30 June 2012

IN FOR A PENNY, IN FOR A BOND

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Written by Roald Dahl
Premiered 12 June, 1967

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
You Only Live Twice boasts one of the few openers that directly ties in to the movie about to follow, but that's not what stands out, not to me. For me, the main importance of the fifth Eon Productions Bond movie is that it's the one where the franchise became out-and-out ridiculous, after two largely real-ish adventures and two somewhat more flamboyant and fantastic but still essentially plausible movies. And that gets started pretty much right from the the start, as we see a U.S. two-man space vessel in the fictitious Jupiter Program get captured by a bigger space capsule that opens up like a giant metal space whale to snap it up, before vanishing off NASA's radar. This is immaculately dumb, with visual effects that are obviously every bit as costly as they are unconvincing, and the overall tone is unmistakably, "Do you believe this just happened? No, of course not. But do you care? Damn right, you don't care."

And as one who much prefers the Bond films when they are at their most ridiculous - a conversation that we'll be sure to have many times throughout the Roger Moore years, when we get to them - I find all of this utterly entrancing.

So entrancing, indeed, that when we switch gears to the next scene - yes, still before the credits - it lets some of the steam out: the U.S. thinks the Soviet Union is responsible, the Soviet Union claims to have no idea, and the U.K. happens to agree that, whatever is going on, the Russians aren't to blame (one of the tiny little moments you find scattered around the franchise where some attempt at demonstrating British independence of American leadership in the Cold War; by and large Bond eschews these touches, though, it's not like Cubby Broccoli wanted to adapt John Le Carré novels, or he'd have done so). And it's all very talky, but the British representative at whatever summit we're watching has some good news for all of us: MI6's man in Hong Kong is on the case. And of course that man is James Bond, in Sean Connery's fifth and last consecutive spin with the character, before taking a one-film vacation. No surprise, Bond is rubbing up against a pretty girl (Tsai Chin); the surprise is that as soon as he turns his back, she calls in goons who shoot him dead with machine guns. The local British authorities arrive just in time to pronounce him dead, as he bleeds out all over the bed. Okay, so none of us actually believe Bond is dead - check the title - but it's still a pretty gread "duh-duh-duh!" moment, and I will confess to all of you that this whole sequence, absent its necessary but annoying exposition belch, appeals to me far, far more, for wholly superficial reasons, than it has any reason to. My favorite among the Connery films.

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Rating: 4.5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
So far we've had two jazzy instrumental pieces with plenty of sex and sass, and two pop/jazz hybrids sung by people who give the impression that they only expect to get paid if they manage to burst a lung on the final note. For number five, then, we get... a ballad. And not even a sultry, raunchy ballad like some of the ones to follow - just a moony, simpering ballad with music by John Barry and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, performed by Nancy Sinatra (never a favorite of mine), who can't do much but give in to sudsy romantic tosh like "Love is a stranger who beckons you on / Don't think of the danger when the stranger is gone". I don't mind saying, I always get pretty damned antsy before this endlessly short little tunelet wraps up. A real pity: Barry's work scoring the movie is extraordinary, a strong candidate for best overall Bond soundtrack ever, up to and including his reprises of this very song. But gad, it is dull and limp.

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Rating: 2 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
A distressing mixed bag. Maurice Binder's very first gesture is enough to convince you that he's about to whip out the best title sequence yet: Bond's blood all over the sheets dissolves into a bright red graphic element that is vaguely Asian in no particular way, suggesting spreading blood and a fan in equal measure. It slowly zooms towards the viewer, and then- that's just it. There's no "then". As will shortly become quite obvious, Binder has one idea that he is desperately in love with here, which is to zoom in and out with various compositional elements: that fan-thing, in different colors, or still images of Japanese women looking askance at us, or half-silhouttes of naked girls. Zoom in, zoom out, zoom in. It's the best and worst possible accompaniment to that song: just as rote and boring, and it's kind of hypnotising in an irritating, sleep-inducing way. And yet, interspersed with all of the one-note shuffling of still images, there are background shots of lava flows that are nothing short of gorgeous, and which attain a still different kind of abstract beauty from the things in front of them zooming in and out. Not enough to keep the thing from being on the wrong side of average, but certainly, it gives it a certain flair.

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Rating: 2.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
1964's You Only Live Twice is the first Bond movie adapted from a novel written by Ian Fleming during the film franchise's existence; that novel was in turn the last one published during the author's lifetime, and I am tempted to say that it is my favorite - actually, that's probably not true at all, there's far too much bland racist disparagement of the Japanese for that to be the case (even by the racially nightmarish standards of the Bond franchise, YOLT stands out); but what it does with Bond himself is certainly rather fascinating stuff, that couldn't be duplicated in the movie on account of it having a great deal to do with the situation at the end of the previous novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which would turn out to be the next movie, as promised in the end credits here (a promise also made in Thunderball during its initial run, but events dictated otherwise). It would have been better for both films if the order had been switched, but there's no helping it 45 years later.

In the event, You Only Live Twice would strike a bold new direction for the franchise, on account of being the first Bond movie that leaves very, very little of its source novel intact. Author Roald Dahl - aye, the noted children's author, a friend of Fleming's - was obliged to invent most of the plot out of whole cloth simply in order to have a plot, out of the fogginess of the mood- and location-driven book. And thus it is chiefly thanks to Dahl that the franchise ended up going to those absurd, ridiculous extremes I was talking about before, for after all, Dahl was no stranger to the absurd and ridiculous in his prose, though the form that his unique style took when filtered through the Bond universe isn't necessarily recognisable.

Anyway, here's what we've got: Bond faked his own death in order to throw SPECTRE of his track - for MI6 believes that the international terror group is behind all of this space mayhem - and freeing him up to explore Tokyo unmolested. When his first contact, British agent Henderson (Charles Gray), ends up dead minutes after they meet up, Agent 007 is forced into a series of desperation moves that lead him to Japanese secret agent "Tiger" Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba), and his lovely aide Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). Together, the three quickly track things back to Japanese industrial concern Osato Chemicals, and back from there to an isolated island that is, for unknown but fairly obvious reasons, receiving shipments of rocket fuel. In order to get Bond closer to this island, Takata arranges to have the British spy disguised as a Japanese fisherman, newly married to local girl - and Takata spy - Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama). Bond and Kissy are able to infiltrate the SPECTRE lair hidden inside a dormant volcano, there to learn that SPECTRE's leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance), has been orchestrating the whole scheme in order to trick the U.S. into declaring war on the Soviet Union, a job he performs at the request of a third party (China, presumably; it's not made clear) for a staggering sum of money. Bond naturally foils this plot at the last instant, but not before Blofeld makes a dramatic escape.

It lacks elegance, certainly. And the story slows down greatly right after it hits the one-hour mark (this movie comes in a few minutes under two hours, the shortest Bond movie for decades into the future), and doesn't pick up again for a solid quarter of an hour. But still, I admire the crazy bigness of it, truly the most ambitious scheme we ever see SPECTRE attempt. Later Bond films would get loopier and even more over the top in their excessive villainy, but frequently lapse into outright caricature: You Only Live Twice strikes a careful balance between the insane and the credible that only occasionally tops towards the former.

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Rating: 4 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Here he is, the grand leader of all evil in the world of the Connery-era Bond films, Ernst Stavro Blofeld revealed as more than just a hand petting a white cat. And out of the several actors who have played him - all of them good - Donald Pleasance's interpretation is my favorite in a walk; he may even be my single favorite Bond villain, though revisiting some of the ones I haven't seen in a while could change that. Regardless, Pleasance's approach to the character is a fascinating and compelling one: his Blofeld is irritable and amoral, he speaks in an accent that cannot be placed on a map, but suggests a Chris Nolanesque, darker & edgier take on Elmer Fudd; he is half psychopath and half ruthless bureaucrat; and he has an ecstatically weird way of petting his cat's head.

The overall impression is of a true, merciless bastard, colorful without being a cartoon, crackling with high-strung energy that causes rather nasty damage to whomever he touches. Other Bond villains are more credible threatening to the viewer; none is more of a frightening, palpably deranged menace. If nothing else, his delivery of the line "Kill Bond! Now!" in a strangled, shrill shriek, is one of the most disturbingly vicious things that has ever been done by any bad guy in this whole franchise.

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Rating: 5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
From the sublime to the... well, to the simply flat and bland, honestly. Convention holds that the "actual" Bond Girl in this picture is Kissy Suzuki, who has almost no screentime and barely any lines; she is a considerably smaller presence than Aki, for certain. That said, I do like her better as a character, for reasons that will become clear when I discuss Aki's place in the story; Hama doesn't get enough exposure for me to feel comfortable describing her performance, but she wears a bikini well, and holds the distinction of being the first Asian to pose in Playboy, as a direct result of her role here. She's got a bit of sauciness to her, but she is, on the whole, the very definition of a non-entity.

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Rating: 2 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
There are two candidates, but one of these, Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) of Osato Chemicals, makes only a small blip before his boss offs him. Leaving us with SPECTRE's No. 11, Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), another in the line of ice maidens who sleep with Bond on their way to trying to murder him. She is, all things considered, a pretty average representative of the form: Dor's performance doesn't really help matters. She does, however, get a rather good "now I shall leave you to die alone, Mr. Bond" moment, and she's the first character in the franchise to die in a tank of piranhas. And for this, we must pay her our respects.

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Rating: 3 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
"In Japan, men come first, women come second", goes a line from this movie so outrageously sexist (and fully endorsed by the movie's POV, by the way), that all Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery had to do to was repeat it to get a laugh. And boy, oh boy, does Aki embody that philosophy: depicted as being capable in every way, smart, physically strong (but not, it must be said, well-acted; in her brief screentime, Hama manages to seem far more robust in the personality department than Wakabayashi can demonstrate with a half of a movie to play with), and she still not only willingly but enthusiastically submits to Bond's whims in what is probably the most casually sexist movie in the Bond canon: bathhouses, giggling Japanese women around every corner, and all the perfunctory sex a superspy could want. And then she dies in bed, because Bond rolls around in his sleep. It's a flimsy death for a character who is defined at every turn by being a cheerleader for a sexist Brit's idea of the sexual paradise that is Japan.

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Rating: 1.5 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
Now we're talking. You Only Live Twice is the most action-heavy of all the Connery Bond films, and while it's still not up to the modern expectations of action cinema, it's the first Bond film that cannot be reasonably called "dated" by anyone interested in being honest. I suspect it's not an accident that the film's second unit director - AKA, the director in charge of most of the stunts - was none other than Peter Hunt, editing his fifth Bond movie in a row, and the last; there is a very clear eye to how to best frame the action and then piece it together for maximum impact. This is best displayed in one of the film's two biggest setpieces, a dogfight between four helicopters and a dinky little gyrocopter, a terrific combination of aerial cinematography, savvy editing, score (a fantastically-timed statement of Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme" in full), and some really dodgy models. Oh well, you can't have everything.

Even better is the film's massive climax, in which the massive SPECTRE lair (see below) is flooded with ninjas - ninjas, mind you - as things explode and people run around, and we see huge spaces absolutely filled to the brim with incident. It is the best of the several "small armies fighting each other while Bond tries to stop a doomsday device" sequences in the whole movie, thrillingly cross-cut and staged with an eye towards creating the most garish, exciting spectacle that could be managed. And in one absolutely terrific accidental moment, you can see the cat on Donald Pleasance's arms freaking right the fuck out - those explosions were real, my friends.

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Rating: 4.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
There's not much, but it's pretty terrific stuff. For starters, we have in that selfsame gyrocopter, "Little Nellie", one of the absolute coolest toys Bond ever got to play with, tricked out with everything you could cram onto its wee frame, delivered by a petulant Q to Japan. And in case you miss the Q Labs sequence that is thus cut out, Tanaka gives Bond a tour of his ninja school, and it plays out mostly the same way, particularly when Tanaka shows off his exploding cigarettes that, naturally, end up playing a huge role in the third act. It's wish-fulfillment stuff at its most sensible and useful, and the only problem I have is that, frankly, the most fun of the gadget scenes is watching Desmond Llewelyn bitch at the actor playing Bond in that film. And it simply doesn't happen here.

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Rating: 4 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Do you want to know the moment that the James Bond franchise switched from being, ultimately, spy thrillers, to being, ultimately, lifestyle fantasies? Because I can tell you when it happened: it's when we get our first great big lingering wide shot of the inside of SPECTRE's rocket base inside a dormant volcano, complete with retracting roof in the crater: not my favorite of Ken Adam's stupidly massive sets that the franchise would bring us, but it's undeniably the game-changer. An impressionistic Fort Knox in Goldfinger; a sexy yacht in Thunderball; that's sandbox stuff next to the places Adam wold go in the future, and it all comes down to that volcano lair, so big your mind simply shuts down trying to imagine what kind of soundstage could accommodate it; so big you convince yourself that it's a model, and those are model monorails and model workers and model cranes. But oh, no, those people are moving like people, like actual human beings in a giant motherfucking volcano lair set, and you're right back to being mind-boggled. And then you start to notice the touches: the sleek, menacing stairs, and the viciously shiny monorail, and the rough edges of the volcano wall, and it starts to become obvious that this isn't just a big set, it's a detailed set too. It was designed and built, and it physically existed And that, boys and girls, is why I will never love CGI.

The volcano isn't the only great set in the movie, just the most awe-inspiring. We have, by my count, at least two other triumphs of design: Tanaka's industrial-chic bunker, and the offices of Osato Chemicals, a hybrid of traditional Japanese lines and impersonal bureaucracy that ends up looking sinister, even before we know just what's going on. Oh, and Blofeld's office with a steaming piranha pool. I certainly don't want to give any of these sets short shrift; I love them all. They just have the misfortune of being in the same movie with the ohmigod VOLCANO.

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Rating: 5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
There's quite a lot of ways we can call Bond's life pornographic; the one that You Only Live Twice is most concerned with is alcohol. Jesus, but does Bond ever show off how much nice stuff he drinks in this movie: practically cumming in his pants when he has just a slight taste of actual Russian vodka, and later pronouncing the phrase "Siamese vodka" like he just discovered a cache of kiddie porn in the villain's safe; complimenting Tanaka on the exact decimal point at which the Japanese spy is serving his sake; and accepting a glass of '59 Dom Perignon with a little twinkle that communicates as clear as clear can be, "I would have sex with you, young woman, but not nearly as much sex as I intend to have with the bottle you're holding." And in a hilarious, unscripted moment, Henderson offers him a martini stirred, not shaken; Charles Gray simply fluffed the line, but Connery's reaction is a priceless study in off-the-cuff acting, effortlessly communicating "I shall be a polite guest, but oh how unhappy it makes me" pain.

Oh, and he wears nice clothes and fucks no fewer than four beautiful women. Still: booze.

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Rating: 4.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
There is none, a dismaying fact that I had forgotten.


BEST QUIP
HELGA BRANDT: "Mr. Osato believes in a healthy chest."
BOND: "Really."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Whenever I spend a long time away from the Bond franchise, as I did before starting this marathon, it's always You Only Live Twice that suffers most in my memory, largely because the things I tend to remember Bond films by (the title song and credit sequence, the Q scene, the girl) are all really lousy in this one. But that's no reflection on the film itself, which is a very special entry in the franchise: the film where all the experimentation of the first four movies coalesced into the ecstatic slurry of chauvinism, fantasy, expensive action sequences, and ludicrous design that would define the James Bond series into the 21st Century.

For this, I think we owe three people most of all: Dahl, for writing such a warped conflict in the first place; Adam, for straight-up not giving a shit about propriety or even feasibility when he designed that volcano set, and Lewis Gilbert, whose direction emphasises, at all times, the spectacle and scale of the movie at the expense of characters or even spy action. If Terence Young made Bond films that were classy and brutal, and Guy Hamilton was largely responsible for the lighthearted japing, Gilbert is the one who made Bond films epics, for good or ill - for every one of me who enjoys the splashier Bond films precisely because of how openly they are dumb escapism, there is someone who lacks the darker, more violent Bonds because they have more realistic stakes and emotions. Regardless, it was Gilbert's hand that set the series in this direction, and we must acknowledge his influence at least.

That all being said, and as much as I love individual pieces of the movie very, very much, You Only Live Twice is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Much of this has to do with Connery, who, two years after peaking with his version of 007 in Thunderball, was palpably losing interest in the character, and the humiliatingly ineffective yellowface he has to sport for a short while couldn't possibly have made things any pleasanter (they certainly don't make it easy on the audience); his imminent retirement, such as it was, is certainly not very surprising, nor even obviously for the worst, if the trend from Thunderball to YOLT was to continue for a third movie.

With Connery half-way checking out, that leaves only Pleasance able to make all that much of an impact amongst the film's humans; as I said, Gilbert is too intoxicated with the size of his production to worry much about the people in it. And that, maybe, is why we get such perfunctory moments with series regulars Q, and M (Bernard Lee), and Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), all three of whom could just as easily not have shown up at all, for the value they add to the proceedings. For that matter, the business of moving M's office to a submarine, the first time he'd be compelled to relocate, serves rather to underscore how arbitrary his presence is, rather than stress his indispensability, as would be the case in latter films with similar gags.

So it is, then, a shallow Bond film; redeemed primarily by how magnificently energetic it all is. And it is massively energetic; this is its saving grace, that and the fact that Connery has enough gravity to him that even in the midst of over-the-top spectacle, the film never floats away. Indeed, despite showcasing arguably his worst performance in the franchise to that point, You Only Live Twice perhaps serves as the best argument for why Connery is the definitive James Bond: he is what keeps it real even in its fantastic modes. There will be plenty of time to discuss the issue of wacky Bond vs. serious Bond as we move forward, but this actor, in this movie, manages to unite those two threads tightly and give us a movie that is silly and thrilling in turn: not as balanced as Thunderball, maybe, in that regard, but still much more satisfying across the board than a lot of Bond films would tend to be in the future. And since his subsequent returns to the character were largely degraded and ineffective for reasons both within and outside of his control, I think this is the best place to pay tribute to that terrific thing Connery did for five movies, giving us a gentleman spy at his most entertainingly synthetic, and his most grubbily believable. Let that be the legacy of You Only Live Twice: from here on, that precise alchemy would never be exactly recreated, and ever future Bond film - the greatest and the worst - would suffer for it.


OVERALL SCORE
42.5/60

...COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY


The superhero sequel is a peculiar beast. It is the nature of the sequel to be a chancy proposition, artistically at least: most stories really actually don't need the extra space to be told, and cinema history is littered with sequels that can't do better than feebly retread the same plot and conflicts as the original movie, or else strain so hard to find a new direction that they completely abandon everything that made the first one worth watching to begin with. But not the superhero sequel. There is, I suppose, no genre in all of commercial filmmaking as conducive to making a sequel as superhero movies: granting how few truly excellent blockbuster sequels there are in the first place, a startlingly large number of them are comic book adaptations.

There is a very particular reason for this, and it was most elegantly demonstrated by X2, the first of the three truly magnificent superhero sequels of the 2000: origin stories. Or rather, the lack of an origin story. For some reason, no superhero franchise can bear to just start out by having the characters all existing and fighting villains and all that; we can have Indiana Jones or James Bond dropped into our lap and catch up with whatever we need to learn on the fly, but no, not Johnny "Ghost Rider" Blaze. We need to learn about that fucker's tragic past..

And so it is that, instead of the super-powered ass-kicking that is the main draw of these films, the first movie has to dramatically present the act of taking the game board out of the box and setting up the pieces, as it were. As is typified by X-Men, a perfectly fine movie that doesn't really go much of any place and gets kind of boring as it introduces one character after another, until by the time we're all ready to go, there's just enough time left for one big fight and then the sequel hook. But then along comes X2 which is all rising action, fight scenes, and effects, and everything is right with the world.

There are exceptions to this trend: movies that include the whole origin story as a first act and then present a mini-sequel all ready to go in the second half. And this is a worthy thing to attempt, but this runs the risk of making a film that is either overstuffed (Superman) or noticeably rushed (Iron Man), and this still gives us room for improvement in a sequel that is better able to pace itself (though this is emphatically not what happened with Iron Man 2).

And so we have a remarkably dense list of superhero movie sequels that are either objectively or at least arguably better than their predecessor: Superman II, Batman Returns, Blade II, X2, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (a dreadful movie, but a considerable improvement on Fantastic Four), Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Dark Knight (the third of the three magnificent sequels I mentioned earlier), The Avengers, and certainly not least, the second of the decade's truly wonderful superhero sequels and the reason we are all gathered here now, Spider-Man 2, a 2004 film that has been frequently cited not just as as better movie than the 2002 Spider-Man, but as the best superhero movie of all time (a claim that hasn't really been made much since 2008, but back in the day? People were absolutely nuts for it). And, sure enough, a big part of the reason why it works so well is because it doesn't have to spend an ounce of its energy setting up characters or situations: it hits the ground at ramming speed and, slightly over two hours later, collapses in blissful exhaustion.

In all frankness, I don't personally like it as much as the first: in point of fact, I think Spider-Man (which played the "origin story in the first half, condensed three-act plot in the second" card) does a better job than any movie outside of Batman Begins of connecting the origin story so tightly to its main character's emotional arc that it never feels like an expository slog, as much of X-Men (or a really extreme example, like Green Lantern) does. There are other reasons, too, mostly little ones: it's not as much fun to look at, for starters, with director Sam Raimi and new cinematographer Bill Pope dropping the pop-art color scheme of the first movie for a much flatter, normal-looking palette, and - horror of horrors - replacing the sturdy, reliable spherical format of the first movie, with its compact 1.85:1 aspect ratio, for anamorphic widescreen, in its screen-stretching 2.35:1, and they did this for wholly defensible, pragmatic reasons: the main villain was too wide to fit comfortably in 1.85:1 compositions. But it doesn't change the fact that 2.35:1 is a bitch of an aspect ratio to compose for, and Raimi and Pope are only intermittently good at it, and even if that weren't the case, there's still no way to replicate the comic panel sense of many of the first film's compositions to that wide of a frame, and so it is that the most distinctive element of Spider-Man's visuals has been tossed aside capriciousl. I'm sorry, I know nothing's lamer than a rant about aspect ratios, but I've been carrying it around for eight years. Default anamorphic widescreen for every tentpole movie is one of my greatest bêtes noires, and, Jesus, Raimi had it right the first time, and then he threw it away, and that's not something to get over slowly, or for no reason.

Like I was saying, though, little reasons. Spider-Man 2 is, by every yardstick, a great popcorn movie, and I do not hesitate even momentarily at the notion of calling both it and its precursor among the very best superhero movies ever made. And for every little reason that I like the first one better, there's a little reason I like the second one better, too: infinitely better CGI - it still hasn't aged as well as we might have hoped or assumed in 2004, but at least Spidey looks like he actually has weight and takes up physical space now; as a direct effect of that improvement, the action sequences are pretty much uniformly better, though I find the much-loved "battle on an elevated train" moment to be rather too busily edited to completely embrace it (it also looks unmistakably like Chicago in a film that pointedly takes place in New York, but I suppose that most people wouldn't notice and would care even less); and while the original film has a perfectly satisfactory narrative that makes good use of the canonical Spider-Man tropes - "with great power etc.", the travails of being an urban teen and geek - Spider-Man 2 starts off with one of the most intriguing internal character dilemmas of any modern superhero movie. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is failing in school, he can't hold down a job, his social life is dying, he's alienated his One True Love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), and it's all because he spends half his time running around New York in blue and red tights, saving people from crime and mayhem, and being tarred as a thuggish vigilante because of it. Eventually, his resentment is so intense that he begins to psychosomatically lose his superpowers, right at the same time that New York is under attack from its second science-powered mad scientist in two years.

Obviously, the notion of a young person with a special, but demanding, gift that ruins their personal life isn't completely fresh, nor was it in 2004; at the very least, it's the core theme of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, hardly the obscurest cultural reference point at the time Spider-Man 2 became the highest grossing live-action film of the year. But it's still a bit challenging and mature for a film genre that even now hasn't grown very far out of the "damn that's super cool!" stage. No, it isn't super cool, the film tells us: it's a chore and a constant misery. Until, that is, it stops telling us: eventually, of course, Peter has to accept his fate and soldier on and have a great big showstopping fight on a train, and I'll never forgive screenwriter Alvin Sargent (along with scenarists Alfred Gough & Miles Millar and Michael Chabon) for making it quite so easy on Peter in the very last scene, effectively stating that the tug between duty and desire doesn't matter when you have a really cool girlfriend. But these are escapist entertainments, and the fact that the film spends so much time probing Peter's resentment of the very thing that makes him awesome is very much in its favor, regardless of how strongly it follows that theme through over the entire course of the movie.

Naturally, all of these means that the B-movie ridiculousness of the first Spider-Man has to be scaled back; another little reason I prefer the first. Not that Spider-Man 2 isn't energetic and fun above all else: for it is. But there's a great deal that's more serious and heartfelt in this one: such as an excellent moments that ends the el train scene, in which a very battered and worn Peter is gently carried aloft by a group of commuters more concerned for the well-being of the surprisingly young and fragile hero than they are awestruck by how dramatically he just saved them. It is tremendously subdued and, briefly, melancholy. Or there's our villain this time, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who wants badly to do good, but is turned into a monster when one of his inventions, a set of python-like mechanical arms attached to his back, goes wrong and takes over his brain, making him a savage criminal (nicknamed Dr. Octopus, then just Doc Ock, in the press) who cannot control his own brutality. It's, frankly, kind of sad, and Molina plays it extremely well; well enough that it's not altogether fun to watch Spider-Man beat him up.

Ultimately, that's why I prefer the first movie: it is more untroubled. The emotional stakes are lower, and there's hardly any realism. It's for these same reasons, mind you, that Spider-Man 2 is probably "better", and certainly its increased seriousness doesn't keep it from being fun, nor does it prevent Raimi from indulging in much more of his characteristically warped energy than he did in the previous movie, especially in ramping up the horror movie imagery: Octavius's wife, Rosie (Donna Murphy), reflected in the shard of glass that's about to kill her; or the low tracking shots and quick, jerking camera movements, and especially a quintessentially Raimi-esque shot following along as one of Doc Ock's metal arms zooms through the air, during his massacre of a hospital room. I am reminded, in comparing Raimi's direction of this film and its predecessor, with Tim Burton's work on Batman and Batman Returns: the first is a big-budget action movie that was clearly directed by its distinctive auteur; the second is an auteur's film that happens to be a big-budget action movie.

So, Lord no, I don't want to imply that Spider-Man 2 isn't a fantastic popcorn movie. It is. My most serious reservation with the film in and of itself is that it cranks up the crises in Peter's life to the point that there's at least one subplot too many for it to handle; my pick is Mary Jane's engagement to newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson's (J.K. Simmons) astronaut son, which crops up long enough to cause Peter to be sad, and then wanders away until it comes back to give the film its needlessly distended finale. And, while nearly everybody in the cast, given a more complex screenplay, ups their game - Simmons gets more chances to snap like a screwball comedy character, James Franco has a much deeper (though under-explored) arc of his own to play with, and Dunst actually has a chance to act and react and play her own set of conflicted emotions, instead of just smiling and being the pretty unattainable girl who is suddenly attainable - Tobey Maguire seems a bit less flexible to me than he did in the previous movie, relying on a limited stock of emotions (now he's nervous! now he's kind of mopey! now he's angry! rinse, repeat), and while the character is still basic and iconic enough as to not require "acting", it does seem to suit his limitations a bit less perfectly here.

But then, we have scenes of Spider-Man swooping around New York, with all the same energetic brio that Raimi, still in love with the character and still enacting what look very much like his childhood fantasies of being the character, brought to the last movie; and all is well with the world. And that's what these movies are still about, the first two anyway: the Silver Age sense of fantasy and possibility, the bright and enthusiastic sense that a decent guy, given the chance, can end up making everything okay both in the world around him and in his own life. It's the ultimate innocence and optimism of Raimi's first two Spider-Man pictures that sets them apart from nearly every other superhero movie and makes them as much giddy larks as they are genuinely sweet coming-of-age fables. For this, I shall love them long after the genre they helped shape and encourage has become just another one of yesterday's fads.

29 June 2012

JULY 2012 MOVIE PREVIEW

There are a grand total of seven films receiving nationwide release this July, three of them inked in with spots on the year-end Top Ten Blockbusters lists. This is the magical, artistically stimulating world of mainstream cinema in which we now live. I am excited about exactly one of these. Going to be a slow, desperate-for-content month. Hope you like semi-random theme weeks of classic movie reviews!


3.7.2012

I don't know about anybody else, but I have spent most of the last year proving spectacularly resistant to getting even a little bit excited for The Amazing Spider-Man. And it's not because of the "oh, God, we just had Spidey's origin story ten years ago, how can it already be time for a reboot?" thing. Spider-Man's origin is fairly compact (not like the operatically oversized genesis of Superman, at any rate), and character-based to a degree that it makes sense to introduce a new Peter Parker with a new backstory. Nor is it because I liked Spider-Man 3, and would have preferred a Raimi/Maguire Spider-Man 4, though I would have. But heck, Spidey is my second-favorite A-list superhero. By rights, I should be ecstatic to get more big screen adventures with the guy.

Here's why I'm really, really not: that trailer screams, in gigantic block letters, that director Marc Webb and cinematographer John Schwartzman were given extremely specific marching orders to Nolan it up, and that is why we have a dark, gritty, steel-grey-and-blue Spider-Man picture that's just one horrifying charismatic anarchist away from being Marvel's own Dark Knight. Sure, Batman is my favorite A-list superhero, but not for the same reasons that I love Spider-Man - I also enjoy butter pecan ice cream and cheddar cheeseburgers with bacon, but that doesn't mean I want them to resemble one another.

Anyway, we'll know soon enough if all my concerns are justified or not. But this is the most I've dreaded a movie that I knew I'd be seeing opening night, all summer.


5.7.2012

There is a 3-D Katy Perry concert documentary in the world, and I bet there is literally not even one thing you can say to me that will make me consider for the smallest measurable unit of time that I might want to pay money to see it.


6.7.2012

Remember how Oliver Stone used to be a relevant filmmaker? Or at least a fascinatingly disordered one? Many years ago, I came up with a formula that I was incredibly proud of: "Stone is either the greatest bad filmmaker or the worst great filmmaker in America". And I remember this clearly, because it was how I justified being excited for Alexander, which was of course the movie that launched the part of Stone's career where, no, he was just a shitty director of shitty films.

Anyway, Savages is a docu-thriller about the marijuana trade, and if Stone's name isn't enough to cool you on the project, know that Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively are the headliners.


13.7.2012

Does it seem just fucking petty to anybody else that there's actually a fourth Ice Age movie coming out? This one is subtitled Continental Drift, and I assume that, once again, it will consist of roughly six minutes of magnificent cartoon absurdity with that little rodent, baked into an hour and a half of leaden kids' movie bromides.


20.7.2012

Time to confess my critical blindness! I did, in fact, manage to snag midnight IMAX tickets to The Dark Knight Rises at Chicago's Navy Pier, and it is the moment of my summer that I have been most excited about pretty much since the shape of this summer started becoming clear. We'll have plenty of time to hash out my unfortunate weakness for Christopher Nolan's divisive aesthetic when the time comes - though if I can get in a first swipe, his movies are so well-edited, they're just not edited according to Hollywood continuity rules at all, and I find that exciting - but for right now, two points: I can't shake the feeling that this is going to be awfully re-hashy and super-damn-dark just for the sake of nihilism being 'artier"; The Dark Knight Rises is a stunningly bad title, if only because it now makes the trilogy started with Batman Begins look much more like "the two Dark Knight movies with that weird little prequel thingy". In retrospect, if they'd known it was going to be for sure a trilogy and not a hacked-together trilogy on the fly, maybe they could have done something about that.


27.7.2012

The hastily-retitled The Watch (after neighborhood watch groups become a tendentious thing earlier this year - not to belittle a very serious and truly upsetting moment in American culture, but I haven't ever cared for that kind of neurotic pussyfooting from film marketing departments) is a bro comedy about bros encountering aliens. Everything about the cast and crew (Ben Stiller! Jonah Hill! Vince Vaughn! Billy Crudup? And a Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg script!) clangs like a giant warning siren from God that I need to stay all the way away from this one, and yet... I don't know, sci-fi comedies can be cute? God, talk about critical blindness.

Secondly - yes, this is the only day in the entire month with two different movies coming out simultaneously - I lied. There are two of July's seven wide releases that I'm looking forward to. Because after the exquisitely tasteless Step Up 3D, I am 100% on board for any and all future 3-D Step Up movies. Even Step Up Revolution, whose title, I suspect, makes promises that its content will not even remotely fulfill.

28 June 2012

WITH GREAT POWER...

I feel like ten years is about the shortest amount of time you need in order for a statement like this to come off as well-considered and lofty, rather than fannish hyperbole: the 2002 Spider-Man is, to me, the best comic book movie of the 21st Century. I mean something fairly specific by that statement: not that it is the best superhero movie (I consider that to be The Incredibles) nor that it is the best movie to incidentally, almost superficially, include superheroes and to derive from comic books (I see no reason to deny that honor to Christopher Nolan's Batman films). Instead, that Spider-Man is the comic book movie that most effectively, thrillingly, and most importantly, joyfully captures the essence of what reading a comic book is like - specifically, what reading the Silver Age comics of director Sam Raimi's youth was like, all bright pop colors and playfully obnoxious attitude and simple situations laden with the sorts of emotional trials a 12-year-old could easily grasp. It, and its first sequel are in this respect perhaps the most Stan Lee-ish of all modern comic book movies, and in a post-Batman Begins world, when a strained, gritty realism undergirds very nearly every superhero movie out there, even a straight-up fantasy like Thor, what most stands out about Spider-Man is how very good it is at being extravagantly fun.

This proves, as though it weren't obvious, that movies are best made by people who want to make them: Raimi's affection for Spider-Man, created by Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, was well-publicised at the time, and that affection is surpassing obvious in the care taken to get the thing "right", and in the sheer enthusiasm of how the scenes are assembled, a kind of "holy shit, can you believe we actually get to this?" sense of possibility (and perhaps that enthusiasm owes to how, in 2002, comic book movies were still a new thing, and not a dismally overplayed money machine, but that can't account for all of it). Simply put, it remains more entertaining than, basically, every other movie in the genre, and that's even factoring in some CGI visual effects that weren't exactly the very best thing in the whole wide world when the movie was new, and have aged rather terribly altogether. That's what passion and commitment will do for you: Raimi wanted to make a Spider-Man that would capture the high-energy, pulpy effervescence of Marvel when it was young and feisty, and that's exactly what he achieved, and whatever imperfections the film picks up along the way, they practically demand to be hand-waved aside with a brisk, "oh, but that doesn't matter".

A lot of things carry the film to that point, but we're going to start with one that, in my estimation, not only hasn't gotten enough credit over the years but is viewed as a downright problem in some quarters, and by that I mean the leading man, Tobey Maguire, a dewy-eyed 26-year-old when he played the quintessentially teenaged Peter Parker, nerd and social outcast who finds his fortunes changing when, on a class trip, he's bitten by an experimental spider that infects him with a genetic mutation, giving him the proportional strength of a spider, the ability to cling to walls using his hands, a precognitive awareness of danger, and the ability to shoot tendrils of webbing out of his wrists.

Now, Maguire is not the world's best actor. Nor its worst! I will defend the sharpness of his performance in Wonders Boys against all comers. But it is the case that for the most part, knowing that Maguire is in a movie should inspire none of us to think, "well, we're in safe hands now, thank the Lord". And that being the case, I still think he was quite possibly the best actor in his age bracket to play Peter - whether it would have been worth the hunt for an actor in the next bracket down we can leave aside as a question that doesn't matter - for the character is precisely attuned to all of Maguire's limitations as a performer. For one thing, Maguire isn't movie star pretty, and it is an essential component of Peter Parker's makeup that he is believably an outcast. This is something much harder to sell with a pretty person. Try to imagine Jake Gyllenhaal playing a socially discarded nerd (and he almost jumped into Maguire's shoes during the three-picture run); it doesn't work. But Maguire, who has a somewhat squishy face, and who always gives off the impression that it takes him a whole hell of a lot of work to keep his eyes all the way open, he looks a little bit funny. Besides that, there's the actual "acting" involved: what is Maguire's default performance mode, but to seem really enthusiastic and smiley but he does it in a way that's sort of grating and overdetermined and insincere? Is this not one of the very reasons that The Cider House Rules is an emotionally hollow slog? And yet, how would you expect someone to act when he is not very good at being socially outgoing, but wants very badly to become that way, and so he acts really open and happy and friendly even though it's unnatural to him? And thus it is that I find Maguire to fit this film's conception of Peter Parker like a glove. Maybe not so much its Spider-Man, who is required to be more confident and airy, but since Spider-Man is frequently played by a CGI cartoon, this is of little matter.

Hell, man, I even have nice things to say about Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, but I'll save them for the next movie.

At any rate, Maguire's Peter is thus exactly the kind of gormless, eager kid at the heart of Silver Age Spider-Man, and this ends up proving critical to the overall tone the movie creates: as much as Raimi and cinematographer Don Burgess's use of color, as much as the gaudy visual matches and echoes in the editing that rather niftily recall the use of comic book frames, as much as David Koepp's cheeky, quip-laden screenplay - and I would like to say that of all the blockbuster screenplays in Koepp's singularly inconsistent career, the only one that can even think of challenigng Spider-Man as his masterpiece is Jurassic Park - and Danny Elfman's largely anonymous but effectively high-spirited musical score. It's a big, busy movie, that is to say, with just enough hard-edged Raimisms to feel like a personal project with real meat to it and not just an exercise in fizzy good times: a steel cage wrestling match anchored by an unctuous Bruce Campbell, the film's most warped sequence and also its best; the '40s newsroom sensibility of the Daily Bugle scenes, with J.K. Simmons* doing his best Adolph Menjou in comic patter routines that could only have been wedged into a big effects-driven popcorn movie by a director who knows his genre experiments; the unmistakable B-horror sensibility accorded to the film's villain in those moments when he's not played by a post-production effect.

And oh! that villain. It is frequently held that Spider-Man 2 trumps its predecessor; I don't agree. Though it's a remarkably close race, and what decides it for me is Willem Dafoe's ecstatic performance as Norman Osborn, the greedy but basically moral industrialist who goes insane when he takes an unproven super soldier serum and fancies himself the Green Goblin, a masked beastie with a hoverboard and hugely explosive bombs. I would, without a second's hesitation, rank his performance alongside Ian McKellen's in the first two X-Men movies and Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight as one of the very best comic book villain turns in the current century. He is certainly bigger and daffier than either of those two men, but so is his movie. What is fantastic about the performance is the way that Dafoe modulates three distinct registers that are all in flux simultaneously, all of them larger than life: the smart, savvy businessman and emotionally absent father; the terrified paranoiac who can't cope with his own acts of villainy, and the grandiose, snarling monster who exults in tormenting others and being just plain bad. In one showboating scene - a gimme moment, but just because something is handed to an actor on a plate does not mean that actor cannot do exciting things with it - Dafoe has to play opposing sides of an argument in a mirror, and he does it as well as it gets to be done (with The Two Towers coming out months later, 2002 was a banner year for "insane villains arguing with themselves" scenes). He is fun, he is garish, he is hitting exactly the right level of "threatening but unrealistic" to fit in with the poppy texture of the movie as a whole.

To this end, let us consider the design of the Goblin himself: a big, plasticky shell that looks really damn dumb, and offers no chance for Dafoe to act with anything but his eyes and teeth, thus encouraging him to really play to the rafters; it's the brilliance of the movie in one body. Even in 2002, not many filmmakers would have let something as goofy-looking as that Goblin costume into their gigantic summer movie; but Raimi, a B-movie maker at heart then and always, understands the matinee appeal of a ridiculous monster. To hell with realism and prestigious gloss; sometimes, the thing that is fun is to watch a guy in a squirrelly monster suit flail at a guy in a red and blue rubber unitard. And it is because Raimi and company always went straight and true for what was fun and not what was respectable, that their Spider-Man still crackles and rushes along after a decade of comic book adaptations have staggered about ineffectually in its wake.

27 June 2012

BEST SHOT: THE STORY OF ADÈLE H.

The 2012 edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at the Film Experience resumes tonight after a one-month hiatus, with François Truffaut's 1975 The Story of Adèle H. in honor of star Isabelle Adjani's birthday - she received the first of two Oscar nominations for playing the title character, setting a record for youngest Best Actress nominee in history that would not be taken down for almost 30 years (and contributing the the ineffably weird 1975 Best Actress slate, surely the strangest set of five acting nominees in any of the four categories, ever).

The film itself, which I had never seen, makes for a compelling double feature with Possessed, the 1947 Joan Crawford vehicle that the Hit Me... series ended with last time: both are somewhat hysterical dramas about women with profound mental damage suffering from that age-old complaint, Not Being Loved by the Right Man. It's a bit more annoying of a theme in a 1975 French costume drama than in a 1947 American film noir, but Truffaut manages to save it by emphasising the 19th Century-ness of the whole affair, and it helps that Adjani really is quite good; not, perhaps, "worthy of becoming the youngest recipient of a lead Oscar nomination to that point" good, but pretty impressive melodramatic acting, and then some. It also benefits from cinematography courtesy of the magnificent Néstor Almdendros, making it awfully hard to select a best shot on the grounds of "what is prettiest?" - for the answer is that all of it is prettiest - but this is the right kind of problem to have.

I will refrain from giving away too much of the factually-based plot - there's a twist right around the halfway point that probably everybody but me already knew (I made a point of knowing nothing that I couldn't learn from the DVD front cover before popping it in) - but in short, Adèle has traveled from Europe to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in pursuit of an English lieutenant; by the ten-minute mark, we in the audience have already caught her in a number of lies and it seems quite clear that we're in the presence of a seriously "off" woman. But it doesn't become obvious how off she is until a letter-writing scene just before the 20-minute mark, which was for me the first indication of just how actually, legitimately disturbed she would turn out to be.

Taking place all in one shot, the scene begins simply enough, with Adèle entering her room, and turning on the light, and smoothing out a sheet of paper to write on:



The fun begins when she turns to her desk, to begin writing, and the camera follows along with her:


As she begins writing, she narrates the letter - a device used for our benefit, but it has the effect of making it feel like she's "performing" the letter, and not just recording her thoughts. In the meanwhile, Truffaut and Almendros start pushing the camera in - I am virtually certain it's a dolly shot, not a zoom - and we start to focus on the mirror. The "artificial" Adèle, in other words.



As we get closer, Adjani's recitation of the letter grows farther and farther from anything resembling a woman reading aloud as she composes; she begins to look up and pause dramatically and it officially becomes impossible to tell if what we're looking at is a dramatisation of the letter for cinematic purposes, or if Adèle has gotten so wrapped up in the fiction she's telling that she has been obliged to stop writing and perform it for her own, crazy little audience of one.


Throughout her gesturing, she continuously changes her gaze, for maximum theatricality; it gets really damn uncomfortable on the couple of situations where she looks directly in the camera, staring us down, making us complicit in the creation of her reality.


Finally, the letter completed, she strikes an elegant, cameo-like pose in full profile, and one of the film's many pointed fades to black carries us out of the scene, hopefully having been fully shaken by the awareness that we are going to spend the next hour and change in the company of a woman for whom the barrier between what is real and what she wants to be real is non-existent. A great moment of performance and composition working in tandem, and for me, anyway, the absolute highlight of a rather damn good movie.

26 June 2012

IT ENDED WHEN I LOST YOUR LOVE

The biggest problem with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is how fantastically misrepresented it's been in marketing: it came in looking like a snarky black comedy about the end of the world, and it is not that, to a startling degree. Instead, it is a delicately romantic character drama about the end of the world, in which some comedy finds its way almost as it were by accident And while this thus leaves us without a really sharp black comedy about the apocalypse, something that would be very nice to have at some point, the movie that Seeking a Friend is, is almost as welcome as the film that it isn't. Or something like that.

The film opens on a radio broadcast, which informs us that a space mission has just exploded during its launch, and thereby failed to destroy the asteroid Matilda, three weeks away from its estimated impact with Earth (the asteroid's name is never mentioned again and has no importance to the plot; one of a great many wee tiny grace notes in the screenplay that make it seem far deeper and more intelligent than it has to be). This is a terrible moment for humanity, which thus has been given a 21-day death sentence; and it's a particularly terrible moment for Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell), whose wife uses that exact moment as the excuse to finally leave him after years of being stuck in an emotionally arid marriage.

Dodge, as is not entirely surprising, finds all of this to be very depressing, and as those around him deal with the coming end either by indulging in a marathon of consequence-free immorality, or plugging forward like nothing is happening, he sinks inside himself, bobbing up only because his downstairs neighbor, Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley), is in her own little way almost as depressed as he is: having finally decided to dump her loser boyfriend, she's full of sorrow for the life she never got around to living yet, just as Dodge is in mourning for the life he lived so poorly. And thus they go on a road trip to redeem themselves in the last possible moment: he to reconnect with the girl from his past that he's always regretted losing, she to find some way back home to England, and the family she hasn't spoken to nearly often enough.

Going into it more than that would spoil the fun, if fun is the right word; under the guidance of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, the pair encounters several different enclaves of pre-apocalyptic behavior: here a fellow committing suicide-by-hired-assassin, there a group of self-assured and woefully under-prepared survivalists, or a chain restaurant whose wait staff have descended into a opium den-like fantasia of drugs and sex (the satire of the forcible casual friendliness of such restaurants in this sequence was, for me, the funniest part of an intermittently funny movie). It's not really very hard to see where the characters' journey is taking them emotionally, of course, and when they get there it still feels a bit contrived, but it permits the film a real doozy of a final scene with some of the very best acting of Carell's entire career, so that's a good thing, anyway.

Structurally, Seeking a Friend feels like it ought to be a comedy, but even at the beginning, when the plot hasn't warmed up yet and it's in the closest it will ever come to irony, it's more peppered with jokes than actually made up of them. Arguably, that ends up being for the best: for the more the movie strives for comedy, the worse it is, generally speaking, partially owing to Scafaria's somewhat boorish sense of what funny looks like in this context (early cameos by Rob Corddry and Patton Oswalt as two different facades of male privilege in the face of despair are especially ineffective as comedy, as social commentary, or as anything). Making this concept into an outright farce would have taken the most subtle and clever of comic directors, and I don't know that we have anybody working in America right now who'd be able to do it; Stanley Kubrick in his Dr. Strangelove mode is what it's looking for, and that is a powerful rare commodity. And that being the case, it's probably for the best that Scafaria instead goes for a mixture of tones and genres and always ends up returning to a an exceedingly light dramatic state that fits both actors' limitations rather perfectly: all due respect to Carell and Knightley, neither of them have what it takes to carry off a tragedy.

If the results seem rather insubstantial for a movie about the end of the world, well, it's a rather insubstantial movie. But not a bad one. Scafaria gives both of the leads enough depth that neither one of them feel like a concept or narrative placeholder (and this is a real danger her: Penny has all the makings of a perfunctory Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and Dodge is, well, named Dodge, which tells us far too much about the metaphorical usage he's put to in the course of the movie), and there's an awareness of how human beings exist in relationship to one another that's not even remotely present in her shallow screenplay for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. A little measure of generational angst, a few cathartic moments that are played a little too routinely but also without the bigness of a really tacky character drama of the Oscarbait school, and we have here a movie that's actually touching, without being thoroughly moving.

It helps, too, that Scafaria is in fact a fairly good director, as it turns out: teaming with crackerjack cinematographer Tim Orr undoubtedly helped, for there are a great many scenes that are breathtakingly well-lit without marching up and showing off, and the whole thing looks far, far better than just about any other low-budget drama-comedy of this sort. But a lot of what works is absolutely due to the directing, which always foregrounds the acting and characters but never comes across as lazy: there is a conversation in a jail cell that stands as the most fascinating variation on the traditional shot/reverse-shot set-up that I've seen in longer than I care to remember (marred, frustratingly, by wobbly continuity), and the whole aesthetic of the movie is that, expanded into a feature: basically standard, pre-fab filmmaking, but with just enough of a twist to give it some fresh, biting energy. Usually, this is to make the film a bit slower, and a bit more bittersweet; and these are good emotions for a kind of romantic comedy cross-bred with miserabilist European art cinema to have. It's all in service to a movie that desires to remain low-key and minor, and accordingly does so - nobody is every likely to look upon Seeking a Friend as a masterpiece or a classic work of cinema, but it's tremendously capable and effective in its limited way, the kind of compact little movie that's always refreshing about this time of summer.

7/10

25 June 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: SCOTS WHA HAE

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the new Pixar film Brave is, above and beyond any other considerations, a blow-your-brains-out gorgeous CGI depiction of the Scottish highlands, one of the most over-the-top dramatically pretty landscapes on God's green earth. Let us therefore take a look at another divisive epic (with an uncommonly similar title) set in the same time and place, and spend plenty of time cooing in delight at the scenery.

I wish to go to bat for Braveheart, though not without some trepidation and even, frankly, guilt. For to defend the movie, released in the more innocent summer days of 1995, now feels akin to defending the worldview of its director-producer-star Mel Gibson, and this is not something anybody wants to do. Also, nearly every critic I respect most has at best lukewarm if not outright hostile feelings towards the movie, and that makes me feel queasily like I have the "wrong" opinion. So permit to ease into things by saying the one thing that I love about the movie the most, and expect to have the easiest time defending:

Braveheart has some of the very best outdoor cinematography in the last, oh, 25 years of cinema, one of the two career peaks for John Toll, himself one of the very best specialists in using natural light and outdoor settings in the history of color film (his other masterpiece is The Thin Red Line, which I think is all the argument I need to prove the latter point). It helps matters that Toll is shooting landscapes in Ireland and Scotland, two of the most beautiful regions in all the world, and ones that can make even the dodgiest and blandly-shot movie look like God's own rock garden; but the difference between Braveheart and e.g. Waking Ned is the difference between an unimpeachable master given almost unimaginable free reign to get exactly the look he wants, and a guy who knows how to expose properly and keep the focus where it needs to be (my understanding is that Toll had an entire village set constructed to his exact specifications to get the precise lighting he wanted - that kind of free reign). The result is an extraordinary pageant of grey and green, the bleak overcast skies present in almost every scene intensifying the verdant landscape; it looks equal parts primordial myth and dramatic, lustful tribute to the damp physicality of the British Isles. And since Braveheart's story is itself a mash-up of history and legend (and outright fabrication by its screenwriter), I am comfortable calling this a successful marriage of form and content. Anyway, it won for Toll the cosniderable achievement of being only the third and, at present, last person to win the Best Cinematography Oscar two years in a row (1994 saw him win for Legends of the Fall, a less-deserving victory, but only in comparison), and while the Oscars should never be invoked to win an argument, it's still the case that when something that rare occurs, it might be worth wondering if it's justified.

So, Braveheart: visual sublimity and nothing less. Nor is it really incidental to the film that it looks the way it does, since Braveheart is, at its best, not really much of a drama. In fact, it's quite irresponsible as a narrative film, for a lot of reasons that a lot of people already know, though the one that I'd call the most important is how completely screenwriter Randall Wallace manages to include virtually no historical data of any authenticity besides this point: around the beginning of the 14th Century, a Scottish man named William Wallace (played here by Gibson himself) fought for Scottish independence against the armies of Edward I, king of England (Patrick McGoohan). That is literally it. There's not other dependable fact presented in Braveheart, such that I'm not even going to bother listing the things it gets wrong, down to the simple matter of relative dating (okay, so there are other things that are true: names of historical personages, locations of battles, and the broadest possible idea of what the war for Scottish independence consisted of. Still and all, if you rely on Braveheart to explain the history of 1280-1314 to you, then you are severely fucked).

In fact, Braveheart's complete renunciation of history is so thorough and so unmistakable that it doesn't even bother me in the slightest. At this point, historical drama or even biopic have been discarded; at this point, Braveheart is what we could kindly call "historical romance" and perhaps more fairly call "outright fantasy". But as reportage of fact, it's the worst manipulation of traceable Scottish history for largely fictional and dramatically propulsive means since an undereducated glover's son transformed the 11th Century King Macbeth into an existentially tormented regicide.

That, obviously, isn't fair. Braveheart is plainly not Macbeth, though I'd argue that it's at least as worthwhile as any of the Henry VI plays. The point being, mutilating good honest history for dramatic purposes is an old tradition.

But anyway, historical incoherence has never been the only complaint levied against the film: there is also its terribly problematic depiction of women and homosexuals, and I have nothing to say in its defense on either count, and there is its loving, fascinated, hugely enthusiastic depiction of what the MPAA drily calls "brutal medieval warfare", which translates to: so much violence, with so many weapons designed for maximum effectiveness rather than cleanliness. This is something that has been sharpened by our later knowledge of Gibson's interests, particularly those laid bare his next effort as director, the religious torture epic The Passion of the Christ. Setting aside the particularly conservative Catholic elements of that film (which it is risky to do), and it becomes a movie about the transfiguring possibilities of suffering incredibly pain and physical mortification. And this is precisely what happens in the climactic ten minutes of Braveheart, coming at the end of 160 previous minutes of depicting violence - not just violence in the "bang you're dead!" sense, but lingering, specific, detailed, imaginative, and very clearly presented violence involving swords and spikes and heavy iron balls on chains and flaming arrows and spears - with something approaching awe. It is not a movie that has a fetish for all this violence, so much as it is a movie that is truly worshipful of how men willing to do violence are more manly and capable and powerful and world-changing than those not willing to do violence. And this is not something that I intend to explore at any particular length in the context of reviewing a movie that came out almost two decades ago. Sometimes, the only thing that changes the world is the readiness to commit violent acts, and yet it is still probably not a good thing to treat with such respectful attention.

At the same time, coming after such a long stretch of Saw and its acolytes, not to mention The Passion itself, Braveheart seems a good deal more restrained and purposeful in its use of violence that appeared to be the case in 1995. For one thing, most of it is in the service of battle sequences, really tremendous and magnificently executed battle sequences that find the director, the cinematographer, the editor, the sound mixer, the sound editor, and the makeup artist all working in perfect unison to create little ten-minute poems of the nightmare of chaos and blood that "brutal medieval warfare" entailed for thousands of men who died in these horrible ways. The combat in Braveheart is the current standard-bearer for how pre-modern warfare can be best depicted in cinema just as surely as Saving Private Ryan's jaw-dropping Normandy sequence has still not been touched by any other depiction of contemporary war; the helplessly derivative Gladiator, and the sprawling but harried and CGI-addled The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and the hideously styled-besotted 300, to name the highest-profile of Braveheart's children, are simply not able to compete on their forebear's level (and to my reckoning, only The Two Towers even comes particularly close).

And maybe it's all indefensibly boisterous and giddy about seeing blood spill everywhere (though I much prefer it to Private Ryan, which seems to genuinely think itself an anti-war film despite 105 minutes after that terrific opener that do everything they can to undercut it), but when it comes down to it - and this is the same reason that no matter how much I try to resist it, The Passion still pulls me in like an electromagnet - this is the work of a filmmaker who deeply believes in what he's doing: every single frame of Braveheart, whether it depicts a man losing his leg at the knee, or a slow-motion shot of a woman nobly allowing herself to be raped by a feudal lord, or men in anachronistic kilts flashing their enemies, is entirely sincere. Sincerity goes a very long way with me - it's why the bloodletting in the Saw franchise offends me, even as I'll cheerfully sign up for the bloodletting here, because in that series, the filmmakers couldn't be more overt in their total cynicism about what they're doing, but Gibson... Gibson believes. He is doing this out of a deep and total love for the material and its completely out of place message about individualism and personal freedom in a society where both of those were alien concepts (he'd later revisit the themes in a much more appropriate venue as the star of The Patriot, but since that movie was made by the outrageously ineffective team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the results were completely awful).

Thus it is that, despite an awareness the second that the movie ends that I've just been had by a faintly awful man espousing faintly awful notions, Braveheart invariably grabs me and holds me solid for 177 shockingly quick minutes: it is completely honest, and completely eager, and subtle as an iron hammer to the skull. The movie makes its point in big, unmissable gestures: Toll's epic-scale "mists of time" cinematography, James Horner's uiellann pipe-driven score - one of the handful of compositions in his career that is not primarily stolen from one of his other compositions, though there's some Willow in it (the cycle would continue, of course, when he transported the music, largely intact, into Titanic) - which adds a veneer of theme park Scottishisms that are positively shameless in their emotional browbeating, but hey, whatever works. You know that hugely over-exposed "They may take our lives, but they'll never &c" line? That moment works almost entirely because of Horner, and certainly not because of Wallace's (Randall or William, take your pick) frankly anemic boosterism.

Braveheart is, that is to say, staggeringly primitive: it not only lacks sophistication, it very nearly goes out of its way to avoid being sophisticated. Much as with The Passion and Apocalypto, the overriding impression one gets is that Gibson would much rather have been making movies in the overheated world of simple melodrama and broad gestures of 1910s cinema; mix that demonstrative narrative sensibility in with a bit of the overbaked sword and sandal epics of the late '50s and early '60s, and there it is, Braveheart, a movie that cares about the 1990s only because it allows for so much more violence. Viewed in that light, even the worst elements of the film - the fact that few people in the cast do much more than aim in the general direction of a Scottish accent, and settle for whatever thing the end up landing on, or Gibson's dire inability to fit the role (he's since conceded that the part needed to be filled by a considerably younger actor), and even, especially, the rampant anachronisms - seem more like throwbacks to the don't-give-a-shit menatality by which movies of this sort weren't meant to be serious dramas but unabashed spectacles where the single concern was being as flashy and as well-appointed as possible. That's all that Braveheart is, and all it wants to be: big goddamn spectacle that flattens you over and over again. For me, it works like gangbusters. Like one of the characters in the movie says - he's a bad guy, we can tell because he's a leper, because this is the sort of movie where that kind of metaphor would be trotted out - uncompromising men are easy to admire.

23 June 2012

BOND OF OUTSIDERS

A previous review of this film can be found here.

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.


CASINO ROYALE
Directed by John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish
Written by Wolf Mankowitz & John Law & Michael Sayers
with uncredited contributions by Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Peter Sellers, Terry Southern, and Billy Wilder

Premiered 14 April, 1967

Yes, I am going to try to do this. Yes, I am a dumbfuck.

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
With no context at all to explain what's happening, British secret agent 007, James Bond (Peter Sellers) meets with an apparently Scottish inspector, Mathis (Duncan Macrae) in a public street urinal in Paris. Mathis shows his credentials, apparently waggling his dick at Bond, and they agree to find a quieter place to confer. It's quite weird on its own, and not nearly funny enough to work as a parody of the actual Bond opening sequences, and it turns out to have been snipped from a scene much later in the film for no better reason that "just because". Which, given where the plot goes, also makes it confusing.

So: not funny, pointless, and confusing? There couldn't be a more appropriate opening scene to this grindingly bizarre parody of the EON Bond films, forced into the world through the sheer willpower of producer Charles K. Feldman.

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Rating: 1 Union Jack Parachute


TITLE SONG
"Casino Royale" is a peppy pop instrumental composed by Burt Bacharach and performed by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, a relic of the fascinating period in music history when poppy jazz performed on the horn could reliably top the charts. I cannot imagine the song having too large of a natural fanbase 45 years later, but it did surprisingly well in '67, and I will confess to having a real soft spot for the tune even now; it helps that I was exposed to enough Alpert at a young age that I have persuaded myself that I enjoy listening to it now. An end-credits version that adds inane lyrics - purposefully inane lyrics, I should hasten to point out - is much, much less enjoyable.

Better yet! This film is, weirdly, the only Bond picture of any stripe to put up two Top 40 hits; the other is Bacharach's gorgeously smoky "The Look of Love" as performed by Dusty Springfield in full-on "give me sex right now" mode. In addition to being seductive as hell and one of the perfect '60s songs, it's an Oscar nominee, the first of four Bond songs to be so honored. And it probably doesn't count, being as it's not a title theme, but Casino Royale is about to put up some exceptionally terrible scores and I feel sorry enough for it to cheat it up a little.

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Rating: 4 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
The initial letters of the various people involved in the making of the film are drawn in a big, cartoon style, with color-tinted footage from the movie in the gaps. That's all. It's a parody of the Bond opening titles to absolutely no degree whatsoever, slotting in much more comfortably to the "wacky credits for wacky comedies" tradition of the 1960s; and as as such things go, the credits are therefore perfectly satisfying, but not as charming nor graphically pleasing as their most obvious precursor, the titles from Feldman's own What's New Pussycat two years prior.

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Rating: 2.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
I'm pretty sure that if I take things slowly, I can make it all the way through.

Someone is killing spies, indiscriminately, and representatives from the four great national spy programs - M (John Huston) of Britain's MI6, Ransome (William Holden) of the USA's CIA, Le Grand (Charles Boyer) of France's Deuxième Bureau, and Smernov (Kurt Kasznar) of the Soviet Union's KGB - converge on the remote Scottish estate of the greatest spy in the world, Sir James Bond (David Niven), formerly of MI6. Bond, firmly entrenched in his retirement, will have nothing to do with it; he also is rather pissed off about how MI6 has recycled his name and callsign and given it to a sexually maniacal playboy who'd rather play with gadgets than do any real spying. When M dies in an explosion meant to kill the former superspy, he feels guilty enough to visit the spymaster's widow himself, only she has been secretly replaced by Agent Mimi (Deborah Kerr) of SMERSH, the Russian agency responsible for all these dead spies. Mimi falls desperately in love with Bond, however, and tells him everything, saving his life.

Bond heads to London to take over MI6, surviving another attempt on his life. Here, his first decision is to rename all British agents "James Bond 007" in order to confuse SMERSH. His second decision is to find a man irresistible to women who can be trained not to find any woman sexually desirable, to combat all these sexy female agents being used these days to take advantage of contemporary spies' well-known adolescent sexuality. Agent Cooper (Terence Cooper) is chosen to be this particular James Bond 007.

Sir James then calls upon Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress), a former spy turned corporate raider, to help recruit Britain's foremost baccarat expert, Evelyn Tremble (Sellers). For Sir James hopes to have Agent 007, Tremble edition, beat the notorious Le Chiffre at baccarat and thus bankrupt the infamous SMERSH agent, throwing the organisation into chaos. HOLY SHIT, it's something that resembles the plot of Ian Fleming's source novel!

And now, Sir James recruits the last of his top-drawer new James Bonds: his own daughter, Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet), whom he fathered during a passionate love affair with infamous spy Mata Hari, the only woman in his life. Young Mata has gone into hiding in India to avoid the life that ruined her childhood, but she rather eagerly joins in, traveling to West Berlin to sneak into an auction of blackmail material Le Chiffre is holding to raise funds. She stills the films of his photos and disrupts the auction.

Agent 007 (Tremble) and Agent 007 (Lynd) travel to Casino Royale, where Tremble finally pits himself against Le Chiffre in the flesh (Orson Welles, who at the time was quite fleshy indeed). Le Chiffre uses supervillain-style magic in addition to being a world-class spy and baccarat player, and when things start to go badly for him, he psychologically tortured Agent 007 (Tremble) and the spy dies when Agent 007 (Lynd) tries to save him. Le Chiffre is killed by SPECTRE agents.

Mata Bond is kidnapped by a flying saucer, drawing the rest of the James Bonds including Sir James himself to Casino Royale. Now we find that underneath the casino there is a huge underground bunker where the head of SMERSH plots world domination: he is actually Sir James's sexually neurotic nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen). He has kidnapped another one of the Agent 007s, this one known only as The Detainer (Daliah Lavi), hoping to make her his wife, but she tricks him and forces him to swallow a pill that turns him into a walking atom bomb.

All the James Bonds fight the SMERSH agents in the casino, and the Americans show up to help, and they are cowboys and Indians. As things seem like they can't get any more chaotic, Jimmy Bond explodes, killing everybody.

It makes much, much less sense while you're watching it. But I'll give it an extra half-point for sheer lunacy.

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Rating: 1.5 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
There's something deliriously clever about casting Woody Allen as a parody of a Bondian mastermind, who wants to kill all the men over 4'6" and thus eliminate all threats to his masculinity. And it helps that Allen is the only actor in this desperately over-conceived comedy who actually has a considerable number of funny lines, which is supposedly because in a fit of pique at a project that was turning into quite the agony right before his eyes, Allen rewrote every single sentence that came out of his mouth. Certainly, none of the other credited or uncredited writers has a QV that suggests a joke like "I have a very low threshold of death. My doctor said I can't have bullets enter my body at any time", or "Afterwords we can run amok. Or if you're too tired, we can walk amok". On the other hand, the mere presence of Allen throws into sharp relief how much everything else isn't working, and the fact is, when I get to the point that I want to rank all the Bond villains, I want to feel like I've insured myself against having to put him too high.

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Rating: 1.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Christ, who is the Bond Girl? Let's go ahead and say it's Vesper Lynd, like in the book - hah! - and note that, in fact, Andress gives a genuinely better performance than she did as an actual Bond Girl in Dr. No, with a lot more fire and personality. And she also has a great deal more to do with herself than stand around looking sexy in a white bikini - after Sir James himself, she's probably the most active character in the whole movie, in fact, and if she's not, it's only Mata Bond ahead of her, who is too much a protagonist to qualify as a "Bond Girl".

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Rating: 2.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
Poor, poor Orson Welles, who has quite thoroughly ensconced in his "will take degrading cameo roles for money" phase, doing whatever he could to finance his crazed little European-produced masterpieces. Sometimes we can even use this as a comfort, e.g. he was in The V.I.P.s to facilitate Chimes and Midnight, and who wouldn't take that deal? Unfortunately, given the timing of Casino Royale, the proceeds were probably sunk into the legendarily clusterfucked The Other Side of the Wind, so we don't even have that silver lining. On the other hand, Welles used his significant clout to essentially wrap the fourth act (or sixth, wherever the hell the plot is when it arrives at Le Chiffre) entirely around his whimsies, driving the movie to a halt in a series of inscrutable magic tricks that the actor used to amuse himself and to drive Peter Sellers into a boiling frenzy. And you can see in Welles's face that he's not there for any reason that has to do with the art of cinema, and he just does not give half of a shit for Feldman or Casino Royale or James Bond, and it's hard to judge whether it's more heartbreaking or boring.

Boring. My vote is for "more boring".

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Rating: 1 set of Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD A NUN
Since I picked Ursula Andress for no particular reason, I'll pick Deborah Kerr here, simply because she shows up first; one of an extravagant number of actors who truly should not be here embarrassing themselves thoroughly, though at least she's having obvious fun with a grrrreat thick Scottish brogue. And she and Niven even manage to spark a teeny bit of chemistry, such as it is.

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Rating: 2 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
In the 1960s, there was a spate of comedies with great big casts and over-the-top, hugely expensive farcical beginnings and middles that turned into huge sprawling slapstick fights and chase scenes at the end (I suspect, but do not know, that Mel Brooks was deliberately satirising this trend in Blazing Saddles); perhaps the most legendary of these is Casino Royale's spiritual prequel, What's New Pussycat, which turns from a dated but largely enjoyable sex comedy into a completely unwatchable mess, shrill, histrionic, and confusing. Casino Royale's insulting and dumb finale makes Pussycat look like a rock-solid classic.

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Rating: 1 Walther PPK


GADGETRY
Between Sir James going out of his way to insult the whole notion of spy gadgets, and a scene that very feebly parodies Q - the one element of the Bond formula beyond parody, since even by 1967, Desmond Llewelyn had so magnificently turned the character self-parody - by fitting 007 (Tremble) with an over-loaded bulletproof vest, gadgetry is not high on this film's list of concerns, despite the seemingly obvious comic application.

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Rating: 1 Easily-Riled Welshman


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Honestly, I have nothing much to carp about. Jimmy Bond's vast complex is both '60s-chic enough and also flimsy and cheap enough to actually work as a commentary on the increasingly overwrought James Bond locations (though the point the "official" series had reached as of Casino Royale's production was nowhere near the flighty excesses it would reach with the very next film, released in the very same calendar year as CR). I am certain, mind you, that Feldman and his crew would be mortified that I praised their sets for looking "cheap". There's also a remarkable brave sequence set in divided Berlin, made up by designer Michael Stringer to look flawlessly like a color re-creation of the great impossible realities of German Expressionist cinema from the 1920s. Why, exactly, is there a nightmarish Expressionist labyrinth in the middle of a gaudy spy farce with a huge cast? That, I fear, is why I do not give it more points.

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Rating: 2.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Finally, something good to say! David Niven, Ian Fleming's own first choice to play Bond in the movies, is good at exactly one thing as an actor: he is effortlessly suave and charming and classy. He could make scratching his balls look chic and debonair. And he is given a role exactly tailored to his persona: the "classic" James Bond shorn of all the brutality and thuggish sexuality, with only the elegance left intact. Every day, he has a set hour to play Debussy. That much elegance. And while the trappings of his lifestyle are ramped up for comedy (lions allowed to roam the grounds, to facilitate a weak "Born Free" joke), Niven himself can't do something as simple as point to a map without making it seem like the height of wit and fashion to point at maps.

The rest of the film, now...

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Rating: 3.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Evelyn Tremble checks into the Casino and very absently announces himself.
Forced or Badass? Neither, as it almost necessarily had to be.


BEST QUIP, WOODY ALLEN DIVISION
JIMMY BOND: "People called Einstein crazy."
AGENT 007 (THE DETAINER): "That's not true. No one ever called Einstein crazy."
JIMMY BOND: "Well, they would have if he'd carried on like this."


BEST QUIP, EVERYONE ELSE DIVISION
SIR JAMES: "The whole world believes that you were eaten by a shark, Miss Lynd."
VESPER: "That was no shark. That was my personal submarine. But enough of this polite conversation."


GODDAMN STRANGEST QUIP
PETER O'TOOLE: "Are you Richard Burton?"
AGENT 007 (EVELYN TREMBLE): "No, I'm Peter O'Toole."
PETER O'TOOLE: "Then you're the greatest man that ever breathed."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Oh, jeepers. Casino Royale. Not our first dance, you and I, and I'll cop to having re-read my old review before starting this one, partially to make sure I didn't repeat myself, partially to make sure I didn't out-and-out contradict myself. It's that kind of movie, you see, where having a set opinion or even a coherent one is kind of impossible. I am pleased to report that, in general, I still support the primary thrust of that review,* namely, that the film is some kind of desperately fascinating piece of chaos that by sheer virtue of existing is impressive, even willful.

The history of Casino Royale, you see, is a legendary nightmare: Feldman managed to snag the rights to the first James Bond novel when Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hadn't even started kicking around the idea of their series yet, and his initial desire was to make a largely serious film starring Sean Connery. But Broccoli would have none of it, not even as a co-producer, and hung a massive price tag around the star's head; so Feldman decided to do a big-budget parody instead. It's hard to say why this proved to be such a spectacular mistake. Lots of spy parodies out there, then and now, from the Matt Helm pictures to the Austin Powers films which were, themselves, inspired by Mike Meyers hearing "The Look of Love" on the radio one day. Most of them are not horror stories.

In retrospect, the problem might have been casting Peter Sellers, one of the great spoiled brats in the history of British comedy. And not without being a tremendous comic actor; I wouldn't even know where to start praising his talents in better films than this one (hell, depending on where you stand on the late Pink Panther movies, I could praise his talents in worse films than this one). But a massive ego, all around, and this turned into one of the most infamous of all battles between stars when he was put on the same set as Orson Welles, another one of the great egos in cinema history. The stories are practically mythological: they only appear together in three shots, all from the same angle, which conceivably means they were only together on set for one single take; for the rest of their shared scenes (which include virtually all of Welles's part), the filmmakers had to rely on body doubles.

But the problems with Sellers only started there: after completing a substantial number of scenes, he left the project - fired or quit, we won't ever know now that all the principals are dead - leaving a film that could not be completed, but too far gone to start from scratch. Cue the storm of rewrites by God knows how many writers, the invention of whole new subplots and the removal of half-shot subplots, and somewhere along the line - it might very well have been part of the plan from the beginning, in which case, why? - the film was split up into five "chapters", of a sort, directed by five different men who didn't really communicate their ideas with one another, though Val Guest was sort of responsible for keeping everything knitted together.

In a happy story - even in a sort of ambivalent one - this is where we would trot out the statement "it is surprising and even gratifying that in the face of this much production chaos, Casino Royale still manages to hang together in any kind of coherent way." Except, this is not something that Casino Royale does. Oh, it starts out well enough, and for over half of its 131-minute running time, it makes sense: the John Huston-directed sequences with Sir James in his retirement and then squaring off with Agent Mimi are even pretty much a movie that you can watch and follow without even trying to, although it hurts matters that the John Huston of 1967 apparently had absolutely no trace of a sense of humor, and this left poor Deborah Kerr and her great big comic performance twisting in the wind.

But the movie takes an irrevocable turn into madness when Mata Bond visits that inexplicable Expressionist Berlin - the Ken Hughes sequence and amazingly, we can't call this even remotely the nadir of the career of the future director of Sextette - falling right into a mess of terrifying lines and colors and weird little sidekicks, canted angles, and geometry that is deliberately, and purposefully nonsensical: and for what reason? To demonstrate that Bond movies are meaningless and therefore all mainstream commercial cinema is meaningless and let's then destroy any possibility of coherence and linearity? How can a movie as expensive as Casino Royale possibly make that kind of descent into Dadaist anti-art? Absurdity, sure - it's groaning under the weight of all its late-'60s British absurdity. But this is something much more aggressive and unwatchable than that. And I say that as someone who flat-out loves German Expressionism.

Even then, it drifts back into plain sense with the 007 (Tremble) vs. Le Chiffre stuff, although owing to Sellers palpable irritation and Welles's obvious sense of superiority to the material, this might actually be the most unpleasant part of the movie to watch. But then, once Mata Bond is kidnapped, it all stops. Just, stops, in every way. Only Woody Allen being daffy remains comprehensible on any level as the plot gets increasingly convoluted before it disintegrates into an illogical ballet of slapstick fighting and weird cameos (George Raft! Jean-Paul Belmondo!) in which the sight of white guys dressed as Native Americans dancing spastically to Burt Bacharach music is the kind of thing you greet with "oh, that's happening now" rather than any sense of shock, confusion, or outrage.

It's so inscrutable that it becomes magnetic in its own private, ghastly way, and while I know that Casino Royale is almost certainly "worse" than any other James Bond film in every meaningful way, I have to confess that I can re-watch it more easily than a lot of them. It has this merit, anyway: every time you encounter it, the experience is different. Not better, necessarily, but it turns out that there are a lot of ways to be infuriated by an apparently straightforward bad comedy.


OVERALL SCORE
24/60