere in the middle is the Dalton transitional phase - he cleans up real nice, but he's also able to get down and dirty.

There are a lot of articles out now about the evolution of the Superman character over the years (and I will get to "Man of Steel" this summer, I promise...) and I think something similar took place with James Bond.  The changes in any long-standing character played by several actors can be seen as changes in the entire Hollywood system, changes in filmmaking technology and storytelling techniques in general, since every film is a product of its own time.  So watching the Dalton Bond reminds me of one of the Superman reboots, perhaps the one in 1986, when DC Comics felt that maybe people weren't identifying with Superman because he was too powerful, had too many abilities beyond those of mortal men.  So to humanize him they decided that he'd still be able to lift an oil tanker, for example, but the audience would see him struggle to do so.

I thought of this while watching the end sequence, where Bond takes out a druglord, 4 gasoline tankers, and about 2 dozen henchmen and minions.  He doesn't do this with a remote explosive, or a missile launcher, but by jumping from vehicle to vehicle (somewhat cribbed from "Raiders of the Lost Ark", but I digress) and of course this would be completely impossible in real life, but because he's Bond, and because it's a movie, he gets to succeed.  However, at the end he's dirty, bloodied, and quite worn out.  A bit of realism in an otherwise unrealistic endeavor. 

Although I appreciated the overall tone here, I don't recommend that other people watch the Bond films all run together like I'm doing - it turns out they were never meant to be viewed this way.  Seeing one every two or three years is much better, because you then might not notice how many story elements get cribbed from earlier Bond films.  Here we've got the "Bond goes rogue" plot again (to cover up the fact that British Intelligence has no jurisdiction over a Central American drug cartel), and a drug-lord villain with a pet shark (cribbed from "Live and Let Die").  Bond also manages to sow distrust within the villain's own operation, which was sort of part of "The Man With the Golden Gun". 

LOCATIONS: Florida Keys, Bahamas, Bimini, Isthmus (stand-in for Panama, I guess)

VILLAINS: Franz Sanchez, Milton Krest, Prof. Joe Butcher, Dario

BABES: Pam Bouvier, Lupe Lamora

ALLIES: M, Q, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter (who's somehow old again, looking like he did in "Live and Let Die" - go figure...)

PASTIMES:  Skydiving, scuba diving, blackjack

CARS:  Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II, Lincoln Continental Mark VII LSC

GADGETS: fingerprint-sensitive sniper rifle, plastic explosive toothpaste

THEME: "Licence to Kill" by Gladys Knight.  Fits the bill, I suppose.

Also starring Robert Brown, Desmond Llewellyn, Caroline Bliss (all three carrying over from "The Living Daylights"), Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Benicio Del Toro (last seen in "China Moon"), Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe (last seen in "They Call Me Mister Tibbs!"), David Hedison (last seen in "Live and Let Die"), Frank McRae, Everett McGill, with cameos from Priscilla Barnes (last seen in "The Crossing Guard") and Wayne Newton (!) (last heard in "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil")

RATING:  4 out of 10 Stinger missiles